Thursday, November 29, 2012

One True Thing from John Robinson: Passion and Memory

Many years ago, as a senior in college, I was about to undertake my student-teaching experience. I was told that I would be paired up with a high school English teacher near the college named John Robinson. Little did I know what that name would come to represent through the unfolding years of my life.

John and I in Room 106 in 2003 after a day of teaching
That year, John and I would sit together at the front of Room 106 in Hamilton-Wenham Regional High school. I laughed more than I've ever laughed in an English classroom. But I also learned things I'd never imagined before--that writers of the novels we ask students to read had led lives just as fraught with fear, hope, passion, vigor, depression, and joy as we do. That every short story, novel, poem, vignette we read with students houses the uncanny ability to both teach creativity and passion, and also to embolden the power of empathy and bolster the need for new perspectives. Whether John was teaching Ernest Hemingway or reading Girl with a Pearl Earring or exploring poetry, he showed me the ropes of teaching for passion and beauty. He showed me how to be myself in an English classroom, too, which all began with Jack Handey's Deep Thoughts.

These years later, I am deeply in love with literature and writing, and I still can barely make it through a Handy Deep Thought while laughing uncontrollably. I still love teaching--whether it's Public Speaking courses in adult education programs here in York, or public school middle and high school classes. John pointed to a path which held untold passion for writing and teaching, and he pushes open the door for me and showed me how to walk it with joy.

John's lifelong work as a teacher is coupled with his lifelong work as a writer, having published two novels, scores of short stories in literary journals like Ploughshares and The Sewanee Review and many others, and having seen reviews, essays, and journalism into print. Every day, John still makes the fundamental decision to sit down at his desk and pen new words, craft new stories and reveal new lives. Because true passions never wither; instead, they are perennial as tulips: drawing strength from cold winters to flower and flourish with even more resolve. John's passion as a teacher and writer is resolve itself, and I'm excited to share Mr. John Robinson's One True Thing here, today.

Passion and Memory
by John Robinson

Yesterday, on a cold and overcast late November day, I drove to a Mobil Mini-Mart in my hometown, Portsmouth, New Hampshire.  I was stopping to purchase a couple of bottles of chocolate milk, a soothing drink I often enjoy late at night.  On my way into the store, I was thinking--brooding really--about the good news I had just received that morning from a esteemed editor of a prestigious literary journal.  I had been informed that my short story had been accepted for publication in the spring.  Yes, I thought, it was good to have yet another story coming out in print, but because most literary journals have small audiences, my joy was somewhat subdued by the prospect of knowing that no one in town will ever know when it is published.  After a lengthy time of being published in many forms and in many venues, I believed I was destined toward that special obscurity reserved only for those whose efforts will be perceived by posterity as being tragically marginal.  Though I knew my work would remain in print long after I'd shed this mortal coil, I would not be remembered, I thought self-pityingly as I entered the store.       
I approached the check-out clerk, and laid the bottles on the small counter between us.  Unfortunately, they didn't have "low-fat" chocolate milk, and so instead--because I had no choice--I doubled-down on two bottles of something called "double" chocolate milk.  He was a man around my age.  But below a tattered baseball cap a wizened face--the result of attrition or neglect or addiction-- aged his appearance beyond his years.  He took one bottle into his hand and double-scanned it before announcing the price to me.
As I reached into my pocket for the cash to pay him, he looked at me and said, "Hey, aren't you the writer who was in the paper a long time ago?"
Long time ago?  He remembered that?  And what an understatement!  It was more like a quarter of a century ago, 27 years to be exact.  I was amazed he remembered my face from the article written so long ago.  The town newspaper had done a feature when my first novel appeared.
"There was a picture of you with your dog, I think," he said.
"Yes," I said.  "You've got a great memory."  And then after a moment, just before I left the store with my plastic bottles of chocolate milk:  "I'm honored you recalled the article."
Somehow the piece about me had moved him enough to remember my face when I entered the store.   The one true thing about organizing your life around your passion--if you're lucky enough to have one--is that for the rest of your life you'll always be rewarded and reminded--in some of the most unanticipated moments and ways--of your commitment to your dream.  It does not matter how small the audience--or how large the financial reward.  It matters only in the existential sense that it mattered to you, and to the few--or many--you unexpectedly reached by trying to become who you were all along.  In my case, a writer.