Wednesday, February 11, 2009

`Momentary Wonder'

The day started with an automated telephone call. I had gone to bed Monday night, newly hired by the school district as a substitute “para-educator,” confident no such call would wake me. Now I had two hours to report for duty. The streets were ice-covered and the school unprepared for the freeze. I was greeted by a janitor throwing salt from a coffee can, who told me to go inside and find traffic cones, and was assigned to a special-education class with two kindergarteners and four first-graders. All day I thought of Yeats’ poem:

“…the children's eyes
In momentary wonder stare upon
A sixty-year-old smiling public man.”

They wouldn’t let the goatish old fool anywhere near a school today, and I’m a private man and not yet sixty, but I was smiling most of the time. I can’t remember spending seven hours on my feet since my first job, in a carwash more than 40 years ago. I helped a 5-year-old master the letter “P.” In math class, I counted navy and pinto beans. During lunch duty I watched a 5-year-old consume the contents of a mayonnaise packet and ask for seconds. I read aloud a book about a mouse named Geronimo Stilton. All day, I monitored behavior (mine, theirs) and experienced the self-forgetting of useful work performed attentively.

In his thirties, Chekhov became the most generous of writers. He treated thousands of patients, mostly illiterate peasants, and never charged them. At his own expense he built a fire station, clinic and three schools. In an 1899 letter to his friend and editor Alexey Suvorin, Chekhov writes of the schools:

“…they are considered models of their kind. They are built of the best materials. The rooms are 12 feet high, they have Dutch stoves, the teacher has a fireplace and the teacher’s apartment is a decent size – three to four rooms [Chekhov’s childhood house had five rooms for a family of eight].”

One of the schools is in Yalta, where Chekhov moved in 1899, hoping for relief from the tuberculosis that would kill him in five years. The director of the school said that when his health permitted, Chekhov, who had no children of his own, visited every week and enjoyed sitting on a chair outside her office, talking with students.


ricpic said...

They wouldn't let the goatish old fool anywhere near a school today...

Yes. The Left has done a superb job of sowing fear and distrust of others. What's left standing? The State. Only the State can protect us against all those lurking dangerous others out there.

I'll never forgive them what they've done to our world. It used to be that growing up a boy had a cadre of uncles, both blood relatives and unrelated men in the neighborhood, who served as examples of what a boy should be and what a boy should not be. An invaluable resource they were. All gone now. Why should a stranger risk everything to impart some wisdom, or to reprimand, a child not his?

You did well, soldiers of the enlightenment. We're all separate and afraid now.

Anonymous said...

Wow, that sounds like a pretty cool job - obviously using no more than 10% of what you can do, but better than data entry or working as a supermarket cashier.

The Tempest said...

I really enjoy your site, you write beautifully and with a lot of heart. And now I must read Chekhov, which i haven't since college, and mix with Boyd. Thanks.