The only work that matters, goes away. And only that which goes away, will stay.
This is the nut of my weekend, when I returned after more than thirty years to my elementary and junior high schools in upstate New York. My son’s college visits took me there for the first time since we moved away in 1984, and it felt important to go to them. As important as driving by the old house, the market, the church.
Until it became more important than any of those. The house I grew up in, after all, has been someone else’s house ever since we left it. It changed the locks, in every sense. I’ll never have reason or entitlement to enter it again, because it’s moved on. And of course, I left the church in nearly every way too — this one and all like it, long ago. None of these places are mine. They continued to move into their futures, without me.
The schools have moved on too, of course. But they remain mine. As public spaces — deeply charged with the lives we’ve lived in them, but still not ours — I had as much right to enter them yesterday as I did when I was seven, or ten, or twelve.
Public schools are everyone’s.
And they are no one’s. This is the note that was loudest.
I saw the band room where I became a singer. The very spot where the chorus teacher leaned across the piano and scared me into owning the sound I could make. We were one on one after school; I’d been cast in a big role in the musical; I didn’t think I could do it, scared senseless. Maybe she was too, afraid that rolling the dice on me was going to come up snake eyes, and the show was sunk. Or maybe she’d been swimming through junior high crazy for ten hours already that day, and it backed up on her and she let the frustration and exhaustion out.
In any case, she came up off the bench and across the upright piano at me, right up into my face. She let the edge into her voice and implored me for the tenth time to put some air behind it, to take a chance and really make a sound, to stop dithering and mewling. She ordered me to sing.
And shocked by the sudden grit from someone I was used to being gentle — by that sudden shift from teacher to frustrated human — I did. And I found my sound, the center from which I’ve sung ever since, the core from which every music I’ve made since has emanated.
There was the room, there was the spot. There was probably the same piano. New carpet and paint; new everything except the architectural bones that belie a sixty year-old building (once the state builds you a building, your going to live in it until it crumbles beneath you).
And no plaque, No X on the floor.
Here a life was transformed, in a throwaway moment between a tired, hungry teacher and a kid who doesn’t know what he is. No one remembers it but him. But from it came everything else — everyone he’s touched as a teacher and as a musician, a thousand people and a thousand more, a career in education and a life in music, both leaning into a future that believes that bread upon the waters is the only currency that will ever really spend.
Well, that wouldn’t have fit on a plaque, I guess.
Just as well. We would need so many plaques, were we to hang even one. Our schools’ walls would groan with their weight. There would be no room for the mission statements, for the safety protocols, for (still) the precious student paintings, the poems, the really good essays.
The whole of school is a private odyssey of unimaginable urgency. Every moment has the potential to lift, bend, or end some part of a future real person’s life.
Teacher, you don’t know which moment. You’ve already been part of hundreds of them, and you’ll never know.
I’ve got a dozen more stories I could tell right here, before my coffee’s done, but it’s better you think of your own right now. Mr. Foster. Mr. Gellar. Say their names, if only to yourself. Mrs. Earnshaw. Mr. Cowles. The teachers who might not remember you, but who made you what you are, took you down to the studs and built you again.
Mr. Back. Mrs. Barras. Mrs. Williams. Mr. Roth. Who showed up living their lives and offering slivers of themselves to you, so you could make up what yours might be. Showed you another way to be a grown up, not a parent but bearing traces of your first connection. The parents your parents couldn’t be.
Mr. Wilbur. My God, Mrs. Izzo. Mrs. Otis.
They touch us and make us, and then it’s spring and it’s hot and there’s final grades and shows and ceremonies and caps and gowns and we all escape into the summer, jettisoned into a pause, a punctuation, mercifully. (Year-round school misses this important part. We all need a space to breathe before the next sentence begins.)
And then we all start it again. None of us — students, much less teachers — know which moment mattered. The whole of the practice is putting up the harvest for later, storing it against the future. The students show up again on the first day in August, and so do we, both at the peak of readiness. The table overflows, the kitchen’s stifles with all the boiling, knives flying, everything sticky and sweet. We labor for the season we are offered, until the time to labor is past. We won’t be around when the jars get opened. When we find out what took.
I didn’t enter either school. That matters too. I couldn’t, in either sense. It was a Sunday. Locked up tight. And there won’t be a moment this morning to head back and sweet-talk a principal into letting me walk some halls, slam some lockers, reckon if the ropes in the gym were as high as I remember.
No, I just wandered the playgrounds and peeped in every window I could reach — not many, in these massive multistory buildings with their huge courtyards. Peeped and populated the rooms beneath their posters and under their tennis-ball-footed little chairs; populated them with who we were, what happened there, down to the bones.
The security footage they review today will be puzzling. Who is this guy casing our classrooms all Sunday afternoon, who we will never see again.
He’s just a guy who happened to come back. But you can’t come back. It’s the moment so many have tried to name.
So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.
Time held us green and dying, though we sang in our chains like the sea.
The Moving Finger writes; and, having writ,
My child has disappeared
Behind the schoolroom door. And should I live
To see his coming forth, a life away,
I know my hope, but do not know its form
Nor hope to know it.
Time to go wake up my son.
Boats against the current.
One response to “down to the bones”
Children picking up our bones
Will never know that these were once
As quick as foxes on the hill;
And that in autumn, when the grapes
Made sharp air sharper by their smell
These had a being, breathing frost;
And least will guess that with our bones
We left much more, left what still is
The look of things, left what we felt
At what we saw….
(from “A Postcard from the Volcano” W.S.)