I was in an American Studies course in high school. It was my junior year. The course was taught by Mr. and Mrs Sprague. He worked in some capacity for the Federal Government with Native Americans (we were required to visit their home for tea once a semester where he would give a tour of the Native American artifacts he had collected during his time on the reservations) and taught the history part of the course and she (this delightful sprite’ish looking, overly enthusiastic and biting strong, strong woman) taught the English portion. The class was in the bell tower section of the original high school building: Pimped out cherry wood everywhere, creaky wooden floors, built in books cases, with statues of all the great writers bopping around the room.
It was cool. The classes were double-blocked, so we would have American Literature first, and then go to U.S. History right after, and vice-versa. It was as much a ‘show’ as it was a class. The context became a medium for their message.
There were girls in class that I wanted to impress. Mrs. Sprague was big on recitation. I think she read most of The Scarlet Letter to us aloud. Not so much reading as performing. Not so much performing as inhabiting the soul of those characters. I remember her jumping about whenever she read anything to do with Pearl. She was ghostly. I enjoyed the performance, but I crashed and burned on the test. When she handed the test back, she asked if I had read the book. Aloud. She asked if I belonged in the class. Aloud. I was not impressing anyone.
I was a high school athlete, but I worked a job as well. At Hong Kong Village, my best buddy Dave and I bussed tables. Dave went into the work force at age 16 and never looked back. He graduated, but it was tough on him. I told him about the test. I told him what Mrs. Sprague had said. He was good to me, he respected that I liked books, and that I liked to read, that I wrote things at an early age. He told me they were reading The Outsiders. And, as if out of a film, he went to the coat rack (he had a biker, black leather with a hand painted cover of Metallica’s ‘Master of Puppets’ on the back of his jacket) and tossed me his classroom copy. I read it that night. I fell in love with it. I watched the film a bunch. (Val Kilmer told me he was offered a part in The Outsiders film). All of these tough kids. All of these heady, traumatic experiences. The innocence of it all. The deep well of reserve that Pony Boy maintained. He was a good kid. Even Dally was a good kid. And Johnny was Captain America in spades. More than anything, my head kept coming back to Pony reciting ‘Nothing Gold Can Stay’ by Robert Frost. If you have not read it, it’s here. It’s short, easy, and bountiful in a beatific way. I understood the poem. I understood the poem more than the class struggle of the greasers and the socials (I know the class struggle is entwined in the fabric of the storyline, but it doesn’t push me the same way the boy’s love for each other does).
The poem suggested something that was hard for me to deal with: That because something was good, doesn’t mean it stays that way. In fact, that it is impossible to maintain the same moments further. This is the debate that Pony Boy and Johnny have. Pony suggests something similar. But Johnny, on his deathbed, offers that Frost is wrong. “Stay Gold Pony Boy,” says Johnny. I’m more inclined to believe Frost, but props to Johnny for sentimentality. Johnny was all heart.
Later in the year, we had to memorize and recite a poem in class. When Mrs. Sprague gave us the assignment, I remember raising my hand. “Yes Mark.” “May I go first?” “It isn’t due until the end of the week Mark.’ “I know, but I’d like to go now.” “Of course.” I went to the front of the class. I gave a small introduction. I gave props to Dave for sharing the book. And I went into it. I read it well. I read it twice, actually. It was sitting there, like the text was chiseled into the cherry wood walls in the back. “Very good Mark. What does it mean,” asked Mrs. Sprague. “It means that because something is really good right now, doesn’t mean it will always be good. But I think the opposite is true then, just because you did something really poorly, doesn’t mean you won’t do something really well.” She smiled and told me I did a nice job. I impressed some people. Good poems do the work for you. I think I got a date off of that recitation. That was good, for a while, too.