Thursday, November 10, 2011

The Ballad of John Henry, a Steel-Driving Man

“When John Henry was a little tiny baby
Sitting on his mama’s knee,
He picked up a hammer and a little piece of steel
Saying, “Hammer’s going to be the death of me, Lord, Lord,
Hammer’s going to be the death of me.”


I try to sing deep, make my voice real low like some bucket hitting the bottom of a well, but most of the time I'm more worried about rhythm and rhyme.
“John Henry was a man just six feet high,
Nearly two feet and a half across his breast.
He’d hammer with a nine-pound hammer all day
And never get tired and want to rest, Lord, Lord,
And never get tired and want to rest.”

Standing there in front of the class with the text books open, words like stanza and refrain underlined behind me in chalk.
“John Henry went up on the mountain
And he looked one eye straight up its side.
The mountain was so tall and John Henry was so small,
He laid down his hammer and he cried, “Lord, Lord,”
He laid down his hammer and he cried.”

I try to get it right, I try really hard. Whether it's just an old poem or writing notes in the margin or making the desks lined up straight after the kids leave, I have my own standard, my own notes to hit. I know the chord alone.
“John Henry said to his captain,
‘A man is nothing but a man,
But before I let your steam drill beat me down,
I’d die with this hammer in my hand, Lord, Lord,
I’d die with this hammer in my hand.’”

They bring in the other teachers to watch, the moms with umbrellas and designer shoes, the school president, random administrators, sometimes even the camera crew for when the school is on the news. They bring them to my class to watch. I don't mind. I know, that it has to be me.
“John Henry hammered on the right-hand side,
Steam drill kept driving on the left.
John Henry beat that steam drill down,
But he hammered his poor heart to death, Lord, Lord,
He hammered his poor heart to death.”

Afterwards there is a swoooning, a crowding around, glad-handing and chatter. I know people have to talk, people have to say something. It always surprises me when they are speechless.
“Well, they carried John Henry down the tunnel
And they laid his body in the sand.
Now every woman riding on a C and O train
Says, ‘There lies my steel-driving man, Lord, Lord,
There lies my steel-driving man.’”


I overheard the kid say later, "Sometimes you have to see greatness to know how to be great." I thought that was a compliment. But they don't know the toll. My body. My old heart. I let them leave and I close the classroom door and straighten the desks again and erase the board and pick up the little pieces of trash on the floor. Sam left his notebook out again, and Paul forgot his pencil. I keep them in my desk for next week when I see them again. It has started to rain and the weather is cooling, I stand by the window and take these pictures, turn the camera on myself, and breathe. The day is over. The day is mine.

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