Oh Captain, My Captain: Letters to Laertes 7

Give thy thoughts no tongue,
Nor any unproportioned thought his act.
Be thou familiar, but by no means vulgar.
Those friends thou hast, and their adoption tried,
Grapple them to thy soul with hoops of steel;

Hamlet Act I scene iii

Dearest Laertes

I always thought the classroom was the end of the road, the grail at the end of a quest. I would never have thought that the chapter on finding myself teaching would be the middle of a story, not the end. My mother was always surprised that I became a teacher, not because of the academics obviously, but because of my own high school experience.

Cyndi would have been welcome in my classroom anytime.

I was an outcast, a Goonie, much like somebody else I know. Clubs, dances, extracurricular events, none of these things ever appealed to me. I was an excellent student, but I always just had to believe life would start after high school. When the fact that I had glasses, read books, and listened to music nobody else knew wouldn’t be the kiss of death. Truth is, I loved everything about the academic side of high school, I just wasn’t cool enough to be allowed to enjoy being a kid.

In the end, after seven years that I did not want to end, I learned one truth, and that is the reason that I share this letter. I know school was not easy for you, and I know that it ended in disappointment. Honestly, if I were still in the classroom, I have no idea what I would advise. The world is very different, and I am not sure how much of what I valued about the actual classroom is still there. But what the students of Pinetop-Lakeside, Arizona taught me was a truth in anything. Teaching, computer design, retail, missionary work, anything: enthusiasm is contagious. If you can show genuine joy and excitement in your chosen work, you will convert anybody to what you are selling.

Be true to yourself. Always. And let that truth shine. That beauty, that truth…. It will change the world.

Always.

Polonius

Oh Captain, My Captain

“Ryan, I would hate your class,” Erin said from the back seat of the mini van. I had always gotten along really well with my sister, eight years my junior quite well, and I was shocked at her response. At sixteen, and dealing with the traumatic death of her father, Erin was darker than I remembered her being. There was a sharp edge to her voice, honed lethal by tragedy she was struggling to deal with. I had shared the story of teaching The Scarlet Letter to my juniors because they were her age, and she had asked what my classes were like.

Why?

“What! Why?” I turned to face the thin, muscular swimmer in the back. “Think of the number of times you have asked a teacher why you had to learn some book centuries of years old. A huge part of what made me successful in the classroom was being able to make these books relatable. Nobody wants to read a book written in archaic English about Puritans. There aren’t even any witches in it! But almost every kid in class has dealt with divorce, either directly or indirectly. And the foster system is not a foreign concept to most modern teenagers. Again, if they have not been in it, they know someone who has.”

ilovemywyves.com

“So.” Amazing how at a certain age, that one word answer is a silver bullet answer to almost anything.

“So, if I started off a class immediately jumping into Puritan history, the yawns would start before the end of the first sentence. But, by starting off the class with a question meant for discussion, like, how much control should your government have on the way you raise your kids? All of a sudden everybody is paying attention and has something to say.”

“I can see that. Everybody has an opinion. But that isn’t why I would hate it. You would simply get me to think things that I don’t want to think about. I would rather just do the English.”

The goal of a great teacher is to make themselves unnecessary

At the time, I was shocked into silence. I wanted my sister to still think I was cool. I wanted her to be jealous she wasn’t in my class. Instead, she proved something that Papa and I had discussed a hundred times on The Porch of All Conversations. It was what eventually made me incapable of completing a Mormon mission, but very capable of teaching teenagers English and Literature. The subjects we teach are far less important than actually teaching a child to think.

“Anybody can teach a kid to take a test. And they might get a good grade. But teach a kid to think, and that kid will succeed at whatever test they are given.”

Norman Clark

Papa was never confusing. Perhaps it was because he really only ever went to one school. The Willow Creek Academy of Higher Education in the Book Cliffs of eastern Utah.

