Fire Starter

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A good teacher is like a candle – it consumes itself to light the way for others.  ~Author Unknown

The tardy bell buzzed as if somewhere in the educational firmament a student contestant had incorrectly answered a $ 100 question.   It was the autumn of my junior year of high school and according to my older brother, the elective class – Creative Writing, would deliver an easy A for students who could string together a few coherent sentences and devour five novels of their own choosing over the course of the semester. He simply referred to it as “Creative Cake”.

The distorted grading curve of this class was not a well-kept secret and the faculty mistakenly perceived its popularity to be a function of its ancient educator, Mrs R.  I surveyed the crowded class – an entire back row was filled with football players – joking and shifting awkwardly in desks that could barely withstand their weight.  Unlike other classes that tended to filter students into a hierarchy of ability – electives did not seem to distinguish between those who were serious about English and those who spoke and wrote it as a second language.

Our teacher, Mrs. R, was missing in action.  She was well past her educational buy/sell date and was playing out her final years teaching a few elective courses.  She was a slow-moving creature whose sentimental detours and sepia fascination with the past, all but ensured that we would could pass notes and do homework while she waxed poetically about the Hemmingway or Melville.

Our classroom door opened and a plain young woman with hornrimmed glasses replete with thick celluloid frames moved to the closet.  Removing her overcoat (it was 90 degrees outside), she advanced quickly to the board and proceeded to decisively inscribe her name in chalk: Miss S – Creative Writing. A great panic swept the room as we realized that our sloth-like octogenarian with the benevolent grading curve had been relieved of duty by someone who appeared to be a refugee from the TV show, “Leave It To Beaver.”

She turned and stared at the befuddled knot of muscles, hair, dolphin shorts and surfer tee shirts.  “Je sais, mais une liberté et c’est la liberté de l’esprit.” We hesitated, hoping that she was the new French teacher lost and asking for directions.

She smiled and translated  “I know but one freedom, and that is the freedom of the mind. Ladies and gentleman that was written by Antoine de Saint-Expury, the author of The Little Prince.”

Having established her utter and complete intellectual prowess, this Bodleian Library refugee gathered up our mongrel band of misfits — verbally challenged and uninspired teens and marched us through a millennium of creative writers who had succeeded in transforming their pens into instruments of social and political change.

Miss S would scold us in French and quote the great writers like an evangelist might conjure scripture.  I once cut class and attempted to lie my way into avoiding detention.  She stared at me expressionless – enjoying my grand fabrication.  “ Facts and truth really do not have much to do with each other, do they Michael.  Wasn’t that William Faulkner brilliant?  Why he could have been your older brother the way he seems to understand how your devious mind works.”  She was particularly fond of Faulkner -a writer I found tedious.  She seemed to know this and would barrage me with his verse.  Others might recieve lessons from Steinbeck or Kerouac.  Why belittle me with this pedantic Southern bore?

She was blunt, unadorned and as plain as a museum curator. She chose long conservative dresses and a signature rain- coat irrespective of the temperature.  It was as if a seam in time had opened from the 1950s where she had been dispatched to ignite creativity in a flagging generation that could no longer see the rich garden of verse that lay before them like an endless fertile plain. She opened our eyes to writers who had moved before us like great shadows across the American landscape.

“ Oh, men do change.” she once confided to the female members of the class, “and change comes like a little wind that ruffles the curtains at dawn, and it comes like the stealthy perfume of wildflowers hidden in the grass. John Steinbeck knew men…He understood that men evolve.”  The girls would sigh and then give us each a dirty look seeing us for what we were – a less developed species that could only transform with time and rigorous cultivation.

It was during that autumn of 1977 that my passion for English Literature was ignited like a grass fire. Over the course of the semester, we became poets, writers of mystical Haiku, authors of our own epitaphs and O’Henry novelists attempting to chronicle our sacred and profane tales of suburban life. She was our captain and like a Dead Poets Society, we were bound in leather and verse.

Each night, I would watch Miss S climb into her ’68 Ford Galaxy, the kind of vehicle that is never purchased but handed down until the day it simply dies.  She would disappear presumably into a spinster’s life of flickering televisions, 60 watt bulbs, poorly written papers and pop quizzes.  Our curiosity about our leader was never satisfied.  She was a shadow that one would easily pass by without understanding the riches that hid beneath its simple veneer.  She had no partner choosing to live with her adult brother and her parents.  She deflected all attempts to color in the bland lines of her own life.  It was as if we were her reason to exist.

