In Roseburg, grass grows up wildly, twisting and tangling until it catches you at the ankles. Grabbing desperately, it holds you tightly, trying to keep you grounded. If you aren’t careful you will stumble as you make your way through the overgrown mess.
Had I not been wearing irrigation boots, that late August grass would have sliced at my bare legs as I forced my way toward the blackberry brambles with my sister and my father. I had an empty bucket and a need for those sticky, dark crimson nuggets of tart-sweetness.
It has always been this way with me. When I see a need, I charge in, not unaware, but uncaring of the snags and cuts that may come.
I sit down at a table in my classroom with a colleague for a moment of respite. His class bustles around us, busy with their current class projects. The students plot, scheme and plan as they work together to design their dream theme park from start to finish. The classroom is filled with excited chatter and animated discussion as the students debate how much to charge for admissions. Construction costs are rising and they need to turn a profit, after all.
This is one of those moments in the classroom where you know you’ve nailed it. I can almost see the synapses going off like fireworks as the students develop their ideas. In the wake of Jack’s successful lesson, I turn to him to celebrate one of my own.
“You should have seen him today, he was on fire.” Perhaps I let a little too much hope into my eyes or perhaps Jack hears the excitement in my voice.
A frown pulls at the corners of his mouth, “It won’t last,” He says softly.
Recently I discovered a student who was struggling. The boy is new to me but came with a cautionary tale from several previous teachers.
The kid is exceptional. He’s jaded and hard. I can relate to that. He’s only a sixth grader; he’s got his whole life ahead of him and so much potential. If I can just find his passion…
“I think it will,” I say, defiantly lifting my chin.
Now I see real concern in Jack’s eyes, “Give it two weeks.”
The sarcasm in his voice hides something else. He doesn’t want me to hope too much. Over his long career, Jack has experienced the pain of putting his hopes, sweat, and tears into helping a student only to watch them fail for reasons outside of his control. He takes this failure personally and blames himself.
I do too. Jack and I are quite alike and he knows it.
“You are an optimist,” he scowls,
It’s an accusation.
“So what?” I challenge.
“I see things realistically,” he states. He’s afraid of seeing that hope in my eyes turn to something else. “I know what to expect.”
“Just because I’m an optimist doesn’t mean I can’t be a realist,” I argue. “I know the chances are slim, but I’m still going to try.”
My reasoning falls on deaf ears. To Jack, optimism and being a realist are mutually exclusive.
After school, I meet up with another colleague, Michael, and tell him about Jack and I’s conversation. As I mention Jacks accusation of optimism, Michael smiles knowingly.
“Jack and I are so very old, Kelsey.” He councils, “perhaps that is the biggest difference between your optimism and Jack’s realism.”
They often accuse me of being young in the same voice that they use to accuse me of being an optimist. Both are true. I am an optimist, though I am not sure why or how this optimism has survived and I am young, although I feel old and worn out.
So I trudge out, in spite of the tangled grass. I’ve got my bucket and I’m intent on filling it. I will try to save this kid. I am optimistic about it, but I am a realist too, in spite of my age. My chances of succeeding with this kid are dismal, there is little support from home and a ton of other fantastic teachers have failed to reach him. It’s going to hurt like hell if I fail. Still, I have to try and if I must try, I might as well be optimistic about it. Jack would do the same thing in spite of his so-called realism.
We arrived at the base of the brambles, grass snaking at our feet. The bushes are tall, rising well above my head. Spanning a hundred yards and several feet thick, the blackberry vines made an impenetrable wall reminiscent of barbed wire. Behind the stand of vines, Looking Glass Creek gurgled a constant soothing song.
In the late summer heat, we inspected the brambles for treasure. Birds had already snatched up most of the outermost blackberries. If we wanted to feast, we would have to brave the thorns.
I was the first to reach in and snag a giant berry. As I drew my hand back a thorn raked across my forearm, tearing at my skin. Instead of dropping the blackberry into the bucket, I defiantly popped the succulent fruit in my mouth and savored the tart sting followed by a sweetness that only fueled my need.
Glaring daggers at the wild mess of thorns and fruit, I watched as my sister and father retrieved fruit from the bush unscathed. They were more careful, not reaching in as far, taking fruit closer to the edge. I turned my attention to my arm, studying the bright crimson streak. Sure, they weren’t getting hurt, but the berries my father and sister were retrieving were small, many of them past their prime. The best berries lay in the center of the bush, guarded by thorns.
Movement caught my eye and I looked up to see a Gold Finch perched at the top of the brambles. Sun glinted off of his feathers, dazzling me. The bird cocked an eye at me as if he read my intentions and knew the outcome already.
As I watched, he flitted from branch to branch to branch, snatching plump berries and watching me as he ate them. Secretly, I envied his small stature and his wings. It wasn’t the first time I had wished for wings with which I could fly away.
There was a time that my optimism nearly died. I have never been naïve. Being a cop’s daughter, I was well aware of the danger and deceit that lurked in the world. Though not naïve, I was young and eager. Perhaps that is why my brain couldn’t wrap itself around what was going on. This was my friend and he was supposed to care about me. I kept telling myself that it wasn’t happening. Eventually, the pain sunk in and I fought wildly. But the more I struggled the more brutal he became.
In the end, I stopped fighting. I closed my eyes as he forced himself inside of me: mind, body, and soul crying at the invasion, ripping apart. He destroyed me that night. A strong burgeoning young woman was torn away and self-loathing, self-doubt, shame, and guilt replaced all of that potential.
I slipped into a dark place. Everything I had been told; everything I had believed about myself was a lie. I was not strong, I was not brave and I was not capable of taking care of myself. I quit saying no. If my “no” would be turned into a yes by force, why even bother.
I became resentful. I hated men and the power they held. I hated women because of their weaknesses, both imagined and real. Mostly, though, I was filled with an overwhelming self-loathing.
One day I sat at Mirror Pond, staring out over the placid water and listening to a gentle breeze whistle through the pines. I was trying to sooth the rage that burned in my soul.
A figure slumped down on the bench next to me and let out a heavy sigh. I ignored him and continued to stare ahead.
“You aren’t the same person,” he spoke gently. “What happened?”
The voice was familiar. I turned and found a friend of my father’s sitting next to me. His eyes searched mine for a long second before I was able to pull my eyes away.
I didn’t answer.
“I know what it is like to feel helpless and to hurt so bad it eats you alive,” he said.
I nearly scoffed, this man exuded strength and power. Something in his tone, however, told me he was quite familiar with the feeling.
“I miss that fiery young woman. Don’t let whoever did this to you win.”
“I couldn’t stop him,” I hated how broken my voice sounded. “He’s already won.”
“It is not the strength we carry or the success of our fight that counts. It is our response and unwillingness to accept defeat. He can break your body, but only you can break your spirit.”
He was right and eventually I realized it.
I carefully reached into the bush and snagged another plump blackberry and managed to get my hand out unscathed. Dropping the berry into the bucket, I shot the bird a wry smile. As the burning sun continued its journey through the sky, I filled my bucket, ignoring the occasional scratch, determined that the prize would be worth it.