Nadine, Norman, Lois, and Boy (Curly) Clark at
The Willow Creek Academy of Higher Education

“When is Mrs. Larson gonna be back?” Boy was yawning and stretching his arms out above his head and wiping the sleep from his eyes. He was barely awake, but he could steer his horse with his knees in his sleep. The two mile ride to school was just an excuse to get a bit more of a nap in before having to be forced to do numbers and letters.

“Who knows if she even is coming back,” Norman answered.

“She said she was!”

“Yeah, but when she sees that baby she might change her mind. This place is hard for babies.” Norman remembered the road from Ouray. The rock and the wooden tire, and the cracking sound of the buckboard wood as the wagon tongue slammed into the ground and lurched the mules to a stop. Ned called back to the kids. “Is everyone all right?” But then he heard his mother moaning. Just couldn’t hold on. Just couldn’t hold on. She kept repeating the phrase, but her voice sounded like it was coming from somewhere else. Boy, with his shock of red curly hair that made him look the least Native and the most Scottish of the mixed blood children, was too young. “You remember what happened to our sister.”

“Oh, yeah.” Suddenly awake. “Nedra.”

But he hoped Mrs. Larson would be back to the Book Cliffs. She had gone north to stay with her family in Vernal for the baby to come. She couldn’t return fast enough for Norman. When Alice Larson left, the school had brought in a long term substitute, Mrs. Bean, but the kids all called her Bird Lady.

What part of our dreams need where we are from play?

Mrs. Bean whose concept of teaching was writing an assignment down on the slate board and then watched the class as they worked on it in silence. Just watching them, washing her glasses over and over again with a silk handkerchief that she kept in the top drawer of Mrs. Larson’s desk.

The two brothers pulled their horses to a stop at the road down to the next farmhouse. The Brooms worked the homestead between theirs and the school, and their boy, Tooney, was Norman’s friend. If they weren’t building rock cliff dwellings up in the bluffs, rolling boulders off into the creek just to hear them crash through the thickets, or crawling on their bellies up to the edge to spy down on wild horses, then they were probably up to no good at all.

My Papa, was my best teacher. We saw this movie together in the drive in.
Poetry is Necessary.

Tooney’s horse was tied to a post, but the sandy haired kid was nowhere to be seen. “Tooney! Hurry up, we gotta get. Where you at?”

The crashing up from the overgrown drainage ditch that ran parallel the dirt track gave the boy’s position away before he actually appeared. Both Norman and Boy were staring thinly veiled annoyance down at him from atop their horses. “Hurry up Tooney, Lois and Nadine are way ahead now.”

What dreams are too big?

But Norm, check this out!” Tooney help up a large horney toad. The lizard was about as big around as a horse shoe, and Tooney kept his thumb pressed down pinning its curved, coral hued horns back to its body. The thing was hissing in fury. “Isn’t it a beaut! Biggest horn toad I have ever seen! Whatcha think Norm?”

Tooney held the lizard out like a trophy ribbon from the fair. But Norman was already thinking far ahead. “Tooney, stick that lizard in my saddle bag, and hurry up. We are going to be late.”

Think about the teaching that reached you. Why did it work?

Several hours later, the one room log school house was starting to get hot. It was stuffy, and all of the students were itching to get out in the fresh air, eat their sandwiches, and sit under the trees in the breeze. Anything to escape Mrs. Bird Lady Bean and her eternal math problems.

What were they really teaching you?

Norman glanced up from his reader, and shot a side glance at Tooney two desks over. Tooney nodded, and pushed his nose into his book to hide his widening smile. It would be soon. Norman could see the tiny beads of sweat pulling up on the old bird lady’s nose. It would be any minute now.

What part of what you do for a living dictates heroism?

Norman was scratching out the answer to his number problem on his slate, when he heard the tell tale sound of the drawer sliding open, and warily, every so carefully, he and Tooney both raised their gazes over their readers to watch the bird lady wash her glasses.

