Al and Sophia
Al and Sophia
In fifth grade, I rode my new bicycle into the street in front of my house. The driver of a car coming around the corner did not see me. We crashed into each other. The accident was not my fault. That car broke my right arm and leg. My head hit the concrete. I was knocked out.
When the ambulance got there, I came to. Two men in white suits put me on a stretcher, slid me through the back doors, and took me to the hospital. My parents said I was never the same. My body reacted differently. I limped every day. I saw the twisted bicycle wheels and never wanted to ride it again. That thrill was gone. Some people said I was lucky to survive. I moped around a lot. I felt “blue.” I was in a daze for three years.
Since the injury to my head, I never go anywhere. I don’t do much. There are so many things that I do not know. I can’t do what other kids do in school. I am not good at many things. Life leaves us quickly, if we are in the wrong place at the wrong time, and it hurts.
My high school English teacher asked me to write this journal. This is page 1. He said it would help me remember words and think better. Maybe, it would help me talk better, too. Every night before I fall asleep, I place my thoughts, questions, and feelings of the day on these pages. I hope this journal helps me come up with more ideas to mention in class. I want to do better in school.
For a few years, Al’s parents carefully watched him and saw that he was attracted to musical entertainment shows on television. They noticed that he wrote in his journal after listening to songs. One night, Al’s mother said to his father, “I wonder if he could play an instrument at school. I’m going to call the band director and make an appointment.”
A few days later, when the band director invited the three of them into his classroom, he let Al touch the instruments. The director played ten different ones and gave the family a five minute concert, so Al could imagine playing them himself. When the demonstration was finished, Al picked them up one at a time and held each one for a while, but he felt pulled to the saxophone. When he touched its keys, there was electricity in his fingers. Something in his heart said, “You can make that wonderful noise, Al. Try this one.”
I don’t talk to people much. I just want to be Al. When I play the sax, it is my meditation. When I write in my journal, sometimes, I forget my medication. I can live a lifetime in 60 bars, the length of time it takes to play one of my favorite tunes. That makes me happy. My musical notes are a lot like my words in this journal.
I heard a movie character say, “There are no mistakes in the tango. If you make a mistake, just tango on.” That should apply to life, right? Whatever happens just happens. The important thing is to keep dancing. A slip-up is life trying to get my attention.
When I make an error, I shut my eyes and imagine that I am home in my room playing a melody I love. I close my eyes to see. I open my heart to feel. I play music to speak.
The bicycle accident might limit my future, because I do not act like other kids. I am not as clear about some things as other students are. I do not care. Textbooks do not move me. Music haunts me. The director let me take the saxophone home to give it a “trial run.” I am going to focus on what I like. In some ways, I feel more adult than my friends. I do what shakes me. I leave the rest alone. Now, for the first time, I have a direction.
Before I met the band director, not much made sense to me. I was not connected to many things. That night, when I took the sax home, I made a lot of noise. The sound raised my spirits. It made me relax. I did not want to stop. Several weeks went by before the noise disappeared. After much practice, my rookie attempts left the house, and the sax’s rich, personal tone entered my room to stay. Now, when I play, I no longer feel alone.
“Go to sleep, Al. I am already in bed. It’s 11 p.m. I have to get up at 5 in the morning and get ready for work. My boss said I can’t be late. You can play that thing, tomorrow.”
“OK, Dad. Thanks for letting me bring ‘that thing’ home. Will you drop me off at school at 6 on your way to work? I have some stuff to make up.”
“That’s my boy.”
“This is the first time he ever wanted to go to school early and get work done. Heck, this is the first time he ever wanted to do homework. Henry, did something just happen to our little boy?”
“Shhhh. Go to sleep, Anita.”
In Al’s room, the saxophone sat on the chair by his bed.
Al thought to himself, “Thanks for coming home with us. See you in the morning.”
The hallway light fell on the lower half of the saxophone. Al thought he saw it smile.
Some musicians name their instruments. This gives them a personal relationship with their muse. B.B. King called his guitar “Lucille.” I call my tenor saxophone “Sophia.” We developed a thing. I don’t know what else to call it. I keep her shiny. When I make sure she has new reeds and the best key pads, she makes my notes clear and full.
She helps me talk. She helps me unlock mysteries about myself. All I have to do is play. I hear rhythms that are not written down. I don’t know where they come from. When people speak, their words have a cadence, a tone, and wind up in my head as notes. Where do the words in this journal come from? How can I place what I think in my head on these pages? Life is full of mysteries.
One day, my English teacher was talking in class. All I saw were colors. When people talk, there is a rhythm to what they say. When they are passionate about their topics, the colors I see are bright ones. When I talk about family or my pet dog, the emotions I feel hit me as colors, not notes. Some people have called me “not so bright” because of this. A school psychologist said I was “advanced” in some ways. Synesthesia and Sophia help me see things I never saw before. Now, I “hear” colors. They guide me to the notes I play in the music.
A week later when the band director got to school, he was surprised to see Al sitting on the floor outside the classroom door.
“My dad drops me off on his way to work in the morning,” Al said.
“Goodness, you have an inner fire,” the director said.
“Is music a language?”
“Yes, Beethoven said so, why?”
“I don’t do well with words. Could I do better with a language beyond words?”
The director laughed, “That will take time and a lot of practice. Will you be here every morning?
“I will bring Sophia, and we can play music before school starts. OK?”
“That’s great. You named your saxophone. Why that name?”
“I just like it. Does it matter?”
“It’s a powerful handle for any woman, let alone a saxophone.”
I read that Picasso painted every day. He told a reporter to look at his walls to read his journal. I could say, “Listen to my music. This is how I write. Let me play you an essay.”
Life is a game of second chances. Every performance is another opportunity for me to improve. I am not the music. I am a vessel. I am me. I do not want to be anyone else. If I try too hard to improve the music, I mess up. My secret is to stay me and not get in the way of the notes. I go with the flow.
I do not get excited about life. I keep things simple. I like going my own way. I don’t waste time. The more I play, the more freedom I feel. Remember the Doors? If they had a sax in that group, those songs would have climbed even higher, right? Talk about perception.
I am not like other students. My view of things is different. I won’t spend my life searching for paradise. Some people live on beaches looking for Nirvana. They want to find a microwave to cook instant happiness. They sacrifice their lives for easy answers. They do whatever it takes to avoid hard times. That becomes an empty life. I want understanding. I will work for it. I know how to live through hard times.
That is what “home” means, a place to grow, sweat, and carry on. Paradise is not a place to find. It is a feeling. Once I feel that moment, it might last forever. This could be my paradise, playing Sophia. I may have already found my Heaven on Earth.
When I play those melodies in the right way, at the right time, and for the right reasons, something comes over me. My soul expands. I am at the center of my universe. This is where I am supposed to be. I stop thinking. There is no fear. I dream the real me. This is all I want. Did John Coltrane experience this?
