I walked to school in the dark under the sickle moon wondering what to say to the Open House crowd. An auditorium full of parents, there to meet teachers and learn about curriculum, expectations, and procedures, there to get their passwords and logons and handbooks. Me, alone on the stage, jacket and tie, there to welcome them. The glimmer of the last of the summer stars called for conjuring and doorways to wonder not another round of acronyms, slides, and slogans.
So, I told them a story.
Twenty-five years ago, the year my daughter was in first grade, I wasn’t a teacher. I was a fisherman, setting traps for lobsters along the rocky shores of the low, green-grey islands in the Gulf of Maine. That winter I fished with Dickie aboard the Deborah-Jayne. My world was wind and waves and cold salt water. Ice on the deck in winter and frozen ropes. Long days among the whitecaps with only the mountains for landmarks. First boat out of the harbor in the morning and last boat in at night. Faces red from the wind. Eyes bright with the staring for landmarks and buoys lost in the haze and sea smoke. Feet unsteady when we returned, eager for land and home, relishing the warmth and lights and chatter. Glad to be out again, away and free from the narrow confines of roads and errands and all the doings ashore.
On the mainland the birches burned yellow bright and the maples flamed. It was fall and fall was our money season. After the summer lodged in the rocky coves and inlets to shed, the lobsters were on the move and hungry. For all of September until the first snow fell and put a chill to the inshore water, while the weather held and even when it didn’t, we were out.
It was clear that day, early afternoon and the sun already low on the horizon, turning the sea to a sheet of moving light. Dickie wrung out his gloves while he watched the rope run out over the stern and the buoy bounce along the rail after it. I turned to the bait box ready to fill the bait bags, sure he’d run south, offshore. Plenty of light left in the day to haul the gear we had out that way. But he spun her round north towards the harbor, tossed his gloves on the bulkhead, put the lid on the bait box, and handed me my broom. I didn’t say anything, just filled a bucket with the washdown hose and added a measure of Dawn to cut the fish oil.
We scrubbed and swabbed in silence. Wiped down the windows, polished the wheel and compass, coiled ropes and stacked buckets until she was ordered and gleaming. Dickie stepped out of his overalls, hung them on their hook, tipped back his hat, checked his watch, looked out at the vast stretch of sea astern, the offshore islands already dropping below the horizon, nudged the throttle ahead, glanced back at the spread of our wake and shoved her ahead another notch. I gave my overalls a rinse with the hose before I hung them beside his, then stepped out of the shelter and looked out sou’west into the wind and the sun.
On the way in, we passed Millard and Young Moe hauling along the east side of Gotts Island. Old Millard idled back and come out of the wheelhouse and sat on the stern. Dickie come along side to see what he wanted.
Milliard made a job of pulling up his sleeve to check his watch. Held it up to his ear like he wasn’t sure it was wound and ticking.
“Open House tonight at the grammar school,” said Dickie.
“Well,” said Millard. “You don’t want him late for Mrs. R.G.’s class now do you?”
Dickie laughed but he gave her more throttle than he had for the rest of the way in.
I thought about it that night while I sat in the small plastic seat with Carly’s books and papers on the table in front of me. Dickie’s kids were grown and gone out into the world. It had been years since he shuffled in and perched his bulk in maybe this very same seat feeling just as big and rough and out of place as I did. Years gone by and yet he had the schedule just as clear and present in his mind as the he did the tides and wind.
While Mrs. R.G. started her talk I looked round the room. Tubs of counters for math. Neat rows of books on the shelves. Books I knew. Old friends Carly’d curled up next to me to share. Clifford the big red dog, Sam I am, Paddington. A bulletin board with their pictures, and self portraits. Cans full of colored pencils, markers and scissors. The science table with carefully ordered rows of magnifying glasses and the giant lobster claw I’d given her to bring in to show and share.
Slowly, and yet all of a sudden, I felt the students in the room with us. Felt Carly beside me. Felt this learning they did come to life and make me part of it. I don’t know exactly how Mrs. R.G. did it but she cast a spell, a spell of entry into a world of wonder. A spell that still called to Dickie years later and miles offshore to know, just like he knew the tides and the wind, that it was time for Open House at the Grammar School and it was his job to make sure I was ready and there on time.
I stood on the stage, jacket and tie, still feeling too big and rough and out of place in some secret part of me, and told the parents this was my wish for them on this night To open themselves to wonder and feeling their children beside them. For through all the years it these moments that warm us and light the way. These moments we carry with us like talismans. The moments that connect us and the moments we pass along across all the years and miles that may come between.