четверг, 19 января 2012 г.

The Lesson

By William Bingham

Teaching is not a lost art, but the regard for it is a lost tradition.
~Jacques Barzun

On the southeast corner of Star Ridge Road and Route 6 in Brewster, New York, a rundown ATI gas station beckons travelers north and south, east and west. Two mighty interstates cross nearby and the steady drone of their traffic is a constant presence. Brewster is a small border town, lying on an imaginary divide between upstate New York and what at times seems like the rest of the world. The ATI is a catchall kind of joint, a throwback to the old garage-style coffee stops of rural America, only maybe not as picturesque. Hard to find one of these in upscale Westchester County just across the line to the south. Way too grassroots for Westchester County.
Inside, there is no place to sit, only narrow aisles and shelves crammed with everything from imported English chocolates to engine oil. You can get good, hot coffee at all hours, a fresh doughnut, or an icy beer for the road. I have two friends who work the mornings there. Gus, the owner, is a soft-spoken man from India who handles the register and makes the best fried egg sandwich in Brewster. And Page, a robust horseman in his sixties with a round, friendly face and eyes that smile at you when he speaks, greets everyone who comes through the door. That's because Page knows everyone who comes through the door.

"How are things up on that mountain?" he would inquire loudly, referring to the small private school where I work in Kent, Connecticut. The campus occupies over seventy acres on top of one of the tallest mountains in the state.

"Just fine," was my usual reply. Only this particular Saturday morning in February things weren't really fine. I had left my house in North Salem a few miles away, at 6:45 AM in a foul mood. After a long week, the considerable demands of a boarding school had spilled over to one of those periodic weekends when you pull extra duty. And I was the Weekend Head, for godsakes, no getting out of that. A shepherd with a flock of precious, needy sheep to tend, feed, entertain, and get to bed on time. And heaven help you if you lose one. All the way to the ATI station I grumbled about this and that, the mortgage payment, the leaking ceiling in my kitchen, how little I see of my family. I mulled over my uncertain future as a teacher and questioned decisions made years before when I chose to give the profession a try, decisions which were repeatedly challenged by many close to me.

"Those who can, do, and those who can't, teach," a former acquaintance in the advertising business once snickered when told I was taking a hiatus from writing film stories and television shows to teach.

"Really?" I had answered glibly while wondering why he didn't say that to John Irving, or Gardner, Oates, and Galbraith. Or why not insult the ghosts of C. S. Lewis, Tolkien or William H. Armstrong, who wrote Sounder and taught at the Kent School in the valley for years? The list could go on and on. All teachers and hugely successful writers whose works have impacted generations. On second thought, the "cream-fac'd loon" had probably never heard of them.

So it was with a sense of relief that I carried my troubles into the ATI that morning to a chorus of greetings from my small fraternity. Page poured coffee in my travel cup and stood with me while I waited to pay Gus at the counter. As we chatted about the school and whose horses he was exercising that day, I noticed a man come through the door and make his way over to the coffee machine. He was older, perhaps seventy, dressed for the weather with a woolen cap pulled down onto a kind, unshaven face. When he had finished he took his place in line, listening casually to our conversation. I had just started complaining to Page about my schedule when the gentleman with the woolen cap suddenly leaned in.

"You work with kids?" he said, looking at me with deep, inquiring eyes.

"Yeah."

"You a teacher?"

"Yes."

"What do you teach?"

"English... mostly." My voice trailed away, almost apologetically. I felt slightly uncomfortable. He nodded, took a beat, then thrust out his hand.

"Thanks."

I stood there, wondering first if I had inadvertently paid for his coffee or something. Then it dawned on me. He was thanking me for what I do, for teaching. Slowly, I reached out and shook his hand but couldn't manage to say more than something muffled and indistinct. I was utterly taken back by this complete stranger. No one had ever... he slapped me on the shoulder, handed Gus four quarters, turned and walked out.


There are stretches on Route 22 where the road is a glistening ribbon in winter, especially during the peripheral hours of day. I drove north with a gray, overcast morning breaking, passing all the oncoming commuters pouring out of rural Putnam and Dutchess Counties. My lane was comparatively clear and I made good time in silence, thinking of nothing other than what was to me, at least, an extraordinary act of generosity. For the first few miles I was fine. And then, from somewhere foreign and with no warning, a rush of emotion poured through the cracks of what used to be my very formidable armor. By the time I reached the little covered bridge over the Housatonic River just south of Kent, I had to pull over to compose myself and think about the irony of what had happened that day. Of all the mornings I had stopped at the ATI for coffee on my way to school, none had been bluer than this one. And yet, in the briefest of encounters, the immense, incandescent power of a single word changed everything. It was simply meant to be, I was certain. Meant to remind me how many times in a single day I find solace in a glance, or a smile, or a casual touch. Gratitude in lilliputian portions, but always there.

I checked my watch and knew it was time to go. First class began in fifteen minutes and I didn't want to be late, even on a Saturday. As I backed my little truck out onto the road and drove across Bull's Bridge, one last revelation came to me. I knew that when my colleagues and I gather for our last faculty meeting in June and the Head of School asks each of us to recall one meaningful event that made our year, my response will be clear and succinct. I know now that for me, it will have occurred not in the halls, in the classrooms, or on the playing fields, but away from the school. Miles away in Brewster, New York, at an old gas station where the coffee is always hot, the greetings easy, and where, for a moment, all thoughts other than the brilliantly plain and simple reasons why I teach faded away.

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