Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Finalities


[Tuesday morning, Junior English final exam. They'd already done their long writing projects: I wanted to offer something different. Here's what I came up with. Two members of our junior tribe are leaving us this year, not to return as seniors. This morning's exercise, then, was to write personal reminiscences of these two people in our lives. We then compiled the writings into books to take with them. Below are the two reminiscences I wrote for inclusion in the book.]

ISN’T IT GOOD, NORWEGIAN WOOD?

I caught glimpses of CD last year, his sophomore year: he was not in any of my classes, but he would periodically show up in the 168 for study hall, like an itinerant lunar eclipse who apparently had nothing better to do.

CD was an odd bird for this wild menagerie we call the Winston School. Sometime in October of that first year, I think it was, after an afternoon spent in unholy communion with several SAT Prep books at a local B & N (how I wish it could have been a B & J, the beloved purveyors of ice cream), I purchased about 25 frighteningly gargantuan tomes to utilize for my two classes of “SAT” “Prep.” Such is the beauty of teaching the “differently learned” denizens of the Winston School that they will consign anything that smacks of horse manure to the ash heap faster than you can say the words “essay prompt.” There was only one person even less impressed by my new purchases than the students of my two prep classes—me.

CD, on the other hand, asked if he could have one of the books to work with. I raised all four of my eyebrows at the strange request, but handed one over to him, despite feeling that I had just consigned him to 750 lessons of Scott the Piano Guy on Sunday afternoon PBS pledge time, complete with captioning for the visually impaired. And so, moved by the odd syncopations of his lunar stirrings, CD would appear out of nowhere to indenture himself to some guiding ideal of what it must mean to “prepare” for the SAT—one of the most demonic conceits to come out of Princeton, New Jersey since the wild-haired man dribbled out enough syncretistic code to usher in the carnival horrorshow of atomic annihilation.

In another time and place, CD would have been a monk in a windswept cell in one of the whitewashed and azure-roofed monasteries of the Greek islands. He has a passion for knowledge, discipline, dedication, earnest toil, organization, and the sacredness of learning and teaching. These are peculiar passions for one of his generation, but he has served them well, and they him.

This year, his junior year, CD was assigned to two of my classes—English III and the newly and slightly reconfigured “College” “Prep.” If I were to describe CD’s skull when I first met him in one of my classes, I would say that it was an elegantly square-headed block of wood: good wood, mind—mahogany, say, or madrona, or paela from Central America, but a wooded head not given to quick movements or deconstructions of misguided authority or racing whimsy. It was a head to stack your books upon, but not one which would necessarily soak them up. Stories and essays were long Herculean labors, or perhaps even midwifed labors in danger of being hauled off to emergency rooms to offer the exhausted birthing “mother” “his” reprieve.

I hope it can be said that CD was never belittled for his labors and their results. A “B” did come of his first term’s efforts, not the expected and anticipated “A,” but that was the only one for the year.

Good writing—well, interesting writing, at least—is not borne of good solid timber; it is borne of wormwood, mealy drift, termite hells. How to tap into the crumbling nooks and crannies of CD, to release the worm-ridden writer within?

Slowly, slowly, the classroom culture’s errant expectations of foolish whimsy began to riddle the stolid boles of CD’s prose. He discovered the joy of fictional road trips, in which he could resurrect and reconnect with friends lost to him through moves and school changes, or even just the simple tectonic shifts of day to day class scheduling. “My main man CJ.” Or “WH.” Or the wild bacchanalia of CN set loose in the streets and neighborhoods of Houston, Texas.

As glorious disarray seeped into his fiction, CD fancied himself a worthy heir to the genius of Brother N’s wonderfully surreal poetry. Early attempts were tentative, but still they showed promise: N was appreciative enough, through his own backhanded compliments. As his pen loosened enough to start allowing blank spaces in his lines, CD announced himself fully ready for the challenge of rhymed poetry, over and above the cautionary drivel of the snooty English teacher himself. CD erupted with wonderfully rowdy lines of Whitmanesque breadth, and with rhymes as slick as Doc Holliday winning the pot with Jack high nuthin’ to boot. Lovely Miranda had morphed into brilliant Caliban.

And then a few weeks ago, CD announced the saddest of news: he would not be back for his senior year: he would be going on SA’s other Winston School, the one that uses both of the old Brit’s names. It broke our hearts to see how heartbroken he was: few love this place as fervently and innocently as CD.

We will all miss CD. We certainly wish him well and we certainly expect him to do well at the other SA school named for the bloated Prime Minister. But, such is his legacy of good will and good-heartedness that I fully expect to see CD walk across the stage at next May’s graduation: the ghosts of tenderhearted whimsy always win out, never to be dismayed.

