Sunday, May 23, 2010


Yesterday I jumped out of a plane.

I am not a thrill-seeker. When my family took trips to Knott's Berry Farm, I would cry or whine for an ice cream cone in order to fully avoid at all costs anything that remotely resembled a roller coaster. One year at Disneyland I went on Splash Mountain and thought it the most traumatic experience of my life thusfar, vowing at the age of eight to never again willingly participate in anything that was intended to make you feel scared.

But then suddenly there was this opportunity to jump out of a plane and I just thought, "Shit. If I don't do this, I will kick myself for the rest of my life."

Recently I turned twenty-four. It was shaping up to be the worst birthday of my life. I felt overworked and overtired, and my co-teacher's dog was sick so she had to miss the first half of the day. Teaching alone, as it always does, reaffirmed every thought I had ever nurtured that told me that I was a lousy, good-for-nothing teacher incapable of doing anything remotely useful for children. I went to swing dancing class, and it was HOT in there, and I didn't dance all that well, and for the dollar bill I had pinned on my own chest (this is a New Orleans birthday tradition), not a single person pinned another one, which made me look red as a tomato and monetarily pathetic. I called Leah over and over again because we were supposed to have dinner at Bamboo, but she forgot, so I had to ride home hungry and alone. It had rained the day before, and so the termites were out, and they mercilessly smacked me in the face and splattered against my glasses for the whole bike ride home. And I cried and felt VERY sorry for myself.

And I walked into my house, where it was dark, and I wanted to fall into bed and cry my eyes out... then suddenly the lights flicked on, and there stood everyone I loved, shouting "SURPRISE!" The living room was magically clean! Fresh flowers were on every table! A big chocolate-rosewater-pistachio cake with waxy candles made to look like tools sat next to a big heap of presents, alongside the gauzy butterfly Leah pinned next to abundant crepe paper wreaths and balloons. It was the kind of surprise party they put in movies that you convince yourself will never, ever happen to you, no matter how special you are.

So I cried again, but this time because I was so happy. I guess for the last two years I have built up this assumption that you have to make your own happiness, and that's okay, because that's just the way the world works. I thought that disappointment was just part of the everyday equation, and whenever it hurt too much, you had to go out and get yourself a new book or listen to a song you liked a lot, because no one was ever, ever, ever going to fix it for you. And then, as fucking cheesy as I know it is, this small group of wonderful people went ahead and proved me just so very wrong. Just when I thought I had it all figured out -- I was twenty-four, after all -- I didn't have anything figured out at all. And I was not as alone as I had assumed that I was.

There weren't that many of us that decided we wanted to jump this year. It was much more popular at my school last year. This year it was just Andrea, Kelsey, Saskia, Coop, Amanda, and Mark's girlfriend Tiffany. And me. I wasn't scared until we were about 10,000 feet in the air, and even then, I didn't know why I was scared. It didn't make any kind of rational sense. I knew I was going to be OK. When I drive on the highway (or any fast street, really) these days, I internalize a million different visual fantasies of the graphic deaths that could possibly happen in the next few moments. It's very traumatic, and I hate driving. But I didn't do that when we were up in the plane. I couldn't think of a single bad thing that could happen to me (now I can think of a lot: your parachute doesn't deploy; you accidentally jump into the propeller of the plane; you come in for the landing and accidentally land on a moving truck; etc.). I just felt scared, and all alone, and I couldn't stop crying.

I read "Ron Clark's Essential 55" over spring break. This is a book of 55 rules that caused Ron Clark the kind of teacher-of-the-year-my-life-is-a-made-for-TV-movie success he enjoys on a daily basis. It goes against basically everything I believe about teaching. I believe that children should figure things out for themselves. I believe that rules should be flexible and loose. I believe in a lot of hugging, a lot of conflict-resolution, and a lot of talking it out without any kind of major conflict. But I read this book, and I decided to try it. I decided to go into my classroom and demand these very ridiculous things of my students. I demanded that they fold their napkins on their laps during lunch. I demanded that they make eye contact with anyone whenever they speak. I demanded that they serve detention for sucking their teeth or rolling their eyes. I went and I put these rules on the wall, and I went over them during social studies, and I started to enforce them. And then the WEIRDEST THING happened: they worked.

