Things I learned –
Mr. Williams was the one who first introduced me to Willa Cather. It was eleventh grade American Lit, in the second to last room at the end of the long hall in the humanities building, where we discussed pioneer spirit, the great divide, and innocence lost. And when I am feeling like I am about to buckle beneath the weight of my own prairie struggle, I return to her and the symbolism of a road bordered with sunflowers.
Mr. Ong taught me how to paint; and in this he had never-ending patience. He let my work run the gamut of quality, but gently pushed me to continue on, as if he saw that there was more I could do. And when I was a senior he wrote a letter to my parents and told them I could be a great artist someday if I only took the courage.
A part of me is still trying to find that courage.
Of course, Mr. Crane taught me how to expose film. He taught me about platinum print processing, the movements of a large format camera, and reciprocity failure charts. He also told me something of the great American war, told me stories, like legends, of a President who loved not only his America, but the Americans, all Americans, who were part of her legacy. The Civil War is still a favorite part of history for me, and Lincoln, still a holy man in my mind.
Mr. Bromley taught me the bird calls of every Utah species – a daunting task indeed. And I still remember the morning when I woke up and saw a Western Tanager perched just outside my window – so close I could reach out and touch it, and the thrill, the thrill I felt because I knew what it was just by looking at it.
And a few weeks ago when we watched “The Big Year” I thought of Mr. Bromley driving us in that yellow school bus all afternoon out into the Utah desert just so he could show us a Bald Eagle’s nest.
Mr. Harris, so calm, so collected, taught us about the oceans. He had silt he himself had collected the summer before from the very deep. He let me have some. I had earth that had never before been seen or touched. And when we went to the Monteray Bay Aquarium in California and I sat on the bench and watched the Jellyfish flow in the water like a ballet in blue, I really thought I might cry. I try to recreate that experience every time I visit my aquarium now. Somehow it’s just not the same.
Dr. Heuston expected us to read: a book a week for our American Lit (senior) class. Sometimes it was an easy read – Steinbeck’s “The Red Pony” or Salinger’s “Franny and Zoey” – other times it was heavy, long hours to complete the six hundred pages or so of “Atlas Shrugged” or others. We complained, but he was not swayed. He expected us to be well read, and he expected us to have intelligent thoughts about what we read.
But it wasn’t the books I remember most about Dr. Heuston, it was the physics. At some time during high school I became fascinated with the concept of time dimensions and real eternity. I asked each professor in the science department to explain the various theories, and they all humored me to a point. But I was surprised when they directed me to Dr. Heuston’s office to learn more. And so I sat across from him in his office one day as he answered each question, not talking down to me as a student, but encouraging my curiosity. Finally he turned to his own personal library and began pulling books off the shelf – three, four, five books on the subject of my focus. He loaned me the books from his own library so I could learn more. This single experience led me to love physics, and there was a time in college when I seriously considered declaring it my major.
I never had a class from Mrs. Heuston, the head mistress. Yet each time I passed her in the hall or walked past her office, she would stop me and ask me questions: about myself, my studies, my life outside of school. She was both eloquent and warm, sophisticated and approachable. She encouraged me to take my own mind seriously, she seemed convinced that I had something to offer, even when I had my doubts.
Mr. Watabe, Mr. Dolbin, Mrs. Woller, and Mr. Capener taught me math. Equations and formulas and sin’s and cosin’s – it was never particularly hard for me, but never captured my interest like other subjects. But I remember each class with a fondness as each teacher had patience with me, rehearsing again square roots and inverse solutions for X. And I am surprised how often I have used that knowledge in my everyday non-academic life. I have found that not only do I need the literal application of math in my life, but often the conceptual ideas are applicable as well.
Mr. Rosett who would curse at us in prose so that we didn’t realize the insult until later, and then we would just laugh. He quoted poetry and economic theory, sometimes in the same sentence. I remember a lecture he gave about Shylock and Jessica, and Shakespearean relationships. It’s strange, but that lecture changed my life. Mr. Ralphs taught us something of Greek Mythology, of Socrates, Sophocles and Homer. I quote inside myself the lines of the Odessey when ever I see a rosy-fingered dawn. Mr. Cottle taught us Contra Dancing, which in itself wreaks of geekiness, yet somehow his enthusiasm coupled with the two-to-one guy/girl ratio made that class a total riot!
And Ms. Sorensen, how do you even describe Ms. Sorensen? I did not have a course from her until Writing Colloquium & Bible Lit my senior year. But in her I found I true kindred spirit. She read to us stories of hermit crabs and told us the archetypes of creation and prophets. Yet with every lecture there was a real and tangible promise of hope – not only in the stories of the protagonists, but in our own lives as students and the futures we were on the cusp of facing.
I remember sitting with her at a table in first period, discussing the promises proved by God in the book of Job, and she told us: “Because it’s reading the damn scriptures in the damn bathtub every morning that gets you through it.”
And in that moment my heart soared. I wrote her words down quickly in my notes. And later I repeated the phrase to her. She looked annoyed, with me? with herself? for the starkness of the statement? But in that moment she opened my mind to something I had never considered before: that while we are taught from our births that our actions must be done with purity before God or they profiteth us not, what is often not mentioned is that we are not the ones who purify ourselves. Sometimes it is simply enough to go through the motions. Sometimes that is all that we can place on the altar, and in those times when we feel most unworthy, but most in need, those are the times when God can prove Himself and show His power in our lives.