Most mornings, before the first little feet step onto the playground – whips of cold air smack heavy redwood branches and bring a kind of rain to my former school’s asphalt playground. The school itself sits near the back of a two acre plot of earth – black earth that soaks in wetness by day, and lets it out at night. By sunrise, when the earthen beast turns, only the grass along the riverside remains wet. So begins the new day.
The building had been built out of hand-hewn lumber cut from trees that once grew all over this now-urban hillside. Below this wooden landmark a river runs all year, under-grounded by urban planners a century before, surfacing again just beyond the fence. Legend holds that the river would not be contained beyond that point. The fence sets the school apart from the river. A sign on the gate reads ‘hazardous. keep ou’ . The ‘t’ has been painted over in red.
Old timers told me about rains that had come years ago as if to stay. The river rose and retook its former bed, sinking the school’s bottom floor below water once again. Chairs lifted and floated out, moving on for good. When the water receded, old timber remained, but the newer amendments had already rotted and had to be yanked out.
The principal explained when she left that she had given her all for eight years, and she now had a pain in her gut. – Doctors and even an alternative healer could find no cause. She confessed she had been dreaming about the school, too – about an ancient figure that rose up from the mud and tried to speak to her, but she couldn’t hear him. She apologized for rambling and handed me the keys – Just know, she said, that these things are part of this place. They have nothing to do with you. But everything to do with you. You’ll see.
One August night in my second year- just before the start of the school – I left the school by way of the river. Hot, sticky, full-moon night. The skies had just cleared from a fluke rain. As I got close to where the river met the fence, I heard splashing and laughter. I came upon the twins, two ebony skinned boys, fourth graders – a little on the wild side. They stood waist deep in water, their jeans hanging by a tree branch overhead, and gave me a wide-eyed look. I called out ‘hey’, but they snagged their pants and ran. What were they doing out? I had a sense that I had dropped in on a moment misplaced in time.
I asked one of the teachers about these boys. . . Oh, the twins, she said. She patted me and said, Stay here long enough – if you want to lead this place – and you have to reckon with whatever comes up. This whole big city grew up all around this forgotten spot. One little acre stayed wild. What do you make of that?
Rivers pour into any solid form. Every form will surrender in time. A child can fill any form. Then the form yields and the child returns to the flow. Not broken. Just released as if from two soft palms.
The work we did here may have made some difference. We also may have made no difference at all. There will never be any way to know for sure what matters and what we just pretend to know.