Onward to Ithaca

Enclosed in a box as I was for most of the past 41+ years—that is to say, confined (by choice) to the four walls of my high school classroom—I missed the bloodroot, the very first spring wildflower, opening on the hillside.  And every vacation, eager to be out and unconfined, I traveled somewhere else. I was always somewhere else. I missed the emergence of the rest of spring: of pink and white hepatica, of toothwort and Mayapple, of wild geranium, jack-in-the-pulpit, Solomon’s seal. Wild ginger and early meadow rue. I missed myself. The woodland wanderer. The outdoor girl..

But in March of 2020, the lid on that schoolroom box came open. Abruptly. Horrifyingly. The contents spilled out, everyone hastening to the safety of their homes. Ironically, the Covid quarantine happened the week before my grandchildren were all coming to visit, the little boys eager to explore the wild ravine that is my backyard, the same ravine their mothers had adventured in years ago.

The children did not come, though, and confined as I was then to a different box, I decided it was time to become reacquainted—perhaps acquainted for the first time—with my own backyard. I went into the ravine in the spirit of adventure. Of exploration. Of discovery.

I went unprepared. I was only going to go as far as I could see from our deck. But curiosity and beauty pulled me along, and I went all the way to the end, to where the stream joins a larger flowage in a lovely city park. And then I traced my steps back again. I slipped on the rocks more than once, and at the end of the expedition, my hiking shoes were soaked.  On future trips, seasoned, I wore tall rubber boots and carried a stout stick so I could walk in the streambed with less danger to my shoes and myself.

That first time down in the spring of 2020 I found chunks of railroad ties, crumbling concrete slabs clothed in green moss, and bricks so old they’re distinguishable only by their shape: all of it refuse from man’s industry, thrown down here over the years.

Plastic water bottles. Cardboard, limp and stained. Broken glass. A lost football. A bottomless flower container, the dried and pot-bound plant still intact. Aluminum Coke cans, their labels barely discernible. Plastic bags of all sizes and colors, some still whole, some in tatters, some held fast by sand or rock or logs and leaves. The debris of modern life.  Some of it pitched over the side, I am sure.

“Matter doesn’t go away, people,” I muttered, “even though it’s out of sight. Find a garbage can! Recycle!”

Too harsh. Some of this must have been blown here by the wind. That grimy barbecue tray: no doubt some backyard chef was left scratching his head. Or the pair of white Crocs, resting six feet apart from each other.  They’d probably been left on someone’s deck to dry.

The next several trips into the ravine, I carried a garbage bag.

Then I carried a camera. I meant to document the wildflowers, but I captured more than those. One day it started to sprinkle, so I took refuge under an enormous cottonwood that had fallen across the creek long ago. Looking up, I saw a 6-inch circular white fungus—like an iced cookie, turned upside down. Artist’s fungus, it’s called, because the surface can be etched. I took a picture and let the fungus be.

Another day I picnicked among trout lily, ate a peanut butter sandwich while a hawk circled above, sending the wildlife—all but me—into hiding. I discovered a single Celandine poppy growing on the streambank, marveled at the shine of the bristly buttercup. I found a stand of wild ginger, watched a cardinal bathing in the creek, a thrush doing the same, and frequently, robins drying their ruffled feathers in the sun.

I saw garlic mustard encroaching even here, in this untraveled place. On an annual basis, environmental organizations enlist their supporters to pull garlic mustard, to open the land back up to indigenous species. My own backyard is threatened, it seems, and there’s only one remedy: pull.

Mayapples, which do belong, are everywhere in the ravine, colonies clustering on the hillsides. From my deck, I can see only their smooth, green, peltate tops. but on one walk in the ravine, I discovered a point of land where I could sit and look up into their undersides. Mayapple emerges in April, looking at first quite phallic, but the shoots quickly unfold to resemble the little paper parasols you see tucked into the shaved ice of exotic mixed drinks. The plant pushes higher, and the leaves open out to become wide, foot-high umbrellas over the land. In May, a flower grows in the axil of the two-leaved ones. At first, it’s a tight green globe the size of a marble, but the marble gives way to a creamy white rosette, 6-9 petals. In August, the flower will be replaced by the small green “apple” that contains the seeds.

