I began the previous letter telling you to bind your proven friends to you with hoops of steel. It may not have made total sense. But, you may not remember a little story. Kristen Reynolds used to babysit you two nights a week while I taught college classes at night. She never let me pay her. When she went to Senior Prom, with Josh Kubitza who eventually married her, she went in a stunning custom-made Renaissance style dress. My mother made it for her, and would not take a dime. She said it was payment for all that she had done for her son. I was told that I gave the best of myself to other people’s children. But my own child… no longer speaks….. and other people’s children…. are sometimes the only reason that I smile.
So…. hoops of steel.
I miss you Always.
Harvard & The Bone Violin
The auditorium was dark. As in make it as black as the fire department will allow dark. The audience was captivated, for a moment, in the void’s silence, but soon, as people are apt to do when nervous, the ripplings of laughter and conversation began. Karla was in the sound booth with strict instructions: when you hear the clamor, hit the light. For me, the head coach of the Blue Ridge Speech & Debate team, this moment was huge. It was our first legitimate chance to take the Arizona State Title from River Valley High School. And it could not be done without a stellar One-Act Play entry. But I was going to be damned if I gave them the after school special they expected. C’mon….. you know me.
The blue spotlight shot a lightsaber to the far corner of the auditorium. It was almost painful to eyes accustomed to the darkness. Standing at the top of the stairs just off stage right, the dark dancing figure from Legend…. was playing something deep and somber on a violin in a minor key. Bathed in deep indigo light. And the auditorium fell into a hush as they listened.
When I was coaching, a Superb rating in the One-Act Play competition would earn your Speech & Debate team 20 points toward the State competition. River Valley High School was our nemesis. Not only was their coach a perfect love child between Michael Stipe and Smeagol, but he had the personality of an adder. His judges were fowl, and the stink on my teams ballots was pretty atrocious, for years, but as is often the case, proving that kind of behavior is a whole different story. In addition to my personal conflicts with their coach, his team was just…. well, so very Bullhead City. Imagine a place like that. Basically that and Holbrook are the armpits of Arizona. What do you do besides gamble and wait for alcoholism?
I know I am being harsh, but it was quite obvious. Laughlin, Bullhead, Mohave Valley, these are not happy places. Poverty abounds, and social ills are strikingly close to the surface. The River Valley Speech & Debate team was huge.
Now, that is a good thing. Speech & Debate programs, like many extra curricular activities, are dying all across America, and programs like these give kids hope. They give kids a way out. They give kids a future.
Nothing in what I am saying is meant to take that away from those kids; many the children of service staff working all hours in Nevada casinos. BUT having to compete with them, with a team that was nowhere near the size, but hands down more than equal in quality….. we could never win. My team had to win, every single event, to take State. River Valley could place anywhere in the top 4, per event, and still win, because they had so many entries. Therefore, I coached a lot of State Champions, but never the winning team.
Beating River Valley….. began in the woods.
I started teaching at Blue Ridge High School in Pinetop-Lakeside, Arizona as a student teacher from ASU in the fall of 2000. My wife’s family lived in Pinetop, and we moved into their camp trailer with a seven month old infant. I had been actively teaching, as a student, since the first day of class. Something that absolutely horrified me, but I was thankful to my mentor, Greg Schalow, for my entire career. Greg was an incredibly popular English teacher. He had been my wife’s teacher. He had taught multiple siblings, and was starting to see the children of his first students, as students. Everybody wanted to be in Mr. Schalow’s class. It made my first day….. terrifying.
The kids all started pouring in, most of them chatting with Greg as they walked into the room and took a seat. Hey, Mr. Schalow, how was your summer? Hey, Mr. Schalow, are we going to do that same neat project my sister got to do a couple of years ago? Hey, Mr. Schalow, saw you at Fool’s Hollow Lake this summer! Everyone knew this guy, and they all seemed happy to be arriving in his English class on the first day of school! Eventually the class arrived, had all taken seats, and Greg, who was a shorter man with a round and ready smile. He reminded me very much of a jovial version of Martin Freeman as Bilbo Baggins.
Greg had this perfect temperament. He never seemed flustered, never seemed to crack at all, and I often found myself wishing that I could be as even keeled as he was. He was a very easy man to like. So he stood up to greet the kids on the first day of school.
“Hello everyone, welcome to English Three, College Prep. My name is Greg Schalow, and this is Ryan Clark. He will be your teacher this term. Have a great class!” And he walked out.
And that is how I became a high school English teacher. In case you don’t know, student teaching is supposed to be six weeks of observation, six weeks of mutual co-teaching, six weeks of full teaching, and then a few weeks at the end to wrap up. Greg believed, and he was right, that every minute I was in a high school classroom and NOT teaching, would undermine my eventual presence in the room. He also believed in something else.
Greg Schalow never gave me one single pre-planned lesson, worksheet, or test. NOTHING. Again, he believed a reliance on pre-written drivel was one of the major problems with education. Teachers were not preparing their own lessons, lacing them with their own passions, and delivering them with feeling. They were babysitters handing out pre-generated worksheets. So, what did this actually look like? I never got to work later than 4 AM. I never left earlier than 6 PM. I stayed up all night designing the lessons I would be having to deliver, with no safety net the next day. And I have never stopped being thankful for it.
Friends, I was a power house in the classroom. And this is how you do it. You develop confidence. You teach people that their passion for kids and education is GOOD, and needs to be harnessed. And you NEVER, EVER provide short cuts. They will thank you in the end.
When a fellow teacher found out by October that teaching was just not right for her, Greg Schalow and my principle, still the best boss I have ever had in my life, Kevin Bortin, petitioned ASU to graduate me early. I had already been at the front of the class since day one. My co student teachers across Arizona were still in observation. I was graduated from ASU early, and immediately hired as the English Teacher to take over the classes. I only student taught….. for six weeks.
