Monday, April 16, 2012

Buried Treasures

I was cleaning up and reorganizing our rather small and  disorganized laundry room a couple of days ago when I came across an item I thought long lost. It was a bit like the opening scene to The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne [don’t worry Biscuit Cityites, I won’t make you read it again (if you read it in the first place)—I’m the only high school English teacher in the universe (that I know of) (retired edition) who believes that The Scarlet Letter is an absolutely horrid book to inflict on high school students. It’s OK for English majors who have chosen their poison and it’s actually not a bad book, with all kinds of cool symbolism (the gallows! The prison house! The sunlight! The forest! The scarlet letter itself! Anything in the story that’s not nailed down!) but likely to cause permanent mental and physical damages to innocent juniors in h.s. If you were so unfortunate to have read it and not majored in English, the effects will probably fade in a few years. No one is going to ask you about it or give you an essay test on it unless you lead a really weird life, in which case The Scarlet Letter is the least of your problems.]

And hey, it ain’t Moby Dick. Be thankful for that.

Anyhow, in the frame story, Hawthorne purports to be bored stiff (that’s appropriate since his book did that to millions of innocent young readers) in his cushy job at the Salem Custom House that his college buddy President Franklin (“The Whiz”) Pierce got for him so that  he has nothing to do but dream up stories. Anyhow, he is poking around a long-neglected storage room when he opens an ancient chest and discovers—bazinga!—the scarlet letter! And a manuscript telling the whole sordid story so that he can just “copy it” and not have to take any blame for actually having written it, wink, wink. (Reality check: he made up the whole thing, frame story, tale of the Boston Puritan Fun Bunch, everything. Sorry, kids. There is also no Easter bunny.

Anyhow, the item I came across was a 7-11 Big Gulp travel cup. Or rather, “travel buoy.” It’s pictured here complete with an archeologist-looking ruler for scale. 

The travel buoy belonged to my student Mitchell. And therein lies a tale not of sin and punishment and sick minister love puppies, but of, well, you be the judge.

I don’t know if you’ve ever known someone who absolutely drove you to distraction but whom you loved nonetheless. Doesn’t make sense, does it? But I had several students fitting this description when I taught, and the chief among them was a fellow named Mitchell (not his real name). I had him in English 9, 10 and 11, and by the time he became a junior, he was, as Becky’s grandmother used to say, “right.”

By 11th grade, Mitchell was enrolled in the Auto Tech program at Chantilly High School. Like other students in the Academy program, he had classes there in the morning and then came to Robinson for core classes, including English. Mitchell was rough but brilliant. He dressed like a mechanic on duty, which he was, and loved to push the rules. One incident illustrates this. Students were not allowed to have food or drink in the classroom, which I didn’t care about as long as they didn’t make a mess. Some kids brought Cheerios in a plastic bag and ate them for breakfast; others carried water bottles. But not Mitchell. He swaggered into class one afternoon, late as usual, carrying the largest Big Gulp container anyone had ever seen. It was day-glo orange and as big as a small barrel. I still have it since I confiscated it from him.

“Mitchell,” I said, “What is that?”

He took a long pull on the straw protruding from the drink.  “It’s my drink.”

“Give it here,” I said.

“Why? They—“ he pointed to a couple of girls who were cross-country runners who had small water bottles on their desks—“have drinks.”

“Give it.”

I think he figured I was serious, because he took another long draw and slowly walked to the front of the room. He handed me the drink, and after I put it down, turned around and hugged me.

Hugging was Mitchell’s secret weapon. He used it on everyone—teachers, principals, other students. If he got in trouble, as he frequently did, he would listen to the lecture for a while and then hug whoever was talking to him. And he was strong.  When he hugged me I couldn’t breathe. I tried to tell him to stop but the words wouldn’t come out. He finally let me go and ambled back to his seat. One of the cross-country runners looked hard at him. “You’re weird,” she said.

Mitchell was weird but he was also an original thinker. I never knew what he would write or say. He wrote one paper that was so incredibly racist I wouldn’t accept it. He kept saying he had a right to his opinion. I said he did but I didn’t have to count it for credit because school regulations prohibited that kind of expression. I told him he could appeal my decision to the principal. He gave me a hug and took a “0” on the paper.

We were talking about eternity one day in a discussion of a Longfellow poem whose title I don’t remember. The class had shared their ideas about eternity and heaven for about half an hour when Mitchell suddenly blurted out, “But does it matter?”

He was not in the habit of raising his hand to speak.

“Does what matter, Mitchell? And raise your hand if you want to speak.”

He dutifully raised his hand and said, “If I’m following this discussion right, we’re saying that none of us can really understand or even conceive of eternity or know what heaven is like.”

“That’s right,” I nodded. “That’s what we’ve been saying.”

“Well, if we can’t understand it or conceive of it, why are we talking about it?”

 There was silence. No one spoke for a while, and then I said, “Because that’s what we do in English.”

I don’t think he heard me because he had become interested in something outside the window. But he was, in a way, right. And he was, in many ways, like each of us. He honestly tried to go by the rules and do the right thing, but he couldn’t help breaking them and straying from the path. Like us, he was capable of expressing the love that God must have had for him—expressing it awkwardly, but expressing it nonetheless. 

I last saw Mitchell at graduation. I hadn’t seen him much during his senior year, but as he came up to me in his cap and gown, I knew what was coming. Before I could run the other way, he had me in a bear hug and was squeezing the breath out of me. He mercifully let me go and put out his hand. “Mr. V. I want to thank you for all you did for me and for putting up with me when I was obnoxious in class.”

“Thank you, Mitchell. I wish you well, whatever you do.”

He turned to rejoin his friends but turned back. “Mr. V.—one more thing—I love you, man.”
Graduation always got to me despite how bad some of the kids have been. So I said, “And I love you, Mitchell.”

He smiled. “Yeah, Mr. V.  I know.”

We can’t understand eternity or know what heaven is like. But I believe we will experience both eventually, although we are incomplete and do the wrong things like Mitchell. And as God greets us when we go to live with him, I see him wrapping us up in the tightest, most loving hug we have ever known.

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