Well, for Scribble 112, the Scribblers want us to go on about the topic of Quitting. Tangential and oppositional as I tend to be in the face of assigned topics (I take after my students), I feel a relatively head-on approach coming on with this one. It’s a topic near and dear to my heart, in ways I can’t even begin to cover fully. For those of you out there who put up with the occasional agonies of bearing with my typically obtuse approach to most things, the curse this time is that, while I might make more “sense” in what I’m saying, I’m sure to be a damned sight more longwinded in what I have to say.
Be that as it may:
In the spring of 1970, my junior year in high school, I ran as a dark horse candidate for Student Body President at a recently integrated high school in Jackson, Mississippi. To be more precise, halfway through that year, the school went through a phase one desegregation; in the fall of my senior year, the more comprehensive, phase two desegregation plan for Jackson was complete, with major upheavals in districting, etc. The rabid cats who were damned if such a thing was to be shoved down their throats jumped ship, for the most part, with phase one: parents pulled their kids out and stocked up a handful of White Citizens Council Schools in the area.
I was a bit of an odd bird at my high school: when I arrived there my junior year from San Antonio, I couldn’t see what the big deal was about having integrated schools in the first place: as an Army “brat,” I had attended integrated schools all my life. In some ways, I felt that my “progressiveness” was a bit of a luxury, compared to some of my progressive schoolmates who had actually grown up in an institutionally racist city and come to their own convictions in that kind of crucible. At any rate, when phase one of the integration was announced and then implemented, my reaction was, “And why not? It’s a good thing.”
I ran for SBP against two other students, both football players, one the quarterback, who was under the delusion that people would actually love him as much as he loved himself; the other fellow was very popular and clearly the front-runner. I believe my election was entirely due to my campaign speech, in which I almost committed a faux pas that brought the house down, something to the effect of these being historic and exciting times for us, that we could go the way of a school simply falling apart with outrage at federal intervention, etc., or we could embrace what in fact was a positive step for all of us, by getting up off our a—: oops.
I think you see why I won the election, apparently by a landslide. Yes, I did carry the black vote, but I’m sure that many of my other votes came from other folks just tickled pink by a candidate who almost said “asses” in an assembled multitude of faculty and administration. It also didn’t hurt, I’m sure, that my Captain Kangaroo haircut bordered on almost hippie for those days in suburban JacksonMiss. High school students are nothing if not principled and dignified in their voting behavior.
This somewhat outrageously progressive and outspoken white boy in the midst of a still near-feudal Mississippi got a fair amount of media play in his senior year as the social experiment of integration unfolded—I was featured in interviews on all the local TV stations and served on a number of panels and ad hoc committees dedicated to growing inclusion in the face of the prevailing Mississippi winds. Summers back from college, I interned for the mayor’s public relations department: Jackson in those days was blessed with a mayor who, though white himself, was miraculously not one to cotton to the prevailing winds either.
That slab of stone was pretty much getting itself etched with what I figured to be the story of my life—political science major, law school, and then politics—until I wandered in to informally audit a college class some friends were taking during my freshman year: Religious Dimensions of the Modern Novel, taught by Father J. R. Barth, a Catholic priest and assistant professor of English at Harvard. A “lecture” class of about 150 students, say: Father John would sit on the table on the dais above us, slip off his loafers and read us excerpts from Faulkner, Kafka, Graham Greene, and Dostoevsky. The experience blew me away, and even though I spent two years officially listed as a Government major, my sophomore year was jacked full of literature classes.
In retrospect, the real “quitting” that was going on at the time, in addition to the drift of my major, was that I was moving from what I had assumed would be a very extroverted professional life to one that became increasingly cloistered, and remained so through many years as a psychotherapist in private practice. This once limelighting media hog was finding more and more of a preference for quieter and darker abodes, so much so that even the tiniest invitation to speak publicly was one that met with considerable resistance and, let’s be honest, fear.
