Wineskins Archive

January 22, 2014

Dan Discovers a New Hermeneutic (Jul – Aug 1993)

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The Write Side

by Bo Whitaker
July – August, 1993

17At the local junior high over half of the 800 kids eat in three shifts with reasonable decorum in the school cafeteria. The other half lines up outside under the covered patio at the snack bar. There, cynical ladies with white hose and sweaty mustaches push greasy, sweet and crunchy cuisine through its windows. Then, weather permitting, the junk food patrons munch, without reasonable decorum, around several picnic tables where the students from the cafeteria soon saunter out to wait for the bell which sends them all back to class. Those last few minutes of each lunch period produce a scene which can horrify the average adult: the clamor of hundreds of restless teenagers mingling among their own odious litter.

In this setting of pandemonium a singular adult wandered for years: Dan Waldorf, the math teacher, on patio duty. Daily he floated through the whirlpools of snacking adolescents and the offensive messes they deposited, scarcely aware of either. And the kids hardly noticed Dan as he ambled by, always whittling on a piece of wood and searching for pennies on the concrete floor of the patio. Some of the students claimed that “Ole Dan” could whittle during an earthquake. Sometimes a fight snapped him out of the pattern, but he always quietly broke it up and escorted the offenders to the principal’s office.

Most people around school considered Dan cold and detached, misunderstanding how he counted on dignity to save him. Dan remained aloof from the din of teaching in a public school. Stationed above a world that he patiently carved with honor, Dan dutifully moved through middle age, frequently stooping for pennies.

Dan – the teacher who whittled. He had adopted the craft to quit smoking. Thus, his hobby improved his social life. Sometimes people even broke the ice for him by asking such questions as, “Whatcha doin’?” or, “Are ya still cuttin’ on that same one?” Carving out the walnut figures – question makers, as he called them – occupied his compulsive fingers and restless spirit, in the therapeutic fashion of most hobbies.

He taught pre-algebra to eighth-graders, picked up loose pennies on the patio (twenty-eight dollars’ worth one year), devoured cheap science fiction novels, participated with little enthusiasm in church work and sang in the local community choir. Mostly, though, he just whittled. Growing up as a preacher’s son had made him a family man, but by the time his four kids left home, he felt a bit useless, so he worked on larger chunks of wood for awhile.

Although he regretted that people misunderstood his whittling, he never tried to explain. They attributed to him such qualities as patience, artistry, and drudgery. He had thought about the actual motivation for whittling: fear, excitement, love, and especially faith. Faith that the perfect figure buried in the heart of the wood could emerge one day. He even taught his students like that – vaguely believing in what they could become some day. But he never suspected that God had been carefully sculpting him, chiseling for years at the hard block of his soul. Meanwhile, on the surface, the gusts of the years scattered his trail of splinters, shavings, and sawdust.

Then came a day in Dan’s fifty-third year, a day of definition which altered him irrevocably. He patrolled his routine area on an icy Thursday in December. Most of the kids had stayed inside the cafeteria that day. He had found only one penny in thirty-five minutes, but that allowed him to direct extra attention to whittling the rounded body of a willow roadrunner. Ordinarily Dan avoided visual, verbal, or physical contact with the kids on the crowded patio, having the ability to stroll through the throng, alternating his focus between the wood in his hand and the concrete at his feet. Today, however, he collided roughly with a boy who dashed out the cafeteria door.

The impact spun Dan around, causing him to drop his whittling knife. The boy bounced headfirst into a steel I-beam column with a dull clang, and slumped to the concrete floor, dazed. Instinctively, Dan reached down for his knife and with the same motion turned to help the boy to his feet. Then, looking at the red, weeping, glazed eyes in the twisted face of the Hispanic youth, Dan froze. Bewildered, he heard the click of a switch-blade, saw its glint, felt cold steel slice into his arm, and glanced down at the line of blood coloring the rip in his jacket sleeve. Not until the boy cursed him in Spanish, though, did Dan react – savagely.

The first and last fight of his life seemed to Dan like a dream – his calm and dignified self watching helplessly as another strange, hostile self tried to destroy another human being.

