Eyes are magnificent instruments of evolution. Instruments that allow me to see a grouping of aspen trees fifty yards off from where I sit on the front porch. It is astonishing that, thanks to thousands of years of honing, I can not only discern their species, but also their minute details. The trunks of each, with their knotty markings, and the leaves which give each tree shape, form and luster. I can tell from which direction the wind is blowing when the leaves begin to twitch like insects and then become still again. Despite the distance, my eyes can perceive the very tops of these trees and the lone leaves and bare branches that give each of these trees a uniqueness.
And yet, I know that, despite my good eyesight and the attention that I am currently paying, there are things that I cannot see. Leaves cover branches and, though I imagine that something calls these branches home, I have no visual evidence to quantify that notion. When the wind kicks up, leaves that were once varying hues of greens and faint yellows that would excite even the most amateur oil painter muddy into a blasé, nondescript blob.
Eyes, for as magnificent a tool as they are, can render us as blind as they can give us specific, awe-inducing sight.
Many of you read my recent Maroon Bells camping debacle. If not, it may behoove you to read it first. The long and short of it is that I intended to spend several days camping near Aspen, but neglected to think ahead and reserve a campsite. As such, the campsites were full up, leaving me plum and plain out of luck. So, I settled upon camping near Telluride, a small mountain villa near where I reside.
As it turns out, that was an abysmal failure as well.
It wasn’t twenty minutes after I left that I realized I was nearly out of gas and, as I was already well outside of Durango, would have to fill up, to the tune of seventeen cents more per gallon, in a small town between where I was and where I was going.
As I pulled out of the gas station, I looked up toward the mountain range where I would be headed, only to see the dismal misty gray of an inevitable rain storm. It was then that I had a simple choice to make. I could either drive another hour and a half to Telluride and risk getting caught in the rain or, I could simply stay where I was and camp in the nearby national forest. As you’ve probably guessed, judging by how things were going thus far, I chose to chance it.
It did not turn out well.
I didn’t drive into a rain storm, but rather a torrential and hellacious downpour. Sheets of rain were visited upon my vehicle as I traversed a narrow pass. It was not unlike driving through an automatic car wash- but without the neon blue and green soaps to liven things up.
I said a small grateful prayer when the rain began to ease as I neared Telluride. Though there were still clouds and mist, the torrent has eased to a light drizzle and I thought that perhaps there was a chance that things might work out after all. When we pulled into town, the light drizzle became a mild mist which gave me no small amount of pleasure. Indeed, Woody and I were going to get to camp.
And then the skies opened up again.
“We’ll wait it out, pal,” I parked the car and looked over my shoulder at my dog sitting in the backseat. He gazed listlessly out the window at the rain. He looked like I felt. I turned off the engine, he grunted and laid down and I pulled out a book to read for a bit as the droplets of water tapped out some complicated rhythm on the roof of my car.
Minutes quickly turned to an hour. I snapped the book shut- which woke the dog up- started the car and turned it around to go back to the national forestland where I should’ve stopped in the first place.
“Stupid, stupid, stupid,” I muttered to myself. Woody huffed his agreement.
Having wasted an hour and some eighty miles, I sped out of town. The sun would be setting soon and I knew that we had to get a move on if I was going to set up my tent in the quickly waning daylight.
I cannot begin to express just how insulting it was for the clouds to part and the skies to clear a mere fifteen miles outside of Telluride. I cursed vaguely and expressed my general displeasure to the roof of the cabin of my vehicle. The throttle was pressed down a bit more than it ought to have been.
Listening to a particularly motivating album, we screamed over the pass and made a good clip back toward the national forest. Stopping briefly for a respite of our bladders, Woody and I looked back toward Telluride. The clouds still hung low and heavy and foreboding.
“Well, pal,” I said to myself as much as to the dog. “Sometimes it just doesn’t go the way you want.” We hopped back in the car and drove with a slightly less frenetic pace having come to some acceptance of our fate.
We were ten miles away from the forest. Ten miles.
Both hands were on the wheel and I was not speeding. There was absolutely no way I could’ve swerved and missed it, either. There was absolutely nothing I could do. A baby deer, no taller than Woody himself, leapt into the road five feet in front of us.
The thump of the front and then rear tires spun my guts like pizza dough tossed in the air.
