A few days ago I randomly started looking through some old photographs, literary magazines, and various other things related to my years as a teacher at Vista de las Cruces School in Gaviota. I wonder sometimes what to do with all this stuff and I’ve had a thought that maybe I could donate it to the school, assuming there is someone willing to curate such artifacts of its history and alumni. (I am quite sure I’m not the only one with such an accumulation; teachers are notorious pack rats and sentimentalists, and perhaps language arts teachers more than the norm.) I even posted a few of the photographs on Facebook, which seems a tepid sort of fate, although I got a few smile-evoking comments. The children in these pictures are all grown up now, but maybe more time needs to pass before these items are truly interesting. I just don’t know that I want to be the storage facility, especially since I still have my own family memorabilia to deal with, much of which is contained in the trunk of pain. That’s what’s nice about this Vista stuff. There are a few hidden stories that do make me sad, but most of it is just sweet.
It brought to mind something unusual, though, that I had not thought about in years: My very first year of teaching at Vista involved a cross-country trip by rail with a handful of middle school students. Isn’t that odd? Vista had newly adopted an experiential program called The Paradise Project, which was created by Eric Mortenson and Larry O’Keefe, two teachers from Vermont. Mort and Mr. O, as the kids called them, had begun the program in 1976 at a middle school in Burlington. It’s hard to explain, but it involved kids taking on greater responsibility and leadership roles, learning skills by doing, and traveling all over the country interviewing people, staying with host families, and writing about it afterwards, and for many students, it was life-changing. (About a year ago, Mort and Larry finished a memoir and manual about Paradise Project, and it’s 434 pages…big pages, small-ish type, single-spaced…so you can appreciate why I don’t intend to explain it all here.) Anyway, Mr. O and Mort were amazing mentors for the new teacher that I was, and maybe because I was so new, I was the one assigned to go by train to Vermont with Mort and a handful of Vista students and teach for a couple of weeks in an urban middle school, while Mr. O was traveling West to little Gaviota with some kids from Burlington. Believe me, nothing about teaching at Vista was ever ordinary, but this cross-country exchange was radical…and controversial. (Another long story. I thought it would be a great adventure, and it was, but of course what we learn is seldom what we expected.)
Right now, though, I am remembering that train ride. Oh, it was long! I had not realized how crazily restless and claustrophobic I am, how incapable of sitting for long stretches, and how slowly time passes when you’re on a train. I guess that’s part of its appeal for some. You’re supposed to just get into train mode, which is a more humane and genteel form of travel than flying. You can have leisurely conversations with fellow travelers, newly met, in the dining car, and you certainly see the country, or at least the backyards and factory lots and vast empty stretches along the track. The middle school kids who took that train ride will never underestimate how big this country is.
So anyway, in one of those boxes in the garage I found some old snapshots and literary magazines, and it all came rushing back, in particular the train poems! The kids managed to do homework, play cards, and sleep well (something I found utterly impossible). I suppose it was all like a holiday for them, and they maintained an incongruous mix of wonder and stupefying boredom. Mort and I, on the other hand, occasionally scribbled little poems and thoughts and snippets of conversation as we rattled along “…with the sons of Pullman porters and the sons of engineers on their father’s magic carpets made of steel” (to borrow Arlo Guthrie’s words.) Here, then, are a couple of our train poems, newly unearthed from the garage.
Like Two Ships Passing by Mort
Our trains passed at 4:05 a.m.streaking 80 miles per hour across the dark horizon.
Blurred shadows, a streak of light, more blurred shadows, and gone.
I was sitting in the observation car and I thought I saw Mr. O. sitting in his.
I waved and walked back to my car to sleep.
Joliet by Cynthia
Well-served by rail
this puddled muddle of a town
church spires poke its tired sky
rag tag buildings stand shoulder to shoulder
spring calls ahead and leaves anemic messages in mud.
The Pride of Brooklyn by Mort
“He played at Ebbett’s Field,” she said, referring to her husband, seated next to her.
“He even hit a home run. And I was there, cheering him on.”
It was said with so much pride.
In a low voice, almost an aside, he said, “I pitched a two-hitter
in the City Championship game. I thought about bein’ a major leaguer,
but then the war came, and when it was over, everybody got out at once,
and there was too much competition…” His voice trailed off
as he slipped back into his dream of how it might have been.
Hal and Audrey by Cynthia
She was a dish, and he the spoon,
but the years took their toll. It’s been many a moon
since he smiled when she walked into the room.
Snapshot by Mort
His wheels touching the grass tops,
the small crop duster played with the Kansas horizon.