May 2, 2017

May 2, 2017
Mary with collage and clutter

Sunday, October 5, 2014

Autumn

Last night, Bryan and Joe came over for dinner. It was a lovely evening. Ann grilled salmon and peaches, and we all shared stories since the last time we saw each other, celebrating Bryan and Joe's wedding. When we moved onto the issue of race in America, Joe told his own interesting experience with race.

Joe grew up in Australia to parents who had migrated from Lebanon. The family was Catholic Lebanese, which is different religiously and socio-econonically than Muslim Lebanese, both in Australia and in Lebanon. In Australia, Lebanese are not considered white (though Catholic Lebanese are privileged), so in America Joe has had to get used to the idea that Americans see him as white, though he does not see himself that way.

At the end of the evening, when Bryan and Joe had cleared the table (bless their hearts) and headed a few blocks away to pick up their Car2Go, I just felt lucky. In 1990, Bryan was in my freshman English class at the first school where I taught, Greenhill School in Dallas, Texas.

When as an adult Bryan planned to move from the East Coast to Seattle for graduate school, he saw Christine, who had been the English Department Chair at Greenhill, and she told him that I live in Seattle, so he called, and we see one another from time to time now.

As a high school freshman, Bryan was skinny with long curly brain hair. Now he's muscled, shaves his head, and sports the unshaven look popular on men's faces these days. He's still bright and kind with the same lovely green eyes, but he's closer to forty than fifteen now.

Seeing Bryan is such a gift. Seven years ago, after 27 years in education, I had to leave my career because two tumors, surgery and radiation left me with disabilities that made work in the schools impossible. I had overworked as a teacher, and now there's some relief in getting a second chance at the way I live my life. I tell myself that this time I will be healthy. I will take care of myself. I will not submit to what Thomas Merton called "the contemporary violence which is overwork." Though there's a gift in this new chance, there's still the heart-ache of having left a profession, the students and colleagues, I loved.

Though I'm excited about my new career as a therapist for people with life-changing health conditions, I miss teaching, and I love connecting with previous students. Recently, I've also heard from Yessica, who was a freshman in my high school English class in 200, the year I had to leave early for brain surgery. Yessica was disillusioned with school when I met her: Now she's graduated from college, has a baby girl, and is applying to law schools.

I've also heard from Erica, who is now a mother and a lawyer, whom I taught in Issaquah, WA, in the 1990s. Erica contacted me via Facebook after seeing me on another previous student's page. (Some people avoid Facebook like they avoid addictive substances, and some struggle to give it up or at least pause for Lent. Not me. I love it for the way it connects me with people and places from my past.)

In April, Ann and I visited our previous student Chancey, whom we taught in the 1990s and who is now an inspiring educator herself in Minnesota. And we visited Angela, whom I taught in 1988 in Dallas. I also worked with Andy, the bright daughter of my previous student Stephanie, on her scholarship application essays. And in March, our previous student Sara, another from the 1990s, came to my fiftieth birthday party and was voted most popular among all these strangers. (Okay, we didn't really vote, but the vote wasn't necessary: she was the clear winner.)

The list goes on, and I'm so glad it does. I love hearing from these previous students. A couple of years ago, my previous student Alan--another from the nineties-- contacted me with Shakespearean lines which I have always found amusing for their exaggerated sentimentalism:

Then can I grieve at grievances foregone, 
And heavily from woe to woe tell o'er 
The sad account of fore-bemoaned moan, 
Which I new pay as if not paid before. 

How great is that? He connected with these lines from sophomore English after twenty years! That does my heart good.

Bryan has triggered in me this gratitude, and perhaps I'm also thinking so much about my previous students because it's fall, the new year for students and their teachers, for most of my life a time of beginnings more than endings.

Of course, there were students I was unable to reach, and I think of them as well. For example, I had another student, a sophomore, in the 1990s who had talked with me about the abuse he had experienced at home. He then dropped out of school. A few years later I saw him on a busy street corner, begging for money so that he could get high on his 21st birthday. The next time I saw him, this time already high, he yelled out across a crowd at me, "Hey, I know you! I never forget a face…" And then the last two times I saw him, clean and scrubbed, walking briskly to college with his classmates, sharing with me the story of becoming clean and sober and now loving school again.

I had always ached for the students I couldn't reach--I still do--but this student taught me some humility that gave me peace: I was not the end for him. I'm sure that there is a variety of other stories, some happy and most not.

Fall is a hopeful time of beginnings for students and teachers, but it's a time of melancholy for so many poets, and I connect to their melancholy, too. I feel the ache of not teaching now.  I think of all those students I'll never get to know, of all the inspiring teachers I'll never get to work with. I, too, " can... grieve at grievances foregone,  / And heavily from woe to woe tell o'er  / The sad account of fore-bemoaned moan,  / Which I new pay as if not paid before."

One of my favorite fall poems is ee cummings' a (l , which I remember in this way:

a (l
ea
af 
fa
l
l
s)
l
lone 
l
iness

I remember putting this on the overhead (back in the day of overheads) and my student Roger saying, "Wait. Put that back." The poem takes a minute to take in: I imagine it as a visual of a leaf falling, all the ones, l's, and i's, reflecting the loneliness of a dying leaf. 

The poem reminds me of a cartoon which is a poem: young Snoopy watches across several panels as a leaf falls. He looks at the fallen leaf and puts his paw on it. He looks up and thinks, "I killed it." 

And of course there's more Shakespeare, who sees in the bare trees his aging body and the closing of his life:
That time of year thou mayst in me behold
When yellow leaves, or none, or few, do hang
Upon those boughs which shake against the cold,
Bare ruined choirs, where late the sweet birds sang.
In me thou see’st the twilight of such day
As after sunset fadeth in the west;
Which by and by black night doth take away,
Death’s second self, that seals up all in rest.
In me thou see’st the glowing of such fire,
That on the ashes of his youth doth lie,
As the deathbed whereon it must expire,
Consumed with that which it was nourished by.
   This thou perceiv’st, which makes thy love more strong,
   To love that well which thou must leave ere long.
(No, I don't believe the happyish ending either.) However, there is another side to fall that I do believe. The Romantic poet Keats captures fall's beauty in his lovely "Ode to Autumn", a poem of images with the only interpretive lines: 
Where are the songs of Spring? Ay, where are they? 
Think not of them, thou hast thy music too,—
Why "autumn," not fall? Last year on NPR, I heard that leaves do not actually fall, as the season's title suggests, but they have "abscission cells", a word with the same root as scissors, meaning the cells are designed, like scissor, to make a cut. So the leaves do not fall. When the time is right, the tree cuts them loose, or the leaves' scissors cut themselves loose, depending on whether you think the scissors belong to the leaf or the tree, and the leaf is released from a life that is no longer its natural place in the universe. 

I love this graceful acceptance of the natural order of life, so henceforth I will call this season the more poetic "Autumn" (from the French, of course) instead of "fall." 

Perhaps because my tumors and disabilities, I feel myself entering the fall of my life at the young age of fifty. It's an early fall for me: a lovely time with the ache of loss and the awareness of my own coming winter but also fond memories of the spring and summer of my life and love for this time in the year and in my life, a time of ripening apples and golden light angling across the trees their limbs like paint brushes, green at the trunk, reds and yellows toward the ends, a reminder of the cold to come, and beautiful in this moment. 

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