Whether because I was shocked or indeed, because somewhere in my subconscious I realized that I would not do well seeing the certainly dead animal, it took a full half mile before I thought to stop the car.
When I did, and was safely stopped on the shoulder, I turned the key in the ignition and collapsed back onto my seat, pressing my palms to my temples. Seconds turned to a minute and I heaved myself out of the vehicle to inspect the damage.
There was none whatsoever.
I hit a baby deer straight on, at a healthy sixty-mile-an-hour clip in a car whose front bumper is plastic and there wasn’t a scratch to be found. Nothing broken, no blood, nothing. The headlights were fine, though one running light was shattered- the only evidence I could point at to assure myself that something had indeed occurred. No fluids were leaking, there was nothing undue about the vehicle.
Ten minutes passed before I got back onto the road. Ten minutes.
We turned onto the national forest access road dismally, depressed and ready to call it a day. I put the car into its all wheel drive “LOW” setting and started up the dirt and gravel road incline. My head felt gargantuan and my neck suddenly did not seem even remotely close to being up to the task of holding it upright. My eyes were tired. My bones were tired. The pending prospect of setting up a tent felt daunting and incredibly large.
One of the oft-ignored benefits of driving a small hatchback is a complete lack of over-confidence. Having no ground clearance whatsoever forces a person to drive over gravel roads at a turtle’s crawl as larger, more powerful and taller vehicles routinely commandeer such surfaces at vastly swifter speeds. It hadn’t been a month since I last was driving this very same national forest road on a pleasant sunny day when those in trucks and SUVs careened headlong, roaring past us. While we poked along at 15 or 20 miles an hour, trucks and SUV’s passed us ably at 50 and 60.
Even then, I wondered why these cavalier adventurers would tempt fate as they were. National Forest access roads are more often than not narrow and suddenly curve and veer when least a person would expect them to. Isn’t the point of camping to get away from the frenetic pace of workhomekidsjobemailproductivity? Still, it is not mine to decide how a person ought or ought not to enjoy one’s leisure time. To borrow a phrase from my dad, “life is hard enough without someone else telling you how you ought to enjoy it”.
We round the curve slowly. I remember this turn and its deep U shape. Trees dote along its inner curve, thereby making line of sight around the other side nearly impossible. The sun is a splinter of light, shrouded by fog and the end of the day. My headlights are on. We begin the wide arc of the U and my heart stops. My guts are spun like pizza dough tossed in the air.
The truck is fifty yards away. There is glass everywhere. It has flipped over onto its back and the cabin is nearly nonexistent, crushed into itself. The truck has been overturned with such force that its nose is turned back toward the direction it was coming from. Its tires are still spinning. Later, I will think to myself how much like a turtle it looks- helpless on its back, waving its legs. Now, I can only think that someone is surely dead.
My blood boils and there is a kick drum in my ear. I quickly pull my car off to the side of the road, throwing Woody, sitting in the backseat, off balance with the suddenness of movement. I turn the engine off.
“Stay,” I tell him. I slam the door and sprint toward the truck. I’ve left thirty yards between where they are and where I am. My knees hurt- both because I am sprinting in boat shoes on a gravel road and because I’ve been sitting for so long. I curse at them and demand that they get themselves in order. They’ll be necessary. I am sure that there is someone still hanging upside down in what’s left of the cabin.
My shoes pound to a halt in front of the truck on the wet gravel road. The front right wheel is bent and squeaking as it continues its rotation. A hose is spraying liquid, a hot part of the engine steams. The radiator is still going, a pitiful whir. A part of me knows that I will not do well seeing a person suspended upside down in there. If I can’t handle a baby deer, I most certainly will not be equipped to handle a dead person. I believe for a moment that I can just stand here gritting my teeth and hoping that, if I don’t look, everything will be fine. No one will be dead, nothing will have happened.
I get down on my hands and knees.
There is trash everywhere. Wrappers, bottles, cans. Junk food. Soda. Clearly, cleanliness was not of any consideration. The windshield and passenger’s window have shattered, leaving pebbles of glass everywhere. The driver’s side, I assume, was down. Seatbelts dangle. No one is hanging upside down. No one is here at all. No signs of blood, that’s good. No dismembered body parts- even better.
