Wednesday, June 27, 2007

the summer after graduating from college, ten years after starting, i went to a high-school reunion that was pretty wild. everyone asked me how i had managed to end up in a cabin out in iowa. i asked them how they managed to get out of buffalo, since i'd never thought they would, and some clearly had. i actually had a lot of friends at that high school, but had more or less buried my memories of it.

back in iowa, though, i wasn't ready to go to graduate school yet, as it had exhausted me, graduating and getting out of college itself. didn't have my application done, hadn't taken the tests, but worse, couldn't bear moving back to iowa city. it seemed like as hard as it was to live in the country, it was better than moving back. i stalled. finally i was offered a job at scattergood high school outside of west branch, and i took it and moved there. i was to be a cook and a dorm sponsor; eventually i taught music also, and worked a little on the farm, feeding chickens, slopping pig barns, etc.

i was surprised that the quakers would take me in as they did, and trust me with their high school kids, but i did well there, and actually had a chance to go back and do high school over again, this time in a small, loving community. by that i mean, in the position i was in, working all the time but still near all those young, smart kids, i got to vicariously experience the innocence of high school that i'd kind of missed. the one thing one can say about it, though, is that although almost everyone experiences high school, and some of us experience it longer than necessary, very few people can really take it, year in, year out, as a permanent thing. i had one foot in graduate school anyway, and started that in my second year at scattergood, i believe.

but the quakers had a deep, permanent influence on me, actually living in a community that was committed to peaceful, deliberate living, and practicing things that christians like to talk about but find so hard to really do, among a group of lively teenagers who were committed to nothing more than just being teenagers, for the most part.

i had an old international travelall, a funky, boxy old thing that let the dust from the roads come up through its wheelwells, and was impossible to find parts for. but even when it became difficult to travel, i wouldn't move to iowa city, even when i began to see it as inevitable. i liked scattergood, but noticed that it was a bottomless pit in terms of the amount one had to put of one's time, life, spirit, into it, with no regard for one's own future. and i didn't mind this, for a while. when i started wanting to go back to graduate school, it became a problem.

one difference with living ten miles east of iowa city, instead of eighteen miles north, was that i now spent more time on the interstate, and quite a bit of time on ruthless gravel that was a shorter route, though much tougher on whatever one drove. it was kind of a wild combination- on top of that, the feeling that, within the community, i was bound by community expectations, a kind of unspoken (well, sometimes-spoken) group ethic, a kind of behavior i'd agreed to, after all- but, upon getting back on this wild gravel, i'd be out, free, on the nyc-sanfrancisco artery again, if only for ten miles. a couple of scattergood students actually did that, got down on the highway and took off, while i was there, but i'd always stop in iowa city, try to work things out in some way or another, and turn around and come back- try and hang in for another round.

i have lots of memories of that era- teaching josie to ride a bicycle; taking her to a farm pond in plato to swim and make a clay pot; having a thanksgiving dinner in a boys dorm; feeding the chickens in a bitter winter where the water froze on me before i could get it to them; blaming it on the maharishi; skating on the pond out on the prairie, with its sod house and high grasses; taking a high school trip with students to a quaker farm community in northwest iowa; pouring cement, building barns and doing healthy kinds of outdoor activity; being fairly successful as a cook, being able to use my mass-production and volunteer-organizing skills from stone soup; yet, being unsuccessful as dorm sponsor, not having much a policeman-instinct or inclination in me, having enough trouble policing myself. but i was able to move into a vacuum- a lack of music teachers- and then, turn around and tell the graduate school that i actually had teaching experience. it was a stretch, but it got me into my first esl classroom- as a graduate student, needing a way to get my m.a., i got an assistantship back at iowa, the very school i'd rejected a few years back. and still, reluctant to even come to town, let alone move there, or get a parking sticker, or in any way join back up in a system that i'd come to have very mixed feelings about. in fact, i'd come to have mixed feelings about both places, iowa city and west branch, with its old hoover village and gravel backroads- but eventually, i got off the fence and just did it. esl, and esl grammar in particular, was a kind of fascination. and i had to just follow it out as far as it would go.


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