A year later, I would win an award for English at our senior honors assembly.  I saw her later and she explained her preoccupation with Faulkner.  ” I will not use Faulkner on just anyone, Michael. You are intelligent enough to understand what he is trying to say.” The fire was now a conflagration that carried into college and a richer journey into the litturgy of man.  I would occasionally stop by the high school and she would be there – chirping in French and leavening an otherwise boring 5th period class with humor and perspective. 

It would be years later that my mother would call me across 500 miles to share tragic news. “Hon, there was a double homicide/suicide in an adjacent town.  Apparently, it was Miss S’ brother – he killed his parents and then homself.  I guess all these years she had been caring for her elderly parents and her brother who suffered from severe schizophrenia.  She found them all – – dead.  I am so, so sorry.  I know you were close to her.”

I remember sitting in that numb, angry, out of body purgatory where it is impossible to wrap your mind around senseless tragedy.  I could not understand a cosmos where dark deeds were allowed to reach in and savage such an innocent light.

She never did return to our school and vanished like so many of life’s refugees of tragedy.  I’d like to think she found a small town, nestled in a safe, cradled valley filled with kind neighbors who delivered food in times of trouble and who’d check in on you every so often just to be certain that everything is fine.  I imagine her starting another fire in the mind of some awkward teen, spoon-feeding him morsels of Faulkner and Hemmingway.

I stare out my window.  I am now gray and have seen the harder edges of life.  I cannot recall who won the 1977 Superbowl, World Series, NBA Finals or Daytona 500.  I cannot recall who held key public offices or even who appeared on the cover of Time Magazine.  But I can remember that teacher.  I see her face every day and I can hear her lilting voice as she perfumes the room with perfect French. I imagine every aspect of her intelligent and sympathetic countenance.  I hear her chastise me, “ Michael!” in exaggerated disappointment as I fail to answer a question.  And then I wait – – for a quote – a golden nugget harvested from the deep river of Harper Lee, or the gentle streams of William Shakespeare.

I like to think she is out there – – with that silly raincoat and those horn-rimmed, docent glasses.  Somewhere she is smiling at a student and quoting De Exupery. 

“If you want to build a ship, don’t drum up people to collect wood and don’t assign them tasks and work, but rather teach them to long for the endless immensity of the sea.”

To The Class of 2009

To The Class of 2009 

Education is an admirable thing, but it is well to remember from time to time that nothing worth knowing can be taught.” ~Oscar Wilde

Graduation is nearly upon us and another litter of free-range kids will be released into the wild to hopefully live and prosper.  Graduation ceremonies are critical passages for students, parents, family and friends.  It is a time to feel incredibly proud and terribly old as another milestone is kicked over like a garden gnome in the backyard of life. 

We are christening human vessels as they leave the safety of our ports on a sacred mission to become adults and societal change agents.  Class of ’09, I’d like to add my two cents.  After all, this is the generation that will likely be running the country when I am calling for my assisted living caregiver because I am concerned that the Three Stooges are hiding under my bed.

These young, sturdy ships are going to sea in a force ten gale – a time of global, domestic, economic and social upheaval – it’s the 1930’s minus the 1920’s plus the 1960’s minus the 1970’s.  Let’s see, that would calculate to, just a second, let me pull out the old HP — hmm, the answer is zero with only American Idol and Desperate Housewives left over.  Actually, the calculus of predicting the path of this perfect storm is too much for my tiny brain.  But, as this armada of young men and women slides into the water to sail to new ports of higher education or employment, I offer this advice from a seasoned sailor.  Don’t mind my scars, eye patch and peg leg.  They are badges of honor – earned in life’s battles or incurred at one of several Grateful Dead concerts. I offer as my graduation gift, a tapestry of quotes and ideas that have influenced my life.  These nuggets were mined through hard labor in the quarries of life or handed down to me as by 19th, 20th and 21st century writers, leaders, philosophers, gadflys, comedians and state troopers.

“Class of 2009, you stand before us today as explorers ready to navigate the vast, unfathomable world of mankind. Just remember that the “no one can make you feel inferior without your consent” [1] and years from now, you will return to your high school reunion and say to yourself, “I can’t believe I let that jerk make me feel bad about myself”

Understand you know less about people than you think. “The only normal people you know are the people you do not know very well.” [2] As you go out into the world, remember everyone lives in a house filled with bright drawing rooms for their public face and dark closets where they hide their private dysfunction. Your task in life is to be the same person always – for the more you attempt to project a different person than you see yourself to be, the harder it will be to one day find your true self or pants that will fit you. Your goal in life is not to get ahead of the other guy, but get ahead of yourself – unless you are running in flip-flops. Great people understand they only can control how they react to life, not control it.  Always ask about the benefits plan and if a first year bonus is guaranteed.