Other students think I am slower than they are. Well, I will spend my free time talking to Sophia. She knows me better. I play the notes that she puts into my head. My “job” is to listen to her. She teaches me to do what I love every day. I will never have to “work” a day in my life. Each night, I imagine falling asleep, listening to the Marshall Tucker Band playing “Can’t You See” with a heavy saxophone solo at the end.
Al could not open his textbook and find the same page the teacher was on. He was worried about failing this class, having students laugh at him, and not keeping up. It was obvious he was trying hard to do well. He failed this course in another teacher’s room last year and did not want the same thing to happen again.
He left his seat and went to the teacher’s desk. “I brought my sax to class. It calms me down. If I play it while everyone in class is writing, I might write better when I finish. It might be good for the others to write with music in the background. I won’t be loud, OK?”
The teacher could tell Al was scared of his reaction to this request and tell him to go back to his seat. Instead, the teacher agreed he could play his saxophone in front of the eleventh grade class and told the students that many writers compose creatively while listening to music. He leaned closer to Al so no one else could hear, “Come in after school, today, and you can make up the work we are doing. OK? It will be quiet, and I will help you do the class assignment.”
As Al picked up Sophia, there seemed to be no self-confidence anywhere in his body. He walked to the front of the class. Al smiled and took a deep breath. His teeth sparkled, his leg muscles straightened, his back arched, his shoulders squared, and his classmates, who assumed they were better than he was in every way, looked surprised.
As he put the strap around his neck, he began to talk. He looked straight at the other students. The more he talked about the music he was going to play, the more confident he sounded. His introduction was brief and to the point. The students were mesmerized by his fluid explanation. The musical rhythm came through the soles of his feet, up his legs to his shoulders, and into his mouth where he blew notes into the afternoon air. His fingers caressed the keys, and the tune blossomed into existence. His eyes closed, but he was relaxed and hit every note without strain.
When Al finished, the students applauded. The teacher in the next room came into the hall, looked into our class, went back to her room, and shut her door. The amazed students begged Al to play another song. From that day on, he was a changed young man. He walked with a limp, but now, his back was straight, and he held his head up.
I wanted to enter our school’s “Talent Show” and play Sophia for my friends. When I told them this, I could see the surprise on their faces. I never volunteered to do anything in class. I was always the last person to turn in my work, if I ever did any work. They were polite, but I could tell they thought I would not show up for practice and make excuses at the last minute for not performing. No one knew that I told the band director, three months ago, of my intentions to play with the other students.
“Al, that is great. I am glad to have you help us,” the band director said. “I can see that you mean it, and I can’t believe how much you have improved playing, since you first came to me in eighth grade with your parents. I have something you should wear just for this occasion, but don’t tell anyone. OK? Few people in school know that you have been coming into the band room before school to practice.”
“Having the discipline to practice every day is as important as having the musical talent. Let’s send a strong message to the audience when you perform. We want to show them the spirit you have released. They must know the purpose in your musical message, and this will blow their socks off.”
At the talent show, Al captured his big moment in a white suit that the band director let him wear for the evening, and even if it was a size too large, his dark skin accentuated the garment’s electricity. He always wanted to wear a white suit when he played, because the men who got out of the ambulance to pick him up and take him to the hospital wore white, and they saved his life. His dark shirt, white tie, and sunglasses made him a powerful presence, like he just stepped off a major blues album cover. As he appeared from behind the curtain with his Afro haircut, he looked like a celebrity and slowly walked across the stage.
When he stepped into the solitary spotlight, front and center, the audience was not sure who they were looking at, but when Al took off his sunglasses and smiled, the students in the auditorium gasped, fell silent for a few seconds, and then erupted in applause.
“Can you believe that? It’s Al!”
With an unexpected assurance, he grinned so widely the people in the front row could see the gaps in his teeth. He put his sunglasses back on and stepped closer to the microphone. He looked directly up at the solitary spotlight and pointed. As he had done this many times before, he looked at the crowd, inhaled deeply, and swung the strap holding Sophia around to the back of his shoulder. When he exhaled, more than 1,000 adults and students in the audience leaned forward to hear every word he said.
“I want to dedicate this tune to my English teacher. Every day, he wonders if I pay attention in class. He tries not to show disappointment when I can’t turn in my assignments. Teach. I heard what you said about essays. They have introductions, bodies, and conclusions. I can’t use words good to express myself. Tonight, I hope you hear my thesis. My purpose for writing this tune is to say ‘Thanks.’ ”
“You make our class a family. You helped me improve in a lot of ways. Music is everywhere. Blank pages are filled with hope. When I write songs, I fall onto the pages and wiggle between the notes. This is how I say what I feel. You let me play my music in class, and I found harmony there. Thank you for giving me so many second chances. Every creation matters. Doesn’t it?”
He stepped back from the microphone, pulled Sophia around in front of him, and she came alive. At first, she was soft and gentle. Her beginning was open ended and slowly moved to the main point. Soon the body of the piece wailed and then screamed. When she cried, some in the auditorium did, too. Three times, the good listeners heard her say, “I know this is true?”
Al’s performance made everyone stand up and cheer for what seemed like five minutes. In the back of the auditorium, sitting by himself, Al’s teacher applauded, and his eyes filled with tears. The essay Al played that night was the only one his teacher ever wanted to sing. Al, even with all of his personal and physical issues, had become a rare musical talent.
The band director walked up to the microphone and told the crowd that he had never seen another student musician like him. He shook Al’s hand and asked, “Where did you get the inspiration to write this music?”
Al held Sophia tightly. “I learned early in life that our days are limited. I want to make the most of every one.”
“What do you mean?” the director said.
“There are many ways to tell the truth. Why settle for just one? Tonight, Sophia and I decided to tell you what that means in our music.”
He looked up at the ceiling. “Like that spotlight, I know there is a light inside each of us. I do not know what mine is for, precisely, but one way I can reach it is to play Sophia. Like people falling in love, we were strangers one moment and inseparable the next. It’s crazy, right?”
In English class the next day, Al said to his teacher, “Last night’s Road Show is what you meant the other day when you used that ‘E” word!”
“Epiphany?” the teacher smiled.
“Yeah, that’s it. Thanks for listening to me. Most teachers are too busy. They ‘see’ me, but they don’t ‘hear’ me. They don’t take the time. I’m just a kid. Who cares what I have to say? Do I matter? Does anyone matter? I look up at the night stars and wonder, ‘Why this planet?’ ”
I got a tape machine for my birthday last year. I recorded one of my songs on it. Man, when I played the tape back, I was happy. I heard myself. Those notes would not have been in the air, if I did not play them. At that time, I mattered, just a bit. I existed.
When I played my music again, I mattered more in this world. My heart opened wide. I heard a new message come out of those notes. That idea shook me. How much do I matter?
Could I find more messages? Is there a purpose in being alive? Was I born for a reason? Will my music tell me the answers to these questions?
I forgive myself when I make a mistake, but I want to live for something. Passion matters. Together, Sophia and I will find out what that means.
