THE LAST DAY OF THE SIXTIES – Part 3

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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

     one evening

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

     at peace,

and ask yourself, “I wonder

if there are any catfish

in this pond? It seems like

a perfect place for them.”

 

And then…

 

     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…

Oh, Marcia

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

     A

Computer Magic

     A

Writing Letters to Those You love

     A

Finding out about Fish

     A

Marcia’s Long Blonde Beauty

     A+

 

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.

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3 thoughts on “THE LAST DAY OF THE SIXTIES – Part 3

  1. Oh John–that’s when I was teaching in high school too, and what memories you brought back to me! I resorted to fairly carefully chosen lyrics from Simon and Garfunckle and James Taylor and Cat Stephens and the like, and to a wonderful department head who discovered my husband and I were dedicated little theater volunteers. We devloped an elective class in theater arts–non-literary–that was really a mini course in criticism along with hammers and nails and lighting diagrams and acting theory, 12-string guitar and other band instruments–and I guess you get the picture. Those were exciting times when I was learning more than I could teach!

  2. Joan, every day was a new adventure; it was not only exhausting but exhilarating. I love your last line. That’s exactly how I feel. At the time it seemed chaotic, but there was a “you can do anything” spirit I think we all have come to sorely miss.

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