On one of my recent speaking engagements, I found myself at a high school in Cincinnati. I was peering into a classroom from the hallway and wondering if I should be concerned that a student had a gun to the back of a teacher’s head, who was kneeling down, facing the wall.
I cleared my throat, hoping to alert my guide, a senior. When this failed to attract her attention, I decided the situation at least warranted a question.
“So…that student in there,” I said to my guide, nodding at the window into the classroom. “I think he might be about to…you know….execute a teacher, or whatever.”
The senior took a few steps back and peered in.
“Oh yeah,” she said, in a voice that you might use if your friend had just pointed out how the killer on Law and Order looked a bit like Mitt Romney.
She continued to watch so I did too, wondering how we might explain our inaction to the SWAT team fast-roping down on the roof at that moment, when suddenly, before I could even tell what had happened, the teacher had whipped around, seeming to break the student’s wrist, and next thing you know the gun is across the room and the student was on his back.
“Crisis averted!” she said cheerfully. “Come on, I’ll show you the other classrooms.”
As it turned out, this was a vast vocational school, and each classroom had its own unique structure. The building was more like a high tech warehouse, with entire houses constructed in some of the rooms so that students could learn how to be electricians. In other rooms, there were several cabs of eighteen wheelers, being worked on by students. There was a robotics lab, and a nursing room. The one with the guy and the gun was a law enforcement class.
Scarlet Oaks School had invited me to speak to their senior class, as all 400 of them had read Little Princes.
I’ve had a chance to speak at a couple of schools in cities, and they might be my favorite venues. Mostly because many of them remind me of my own high school in Jersey City – not in the facilities themselves, as my high school was housed in a converted Ukrainian Sunday School building – but in the diversity of the student body.
I guess you wouldn’t know it to look at me, but I spent a bunch of years, formative ones at that, in Jersey City. My neighborhood was particularly rough, which meant that I had to choose to either toughen up very quickly or just hope that the thugs would leave me alone. I chose the latter. I’m just not a tough guy – it’s not me.
I pretend to be, of course. I liked to tell the kids in Nepal that one of my hobbies was professional wrestling, and that I could kick the ass of every known mammal with the exception of a silverback gorilla with a shotgun. They were, therefore, disappointed when they got to the point in my memoir, LITTLE PRINCES, when I started to get my own butt kicked by a guy who was holding one of our kids as a slave.
But there’s a different kind of toughness that comes from growing up in that environment. I think it’s the ability to operate when the wind is not at your back, so to speak. I saw that in the kids at Scarlet Oaks.
I can’t tell you how envious I was of them, that they were learning all this practical stuff. Almost unreasonably, distractingly envious. They were learning how to remodel cars and learn culinary skills and become fire fighters, using real trucks and burning buildings outside on their vast property. And seeing the adult continuing education classes that were mixed in at the end of the day – looking at these folks who wanted to better themselves, to provide for their families.
Moreover, a lot of those students were working part time as well as going to high school, to help provide for their loved ones now. At that age I was goofing around, getting ready to go to college, which I loved but, let’s be honest, in which I barely even did the work assigned to me.
I think I survived in the end, and was able to survive through some difficult times in Nepal, precisely because I had those years in Jersey City, where things are a little bit rougher, where you see more clearly how much of our world doesn’t live in the leafy suburbs (where I am now – quite happily, I admit).
I really dug the kids there. They were bright, interested, and hilarious. At one point during the day, without warning, they suddenly recreated the scene where the kids in Nepal leapt on top of me. I loved that. I expect those kids are going to do very well in this life.
But more than that, it reminded me that the greatest dignity is in working hard every day, no matter what it is. Each classroom was focused on something completely different. The child care class was next door to the class where guys were learning auto body repairs.
And I confess that’s a reminder that I needed at this time in my life. I’ve been feeling complacent in the last few weeks. Like I haven’t been working hard. You know how every time you ask somebody “How’s it going?” they will likely let out a puff of air and raise their eyebrows and say “Busy!” with that tired smile? Well, I say that too, but sometimes it’s a lie. Sometimes I’m not really that busy. But I worry that people will have less respect for me if I answer that way.
I’m not saying there’s not a lot going on, what with the new baby and the new house. But I am saying that I know in my heart that I need to do more. I watched those kids in Cincinnati work on the diesel engines, and on cutting hair, and on studying anatomy, and I came back inspired.
My own work (writing) is lamer than that, sitting at a computer/chomping down English Muffins, but there’s still dignity in it when it’s done well, when it’s done to provide, and when it’s done with joy.
I figure this blog is a decent way to start holding myself accountable.
Oh! And before I forget! I also saw a parrot in that school that was thirty eight years old. Thirty eight!! The woman was like “He speaks a few words” and I’m like “Yeah, he better.”
Okay. Back to work, I guess… Unless you want to hear more about the parrot? Because I’m telling you, this parrot was…okay.