In early 1989, I was newly working with a sex and marital subset of a group psychotherapy practice in New Orleans; this subset was very big on public dog and pony shows, except of course for one tiny subset within the subset itself—me. I much preferred to let my work with clients speak for itself, without parading myself around in public as some psycho-babbling know it all. I had also come to the realization through the years that I was not a sound-bite kind of person: I like to babble and go off on tangents and I had long maintained that the real experts in psychotherapy were the clients themselves. But, new to the little subset fraternity, I reluctantly agreed to give a talk on “Divorcing Your Family of Origin.” This notion, just another way of talking about “individuating” from our families, albeit in a more jazzy and pr-savvy way, was a notion that was big in the family systems theory of one Murray Bowen, and it was a notion with which I was in complete agreement at the time. Its dramatic under- and over-tones says a lot about therapeutic theories in those days, as well as saying a lot about my own life at the time in relation to my family.
I fretted mightily about giving this talk. The night of the talk, I stood in front of an auditorium of about 150 (hmm…) people and, five minutes (if that long) into the talk, I just froze up and went blank. Basically, I felt like there was nothing I had to say, wanted to say, needed to say, was going to say. I asked for the audience to give me a few moments to collect myself and that I would return to the stage shortly. I walked off the stage and went right to PR person Barbara who simply asked me what I needed. Being New Orleans, one of her first questions, of course, was “Do you need a drink?” I said no, but I also said that there was no way I could or would go on with the talk. I fabricated a faux explanation that I was under considerable personal duress that made it impossible for me to go on, and that I would happily reimburse any person who felt they needed a reimbursement of the nominal fee they had paid to hear me. Ultimately, three people asked for refunds. As the audience began to leave, several people came up to offer their support and commiserations; people were all very forgiving.
My ego is pretty damned strong. I do not like to look like a fool or an idiot, but it was hard not to see myself as foolish, idiotic, and cowardly after the meltdown. I faced folks the next day with my trademark humor and self-deprecation, having sequestered the shame way way down in the deep limestone aquifers where we like to put things. What helped me is that I also fabricated an explanation that was equal parts sort of true and complete bullshit. From that night on I called the experience “walking out of the auditorium,” which became emblematic of anyone’s need to just up and leave something that in their hearts they could just no longer stomach or do. I “walked out of the auditorium” of dog and pony shows that night and refused all other offers for years, saying essentially, “that’s just not who I am.”
Which is bullshit. I am a complete and utter schmooze. And, as it so happens, as I discovered when I did my first poetry reading, I LOVE standing behind a microphone and listening to my voice rattle on. But, what is also true is that I like to stand behind that microphone on my own terms: in recent years, that means standing behind microphones to read poetry or short stories or to take a public stand for an issue that I feel passionately about: the full inclusion of LGBTs in ALL the sacraments of the Episcopal church, to tear down the institutional apartheid that is in place. Teaching is also “walking BACK INTO the auditorium,” as is, in its own way, this blog.
Let’s come full circle and hasten along, shall we? Monday of this past week, the principal of the upper school where I teach came to me and said that the graduating seniors had voted me their choice to deliver the faculty speech at the Baccalaureate service four days later. Would I agree to do it? Of course, I said, even as I felt the aquifer stirring, even as I knew that I am not a sound-biter, that I am certainly not an “imparting wisdom” person, and that I am certainly not one to come at things straight on.
I wrote the “speech” the very afternoon of the invitation. It was not a speech: it was a short story, inspired by my surrealistically-inclined students and by my son’s own third grade science fair project. As a story, I was very happy with it. But, as a speech? To departing seniors? To families, friends, colleagues? Tremors, not big, but still, tremors deep in the limestone. At one point, I was sitting in my classroom with the school’s security officer (a wise and observant young man) and one of my students, a brilliantly witty writer and not one to suffer fools. I posed the question of what folks might want to hear in such a speech. Sez James, “brevity, mainly, I would think.” My student said, “Just make sure that there’s plenty of Mr. Booker in there. That’s what they want.”
