By Patrick Dougherty
— We learn by teaching
The first clash of my idealism with the reality of the streets came in my third week of teaching when I learned the sound that bullets make when they ching against brick. I had finished a day of classes and the kids had been somewhat sane. I was feeling happy that I was reaching a few of them there, in old room 210, in my ragged school south of the highway in Phoenix, Arizona.
I had gotten a glass of water from the cooler in the office and was walking to the social studies supply room to get some drawing paper for an assignment that I was creating for the next day. I was walking along the side of the liberal arts building near the street when the gunfire erupted.
Iconographic images played out before me. A young man dressed in white jeans and a white tank top was running, a silver car sizzled to a halt behind him, two young men in sunglasses flew from the gut of the car and pulled guns . . . the young man twenty feet from me, the two men in pursuit, running, running towards me, and then flashes and sound. Blood on the tank top and on the jeans, the two men disappearing from view as I focused on the fallen image on the sidewalk. I felt water on my hand and realized that I was shaking.
Prima luce… half past five in the morning…
Crimson light paints the wall where I saw the gecko rest last night, answering my gaze with amethyst eyes, watching me as the radiance of the dying sun wove a coppered halo that fired the horizon, sketching in Chinese brushstrokes the jagged crista of mountains that filed on toward the west and California.
My thoughts tug me from beneath the waves of sleep and summon me to breach the surface of my reverie; yet, I lay and float on the still-pond surface of dreams. My wife’s doe soft breathing and the enveloping energy of dawn are the only companions for my thoughts.
I think of Egypt. Ancient dawns ascending the tombs in the Valley of Kings. Karnak, Luxor, splendid graves, tombs of silver, onyx and ivory, golden masks that stare across centuries demanding obeisance. Tides of sand that come to shore about the pyramid monuments of god-kings. Ra, Ramses, and the tale of Moses. Sphinx riddles and scarab beetles, the pounce of eons dancing in the spear shafts of light, ravishing the dusk of centuries. Regeneration and immortality. Immortal covenants. Isis and a fugue of transcendence.
Deserts, Sumer, Babylon, Gilgamesh, blue robed Bedouins, camels sailing the sands, Arabia, the thousand and one nights . . . Coffee.
I slide away from the amber warmth of my wife’s body, stand and let the dizziness float from my brain. Rubbing my eyes, I entice my blood to flow again. I glide through the room, letting the mossy rings of stupor slide from my thoughts. The bathroom light hits like a fist at my eyes. I see the image in the mirror. The crease of a pillow shows on the stranger’s face I see peering back — a Byzantine saint, stiff, bearded, pale, and impossible of mirth.
The morning calmness sits like a presence in the silence of my rooms. I pull on my robe and walk through its cobwebbed essence to my door and the paper, wrapped and neat, innocent looking for the news it keeps. A child with a grenade. Buried in its pages is the world beyond the monastic walls of my life.
One cup, two, three, the bitter tang sharpening my senses. Headlines. Gays Parade. Palestinian Suicide Bombers. Israeli Cabinet Debates. I search for the comics.
I stand, stretching, creaking my ribs toward the ceiling. In the hazy mountains of West Virginia a pool of Elizabethan English gathers in the forest hollows. The cragged ones still name the body with a rough term– “The Bone Box.” I think of Shakespeare’s dust. Then I notice the loose sheets of paper on the counter. The poem. Kanji-like words drifting free on the yellow paper; I decipher a few words from my scribbled hieroglyphs:
In Memory of Bernice . . .
I look at the time, corral the sheets in my battered briefcase and begin my ascent.
Traffic glints in my mirrors, and the primal angle of the sun hits the rearview with daggers. Phoenix is hot cement and steel. I hurtle along, following the ant trail of traffic up a corridor sliced in the desert. Late September and the temperature still hovers near 100. Back home, where I grew up, on the eastern shore of Lake Michigan, autumn is in the air, the leaves are starting to drain of emerald and take on their gold and amber hues, but not here, not in the Valley of the Sun. My price for bougainvilleas in December, a few months of hell. I see the brown haze over the western horizon– an aerial flourish for the city of fallen angles, decadent, nihilistic, exporting its smog to the desert…the breath of perdition . . . roaches will inherit the earth.
