Morning Thanks

Garrison Keillor once said we'd all be better off if we all started the day by giving thanks for just one thing. I'll try.

Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Bob and the Rookie

Bob, the gymnast, sat right in front, a kid with Popeye's powerful forearms and a saint's pale blue eyes. I'd never known a gymnast before. In my previous life as a high school student, I'd known cocky shortstops, thick-headed defensive tackles, thoroughbred point guards, and track stars of every shape and size. But I'd never taught in a big city high school, never even really been in one, a school big enough to sport a gymnastic team.

In many ways, back then, I was a rookie, growing up as I had in the loving security of a Midwestern small town, where I had only one friend who ever talked back to his father, where I'd never seen my parents fight, if in fact they ever did. I'd seen drunks, but they were all fun-loving kids with their fingers wrapped around shortie Pabsts. I'd read about bad things, but my Christian home hadn't really prepared me for the lives some people live, day in and day out.

One day after school this same Bob came up to me and told me that he didn't have a paper finished. He was a nice kid, quiet and unassuming, never bold.

“What’s the deal?” I said. "You need another day or two?"

He looked down at the books he had pinned up against his chest. "I don’t know if I can."

He’d already passed a test or two, but he’d never struck me as a kid who couldn’t do the work.

“So when can you get it in?” I asked him. “Name a day.”

He eyes searched the rug as if there were some answer down there folded up in a note. But once I saw the way his mouth tightened, his teeth down over his bottom lip, I knew there was more to the story. The big kid--the kid with the arms and the shoulders, the kid who wore his shirtsleeves rolled up above the swell of his biceps--that kid cried.

“I can’t get anything done at home,” he told me. “I just can’t.”

“What’s the matter?” I said.

He brought his hands up to his eyes. "My folks," he said. “They’re on each other’s cases all the time, and I just can’t take it.”

We’d never talked about such things in my college English methods class.

“Every night—every night it goes on,” he said, “and if I go away I can’t get my work done. I don’t know what to do.”

I reached for Kleenex. Even now, forty years later, I don’t remember another guy crying like Bob did—eyes flaming red and bruised by the way his hands constantly pushed at them, as if to stanch what, it seemed, had to flow.

"It’s okay," I said . "I understand—I understand.” That was a lie, but I didn't know what else to say.

“All my classes,” he said, “every one of them—they’re all just falling apart. It’s just crazy—everything’s just crazy.”

"Listen,"I said. "You get that paper in whenever you can, all right? I understand. I put my arm on his shoulder because it seemed so abundantly right.

When he left that afternoon, I felt as if I had something to write home about--how the world was an awful place, and how I really didn't understand the darkness so well as I did now that I was there, in the city.

A day or two later I met one of the counselors coming up the walk toward the English building, rocking on his toes the way he always did, rolling along that way, as if simply a smile weren't enough to show the need for happiness.

“Schaap,” he said, “this kid—Bob Ranzig—you got him, right?—short guy?—muscular?”

“Sure,” I said. "I ought to talk to you about him--"

"I know,” he said. "I know it all." He turned his head away and looked down at the cracks in the sidewalk as if what he had to say wasn't going to be easy. "You're a saint—you know that? All you small-towners Midwesterners are such sweethearts.” Then he giggled, his head snapping back a 1itt1e. "He pulled one over on you the other day. He’s been pulling that stunt all the years he's been here, and I've been telling him that he can’t do it anymore. It’s a crutch, and he’s got to learn to live with who he is.”

“Are you sure?” I said.

"Don't ever let him by like that again. You want to help the kid?—then don't let him pull that stunt. I don’t care what he's got at home, he can’t get by pulling that song-and-dance. He’s using it, and he can’t.”

I felt green, perfectly green.

“You’re not the only one,” he told me, and then he put his hand on my shoulder, just as I had done two days before with a teary gymnast.

If teaching means giving and loving, then one doesn't teach without trust, and trust is always risky. You get beat up, and sometimes you get burned. Lord knows, you get deceived.

But you keep giving--or else, most likely, you quit. Those of us who stay in this profession likely stay rookies. Even though the darkness is inescapable, most teachers hold on to hope. I don't think one can teach any other way.

But then, I don't think one can live any other way. Finally, even for an old Calvinist, there's got to be more to write home about than darkness.

1 comment:

Kell said...

Hey! Thanks for this post - Just so you feel better, I would have believed that kid too - but that's just how I am.

I went through a similar situation with my step-daughter (and although I'm a lot smarter than I used to be regarding her "versions" of reality, I still feel a little sad for her at times.

All this to say, I stopped in to tell you how much I enjoy your writing - and to keep up the good work. Hope to see you at some Calvin festival in the future.