I don't mean my students learned to read. I mean they learned all these things I had been trying to teach them all year. They started to be kind to each other. They started to be kind to me. They started hugging a lot more and fighting a lot less. They treated guests with respect. They made me cards and letters for the first time all year. I caught them saying nice things to each other when they thought no one was looking. And I thought, "What the fuck?" How was it that the one book I read all year that I couldn't identify with at all had done all the things I had been swimming upstream to teach my kids since I became a teacher? It's hard for me to wrap my mind around the reality that not every brain works exactly like mine. I just can't believe that not all children want just what I wanted when I was a kid. But I still am no closer to knowing what they do want, or need. All I know is that I love them. More and more every single day. So I guess I'm not so sad that my school year is a few weeks longer than everyone else's.

I sat perched out the window of this plane, tens of thousands of feet above the ground, and thought, "This is unnatural. This makes no sense." The world down there looked like a weathered computer chip. The clouds were underneath me. You couldn't distinguish a tree as a tree or a house as house. Everything was dots and circles and little peg-like squares. When I was young, when things scared me, I said my times tables. Once I learned them in third grade, they were the thing that I felt most proud of. I had had to practice and practice to nail them. I had had to say them while I was waiting in lines or when I was sitting at the kitchen table between dinner and clean-up time. I even had this record I played that said them over and over again and I would listen to it over and over again, because I just HAD to beat the 2 minute time limit -- just HAD to. And I was one of the last ones to get it, too, because in third grade, times tables did not come easily to me. I know I practiced them more than a normal kid, but when it came time to test, I flailed. I panicked. I couldn't do it. But when I FINALLY got there, I knew them. I did all my times tables through the twelves in one minute and twelve seconds -- the fastest in the class. And I had never felt so good or proud of anything. So after that, when I felt scared or uncomfortable, I'd start with the threes and say my times tables until the bad thing was over. For at least two break-ups, three funerals, and one impossible goodbye at the airport, I have held back my tears using the times tables method.

So it went: three times four is twelve, tilt back into the plane; three times five is fifteen, tilt out the window; three times six is eighteen, tilt into the plane; three times seven is twenty-one, and I fell out into the sky.

It didn't feel anything like falling. It felt like flying. There is no arguing with that. It felt like you were completely safe, because you had wings. I know a lot about wings, and I am pretty sure birds must feel that way every day.

But really, I couldn't describe it, so I won't try. The world never really came into focus. My tandem partner kept saying, "welcome to skydiving" under the shield of the parachute, and I thought to myself, "stop talking. I am starting something right now." But I don't know what it is.

I know less now than I knew last year. As I look back at my reflections from last year, I feel more disjointed, but happier than I was then. Then I was sure I had it figured out. Now I don't know.

But last year I wrote,
"This is the kind of statement I make and then less than a year later look back at and laugh out loud at because I was so many different kinds of wrong. I guess that really, everything is so complicated that something like the following statement is probably PARTIALLY true, or must be true for some portion of someone's life. Maybe it is only true for Sophie Johnson in the year 2009. Maybe it's not even true then. But. I think that you are supposed to live the things you believe. At least, I think that when you do that, you like yourself a whole lot more, and that makes you generally a lot more pleasant to be around. It is a very difficult thing to do, and I never used to do it all. Except for that whole vegan thing. And even then... I have been a VERY sloppy vegan. I will say this: I am a whole lot calmer and more satisfied with being alive when I know I haven't been doing anything knowingly wrong, per se. I like riding my bike. I like eating good, local food. I like working my ass off and coming to school as prepared as humanly possible every day. I believe in it and it makes me feel good.

Well, Past Sophie, I gotta say -- you were right on that one. Ron Clark (I know! He's such a tool! But still...) calls this Rule Number 55: Be the best person you can be. So now I look in the mirror and say that every morning. Be the best person you can be. It sounds so simple, but it's hard. Be the best person you can be. Who exactly is that, Ron Clark?

But you know what? I know. I do.

You slide into it, and you look around at the world, which is suddenly full of Big Things like Trees and Houses and Water Towers, and you think, "I like this place. It was nice to be in the air for a little while, but I never realized how grateful I was until now to be on the ground."