National Public Radio splashes out its litany . . . words, names, places, ideas, dreams, and nightmares . . . Afghanistan, Somalia, Iraq, Yemen, on and on . . . they rollick like bats on the waves of air.
Regions, shatter-spirited, were the devil prances a tarantella amid horrific misery…plagues…the Dance of Death, Durer wood blocks, the Four Horsemen, Apocalypse. Medieval tombs . . . silent effigies squirm grotesque. Images of putrefaction,
worms coil in eye sockets, bloated toads emerging from the relics of ribs. Old Nick laughs among the embers.
The office rests in twilight, and a secretary sits captured like an icon in an efflorescent platinum halo thrown from her desk lamp. Dark Ages, candles burning on the rough hewn desks, ancient clerics scribble the names of God in desperation of the darkness that panther slithers and circles them, panting with bloodied breath horrors from oblivion, the unknown, shadows beyond the walls, Basilisks twirl in the far hills, and all huddle frightened against the death dripping fangs of the night.
No epistles from the office. A note from a counselor — a wayward student, the face comes to mind as I stroll out onto the quad and toward my building. And, ah, there, leaning against the construction fence. Jorge. Jorge of the counselor note. Piss driven. He says he hates school, but always he is here– were else to go in this neighborhood unless you risk death in the parks or tread among the broken glass and syringes in the alleys. So many. Our sentinels of the early and late hours. A reality that shimmers beneath the heart movements of teachers during the crucifixion of sixth hour, before the bell sounds across the dry courtyards, before the squirming larva grow legs and crash into the corridors eager to flee, but stay. No wings for true flight; dusk finds them by the vending machines, waiting out the sinister blackness of broken windows before the leviathan night closes them in her gut.
I go to my room, old 210, noticing how desiccated the grass seems, parched and sizzled. Deserts. The Gobi. Sahara, Kalahari, Taklamakan sands, reg, rocky shores on the oceans of sand, the singing hills of far Asia, tales of Saint-Exupery, a haunted calling of the azan… lands of prophets and of madmen.
I click the door and let in Raul. Raul the Wanderer. He comes into being with each dawn, reborn to stand by my paint-chipped door. Raul the lanky hermit, the poet-haired one immersed again in a novel of magic and kingdoms of ether, where dragons argue ideology with gnomes and are both slain with laser points –story lines that the captains of the Enterprise warping through space would welcome as home. He glides to a desk, back corner on the right, the same as yesterday, and shall the same be tomorrow — constants. The sunrise, the sunset, the full moon, and Raul.
I splash out the remnant grounds of coffee from my cup out onto the parched grass. Three girls call gum-snapping greetings as they flounce by, laughing and buzzing, flaunting the dress code with bare midriffs and skin hugging micro minis. The desert attire of star dusted teenage hearts on the prowl. They sneak each morning into gas station restrooms to metamorphose, paint on make-up, tug on miniskirts, and dangle jewelry — fruits forbidden by Mexican fathers, harsh fathers, who as young men worshiped the girls who snuck into washrooms to emerge like new butterflies in the morning sun.
I walk back into the room; enter the cave, looking for the truth beyond the shadows.
My desk sits, a leaden lump, vintage military and old, perhaps, as the globe that was the sole adornment when I inherited this abode of learning. My House of Wisdom. My Sorbonne. Ah, the globe. On its yellowed vision of Earth, with its red pen marks and sea swirls rest images of countries that exist no longer; yet, I hold it still for to toss it away would be to forsake a senile aunt.
Past teachers who walked this faded carpet include one who left to die in Africa. Far away places, dreams on the Serengeti, the shadow of Kilimanjaro, lions panting beyond the campfire. Eidetic images. Great Zimbabwe, Mansa Musa, the gold of the Sudan, Zanzibar . . .