Rave on, CD. Rave on.


AND THE WALLS CAME DOWN

I first saw J on the first day of school last fall, out in the courtyard between the gym and the main building. She looked storm-tossed, like she’d been thrown up on the Winston shores by a tsunami that was taking no prisoners: she looked soggy, weather-beaten, on the verge of either tears or a rampage, or both. In my head, I thought, here’s someone I need to give a wide berth: I wasn’t afraid of her, but I felt sure that she needed room to breathe: she didn’t need crowding.

I learned two things about J very quickly: she was a very good writer, by which I mean someone who writes fluidly, organizing her thoughts and images naturally and, unbelievably for many of my juniors, in paragraphs. Good grammar seemed a natural part of her writer’s DNA. I also learned, however, that J would “really rather” do anything else instead of the writing assignment given to her. If she’d had a child to barter, I feel sure that she would have bartered the child to get out of a 1000 word writing assignment. She was one of the first to try the “a picture is worth a 1000 words, so how about I just draw you a picture?” option on me. I’ll admit that, while I haven’t bartered her future children, I’ve taken a few drawings in “payment” for assigned work.

I think J and I began to get a sense of who we were when she came to me to get “clearance” on a research paper on Anton LeVay, the founder and High Priest of the Church of Satan. I know the ripe, plummy smell of a good “let’s see if this’ll freak him out” proposition, and I also know the look of a young woman who needs to test her teacher to see just how much of a cookie cutter he is. “Go for it,” I replied, and go for it she did. She found certain things about LeVay and his church fascinating—“theological” things, mind you, not the mere titillating details that many others of her age might have seized upon. We had a few good discussions of what she found, and I came away from our talks with an even deeper respect for the breadth of her curiosities, curiosities not simply given over to the merely prurient.

Some of my favorite memories of J came during our viewing of “Monty Python and the Holy Grail” in our College Prep class. Unbelievably, she was probably the only person her age who had never seen the movie: she had classmates, not surprisingly, who had seen it so many times that they performed the script right along with the DVD, to the chagrin of all us, but no matter. J was absolutely delighted with the movie and burst out repeatedly with wonderful peals of giggly laughter that sounded like they were coming from an ethereal fourth grade fairy queen, not the Gothic High Priestess of her Junior Class. One day, we were joined by a class of seventh graders (we were “sitting” for the class next door); I looked down in mid-movie to see J in earnest conversation with a young male waif who looked to be the complete antithesis of J’s Dark Queen. Without really knowing what was up, I figured she was probably threatening to eat him, and made some off-hand comment to inject a little humor into the mix.

“I love that kid,” she replied. “He had the balls to come up to me one day and tell me to quit smoking. I love him.”

There are more sides to J than a Rubik’s cube gone berserk.

Lately, J has taken to hanging out in the 168 during seventh period, giving impromptu guitar lessons to P. Not only was the music they played generally quite soothing to the end of the day, but it was neat to listen to J teach in a very gentle and encouraging way. She clearly knows what she is about and is very generous in sharing her knowledge.

I will miss J, and I’m very sorry to see her go to the Holy Land of Waco, Texas, a place about as close to her sensibilities on the surface as, well, her seventh grade guardian angel once was—which probably means that Waco will just scarf her right up. I’ll miss her rough and tumble ways, her giggles, the ubiquity of her F-bombs (her favorite adjective), her lovely out of the blue surprises, her wonderful art, and watching movies with her—nobody watches movies with more passion.

May she bless those in her future as she has blessed us.

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2 Comments:

Blogger alister said...

In honor of CD, I would be me, right now after having read this, and I would take a science-fictional road trip back to me when I was in high school in Mrs. Heussler’s English class, and I would download certain data from my brain to my teen brain because there’s no way my teen self, in her obtuse oblivion, would have listened to and heeded these words:
WAKE UP!

I would be a J, who sounds like I looked on the surface then—storm-tossed, good at writing, good at avoiding writing, fascinated with the dark side, deprived of Monty Python’s finest—but who actually is in reality her own, aware, and in-charge person, complete with the gentle encouragement and the F-bombs.

And you sound like Mrs. Heussler looked, and actually was :-)

6:38 PM  
Blogger murat11 said...

Miss A: Two very fine people, neither of whom wants to go, the Instituto being such a cozy nest for students and faculty (at least this one, anyway) alike.

I would have certainly been guilty of the charge of "obtuse oblivion," but oh so confident I was just the opposite.

Peace to all the Mrs. Heusslers.

5:46 AM  

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