 My introduction to Mayapple came by way of Conrad Richter’s Light in the Forest, a book I read with 8th graders many years ago. In that story, True Son, a white boy, has been raised by the Lenni Lenapi, taken as a 4-year-old from his white parents in a revenge raid. As a young teenager, True Son is a pawn in a peace settlement. He is being returned to his biological parents. But he’s Native American now and does not want to leave his father, his friends, the people that he loves. He notices the Mayapple growing along the path.  True Son knows that the Mayapple’s every part is toxic and considers eating of it, remembering another young brave who committed suicide in this way.

But the Mayapple was also used by Native Americans for curative purposes. Its medicinal property, podophyllotoxin, is used today in drugs for certain cancers and skin conditions, though the source is primarily a different species grown in the Himalayas.

And I’ve read, a careful cook can make jelly from the apple once it is yellowed and ripe.

 For nought so vile upon the earth doth live

 But to the earth some special good doth give.

Romeo and Juliet. Act II. Friar Laurence.

Every 9th grader in America knows this story, has been directed to these lines.   

I was never far from school, even when I was in the ravine.

Always, at the end, when I reached the city park, I had mixed feelings.  The expedition is over. The journey is finished. The thrill of going where no one else does, subsides.  It’s a letdown, arriving at the end, even though I have the sweet remembrance of my journey here. 

At the same time, there’s a sense of accomplishment. It isn’t easy navigating sinkholes and fallen trees and sticks that can poke you in the eye and, one day even, a coyote that was coming up the stream as I was going down. The place is a danger zone. I could twist an ankle on a slippery rock. I could fall on my face.

But boulders became landmarks. I wore a path.

I’ve spent my professional life in a danger zone as well.

Here are the most calamitous events of my career:

  • I broke my wrist one day when I fell from the ceiling (I was hanging a mobile and stepped into air)
  • A student driver tried to pass me on a county road when I was making a left turn (My car was totaled, but neither of us was hurt)
  • One day a girl rushed to the front of the class to ask to use the bathroom and threw up on me before she could get the words out (The dress washed)
  • Several winters ago, another student crunched my car (a different one) while it was parked in the school lot (Actually, he took out two cars when his truck spun on ice)

But until the day I was flattened, I hadn’t toted it all up. The whole experience of teaching.

Here’s what happened:

I darted out of my classroom at the same time a boy exited the room next door. His head was down; he was reading a note. We collided, and there I was, flat on my back like an overturned bug. The boy was stricken; I was certainly surprised.

“Are you okay?” he asked.

“Sure,” I said, “but you can help me up.”

I was restored to dignity and “over it” within a few minutes. It took a little longer for the boy. After all, he’d just leveled a teacher, and—um—an older one at that.

Teachers should get hazard pay, I thought.

But I’ve experienced other dangers in my long life in an American classroom, ones not so easy to “get over.”

Twain and Faulkner and E. B. White and Harper Lee and Charles Dickens and Homer and George Orwell and many, many more literary luminaries. I had the time to reread their work every single year—to admire anew a turn of phrase, to marvel once more at an apt comparison, to suck in my breath at the sheer beauty of their prose. It was nothing short of privilege to open To Kill a Mockingbird the last year I had my own classroom and read aloud for the 31st time, “When he was nearly thirteen, my brother Jem got his arm badly broken at the elbow.” In November, I went to London with Pip, and in February, I followed Odysseus around the world and home again to Ithaca. Come spring, it was time to visit Manor Farm again and watch the pigs turn into Mr. Jones. I wondered, when I left the classroom to become a coach, if I ever again would read, “Sing in me, O Muse…”

The danger in loving stories like these and the people in them is this: I’m spoiled for bestseller fiction. I can’t stand TV. That makes me a poor conversationalist and puts me out of touch with popular culture. I miss the humor in a lot of repartee; don’t get contemporary allusions.

