Close your eyes, hold your nose and jump!
Shimmy in, inch by inch.
Step. down. the. ladder.
Look out below!! SPLASH
Test the water …
Sit with feet dangling
Sunning and dipping. Sunning and dipping.
Dive: Lap, lap, lap, lap, lap, lap.
You can tell a lot about a person by how they enter the pool.
How do you get in?
As I look down this tunnel of books packed floor to ceiling, I hear… du-doo, du-doo, du-doo, du-doo. I am pretty sure Rod Serling is about to tell me I have crossed over into … “The Twilight zone.”
I am standing in the back of a small bookstore in Lake Junaluska, NC. On entering, I ran nearly headlong into the first stacks of books, and the mustiness of decades wafted past me, sprinting for the freedom of the fresh air before I let the door close behind me. I, on the other hand, am trapped.
Any sensible person would have about-faced and bolted. But these are books: floor to ceiling, stacked backward and sideways, piled high on the floors, even on new shelves created by recalcitrant volumes not satisfied to stand they lay and allow more to be piled upon them. And not just in one aisle, but many, many aisles. Row after row of treasured tomes, perhaps a hundred thousand; my Dad would have had to calculate for sure. But even he would have been stymied because behind what shows forth is another. That is, when you pull out one item, another is behind it, and another. Their spines are laid flat or backed in, as if their pages could protect their identity.
But they cannot. Not to the curious. It is this promise of buried treasure that draws me in. And not only into the store but actually down the center aisle. Looking left and right, I recognize a few of the book covers and I can see they have been sorted according their contents, though only the random sticky note shoved in between even hints at the general category. An unseen hand has collected each and every book and has placed it with its fellows. The proprietor of the bookstore who offered a cheery hello and a “can I help you find something?” and an “I’ve got everything, don’t you think I deserve a few dollars?” when we came in. Forty years worth of collecting and more years of living are represented in these shelves. I have wandered in, unaccompanied, so I tug a book or two from the shelves to thumb through, in the unlikely expectation that I’ll ever successfully re-shelve them if I decide not to purchase.
I dig under a pile of popular magazines and arrive at a 1987 edition whose cover feature raves about this new technology that will save lives: magnetic resonance imaging. MRIs that regularly do save lives and limbs and are beamed into my house via computer to my radiologist husband. What I hold in my hands is ancient history, yet telling for its prediction of the future which I know know. I brush off the dusty cover and attempt to re-stack the magazines as I found them.
What else is here? Everything, it seems, yet so completely jumbled how would I ever find it? What a dilemma. I am standing amid all the world’s answers and haven’t a single means to find what I am looking for. This quest feels all too real and very distressing.
Still, I make my way, boldly to the end of the aisle. I’ve begun; why stop now? Arriving at the end, I must sidestep to make the turn. From here I spot Melanie, my cohort and partner in crime on this day, hovering near the entry-way. She is not leaving the safety of the entrance; I snap a photo, focusing on her in the distant tunnel. For a moment she seems very far away and the walls of books threaten to topple or to burst into flame.
Silly me. What an imagination!
But then the photo. The books seem to spin, the luminescence, haunting. It is not outside me but in. The brilliant light, a nerve cell, perhaps a brain cell, carrying information at warp speed. It sprints past my memories, my experiences, my past. All of it is so distorted and disorganized it can’t be retrieved.
Now that is the Twilight Zone.
An excerpt reads: Her father, a hard-drinking, ardent moonshiner when he wasn’t in prison, and her mother, often showing mental illness from an earlier brain injury, raised their four children in some of the grimmest circumstances that you will ever read about. Both parents were extremely abusive during Mary’s childhood and she also reveals the trauma she and her siblings suffered at the hands of teachers, principals and members of the community as a “dirt” poor child.
Perhaps Judith has managed life by accelerating past all these terrible memories riding that neon neuron for safe passage along the ceiling. The clutter that only she can organize is on display in that little bookstore. Her livelihood, perhaps, but certainly her life turned inside out. God bless her; she is a survivor. She keeps collecting more books.
Every class has those kids. The smart ones, the curve-breakers, who pick it up early and run with it. They get it on the first go around. Hardly need our help at all. They have natural aptitude. Sit in the front of the class, graduate first in their class. They are on their way. Hardly need us. Did they ever need us? this is easy.
Then there are those other kids. The struggling ones, the faltering ones. They don’t pick it up early, so they come for extra help. We don’t see eye to eye. They just don’t get it. I tell it to them again and again. The other kids got it, why can’t they? They are stumped. They need us to see it the way they see it, so we can help them. this is hard.
Then there are those kids. The defiant ones, the failing ones. They don’t pick it up at all, but they don’t come to us for help. They’ve given up, not on us, but on themselves. These need our help most of all, but we don’t know how to help them. Don’t know how to reach them. If they’d come, we’d talk baseball or girl friends, we’d share movies we like or programs we watch. Maybe we would get to telling stories. this is harder still.
Teaching, lacing up the sneakers and going one on one with our world’s greatest natural resource, is the hardest job on earth and the greatest gift we can give. The capable ones will get it without us, but the others stretch us. Sometimes nearly to the breaking point.
And there’s no guarantee. They may fall away anyway in spite of our efforts, but let it not be because of our efforts. Never, ever, because of our efforts. We reach and keep reaching. We re-invent and re-organize. We create new ways to approach an old concept. We make models and draw diagrams. We sketch and color, paint and draw. We use our bodies and our boards. We use our minds, hearts and souls. We call on all the resources we have at hand to teach this one. The least common denominator. Who sits across from us…stumped, frustrated, confused. Who fumes and throws up his hands. “I’ll never get this!”
And we take a deep breath and smile an honest, sincere smile that reflects the truest of hearts. “You will. Let’s try again another way.” And so you do.
One day the quality of my work will be judged by my attention to the least common denominator.