From my desk I take my briefcase and remove its contents. An archaeologist dissecting a mummy. Pens, slips of memos, papers, and the poem. I glance at it, remembering. Its words bubble images into my brain.
When you hear the wind, call her name
and ask if she remembers me
The first bell rings, I hear the legions stir, moving voices, a battle commencing. And, as if distant thunder, my mind echoes the clash of ancient swords.
“Ladies and Gentlemen, we’ve been studying ancient Egypt, let’s review a few cogent points before tomorrow’s test.”
The sand cascades into the opening, ripped from the earth, a caesarean in time, centuries buried beneath the soft treading of sandals, beneath the beggar’s bowl rested the fortune of ages. The tomb sparkles as if filled with fireflies, a lantern I hold and peer into the heart of eternity.
I have searched each dwelling, torch in hand and mourning on; yet, no mustard seed do I uncover; no breath of life to resurrect this death I have known. Questions as unanswerable as the riddles in a bee’s dream assail my senses deep below the level of words. Perhaps on an unattainable plateau a clue rests, guarded by enigmas too profound to even view. The speculation of Olympian truths belongs in the realm of gods. Where is our Prometheus now, to yield us another comfort?
Two people, now three, there in the back of the room whisper soft as dove wings on misted air. Margie came in, tears welling in her almond eyes… rubies. Plaster saints staring, crucifixion bound, votives flashing echoes of life in the pupils of their painted eyes.
Love crushed in flower, the usual… and again we go against the antinomians. I ignore the quiet chatter, I let her Antigones assuage her pain…unfold again the wings, golden against the breeze, and cast thyself forth onto sapphrine skies, to skate above the orange and ovening day. Ancient of days be merciful and heal.
The bell sounds its cacophony wail. The students resurrect, electric and charging, banging, out into the radiance of the sun.
“Remember the test! Force yourselves, study!”
In the distant regions of my memory, I hear the conch sound, calling in the darkness, above the black waters in the night.
I walk back to my desk, savoring the moment’s peace, brief as a moth’s wing against a flame. I pick up the paper and decipher again the lines of my poem…
“Hi Mr. D.!”
“Maestro! We are here!”
The tang of armor and sword, cries of anguish and triumph echoing from the palisade cliffs, blood mingles with tears, and the sands drink up the ebbing lives as they stream from broken bodies. I imagine scintillating souls pirouetting in the smoke above the now silent battlefield.
Three hours, ninety souls, I shepherd in I shepherd out. Bequeathed to me by an office as mysterious as a Druidic priest. Decisions made on the casting of bones. Yet, here they find their way. Pilgrims in a life so little their own. I am a way station, an oak under whose boughs they rest, sheltered by the gathering leaves. So I like to think and dwell to keep from easy anguish my heart. With these myths I anoint my inner being with oil, consecrate and absolve with the fire of violet skies under which I seek my truths. Echoes I hear unchained in the valley, splashing up mountains in their passion to escape.
Homeroom. Attendance and silence. Reading time. Quiet. I feel the sopor of death receding slowly, as a mist will retreat before the rising sun. And I meditate again on where my thoughts dwelt this night last. And why.
I follow the gold thread back and come again before the silent face encircled by roses. The weeping summons itself to my mind’s ear. I climb the ascent; its seven levels acquiesce before me. I can hear the pianissimo coo of doves.
“Mr. D. can we turn on the T.V. instead of reading? We can watch CNN or something smart.”
I look up from my book, take off my reading glasses, put the glasses on my now closed book, and fold my hands in the form as though praying. I settle into parent mode, in loco parentis, when I first introduced my students to that phrase they thought it meant “crazy parents.” Sometimes they’re not far off in that off-kilter interpretation.
“No, Jose, this is Homeroom and Silent Reading time. Silent. Reading,” I respond. “Go back to your magazine.”
“But …,” Jose begins a well-oiled wheedle.
