I stand, softening
in the glows of desert’s
setting sun, sip the fading
ambers in shadows
that fall across
the stubble-pocked hills.
Across the way, the promises
hidden in tomorrow effervesce,
champagne bubbles in the breeze.
- Ann Metlay
I can pull up the memories. Miss Cook, my kindergarten teacher who produced a musical reviews with my kindergarten class of the Gay Nineties. I was a beautiful doll in a black and white striped dress. Costumes, music, acting—she did it all with five-year-olds. Miss Lamb, my third grade teacher. She was ancient, my mother’s teacher before me. Teaching had been her whole life, love poured out of her. We all felt so special to be in her presence. Mrs. Preston was the “too outspoken teacher without tenure.” She brought biology alive in ways it continues to live, 60 years later. Mr. Wright dropped out of school at 15 to enter journalism, returned to train himself so he could each the future generation what he knew. My writing has always shone because he cared, and my writing has been my foundation.
Teaching was always a thankless career. One designed, once, for spinsters and young ladies still looking for husbands. One could not devote all they needed to teaching and have any kind of life on the side. I lived as a teacher for well over 40 years. It was intense. Nothing else could happen during the hours I presided over my motley students. I poured everything I was into that classroom seven straight hours. Bathroom breaks, lunch periods were almost non-existent day after day. And then there was the prep all evening every evening.
I fought over the necessity of the breaks in the school year. Christmas week, spring break, summers. For me that was when I had a few hours of returning to sanity, of fulfilling the needs of everyone else in my life.
I was “on” all day every day with those students. I constantly reinvented myself, reinvented my entire curriculum in order to find the right approach to teach Johnny or Betty. And I felt so proud each year when I looked at the results of the intense work I had done. Johnny had developed new skills in areas we had felt were impossible for him. Betty had learned how to get along with others, blossomed into a beautiful flower. I had assisted in the transformation.
Today our educational system has been abused and kicked around. Teachers are asked to do more and more for more and more students under increasingly difficult circumstances. Monies cut. Students fractured. Knowledge to be passed on has multiplied exponentially. Expectations for what a teacher must do become increasingly unrealistic.
Homeschooling seems for some to be the panacea. Schools are seen as too broken to meet the needs of our own child. Those who remain with the schools ask for even more dedication from the teachers. And they are expected to do it with more and more limited funds. More and more mandates, tests, individualized programs.
I see teaching as one of the most important careers out there. Teachers are to take the raw material offered by children and mold them into the citizens of tomorrow. When they cannot do their jobs, our entire society collapses.
Thank you, teachers! Your jobs are thankless. Your expectations are boundless. Your support shrinks, yet you keep coming back to do it again.
Ten years ago I left Sterling Elementary in Sterling, Virginia, a suburban school outside Washington DC. We had a multi-cultural population with many challenges. I do not know a more dedicated group of professionals. Through Facebook, I have continued to follow these friends. They continue to plug away at their profession as requirements become more demanding, and fun1ding does not exist. These are heroes! We depend o them to work their miracles. Thank you
Remembering This Horrific Event, Five Years Later
Patriot's Day, A Memoir
The parrot tulips popped open their buds open that morning. Their riot of color mocked the clouds overhead, gathering together in damp gray wetness. It was mid-April in the late eighties. At that time I lived in Newton Centre with my ten-year-old son Grischa, struggling with me to get out of the house so he could join his circle of friends gathering for the annual Boston marathon, and my four-year old son, who shrunk behind me, already anticipating, with trepidation, the possible pops and snaps the gathering marathon crowd might produce.
My neighbor, Karen, opened my back door and her voice resounded through our Tudor house, “I have enough lemonade for your boys, and for Jenny. Just pack some food. Could you throw in a sandwich for my daughter? She likes the way you make chicken salad with the crunch of water chestnuts.”
Each year I watched the race’s start in Hopkinton. I marveled at how long it took to clear all the runners out of the tiny town where this race began. The population there swelled by thousands as many ordinary people rose to the challenge of a 26 mile run. Fifteen minutes after the front-runners skipped past the starting line, people armed with a sweat rag and a bottle of water continued to stream out onto the pavement to begin this test of their own endurance.
Patriot’s Day became my favorite day of the year, the ten years we lived in Massachusetts. Boston took its role in the march toward independence from Britain very seriously. Where would the United States be without Paul Revere’s ride out to Lexington and Concord, the showdown on the North Bridge, and the ensuing battles on the road back towards the ammunition Boston’s Minutemen, nameless heroes fought to protect? Boson area schools taught Longfellow’s poem seriously, and Patriot’s Day, falling on the Monday closest to April 14 when Revers made his famous ride became a holiday. Schools took that entire week off to mark its importance.