“If you want to make God laugh, tell him about your plans.”[3] My advice is install a screen saver on your computer that says “ Dear (your name), I won’t be needing you today, Love, God. “  For you atheists, agnostics and armchair cynics, there is a God, and she does not need your help.  There are no burning bushes, only people who decide to make a difference and of course, Redsox fans.

When you decide to take on a task and later when you go into the workforce, understand that “if you aren’t fired with enthusiasm, you will be fired with enthusiasm.”[4] You have to become knowledge workers as you are competing with a flat, hot crowded world of two billion peers who want your job and believe it is time that you wait on their table and rake their leaves.  Most of those competing with you did not spend last night watching old re-runs of Jackass, texting friends, twittering, ichatting or Facebooking.  They were doing math and science and actually liking it. They are intellectually hungry, well trained and eat fewer calories in a day than many of you eat in a meal.

Everyone you meet in life is significant and is a merely a different model manufactured on the same spiritual assembly line.  Everyone deserves your attention and respect – especially your art teacher. Smile and say hello to everyone. People matter and their lives matter.  Don’t allow yourself to dehumanize anyone.  Every man, woman or child’s death diminishes you whether it is in Danbury or Darfur. Look everyone in the eye and have a firm handshake. Learn the names of the people that pick up your trash, serve you food, drive your bus, clean your living areas, collect your tolls and serve your community.  “What is a city but its people”[5]

Do not borrow class notes from anyone who watches the View or has suffered at least four concussions. Don’t sell yourself short.  A person who doubts herself/himself is “like a man who would enlist in the ranks of his enemies and bear arms against himself. He makes his failure certain by himself being the first person to be convinced of it.”[6]

Learn about life and cultures outside America.  “To first understand the world, you must understand a place like Mississippi.”[7]We are 300M Americans on a planet of 6B people.  Be proud to be American and don’t feel the need to apologize for who we are when you travel abroad.  Don’t think less of America, just think of it less of the time. Seek to understand before being understood. Do not be one of the 92% of Americans who does not possess a passport and has not been abroad.  Visit a Muslim country.  Go to China.  Study the teachings of all the great prophets.  Visit Arlington Cemetery and never lose respect for our military.  Go to John Lennon’s grave and never lose respect for peacemakers. Never kiss a cannibal. Use Purell – often.

Remember that we are not driving the celestial car and that our best intentions and self-will often unintentionally take us into bad neighborhoods.  Be careful what you wish for.  Pray for courage and wisdom to effectively play the cards you are dealt and don’t whine about getting a poor hand – you can always bluff.  Don’t catastrophize your circumstances.  The worst-case scenario is that you become Paula Abdul and that is highly unlikely.

Have fun and remember these are the best years of your lives.  “It is indeed ironic that we spend our school days yearning to graduate and our remaining days waxing nostalgic about our school days.”[8]“At some point, your broad mind and narrow waist will begin changing places”[9]and the dreaded day will arrive where you will become your parents and they will become your children. Do not drink alcohol before 6pm and never order any drink called a “ Snake Bite”.

The very worst sin of all is self-centered fear.  Self-centered fear opens the Pandora’s box of all of our character defects causing one to compromise their true character by lying, cheating, stealing or voting Republican purely out of self interest. Be kind.  Say “I am sorry” and mean it.  Never gamble your sophomore year semester’s spending money in a Lake Tahoe casino. Look for ways to serve others and in losing yourself in service, you will become a person who is more beautiful and capable than your wildest imagination could have dreamed.  You are a super hero whose only kryptonite is self-doubt and a poor eating habits.  Do not sign up for any college class before 11am.

Read a translated book written by an author from a foreign country.  Study history – it is a distant mirror reflecting ourselves.  Loathe war but support our troops.  Vote with your heart, not your pocket book.  Sleep under the stars but use a mosquito net.  Never try to outrun the police in a Ford Granada. 

And finally, “never, ever hire an accountant named Frenchie”[10]or an investment advisor named Bernie.

Good luck and Godspeed

[1]  Eleanor Roosevelt


[2]  Oscar Wilde

[3]  Woody Allen

[4]  Vince Lombardi

[5]  William Shakespeare

[6]  Ambrose Bierce

[7]  William Faulkner

[8]  Isabel Wilson

[9]  Winston Churchill

[10] Woody Allen