Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Queen of the Setting Sun

That's the third line from my high school anthem, where Maya goes now. I went to Back-to-School night there last night, and though I experienced much trepidation when visiting her/our middle school, I felt energized on the high school campus. I do have very fond memories from the place. I didn't exactly realize that until the class reunions, and now, spending a fair amount of time on campus and reliving it through Maya.

All of Maya's teachers are great, but I'll make special mention of her honors English teacher who is young and smart and funny and puts literature on a golden pedestal. I almost begged to audit his class for the year. I wanted to hear every discussion about the books they'd read. Of course, this is Maya's time to sort out and discuss and fall in love with it all, which will certainly happen in this class. She and I are going to read some of her assigned books together so we can talk about them. I say it's to discuss together, but really rereading these classics has been so joyful for me. I told you how I felt about recently rereading To Kill A Mockingbird. Now I'm reading The Great Gatsby and man, it's so good. Why was it not this good before? Oh, it was? My mind just hadn't busted through its young fog yet? Maya's teacher is a leading authority of Steinbeck's work; he gives lectures across the country so, whoa, cool. He's going to be great for her, just like my high school literature teacher was for me.

Did I tell you Maya made the freshman basketball team? That experience has been pretty magical in itself. I don't think you can beat the whole budding-into-adulthood-team-bonding experience. Maya's thrilled about it all and so far, the girls have been great. Maya's jockeying for the JV team already, which I heard from the head coach. He said that Maya told him straight up she wanted to be on JV. And I threw my head back and laughed. I told him, "Good for her." He nodded, "Yea, I liked that." The JV coach told Maya, "Someone's gonna be a leader of my team pretty soon." And Maya said, "Oh yes I will be." Haha, man, I love hearing about the bravery of my girls from other people.

The high school football games have already been seriously dramatic for Maya. She attended the first game of the year, her first game ever, and she was jazzed by the whole experience of rooting with her friends. Tragically, during the game one of our players was seriously hurt. His neck was accordioned in a tackle and he lay motionless on the field for 30 minutes as the paramedics took their time getting him carefully onto a gurney and rushed to the hospital. It's been three weeks now since it happened. He's still in ICU, his breathing tube just recently removed, and they aren't saying much about the long-term effects. That does not sound good, but we can only wish him the best of thoughts. The whole school rallies for him; this is obviously very impactful on the students. The USC football team and Pete Carroll have called him, encouraging him. Last week, Maya went to the football game again. It was a close one against a long-time rival, and right after the game, outside the stadium as kids filed out, a non-student was stabbed by another non-student. Cops were already there monitoring the exit of crowds and the kid was immediately arrested; the stabbed boy will make a full recovery. It was gang related, apparently. The two towns, ours and the opposing football teams', have always had a latin gang history. The cops and the school acted perfectly. Their presence already there during the incident, but still, another big-life/near-death incident for these kids to ponder and secretly stress about.

* * *

During Back-to-School night last night, the parents had to file into the auditorium to hear, I'm not sure what, because I jetted - ditched the entire meeting -- when after looking at the night's program I realized that my favorite teacher of all time, my literature teacher, still taught at the high school. By the light of my cell phone, I saw his name in the program and I ran out to find his class as the choir was singing a lovely rendition of the national anthem. When I found his class, I knew he'd be alone because all the good parents were in the auditorium still.

I remember him as a little hemmed up, soft-spoken but with a dry, tight humor. His neck was potmarked and his mouth smaller than most people's, so were his eyes actually, but he laughed easily. He was probably in his early 30's when he taught me and he wore brown corduroys and brown oxford shoes and buttoned-up plaid shirts and horn-rimmed glasses. His age was only revealed in his hair, which displayed a youthful wave. He probably was unaware of the good bounce to his hair. Most importantly, he loved literature and he displayed a thoughtful and kind examination of it that unlocked my own unique and thoughtful examination. He read things similarly to me, obviously on a more advanced, less foggy level, and he held out his hand to me to pull me deep into the full and meaningful view of literature; not always the straight-on perspective. I had him every year for English because I picked his classes as electives too, which included Mythology and Folk as Lit and Bible as Lit. He also ran a lunchtime ping pong club that I frequented. This ping pong club also ran a few games of pickup basketball in the park. I never missed those. He still runs the Ballroom Dance Club at the high school. See? He's perfect.

