Thursday, January 17, 2008
WRITTEN WORD 61 – High School
Despite the early morning chaos before and as the hall monitors rushed in, everything else was fixed in place. Rules posted everywhere – no chewing gum, no speaking unless called upon, no leaving the building. An angry announcement came over loudspeakers which could not be turned off. It was the principal talking. Students had been seen on school grounds playing games when school was not in session. This would not be allowed.
Classroom walls stopped two feet short of the ceiling. I and most of my class skipped the pledge of allegiance when the PA system demanded it. (But in other classrooms this could mean trouble.)
One morning a girl was reading aloud about a situation in her town in which, flag-flying patriots were doing nasty things. She was interrupted by the principal's loudspeaker voice. "Don't forget, Friday is the deadline for the VFW annual 'I Am Proud To Be An American' essay contest."
Teachers, and even the sullen librarian and school nurse, had to be addressed (as long ago at my boarding school) by last name and as Mr., Mrs., Miss, Ms., and there were no exceptions. They even addressed each other that way. While kids only had first names.
Here at the high school there was no place for casual meetings of faculty and students. Back at my generally rigid boarding school it was during such informal, natural-seeming meetings that I found I could be something other than the slowest, dumbest kid.
The Cairo-Durham teachers retreated between classes to a lounge where the coffee was awful, and where students were forbidden and talked about as the enemy.
Kids today are like wild animals, I heard it said.
The first time I started to go into a lavatory I was stopped. It was a boy who stopped me. He said, "You must be new here."
He pointed to a sign on the door. "Boys". Then he led me to another door that said "Men".
This was close not so much to what I'd known when I was in boarding school as to what I'd found in 1964 Apartheid Mississippi.
Real stories kept breaking through. Instead of a silly ordeal, this early morning class had become an anything-goes writing place – really a workshop, and not to learn irrelevant theory about writing but rather a workshop in which everyone was writing.
Absolute proof that the moment someone finds the courage and accepts a convincing invitation to write their deepest stories – the moment someone starts to write actual scenes from actual lives – the writing becomes fine writing, profoundly grammatical – flowing.
And I was thinking, if I can carry this off here at the Cairo-Durham Central High School, I can do it anywhere!
For I had been told by the English chairpersons at both the college and the high school that the high school kids would have to be cajoled with a heavy hand if they were ever to learn writing. I had been told it was something they would never want to do.
And I was finding out otherwise. And by now, down in Woodstock, and moving into New York City, I had begun my Authentic Writing workshops , which had become my new vocation. Workshop participants were mostly older, generally a great deal older, than the kids of Cairo-Durham, but both groups had in common feelings and memories ready to overflow on the page if begrudgers of writing would get out of the way.
So much of what happened way back in New Hampshire days was coming back to me now at Cairo-Durham – now that I was in this kind of mountain landscape, not just looking out at it.
It was true I had not gone to public high school myself. But back in New Hampshire I had seen high schools. I had been inside high schools. Not during the school week but on weekends back when I was young and away from home. Back when I was a star – the star of the closest thing to a sport that our little Anglophile New Hampshire boarding school could excel at – competitive debating.
So much had changed for me so quickly at Holderness that I became the top debater, honored in tournaments as the New England champion. On most Saturdays I would escape the boarding school and travel to debating tournaments, sometimes held at colleges for kids my age, but more often at high schools.
Off we would go, me and my varsity debate partner - one year Ken, the next Dmitri, then Bill - and the debate coach, Mr. Abbey, "Joe" Abbey, who was the first person who told me it was not necessary any longer that I be seen as retarded.
At Cairo-Durham it all came back – how very much had been at stake for me in that New Hampshire time –
And then how much was still at stake in this new time when my life was so in the air.
I stayed on shaky ground with the Cairo-Durham Central High School authorities. But mostly I managed to avoid them. I continued these hit-and-run attacks, driving up from Woodstock in the dark with coffee and Claude the dog. Coming in and then leaving while it was still so very early in the morning.
And they found out from the college that no one in my classes ever received any semester grade except A. And they must have known that although at the end of the semester I turned in attendance reports, I faked the forms – much like faking an expense diary in case the IRS pulls an audit on you.
The last day of class in my second and last year came in late May, for we were on the college schedule, not the school's. Everyone brought in things they had written, personal essays and poems that went far beyond anything possible if we'd gone for the accepted Rhetorical Modes nonsense. They read their favorite poems aloud. I read a poem of my own called "Dog Dreaming" – something I had written in this very tricky time of my life.
"I wake from vibrant dreams and there lying on his back, with his head on my pillow, his mouth open, is my close friend Claude the dog. And I think how sometimes Claude gets bored here after the cats Gracie and Mousie have left on tracking expeditions –
"And if I've gone north for the day without him.
"We get up long before sunrise and he places himself in the breakfast line behind cats with more self-assertiveness training than he knows. While my coffee drips and bacon sizzles I turn on the computer, not Claude's favorite pastime.
"And no one has planned trips for him into woods and fields, he thinks, no swimming in the Sawkill, no dodging the warden at Cooper Lake, not even a mailman to chase. And I think how Claude would enjoy the chance to fart under the desks of the tormentors while Gracie harangues and Mousie cuts the phone lines – playtime, not pastime – how Claude would love to chase sandpipers on beaches and ride cable cars to the high lands of mountain goats, and look over new homes, and dig holes for his cat friends to sit in.
"And if Claude were put into such an exchange program, we would see the mountain beneath the moon that lights the apple trees where the deer gather, see it from the window which lets in the lilac and the earth smells, while birds caw and sing and woodpeckers excavate, a skunk forages, a groundhog stands up for a better look, and the ground heaves.
"In the middle of one thick cold night there is twitching and stirring beside me on my bed. Claude is dreaming. I wonder if he's frightened. I wonder what he thinks and knows about this risky time.
"He's shaking. He's crying.
"I have to get up and comfort Claude,
"Tell him it's all right, we're all still here, Claude, it was only a dream, Claude, no programs have been canceled, and we refuse to die."
One of the girls said, "I'm so sad the class is all over. I wish we could have met Claude."
"As a matter of fact," I said, "Claude's out in the parking lot."
So we went out in full spring to this parking lot at the top of that hill above the shamrock bars.
Claude, who usually sleeps when left alone in a car, had his paws on the ledge of the back window, and his tail was up and wagging.
One boy said he'd heard on the way out that the principal was being summoned.
But that wasn't Claude's problem. Nor ours. Claude was out of the car and the girls were stroking him, three at once, and the guys were telling him what a fine boy he was.
Now the principal was standing 30 yards away in the school's main doorway. There was fear on his face. But you could smell the earth and the trees. A warm breeze. Birds crossing over. The sky still the deep blue of a winter sky, but the air soft spring air – and so clear the hills and mountains, across fields and woods in all directions, were sharp and real.
The principal in the doorway was wringing his hands. But he was too late. We'd gotten to Claude –
And he was only a nervous school system bureaucrat, while we were writers.