But before he can continue I raise my hand pontifically and announce, “Dixi.”
“He just “dixi-ed” you, Dude,” offers Martin, Jose’s compadre in all things wheedling.
But he continues, “It’s over then, right Mr. D.?”
“Brilliant, Martin, you remembered my little Latin lesson.”
“Jose, do you remember the meaning of dixi as Martin does?”
“Something about stopping it, or whatever,” glumly but gamely offers Jose.
“He doesn’t remember,” exclaims Lashuana from the corner seat next to the door.
“Actually, Lashauna, Jose is close, ball-park. It means, ‘I have spoken’ and, essentially, means as Jose indicated, that the discussion is over, we must all stop and get back to what we were doing. “
Before the comments start coming from all corners and form an agglomeration of noise, I take up my reading glasses from the copy of Blood Meridian that I’ve been working through, wave them like a conductor, and announce,
“Gentlemen, ladies, to your books … read or pretend to.”
Flames moving like fireflies from the forest, melting into a pool of light in the glade and then into a stream of flame moving along the dirt path.
The procession is coming …
Moving over the dark hillocks and snaking through the valley. Crossing the whispering stream whose current caresses gray rounded stones dozing eternally under its chill flowing. The procession weaves through the maze of gnarled evergreens moving always
for the mountain castle of my thoughts and I wait watchful for the signal, for my grain to begin its dark mass, its sacraments of wondering, pondering, and alarm.
I see them approach from my pinnacle perch looking from the honey-stoned battlements like a lord witnessing the first churnings of a rebellion – I am ready, yet know not what for.
By the edge of the wood they gather up, mingle, and murmur, selecting.
The stars shed light, the moon rests dark in her corner of the sky. Night sounds are silenced by the brooding hoard below my walls. Seconds link, minutes pass, finally one soft shape emerges from the throng.
How small is one in the midst of the vastness, small constellations of atoms, daunted so by the night. He is a young man, black of hair, with curls that fall to his shoulders. The night is deep, the light scant, I cannot see his eyes; yet, feel them to be blue, earnest and cool, unclouded by the dust of years, not yet drawn to sweep the earth with a downward gaze. He walks intrepid to the stolid wall, stops, catches his words, and speaks.
Lord, what is the meaning of our days? We beseech and demand an answer, for how can we live without knowing why we exist? Our hearts ache for knowledge of this enigma – grant us illumination, Lord, we pray thee.
I pause, look to the stars that constellation shimmer, diamond bouquets in the vast cathedral darkness above, wait for the words to be whispered into my heart by the muse angels that seem always ready to midwife concepts beyond my mortal keen to conceive. And I begin …
“Lad, the purpose lies within your breast, planted like a seed by beneficent gods. Your task lies in stewardship … pretend a wizened old man has handed you a seed; yet, told you not what plant scioned it … how would you know the seed’s true identity?
By planting it in the earth, caring for it, bringing it to fruition . . .
“So, too, is it with the purpose you desire to know. Learn and experience, hold open you mind to the world, keep open your heart to the murmur of nature and the divine. In time a denouement will come – your purpose made clear,” I offer as gently as I can.
But your Eminence, what you say depends so on the gods; yet, some in our number doubt their reality. Lord, are the gods with us still? Have they died as some will contend?
“Do you breathe? If so, fear not, they have yet to expire . . . .” I finish and hear a raven caw outside my window. The dusky messenger summons and from the filaments of dreams my mind escapes.
The bell. Smashing sounds as books are hurled back onto straining shelves. Noon. Lunch. Respite. My loyal mendicants appear at the door. They enter as they always do. The same students every day. Timeless. Continuous. They pull themselves into my harbor once again, to take the air that will get them through the tattered remnants of the day. My ummah of the lunchtime.