Nobody knew where Bird Lady had come from. Nobody cared. To Mrs. Bean they were dirty share cropper kids, raised on the dirt and dead dreams of a depressed country. And the only reason she was here now, is because work didn’t come easy these days. She hated being in Willow Creek, she hated the dirt and the hot, and she hated them. Norman, and any other kid in that class, did not have to know anything to know that. A kid knows when they are hated.

My students….. are my favorite teachers.

That white silk handkerchief, with the letters BB embroidered into the corner, did not belong in Willow Creek. It was too white, too sterile, too perfectly pressed. It was a talisman from another world: one that showed membership. And exclusion. As the sweat rose up on her long beak, Bird Lady pulled open the drawer and slowly, reverently, pulled out the neatly folded silk handkerchief. Never removing her beady eyes from the class, she stared over the multicolored heads, hair visible as faces were shoved in texts. As it should be, she must have thought with a hrumpf of self importance.

If I can… I would teach you, how to think, Alice Larson said.

Norman watched the substitute teacher unwrap the corners of her handkerchief, slowly as if she was secretly hoping she was being watched and was acting out her disdain with methodical class. He held his breath as she lifted it towards her face while simultaneously removing her glasses with her other hand. And he stared in wide eyed amazement as the perfectly wrapped horney toad slipped from its silk confinement and slid, spines, scales, horns and all, straight from the opened handkerchief down the front on the city lady’s blouse.

Tooney howled.

Lois, Nadine, and most of the other girls in the room gasped.

But the Bird Lady was silent. Silent as first her cheeks, but then her entire head turned crimson. She rose stiffley from the chair, and marched straight out of the one room school house. She marched straight across the Broom’s cornfield, and when she hit the dirt track, she started marching north.

Norman wasn’t sure if she ever stopped. But, after a string of temporary substitutes, Alice Larson was back the following year.

Never cripple others because of YOUR expectations

I was born in Tucson, Arizona. When I was in first grade, my mother married a mining engineer, and we moved to San Manuel, Arizona. Being a nerdy Goonie in a small town where nobody really cared about school because they just planned on going to work in the mine and make great money was not easy. Being a Goonie in general is never easy. It didn’t used to be cool. But coming from that town, dreaming of being somewhere else, doing something else, was the story of my youth.

This town….. is gonna be too small Dad.

My mother was surprised I loved teaching high school. What she never really got to see, I guess because she never got to be there, sitting in on one of my classes, is that I was really only ever any good because I never stopped being a Goonie. And I never believed, or treated, anyone couldn’t be whatever they wanted to be…. regardless of who they were, where they were from, or how many other people thought they could or should.

In the end, as is the theme of these Letters to Laertes, I wish I had had more time. I taught in the classroom for seven years. I have been at Costco now for almost double that. I would not trade those seven years for anything in the world.

When I completed teaching The Scarlet Letter, I did not show the film with Demi Moore and Gary Oldman. I showed Chocolat with Juliette Binoche and Johnny Depp. Read the book. Watch the film. Even red is symbolic for crying out loud. The film actually works really well. That was a given in a Ryan Clark English class. You would watch films of the novels and plays you read, but usually not what you thought. And never without a writing assignment.

Because that is how you teach a kid…. how to think.

I am not sure if I have an opus. I often feel that the years I spent in the classroom were, and are destined to be, the best years of my life. I do not know if anything I will ever do again in my life will fill me with that sense of commitment, passion, and joy.

But what I do know, is that I have never stopped being passionate. I have never stopped being enthusiastic. I write what I want. How I want. I trust that it matters, and that my words will find people when they need them. I have trusted that that sense of commitment and pride would bring readers, without the necessity of my conforming to expectation. And you know what… in many ways that is true. People have noticed. People are slowly paying attention.

But…. do they have to? Do the lessons my students left on me, change….. if people do not read what I have to say? So perhaps….. I had an opus after all. Perhaps I will have one again.

Perhaps…. so will you.

Continue The Story

Previous: The Death of Heroes

Next Up: Harvard & The Bone Violin

Keep the Greasy Side Down, Amigos