I’m driving through small-town America, past young adults hunched under the weight of mysterious burdens and mothers with strollers and the homeless guy who walks around barefoot in the rain. I’m imagining the stories hidden within these human forms, and wondering how I can possibly help my students write their own stories, write things that matter. Things they care enough about to write well.
(I know. I know. It’s infinitely safer to write about what makes Michael Jordan who he is than to write about what makes you who you are. But I see you getting bored, making half an effort, and then quitting with the job half-done.)
I’m not really paying any more attention to the traffic than is minimally required to get me safely home. That fact that I’m late is there, too, in the back of my mind. That I’m late, yet again, this time because I stayed at school until even the janitor was locking up and I forgot my purse.
That’s when a motorcycle pulls out behind me–a long, low-slung, black thing with lots of chrome and out-to-there handlebars. He follows me down one street and then another, and finally out across the bridge. I keep glancing at him in the rear-view mirror, and I have that thought we’ve all had after travelling in tandem with an unfamiliar vehicle for a while: Maybe we’re headed the same place.
And for the first time in thirty years, I realize that every time I see a man on a motorcycle, I have had the same thought.
Wouldn’t it be weird if that were my dad? Coming to see me?
Never mind that my father wouldn’t know my house if he walked past it. Never mind that if we met in passing, we’d probably stare at our toes and mumble awkward pleasantries.
After 36 years, I’m still wondering if my dad is going to show up?
I slow down and signal at my street corner. The stranger behind me speeds up and continues on. He doesn’t even glance my direction. His movements are practiced and determined–he has places to go and things to do, too. He has passed a thousand, thousand other cars in his lifetime. I am nothing and no one to him.
The realization hits like a dropkick to the center of my chest, leaving my sternum wedged somewhere between my thoracic vertebrae.
I actually touch my breastbone, checking for damage.
I try to deny the truth, but it slams its heel more solidly into the very center of my being:
This strange, reflexive thought about strangers on motorbikes–it’s not about my father. It’s about me. What sort of person I am. If I’m the sort of child a parent might drive hundreds of miles and cross an international border to see.
That’s the real question.
Ridiculous, still. Yes. But now I can’t breathe.
I feel selfish and shallow and terribly alone. I want to pull off the road and give in to the spasms that are fighting to re-expand my collapsed chest, attempting to right the damage done with that one revealing blow. Also, at some remote, meta-cognitive level, I want to examine this strangest of thoughts and decide what it means.
But more than that, I have children of my own waiting–children I will not subject to this.
And so I don’t pull off the road. I thrust out my collapsed lungs by sheer force of will. I come home and make small talk and help with homework. I do not permit self-examination.
I’m certainly not going to write about it–even though this is exactly the sort of thing writing was invented for.
Because what if somebody reads it, and takes it the wrong way?
What if they don’t understand me?
Worse, what if they do?
Michael Jordan begins to seem rather safe, doesn’t he?
Do we write about things that matter? Do we take the risks? What, really, are we writing for? What, really, are we asking students to read or think or risk anything for? And why should we expect them to, if we will not?