I’m learning to fly, but I ain’t got wings. Coming down is the hardest thing.
All I know of flight and fright is that both need to be ridden out into the eventual and veterate truths provided by gravity and by grace:
What goes up must come down.
When we’re down, it often helps to look up.
And, it is my promise to you that we will not offer, or attempt to extend, any metaphor that has people building aircraft already in-flight.
That’s pretty lofty, yes? Perhaps it is better to cut to the quick. To say that I, like so many of you, am frightened by the prospect of going back into the classroom in the midst of a global pandemic. This has to be okay. To start in fear and work our way into the buildings having begun the resolving of this fear. Any veteran teacher will tell you. . .it is better not to be vetting and battling fears in front of the room, especially in front of teenagers. Surely there is approximation, even vulnerability, but never let them see you sweat.
For me, this fear manifests in part as this virus attaches itself not only to my body but to my pedagogy and my practice. The virus attaches to my desire to be a good teacher. And it finds its connection via my dream that I could be the good teacher I aspire to be. And the threat comes from the outside, an entity over which I have no control. Watching the statistics and the trends related to the virus for five months (almost a semester), I am concerned that I cannot be good enough. To protect students. To protect myself. To protect my family. The virus, like the horror show that it is, has found access to my dreams. And the dreams of many teachers across the country.
The dreams are not, however, an anomaly of the novel virus. These dreams always arrive a few weeks before the beginning of any school year. Ask any veteran teacher. They’ll describe to you vivid visions of students arriving for which the teacher has no roster (the worst of these is when the teacher has no recognizable room), no plan for the day, no lesson for the moment. Some may tell you they begin to sleep with their teacher planner at arm’s length so they can grab it and curl up with it in a sort of comfort against the nightmares.
It was out of this very kind of dream that a response began to take shape. I want to speak back to the dream that has arrived. I think I had better. I think we teachers as individuals and a collective had better.
This dream that seems to want to linger. This dream that wants to take up space in our slumber and within our waking hours. The dream for which there is no bell. The dream that will not go away unless we speak it away.
And this time, the dream has brought a global pandemic along.
Well the good old days may not return and the rocks might melt and the sea might burn.
I sat bolt right up in the bed. And I started to think the “weird thoughts” admonished by Jenny Fields and embraced by her son T. S. Garp in The World According to Garp, the 80s film adaptation of the John Irving novel, A Prayer for Owen Meany, a film that contains symbols and motifs around flying and flight:
Are you gonna go to sleep or you gonna stay up and think your weird thoughts?
I’ll stay up and think weird thoughts for a while.
The eventual and veterate truth attached to “weird thoughts” is that one really doesn’t know where they might lead:
So I’ve started out for God knows where. I guess I’ll know when I get there.
Then, within these “weird thoughts,” I remembered. I have been here in this feeling before. This present fear. This pervasive apprehension.
And then. . .a certain resolve to ride it out in an effort to find or discover a not-yet-revealed inevitable and veterate truth.
And I seemed to find one.
From about a quarter of a century ago. Inevitable and veterate truths have a way of sticking around. They are always available for the purposes of revisitation and reflection.
Well before I had ever thought to teach, I had an opportunity to fly. I was twenty-three years old with no one but myself for whom I was ultimately-accountable. But, this was no ordinary flight. This was a catapulted launch from the deck of an aircraft carrier at sea, aboard one of the most unlikely aircraft ever to join aviation’s “tailhook” community.
And I was not the pilot. I was a passenger.
Assigned to a temporary active duty assignment away from the ship, I would accompany pilots and crew members as a medic to land-based joint task force flight operations for two weeks. You might imagine that it is not possible to hop aboard a bus when one is floating in what sailors call “blue water.” One must do a “hop” off of the aircraft carrier in a plane they do not feature in films like Top Gun or Iron Eagle.
This plane was described as a “COD.” Not cash on delivery but carrier on-board delivery. It’s general duty is to deliver mail, packages, and supplies to the underway ship. It is also used as transport for crew members who need to go to shore.
In order to “take off” in one of these aircraft, each passenger is given a blast helmet and invited to take a seat in the backward position aboard the plane. Imagine the infant child who must sit in the rear-facing seat until they are old enough to turn the chair around. This is the position and the posture for the launch. The launch was described to us as a “full-throttle attempt to leave the deck of the ship and to take flight.”
I’ve been tempted for years to use that descriptive phrase as a sort of mission statement for my own classroom.