Patriot’s Day began with reenactments of, first Revere’s ride, and then the battles in Concord, then Lexington. These, historically completed by ten a.m., began Patriot’s Day. Then at ten the action turned to Hopkinton, a small town fortunately located 26.2 miles west of Copley Square. The Boston Marathon kicked off with a great deal of pomp, conveniently televised. Runners sped toward the center of Back Bay, and all eyes fell on their odyssey, again, thanks to television. Marathon action died down conveniently be 2 p.m. when the Boston Red Socks began their game in Fenway Park, a short walk from Copley Square.
Our first year in Boston, when we lived in Watertown and Grischa was four, we took in several of the reenactments just a few miles up the road. Grischa was then at the stage when any stick could become a gun, and he loved the action in Lexington, then Arlington. The men involved, each dressed in full costume, took on the roles of each of the participants in that first battle, and like a choreographed ballet, shot at the costumed British, and the appropriate players dropped dead at the right spot.
Then we moved to Newton Center, and found ourselves three blocks from the marathon route. Beacon Street, winding from Hopkinton, was marked year round with the miles runners had completed.
All our neighbors gathered down the street for the Marathon. We adults lugged beach chairs down the hill to watch the athletes dash by. Children carried empty water jugs and hundreds of small paper cups for the thirsty runners. This seemed to me to be a time and place where we did not have to wear red, white and blue to prove how fortunate we felt to be Americans. The day’s history, and how it had played out on the land under our very feet, spoke for itself.
We were at mile 22, just past the dreaded Heart Break Hill. This infamous mile-long stretch of the route came after runners had completed over first twenty miles of the course, and had to dig deep to find the stamina to get up the incline. Many frontrunners saw the race get beyond them on this hill. Others, who ran just to say they had done the 26 miles, had to stop here. It was just too much. The runners who would flow past us had just conquered that monster, for this year, and frequently sipped water our children handed out in celebration.
As we approached the area, we could see Beacon Street had been closed down. Crowds of people hummed with anticipation. Newsmen with their trucks equipped with all kinds of broadcast machinery dotted the street. Small children wove through the feet of adults as they played chase games, trying to allay their boredom. Some people shared facts of the race so far. Bill Rodgers was in the lead as they had scrambled past Wellesley College. We all speculated about whether this local guy, who won so many Boston Marathons would win again this win again this year. Joan Benoit, another local favorite, seems to be holding off her female competitors on the women’s side.
As we heard from news sources the runners were beginning to clamber up Heartbreak Hill, eager children skipped out onto the pavement to see if they could catch a glimpse of the frontrunners. My older son lined up with his friends around a watering station. They would compete to see who served a gulp of water to which front-runner, remembering the numbers pinned to their shirts, so they could see if their drinker placed in the first three or four, when they heard results later.
The year before Grischa had his cup of water knocked out of his hand by a racer from Australia who finished in the top five. He had felt so disappointed. This year he had to hold that cup tighter.
Doron wanted to serve water, too, but his older brother mockingly stated, you are just too small. Nobody will want your water.
Then we heard the sirens. The camera car with its men, their lenses focussed on the leader, slid into view. The racers were coming! My heart thumped proudly.
Almost as quickly as they arrived the front-leaders scampered past us. That much closer to Copley Square, they seemed to run a bit quicker. Several minutes later another car pulled into view. All of us took up the rhythmic chant, “Joanie, Joanie.” The crowd favorite led the women.
Runners flowed past us, and eventually wheel chairs joined the mix of competitors. Grischa and his friends had long since lost interest in the race.
Now it was time for Doron. He grabbed a cup of water, and stumbled out onto the pavement. The first two cups of water he dropped before he could even proffer them up to a thirsty competitor. Then a man in blue shorts, sweat coursing down his face, grabbed Doron’s cup, and thanked Doron as he rested a moment before gamely limping on. Doron’s eyes shone as bright as the sun that pushed away the dark gray clouds.
We always stayed until the last few runners trickled by, offering each a cheer, and a cup of water, not wanting this day to end. We recognized some runners who ran every year. One favorite was a middle-aged man who pushed his son, a young man with cerebral palsy, in a wheelchair. We looked for him about an hour after the frontrunners had passed. It was these runners, ordinary people who wanted to see how it felt to run 26 miles in one day that we parents related to. As we watched these people struggle by, we cheered them on, hoping that our encouragement would help them over the final few miles of the race. It felt like the race belonged to these common people, so similar to the patriots who became Minutemen over 200 years before. Names and status were forgotten as they fulfilled a common purpose.
About three or four hours after the race began, well over two hours after the front-runners had completed the course, we trudged back up our own slope, back to watch the marathon results on the television. As I passed my tulips, I thanked them for their burst of smiley color.
