Thursday, October 27, 2005

The Warrior and The Artist

You should return. If the Great Gatsby, the mainstay of high school English, laments “so we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past,” then you should let yourself drift back to that tide, back to that familiar time when you read about Gatsby and Daisy’s struggle, back to that contradictory place of a southern California board school, a place that had dormitory prefects who could take surfing as a sport, a place where studying for AP biology was done poolside under a gentle Santa Barbara sun, and a place that had classes on Saturdays but a week off to hike to the Kern River or camp in the Yosemite valley. Two of your favorite teachers, Mr. and Mrs. Sykes, are retiring and one of better things you can do is go back for their tribute weekend on March 25. You should return.

Just over twenty years ago we arrived at boarding school awkward, uncertain, and I was surprised why I was given the head of the arts program as an advisor. My strengths were math and science, and while I like to think I am creative, my coloring books growing up were always colored outside the boxes not so much because I was trying to channel Pollock, but because I lacked the coordination to be gentle. If Mrs. Sykes was ever assigned a less artistic advisee, she was very polite in her constant British charm never to share.

And she is an artist always – an artist when she dressed so stylishly in Santa Fe style outfits that seemed to flow everywhere matching her enthusiasm, an artist who went all out for Halloweens or Fair costumes, and artist who at least appreciated the creativity when she busted Carter Kirkwood and me for pumping music through the dorms’ PA system. She is also a great teacher, the patient kind, who would introduce chiaroscuro and composition to my world in Foundation Arts and provide sympathy to attempts at pottery when the bowls came out suitable only for ashtrays in an increasingly nonsmoking California. I learned about complementary colors – how red clashes with greens – by building out a color wheel and are grateful for the visual vocabulary that she gave to use for the rest of my life.

Her husband, my English Teacher, worked on my written vocabulary. To learn English from an Englishman is to feel closer to the source. He was an ex-rugby star and brought that kind of tough discipline to the language. Paragraphs needed to flow sentence by sentence as if the topic was a rugby ball being pitched from back to back. At their bests sports and literature have that same kind of natural ease, an economy of motion or words. He knew both of these well, and I can almost feel him still writing in margins about my abusive tendency towards metaphors and almost hear him coaching the sprinters during track practice how to high kick.

On one Hike Day many years ago he led me and two other students up the hill behind the school. The fog rolled in quickly and thick, and on the descent we missed a turn on the trail. We followed a canyon down as the shrubs became thicker. At a rest stop long after we had run out of water, he turned to me and said “I think I have broken my hand” in the same calm voice he used to say "this sentence is a bit awkward" or "try to show instead of tell."

A twig had gone completely through his hand and was poking through both sides. As we continued to hike first by the waning sun and then by the moon, the rugby warrior never mentioned his hand again. After the rescue when the doctors pulled the twig out he kept it in a small plastic jar, a souvenir of courage like rugby caps he won playing for England. He is the toughest man I know.

His wife might be the most graceful. At one parents’ weekend, my father was wandering around campus with the board of trustees. Excellent at real estate, he wasn’t the best for names and faces and got Mrs. Sykes confused with Ms. Graph, the Human Development teacher. He announced to the entire board that “this was the women teaching Arthur about sex” and she had the flair to laugh through such things.

Not that her husband didn’t accidentally get back at me. Sometimes if he came across a bit of homework that he liked he would read it to the class. It was quite a few months before one of mine was to his standard. He asked us to write about a body part and I decided to do a long treatise about the back of the girl’s neck who sat next to me at assembly (She was fascinated by Charlie Engs, sports star, one seat over so I had plenty of time to examine). And while this should have been a great moment of finally writing something worthy, a nice discourses about the slope of her lightly tanned neck popping out of tank top, the general piece was diminished because this girl also happened to be in our English class. He kept reading on, detail by detail – does she surf? Why does she like the tall blond guy? - Until both of us were deeply red.

We all had such moments. It was a time of such social pain and such giddy laughing, a vat of hormones in which some of your best friendships brewed. It was a time when awkwardness and achievement emulsified; in the same assembly you could be cheered for winning a soccer game or corrected for using the wrong preposition. You should spend a weekend and relieve this a bit. Tell your stories. Blush and laugh a few times.

Mostly what I remember about the Sykes was their kindness. As advisors they would invite over their small group from time to time. Sometimes the best cure for just being a teenager is a home cooked meal.

They must have needed that kindness later. I would love to say that they had the dream life, but after Mr. Skyes’ stroke I doubt it could be easy. There is courage to relationships that we never had to face in high school. While still occasionally tugged by hormones, as we drifted further from that time our bonds are more driven by logistics. The brightly colored canvases of our youth now have depth through chiaroscuro, the play of light and dark of our experiences. There was no way of knowing when they met for the first time at a party in her London flat that for so many years in the future together he would be silent, his once elegant voice trapped somewhere inside. You never know the disasters that can hit you on sunny October Tuesday.

While I suspect that it was never easy for them, a couple of years ago I came back to the Mesa and ran into them still smiling. She tends to him gently. He can still nod with approval, and he still recognized me as the guy who got lost in the woods. It meant so much after so many years that he still remembered me – that if our life is going to give us great disasters from time to time it also gives great friends.

And you should return to high school for a weekend to remember them. Two of the finest are retiring. They share the glow of the gifted ones that inspire you to be like them. You hope on your best days you could be a warrior during battles and an artist during calms. You should return.