“I don’t know how you do it,” people say.
And while I sometimes don’t know how I do it either, people forget that “Between the Bells” doesn’t only refer to school hours, but also to the other side of the bells – evenings, weekends and vacations. These exist in an alternate plane – a mirror world whose boundaries are infinite once you take the plunge.
On this last vacation, I flipped it up and headed down South to drink wine and spin golden yarns of yore with family and friends, while resting easy that no one was hiding a box-cutter in their underwear.
I changed planes in Memphis, where they put all the passengers on my flight on a shuttle bus to take us to our plane. Right before the driver turned the ignition, an airport worker helped a spindly old African American lady out of her wheelchair and into the seat next to me. She immediately announced her age (91) and began to share with me her personal history, problems and philosophies, the way old people do. As she spoke I wondered if they do that because they’re lonely, because they’re senile, or because they can tell that I need to learn what they know.
With a twinkle in her eyes as if she were sharing a particularly juicy secret, she blurted out, “My legs don’t work so well anymore.” I nodded. She leaned a little closer and whispered, “And my head don’t neither.”
I wasn’t sure how to respond to that. “Oh, I think it’s workin’ just fine,” I said a bit awkwardly. I’m not very good at speaking to strangers, but fortunately she had enough pluck to keep the conversation trotting along.
“I’m a happy old person!” she declared. “I’m glad that I’m not an angry old person. A lotta old people angry. But I did everything I wanted to do when I was young.” She raised an eyebrow and lifted a finger and added, “Not a lot of foolishness now, but I did everything I wanted to do.”
At this point I realized it would be a good time to turn on the mental tape recorder. “Note to self: Do what you want to do while still young. But not a lot of foolishness.”
“No, I don’t be angry,” she continued. “Because the way you are affects everyone else around you. Some people hate for no reason, you know. But if you keep being nice to them, they eventually stop. Because love affects the heart, not the mind.” Even my plaque encased chest organ moved a little at those words. And the awkwardness I usually feel when talking to Ancient-Americans was quickly giving way to the magnificent feeling that God himself had come all the way down from the Upper Room to Memphis International Airport for a little face time with the Pistol.
Everything this lady was saying seemed to relate directly to me and my situation. And as if it weren’t already abundantly clear that this person was channeling truths about my life directly from The Source, she laid a final, cryptic dollop right on top of it all. “I spent all my life as a nanny,” she said, gesturing towards a little blond boy nearby. “Lord knows I raised a lotta chil’ren. But you know kids not gonna do right unless you train ’em to.”
This had clearly been an omniscient reference to my job as Dean of Discipline. And if there was still any doubt that an angel was sitting next to me, it was dispelled when I saw, that for no apparent reason, I had been assigned to first class. Ol’ Pistol finally got a seat at the table, y’all. And as we rumbled through the air towards home, I kept my nose to the window, staring at the horizon’s great black arc, slicing across a smoldering sunset. It looked like all of Babylon was burning on the other side of that hill. “Must be the barbarians”, I thought. And as I meditated on that sublime devastation, I felt the Vacation Paradox as deeply as ever. For even as I tried to jet away from Patriot High in so may ways, that building was really pulling me closer, with every passing second, to vacation’s inevitable end. Not even a jet engine can fight that gravitational force. The next day of work is always grinding towards you, with a glacial crush at first, until it starts to spin and accelerate, like the Earth towards a skydiver. So right then and there, with the flames of Babylon in my eyes, I wanted to pull the cord. I wanted to stay in the sky.