Okay. Secretly, I like to think that, in some ways, my job is like John the Baptist's, or Tom Joad's (but on a much, much smaller scale). I rush into a school with the autumn wind, I do a spot of theatre that maybe opens some eyes, maybe plants some powerful seeds. Then I hit the road, hoping that maybe somewhere in that last auditorium, I maybe helped to stir a little something in a potential Nobel Prize laureate.
* * * *
L. kind of looks like Tom Wilkinson, except L. is paunchier, he's got little hairs on the tip of his nose, and he's hearing impaired. Salt-and-pepper hair, and that open, forgiving, almost naive look about him, something so genuine and endearing that you're afraid just looking at him might ruin it.
He ranges about with surprising swiftness, and he grins like a six-year-old. He's quick to hold doors open, and to offer coffee, or muscle, or useful flatboards on wheels that can haul stuff. He has that knowing, ant's-eye-view expertise about the Boise School District, and even through the accent of his speech pathology, you can hear a kind of blue-collar, easy competence, a snap precision, like what sergeants, nurses and paralegals have. He savors attention and kind regard, the way a parched man savors water, and he's three years away from retirement.
A fourth grade class sits down with us after the morning crowd raucously departs, and L. stands with them, everyone drinking in the details of puppet repair, performance triage, life on the road. As usual, the kids are everything that makes this tour exceptionally magical; they are incisive, they are genuinely curious, they ask the strange questions, and the hard ones, and the easy ones, and they won't stop asking. L. shadows the group, ostensibly pushing a broom around, poking the puppets alongside the mop-headed boys and the prim little glasses.
L. easily finds excuses to hang around us as we take things down. We swap stories about schools and touring, we could be a couple of union guys in our heavy-gauge work clothes and our calloused hands on our hips, we crack wise and nod sagely and do all those grown-up papa bear things.
Pretty easily L. starts talking about retiring, how he's ready, how he's worked hard and done well by the school district, and the time is about right. And then he does what every kid does when they stick around and try to glean more and more from us after the show; L. shares his dreams.
He wants to see more of the country. He's been in Idaho all his life, hasn't so much as stepped out of the state. He wants to get a comfortable car, find a woman who likes to travel, and, God willing, see things he's only ever heard about. And he wants to learn how to play the guitar, except that he doesn't hear so well (and he says this without any shred of self-pity), so when he listens to the radio he just imagines himself playing along and that's almost as good. He fell off the roof of the school maybe twenty years ago, and only just now found out that there are a couple of broken bits in his neck that need to be fixed, and he knows how blessed he is, how much cause there is for him to live fully and with hope.
And I tell him that he can get earphones and an amplified guitar and still learn, and that his dream of wanderlust is a great one. Because this is all I can say without bursting something inside, because this is such a good man and I hardly even know him.
As we saddle up to leave, he impulsively grabs our shoulders and prays for us, perhaps the most truly Christian gesture I've ever experienced, and he does this without pride or prejudice, he does this with honest compassion. And now, I feel blessed.