Where are you?

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.

14 thoughts on “Where are you?

  1. Wow, this made me weepy. You know, if he has any relatives, a wife or grown children, they would love to read this. It would mean so much to them.

    You are an eloquent writer and tenacious in the search for your career. You tutor. You research and you take stands on issues that are important like the recent immigration controversies. You have an undeniable voice. I think any teacher would be proud of that.

    That you are mid-journey and human makes it all the more real and important to recognize the wonderful attributes you embody. Not to self-inflate but to counter balance the self-doubt. This was a lovely piece.

    And now I am going to look into The Things They Carried I don’t think I have read a more persuasive endorsement and I need a new novel. And I think we just might have a class set in the library too. Cool.

  2. Amazing tribute to an amazing teacher. Truly his passing has sparked an inspiration in you, as he had in life, and as Paul said your writing ability has definitely not declined.

  3. ryc: It has taken me too long to get back here. Hectic, is there a noun form of that? As in “I have been in a state of hecticity.” I am going on vacation to big water falling. You didn’t miss much. I’ve been a bit too ADD with excitement to explain everything as clearly as I should.

    I have to laugh with ^ that. When I first read this I was wiping mascara off my cheeks and thanking the powers that be that I was not at work.

    Hope all is well with you and yours.

  4. Absolutely wonderful piece of writing. You shouldn’t be a journalist…it’d be too much wasted wit.

    Reminds me of my (educationally, though not financially) privileged readings in high school, including Catcher. While we never called it such, we discussed the meritocracy issue at length, likely because we functioned much like one. (extremely selective, but with nothing having bearing on entrance or later success other than ability).

    THEN it got me thinking of several other teachers that have left marks on my soul over the (too) many years of my educational journey.

    You kick ass.

  5. I lost a dear editor to Azheimer’s a couple months ago and felt the same sort of “how could this be?” sensation.

    I’m convinced that reality is just an consensual hallucinognic hologram. We think we are here, but where is the mind really. I can’t believe that people just cease to be.

    I ‘m not sure how you got to Holden Caulfield, but, yes, that book was special to me also.

    Lots to think about here.

    RYC: Those cart manufacturers are rat bastards. I still can’t figure out how they made the thing work, but I sure the cart kids had some kind of key that unlocked the wheels. I love Target, but I’m going to think twice about where I park.

    Lynn

  6. I have no idea which *signs* you’re looking at – but they are most certainly, (positive vibe-r-ly) NOT pointing to “yes”. Puhleez.
    I wish I had a smidgeon of writing skill (emotive, able to capture the essence of your experiences – showing; not just telling) that you possess..

    Take care of you (Asa and Chelsea),
    Gabers.

  7. It’s been a long time since I’ve frequented the blogosphere… yet today – the day I started announcing, “I have the best job!” to the people around me – I clicked on ya, and I find this story. It reminds me that while I LOVE being a teacher, I have a long way to go.
    I hope you are well! It was a pleasure reading your words again :)
    -t. oxo

  8. I was sent the link to your blog from my sister, Darcy. She said that your entry about Mr. Colan was amazing and that I needed to read the entire thing. She was absolutely right.

  9. How beautiful. It’s always strange to get belated news of someone’s death; as if the gone-ness of someone isn’t hard enough, to think that it’s been that way for some time is odd. It sounds like he was amazing.

  10. ^^^ Holy calypso! A Terra RC Sweet sighting!

    Reading (excellent) essays like this one reaffirm my thoughts that teachers may be our greatest natural and national resources. This is why it saddens me that governments look at education budgets as expenses, when they should be viewed as an investment. There is no greater assurance of a country’s future greatness than investing in education.

    Back on the micro level, this confirms the impact that one great teacher can have on a person … in this case, a great writer. I’m reminded of the Twilight Zone episode where a schoolmaster is considering suicide (I don’t recall why) but as he pulls the gun out, he is visited by the ghostly apparition of one of his old students, telling him of the life-changing lessons the teacher imparted. They are eventually joined by a whole garden full of spirits of his former pupils, who each tell him what they learned. It’s a stirring episode, if a bit of a riff on It’s A Wonderful Life, and a rare one that had a positive, uplifting conclusion.

    But then there are legions of teachers who make an impact. This makes Mr. Colan no less special, of course. To every student he reached and inspired, he deserves no less than to be viewed as a hero, and your tribute is a wonderful return of that valuable gift.

    Happy Thanksgiving!

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