An engine rumbles and turns the corner. I stand up. There is a UPS truck rounding the bend. He pulls up to where I am standing and stops.
“Theys around the bend,” he says, pointing. “Happen’ ten minutes ago. Damn, that tir’is still spinnin’.”
“Were you here?”
“No, I cam’up a min’er two later. Theys standin’up next to ‘er. Boy, the woman was given him all sorts a pieces a’her mind,” he speaks as though he hasn’t got time to get all of the letters into each word. Vowels seem to be his sacrificial lambs. “Scar’d all the b’ars off fer ten miles, prob’ly,” he chuckles.
“What happened? Are they alright?”
“‘Sides bein’ dumb, ya mean? Yeah, theys alright. Jus’ stupid. Took this’a here corner at sixty. Thought a city truck could do alright on a county ro’. No’such luck,” he turns his head to the right, pleased, I’m sure with his own truck- which could certainly handle this “country ro'”.
“But they’re okay?”
“Ah’yeah. Theys walkin’ up’aroun the ben’ there. He still thinks he’s bad as they come. Pants around his knees and whatnot.” He leans way back and takes a few cocksure steps, leading with his hips. “Looks lik’he got a loaded diaper on.”
The UPS driver pulls out his phone and takes a few pictures of the truck.
“You think ya’ seen it all, man. I’ll tell you, no sir,” he jumps back in his truck. “You camp’n?”
“That was the plan.”
“Well, gon’down a piece and take the firs’ right ya see. Lil’ grassy ro’. Follow it down a bit ’till you hear som’ water real faint. Good spot. Be left alone. We’ll see’a!” the truck rumbles off, swaying at the top slightly.
I get back into my car and Woody whines softly. He puts his head on my shoulder. He is bored. I lean back, palms to temples and cannot help but wonder at this odd afternoon. I gather my resolve and start the car, rolling my window down. As I round the bend, I can hear a woman shouting- indiscernible save for “stupid mother fucker”- at the top of her lungs.
There, off in the distance, are the driver and passenger of the truck. The UPS driver was right. He is walking like he’s wearing a loaded diaper.
I find the grassy road, just as the UPS driver said, and find a small, secluded spot. It is now dark and my nerves are shot. I call a friend and tell her what has happened. The deer, the car. She is as incredulous as I am. It occurs to her before it occurs to me.
“Wait, how long did the UPS guy say you missed the crash by?” she says.
“Ten minu’uh,” I try to mimic him and do a miserable job of it. I like vowels too much. There is a pregnant pause. The friend is not amused by my attempt at levity. She is deadly serious. “Ten minutes.”
“Thank you. How long after the deer did you stop?”
The tent goes up without a fight while Woody wanders around, wondering just what it is we’re doing. The sky is clear and starless. Just dark, dark, dark. I brush my teeth. I put all of the food inside my car for good measure and call Woody into the tent. I leave the door open for a while and the air chills. I try to read, but none of the words take hold. They’re just words. I put the book away, lie on my back in my sleeping bag and fall asleep to the sound of my dog breathing.
This is not the first time that the school I work has been in financial dire straits. So, when my boss and good friend, Louise tells me that we’re in trouble, I am not as concerned as perhaps I ought to be.
“It’s the prediction of the end of the world- not the actual end of the world,” I say. “It’s troublesome, but there are still things we can do, aren’t there?”
She laughs. Yes, there are things we can do.
It’s the first day of school. We’re small- 23 students. 8th through 12th grade, and two 6th graders. We were supposed to have three sixth graders, but one of them was forced to go somewhere else a week before school started. We were also supposed to have six 8th graders, but we lost two in early August to public schooling, one a week before due to her parents being laid off, one two days before the start of the year and one more via email the morning of the first day of school.
Still, I am excited. We have several new faces in the staff this year- including an absolute jewel of a young woman to teach the sixth graders- and were able to bring back the anchors of our returning staff- specifically our high science and history instructors. It is the first time since I’ve worked here that I feel as though we have a staff and course instruction from top to bottom that not only competes with anything that public schools are currently doing- but indeed, tops what those schools can offer. I am pleased with the product we offer families. We are not just a “Christian” school whose emphasis is on the “Christian”, we are a school that emphasizes the both- our faith AND our academics recognizing that both are vital.