I answer questions, offer some time to their thoughts. Till the garden, entice the lotus to breach the algaed surface and bloom. Writing my legacy in blood upon each soul. Finally, I cease my benedictions and place my heart back in its reliquary. Then I retreat, as they watch CNN on the class T.V., to my desk, and the sheaf of papers within which lies the skeleton of my emotion from last night. I shift my grade book, and find the words. It’s on its own now, an entity fashioned from the clay of my thoughts. Evanescence caught in ink and born to the page, caged like a peregrine, breaking its wings against the walls of its cell.
But here, and now, there are papers to grade . . . and I call my mind back to its purpose.
The Renaissance, an amalgamation of facts to my students, a mosaic of ideas and dates and names jumbled about on a dusty and cracked floor. They had picked out their favorites to expound on for me – the most dreaded part of the test, the burning incendarious circle of death, the essay question. The last hoop to be jumped through before escape. It was my hoop to jump through now, and I took up my pen and set to work.
Galileo Galilei, some had admired the lilt of his name and had decided to write about him. “Leaning Tower, sun centered theory (one had remembered “heliocentric” – amazing), the Vatican trial, and a general bouquet of facts from his life.
I wondered, sometimes, what it would be like to be famous enough that, centuries hence, people whose language would be a mystery to me, in places I had never known, would be studying the events of my life. Enough. Lupe had surprised me by his choice of Girolamo Savanarola and the Bonfire of the Vanities. Maybe he liked the fact that he burned books as well as playing cards. Old Savanarola, the gad-fly of Florence, would have condemned me in my vain day-dreams of future fame. Ashes to ashes … in his case especially.
She stood in the open door, at the nexus and nadir of her emotions. A Maria of Sorrows in a medieval niche, illuminated and radiant in her agony.
I knew the cause, supposed it anyway, and I knew the liturgy and rite that needed to be followed. Or allowed to transpire . . . like a good barrister in a trial of the heart, I began.
“Xochi, have a seat, what’s wrong?” The room was quiet as everyone pretended not to notice the Passion play that was unfolding in the room. I swept my hand toward a seat near my desk and she crumpled into it.
They had broken up that morning. Benny. The Benny I would see sixth hour. The Benny of the electronic toys, the Benny of stocking cap in 95 degree weather. Stocking caps and shorts. The dichotomy of style.
I fed her tissues from the box on my desk. And I let her bleed out the anguish as I listened, listened, and listened more. The magic of an older ear to tell of the pain, the exorcist of suffering. The shaman of silence. I worked what spells I could, conjured a few words from the lucent regions of my heart and the shadowed avenues of my experience, till she had to go.
I remembered the student teacher I had had the year before, when we spoke over Styrofoam cups of stale coffee in the cafeteria. “What do you say when they bring their problems to you?” she had asked. “Nothing,” I replied.
“Nothing?” she enquired.
“We spend too much time telling them what to do – we should spend more time hearing what they’re saying,” I explained. And I went on, “Coo a bit; give them space to figure it out for themselves. They will. We all do. Just listen.”
The bell chimed, I offered Xochi a departing gift of tissues and walked her to the door. My other lunchtime charges also departed, quiet in respect to the mass that was concluding. They left silent as druids walking thorough misted forest paths. I walked back to my desk and slowly sat down. Silence. A moment, then two. The first student came crashing through the door. Siggy.
“Hey, Mr. D., do we have a quiz today?”
“The sun rises, the sun sets, and yes, Siggy, you have a quiz today. It’s on Martin Luther, look at the reading from yesterday, the fifth paragraph especially, and remind yourself why he wrote his thesis. Oh, and also recall the reaction of the church authorities in Rome.”
It was time to close the ancient texts. Sunset through opaque windows, the smell of white roses rising from a courtyard centuries old, the hush of robes brushing cobblestones . . . I rubbed my eyes, stood up and walked to the board and erased a few notes. Like Xochi, it was my time to begin again.
I ache a bit with the morning’s efforts. That dryness I taste, the subtle cricking in my legs and along the snake line of my spine . . . here come the pilgrims, the murmur of prayer, the chant weaving itself through the incense-misted nave. I hear a canticle being sung.