Existentialism, and Me
NEH, Santa Barbara, Laramie, UNO, Existentialism, and Me
“Sometimes, the truth is too simple for intellectuals.”
–Jean-Paul Sartre, French philosopher, 1905-1980
When I looked through the list of 1989 National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) Summer Seminars for School Teachers, I was impressed by how many interesting programs there were. I studied the list for a month before deciding on my first choice. I would enjoy more than a dozen of the topics offered, but “Ethical Dimensions of the Modern French Novel: Gide, Malraux, Sartre, and Camus” kept rising to the top of my priority list. I wanted to attend that summer seminar at the University of Wyoming in Laramie.
I learned so much at the previous NEH seminar, which I attended at the University of California, Santa Barbara, in 1986 with Dr. Walter Capps. Alexis de Tocqueville and his book, Democracy in America, was the focus of that six-week enlightenment period, and I became so engrossed in the topic, I had to be dragged out of the library to go to the beach. As a result, I wrote the longest paper of my life.
My friends thought I would return to Nebraska burned like a beach native. I surprised all of them and myself, but in August, I barely owned a tan. I was either in the library or the computer room typing, instead of swimming in the ocean. I loved the reading, the writing, and the dreaming that went with this challenging program. Never before have I had that much time to concentrate and write on one idea.
An unusual coincidence of the seminar in Santa Barbara was the Statue of Liberty celebration in New York City. Tocqueville, a French attorney, taught me a lot more about the United States than I ever expected, and I wondered if the new French exposure in Laramie would be as educational. At that time, I had been to France once. On a one-day excursion by ferry from Dover, England, I spent fourteen hours in Calais. That was my only chance to step on French soil, and I hoped to get adequate time in Normandy to visit Omaha Beach, where my father was in 1944, but those plans did not work out.
I possessed a hidden desire to teach philosophy to my high school students. My traditional, conservative, 90% college prep school would not allow something as frivolous as this into its established nineteenth century curriculum, but I thought about including it in my American Literature class, the next year during a free unit. I wanted to squeeze a bit of philosophy into the Early American Revolutionary War Period, which already included a discussion of Enlightenment ideas and religious principles surrounding our separation from Great Britain. Some of the early French philosophers might appear there. After all, those upstart and rebellious Americans could not have won their War of Independence without the French navy getting behind Cornwallis at Yorktown.
The University of Nebraska at Omaha (UNO) asked me to develop an English Department undergraduate course. They wanted to expand their course selection and offer new topics to students. I gave them a list of six courses I might research, develop, and present. I was surprised when the department accepted the first course on my list, Existentialist Literature. I included seventeen titles in my required reading list. Some professors told me my class would not be successful, because what I proposed was too difficult, and not enough students would sign up for such an unusual offering. Quickly, seventeen students signed up, and only thirteen were required. The class was the most exciting one I taught, while teaching part-time at the university. I loved the experience, and the students had a good time, too. NEH, Santa Barbara, Laramie, UNO, Existentialism, and Me – we came together in a synchronistic wholeness, a personal mandala.
I was not an expert of Existential Literature, but I wanted to become one soon. Sartre, Camus, and the other writers I chose became good friends of mine. I did not want to let them leave, so I “invited” them regularly to dinner. We always had a good time. I hoped to become more knowledgeable about their way of seeing the world and learn more biographical information about these authors, their personalities, and their motivations for writing. I wanted to hear if they had more to say to me, specifically, and they told me a lot.
In the last thirty years, I struggled with many personal philosophical considerations. I searched for life’s meaning in my jobs, relationships, books, and soul. At first, this quest, was not a conscious one. Later, after hardships and personal loss, the search became a welcome journey, out in the open, one requiring effort and attention.
After graduating from college with a bachelor’s degree, I followed the American Dream and chased dollar signs for a decade. My first marriage needed those things, I thought. Didn’t every good American boy wish for more dollar signs and more toys? A successful business career in sales management, several promotions, raises, and cross-country moves followed, as I climbed the corporate ladder. Eleven years later, a divorce later, a career change later, seven relatives and close friends dead in a ten-month period later, a second wife and two more children later, my search got closer to significant revelations. These two seminars assisted me in that personal exploration.
After returning to the classroom, I acquired a Master of Arts Degree in English Literature and was passionate to write. I read constantly. In one year, I devoured 150 books in twelve months. Most of them were about literature, philosophy, and religion. A quiet, introverted bibliophile, I am.
After our minister resigned and left town, unexpectedly, I ran our church for fourteen months. I am not ordained, but I considered earning a second master’s degree, this time in religious history. I don’t have the necessary qualities for what it takes to be a minister, but the studying, writing, and speaking were exciting. I was given permission, on a temporary basis, to conduct marriages and performed two of them. I was responsible for a friend’s funeral in the church, and in many ways, this fourteen-month period changed my life. It made me think about my existence more than I ever had before. Would my life be meaningful? Would I make a difference? Would it matter that I was?
Of all the existentialists, Jean Paul Sartre interested me the most. His writing genius was to say the profound, simply and clearly. He related to abstract messages. A philosopher is one who has visions, and what Sartre saw was spectacular and disturbing. He pierced the dead crust of tradition. He shook western society to its foundation. His existence focused on the here and now. To him, what went into words often died. What went into work lived. A philosopher is a reformer, an antenna of our time. Sartre felt which way the spirit moved and saw beyond the horizon.
Freedom was precious to Sartre and other existentialists. They told us to use our courage and take advantage of it. Most people like barriers around them, so they don’t have to be responsible for their actions. It is easier to blame someone else, an institution, a person, an idea, instead of accepting responsibility for what happens as a result of making their own decisions. If a person won’t accept the risk of being himself, he should go on about other people’s business. Subjective reason, intuition, freedom, and taking risks with the responsibility of that freedom, while creating his own life, defined the world of an existentialist.
What is crucial to people determines their priorities of consciousness. Individual experience shows what is important in our lives and how the world reveals itself. In the midst of existence, we establish the rules for how things work. I stopped waiting for others to help me. Now, when life situations are important, I become “911.” I can’t wait for any monosyllabic Gary Cooper to intervene and save me. Heraclitus taught us to make our destiny through our choices, values, and enduring the perplexity of existence.
What is real life? Trying to create meaning in a cosmos, which appears to be devoid of objective meaning, is difficult. Educating ourselves, as we grow older, is a process of creating ourselves. With age, we learn to not depend on precedent, habit, and the authority of others, when deciding what is best. Our lives become individual classrooms. With this separate freedom comes an ominous responsibility for every act taken. To choose our lives, to act with freedom, to be ourselves is to become an authenticated person. For some, this brings disquietude, despair, anguish, nausea, anxiety, and boredom. These by-products challenge us.
