Monday, September 21, 2015
Come Back When You Can
Come Back When You Can
by Rocky Rutherford
When I was a kid at Colonial Drive I used to visit Miss Johnson, who lived up on Spring Street hill from us, and we'd read and recite poetry on her screened-in side porch. I had found out she taught at THS and was the best English teacher in the world. Somehow I loved poetry almost as much as I loved love. And since I was in love every other day, she could, so I figured, help me say with poetry what I needed to say to all my loves. Pretending I was soliciting lawns to mow, I tried selling her my services, even had my push mower with me. She knew better and listened patiently as I rattled on about my love for muses, poetic juices, and bolts of inspiration from the poetry gods.
"What do you want, McQueen Hamilton Dillahey?" There was no hustling her.
"Iwanttolearntobeapoet," I said in one marble mouthed sentence so garbled she blinked.
"Do you know any poetry?" Even before the words left her I started quoting:
"There's blood on the saddle, there's blood on the ground, there's blood on the saddle and a great big puddle on the ground." This did not impress her, she even caught her breath. Thinking she was going to excuse me I jumped in on Trees: I think that I shall never see a poem lovely as a tree, A tree whose hungry mouth is pressed to the earth's sweet flowing breast." Which seemed to assuage the situation and she asked me to sit.
Miz Johnson had this way of taking in whatever she saw quickly and critically. I had heard she was tough and would not tolerate nonsense and silliness. I might have been silly at times but I didn't mean to be, I was not trying to make her like me, I was trying to induce her to teach me poetry. While I sat there listening I hoped she would notice the fine job I had done starching and pressing my jeans, and how bright (I bleached it) my t shirt was. My worn but clean Chuck Taylor's looked good, didn't smell. Early that morning I had taken a bath and furiously brushed down my tow-headed cow lick. I brushed my teeth till my gums bled. And I remembered my mother's words. When you face a problem that calls for class, when you get in a situation that demands courage, or when you stand up to the world to get what you want...Act Like Somebody... She didn't say go to college, make a million dollars, get a whole bunch of credentials, she said Act Like Somebody. To me this meant act like I already had what I wanted or was whoever I wanted to be and I would get it or be that person. Advice that worked for me all my life all over the world. I was good at acting to get what I wanted by acting like somebody.
Sitting there with Miz Johnson my mind was on her every word, every gesture, every expression. Every move she made meant something. I wanted to learn poetry so I acted like it and she sensed that. At first I was shy, self conscious, and awkward. To me she was a goddess and twelve year old tow- headed street rat cowboys are authorized to be discombobulated in the presence of deity
We agree to meet once a month at 8 o'clock on Saturday morning. I was to mow the grass but I'd get paid for it then we would talk poetry for one hour.
Was that satisfactory, McQueen Hamilton Dillahey? It was.
She had every minute planned. The first thirty she read or recited, mesmerizing, charming, captivating me with her soft, Southern, Carolina voice, so kind yet firm and solid. I watched her breathe, how her chest rose and fell with the flow of her voice, and I listened to and for the changes in sound that often carried more meaning than the words. I studied her face, the way she showed meaning in a sideways glance, or sorrow in tearing eyes, or happiness in a big moonbeam smile that made my heart jump. When she cried I cried, when she laughed I laughed.
Then it was my turn. For the next thirty minutes I copy catted her which made her chuckle now and then. But she never embarrassed me or made me feel inferior, no, she made me stand tall and believe in myself and believe that poetry was good for life and soul. Then we talked about the poems, what they meant to me, how they affected me, how they sounded in my heart, and why I must always listen for their precious voices. She heard them and she wanted me to hear them. I tried with all my heart and a I think I heard them a few times but never as she. It was always inside her, this precious voice.
I guess special is the word I feel most comfortable with when I describe Miz Johnson, so special, because she took the time to give a deep and lovely part of herself to a snot nosed kid like me. She taught me love comes from within and sometimes it is cruel, unnecessary, but it is there and as long as it breathes it will surface in all its goodness. If you allow it, McQieen Hamilton Dillahey, if you allow it.
Many times in my world of violent and choreographed death I fought my way back to sanity because of that sweet voice of poetry that Miz Johnson helped me find. For solace and help I drifted back to that little elfin grot screened-in porch, back to the twelve year old who didn't know who he was or where he was going and I lived those halcyon mornings over and over until I heard her voice calling up the muses. Then, no matter the horrible or sinister situation I lived, or how deranged I had become, love and peace came as she said they would and I walked through the valley of the shadow of death, came out the other end that same big eyed, idealistic, boy, tired but whole.
We met in softt Spring, hazy Summer, vibrant Fall, and in the deep of Winter, always on the side porch. And then, so quickly, and without warning it ended. I knew it was coming. I would be entering my freshman year at THS. No longer a poetry struck boy, I wobbled just on the cusp of manhood, not in experience, but in those shaky years when life is so uncertain and cruel. My life changed.
I didn't want to go to high school and I would have quit had I not made a promise I do my best to go and graduate. That last September Saturday morning we met after Labor Day we both knew it would be the last. From now on I'd see her as English teacher.