We are in the middle of the wilderness (well, a subdivision well outside of town). The students have been given piles of cardboard, tape, scissors and X-acto knives and a host of paints and markers. They are making themselves up into life-sized chess pieces and, once they’re finished, we will go out and play a chess game. I am incredulous. Not a single student has said “This is stupid” or “Talley, this is so super lame”. They excitedly took up the challenge. Indeed, they rushed me as bit as I handed them rules, strategies and helpful hints to the game of chess.
A new student has been assigned the role of Knight and she has turned a simple cardboard box into a horse that she wears with suspenders, replete with tail and mane. Another student has crafted a Bishop’s hat and allowed me to adorn it with the nickname I’ve bestowed on him: Maynard. There is a King that looks more like Optimus Prime than anything else and a Queen whose skirt may or may not look as though she is wearing a giant toilet paper roll. Pawns have given themselves heavily duct taped helmets, knowing their fate. A rook has made herself into a four-foot tall castle and another has made herself into the most (and I quote) “swaggalicious rook that has ever been”. Indeed, the stones that construct her castle are hashtags.
I have set up a chessboard made up of carpet squares and can only laugh as the students strategize, harangue and play a practice round. For the actual game, I unwisely give them each a handful of white flour to throw when they take another piece out. We play chess for a while before chaos ensues and an all-out flour war begins. It is not long before they are chasing the guy with the bags of flour: me. Though I run for my life and put up a good fight against eight or nine (I can’t tell in the midst of the melee) high schoolers, eventually their numbers win and they relinquish me of the bags of flour.
It’s going to be a very good year.
Parents have begun to arrive for the potluck we’ve planned for after the day’s events. Students are too tired to put their chess costumes back on and play another game for their parents. We are are ghostly white and, judging by the color of my hair, the day’s events have aged me fifty years. I cannot move without leaving a slight trail of flour behind me. We are all resolutely and resoundingly tired.
It is a good tired.
“Cyle,” a member of the board motions me over. She is standing with Louise, the principal and my good friend who, I now realize, has not been around the entirety of the afternoon.
“Well if it isn’t our mangy, wandering principal,” I saunter over. She does not laugh. She has been at the school, pouring over Quickbooks.
We talk. The sentiments are not good. What has been a good day is now grounded in some vague sense of sorrow. The numbers do not lie. If nothing changes, by Christmas, we will not be able to pay our teachers. By May, we will be $40,000 in the red. If we could get every family to pay the full price of tuition, we’d be in the black. Certainly not making a profit of any kind, but in the black. Perhaps a few dollars in the bank. As in three or four. They’re asking me to have a few teachers take the students to play frisbee after eating and to stand up front with the two of them as they lay the situation out for parents.
We’ve been in financial dire straits before- but nothing like this.
The meeting goes as well as it can. Louise and the board member are frank and honest and the parents seem to understand the depth of the situation. There are a few ideas for fundraisers. I can see that a few parents are considering helping the board, though I’d prefer they consider paying the full price of tuition.
In the coming days, Louise’s email will be riddled with messages from parents offering up fundraising ideas.
In business, there are two ways to stay afloat: raise profits or cut costs. Today, we cut costs. The eighth grade, unfortunately. As there are only two of them, financially speaking, they do not pay for themselves and exist as another hole to plug. We cannot keep them around. It is also easier to cut the requisite eighth grade teachers as those are the teachers who have at least one other class to teach. Though the sixth grade is only two students as well, it would be more difficult to cut the young woman we hired over the summer, as she also teaches an elective and is able to accompany us on the occasional trips we take as a school. It’s not pretty, it’s certainly not fair, but it’s the way it has to be. I feel badly for the teachers, I feel badly for the students and parents. I feel worst for Louise who has to tell all of these people what the board has elected to do. She feels it is her fault. It is not, but she still feels it- and so do I.
This is a conversation that Louise and I have had several times over the course of the last week, as the wheels have begun to come off:
Louise: I just don’t understand it. If I were G-d, I would really like this school.
Louise: I just can’t understand why we have to be so tight all of the time. Is there not a commitment to Christian education? Where are the churches to support us? At what point do the families say, ‘Okay, we’ll scale back on the drinks from Starbucks and use that money to pay tuition’?