Traditional philosophers from Aristotle to Hegel saw man as an abstraction, a category, an “essence.” Aristotle said man was a “rational animal.” Hegel explained mankind by saying we were part of a system, “thought objectified.” Existentialists reacted to this denigration of human beings and their rare qualities of individuality. Traditionalists, with their quantifying statistics of IQ scores, social classes, and age groups, don’t say anything about our uniqueness and specialness. Talking about people as blacks, whites, advantaged, and disadvantaged makes individuals invisible.
In most religions, essence precedes existence. There is a meaning to the universe, which stems from God before creation. Existentialists would say the reverse; first is existence, and then comes the essence of life. A person’s identity is defined as the person lives. It is not predestined. There are no moral absolutes given at birth. What is important is learned, as we go. Not choosing what is important is to live a life like a stone. By not making decisions is to deny one’s existential reality. No suffering means no rejoicing.
Sometimes, I am strong and confident, but like my children, I am also troubled by the dark. I am distressed by the void and absence of light in the world beyond my mortality. With darkness all around me, my small eyes provide a limited vision. I can see little in front of me. Night surrounds everything. With his eyesight failing, Goethe said, on his deathbed, “Mere licht” – more light. I wish I could see farther into the night. A lamppost in the fog, a beacon in the void, a lighthouse on a barren, rocky shore, Laramie at 7,200 feet – we need more ways to see. There is so much darkness and too little illumination.
General characteristics of existential thought:
- All can live an authentic existence.
- Living life to its fullest emotion brings satisfaction.
- We must use our freedom to choose in life.
- Awareness of death determines our lives.
- Truth is determined by the will to believe.
- Screw guilt.
- With freedom to choose comes responsibility.
- Beautiful music doesn’t come out of the hate bag.
Existentialism is a term applied to a group of attitudes current in philosophical, religious, and artistic thought, which emphasizes existence rather than essence and sees the inadequacy of human reason to explain the enigma of the universe as the basic philosophical question. The term is so broadly and loosely used that an exact definition is not possible. Existentialism has found art and literature to be unusually effective forms of expression.
The existentialist assumes that we and things, in general, exist, but things have no meaning, until we declare they do. Sartre claims the fundamental truth of existentialism is in Descartes’s formula, “I think; therefore, I exist.” The existential philosophy is concerned with the personal commitment of this unique existing individual in the human situation. It attempts to codify the irrational aspect of man’s nature, to objectify nonbeing or nothingness and see it as a universal source of fear, to distrust concepts, and to emphasize experiential concreteness. When people feel meaningless in this world, they experience discomfort, anxiety, loneliness, and a desire to invest experience with meaning by acting upon the world, although efforts to act in a meaningless, absurd world lead to anguish, greater loneliness, and despair.
“Integrity is wholeness;
the greatest beauty
is organic wholeness,
the wholeness of life and things,
the divine beauty of the universe.
Love that, not man apart from that,
or else you will share man’s pitiful confusions
or drown in despair when his days darken.”
-Robinson Jeffers, 1887-1962,
American poet, icon of
the “Environmental Movement”
Just a Man
Just a Man
1997: 6.2 summer
by David Martin
“Life is no ‘brief candle’ to me. It is a sort of splendid torch which I have got hold of for a moment, and I want to make it burn as brightly as possible before handing it on to future generations” (George Bernard Shaw, 1856-1950)
My father died July 3, 1994. He refused surgery and chemotherapy treatment for his lung cancer. After his quadruple by-pass heart surgery a few years ago, he swore he would never go to another hospital for an operation, and he didn’t. He chose to “ride the bug out.”
My father’s life was one battle after another, and I feel his World War II experience captured the rest of his life. Even though he lived to be 76 years old, his army combat in the European Theater from 1939 to 1945 changed him forever. His work, marriage, family, and children revolved around the memories he brought home of that war violence. For the rest of his life, he endured its physical and emotional scars.
Dad was not a great man by society’s standards. He was just a man like so many others who risked their lives to make the world a better place for all of us by ensuring our freedom from tyranny. Usually, he kept his emotions and memories locked up inside himself, but once in awhile, I could dislodge some information he kept from the rest of the family. He would begin telling me a small story of his experiences, but before he finished, he always caught himself, remembered that he was talking to a child, got embarrassed, and walked out of the house emotionally upset. I was a kid then, and he felt I wouldn’t understand what he went through during those times.
The most significant events of his life were those horrible days during the war. I remember Dad telling me the story of General Miltonberger, the commanding officer of the WWII Nebraska Division, feeding him and other soldiers a nice meal then talking all of them out of trying to join the paratroopers because he said they were good soldiers, and he needed them in his ranks, so they stayed in the 134th Infantry Division until the end of the war. He and his buddies were good soldiers and did their duty.
Dad told me about meeting Jack Dempsey in the fighter’s New York City restaurant the night before the troops sailed for England. Dempsey was surprised that he and a friend, two small-town Nebraska boys, went so far out of their way to find his restaurant and meet him that the ex-boxer bought them dinner. Because of this late night adventure, Dad was officially AWOL, but the Company Commander was glad to see him when he returned in time to sail on the troop ship that all was forgiven.
In World War II, the soldier death ratio was 1 in 48 US soldiers; in Vietnam, 1 in 1,113; in the Gulf War, 1 in 2,667. The basic difference in these ratios was the advanced medical help and rescue methods that transported the injured from the battlefield to medical hospitals. General Eisenhower had 91 Allied divisions to defeat the Germans, 60 of them American. Of the 4,454,061 US soldiers who embarked for Europe and Africa, 3,604 were lost at sea. In the first four months after the Normandy Invasion, Germany suffered 800,000 casualties.
Dad received half a dozen different combat wounds. He returned to the states carrying half a dozen pieces of shrapnel the doctors could not remove, but the worst injury took place in liberating St. Lo, France. He was struck by shrapnel fire and was so wounded he couldn’t move. Medics placed him on a stretcher and tried to get him off the battlefield. He thought he wouldn’t make it to safety, because there were so many bullets flying through the air.
He was removed to England where he was hospitalized. Soon, the Army thought he was healed enough to return to duty. He became a company runner delivering messages to units up and down the frontline, and German snipers shot at him. One day, while returning to headquarters, he saw three soldiers kneeling beside a wounded, screaming, American writhing on the side of the road. A doctor amputated the wounded man’s leg to save his life. There was no morphine present to aid the soldier.
“The Battle of Bulge” in the Ardennes Forest was a desperate thrust Hitler threw at the Allies. Of the 600,000 Americans involved 80,987 became causalities. About 19,000 were killed and 15,000 were captured. Some 47,000 were wounded. Gen. George Patton’s 3rd Army rescued them. Dad was attached to Patton’s group, and he told me many stories about fighting during the winter there.
Louis Rhodd, a Native American friend from Rulo, one night crouched in an artillery shell crater. Dad jumped in the same crater for safety. There was so much noise at the time Rhodd didn’t know Dad joined him in that dark hole. He could see Rhodd but didn’t know how to let his friend know he was in there without scaring him. Rhodd might shoot him thinking that he was another German soldier, so he talked like a white man imitating and Indian: “Ugh, Indians heap big warriors. They make it hard on German pale-faces.” Rhodd was startled to hear someone talking in the night so close to him, but he laughed so hard at the ethnic references, Dad knew he was safe.