We had been taught at ASU to make ourselves necessary. That that was one of the best ways to keep a teaching job. So I went into my first staff meeting as a full teacher prepared to volunteer for anything. I wanted to make a solid impression. The first person who raised the concern of needing help was the Special Education teacher, who was also the Head Speech & Debate coach, she needed someone to help with the team. I volunteered. I had no idea what Speech & Debate even was. But I wanted to be essential.
Three years later, I was the head coach of the team and the head of the English Department. I was Rotary Teacher of the Month five times in seven years. And I was marching my Speech & Debate team through the woods….
Hunting for Elk Bones.
Between the mission and the mountain, I worked at Bookman’s in Mesa. It was a good job for what was becoming an intense school schedule. I wanted out. I was ready for my life. I had a wife and a new born son. I was carrying 21 credits a term and on the Dean’s List. But one of the really cool things about working at Bookman’s was I was starting to horde obscure reading material that I might use in future classes. One such find was a copy of The Paris Review. And if Blue Ridge High School was going to make a run for the State Title under my watch, we were going to do it with Doug Wright’s Lot 13: The Bone Violin. And that began in the woods.
We laughed at the image we must be, and the story that all the parents had been told. We needed bones for a play, so we were hunting them in the forest. It was the last thing you would think a bunch of debaters would be doing. That is until you realize we were all just Goonies. And then everything makes sense. I was going through a bitter divorce by this time in my career, and several of my debaters had become very close. They needed mentors, I needed something to hold on to. That first wave of kids is now thirty. They have kids. We are still very good friends. And I will always be thankful for those parents who trusted a big Goonie to take their kids into the woods, all over Arizona, and eventually…… to Boston.
And as Stephanie’s violin solo came to a close, the blue spotlight faded and as the auditorium faded slowly into darkness, a small child-size black casket became illuminated on stage. It was filled with dry ice and a red light bulb that Michael Cox could activate from a switch at his feet from behind his podium. The black casket’s crack lines illuminated in red, and the devilish fog was visible rolling over the stage. Surrounding the coffin were five music stands, and figures standing behind them obfuscated in shadow and half light. Michael stepped on the second switch, and the black light stationed on his music stand lit up, and his face illuminated as he called out the first lines of the play in the booming speed voice of a champion policy debater.
And Kristen Reynolds, my star Oratory performer, light on her music stand lit up her face in blue, as Michael’s, the Auctioneer, faded away. “I never wanted to play the violin. I don’t even like classical music!”
The five music stands were arranged in a half circle around the black coffin. Michael’s, the Auctioneer, stand was a black light. The mother and the father, played by Kristen and Josh Kubitza (Who eventually did end up married btw, and I tried to speak at their wedding at their request and just cried all the way through it) had stands illuminated with blue. The other two performers, J.J. Huggins, who eventually became a lawyer and was my star Lincoln Douglas Debater, played the doctor and ______ played the Violin Teacher, and both of their stands were illuminated with red. Each performer stood and delivered their lines from behind the music stand. The only lights in the house were controlled by the actors. And the only light was on the speaking head at the time…. and the smoking coffin.
“The Stones. Led Zeppelin. To me, that’s classic!” Josh would say as his light illuminated and Kristen’s went dark. But his faded, and her’s immediately came back on as she delivered the theme of the play. “Psychologists say we’re thrusting our dreams onto the shoulders of our children. Well I wanted to be a dog groomer.”
J.J. Huggins’ face lit up in red. “Nature or Nurture?”
Kristen’s face in blue. “No lie. A dog groomer!”
“The chicken or the egg,” the doctor continued.
And the Blue Ridge Speech & Debate team launched into what has got to be one of the more avaunt guard performances in Arizona 3A High School competition history. We wove a tale of a little boy, a protege, the best violin player the world had ever seen. A boy who ate, drank, slept, Violin, because that is what it takes. And in the end…. he was nothing more than that. Not a person. Not a heart. Not a soul. Not a child. He was nothing but the violin he played. So he transformed into the violin he was. A violin of twisted child bones, and his parents auctioned him off….. to recoup on their investment.
We took the Elk bones back to my house and we boiled them in vinegar to make them pliable. I had bought five plastic Halloween finger bone ink pens. We melted them with a lighter. We bent the rib bones to form the body. The joined vertebrae of the spine became the neck. The curved finger bones became the bridge, and we used twine to complete the strings. And we placed our bone violin in a coffin with dry ice and a red light-bulb.
And auctioned it off in Bullhead City to River Valley High School. Nobody had ever seen anything like it. I had once again redefined what kids were capable of. And the River Valley judges gave us an Excellent, not a Superb, and we took Second Place at State… by less than 10 points.
We went on to the be the first Speech & Debate team in Blue Ridge history to take our team to Harvard University to compete. We were front page news, in a small town with very few dreams. We were Goonies.
I got to be an Arizona Public High School Teacher for seven years. Being a teacher was a calling in my life. I did not choose to leave it behind. I have made friendships with some of those kids that will last until my last day. My ex-wife once said, “You give the very best of yourself to other people’s children, and we get the shit left over.”
She was probably right.
But I know where some of these kids would have ended up. And I know that maybe a Bone Violin, or a final Macbeth duel with Chain Saws in an English class, or a trip to Harvard, or seeing the Foo play a free concert at ASU after a presidential debate….. these are experiences that molded their lives. Changed their lives. Shaped their lives. And in a few ways, SAVED their lives. It is fitting. They SAVED mine.
Sometimes it makes me feel guilty.
Other times…. I realize they are the only reasons I see myself as any form of success.
For the Goonies…..
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