I wrote this for Open Salon two years ago. It seemed timely for graduation season, so here it is again.
I never saw a wild thing sorry for itself.
A small bird will drop frozen dead from a bough
Without ever having felt sorry for itself.
I thought of the D.H. Lawrence poem “Wild Thing” today while my Advisory student Issac gave his senior portfolio presentation.
Before you think I’m smart, I only thought of this poem because one of my favorite actors (Viggo Mortensen) quotes it in one of my favorite movies (G.I. Jane). The poet evokes the thoughtless courage of a bird losing to the elements without complaining. The poem implies that while birds do not complain, people do, and complaining is neither brave nor useful. At least that is what Viggo and I got out of it.
The senior portfolio is a series of reflective essays, college acceptance letters, awards and other evidence of the four-year walk across the childhood-to-adulthood bridge that is high school. Many of our students have been through so much crap that the stories they tell during presentations can make their teachers cry. Panels get boxes of tissue along with the folders of rubrics and schedules.
I admire my students more than they know for their perseverance despite drug-addicted and/or incarcerated parents, gunshot wounds, homelessness, crushing poverty, family members lost to violent death or suicide or disease. I’m not as strong as they are and never will be, but I’ve been teaching long enough that I thought I was immune to the boo-hoo. Tears don’t help anyone anyway. Tears are embarrassing and misplace attention onto the crier. I am most helpful to my students if I model the example of the poet’s bird. I am stoic and I hold on to the bough.
Enter Issac, the last of my Advisory students to present today. All of my guys did a great job. I was ready to enjoy Issac’s final presentation. He is an accomplished scholar, an exemplary school citizen. We live in the same neighborhood so I see him at the pool looking after his brothers in the summertime. I know that he has spent the past four years recovering from getting hit by a car, and that his college acceptances will have to wait while he works to make money to support his six siblings. I know Issac’s parents have abdicated their responsibilities to an extraordinary degree. I know Issac. I do.
He looked handsome today in his pressed shirt and tie. He opened his portfolio and started with the story about the day in ninth grade when he walked with his friend along a busy street. A speeding car lost control and the last thing Issac remembers seeing is a “flash of white”. After that all he remembers is pain. His femur was broken in half. His face was shattered.
His friend remembers that day differently. He remembers walking with Issac along a busy street. Then Issac pushed him out of the way and took the full force of that speeding car onto himself.
Issac rarely tells this story. When he does talk about it, he does so with no trace of self-pity. I know it’s hard to imagine. I feel sorry for myself when my lips are chapped. Meanwhile my student Issac suffers daily physical discomfort from an act of courage he doesn’t even remember and yet he never once feels sorry for himself.
Issac works hard in school and he is a highly capable student. He deserves his college acceptance to a university two hours away from his hometown, and the financial aid and scholarships that come with it. But he is staying home to care for his siblings. If he doesn’t, they will surely be scattered to the vagaries of foster care. He will go to a community college then transfer to the local university. As his Advisor, I would love to be able to tell Issac to cut ties and follow his dreams. Yet I admire and support his decision to keep his family intact.
There won’t be fraternity rushing or years studying abroad for Issac. He isn’t getting any carefree young adult years. He hasn’t even had a childhood. His brothers are having theirs, though. I’ve seen them at the pool. They are healthy and playful and reasonably happy. Issac pushes them free of the path of out-of-control destruction every day of his life.
Issac shared his portfolio with the panel while I sat in the back of the room. He loves his family. He is proud of his accomplishments and he looks forward to graduation. He isn’t humble because he doesn’t see his actions as special enough to be proud of in the first place. He clings to the bough of life with a stoicism that finally, after he left the room, made me break down and cry.
Many of my students go about the functions of their daily lives with a selflessness and devotion to family that I hardly every think about because if I did then I would lose hold of my own bough. My guys don’t need my tears or even my admiration. They need me to edit their essays and bring them donuts and remind them to tuck in their shirts. They need me to be as wild as they are.
I get just tonight to reflect on Issac and his Advisory brothers. Tomorrow, I will nag them about their grades. They will make inappropriate jokes and I will yell at them for being gross.
I will hold in my tears. I will hold in my sorrow that life was not more just and fair to these young men who deserved better. I will shake hands on graduation night and I will smile. I will say congratulations and I will say good-bye.
I will be the wild thing too