Friday, September 29, 2006

The Rock

The rock from the thirty mile fire reminds me to be awake every day. It says, we don’t know how much time we have. It helps me see students as flesh and blood. Finally, it is a symbol of a chapter in my life ending.

During the summer of 2001, my wife and I traveled to Zihuatanejo, Mexico. The weather was miserably hot. The room we stayed in overlooked a beautiful bay, but had no air conditioning. The water in the ocean was warm. The nights were warm. There was nothing to do but sit around being hot. It sucked. So we rearranged our flight and came home several days early. Just before we left Mexico, I stopped in to check my email at an internet café. The café was in the downtown of a small tourist/fishing village on the coast of Mexico. As I sat down at the computer, I could see and smell the fish they were weighing and cleaning. Once I got logged in, I saw a message from the community college near my hometown offering me a job. I had been teaching for three years at West Valley High School and felt perfectly suited for the job. It was my first job. I had AP students for their entire senior year in high school for 2 of my 4 classes. Over the course of the year, I came to know the students well. It was a great job and one I didn’t leave easily, but by the time we’d come home, I was sure I wanted to take the YVCC job.

We arrived back in Selah, where it was also brutally hot. Amy still had some vacation left and so we decided to spend the last weekend in a quaint little town north of Seattle called La Conner. But first, we came home and unpacked. Then we repacked for our second, shorter trip. On our way out of town, we stopped by my parents’ house to share the good news about the job. When we walked in the door, I saw Karen’s face on the tv in my mom’s kitchen. Then Jessica’s. Then Devin’s. The sound was down, but the captions said they had all died fighting a fire near Winthrop. I know those people, I told my wife. I just saw two of them walk past me on their way out of their last day of their senior years. I’d coached a third victim in 6th grade Y-league basketball.

When we got back from La Conner, the news of the fire was all over the papers, still. It dominated the conversation in Yakima and made national news. I was saddened by their deaths and felt terrible that I wouldn’t be there at West Valley for the first day of class. I wouldn’t be able to talk with fellow teachers, but mostly I was upset that I couldn’t help their friends process the event.

Then, September 11th happened. While the events of 9/11 dominated the news, eliminating the story of the fire almost entirely, many people hadn’t full processed the tragic loss of these young people. The world went on, for some before we were ready to let go.

I taught that first year at YVCC in a fog. By the end of the second year, I still was not comfortable in my new position. At the end of the third year at YVCC, I was invited to go for spring break to a cabin near Winthrop. I had never considered driving to see the fire site directly from Yakima, it’s a 4 and a half hour drive, but since I was so close, I thought I’d go by myself to see the memorial the forest service had placed at the scene of the event.

Just past Winthrop there was a sign that said, Thirty Mile Creek Road. For the first ten or so miles, there were cars and houses, but after that, it spread out a lot. I hardly saw anybody. It was a beautiful spring day. After a half hour drive, I came the fire line. The trees were still bare. The ground was still black. Here and there, some grasses were growing up through the wreckage, but the progress of recovery was not as far along as I’d imagined it to be. I was surprised when after less than a mile into the burn, I came to the memorial. The thing that struck me was how close they were to living. The fire had cut off their exit and they’d had to park their van and scamper either up on the rocks or deploy their tents in the middle of the road. Some took refuge in the sand middle of the river. Those that chose the slope, Karen, Devin, and Tom their leader, didn’t make it.

The second thing that struck me was how present they all felt. There was a small series of markers for the four that died. Up the rock slope a bit, some people had placed mementos. I took my journal and sat on that rock slide and just looked around. The creek was peaceful enough. The fire that they had been fighting had scorched the forrest for as far as I could see, going north. Going south, as I said, hardly at all. Green trees all over the hills on one side of me and wasteland on the other side.

I looked down at the rocks I was sitting on and picked one up. It was mostly white with black flecks in it. Or black with white flecks in it. I put in the palm of my hand and closed my fingers around it’s edges and sat there listening and looking around.

I stuffed it in my pocket and drove back to the cabin with the window down and music playing. I didn’t say much when I got back. I told my wife and friends where I’d been and we went on with our day.

When I got home, I took the rock with me to YVCC and put it on a shelf over my desk. When I look at it now, I am reminded to be grateful for each day. I am reminded that the students I teach are people with histories, families, lives outside of school and all of our time is short. I am reminded that the students sitting in front of me today, might not be there tomorrow. That I might not be there tomorrow. But mostly, when I pick the rock up and bring it to class, I am reminded of Karen, Jessica and Devin.