I have graded my last papers, taken the posters off my walls, sorted my old files, and gone to bed the past few nights without setting my alarm. If that doesn’t clinch it, I just woke up on the couch from a nap, I’m writing a new blog post at last, and I’m quoting Mary Oliver in the title. It’s summer!
I ended this school year in love with my students, in love with my profession, and thinking about some of the things I learned in high school. When I was a junior at Bethel Park Senior High, I served as the school district’s first (non-voting) “Student on the School Board.” It was something like 1981, and the district had decided to implement “activity fees” for extracurricular activities. All of them—think National Honor Society, Concert Choir, Key Club–no one was exempt, and I was outraged. I led the student revolt against the fees, which culminated in presenting a sixteen-page report at a public board meeting.
It was big news. We filmed a “speak-out” message with the local public television station, and one Saturday morning my mother handed me the phone (you know, those ones that were attached to the wall in the kitchen with a long curly cord) so I could talk to a reporter from the Associated Press.
Heady times. Seventeen is a good age to have a cause, to fight for something with utter certainty that you are right. The board presentation went great.
My political education began the next day.
Every single board member made a point of taking me aside to tell me that they agreed with me. They had been convinced, they said, that the strong extracurricular activities in the district were a selling point for people looking for a new home. They agreed that imposing a fee on a poor student to enable that student to sing in a choir was antithetical to the values of public education. They agreed that the fees collected would be big enough to prohibit a student from participating but too small to make any noticeable impact on anyone’s property taxes. They agreed, in short, that the argument was strong and had convinced them that the fees were not going to do anyone any good.
Then came the punch line, or maybe I should say the punch. Every single board member voted to impose the fees. Every one of them explained, as though it were the most rational position in the world, that they didn’t have a choice. The elderly voters in the district wouldn’t be happy/vote for them again if they didn’t pretend to help them by imposing the fees.
My adult, teacher self wants to say to those people, be careful what you teach a teenager. The cynicism was too much for me. I didn’t vote for years.
But wallowing in ancient outrage is not where I planned to go with this essay. I meant to write about grasshoppers. They came out of the earth by the millions a few weeks ago.
As my dog and I walk down the street, they fly up from our feet like little dust clouds (remember Pigpen?). They part for us, wafting up and settling five or ten feet up the road. It’s as though someone is bedecking our path as we walk. (And yes, I really mean bedecking–it’s just that sort of old-fashioned, ceremonial connotation that I need here.) The grasshoppers are turning our ordinary walks around the neighborhood into processions. We are attended in our walks by leaping clouds of glory.
Rusty didn’t like them at first. He’d swat at them with his paws as they leaped too close to his head or snap at them like travelling snacks, but he’s used to them now. He accepts their homage, confident that he deserves it, trotting smartly, head up and gait stately.
Curiously, unlike the tent-worm summers of my childhood, or the more recent Albuquerque moth infestations, or the Mormon crickets on a fire-closed highway between Reno and Jackpot (where we stopped for hours and watched the blacktop crawl), I like this plague.
A news site out of Philadelphia writes, “People in Albuquerque are on edge as millions of grasshoppers invade the city.” Really? People in Philadelphia are talking about our grasshoppers? List me as one ‘Querque who is not on edge.
I have to say I saw them coming, although I didn’t know the earth well enough to know what I was seeing. A week before the grasshoppers swarmed, I told my husband the sycamore in the backyard was dying. There was a sparseness in the leaves; the yard was a little more sun dappled than seemed right for late spring.
Extra birds were also swooping and diving and chattering around us. We see lots of doves and robins and sparrows and finches, but big birds with yellow bellies were flying back and forth from rooftop to rooftop, something small and deep orange flashed and settled in my neighbor’s mulberry, and big black speckled birds and swallows were arguing and dipping low over the empty house on the corner. All sorts of bird sounds I couldn’t identify were singing me awake each morning.
And now, all the neighborhood birds, hungry these many drought years, are growing fat on grasshoppers. Mary Oliver asks who made them and has a beautiful line about their jaws, and ee cummings wrote a grasshopper poem, too, but it’s too hard to reproduce it here. Keats in his poem “On the Grasshopper and Cricket” gets it right when he says, “he takes the lead in summer luxury,– he has never done with his delights”–
Rusty and I are laughing in that grasshopper delight when we turn into the driveway and see something I’ve never seen before. A robin is picking a fight with a bunny under the piñon tree. The robin flies at the rabbit’s head and startles the rabbit, who hops back and freezes, hops and freezes. I don’t know if I am watching animals at play in the world or if the robin is hoping to eat this bunny.
So here’s where it turns out I’m going with this. Rusty and I stop in the driveway and watch for a few minutes. When the robin notices us, she gets wary, hops back a few steps, and freezes. The rabbit ignores us; she’s holding still, pretending to be invisible. After a few minutes, Rusty gets restless and makes a move toward the front door. The robin flies back about ten yards to perch on a low wall, and the bunny, sensing her chance, takes off across the street.
I can’t help thinking about what we saw. Was that rabbit really prey to a rogue robin, or are these just two creatures who share my front yard and don’t always get along? Is there a nest of baby rabbits under the sage bush and a nest of baby robins up in the white plum? Maybe nothing at all momentous was happening under my piñon.
I can’t shake the feeling, though, that Rusty and I helped shape the world. What if our most casual and unintentional actions helped save a little fuzzy life? Or maybe I’m wrong to be rooting for the rabbit; what if the rabbit were the aggressor? What if our simple action of walking up the driveway determined whose babies lived and whose didn’t that morning?
And here’s my point, at last. There are people in the world who have just that sort of power, people who could make intentional decisions that might just keep someone else’s children alive, who keep finding excuses not to make those decisions.
I’m grateful to Richard Martinez, whose son was killed in the most recent shooting and stabbing rampage, for saying he doesn’t want sympathy from politicians. “I don’t give a shit that you feel sorry for me,” he’s widely reported as saying. “Get to work and do something.”
“Don’t you dare,” is what I want to say to all those school board politicians in the House and Senate who agree that gun laws should be strengthened but rationalize inaction out of fear of political repercussions. Don’t you dare pretend you don’t have a choice, as you cede your actual power to the NRA’s threatened power. Don’t you dare tell a grieving parent that you know they are right but you can’t vote their way.
In Pittsburgh school kids paint little fishes by street sewers to remind people that their actions have consequences. Little kids know you still own the garbage that ends up downstream.
Keats says, “The Poetry of earth is never dead,” and Mary Oliver says “I don’t know exactly what prayer is,” and Richard Martinez says, “I don’t give a shit that you feel sorry for me.”
It’s summer, and the world is frothy with grasshoppers. Robins and rabbits are fighting in my front yard. The earth keeps swelling with grief and glory.
Let’s all be careful what we teach the teenagers.