Reader: Have you ever been in the queue of a thrill ride that you have boarded as a result of continued harassment or perhaps a dare? That’s sort of what this experience was like except it was in the performance of my duties as a sailor and as a medic. And, as a medic, I had taken it upon myself to exhibit the best text of bravery and calm that I could for the other crew members (each of whom had forgotten more about flight than I was about to learn, an eventual and veterate truth you might want to take into the classroom).
The launch feels like stepping on the gas to quickly step off of a steep curb. There is a momentary “dip” in the launch wherein the plane itself seems to recognize and make allowances for gravity before its props right the trajectory and take its flight.
It feels like this right now, doesn’t it? Someone has offered you your blast helmet in the form of PPE. They have suggested to you the posturing and the stance as the year takes off from the flight deck. Are your desks not “spaced” and “parked” in a configuration in preparation for flight? Does it not feel as though you are now in the queue of a full-throttle launch sequence? Lean into this. Eventual and veterate truth is forthcoming.
Two truths: What goes up must come down. No one except for those featured in TikTok videos wherein backflips go tragically-wrong denies the truth of gravity. And, when one is down, it helps to look up.
Because as interesting as the launch can be for a COD, it is the landing that is more terrifying if you’ve never experienced it. From the air, a crew member will direct your attention to a gray rectangle in the middle of a large blue expanse. This is the ocean. This is your temporary home, floating upon and within that ocean.
No ship floats without direct influence of the waters upon which it sails. Even aircraft carriers bob with the waves. An immediate recognition comes of the fact that the plane on which you are a passenger is attempting to land on a moving target that is moving each and every way a target might move along X, Y, and Z planes.
This is not a time to enact an extended evaluation of the pilot.
Every passenger has something at stake in this moment.
Everyone faces the same direction. All are mandated to wear their blast helmets.
Few, if any, have done what you and I are about to do.
Eventual and veterate truths are often held in abeyance for later retrieval.
Or they can present in real-time.
A COD’s landing is different from the other aircraft that make up the carrier’s aviation community. While the COD does have a tailhook like the other aircraft, it must come in full throttle in case that wire that would stop it is missed requiring the aircraft to take off again. This is called a “touch and go” landing. This landing is described by the flight deck community and crew as a “controlled crash.”
I’ve been tempted for years to use that descriptive phrase as a sort of vision statement for my own classroom.
But what goes up must come down.
We teachers are being asked to spend some time preparing for a touch and go approach to the fall. We’ve been handed our protective gear and it has been suggested that we face in the opposite direction of our passengers, our pupils. Our re-entry manuals are not in the seat pocket in front of us. They are heavy with code and attached to an email we have been highly-encouraged to read and present questions.
Eventual and veterate truths do not pose questions. They can be pithy, worthy of transcribing onto tri-fold pamphlets with complimentary images. Here I am in reverence of gravity. Here I am looking up in gratitude for a sky larger than I am.
Here I am, without wings learning to fly.
I am a student again and it is invigorating. I am invited to look up, to look around, to look into, and look forward. In fear? Yes. But as a student of fear, I can speak truth into it and see it as False Evidence Appearing Real.
I have launched from the unknown and landed on the other side of an opportunity.
I have seen and stuck a landing that few, if any, within the teaching profession have experienced and landed upon eventual and veterate truths.
What goes up must come down.
When one is down, it helps to look up.
And one more:
It is the pilot at the controls that ensures the landing. The ground crew, even the control towers, cannot do what I. . .you. . .we. . .are preparing to do. The students are spaced apart appropriately. For many, it has been “highly encouraged” that they wear their protective gear. We will wear ours. We will model calm (we should be careful to ever think that we have forgotten more about fear than the students in our room). We will deliver lessons in real time as we meet known learning targets in the midst of a most-fluid situation (I know you see what I did there; I spared you from building in-flight aircraft; let me have one good pun).
Teacher friends. Colleagues. Like you. . .I have fears. And I have weird thoughts.
Drafting this on August 5th, I am one week prior to entering Room 407 with students again. or another year. I’m taking some time to plan and to prepare. I feel the props beginning to sputter before spinning. Academic sputtering. Spiritual sputtering. Emotional sputtering.
Like you, I am in the queue. Not because of harassment. Not on a dare.
Because of a hope. That the classroom is still four walls with a hope inside. A space where dreams can take flight and then light again a space no larger than a desk.
I have one week to plan and to visualize. And to dream.
I will stay up and think weird thoughts for a while.
Paul W. Hankins
AP English/Silver Creek High School
Hill, George Roy. The World According to Garp. Warner Bros, 1982
Petty, Tom and Jeff Lynne. “Learning to Fly.” Into the Great Wide Open. MCA Music
Entertainment Group: 1991.