It’s drizzling rain, and in the half-light of late afternoon, streetlights are stuttering on in twos and threes. The students straggling out of after-school detentions and athletic practices don’t even glance my way as they enter the crosswalk, and the glow of my signal light pulses back at me, mingling with firefly flashes of the cigarettes being passed between thumbs and fingers on the corner. As I pull out of the parking lot, past a girl struggling with a stroller and a lone young man hunched under the weight of a mysterious burden, I’m imagining the stories hidden within these human forms and wondering how I can possibly help them–help my students–write their own stories, write things that matter, things they care enough about to write well.
I know, I know: it’s infinitely safer to write about what makes Selena Gomez who she is than to write about what makes them who they are. But I see them getting bored, making half an effort, and then quitting with the job half-done. I see them unable to articulate even to themselves who they are or what they want out of life or education. I see them sitting in the principal’s office, fidgeting with their sleeves or shoelaces, mutely agreeing to the latest intervention without ever intending to follow through–because they have children of their own at home, or a fear of the male teacher in the detention room who looks like Uncle Frank–but they won’t admit it.
How can we help them, if we don’t know these things? How can we possibly know what they need, if they don’t even know?
I’m not really paying any more attention to the traffic than is minimally required to get me safely home, when a motorcycle pulls out behind me–a long, low-slung, black thing with lots of chrome and out-to-there handlebars. He follows me down one street and then another, and finally out across the bridge. I keep glancing at him in the rear-view mirror, and I have that thought we’ve all had after traveling in tandem with an unfamiliar vehicle for a while: Maybe we’re headed the same place.
And for the first time, I realize that every time I see a man on a motorcycle, I have had the same thought.
Wouldn’t it be weird if that were my dad? Coming to see me?
Never mind that my father wouldn’t know my house if he walked past it. Never mind that if we met in passing, we’d probably stare at our toes and mumble awkward pleasantries.
After more than four decades, I’m still wondering if my dad is going to show up?
I slow down and signal at my street corner. The stranger behind me speeds up and continues on. He doesn’t even glance my direction. His movements are practiced and determined–he has places to go and things to do. He has passed a thousand, thousand other cars in his lifetime. I am nothing and no one to him.
The realization hits like a dropkick to the center of my chest, leaving my sternum wedged somewhere between my thoracic vertebrae. I actually touch my breastbone, checking for damage.
I try to deny the truth, but it slams its heel more solidly into the very center of my being: This strange, reflexive thought about strangers on motorbikes–it’s not about my father. It’s about me. What sort of person I am: If I’m the sort of child a parent might drive hundreds of miles and cross an international border to see.
That’s the real question.
Ridiculous, still. Yes. But now I can’t breathe.
I feel selfish and shallow and terribly alone. I want to pull off the road and give in to the spasms that are fighting to re-expand my collapsed chest, attempting to right the damage done with that one revealing blow. Also, at some remote, meta-cognitive level, I want to examine this strangest of thoughts and decide what it means.
But more than that, I have children of my own waiting–children I will not subject to this. And so I don’t pull off the road. I thrust out my collapsed lungs by sheer force of will. I come home and make small talk and help with homework. I do not permit self-examination.
I’m certainly not going to write about it–even though this is exactly the sort of thing writing was invented for.
Because what if somebody reads it, and takes it the wrong way?
What if they don’t understand me?
Worse, what if they do?
Selena Gomez begins to sound a lot more tempting, doesn’t she?
Do we write about things that matter? Do we take risks? What, really, are we writing, and studying and striving for? What, really, are we asking students to read or think or risk anything for? And why should we expect them to, if we will not?
Did I come home and write about it? Yes. Will I share this writing with others? Yes. Will I take more risks? Yes. But will I demand that my students come to the same place it took me 40 years of conscious thought to come to? I don’t think I can–or should–do that.
I can share with them the things that I’ve learned by taking risks and encourage them to take their own. But sometimes we have to allow them to re-expand their lungs in their own time and way, allow them the space to determine for themselves the appropriate time and place for truth telling–because we don’t know what’s waiting for them at the end of the road, at the end of each day. We can’t know how many times they’ve had to take that deep, painful breath, and just keep moving, just keep showing up–or if, at the very moment we’ve got them under the microscope, demanding an explanation, they haven’t even extricated their own dislocated sternum yet.