Again my children, we begin. I know the acclivity of morning is past, and downward slopes the day to the vastness of the desert afternoon.
“Remembering that you have a test tomorrow, I thought it’d be a good idea to review some main points.”
Egypt and the shade of pyramids . . . sweat hewn and back broke mountains of transcendence . . . Death was a gossamer veil to god-kings. Death has grown; from myriad gods we beg deliverance. Kali stalks the imagination, gurgling for throats to slit out there, beyond the chalky shores of consciousness. Night-horrors, enclosing tombs, the fodder of worms.
The final hour. I walk to the board and erase a few comments that I will write again in a few moments pace. My mind floats on the stream of time, clicking seconds pull me forward, and the adagio kaleidoscope view of the bank adjusts with each minute. My daydreams soar far above it all, my thoughts cloak themselves in pilgrim guise and search through centuries and the crevices of eras, floating and eddying on time’s river, so dark and purple deep as it glides above its bedrock of bones. I chant a mantra to the stars as I float beneath their diamond gaze and hear their antiphon aerial murmur in the beating of my heart. All so soft, as a child’s breathe in sleep on a summer afternoon . . .
The bell sounds, I set my marker down with its fellows, in the green can by the file cabinet, the crowd responds to my wave and crashes like hell-bent stallions through the door.
Emptied in a second, the room stands quiet and formal as I walk bone weary back to my desk. I lift the sheet with its poem, hold it to the light and read.
A few hours later, past the meetings, phone calls, and grading, I step out of the room, turn and close the door, hear the metal click of the lock, and begin my walk to the parking lot. The harsh sun has mellowed into a red ball of fire, igniting the clouds and gilding the peripheral sky. The mountains are vermilion slashes against the white and gold of the horizon.
I think of a statement I scribbled once on the back of a memo, standing at the office counter as the day end chaos whirled about me and mailbox doors snapped open and shut. I don’t know where the lines came from. Their origins were like a muse whisper, unexpected and compelling, and so I jotted down the words with the snub of a very old pencil:
His mind ceased to comprehend, but his heart began to know.
In memory of my student
in memory of Bernice . . .
When you hear the wind, call her name
and ask if she remembers me . . .
Sweat and perfume were entwined
tastes twirled in the dust that settled and rose from the naked yard . . .
I stepped from among the low-slung cars and the amber twilight
and joined the muted crowd’s movement inward
to the cinder block church
tiny and chipped yellow
cast among the weary homes in the lazaret neighborhood
there below the bridge
Her classmates were gathering
timid to view the shell of their friend
enshrouded and encased in dark velvet —
I saw her face floating among the pink plastic roses
a mask that mocked the memory of her laughter
Where is the chime of your chatter, Bernice?
that giggle that would erupt in the middle of class
like the whoop of an angel buzzing earth…
How did such music end as but a memory and why?
You fell asleep and never awoke . . .
rumors of drugs feed along the bottom of conversations
but I don’t hear those words, not now, not here,
and I let them burn away in the flash of my memories of you
of you . . .
the chatter of bells in your voice,
the scintillation of joy in your eyes
a thousand butterflies floating on the benediction of your laughter . . .
How troubles ran before the assault of that brace-filled smile
that dispersed of gloom like dawn banishing the mist and dark
Youth in full bloom with all the universe before you . . .
Now no more
and I think that all things that trouble me seem so light —
what can I complain of in life?
at least I’m granted time, Bernice, where you will have no more
then what Bernice?
what of us, our lives that intercepted your meteor
as it flashed emerald and laughing across the banner of our benighted sky?
a few pictures in a yearbook, memories, this poem…
soliloquies cast in sand
I ponder this
as I step off into the gathering darkness
walking between the children playing in the yard
of the tiny church
in the neighborhood
below the bridge
I have had my successes, and I have suffered my failures. I have been in the crowd of friends when my students celebrated the little and big festivals in their lives. I have celebrated with many, and I have stood at the gravesides of others as they were lowered into eternity.
ite, missa est