Twenty-five years, or so, have passed since those idyllic, innocent days when my children were young. This year, 2013, this race was sullied by two young brothers, their gap in ages so similar to my own sons, detonated two bombs near the finish line of this marathon. I believe their whole act to be incredibly horrific. For me, the fact they chose to detonate these bombs as the common men were about to celebrate their own victories, their own conquering of 26 miles, including a hill that came at an inopportune place within the race, makes this act even more evil than had they tried to kill and maim the winners of the Boston Marathon. And I muse, did tulip poppies smile this year, on Tuesday?
A deliciously warm spring afternoon, the Saturday before Easter. I had advertised a Tea Party in my studio as a way to attract visitors. The morning had been successful. Seven new people, including the mailman, came into my studio. Now the echoes of their praise praise buoyed me.
“This art is amazing. I love wood, pick it up myself, but you see these animals, these birds alive within it. Your sculptures bring me into an imaginative space. I will remember you when I am looking for gifts. We are about ready to redecorate our home. We will return then to buy that abstract kachina. It will bring life to our mantle!”
Sue arrived, my website person, and, I sometimes joke, the daughter I always wanted.
Sue enjoyed a cup of herbal tea, nibbled on a strawberry, and we chatted. My phone rang.
“It’s Don.” Last year Don had rolled in off the desert, a man who had filled his life with desert lore and hard knocks. For six months he had fed me a diet of creative suggestions for my art, technical knowhow for putting some of it together, and a deep love and understanding of the desert. Then, suddenly, he got angry and disappeared, much the same way he had come in. Yesterday, six months after his stormy departure, he had called saying he had more wood for me, then did not show up to deliver it. Was he on his way now?
Don mumbled into the phone. “Lost my fuckin’ phone, then found it again. I ain’t bringin’ ya’ no more wood. That business fucks up my mind.” And he hung up.
I turned to Sue. “No more Don. It’s a good thing I found the Woodman.” I had been getting wood for my art from another guy since the fall, when Don marched out. I found Woodman out on 89A, in a vacant lot where a haybarn used to stand. He hung out there for a weekend now and then, hawking gorgeous wood and other found treasures. I’d driven by and stopped once. His wood was spectacular, creased and creviced in ways only the arid desert could imagine. And he looked like the desert had bestowed a bit of arid trickery on him, as well. His pants hung loosely. Behind his shirt his chest caved in some, his long skinny arms festooned with an array of fading tattoos. His hair, an indistinct gray, pushed around by restless fingers, gave no indication of his age. His face, burnished brown by years of exposure to the sun, appeared too tough to yield to wrinkles.
I selected a pile of curved, unusual shaped twigs, roots and bark, the smallest pieces he had. It was enough to fit into four or five plastic shopping bags. After trying to peddle a few unusual crystals, a dinosaur fossil and a branch of desert holly, Woodman looked at my selection. “Give me ten bucks.”
I stopped by, then, every time I saw him there, next to a trailer or a broken down pick-up, his piles of wood surrounded by the cat trees, oriental rugs, car parts and navel oranges other peddlers spread across the vacant lot. Sometimes he was sprawled across the entry of his camper, almost comatose. His wife roused him. He always had several pieces of wood he had begun to carve, although he never had one completed. And he had other treasures, more dinosaur poop, dried bones, a piece or two of once-spectacular antique furniture, its patina now rubbed off. He roused when he heard I was there. I picked out my treasures, paid his reasonable prices, and drove on.
Then in December I stopped by his spot. “Hey,” he greeted me. We are goin’ down to Texas. Maybe for good. Would you buy all this wood? And he gestured to some larger pieces I had never considered—too big for what I did. “Gotta get it all outta here.”
“I can’t fit that in my car.”
“Oh. Here take these pieces now.” He gestured toward some small and medium chunks of mesquite and ironwood. “I will put them in your trunk. Then I can deliver the rest to your place.”
We agreed. I gave him my address, loaded some of the pieces into my car and drove off. He didn’t show up that evening. I hadn’t paid him, so I didn’t worry.
He called three days later. He spun out a detailed story of sick daughters, friends in jail, and broken down vehicles. “You gonna be around in an hour?”
“I could be.”
“OK. See you then.”
When he did not come, I went over to Juanita’s for a taco. I drove back to my studio. I saw him and his wife. They were hauling the larger chunks of wood across a parking lot on the other side of the street.
“Blew the transmission. Gotta wait for my friend to come tow me back to Camp Verde.”
He and his wife took four trips across the parking lot, then across 6th Street to my studio, dragging the wood behind them. When they got it all inside, they dragged it through my studio to my back yard storage area. Then, in the dark, they arranged the new wood in amongst all the stuff I had already accumulated.