The stories flowed at times, and so many of them remained unfinished:
- Two German soldiers came out of the forest dressed like GI’s and walked into the American’s chow line. They soon realized they made a mistake and tried to escape.
- Dad swam the Rhine River three times in the winter to scout the enemy even though there was no way to get warm in the cold except to drip dry.
- His unit broke through the German frontline in a surprise night attack and found prostitutes with the German soldiers in the fox holes to keep them from deserting.
- “Lah We Lah His” (“All Hell Can’t Stop Us!”) was on one insignia of his uniform. This Pawnee Indian saying symbolized much of his attitude towards life.
Now the green fields of corn are laid by. The farmers prepare their machinery for fall harvest. I remember Dad working the corn harvest each year. Often, he would get only 3-4 hours of sleep at night. He had a tremendous capacity for physical work for such a small man: 5’ 10” and 140 lbs. His Army field jacket was a size 34. How he carried full combat gear that exceeded 100 pounds, ran, and fought still amazes me.
Dad loved his horses and Nebraska; he never wanted to move elsewhere after the war. He was a good cowboy, contrary, stubborn, and fiercely loyal to this country.
His last meal before going to the hospital was sweet corn, mashed potatoes, gravy, steak, green beans, and black coffee. He ate more than I did. I saw him eat that same meal a thousand times, and I was raised on it, too.
Only something alive can die, and Dad lived every day. He may not have been very organized, forward looking, or reflective, but he never let a joke pass him by. His sense of place was Richardson Country.
A few years ago, Bette Davis was on David Letterman’s show. He asked her flippantly, “How is it, getting older?” She coolly answered, “It ain’t for sissies.” Living is tough, and for Dad dying wasn’t easy either. He heart was strong until the end, but both lungs were cancerous and filled with fluid.
When I walked into his room at 9 AM, it was a beautiful, summer, morning. His eyes looked brighter than the day before. He joked and called Erin a “runt.” He looked around the room to see who was there, but he faded in and out of awareness. At 10 AM, things started to change. He panted. His eyes rolled back a little; he became unconscious and was not awake after that.
His room, number 101, signified new lessons to learn on a different journey. His blue, finger tips foreshadowed the end. The blueness marched toward his face. Starting with the feet, it climbed to his knees, then to his waist. His biological systems shut down one at a time. His kidneys stopped. Muscles twitched. I could hear pneumonia fill his lungs as he drowned from inside. Two oxygen tanks were not enough.
I stood at the foot of his bed. He took one slow, long gulp of air, then a second, and held it. His face turned scarlet, and his head slowly fell to his lower right side. He did not breath again.
I looked out the window of his room and saw the earth as he knew it: grass, trees, and sky. His van faced the window. The American flag flew in a strong, summer breeze. A cottonwood stood tall. This trinity marked my father: a van to roam (a modern cowboy), the US flag (nothing made him more proud), and the tree (Nebraska’s state symbol).
Going through his military records after the funeral, I found a telegram to Mother from the US War Department saying her husband was released from the hospital and returned to active service on July 31, 1944. Fifty years later to the day, he died and was released from life. The curtain fell for the last time. He wore out, but he didn’t rust out. He never quit. He fought for life, every breath, to the end. He was just a man, but he was my father.
“The grave itself is but a covered bridge leading from light to light, through a brief darkness” (Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, 1807-1882).
Twisted Tree Message – Are You a Writer?
Twisted Tree Message – Are You a Writer?
We will creatively write on the topics below. I hope to see you at our Zoom meetings on January 9 (6-8 PM) and January 10 (2-4 PM) Central Time. ~David Martin
Download the Registration form here.
- When did you know you were a writer?
- Why do you still write?
- What topics call you to the page?
- If you could write about anything, what would it be?
- In one sentence, what is your message to your readers?
- Does Fine Lines help you write and how?
- How do you wish to improve, as an artist?
- In the next twelve months, what writing goal do you wish to achieve?
- Kathie Haskins says, “Our twisted trees look like her family tree.”
- Do you see yourself in our twisted trees? What does that tell you?
- Metaphors are a good teaching tool.
- I turned to the only sanctuary I had left – within. Many people walk through life without saying what they really mean. Bury your sword and your vengeance. Keep calm, and write on.
- I don’t want to die without knowing who I really am.
- We are unlike others. It is enough to become our own twisted tree and celebrate our uniqueness. Hallelujah.
- We never see the twist coming.
- Kung-Fu: refers to the Chinese martial arts and so much more. “In China, it is any study, learning, or practice that requires patience, energy, and time to complete.” It can be a form of exercise with a spiritual dimension, supreme skill from hard work: fighters, painters, musicians, artists, and writers. Practice. Preparation. Endless repetition until weary and too tired to breathe. Cook. Janitor. Servant. That is the way, the only way, to acquire Kung Fu. Peace is found in the heart of the faithful.
- Who are you?
- Cardinal Rule for Writers – write every day. Keep writing. You don’t know the true story is important, until it’s gone.
- The oldest things on Earth might be found in the Bristle Cone Pine Groves of the White Mountains in California. Some are up to 5,000 years old. The Methusala pine is 4,800 yo. All of them are twisted. The tree rings are similar to human fingerprints.
- Raleigh, when I think of you, now, I feel you illustrated in your life what the Greeks believed: “We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an art but a habit” (Aristotle). In your quiet and humble way, you gave me inspiration to continue building my home and my work as though I, too, were an artist. H. D. Thoreau would be most proud of you and how you made living each day a work of art.
- Writing is like any other emotion: fear, cold, hunger, but feeling doesn’t mean we can’t control it. Laughter helps. Self-deprecation helps. Turn. Turn. Turn. Twist. Twist. Twist. Live in a lighthouse of your own making.
- My fingers are thin and small. My body is weak and old. Still, I write. Words give me hope and strength. I am not a professional writer, merely a proud amateur who loves being a disciple. Writing is like a furnace. It either melts you or forges you.
Mondays with Martin: Black Jack
“There Is More”
2006: 15.2 – Fine Lines
In 1990, one of my English classes was filled with downtown, street-wise, tough high school teenagers who were one step from expulsion. All of them failed English classes before, at least once, some of them several times. They did not want to be in school, and they could not wait to leave those classroom walls. They did not do homework for other teachers when it was assigned, and they stared at me as they dared me to teach them anything. Half of the class was black. The rest were Caucasian, Latino, Vietnamese, and Native American, but the meanest looking and most physical was a white boy named Jack.
This group of “at-risk” juvenile delinquents was quiet, like the silence before a storm. If they misbehaved, they knew their days as students in that urban high school were over, and the street was the only thing they had waiting for them. Most of them knew what that meant: gangs, hard work, prison, and an early death from drugs. They all had friends or family in one of those places.