Louise: Perhaps it’s so that I can depend more upon G-d. He’s pulled us through before. (pause) This is the sort of time when I have to pray, “I trust you and I believe in You because You are good.”
Commit your actions to the LORD, and your plans will succeed.
The wind has picked up. The leaves flip, their lighter undersides contrasting with the darker topsides creating movement. The stark white of the trunks has always struck me as vaguely lonely, though I know that aspens usually grow in groups.
I called the eighth grade teachers yesterday, though I knew that there was nothing that I could say to make things better. I still have a job and they have to begin the arduous search for something else. Sure, they still have a class each, but we do not pay them for prep time. We only pay them for actual class time- one hour, three times a week. One teacher has a young family with four kids and a husband who is out of work. The other is an empty nester whose husband, after running a summer camp and overseeing it year-round for the whole of his heretofore adult life, is slowly easing toward retirement. I told them I was sorry and that if there was anything that I could do, to not hesitate in calling- but what does that really mean?
I called the sixth grade teacher as well. I feel as though I duped her somehow. She moved across the country, leaving family and a boyfriend, to teach with us. I’m sure she’s worried, but she didn’t show it or say it. “It’ll work out,” she said in her light Southern lilt. “Everything else about the move was so easy that I’m sure something will work out.”
I moved back to Durango from Austin after five months of being there to take a teaching job here. In Austin, I worked as a commissioned salesperson and have never hated a job so much. For me, the choice to move back was easy when I weighed staying in sales and hating myself as a person or using my degree. I taught for half of the school year and, when we closed our doors for the summer, there was a very large chance that we wouldn’t open them back up the following year. I dreamt last night about meeting at a restaurant with Louise that summer, when she told me that we’d indeed open again and that I had a job. At the time, I was vaguely disappointed. I had a girlfriend in Fort Collins and was planning to use the school’s closure as an excuse to move. But we didn’t close.
When I woke up, I found myself saying out loud, “This has happened before”. Woody, surprised to hear talking at 3am, jumped up, alert and looking around. A moment passed, we looked at each other in the dark, and simultaneously laid back down, groaning.
“Everything happens for a reason,” everyone keeps saying. The teachers who have to look for jobs, the young woman who moved to teach sixth grade, the disappointed parents who have to figure out what to do with their newly school-less children. It is a nice sentiment, a minor comfort when things seem to be tumbling down. I want to believe it, but some part of me cannot. After all, that would mean that a baby deer was crushed by a speeding vehicle to save Woody and I from being ourselves crushed by a speeding truck. That would mean that students and parents and teachers are left in the lurch, jobless or school-less, because something else is going to happen- something better and more fruitful.
Is this what I want to be true?
Eyes are magnificent instruments of evolution. Instruments that allow me to see a principal and friend whose eyes are raw from crying over things she cannot control. Instruments that allow me to perceive the faces of students disappointed to be separated from their friends and teachers. Eyes that allow me to see parents, confused and bewildered, not able to reconcile their beliefs with what is happening. “We committed our plans to the Lord,” they think. “So why is He not blessing them?”
And yet, I know that, despite my good eyesight and my attention to people, there are things that I am not seeing. Perhaps there are parents redoing their budgets and moving money from “expendable” to “education”, board members entreating churches to reexamine where they stand on Christian education and whether or not they want to back it financially. Perhaps the thing that I am not seeing is that this school that I have put several years of my life into and believe in is not necessary- and indeed that there is something else that can come and flourish because we did not.
Life, for the moment, has become for me leaves flapping furiously in the wind. I cannot see the trunk of the tree. I cannot discern the colors or the shape or form of it and this makes me uncomfortable. Indeed, it puts me in a place that I actively dislike- without control, without the ability to direct the course of things.
And yet, I know that there is still a tree- there is a trunk and roots and a shape and form and this is only a moment. Something indeed calls these branches “home”. Though I am currently blinded, I have learned enough to know that life is failed camping trips and unforeseen rain and plans that you thought were good, but perhaps are not. Life is a baby deer suddenly in the road and alternately that sick feeling in your stomach and the feeling of confidence that allows you to believe that you are invincible just before you end up turning the whole damned thing over like a turtle.
Though I am currently blinded, I am looking forward to being able to see specifically, with awe-inducing sight- whether or not that means the school lives to teach another day or indeed, does not.