Now That I Know…

{only the last photo in today’s post is one of mine….all others are Google Images found by searching “fog”}

What seems like many years ago, I taught in a school in East Austin in a room with one bright orange wall.

Orange was the color that designated 8th grade rooms, although I taught all three grades in that room. Typically, while I was a teacher, I was “split” or taught multiple grades in the same year. It was really challenging at first, but became much easier as time went by. In this room, my second room in that school, there were many windows along the back wall and it looked out over the rooftop of the first floor and beyond that, the neighborhood where all the kids who came to us lived. That neighborhood was one of the worst in Austin, poor, ugly, dirty…a typical neighborhood that poverty and city neglect has left to decay and never improve. In that neighborhood there were no grocery stores or doctors, no movie theatres or good parks. You had to cross the interstate that was about a mile away to get to that sort of thing. I always wondered why a city would build a neighborhood so isolated from the city itself.

The orange wall was in the front of the room and was covered with two white boards and a flat screen tv, if you believe it. I taught almost everything via PowerPoint on that flat screen tv. Large screens with bright colors are lifesavers when you are teaching kids with the attention span of a fruit fly. There were two doors: one we used, and one we didn’t. The one we didn’t was typically covered in a huge poster made of butcher paper that somehow related to what we were studying. At that school, I made many of these posters as I loved to have large, colorful representations of what we were doing. My favorite one that we made was entitled “Dragon City” and was a city made of multi-colored block buildings all made by students. Below the city were tectonic plates that, tragically, were always moving, causing earthquakes. To the side there was a large volcano that was always on the edge of eruption. There was also an ocean with a tsunami at all times, high winds that caused hurricanes and weather conditions that created tornadoes. Life was rough and tough in Dragon City, but all the people lived there, anyway. When the students and I first made it, I made them watch part of Werner Herzog’s short documentary La Soufriere, and talk about why they thought the people would stay when they knew they might be killed.

Daily life in that school was difficult and funny. There were many students who were extraordinarily challenging, but there were also many who were great and inspiring with their intelligences. I tried my best to work with them and challenge them but also help them along, holding their hands a little bit and showing them things they would never otherwise see.

Because of the location of the school, up on a hill in the middle of Austin’s second greenbelt (although this greenbelt was unused by hippies looking for swimming holes), we had different microclimates than the surrounding neighborhood. Because we were up and away, typically our mornings, especially in the transition times between summer and fall, fall and winter and winter and spring, were very foggy.

In the back of my room I had an altar and a coffee machine (what more do you really need?). Every morning I made coffee with maple syrup in it; maple syrup was my reward for surviving there and at home as this was the year I got divorced. On foggy mornings, I started a tradition of fog bathing.

When the kids came in, I would throw open all the windows and we would let the morning fog roll into the room, filling the classroom with clouds. The fog clouds were cool and damp and murky-feeling, as if you were in a forest, not a building. If you looked out of the windows, you could see the fog pouring in over the sills, into our low pressure, controlled climate atmosphere of our school. Sometimes, when the kids weren’t in the room, during an off period, for example, I would sit in the front of the room, doing work at the computer and look up to see banks of fog like water rolling in toward me.

That school, despite its many problems, was in a beautiful spot in east Austin: ringed with trees and fields it sat. It sat on top of a seam of calcite, metamorphic limestone, that had been blasted to build the school. Oftentimes I would take the students in my elective out for a constitutional and we would go and collect beautiful rocks to bring back to the classroom. We would crawl around the retaining walls that were built along the back of the school, hiding when principals or janitors came by (they didn’t understand the need for constitutionals or for beautiful rocks), putting rocks and dead bugs in pockets to cart them inside and place them, delicately, on shelves or windowsills. Nothing ever happened to these rocks despite the concerns of principals: none were ever thrown at each other or through glass.

Sometimes we would go exploring in the woods just to see what was out there, and I would try to get the kids to scream primal screams with me in the woods; they had no experience of the outdoors and were scared of it. One of them even told me, “Miss? Black people don’t go into the woods!”. But after a few journeys, they liked going out there and climbing over cedar trees and into spiders’ webs and finding evidence of people living in those woods. They climbed around over cliff’s edges and got dirt in their shoes and needles in their hair. They would always come back when called, and in we would go again, to reintegrate into the world that was our school.

At that school we had a school garden, and goats, and an after school program in which we wrote a literary magazine and made pinhole cameras. I sat in the hallways and talked to students during my time off, and went into other classrooms who were struggling when their teachers quit in the morning, or the middle of the day.

The best times, for me, in terms of reflecting on what I was doing, what the work actually was, came though, on those days when I could stand, drinking coffee with maple syrup, and stare out those back windows. If I could stand and stare awhile at the plants, at the rocks, at the books on the altar, at the posters on the walls and floor, at the mobiles hanging from the ceiling, I could wrap my head around what I was trying to do there. I later realized that, although I was great at crowd control and counseling, that I needed to learn how to teach, and so I left that school after two years. It is only now, four years later, that I can look back and see the forest for the trees. Now I can see the beauty even of that place: the waves of fog pouring into my classroom as students worked on building cricket homes or proving photosynthesis in test tubes or reading about light years.

Sunset at Suminsby Park, Northeast Harbor

Now the fog I see and experience rolls toward me from the harbor that is 4/10 of a mile away. It rolls up the streets from out in the ocean, traveling like someone floating up into town, drifting down the main street, up Summit Road and toward me. It flows and falls between houses and garages, and peeks between the branches of trees. Fog is so much a creature of its molecular structure: water pours even in its different phases. A few days ago, I woke up to a foggy day where everything was grey and green. I stood out on the porch awhile, watching the fog move down my street, through the tall juniper trees, over my neighbor’s cottage, along the driveway and out toward the street.

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