Later, in the hospital, he heard that the boy had been expelled from high school a week earlier for doing drugs and had been on juvenile probation for months. That Thursday, he had come to the junior high school cafeteria under the influence of alcohol and hallucinogens to continue a feud with a gang of ninth-grade boys. Teachers in the cafeteria had prevented trouble and tried to hold him for questioning, but he had bolted out the door and stumbled onto the patio and into the life of Dan Waldorf.

Alone in his hospital room, Dan replayed the fight again and again, as though editing a film clip, hardly comprehending the 10 seconds of fury but sensing that they had somehow balanced his life – blessed it, even. He remembered that in his initial charge he impaled himself on the boy’s switchblade, but in return had gashed the boy’s face from ear to chin with the whittling blade. Recoiling from Dan’s blind viciousness, the boy stepped back into a corner where Dan again advanced, slashing with abandon. By that time several male teachers had reached the scene to restrain Dan, who collapsed in their arms, saying, “Okay, okay …I’m all right, now.” The men relaxed their grips, took Dan’s knife and turned toward the boy, but he dodged through them and sprinted across the patio into the parking lot, leaving a trail of red splashes and disappearing into an alley. Dan remembered leaning against the brick wall and watching the boy escape, noticing for the first time the blue jeans and jacket, white tennis shoes and the red bandanna he used to wear when he was a kid, playing Indians. A sharp pain stabbed into his chest, but he laughed as he looked down and saw that he still clutched the half-whittled roadrunner, now glistening with the blood that ran freely down his arm. He coughed and fainted.

The police arrested the boy on the afternoon of the fight at the emergency room of the hospital. They began the proceedings to send him to the state reformatory and the investigation cleared Dan of wrongdoing. But Dan knew better.

He knew that he’d taken a step beyond self-defense. The boy had been on drugs – Dan knew he had no excuse. During his first days in the Intensive Care Unit, Dan spent his conscious hours worrying – less about his physical condition than about the reasons for his irrational behavior that day on the patio. The plastic tent above him, the stitches and the tubes lacing in and out of him seemed trivial next to the demon that had surfaced within him. The kind reactions of family and friends brought no comfort. He had to confront the monster in his soul… alone. Drifting through levels of consciousness, driven by medicine and madness, Dan chased the source of himself, afraid of catching it. By the time he moved from ICU to a regular room, he knew more vulnerability than ever before, never having felt less human, but never being more so.

Then finally, struggling silently against his own fears, Dan reached weakly toward God. Confused and distorted, his prayers nevertheless rose from the heart. And Dan, who had read the Bible all his life, began to understand it as though reading it for the first time, leaning on it as he became acquainted with the stranger inside himself. In the cheap hospital bedside edition, Dan discovered emotion, passion, depth. Reading the stories of men and women who teetered over on the edge, between destruction and salvation, he gave sincere thanks. For the first time, he understood King David’s anguished laments and his shouts of joy. Now Dan could comprehend David’s dance of celebration through the streets and also his miserable prostration in the dust. And when Dan read again of Jesus in the garden, he wept into his hospital pillow – the first time in years that he had been able to cry.

He learned that he was created for passionate devotion and that the cool dignity he had trusted so long had led him to hell and deserted him there. Compared to the struggling, stumbling, aching people of Bible times, Dan saw his former self to be like one of his science fiction characters, without feeling, knowing neither love nor hate – lusting only for comfort. He saw his sin not as a murderous lack of control or impulsive hostility, but as failure to be fully human. His unreasoning rage, he saw, was the result of burying intensity too deeply inside.

Two weeks after a bloody fight with a stranger, tears of bitter regret brought Dan Waldorf to the most precious moment of his life. He longed to change, to start his personhood over.

Six weeks later, Dan resumed his regular duties at school, and for a while people watched him closely. Casual observers noticed he had lost weight and no longer whittled, but those who knew him best could see greater changes. Rather than search the ground for coins, he now looked straight into the eyes of people – and smiled.Wineskins Magazine

Bo Whitaker teaches seventh-grade reading at Horace Mann Middle School in Abilene, Texas. To the editor’s best knowledge, he does not whittle.

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