Last night, when I found his class, I spied into his room from the hall. He was standing over his podium, reviewing papers, and I felt a sudden crash of sadness. His hair was gone, shaved to a too-close buzz cut. And I was sad because he was older and I didn't want time to pass for him. I wanted him vibrant and perfect still. I said his name walking into the room. I was wearing my glasses which is an instant disguise for me. Hardly anyone recognizes me with glasses, even people I see regularly. Though his hair was gone, his face looked very much the same, effected only by a bit of a time sag. His attire, his glasses, his small features and potmarked neck, all the same. I said my name and his tiny mouth smiled in surprise. I hugged him though he wasn't really prepared for that and his voice jump started into an easy excitement. We reminisced fondly. I told him about Maya, and he shook his head. I looked at his hand for a wedding ring and saw none. The school rumor back in the day was that he lived with his parents, a man-child with never a love interest. He told me his parents had died a few years ago. I didn't ask about a wife or a partner. We did not have that type of relationship. I was sad again for him. He walked over to his class filing cabinet and without effort pulled out a file and sorted through some papers and 8x10 class photos. He pulled out the photo of my entire 10th grade Lit class circa 1983, and I laughed hard when I saw myself looking earnest, trying not to smile, trying to look scholarly but it was just a parody of that look. I was wearing a bandana on my head, 1940's style, and I was holding a ping pong paddle in my hand across my chest, pledge-like. He said, "See? You were a stand out." I knew not to say, "I was?" because when I was younger he had made me feel like all my comments had been insightful and ahha! worthy. He asked me what I did now. I said, "I'm in technology, but really I'm a writer." He said, "I knew it." Just then a parent came in with a student forcing us to end the reminiscing. I got his email address and went on to Maya's first period on a high, but mad I didn't get a chance to tell him, You were the best. You were my favorite of all time. You encouraged me to love things how I love them now. But I have his email and believe me, these sentiments will get to him soon enough.

I honestly believe that Maya will feel the same about her young and vibrant Steinbeck scholar. She has already cried to me about the ending of Of Mice and Men, and I'm already forever grateful to her teacher for that.

We’re in month one of high school, people. It’s going to be a profound ride as it was for most all of us.


Charlotte said...

This is great, from start to finish-- the story of your old teacher is especially moving. Thanks.

Sarah said...

Oh man. I toured my old high school last weekend as part of our 20th reunion. While we were upstairs I wandered back to my old English teachers classroom. I had him for English my sophomore and senior years. I paid homage at his door, but he's been gone for years. He moved out of state and went into administration...never, apparently, to teach another English class again. And yet, it was him that I credit for my now almost-finished PhD in English. He made me believe that I was a good thinker and writer. I've e-mailed him once or twice over the years, but I don't think that he gets it...that he had such a profound impact on my life.

madness rivera said...

Hi Charlotte, thank you.

It's crazy how high school is so critical a time. I'm looking at my child, my 14 year old baby, and thinking, go love the shit out of this, y'know? And Sarah, uh, wow on the (near) PhD. That's phenomenal.

Madame One Tree said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Madame One Tree said...

(rats. I hate it when I can't spell)

Mrs. Nelson, (first grade) and Mrs. Levi(high school) were the ones for me. They assured me that my mind could fly above the socio-economic, racial discordance that was life when I was young,and fly I did. I will never, ever forget them.

Your recounting is most beautiful.

4:34 PM

Marigoldie said...

To siiiir...with looooove! (Seriously, I love that song and that's what this makes me think of.) I felt this in my gut when I read it. Telling him in writing is better anyway -- you can show him how much ass you kick.

Go high school baller Maya!

And what I wouldn't give for a do-over in which I cared about anything in high school other than Cute Boys, Baseball and Rock & Roll.

Will you keep us posted on the reading list so we can follow too? Haven't read Gatsby in a while.

nola said...

love this post

madness rivera said...

Of course Marigoldie! Gatsby was my own pick. She just finished Of Mice and Men, stated, but I heard Siddhartha! and Great Expectations are coming. I never read GE actually and I remember Siddharta being a bit life changing at the time for me. We'll see if that stands up to the test of time. The best part about reading these classics is how these books now effect me so differently. Like in To Kill A Mockingbird, I wanted to be Scout so badly, but this time around I wanted to be Atticus so badly. It's like getting a 3D perspective on the book. It so great.

nec said...

Thanks for making me cry... :o) This was such a moving story. I'm so glad that you are able to tell your teacher what an impact he had on you. I think teachers really need to hear that from their former students.

Yeah for Maya!! She sounds like she will be a true leader - good for her!

DJ said...

I was blessed with two amazing economics teachers one after another. Made a boring subject political and intricate and fascinating, expected too much of me and weren't shy in showing their disappointment if I let them down. Loved 'em both. Still love economics.

Marigoldie said...

P.S. I love "Queen of the Setting Sun." I wanna be that.

Rebel Girl said...


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