I took both statements to heart, and I thank them both for the immeasurable assistance they gave me. I cut the story down to about 7 minutes and I left all of me right in there. To quote brother Van again, “No guru, no method, no teacher.”
Yes, of course, I’m going to include the “speech.” I gave it last night: I loved doing it: the seniors loved it, as did, it would appear, just about everyone else: people were still coming up to thank me after today’s commencement ceremony. And the new buzzword around the Instituto is buoyancy.
Will I walk into the auditorium again?
[Here’s all that needs to be said to set things up: the main building of the school where I teach is rectangular, with four hallways that form the rectangle: classrooms are to left and right. The rest is what it is…]
THE BACCALAUREATE SPEECH (I nicknamed it The Bacchus Speech)
Greetings to Families and Friends, Honored Guests, Members of the Board, Colleagues, Students, and most especially, greetings to the graduating seniors of the Winston School San Antonio Class of 2008.
I would like to start my speech tonight with a passage from my son’s recent third grade science fair project. The passage is entitled, “Facts about Buoyancy.”
Fact #1: Gravity pushes on a boat and buoyancy lifts it up in the water.
Fact #2: Buoyancy is what helps boats float.
Fact #3: Buoyancy is like an anti-gravity force. (You see the Star Wars influence here.)
Fact #4: When you stretch out flat in the pool, you float because more water is pushing against your body. (I find this fact reassuring.)
Fact #5: Buoyancy is used to travel in water.
With Fact #6, we enter the realm of theology:
Fact #6: If there were no buoyancy, ships would sink and people would die.
You may be wondering why I’m standing before you tonight on this auspicious occasion talking to you about buoyancy.
My English teacher colleagues are sagely nodding their heads and thinking, what a sublime metaphor for what we have been to these wonderful graduating seniors: we’ve been their buoyancy!
Well, they would be wrong. Here’s the real truth of the matter: my son’s exhibit was on the table behind my computer monitor when I sat down to write this speech.
But, you should be happy about this happy accident, because before it happened, I was planning to read Emily Dickinson’s poem entitled “Tell All the Truth, But Tell It Slant,” which goes a little something like this:
Tell All the Truth But Tell It slant
Tell all the Truth but tell it slant—
Success in Circuit lies
Too bright for our infirm Delight
The Truth's superb surprise
As Lightning to the Children eased
With explanation kind
The Truth must dazzle gradually
Or every man be blind—
Now, you all can relax, because I decided not to go with the poem. It just wasn’t the happy accident that buoyancy was, as I’m sure you will agree. And besides, it would require that I actually knew what the poem meant.
You see, the pure unslanted truth is that one day Buoyancy got tired of being a science fair topic. She thought long and hard about what else she might want to be. Finally, she went to her mother and said, “Mom, I want to shadow the Winston School.”
“Shadow the Winston School, B? That sounds a little morbid.”
“It just means I’d like to visit the school, Mom, to see if I might need to change my career path.”
“Well, sure, Honey B, whatever you want.”
Two days later, Buoyancy walked in the front door of the Winston School San Antonio. The halls were empty.
“Funny school,” she said. “I like it already.”
Two doors down, out popped a round and friendly face.
“Hello. My name is Mrs. Saboe.”
“Nice to meet you, Mrs. Saboe. Is the school always this quiet?”
“Only in late July.”
“So, where are all the little noisemakers?”
“We like to call them students. They’re off on a field trip.”
“Awesome,” said Buoyancy. “But, would it still be okay for me to shadow the school today?”
“Certainly,” said Mrs. Saboe. “You want to walk around and check out the school yourself?”
“Well, if it’s not too irregular.”
“Oh, it’s entirely irregular. But the little fieldlings aren’t expected back for hours. Be my guest.”
