Walked half-numb two and a half years ago into a classroom at Benson High School here in Portland, Oregon. Opened my satchel, got out my papers, put up the day’s prompt on the screen. The kids came in and sat down, and when the bell rang they started writing, most of them.
But this day, when it came time to share aloud, I found myself stopping and lowering my head for a moment. I looked back out at the kids.
“I need to take a minute to talk about what happened in Paris yesterday,” I said. “In Beirut and Iraq, for that matter … At Sandy Hook and all the other schools.”
Twenty-nine sophomores stared at me. Total stillness in that room. Grey light flowing in from the windows, cold rain outside.
“I don’t have a script for this. But I think it’s important that you see how an adult reacts to these killings. And so here’s how I react.”
The pause began to stretch.
“Each time this happens, I get the stunned, hollowed out feeling. I get angry too. Like you, I’m beyond tired of reading about, hearing about, watching this madness. Worrying about it. Trying to block it out.”
I hesitated. Had I said too much?
“I’m not giving up on trying to find ways to resist and create change and help those who need help. But at times the anger and sadness whenever these killings happen …”
I had to stop again. And then as I was standing there in front of all those kids I thought of Gerhard Zecha. And so I went ahead and told them that I had this teacher almost thirty years ago, he was a philosophy professor in Salzburg, where I was a student for a year. I was twenty, and I often dwelt on the darkness in the world. Some strange part of me might’ve even enjoyed that at times. A little. So much weighed so heavy. And I suppose it came out in my writings, in my classwork.
The day before winter break, at the end of class, Dr. Zecha looked at me and said, “Would you please stay after?”
As someone who had to keep a certain GPA in order to maintain funding to stay in college, my first thought was, Is this man going to flunk me?
The other students jumbled out of the room, and there I stayed, ears ringing. Dr. Zecha came over and turned a student desk, then sat down facing me. He was a tall man with intense eyes. He opened his satchel and pulled out a thin rectangular present wrapped in blue tissue paper. “Open it please.”
It was a calendar for the upcoming year. The words in German.
Gerhard Zecha said, “I want you to look at the photos for the first few months. Go ahead.” He sat there, eyeing me.
The first photo was of a woman’s wet hands working clay on a potter’s wheel. The second, a man’s hands playing a saxophone. The third, a woman’s hands spooning ragu bolognese onto steaming penne.
Dr. Zecha said, “I’ve noticed that you seem depressed from all the suffering and tragedy in the world. It breaks the heart, to be sure. And it’s always there. But I want you to remember the symbols of goodness also. This is important. Will you remember?”
I stared at my teacher and gave a slight nod. Dr. Zecha stared back for a few beats, then got up, rearranged the desk, took up his satchel and left the room. I remained there in the quiet.
And so one cold rainy November day in 2015, I said all of this to my students at Benson High School. Kids whom I would see only a few more times before the creative writing residency was done. And in the pause that followed, I looked out at those twenty-nine faces, at these people who took it all in day after day, the endless events, all that worry stored within themselves, all that stress.
“No matter how bad things get sometimes, don’t forget the symbols of goodness. Make yourself notice them, okay? Because they’re everywhere.”
Some of the kids went back to their papers, back to their interior worlds, away from this frank talk and fragile stillness. But some were still watching me.