Monday, August 3, 2009

A teacher's prayer

Chip Mosher

"When I grow up, Mr. Mo, I wanna be a gynecologist so I can get lots of pussy," the kid said.

It is not a comment you'd expect from the average 14-year-old in your overly crowded classroom on the first day of school. Such a statement in such a situation can be at once hilarious, frightening, threatening, serious or just plain gross, depending on which of the other 37 points of view in the room you ask. Anytime you get the words "gynecologist" and "pussy" in the same sentence with a voice louder than your average boom box, you know all eyes will be turning in the teacher's direction, waiting for a response.

Welcome to my world.

Simon (not his real name) was the self-appointed class clown -- a combination of Jim Carrey, Sam Kinison, Chris Rock, but unpolished -- stoned on silliness and bouncing out of control from his first day in high school until graduation five years later. His irrepressible smile, wide enough to span the Colorado River, rode atop an ungainly gait whereby he wobbled when he walked. Other kids made fun of his chronic wobbling. He always laughed and told them he was born with a "natural pimp walk," in that thunderous voice you could hear down at the other end of any long hallway.

In fact, I think Simon set a Guinness Book Record for time spent wandering those school hallways on forged bathroom passes -- wobbling, laughing, joking. Hence, his need for a fifth year to graduate.

"I'm thinking of becoming a pimp, Mr. Mo, if that gynecology thing doesn't work out," he later informed me.

"It's always good to have back-up plans, Simon," I replied. "Now, let me tell you about the miracle of cognitive development and this education routine."

I would babble on, as teachers do, about the importance of staying alive long enough to find out who we really are and where exactly it is we want to go with our lives; about the proverbial light bulb that (seemingly) suddenly clicks on in our minds and reveals to us something of ourselves about which we theretofore could not possibly have known: this, the miracle of cognitive development.

Over the years I watched Simon grow into a young man. After graduation he joined the Army. Last week, just out of basic training, he returned to visit his alma mater. "Mr. Mo!" I heard the familiar shout.

He now stood and towered over me, a fairly tall man myself. In a brief flicker of introspection I thought that maybe old-age-shrinkage was starting to gain purchase in my teacherly body and soul. Simon laughed.

"Hey, Mr. Mo, you're shrinking!"

"Yeah, I was just thinking the same thing."

Then, in the time it takes hummingbirds to turn around in mid-flight, Simon's synchronized face and voice grew subdued, both laced with a quiet gratitude. He told me his brother had just returned from action in the Middle East, safe. The frivolity of the previous moment suddenly headed into another, more solemn direction.

"Now it's my turn, Mr. Mo," he said.

"What do you mean?" I asked.

"I'm leaving next week for Iraq," he said. An ominous shadow floated across his face.

The word Iraq punched me speechless. I remembered an old Twilight Zone episode in which a combat soldier sees a bright light shining on the faces of his comrades before they go off to die in battle. I felt myself hoping that the shadow across Simon's face was not some similar presentiment.

Behind Simon was the flag on my classroom wall, to which he and I had daily pledged. How often, I wondered to myself, has America been the Red, White and Stupid, as much as anything? How much longer must we be land of the lemming rather than liberty, as we go about this dirty business of invading sovereign nations without apparent cause in order to feed our collective cultural arrogance? Where did we get the mistaken notion that we should ram our democracy down other people's throats with the barrel of a gun? How do those in power who dream up hollow slogans like "No Child Left Behind" keep leaving our children behind, literally, face down on battlefields in countries where we do not belong?

My heart had become unhinged in the cosmos.

"Simon ..."

"Don't worry, Mr. Mo, I'll be all right. I just came by to thank you for all you did for me."

He wrapped his bulky arms around me in a big bear hug, smiled and walked away straight up, without a hint of wobble. And I realized as he was walking toward the daylight at the end of the darkened corridor that, regardless of his kind words, I had not done enough as a teacher -- we never do -- to make this world a better place for Simon. Or for the American and Iraqi young men and women, still kids really, like him.

Please, oh please, Simon, come back home. Mine is the prayer of so many on the face of the earth tonight.