Friday, February 12, 2010

A Price On My Head

“Now, it’s no more work to go forward than it is to go back.” - Alan Breck, Robert Louis Stevenson’s Kidnapped.

After church last Sunday I was rolling down 205 through Willamette, taking my time and going the long way toward Molalla and my niece’s eleventh birthday party, listening to NPR and taking it slow while my three girls napped in the back. Classic Ira Glass This American Life episode, just laying it out. This week: The Naismith mystery. Why would a family leave a house with every belonging and possession and keepsake abandoned to fall into ruin? The author postulates, was there a murder? A family curse? What odd set of circumstances led to this occurrence?
I took a right along highway 43 and down the rickety old Oregon City bridge and through the historic district with its murals of frontier life. Men in coonskin hats and women shouldering muskets. Fur trappers. Indians in headdresses. Paddle boats and budding industry. Then up past the McGloughlin House and the open cow pastures of Beavercreek. I would stop the car, here and there, to take pictures. Old rusted barns. Funny roadside signs. A tree in the distance with a rope swing. When suddenly the thought came to me, why am I doing this? To what purpose does it serve? Is it worth anything, these thoughts I have inside? To me? To anyone? Is it just as simple as, well Brian, you do it because that’s what you do?
Yet it has always been this way. As a boy, my role models were the strong, quick witted, able lads of literature. Huck Finn fishing off the end of his raft. Jim Hawkins carrying the black spot on a torn out page from the Bible inside his shirt. Tom “The Great Brain” swindling the neighbor kids at the academy. These were boys who left home and sought their fortunes upon sea vessels and steam engines and relied upon the great human traits of loyalty and honor and bravery as much as bread in their belly or bags of coins in their pocket. I grew up with these stories. I always loved how the courageous young men of romantic narratives could just tell when they met a gentlemen, just by his ruddy countenance or the cut of his jib, if he were to be trusted or feared, an honorably ally who would swear allegiance unto death, or a marauding scalawag who’d slit a throat soon as look in your direction. They had moments of destiny, these boys did. Moments where their entire life came to a head. Where they had traveled and endured and suffered for a belief, and when they finally triumphed, when they raised the flag upon their ship that set sail toward the horizon, when they freed their friend from slavery and watched him walk away proudly, when they revenged the murdering dog they vowed a lifetime to bring to justice, they understood the secret meaning of their life, and most of all, they kept it for themselves to treasure alone.
Of course, on the other end, there was the gallows. There was always the gallows, that hanging canvas where all your inner thoughts and sins are put on display for others to judge and sneer.
It is what Falstaff’s gang of tavern bandits, and Fagin’s crew of boy pickpockets feared most, but knew one day they’d swing from. They lived as wanted men. Ever corrupting. Ever manipulating. Believing in nothing not even the honor among thieves. These were the enemies of strong, young boys, and if I grew up in my imagination, these other boys dominated my real life.
Hard-nosed with fists up, huddled around the smoker tree outside the high school, dealing out of the baseball dugout, and wandering up and down the logger highways with their faces turned toward the shadows. Driving past them in cars, I would study their bodies against the silhouettes of trees. There was always a price on their head. They were wanted for something they had done or some crime they would one day commit. It didn’t matter really, they just had the look. Hometown loser. Small time degenerate. They were the villain I was leaving behind as I sought my fortune upon the waters of the unknown. I was not them. I would never be them. But I would meet them in every corner of every place I traveled.
(My second daughter Rebekah and I adventuring along a hillside path cut in stone.)

Many years later as a teacher these villainous faces would reappear in a different form. I would be sitting in counselor offices listening to students describe the horrors of their life at home. The foster mother who kept kids locked in a basement collecting government checks. The meth-addicted father who pimped out his thirteen year old daughter to pay for his next fix. The grandmother who took the son because the mother dances most nights while trying to kick heroin. In English class I would try to help the student write about their lives, to see that problems could be faced if put down on the page. What I learned is that many of these abused kids, despite their failing grades, despite their troubled pasts, despite their dirty exteriors with the one pair of pants and the one shirt they wore in embarrassing filth, were some of the most creative and brilliant kids in the school. I would read how they tried to help their broken and imprisoned parents, working two jobs after school to help make rent, lying to social service workers just to keep their siblings from being taken away, protecting one another, sheltering the very people in their lives that have hurt them the most.
So many times in those counselor meetings surrounded by the encouraging posters and the tiny four walls, all of us, teachers, administrators, I wanted to just scream to the boy or girl.
Leave this world and all the oppression you are under. Seek your fortune upon the waters. Find your destiny in the four corners of the wind. Why do you give yourself away for free to these people? Don’t you know you are worth so much more than that? Don’t you see your value to the world? Because I do. I see.
It was always a hard sell.
Most of the time the message came in the quiet conversations after the counseling sessions. In the secret moments that come between teacher and student, when you tell them how much goodness you see in them, the potential they hold, the intangibles they have. A teacher’s words can be like treasure maps passed in dying breaths, like love letters washed ashore in glass bottles upon the sand. They can be the difference between living a life of ordinary misery or one of amazing adventure. You can be that trigger. At least I have always thought so.
Of course, with this comes the grumbling.
Why do you spend so much time after school talking to students, aren’t you exhausted?
Why grade papers on Saturday night, isn’t that depressing?
It’s dangerous to get that close, those flaky kids will always let you down.
You give yourself away to kids for free and they won’t appreciate you. You have to back off, make them fear and respect you, that’s what good teachers do.
Yeah. Yeah. Yeah. I know.

I was thinking about this recently, if I were giving myself and my thoughts away to easily. This last week I returned again to Robert Louis Stevenson’s Kidnapped, finding it on my old boyhood bookshelf. It is the story of David Balfour, who must seek out the mystery of his lost inheritance across the Scottish Highlands surrounded by pirates and scalawags with a price on his head after having been sold into slavery on the high seas. What joy these adventure stories have given me over the years, as if they were truly just written for me, to instill the belief in travel, in wanderlust, in seeking my fortune, in staying true to myself and others with similar creed.
It also reminds me how much I love and miss teaching.
I think it is good to take these little breaks. It allows me to re-group, to think about the importance of a career that is not a job but a way of life. In school we teach students to hoard the beauty of the world, to covet answers, to seal the personal poetry of the world in singular meaning that becomes universal truth, to live by the axiom: Give Nothing Away. I don’t know if anyone talks about moments of destiny anymore or about how courage or loyalty or honor will sustain you in life when everything else fails. What our ideas are worth, to anyone, to ourselves. All I know is this, we live, we die. We swing from the gallows of our own thoughts, and if we don’t share the beauty of the world with at least one other, if we don’t at least try, then our lives have been lived in vain.

1 comment:

  1. ---Give Nothing Away---

    don't think so.
    not always right.
    because when you persist with something too seriously.
    you lose more
    and can't move on...