The deal was: if we saw a bald eagle on the beach the morning of the fifth annual Newport High School Senior Walk, I, the teacher, would cancel the killer vocabulary final because the appearance of a bald eagle on a publicly-owned Oregon Coast beach always instills a mighty beneficence in me and I act accordingly. Really, you should hang out with me when it happens.
This walk was my final walk at Newport High School, a tradition I inaugurated with my Honor’s Senior English students back in 2008, my first year teaching at the school. Since then, The Walk has established itself as one of the best things I’ve ever done with students. There’s never an agenda when we hit the free socialist sands at 5:30 a.m. and walk together as friends, Oregonians, and countrymen. We just walk, run, skip, strut, dart, talk, laugh, fiddle with our phones, ride piggyback, climb the North Jetty, build cairns, play, throw rocks, pose, dance, and then rally at Pig N’ Pancake where I buy breakfast for anyone who gets up at dawn to walk with their teacher a final time before the Real World beckons, commands, subsumes.
In three out of the last four years, it had rained on us, and I relished every drop. The condensation enhanced the photographs and made the drip black coffee at the restaurant all the more writerly. We are all writers on The Walk, whether any of us ever write a word about it.
As I said, this was going to be my final walk with seniors. No, I wasn’t quitting my job; it was simply time to evolve, move on, and devote my professional energy exclusively to teaching the creative arts and not a traditional English course. I’m entering the third and final phase of my career, and teaching the creative arts in an era when severe pressure exists to eliminate them from the curriculum is my only mission left as a teacher.
On May 28, I awoke at four a.m., did my usual writing, and then headed out. I arrived at the Fishermen’s Memorial in Yaquina Bay State Park 15 minutes early. Naturally it was raining. One by one the students lumbered in and we congregated near my truck, waiting for the slackers. Finally, 14 hearty teenagers and I commenced The Walk.
We cruised through the dunes quoting epic film lines from the Lord of the Rings trilogy and then emerged onto the beach, Oregon’s Great Birthright. Everything was properly gray. We inspected the remains of several driftwood forts and hunted for limpets. We discussed the fate of the earth and the death of rock. Then we just started running for no reason. If you’re teacher at any level and have never run with your students for no reason, you really have no idea what you’re missing. Running on the beach and in rain is even exponentially better. I would say it’s damn near transcendent.
At some point, we all turned and looked upward. A raptor-like bird appeared in the distance. Hark! Could it be? There were squeals of delight from the tiny tots with their wet eyes all aglow. Their prayers, conjuring, and Facebook posts had worked!
It was a hawk! I laughed at the sky. Soooooooooo sad for the seniors. The bald eagle never appeared and never would appear to forestall a vocabulary final. I had communed with him the night before and expressly asked that he stay away.
In the Pig N’ Pancake we had a banquet room all to ourselves and were happily served by the best waitress I’ve encountered in nearly two decades. The loathsome smell of crozzled bacon nearly induced vomiting in this vegetarian, but hey, I only have to endure it once a year—after The Walk.
I ate my two pancakes and marveled at Fernando, the Brazilian foreign exchange student who inhaled 20. Across the table, a plate full of congealed biscuits and gravy seemed to frighten Allie. To my left, Lily kept drinking creamer from tiny plastic cups. To my right, Cherilyn twirled a frothy blintz with a fork and did her best imitation of some celebrity or television character I’d never heard of nor would ever hear of.
It was our Last Breakfast and there would never be any betrayal. I will miss them all dearly.
As I paid the bill, the waitress said, “Have you ever been a waiter?”
It was one the oddest questions I’d ever been asked in my life.
“No, why do you ask?”
“It’s just the way you communicate and organize…it’s what good waiters and waitresses do.”
I instantly recognized a new candidate for a creative metaphor for good teaching.
She told me she was attending community college and studying communication. I had no doubt she would go far in life. She’d just handled a table of 14 hungry and texting teenagers with perfect and delightful efficiency…and took our photograph as well!
I tipped her like the eccentric-millionaire-who-teaches-for-pleasure I am, said goodbye to the crew, and walked into a floating rain, thinking harder about the “good teacher as good waiter” metaphor.
There might be something in that.
Matt Love lives in on the Oregon Coast with his husky, Sonny. He teaches at Newport High School. His latest book, Of Walking in Rain, is available at nestuccaspitpress.com and independent bookstores. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org