Jack never talked to anyone in class, including me. For all I knew, he was mute. From the first day of class in August to the week before Thanksgiving, he did not talk to anyone. He turned in enough work to maintain a passing grade, but when I asked him a question, he shrugged his shoulders and refused to reply.
Jack never took his eyes away from mine. Whenever I turned around, after helping another student or when I looked up from my desk, his eyes were on me. After a few days, I was leery to turn my back on him. I started doing things in class, so I always faced him. He sat in the next to last seat in the second row from the door, and I planned all my classroom activity, so I had one or two rows between us. Jack only let one student sit behind him, George, who was everyone’s friend and always seemed happy. George was slow and had behavioral development issues, but he tried to read and write, even though he was four grade levels behind his peers.
Some of the girls in class had children. Carlotta was nineteen-years-old and had three. It was forbidden in school to flash gang signs, but when she was not paying attention to me, I could see her give a sign to another girl across the room. She was pretty and smart, and all the boys spoke to her every day, except Jack. When she spoke to him, he glared at her. After a while, she ignored him.
Fights scarred some of the boys, and they never relaxed, even in class. They were always looking over their shoulders, as the worst thing that could ever happen to them was be caught off-guard or surprised, and where they came from, they were probably right.
The first day of class, I walked through the door and looked at this collection of races and attitudes, of dark sunglasses and darker souls, of defensive body language and silent despair, of low motivation and lack of hope. I said to myself, “Oh, Lord, why me?”
The next day, when I saw the principal, I asked him, “Why me?”
His answer was, “No one else would take the class, and we thought you could make them work. You have coached seven sports. You get along with any student who tries. Give them a chance. They all know that if they don’t do what you tell them, they will fail the class and won’t be allowed back in school.”
I agonized about how to teach this unusual collection of young adults who did not fit into any group in the school. How would I get them to write essays, learn poetry, and read the standard curriculum? They did not do those things before, so I knew I had to try something different. I threw the school’s traditional way of doing things out the window, metaphorically. I decided we would write every day and keep a journal of our own work. Our writing notebooks became our textbooks, and I graded their work by the pound. In this class, the sweat that appeared from pushing a pen across the lines on the paper would earn credit. Three days a week, I would bring ideas for us to write about, and two days a week, different students would bring ideas from their personal lives for the class to write about. In effect, they would share in teaching the class. We sat in a circle, and everyone was equal.
Chemistry started to build between us. Slowly, trust crept into the room, silently and unseen. I would not let students enter class if they did not bring their journals every day. I brought photocopies of chapters from many classics, and we read those, often aloud. Textbooks scared these students, but they would read, discuss, and study anything that was photocopied. One reading I handed out that created the biggest stir from these young, angry rebels was “The Song of Hugh Glass” in A Cycle of the West by John Neihardt.
I introduced Neihardt’s epic poem and talked about defeat and victory, rejection and acceptance, revenge, and forgiveness. I thought I saw Jack’s lips move in response to something I said, but when I called on him, he shook his long hair that touched his shoulders and refused to speak. I knew he wanted to ask a question, but he would not verbalize it. He sat there in his long, black, leather coat, years before Columbine, and I thought, “Will I ever reach this one?” When I read his journal entry about Hugh Glass’s true story, I felt a strong passion come out of his pen that started to show a different aspect of his character.
Over the next few weeks, everyone helped read Neihardt’s long poem in class, except Jack. We slowly read every word, and I took my time, like I was walking beside glass and giving a “play by play account” of this unusual, adventure experience. Outwardly, Jack gave the impression that he was too good to participate or too cool; however, his journal relayed another story. After each verse, after each page, we stopped and talked about what we read. I helped interpret many words and put the lines in a context everyone could grasp. Each time I looked up, Jack’s eyes met mine.
When he turned in his notebook to me, as the others did, every Friday, I made sure to write something about his thoughts on every page. All my comments were positive. I believe in the power of positive reinforcement, and he had so much rejection in his life that I did not want to add to that long, negative list of “downers.” I was surprised to find out that he was a deep thinker. No one could see what he wrote but me. I was amazed. His words were philosophical and intellectual. The sentences and paragraphs were not filled with the anger he generated by his body language and glacial stares in class. There was a good mind leaking out between the lines of his writing. Was there a heart in there, too?
I read to the class from “The Song of Hugh Glass.”
“Alas for those who fondly place above
The act of loving, what they chance to love;
Who prizes the goal more dearly than the way!
For time shall plunder them, and change betray,
And life shall find them vulnerable still.
A bitter-sweet narcotic to the will,
Hugh’s love increased the peril of his plight;
But anger broke the slumber of his might,
Quickened the heart and warmed the blood that ran
Defiance for the treachery of Man,
Defiance for the meaning of his pain,
Defiance for the distance of the plain
That seemed to gloat, ‘You can not master me.’
And for one burning moment he felt free
To rise and conquer in a wind of rage.
But as a tiger, conscious of the cage,
A-smolder with a purpose, broods, and waits,
So with the sullen patience that is hate’s
Hugh taught his wrath to bide expedience.”
Jack shifted in his seat and rocked back and forth. He leaned forward and squeezed his pen so hard that I thought it would snap in half. While I asked other students how they interpreted those words, Jack stood up, slowly, left the group, and went to the windows and looked outside, quietly. He stood there for twenty minutes and only left when the bell rang to end the period.
The next day he wrote about rage and anger for ten pages. There were no paragraphs, just a stream-of-consciousness writing, like Holden Caulfield on steroids. He told of the injustices he witnessed, a death in the family, depression, fear, no strong male presence at home, loneliness, all the “phonies” he met in his short life, unable to control his anger, and why his court probation was connected to fighting.
The next day, I asked the students for permission to print some of their work in a four-page pamphlet that I would bring to class and share with them. Every person would get a copy and could take extra ones home for family and friends. I got a verbal acceptance from everyone in class, except Jack. When I looked at him, he simply nodded, and that was the first, positive gesture he made since school began months ago.
In 1990, our school had ten, old Apple computers, and they were always in use with a waiting line of teachers hoping to use them, so I bought my own and planned to do the layout of the student writing at home for our first, little publication. I did not mention my ideas to the class again. I was preoccupied with learning how to turn on my new computer, teaching myself how to run a desktop publishing program, not yelling while my own children were at my home desk as I graded papers from school, creating lesson plans for all of my classes, getting enough sleep to stay awake in class, and remaining sane.
Many weeks later, I walked into class, and without saying a word, I started passing out our first class newsletter. All the writing came from students in Jack’s class, and I could hear a few gasps and “Wow’s” as they started reading their own copies. By the time I got to the next to the last row passing out the copies, I heard Jack yell, “What is this?”
All the students and I jerked around in surprise. Jack talked. He was on his feet. He was walking toward the front of the room. He was 6’ 4” and weighed 225 pounds. He should have been on the football field daily after school because he was such a good athlete, but he had such a poor, grade point average, the head coach would not let him come out for the team. Other students got out of his way.