Buoyancy floated down the hallway in front of her. After about fifty feet, she came to what looked like a city of lost ruins. She climbed through and over urchin-sized mock-ups of the Roman Coliseum, the pyramids of Giza, the Parthenon, the Grand Canyon, a Whataburger A-Frame building, and Gwen Stefani’s star on Hollywood Boulevard. She hurried through this maze to a wall’s worth of macaroni sculptures and tie-dyed barnyard animals. Beyond that, she counted six American flags with chartreuse stripes. There were big bright stars on the rogue flags and smiley faces that said, “Good Imagination!! I like these flags even better.” The notes were signed Ms. Owen. In chartreuse, no less.
“Flexibility in a school,” Buoyancy said to herself. “I like that.”
A quick right turn, and on her left was a room that appeared to have a giant Amazonian kapok tree growing in its midst. Nonsense, she thought, until she saw three tree porcupines scurrying down its massive trunk.
“Oh my,” said Buoyancy. “Flexibility AND reality TV. I like this school even better.”
She hurried down the hallway to the next 90 degree angle. She walked under mobiles that drifted gently in an invisible breeze.
“Hmm. Drifting. Now there’s something I know a little about. So maybe I don’t have to completely reinvent myself here after all.”
At the hall’s halfway mark, the mobiles stopped, as did all the hall decorations, save for one lonely Hello Kitty on a classroom door.
“Well now. This MUST be the Upper School.”
Two doors down, an open door gave on to a warehouse of dazzling gadgetry: Rubik’s cubes, Rubik’s donuts, Rubik’s cupcakes, Rubik’s calculators, Rubik’s hackeysacks, Rubik’s water skis, Rubik’s 3D glasses, Rubik’s yoga mats, and a Rubik’s Cheshire Cat sitting in the corner. The cat tossed a Rubik’s bouncy ball her way.
“You’ll love it here,” the cat said.
“You’re telling me,” said Buoyancy.
Another right turn and Buoyancy saw Mrs. Saboe at the end of the hall, waving encouragingly. B felt sure this was Mrs. Saboe’s polite way of saying, “Time’s up, girl,” but she felt that she must step into one last room before her shadowing day was over.
She slipped into the room on her left. On the opposite wall hung a rainbow flag honoring Pace, the local San Antonio picante sauce. There were oodles of bell work all over the room, but her eyes were immediately drawn to a line of 56 rubber ducks in a wholesome variety of colors, arrayed across the absent teacher’s desk. She was beside herself with delight and ran to Mrs. Saboe.
“Mrs. Saboe!” she cried.
“Yes,” said Mrs. Saboe.
“When oh when do I get to take Ducks? Is it Advanced Placement? Do I have to wait till senior year? Can I get dual credit? Please tell me I can take it as soon as I enroll, instead of German!”
“Fear not, my child,” cooed Mrs. Saboe. “Ducks are part of the core curriculum. There’s not a day here at Winston when you won’t be taking Ducks.”
“You’re kidding, right? This is just a sneaky way to get me to enroll.”
“No, it’s not a trick,” said Mrs. Saboe. “Ducks are core curriculum all the way—Physical Education, English, Math, Science, History, Spanish, Arts, Digital Media, and yes, Ducks. You see, you’ve come to the right place, after all, because in the end, Buoyancy, we want you to learn the very important life lesson of learning to advocate for yourself, but we also want you to learn just when it’s time to Duck.”
In closing, Good People of the Class of 2008: thank you for blessing us all with your Aplomb, your Charisma, your Enthusiasm, your Fandango, your Generosity, your Gregariousness, your Joy, your Jubilation, your Jurassic Park, your Karaoke, your Neutrinos, your Perseverance, your Romance, your Radiance, your Shimmering Shine, your Tiger Eyes, your Troubadours, your Topiary, and your inimitable Versatility. For those of you who were counting, that was one descriptive noun per senior, each first letter a match to the first letters of your names.
All of us at the Winston School wish you well, and as an old Celtic blessing would have it:
Deep peace of the running wave to you.
Deep peace of the flowing air to you.
Deep peace of the quiet earth to you.
Deep peace of the shining stars to you.
Labels: vegetables, veritable, veritas