Love finds us in unlikely places and at unexpected times. And is most insistent when it does. We know this. The world’s great religions tell us it is so. This is one such story. It is a love story. It is my love story. In many ways I believe it to be your love story too.
I don’t know why the change occurred, why the “eyes met” and I fell in love with teaching in general and independent schools in particular. Such a meeting of eyes was dubbed “Amor” by the troubadours of the Middle Ages and defined by mythologist Joseph Campbell as an “individual connection that brings with it the highest of personal experiences and bonds two entities inextricably together.”
No, I don’t know why the change occurred. Looking back, though, there were hints that a serious affair was in the offing. Take that early flirtation at Seminole Senior High School, Seminole, Florida, Mrs. Bricker’s combined junior/senior English sections, student teacher, senior year, Eckerd College. Reporting on day two, prepared to observe as on day one, the eyes of schooling blinked briefly open and offered the first breathtaking glimpse of the seduction within.
The seventeen and eighteens and I, a twenty-three, stood milling in the dusky hallway staring at the locked door. As the minutes dragged on, students turned to look at me. Me? Oh, Right! I was the adult. “OK, ok, I will go and get the key.”
“Who? Connor? Oh, right. Uh, Mrs. Bricker is sick. A sub has been called.” Awash in my tender years with absolute confidence in adults, and having it confirmed by the matronly assistant reminding of saintly Aunt Margie, I hustled back to the huddled mass, shakily inserted the key, turned my wrist, and, with the softest of pushes, swung open the door.
A Bronx cheer erupted. Tough crowd. The brightest and largest of five sections.
The students moved to their seats while I sought refuge in the top right corner behind a battered teacher’s desk, framed before the windows, flanked by wooden lecterns. We settled in to wait. Silence reigned. The door, the clock, were vertically stacked. We stared at both, expectant. I for an adult to appear. Any adult would do. They, for an adult not to appear. My back was growing damp.
“Stay calm,” I whispered. “But do something.”
I remembered a story about a young soldier who was fearless in battle but a whimpering pitiful hulk in the hours before. Better to charge that machine gun nest. Thank goodness I had read the assignment.
“Get out your textbooks!” Twenty-nine tomes thumped open as if one. Rising from my foxhole, uh, desk, amazed by the sound, I wanted to quip, “Hey, Gang, it’s just me. Jimmy. Ol’ Jimbo. Just a student, too! But this Caesar had crossed his Rubicon.
Dragging a lectern before me as a shield, I moved to the classroom’s center. “Let’s look at assigned questions on page 243. Who wants to try the first one?”
His head jerked before his hand flew. Joel, the class gad fly and intellectual. He had countered Mrs. Bricker beautifully the day before. We eyed each other. That banking career my Uncle John had once dangled looked better and better. I knew Joel was smarter than I.
Our reading comparing the Odyssey to the Old Testament yielded the query, “Who is more powerful, Superman or Yahweh?” I waited. Then it happened. The schooling life winked playfully and delivered, as if to an anxious batter, a waist high fastball, a pitch to turn on and drive toward the gap. Not a homer. I did not have that kind of power yet, but two bases for sure.
Joel had chosen Superman. I, a religion minor, knew a thing or two about Yahweh Elohim Sabaoth. I waited for him to finish.
Suddenly the clock was moving too fast. I sensed respect and affection budding between my students, and they were my students now, and me. Mrs. Bricker, don’t rush back. And she didn’t. The substitute? I needn’t have worried. She/he never arrived. My eyes were lifting in response. A crush was on. Second period, come right in!
My Tenth Grade English class was taking a test that North Carolina November afternoon. Nineteen heads bowed, arms crooked, pens scraping, the scene was ordinary, the day routine, my mind skimming over the mundane. Standing In the rear of the room, out of nowhere, indescribable joy rose up in ambush. This was no come on wink. More a searching, expectant gaze. Riveted, I stared in return. Breaking away, my eyes swept over the room, noting the tints of color aglow in the hair of each tilted head. Wendy, Rusty, Bob, Tracy, Tim, Will… I love you. I am happy!
That euphoria passed all too soon. By spring my head had been turned. Teaching was too easy to date, a poor man’s paramour. Little prestige, less money; attractive and fun for a while but surely not the love of my life. Surely. Yet, there was something about those eyes…
And, so, I proved hard to get, searching now for lashes that were longer. Journalism, law school, business, blind dates all, one-night stands. What to do? Where to turn? Slowly into focus, in moments of quiet, moments when dreams flow by day and the subconscious stirs and the spiritual speaks, moments at Sunday Service while the preacher rolled down mercy like a mighty stream, came the green light blinking at the end of Daisy’s dock, Willie Stark’s car heading up Highway 58…”and it is a good highway and new,” Boo Radley coming out, Egdon Heath, ferns snapping in the wind. The eyes were rising again. The fool was to be forgiven. Just when? Just how? No longer did I care about why.
Late afternoon, pacing alone, office door closed, depressed, anxious, trapped in this consultant’s role with Robert Allen Associates, the phone rang. “Jim, this is Bud, Bud Kast. Why don’t you come up to GA. There is something I want to speak to you about.” Instantly the Red Sea parted, my water turned back into wine. I knew Bud would offer my old job. “Sure, Bud. Sure. When’s good for you?”
Joseph Campbell teaches that when we follow our bliss unseen hands appear to help us along the path. Teaching, coaching, raising money, grad school, a headship, those hands kept rising, those eyes kept looking, looking straight at me. And I kept looking straight back.
For all Amor has given to me, it has asked for much in return. Two years ago, in Charleston’s summer rain, the fire banked, cooled. Out in the gray, Retirement, finger crooked, beckoned. The affair seemed ended. Then, in the sanctuary on a Wentworth Street Sunday, a spark, a minister’s message: “the gifts we are given are to be shared.”
Allen Tongue and I missed each other at the Lauderdale airport. He, taking the initiative, had come upstairs to meet me by the escalator. I, the fitness freak, had chosen to take the stairs. United, we laugh, begin walking to the van, talking football and family. The eyes begin to rise. Dare I meet them?
I have no choice. The gate swings open, the students pass, walking, calling, laughing in the slanting light. My pace quickens. My smile widens. My eyes lift and lock in. Yes, the passion, the promise, even the playful twinkle, remain. I am in the front of Mrs. Bricker’s classroom once again returning that come on wink. No, I don’t know why the change occurred, but here I am, my colleagues, ready for more dance, ready for one more fling.