I sat in my usual chair and tried not to be sad. Again she sensed my feelings and quickly dispensed with the nonsense "Life goes on, McQueen Hamilton Dillahey, life goes on." "Yes, Mam."
"I have a special poem I'd like us to share. It may take our whole hour but I think it is most appropriate." I nodded because I could not speak and waited for her to open her The Art of Reading Poetry. Even though she had her place marked, she hesitated, and looked over the top edge of the book at me. She blinked then looked away. Miz Johnson, I wanted to say, let's try to find a way to keep meeting and reading poetry. I 've never told anyone and I won't ever tell. She waited and I knew it was for the nonsense welling up inside me to subside. She knew emotion and she knew how to control it, I knew nothing and my feelings hung out for the world to see. Though it was warm, humid, I shook like a dog shitting razor blades; I tried to stop but couldn't and sat choking down tears and shivering. After all this time I was going back to being what I was, a whining, sniveling, snot nosed street rat cowboy. I gripped the arms of my chair and forced myself under control. I'm fifteen and it's time I acted like a man. Something in the yard fluttered from a bush near the porch and landed on the birdbath, a strange bird, one I had never seen before. It looked straight at me, right into my eyes with its big surprised ones. An owl? In broad daylight? "Do you not hear the Aziola cry?" it screeched and busted skyward over the mimosas, gone as it came.
"St. Agnes' Eve-Ah, bitter chill it was!
The owl, for all his feathers, was a-cold;The hare limp'd trembling through the frozen grass, And silent was the flock in woolly fold:"
It was a long poem but I listened and watched her make the beautiful, sweet sounds of poetry. Sounds not words. She did not, this time, look over her book to see if I was paying attention. She hypnotized me and she knew it. She wanted me in that realm of gold, that world of poetry she knew and wanted to share. Her voice told me she neared the end and I lowered my head to catch the last echo of our Saturday morning poetry world.
"And they are gone: aye, ages long ago
These lovers fled away into the storm."
Silence. I lifted my shaggy head to see her looking over the rim of her book at me. With that trinkle smile she said as she lowered and closed the book "Come back when you can."
In high school I failed Latin my freshman year; my sophomore year I failed chemistry, and algebra my junior year. Overall I was a very poor student and did just enough to get by and get out. But one thing I never did: I never failed English, actually made very good grades, even an E X E lent now and then.
I saw little of Miss Johnson my high school years but I did not stop reading, reciting and even writing poetry, pitiful as it was. When I was in trouble I recited something like El Dorado, when scared it might be La Belle Dame Sans Merci, and when I was lonely and scared it might be The Shepherd's Psalm (Psalm 23). Most of my classes bored me and no matter how hard I tried I could not "pay attention." So I memorized poetry to get me through
Chemistry (the second time around), History, Social Studies, whatever. I toted my little Palgrave's everywhere. I slipped it inside the leaves of bigger books I was supposed to be studying and instead of putting together chemistry compounds and algebraic formulas I read of Casabianca, the boy who "stood on the burning deck/Whence all but he had fled;/The flame that lit the battle's wreck/Shone round him o'er the dead," or "How do I love thee? Let me count the ways." I didn't learn much practicality but I learned how to hide myself in silver dreams and swim with silver swans and "pluck till time and times are done the silver apples of the moon, the golden apples of the sun."
Miz Johnson always had a quick glance for me with that trinkle smile that told me she'd always be a part of my life. My last day in her class I hung back just to say good bye. She had heard I signed a baseball contract and was off to the majors. I had memorized Elizabeth Barrett Brownings's Sonnet 43 to do for her but it just didn't seem to fit when the time came to do it. Someday I'd come back and do it for her.
"You be the best baseball player in the world," she said, and then looked at me with that little trinkle (my word) smile "Go, McQueen Hamilton Dillahey, come back when you can." I know I shouldn't have done this but I pecked her on the cheek before she could back up and I took off for Arizona.
Years later, after returning from an assignment, I visited her at her little brick house on Spring Street with the screened-in side porch and we sat there in a soft spring evening and she read again Mister Wordsworth's ode, Intimations of Immortality From Recollections of Early Childhood. This time I did not interrupt or turn my mind to fleeting thinsg or nothings written on the wind. I listened and she read as only she could:
What though the radiance which was so bright
Be now forever taken from my sight,
Thought nothing can bring back the hour
Of splendor in the grass, of glory in the flower;
We will grieve not, rather find
Strength in what remains behind;
In the primal sympathy
Which having been must ever be;
In the soothing thoughts that spring
Out of human suffering;
In the faith that looks through death, In years that bring the philosophic mind.
Her neat hair had silvered and mine was getting there but that trinkle smile still enchanted me. Like poetry it said things only the poetry lover could understand. She had touched me deeply and she knew it and we would always share that, never talk about it, but share it.
The last words I heard her say on that little stoop outside her screen-in porch come to me when I need peace and there is no other place to turn but to memory. I hear the soft sounds and see that trinkle smile "Come back when you can, McQueen Hamiliton Dillahey."