One of my favorite teachers once gave my class the task of answering that question.
Where are you? It was, maybe, a two-page assignment that I distinctly remember writing by hand. I don’t have the essay anymore but I recall saying something silly like “I am where I imagine myself to be” and went on about how I live in my daydreams. Which, obviously, I don’t. I think I missed the point of the assignment, so I think I’ll attempt it again here.
But first: I bring this up because on Monday I learned that this same teacher died from a stroke over the summer. I’m sort of struggling with how to grasp this—no wait, I know I’m struggling with it because I can’t grasp it. It’s like I don’t even believe it. A stroke? No way. No way.
Mr. Colan had more brush-with-death stories than anyone I know. The one that sticks out the strongest in my mind is the time he was canoeing down the Hudson—I think it was the Hudson, and that would make sense since he loved that river—and heard gunshots. And then he realized the gunshots were pointed at him, and he ended up having to crouch down on the floor of the boat as gunshots swiped by overhead. He floated that way for a few hours until he finally made it to shore safely.
Then there was the time he had open heart surgery and elected to go through it fully awake, sans pain killer or anesthetic, he told us, because if he couldn’t feel pain then he wouldn’t know if he was alive.
True stories? It doesn’t matter.
Because if Mr. Colan taught me anything, it is that truth and fiction are often one and the same, and that sometimes fiction is truer than what actually happened. It was in his class—no, two of his classes—that I read The Things They Carried, the Tim O’Brien book that changed the way I understood the power of the written word. O’Brien’s story falls somewhere in the murky land of fictional creative nonfiction—a powerful account of love and war that hinges not on its veracity but on its ability to convey the grit and truth of the human condition. Whether or not the book is true is irrelevant.
If stories can save lives, then I owe Mr. Colan a damn good one.
What stories do, I guess, is make things present…I can attach faces to grief and love and pity and God. I can be brave. I can make myself feel again. -Tim O’Brien, The Things They Carried
So where am I? Right now, I’m sitting at my desk, in front of my ever-glowing computer, in my apartment in Portland, Oregon. I am surrounded by four pumpkin-orange walls. A Buena Vista Social Club movie poster hangs on the wall next to two old Oregon license plates and various papers I saved for different reasons: a newspaper story about immigration, a card from my uncle, a clip of an ad from the paper featuring a photo of someone bearing an uncanny resemblance to a good friend of mine from high school. My clothes, naturally, are strewn everywhere and Chelsea, stinky as ever, wafts up at me from her bed next to my chair.
It’s November 2006. It was, maybe, a decade ago when I read The Catcher in the Rye in eighth grade English under your guidance. I’ve since realized that most people who read that book have missed out, mainly because they didn’t read it with you, which is to say that they read it as a coming-of-age novel, and rarely anything more. But it hit home for me because of you, and because of the obviously similarities in my life—and in those of my privately-schooled peers—to Holden’s privileged upbringing. To this day, I maintain that Catcher is, in part, a critique of the inequity of our so-called meritocracy, and that it, and the way you taught it to me, had the single greatest impact on my choices as a student.
My choice to study sociology, for one. My choice to be political. My choice to care about the impact of my decisions.
Last night I read over my old college application essay, in which I compare myself to Holden Caulfield—a Holden with weaker convictions, one who believes in things but isn’t brave enough to act upon them. In it, I wrote: “If I go to college, I can develop my political theories and possibly work towards becoming a journalist.”
I had no idea that my desire to be a journalist reached back that far, and I have no idea when that desire faded into the half-formed muddle of a career aspiration that I have now. It’d be nice to be able to go back and tell you all of this, and to ask for your advice, and see what you’d have to say about all of it. To find solace in your ability to cut straight through the crap and tell it like it is.
So that’s where I am. In Portland, Oregon, in an orange-walled room, trying to figure out where to go next.
I’m skimming across the surface of my own history, moving fast, riding the melt beneath the blades, doing loops and spins, and when I take a high leap into the dark and come down thirty years later, I realize it is as Tim trying to save Timmy’s life with a story. -Tim O’Brien, The Things They Carried
Mr. Colan was like the catcher in the rye, which is why he was such a goddamn good teacher. He was no phony—he saw through bullshit, and wasn’t afraid to call you out on it. He was a teacher because he wanted to help students enter the real world with a conscience. He cared so much.
In the cafeteria, he ate his lunch at the students’ tables, I think because he found their conversations far more interesting than the teachers’. He treated all of us like adults—had the same expectations he would have of a peer, and awarded us the same respect—which is why we had so much respect for him.
He smoked for many years, and it was after the heart surgery that he went through the pain of the quitting process. I was in tenth grade, taking his Contemporary American Literature class, and we were discussing the latest novel when he cringed and moaned.
We looked at him. “I need a cigarette,” he said, pulling out his Altoids and popping one in his mouth. The Altoids were his quitting aid.
“Maybe you should have an extra Altoid?” I suggested.
“I was thinking more along the lines of shooting up some heroin,” he responded.
We all laughed, and this led to a discussion of drugs and whether or not he had ever actually done heroin.
He had, he told us—once. “It felt so good that I knew if I ever did it again I’d never be able to stop,” he said. “I will never touch it again.”
These are the things that I remember. The things I respect, the things that influence my choices. Not hearing “DON’T DO DRUGS,” but hearing “I did drugs and I know how powerful they can be—I want more control of my own body than that. You probably do, too.” That’s giving your students a choice and respecting their ability to make the right one.
“Your assignment, should you choose to accept it”—this is how he doled out our homework. We were adults, and we were responsible enough to decide to do our assignments, or to not, and accept the consequences that came with it.
I know that the choices I am making today aren’t always the best, or the wisest, or ones I’m happy with. But a lot of the times they are, and I wish I could go back and thank him for giving me the respect and support I need to make them. So Mr. Colan, wherever you are, thank you.
Oh, and the Yankees made it to the playoffs this year but lost quickly in the ALDS to the Tigers. The Cardinals went on to win the Series over Detroit. Sigh. Maybe next year.