It must have been several months before I heard from them again. One afternoon I went outside to survey my collection of wood. I noticed I had used most of my beautiful pieces, and was sort of digging in the pile of droppings to find appropriate wood for my art. My phone rang. It was Woodman.
“I got some wood. Unfortunately it’s in Flagstaff. Don’t know quite when I can get it down to you. You interested?”
A day or two later he called again. He rambled through another story of someone in the hospital, a house being repossessed, another friend in jail and some broken down vehicles. “Think you can come down to Camp Verde to get it?”
“Where in Camp Verde? Can I fit it in my car?”
“Naw. What if I bring it by when my friend brings his truck by?” gave me no specifics as to when to expect him.
The next night, well after dark I was visiting nearby. My phone rang.
“Hey I am driving by Walmart, on my way to your place. Can you meet me there?”
He pulled up, the extended bed of a pick-up truck stuffed with wood.
“Most of this is for you. I got a couple of big pieces separate. Think you can take them, pay me for ‘em if someone wants ‘em as yard art?”
I panicked slightly at the cost of this load of wood. It took him and his wife Maureen almost an hour to unload it and carefully stash it in my storage area. He stopped now and then to show me a particularly spectacular piece of wood.
He had a number of Saguaro spines. “You can make fountains outta these. I’ll come back, show you how.” He never showed me what he had in mind, but he got me to thinking of the possibilities of fountains!
I felt a bit of panic over how much he would ask for this load. It was far bigger than the $40 load I had taken in before. When all was unpacked I ventured, “How much?”
“Aw. Gimme 75.”
Several months passed. As I pulled out a piece of wood I stopped to think about Woodman, and how he had brought me that particular piece.
I developed a painful corn on my toe. I could no longer take my jaunts into the desert to pick up wood. My podiatrist announced the only solution for my foot was surgery. “Maybe in two or three months you can go back into the desert to get your wood.”
But what would I do now? I surveyed my shrinking cache of the Mormon tea I used for my mezuzahs. “Well, God,” I spoke. “I think it is time for a visit from Woodman.
The next afternoon Woodman wandered into my studio.
“Ya know. I have run outta gas. Can’t get back to Camp Verde. I have this wood here. Think ya’ can give me $10 for it so I can get home?”
He handed he eight or nine pieces of mesquite burls and Saguaro spines.
“I need more wood,” I commented. “Got a bum foot. I can’t go get it myself.”
He gestured toward the pick-up he had emerged from. Three other men were there.
“She needs help’”
They all followed him into my studio.
“Let me show you what I need the most.” I pointed to my Mindfulness Vessels and then to my mezuzahs. “I need small wood for these vessels, and I use Mormon tea for the ones hanging up here.”
He turned to one of the other guys. “Think you can help her out? Where do you get this?”
I described the dog trail I frequented and that guy replied. “I know where you mean. I’ll get it.”
Woodman nodded. “I have some nice, small pieces at home. I’ll pull them out. And I have some other stuff I think you will like. I will be back tomorrow.”
That was a week ago. I hung up the phone after speaking with Don, and turned to Sue.
“Well, Don had said he was going to bring me some wood, but now he says the business fucks up his mind. I wish Woodman were here!”
And with that there was a clatter of aging truck outside my studio. A long yellow truck drove in pulling a decrepit trailer brimming with wood.
“You gotta write a story about him,” Sue remarked, gesturing to Woodman and his wife, Maureen, as they dropped a blue tote overflowing with wood. Mesquite and ironwood roots curled into lacy patterns, belying their solid interiors. Soft Cottonwood, smoothed by the river, was washed into a small slab of etched watery waves. One curved branch came to a point, resembled a crane in flight. Another spiraled around itself, traced a fancy cursive P. I picked up the smooth, small sycamore branch that curled like a fancy handle for a Victorian teapot. So many possibilities for the wood assemblages they would join!
As he and his wife left, Woodman spoke. “My friend has that other wood you need, but he wasn’t up when I went by his house. I’ll get that stuff tomorrow.”
I looked at the pile dumped in the middle of my studio. I smiled. there in the middle was another half-carved piece of wood, an eagle sketched in on one face, a bear on another.
I will stop by his space on 89A tomorrow on my way out to do my ceramics. Perhaps he will have that Mormon tea he promised. I can offer to display completed wood carvings in my studio. Or, maybe it being Easter and all…..
Look. She is dressing,
throwing on layers
of gauzy green.
After months of her nudie
flirtations, now, as days grow
longer, the sun brighter,
desert warmth returning,
she prepares for the new season,
ready to get back to work,
clothed in her fresh, verdant finery
"With all the beauty surrounding me here above the Verde Valley, how could I not create more beauty?"