There is No Middle Ground

I’m sitting in skybox 306 in the BOK center and the Broken Arrow band is playing Pomp and Circumstance as 1,137 Broken Arrow Seniors stream down eight aisles like ants who have discovered a donut on the sidewalk.

This isn’t anything like my graduation except it was also in a gymnasium, where I sat by Howard who leaned over and said, “Tata bud, I’ve gotta pee like a race horse,” while Lt. Governor George Nigh talked about Pink Floyd as if he knew a thing or two about popular music and social upheaval.

No, this graduation is different. There are more goosebumps and technology, a huge video screen, nosebleed seats and more ushers here than graduates at most high school commencements, along with an audience of 10,000.

I ask our sky box usher about the carafe on the counter behind us. “Is the coffee fresh?” She replies, “It’s cold.” I press her. “What day?”  “Don’t know.” “Well, I’m having a cup anyway. My nephew Jacob is speaking because he is whatever they call 1 of 1,137 these days…Valedictorian or something like that.” She smiles and says that’s wonderful and I sit down next to Karen and Ray.

Ray was stationed in Hawaii with the Marine Corp before he got married. He says that he kept Wakiki beach safe the whole time he was there.

He is 83 now and he stands up when the band plays the Marine Hymn during the “Salute to the Armed Forces,” and Karen gets misty like she doesn’t even do watching Hallmark movies. 

Ray sits down and I tell him his grandson Jacob is walking to the stage and Ray leans over and says folks back home in Texas don’t believe him when he tells them Jacob got his academic chops from his pops who went to college on the G.I. bill.

Eric and Johna ring the old Broken Arrow High School bell for the 109th time…tradition.

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The choir sings, “I’ll Always Remember You,” and I think of an email I read this morning soliciting names for my 40th high school reunion and I can only remember half of the names from the list of 1977 classmates. I’m sure at one time I knew them all. A song from Seals and Crofts dances in my brain:

Dreams, so they say, are for the fools, And they let ’em drift away, Peace, like the silent dove, Should be flyin’, but it’s only just begun…We may never pass this way again.

Noah Osborne, class president has a velvet singing voice and he speaks, eloquently, but he finishes simply singing…Amazing Grace How Sweet the Sound, and he stops before the line, I once was lost…and a choir of 10,000 sings…was blind but now I see.  

Jacob approaches the lectern, and he steals this moment like his Biblical namesake whose name in Hebrew means supplanter, the one who takes the birthright. His words are hopeful, and my goosebumps are filled with pride as I watch Jacob who looks a lot like his Father on the big screen, and sounds like his Mother, full of passion and grace.

Jacob tells this to 10,000…

Choose.

Be a hero or a villain.

There is no middle ground.

There are moments when you realize that we may never pass this way again, and that it’s okay, the world doesn’t depend on you, and our children are becoming the heroes and the villains, their dreams on the clouds of hope, silent doves taking flight.

God, make us wind underneath their wings and give us the good sense to get out of their way.

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The Eyes of a Teacher

Karen and I enjoy a good debate. Last Friday night, we sparred over the significance of eye contact with another human, or even our dog Abby, who when overwhelmed with too much eye contact will look away. We debated about whether looking someone in the eye is a sign of social dominance, friendliness, affirmation, or something else.

Karen argued that eye contact is generally a good thing and signifies that you are interested in the person you are looking at and in what that person is saying. If you look down or away from a person rather than meeting his or her gaze, you are considered to be distracted or uninterested. I countered that eye contact isn’t always a good thing. For instance, if my daughter is backpacking alone through the Balkan Mountains, she should not make eye contact with a man who would consider prolonged eye contact to be an advance toward intimacy or a bear who would consider a long stare as an invitation to dinner.

So, in some cultures and settings, it is considered more polite to have only brief eye contact, especially between people of different social registers, like a student and a teacher. But what do I know…I lost the debate.

The morning after I lost the debate, Karen was shopping for jalapeño jelly and veggies at the Farmer’s Market while making eye contact with everyone and she bumped into my kindergarten teacher, Mary Brock, her husband Leonard, and their daughter Dana.

Leonard Brock drove a school bus and remembers our children well, including Brandon, who was a very quiet lad. One day Leonard completed the after school bus route and he got up from his seat preparing to lock down the bus and noticed a blond head in the back. Brandon had fallen asleep. Leonard started up the bus and took Brandon home. Brandon apparently believed that he would get home eventually without asserting that right verbally. I can relate to my son sitting on a bus quietly going for a ride back to the bus barn because it’s probably what I would have done when I was five.

Karen and I marveled that Mary remembers one child among many after 52 years have passed. My memories at five-years old, of Mrs. Brock and that two room kindergarten in 1965, just a stones throw southwest of the old Limestone School, are remarkably few, and yet they are crystal clear.

I had a feeling like the world had suddenly become too big, like a big yellow bus I couldn’t get off and I was unable to look anyone in the eye for more than two seconds. The walk to school on Mission Drive was a pit bull obstacle course, although in hindsight, the dog I feared was a poodle with a Napoleon complex. Texas Instruments had not yet revolutionized calculators and I was still a year away from the fat pencil and Big Chief paper. So I performed complex math in my head, addition and subtraction, while diverting my gaze from anything that moved.

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Mary, Dana, and Leonard

One day I held up my hand for the first time. I said, “I know what 16 + 16 equals.” Mrs. Brock was perplexed and either didn’t know the answer or was stunned at my foray into full sentences and complex math so I said, “32,” and I sat back and stared at the cotton looping of my towel avoiding any further eye contact.