As he strode down the aisle, I thought he was coming to me, but when he got to the front of the class, he turned and walked directly through the open door, out of the room, and into the hall. He stopped out of sight of the other students, turned around, and motioned for me to come into the hall with him. I told a student in the front seat, “If I am not back in five minutes, go to the office for help.”
I walked into the hall and said, “Hang on, Jack, you can’t leave our class.”
Jack surprised me. His eyes got wet, and he began to cry. Tears came down his cheeks. With much anger, he asked, “Why did you put my writing on the front page?”
I did not know if he was going to hit me or what. I said, “Jack, your writing is consistently the best writing in the class. It deserves to be on the front page. You have talent. I hope you write a lot more, and I am proud of you.”
Then, the tears flowed heavily. “No one ever said I had talent in school before. What do I do, now?” He hung his head and stared at the floor, as water splattered on his shoes.
I felt him change in front of me. I placed my hand on his shoulder. “Go down the hall, and get a drink of water. Take ten deep breaths. Then, come back into class, because this is where you belong. From Monday to Friday, from 2:00 to 2:50 p.m., this is your home. Hold onto that notebook, and tonight, write into it as if you are writing to your best friend. Tell it what you are thinking. Hold onto your pen, like it is your lifeline. Do not let go of it, until you are so tired of writing that you have no energy left. Whatever you do, tell the truth with your words. Make every word ring with honesty. It does not have to be pretty. It does not have to be fancy. Just write. Tell the truth. When you are done, let your “new friend” talk back to you, and all you have to do is listen. Write everything down. You do not have to show it to anyone, unless you choose to do so. Now, go get that drink of water.”
As he turned to leave, he stopped and moved toward me. I froze. He looked at me. I will never forget those black eyes looking down into mine: part animal, part divine, part confusion, part determination, part anger, and part pride. Those eyes haunt me still. Then he hugged me and said, “Did Hugh Glass ever survive?”
Tears came to my eyes, and I had to look at the floor. I said, “Come on, I will go with you. I need a drink of water, too.”
As we walked down the hall and back to the classroom, several students looked out the door, trying to find where we went. When Jack and I entered the room, the other students wanted to know where we went. Jack smiled. It was now the week before Thanksgiving, and none of us had ever seen him smile in class.
As he sat down in his seat, he said to the other students, “Come on you guys; relax. I want to see what happened to that mountain man. Can you imagine crawling 100 miles after being half-eaten by a grizzly? That is some kind of courage. I don’t think I could do what he did.”
After that day, there were many more class newsletters. Jack’s writing was in most of them, and he was the primary inspiration who sparked that anemic, classroom pamphlet to grow into Fine Lines, now a quarterly magazine for new writers of all ages. What started as a classroom motivator to encourage marginal students to write more after they saw their work in print and read by other students, teachers, and administrators became a publication, which is used today in all grade levels: elementary, middle, high school, college, and graduate school.
Jack’s grades slowly began to rise. He came in to see me after school and asked for help with his homework in other classes when he needed it. He still had to check in weekly with his probation officer, but he did graduate from high school. I found out, years later, that he stayed out of jail, worked his way through a two-year community college, graduated from a small, four-year college in another state, majored in journalism, and got a job with a small newspaper in South Carolina. He moved on from there, and I do not know where he is today.
I remember the last entry of Neihardt’s All Is But a Beginning: Youth Remembered, 1881-1901. An old man tells of his youthful vision quest and how he felt like a failure after experiencing the three days and nights of fasting on a lonely hill, praying and hoping Wakon Tonka would appear then provide a spiritual message as he entered manhood. The old man admitted he had no great dream to tell when he returned to the tribe.
“If I have no vision to give me power and guide me, how can I ever be a man? Maybe, I shall have to go far off into a strange land and seek an enemy to free me from this shame.”
Then, just as he had this bitter thought, a great cry came from overhead like a fearless warrior hailing his wavering comrade in the heat of battle. “Hoka-hey, brother – Hold fast, hold fast; there is more!” Looking up, he saw an eagle soaring yonder on a spread of mighty wings, and it was the eagle’s voice he heard.
“As I listened,” the old man said, “a power ran through me that has never left me, old as I am. Often, when it seemed the end had come, I have heard the eagle’s cry, ‘Hold fast, hold fast, there is more.’ ”
Mondays with Martin: What My Students Taught Me
In forty years of teaching, some unusual classes have come my way. In elementary schools, middle schools, high schools, community colleges, universities, graduate schools, business workshops, and retirement homes, the students have been challenging and pleasant, unpredictable and insightful, unprepared and inspiring. The following sixteen English classes gave me a true education, because the students taught me how to listen.
JOURNAL WRITING — “BIC 101”
For this class, knowledge was needed in athletic taping. There were a lot of wrist sprains because so much volume was produced. Assignments were graded by the pound. Just like chopping boards in karate class where the person swung his hand through the object, the journal writer wrote through the pain. Students learned to quickly switch to the other hand, when their normal writing fingers fell quietly limp by their side. I read every page, and they knew it, because all the writing came back graded, stamped, or commented on. No one could hide in this class, and usually, I knew more about each student than the school counselors did. Frequently, a counselor would appear at my classroom door and want to talk about “Freddie” or “Lilly,” because I encouraged all students to write about what concerned them at school, at home, and in life. This was a great way to “back into class” and informally work with student issues, while teaching composition at the same time.
GENERAL ENGLISH — “Duck”
Slow learners with low metabolism traditionally filled these classes. They often exhibited symptoms of chronic jock itch. Alex asked to be excused to the restroom every time I assigned in-class work. The last time he was in my class, I said he could not leave to avoid the classwork, so he stood in the middle of the room, loudly cleared his throat of more phlegm than I thought any human being could possess, and spit a large volume of sputum twenty feet over the heads of students through an open window, as they gagged and laughed. He earned an immediate pass to the principal’s office and never returned. Now, every time I hear someone clearing his throat, my impulse is to lower my head.
REMEDIAL ENGLISH — “Little Birds”
Corrective surgery was performed on an out-patient basis. Much physical therapy was advised. Once, under all the rubble, I found an honor student, who had fallen in disgrace, because she was brilliantly disorganized. She regained her throne and earned a scholarship to the Kansas City Art Institute. The journal I encouraged her to keep became the right side of her brain, where she could impulsively place her many thoughts, feelings, and ideas. Enthusiastically, she opened it every five minutes to jot down thoughts worth keeping, and every evening before bedtime, she organized them, so logical order entered her world before she went to sleep. Her grades improved within one week’s time. We are all little birds with broken wings. We just need someone to care about us and help show the way through the fog of life.
