O Captain My Captain

Moving back to your hometown after fifteen years’ absence naturally means encountering nostalgia and memory on a nearly daily basis. You drive to work, and you pass your old elementary school, the first restaurant you worked in, the place where a pick-up truck ran you off the road on your 12-speed bike into a gravel driveway. And that’s just the first half-mile.

After some time, you start to think about what ever happened to all those people you used to know from the growing-up days, and if any of them are still around. Of course the inclination is to think of these people as frozen in time from the last time you saw them — older and wiser, perhaps, but not fundamentally different. If anything, you imagine they will be just like they were when you knew them, only more so.

And sometimes you run into them, and things are different, and the same, and cool in a way you could never have anticipated.

Today was the reading for the winners of the writing contest that I entered and won some time ago. I was pretty happy to have been a winner, never having entered such a thing before, but I wasn’t making too big a deal about it. I didn’t even tell my family, and told my husband he didn’t have to come see me read, so I went alone.

The reading was held in the bookstore at the mall, which wouldn’t have been my first choice, but, as you may have noticed, I’m not in charge around here. There were already a ton of people there when I walked in, and I inched my way up to the podium to sign in with the organizers.

I had managed to stay reasonably stress-free about the whole Public Reading thing because (1) I didn’t think there would be that many people there, and (2) I’m used to public speaking. I was misleading myself on both these points because (1) there were tons of people there, and (2) I’ve never read any of My Own Writing in public before. Turns out this makes a difference. Oh well, live and learn.

I sat down, after picking up the program that was placed on my reserved seat. I was horrified to scan the order of readers and find that I was listed last. The organizer approached me just then and introduced herself, saying how excited she was to hear my thingy. Said she had lobbied for my piece to be last so that we would “end with a bang.”

I hoped this would be a good thing.

But before my palms can start sweating in earnest, I notice another name on the list, just above mine. It was my old Honors English teacher from high school. I mean, that teacher. The one that really mattered.

She was the one who told me to apply to the Breadloaf Young Writers’ Conference my senior year. I got in, and she drove me up to Middlebury, Vermont, that weekend in her red convertible, with the top down on a glorious New England spring day. I can’t do justice to the shade of green of the fields around the campus that week in May, or how it felt to be in a college setting for the first time, and to be considered bright and promising. On the last day of the conference, I went exploring in the woods with a guy I had developed one of those lightning-quick teenage crushes on. We wandered for an hour or two past a rushing, tumbling mountain stream that was just feeling the spring rush of meltwater, ducked for cover during a sudden thunderstorm, then suddenly emerged onto a field of brilliant green lawn, sparkling from the brief, intense rainfall, and looked up to see a double rainbow in the sky.

It was like that.

She took me once that winter to see a play — I forget what the production was — and during intermission, as we mingled with the hardy throng of winter theater-goers, she suddenly grabbed my arm and urgently whispered Do you know who that is??? I didn’t recognise him at first, but I was already a huge fan of Edward Gorey, and she was brazen enough to grab me by the elbow and steer me over to him to introduce ourselves and pay our respects to the man.

How lucky am I?

When it was time to choose our topics for our term papers, she went around the room (our chairs were, of course, in a circle), peered in each of our eyes for a few seconds, and then pronounced which subject she thought we would most like to research, based on what she knew about us, and how we wrote.

My friend Ariel, she told her Sartre. Ariel was instantly turned on. That cool freaky art chick Andrea, she told her to report on Dada and its adherents. That was also an overnight success. Me, she said to me, Yeats.

Man, was she right.

So we reconnected. And we saw each other read our own work in public. And we promised to get together soon to catch up.

I guess leaving the house once in a while really does have its merits.

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