Karen mentioned to Mary, a blog post I wrote several years ago about Limestone School. Mary’s eyes twinkled and she said, “I remember your husband!” She told Karen, “He was quiet, shy, wouldn’t look me in the eye. But he was good at math!” 

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What is astounding is not that I remember any of that, but that Mary Brock remembers.

Would Mrs. Brock be surprised that the kid who was good at math is now an amateur poet?

Or did she already know, because that is what teachers do, help us become who we are? 

It’s the reason why teachers are so underpaid and yet so beloved.    

Karen came home and told me about their conversation and we marveled that we had just been talking about eye contact the previous evening. Mary Brock knew my five-year old identity well, and so I wrote this verse about how teachers help shape us into the selves that we do not yet own at that age, nor could we articulate our identity at that age. But we do have these moments hidden away that flash before us at times, moments that remind us how we got to be ourselves.                                          

One Plus One is 32

We were ring around the rosie kids

sitting on the floor indian style

doing math in our heads.

And if we were lucky we had a teacher

who drew from the well of fresh springs,

answers to questions never asked.

A teacher knows when our world is too big or too small,

and when we can’t seem to get off the bus,

because nobody else can see us,

lost in plain sight cradling the answer,

to a question we do not understand.

Our eyes meet, a hand raised,

a teacher knows, so we say it out loud.

We speak because she hears,

the peaceful and the angry

the lovely and the broken.

A teacher looks upon a child with unbroken gaze.

Her gaze is forever new in a child’s eyes,

 and she sees what others cannot,

that poetry is math

and math is poetry

and one plus one is 32.

“The highlights of my teaching career were my students, to see their eyes light up when they learned something – such as tying their shoes or whatever we were doing at the time – was such a reward. I wouldn’t change anything if I had my life to do over. I would be a teacher all over again.”  Mary Brock

In 1981, as an instructor at Limestone Elementary School, Mary Brock was named the Bartlesville Public School District’s first-ever Teacher of the Year. In 2011, she became part of the second class inducted into the Bartlesville Public School Foundation’s Educators Hall of Fame.

Now, with the help of Mrs. Smith, I shall become…

This morning, over coffee and my digital newspaper, I caught the image of a spider on my shirt at the upper right breast area and I brushed it off but it didn’t move. It was a Ralph Lauren horse logo. My shirt was inside out. This would have bothered me in my early years before I became myself. Now it’s just normal stuff. I do screwy stuff all the time and it’s ok. And it reminds me of a teacher who taught me it was ok and a friend from high school that I never really knew until I was grafted into Mrs. Smith’s Family Living class and we became a brother and sister.

My word was “Breech baby.” We were going around the room in our Family Living class taught by Mrs. Sue Smith and we each had a turn defining a word or phrase from a list of items that we were to be tested over. And I could think of nothing but a bikini. Even though I was able to define breech baby, I offered the alternative definition when my turn came. I said, “Breech baby – a beautiful girl in a bikini”. And it brought the house down.

It was a moment in the sanctuary that was her classroom. I thought little of it at the time. But later on in my life, I realized it was the moment I came of age. Not that I somehow magically changed and became another person, but the moment I realized I was ok. That people weren’t secretly making fun of me, and that people might even laugh with me, not at me, and that the standard definition isn’t always the right answer.

Mrs. Smith seemed to be everyone’s favorite teacher. There was something about her classroom that made it ok to be irreverent, silly, to wear your shirt inside out so that the spiders were in view, and to understand and know people beyond your tight circle of friends. I don’t remember ever speaking to Carol Lynn Creel before I became her “little brother” in Mrs. Smith’s class. She was beautiful and a pom girl and I was the golfer with unkempt hair and Sansa-belt slacks who sometimes wore a shirt inside out not on purpose. But somehow we became friends inside the refuge of Sue Smith’s class.

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I’ve had lot’s of great teachers. Some are hard and great and some are easy and great. Mrs. Smith was easy and great, not because she didn’t expect our best academically, she did. But rather, she was easy in the sense that you could become yourself without trying. She was in the business of teaching her students to become not some phony conception of what their friends wanted them to be, or their parents expected them to be or authority figures coerced them to be, but rather themselves.

Later in life I read Soren Kierkegaard’s quote, “Now with God’s help, I shall become myself,” and realize that God used angels and mentors and teachers to do this very thing.

Sue Smith was an angel, a mentor, and a teacher doing God’s bidding, in helping students become themselves. I felt at home in my skin inside her classroom. That’s why her students loved her so, because she made great cookies, and hosted great parties, and loved her husband Virgil, and she laughed at our bad jokes without prejudice, out loud and with great affection.

Mrs. Smith passed on a few months ago. She didn’t live long enough to accept her induction into the Bartlesville Public School Foundation Teacher Hall of Fame this week. Her daughter Cindy told us at the ceremony while accepting the award for her, that her Mom received a phone call informing her of the honor and upcoming induction, and she began to cry and told Cindy how much it meant to her.

I spoke with Mrs. Smith a few times after graduation, but I wish I had told her more about what she meant to me, about how she was respected and loved. I hope she knows I love her and that she was always in my hall of fame, an angel, a mentor, a lover of life and corny jokes, and even though she’s gone now, she lives in each of her students who were lucky enough to call her teacher.