ETHNIC LITERATURE — “From Around the World”
Diane arrived in class at 8:30 AM dressed in buckskin and tennis shoes with a United States flag draped around her shoulders, alternately singing the national anthem and saying, “I don’t feel well.” I soon found out she was drunk, because an agency was removing her daughter to a foster home and committing Diane to a psychiatric hospital. She won a second place award in a city-wide essay contest titled “One Nation under God,” when she addressed the inequalities her Mexican American brothers and sisters were experiencing in this country. She was scared while she wrote the paper and asked me, several times, if she should give it to the judges, because she was afraid of being deported. I told her to do what she honestly wanted to do. She walked silently up to my desk, laid it down without a word, and walked out of class. I was as proud of her, then, as when she received the announcement that she had won one of the three prizes. Ethnic writers are probably the only true original writers we have left, because their eyes haven’t experienced cultural assimilation. Conviction, determination, and resolution can surface in our students at any age. We must be ready when it arrives.
ACADEMIC ENGLISH — “The Price Is Write”
Most of these students were college prep types. If they didn’t know the answers, Mom and Dad bought them wholesale.
HONORS ENGLISH — “Are You Ready?”
I had to throw out the teaching style that says, “Follow me, guys.” I was forced to bring in a new format, “There it is, ladies and gentlemen. Go get it. There will be a test afterwards and pro scouts from Yale, Harvard, Vassar, Dartmouth, Wisconsin, Stanford, John Hopkins, and UC-Berkeley will be here to time your SAT sprints with hand-held stopwatches, so be ready.”
ENGLISH METHODS CLASS — “4 Steps”
English majors may acquire the essence of all Teachers College education through four easy steps. Simply put into practice the following: make your students believe that you see them, hear them, understand them, and will try your darndest to help them every day.
COLLEGE COMPOSITION CLASS — “Check Them at the Door”
I don’t have to stand when I talk to maintain silence, but this class got very quiet, when a uniformed policeman showed up to finish his degree. He brought his partner to patrol the hall, while class was going on. Eventually, I had to ask both of them to check their guns at the door, because a female student who was a tank driver for the National Guard was becoming annoyed. She stood up in class and said, “This is not Dodge City. You should not wear uniforms to class, and it would be a good idea to leave your weapons in your cruisers.” They did.
JOB CORPS ENGLISH — “It’s Part of My Job”
My football coach liked to tell his team, “When you make a tackle on defense, keep your head down but your eyes up. That way you can see which way the ball carrier is moving, and you will protect yourself from injury.” — Many years later, I had to tackle a student in front of his barracks and sit on him until the police arrived. He began sniffing glue in his room, came to class very high, and tried to set the building on fire after receiving the assignment “How did you spend your summer vacation?”
LAMAZE ENGLISH? — “Tell the Paramedics to Go to the Second Floor”
As varied as my experiences have been, at least, I did not have to teach the English class my friend taught to a junior in her high school. This teacher got to deliver a baby in the girls’ bathroom next to her classroom between passing periods. The student was so small that none of her friends noticed she was pregnant, and even her parents did not know she was expecting.
ADULT NIGHT SCHOOL — “No Empty Cups”
This simply meant fifteen-hour days. Sometimes, it is known as the “red-eye” class or “Caffeine-College.” Every ten minutes, I changed what we did in class, and every thirty minutes, I asked the students to stand up and move to accomplish a class objective. This kept them from falling asleep at their desks. I talked to them while they moved and got to know them better when the class “shifted.” They didn’t know I was still teaching, as we laughed and told each other stories about our families and what happened during the day. Universal education never stops.
BUSINESS ENGLISH — “Everyone Uses It”
Teaching a toilet paper salesman to write is a unique experience. All he was interested in was figuring volume sales, analyzing the folding technique of “crunchers” and “wadders,” the numbers of sheets per visit, and studying Thomas Crapper and Mr. Whipple. Wizards come in all shapes and sizes.
HOSPITAL ENGLISH — “It’s Time to Operate”
Here we patch and mend like a M.A.S.H. unit. After a period of time, we send the students back to the front lines. I remember Tommy not being able to write anything of consequence, until he started to trust me. When this happened, he allowed himself to cry over his mother’s death, a year before. Between the tears, he was able to scratch out an essay that would have earned a B+ in any teacher’s classroom. He did all the other class assignments, but he came into my classroom every Friday afternoon for two months, sat in his seat, and reread that paper, while I worked on student grades. Most of the time, the room was silent. Once in a while, he would ask if he could reread the paper aloud, because he thought he made an improvement or two. When I asked to see the paper and reread it like it was a first time submission, I gave it an A+ grade. I handed it back, and he smiled, then cried, again. He thanked me for listening to him, as he left the room for the last time. The rest of the school year, I saw him in the hall, frequently, and he always had that letter folded in his shirt pocket.
STRAIGHTJACKET ENGLISH — “Never Close Your Eyes”
Instructors of these classes try to keep the students awake without allowing them to injure themselves, fellow students, or teachers. John was up, down, and “off the wall” every day, but he never changed his blank, expressionless face. When I asked him to write on the class assignment, he looked at me and said, “Why would I want to do that?”
TERMINAL ENGLISH — “Do Your Homework, Then You Can Eat Supper”
Here the patients will not recover in their lifetimes. Teachers of these classes are like nurses in coronary wards. They must be rotated regularly to prevent burnout and severe depression. Bernie was a favorite student of mine. He misspelled words like “was,” “does,” and “God,” but he is now an athlete at a state college. Once in a while, I will receive a postcard or an email from him. The last time he contacted me, part of the message went like this. “Hi, Teach. I may pass my English class this year. The new, young teacher likes me, she said, because I make her laugh. Thanks for your help last year in that writing class. Can you send $100? I am getting too skinny.”
CEMETERY ENGLISH – “Her Last Goodbye”
Mary had writer’s block, because she couldn’t forget that her grandmother died on the family’s porch swing. She was Mary’s favorite relative. Her grandmother was resting on the swing and asked Mary to fix her a cup of hot coffee. Mary went inside to the kitchen, made the coffee, brought it to her, and set it on the table next to the swing. She forgot to bring the sugar and cream and had to return to the kitchen for them. When she came back to the porch, her grandmother was sitting up straight with the coffee steam spiraling upwards past the smile on her face. Mary could see the light was gone from those loving eyes. Fourteen-years-old and without another person in the home to help, she had to deal with the rescue squad, the police, and the coroner. Mary went on to win a national writing contest when she got over her writing block caused by this personal situation. She asked me to go to the cemetery with her to say her last goodbye. Her mother and father approved, so we both took our journals with us and wrote in them as we sat by her grandmother’s grave. Mary still writes to me, all these years later.
Listening is the most important part of any conversation, and most of us do not try hard enough to master this skill. People who were born to be “radios” need good listeners. I wish more of us would develop this talent. The students in these classes taught me so much, and thank goodness, I let them teach me about life. One girl said, “You seem to care more about us than other teachers do. You hear what we are saying.” Surely, that is the best compliment I have ever received. In every class, each student was a unique, bipedal poem.
“I will do what’s right.
I will do my best.
I will show others I care.”
-Argyle, TX, Elementary School