The rewards of summer

The pleasures and payoffs of reading and swimming, this week in TT.

By Salon Staff
Published June 3, 2005 11:21AM (EDT)

Families Who Think

Parents Who Talk About Schools

Vera Charles - 12:32 p.m. Pacific Time - May 27, 2005 - #3804 of 3829

This is what I see in my students' parents; they want the best for their kids, and the people most vociferous about education are the ones who don't have one themselves. I had an hour-long talk at about 10 p.m. last night with a Salvadoran truck driver whose son is talking about leaving my school to go back to public school. The dad kept begging me not to leave (I don't want to) and go become a lawyer, or something that paid better, because I "have so much knowledge." He wants his son to have access to my knowledge, not because I know about Victorian literature, but because I know about how young people are able to grow beyond a point where everything they do is selfish and short-sighted, and I know that because I have had to devote my attention to extremely difficult tasks and analytical questions.

More than many people, I have found a kind of salvation in learning that my students find odd and yet respect anyway. When my mother was on the psych ward, I gave myself a different poem to keep in my head every day as a distraction. I also had myself baptized, started a ferocious regime of physical exercise, drank a lot, and had quite a bit of sex, but only the reading has been a sustainable habit as an adult. I can't imagine how I would have begun to understand my own psyche without books, and not just some books, or sixth grade sorts of books (I disliked school until I was in college), but difficult, challenging books about people as fucked up and crazy and wild as I was. I solved relationship crises with advice from George Eliot, I read Virginia Woolf to try to understand my mom, I went hunting for my dad's motivation in Faulkner and met my grandmother in Eudora Welty. How much more important is it, then, for my students, whose parents are hardly acquainted with each other, whose uncles and brothers are in jail, whose sisters and cousins are pregnant at 15, to find stories that might divert them?

Until you've met a Hispanic 14-year-old who just read Oscar Cesares or Junot Diaz (or Gary Soto or Sandra Cisneros) for the first time, you can't know what education can do. I don't teach my kids to pass tests, I teach them to have more words to say when they fall in love, when someone dies, when they disappoint themselves or are betrayed by another. At the foot of her senior essay in last night's graduation program, one of my students from last year had typed a line from Cormac McCarthy's "Cities of the Plain": The loss and the beauty are one. This student has been academically dishonest, she has experienced tragedy and disappointment, her GPA is low, her motives are mixed, but she has the words for a feeling she wasn't sure anybody else had ever felt, and she found those words in a classroom.

Salon Central

The Boring Thread

Micki Sue - 08:21 p.m. Pacific Time - May 26, 2005 - #5450 of 5458

What is it about swimming in a lake that makes it so much more of an experience than swimming in a pool? And if you swim alone, ah. It's an adventure.

Is it the layered temperature zones in the water, warm on the surface from the sun beating overhead, cooler down just a couple of feet, so that with every stroke, your arms flow through the changes, and, if you're lucky and the lake is spring-fed, spots here and there in the lake that are deliciously cold, even in the middle of August and in the middle of a sweltering heat wave?

Maybe it's the fact that you can get in and just swim. No back and forth and back and forth when you're in the lake. Pick a landmark across the lake, and strike out for it. If you get tired, you can flip onto your back and just lie there, feet dangling down to entice the minnows, and you can watch the clouds scudding by overhead while you hear the dull roar of the water in your ears, and the quieter sound of your own blood flowing through your body, the liquid inside somehow joining in symphony with the liquid outside.

Flip back over, and swim some more, the trees on the other side of the lake now looming larger and larger, while the beach and the people you've left behind recede to a minuscule size. Their laughter and shouts can barely reach you, and you feel so grand, so much the mistress of your own, private domain.

Rest a little on the other shore, and notice the little things that you couldn't see from the beach: the submerged log, covered with algae that gently dances in the water as you bounce the log up and down. The egret that flies over your head to her nest, hidden from sight of you and all the other predators. Even the muck of the lake bottom seems enchanting, because it shows that it's not been pounded to a hard surface by hundreds of feet over the years. Here, the lake bottom is home to fish and tiny snails, not to human feet.

It's been long enough now, so you start back to from whence you came, and the scene reverses itself. The trees that had been so close start to shrink and grow less distinct, while the trees by your beach grow larger. Voices are heard, louder and more distinct, and you start to think that you recognise your lover's, or your child's voice, and you smile in anticipation of the reunion when you return from so far away, from your great swimming adventure.

It's been only half an hour, but swimming in a lake does that to you. It gives you solitude, and it gives you companionship, all in less than an hour.

Now you can see the faces, and you see that they've seen you, and are watching your return. Now comes the best part, remember to cherish it! For this, THIS is what makes swimming in a lake an experience that no pool anywhere can hope to match. You swim back to shore, and find that your feet can touch the bottom. You can stand up, and just like that, you are again a creature who walks. You do so. You walk. Out of the water, onto the land, and you've re-created, as you have so many times before, the action of your long, long ago ancestor who first discovered that it was a creature who walks. You walk.

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