THE SIXTIES AGAIN
As I saythe kids at the high school where I found myself teaching didn’t go on to college. Oh maybe one or two went to some kind of car-mechanic training or beautician school. So threat of poor grades or homework assignments or anything didn’t really carry weight. These students were there because their friends were and if they were going to learn anything it had better have some relevance to their life that day. Nathaniel Hawthorne, Thomas Jefferson, F. Scott Fitzgerald…forget it. That’s when I zeroxed this poem by Richard Brautigan:
If I were to live my life
in catfish forms
in scaffolds of skin and whiskers
at the bottom of a pond
and you were to come by
when the moon was shining
down into my dark home
and stand there at the edge
of my affection
and think, “It’s beautiful
here by this pond. I wish
somebody loved me,”
I’d love you and be your catfish
friend and drive such lonely
thoughts from your mind
and suddenly you would be
and ask yourself, “I wonder
if there are any catfish
in this pond? It seems like
a perfect place for them.”
I was trying to describe you to someone a few days ago. You don’t look like any girl I’ve ever seen before.
I couldn’t say: Well, she looks just like Jane Fonda except that she’s got red hair and her mouth is different and of course she’s not a movie star.”
I finally ended up describing you as a movie I saw when I was a child in Tacoma, Washington. I guess I saw it in 1941 or ’42: somewhere in there. I think I was seven or eight or six. It was a movie about rural electrification and a perfect 1930s New Deal morality kind of movie to show kids.
The movie was about farmers living in the country without electricity. They had to use lanterns to see by at night, for sewing and reading, and they didn’t have any appliances, like toasters or washing machines, and they couldn’t listen to the radio.
Then they built a dam with big electric generators and they put poles across the countryside and strung wire over fields and pastures.
There was an incredible heroic dimension that came from the simple putting up of poles for the wires to travel along. They looked ancient and modern at the same time.
Then the movie showed Electricity like a young Greek god coming to the farmer to take away forever the dark ways of his life.
Suddenly, religiously, with the throwing of a switch the farmer had electric lights to see by when he milked his cows in the early black winter mornings.
The farmer’s family got to listen to the radio and have a toaster and lots of bright lights to sew dresses and read the newspaper by.
It was really a fantastic movie and excited me like listening to “The Star-Spangled Banner” or seeing photographs of President Roosevelt or hearing him on the radio.
“…The President of the United States…”
I wanted electricity to go everywhere in the world. I wanted all the farmers in the world to be able to listen to President Roosevelt on the radio.
That’s how you look to me.
And finally I gave my high school kids this. They didn’t know it, but it was how they would be graded…
I want your long blonde beauty
to be taught in high school,
so kids will learn that God
lives like music in the skin
and sounds like a sunshine harpsichord.
I want high school report cards
to look like this:
Playing with Gentle Glass Things
Writing Letters to Those You love
Finding out about Fish
Marcia’s Long Blonde Beauty
What Brautigan brought to those kids was a sense of, not how great and important he was, but how great and important each of them was. One convinced the principal to let him make the morning announcements, a bunch of others started an underground newspaper. “Creative Writing Class” became “Movie Making” and unemployed kids who had graduated the year before joined the cast. And I, who had missed The Sixties was getting a chance to see them first hand all over again.