Here’s another danger I have faced: No one told me how to structure those fifty minutes between the bells. No one told me how to teach or how to manage my classroom. I decided from a range of choices what we would read and when we would read it. I decided how I would make the stories come alive and what I would to do to help the students improve their writing. I set the goals and I crafted the lessons. I made the connections from book to book, and I designed the projects, the writing assignments, the presentations. I made up the tests. My creativity as a teacher was limited only by my imagination and my stamina. Since I decided just about everything that happened in my room, though, what would happen if I failed? What if I became a bug on her back, flailing, limbs in the air?

To be truthful, I did fail in the beginning. The first years were harrowing. Every day was life lived on the edge. The students, mostly boys, wouldn’t sit still, talked when I talked, fidgeted with their papers and pens and books (if they’d brought them to class), dropped books on the floor, looked out the window—in short, did everything but sit tall in their seats and pay attention me. For my part, I wasn’t signaling that I ought to be paid attention to. My voice was high, and when I spoke, I tripped along at record speed. I moved without purpose all over the place, and my directions were vague and alarmist: “Don’t do that!”  Exactly what the students shouldn’t do wasn’t clear.

Worse than that, my lessons were dull. Predictable. Pedantic. Probably the reason for all the behavior problems and the more than occasional lip from those boys.

It was discouraging at the beginning of my career to have to learn what to do, one agonizing crisis at a time.  But every time I successfully handled a situation or taught a lesson that had kids truly engaged, my confidence increased. Eventually, I wasn’t afraid of my own shadow and wore my authority comfortably.

But it was a bumpy road to that confidence.

I was in constant danger, too, of my heart being broken. It’s love, of course, that does that, and love is the only way to describe my feelings for the students I was with each year, sometimes for longer than a year. These are kids I have seen when they are happy, seen when they are not, seen when they are taxed to their limit, and seen at play. We developed a relationship, each one of them and I, based on shared experience and my knowledge of what they often revealed when we read those books together. I was privy to their ideas when they raised their hands to speak. I read their thoughts in the essays they wrote for me.

They were lopsided relationships, of course. More like parent-child than friend-to-friend. I nagged them, cajoled them, and told them what to do. Sometimes they made poor decisions, let me down, acted badly. Sometimes I wanted to throttle them. Sometimes terrible things happened in their lives, and then my heart would break. My attachment to the kids I taught sounds odd to people who haven’t taught. But years later, when I see my students all grown up, when I encounter them in a store or at a theater or meet them on the street, I discover that they feel attached to me, too. Sometimes, even years later, they come back to say thank you: for pushing them, for demanding they do their best, for putting up with their resistance, for caring about them, for teaching them something.

I loved my job.

But the time has come. I have reached the city park. My year in the ravine showed me there are more things to love, more ways to grow, other journeys to undertake. Reaching the end is a little disorienting, to be sure. I will miss my colleagues profoundly and the students, of course, and the life I know so well. But I am richer for the experiences and the friendships, and I am grateful for all this time, this long life in my American classroom.

I’m mapping out a new journey, edging forward.  

There are dangers, of course, existential reasons to be apprehensive about retiring: identity, purpose, self-confidence—all that could be lost.  

There will be loss.

But the Odyssey is nothing if it isn’t about the gains as well: Adventure. Discovery. Challenge and struggle. Risk and reward. And in the end, Ithaca.

“Sing in me, O Muse.”

5 thoughts on “Onward to Ithaca

  1. Beautiful! Congratulations, Sarah, on a job well done and a new journey.
    All the best – Patti☘️


  2. Well said! It would make a fantastic monologue performed onstage with a slideshow of the pictures you painted with words. ❤️


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