Wastelands and Meadows

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Hi – A young man greeted me. I answered him in passing and walked by without stopping. The sports store was packed. Staff was everywhere. They were just trying to be friendly, helpful. And to let customers know they were watching. That’s what went through my mind at first, but the next moment I realized I knew his face. I stopped and turned back. Yes, of course, this young man had been in my biology class some years ago. Oh – Hi! I said again and smiled in sign of recognition. Good to see you!

It was true, I was happy to see Lou. How many years since the last time I’d met him? I couldn’t tell, had lost count…I remembered him as clever and witty. Lively. Bright. Cynical, at times. And talking almost incessantly. A big-mouthed guy with a big heart. As a matter of fact, the heart had been Lou’s favourite topic in bio. Once he said he wanted to find a way to keep the heart beating forever!

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His wasn’t a big class, but I remember struggling to stay on track with them. And this was mainly because of Lou. He had comments and questions – quirky ones – all the time. I often felt torn when Lou interrupted the lessons. It was obvious he sought our attention. He meant to be funny – and often times he was! But many of Lou’s thoughts were also intriguing. I wanted to discuss them further, dig deeper, examine more. Debate. Investigate. Take, for example, his idea of an eternally beating heart – I still wonder where it would have taken us if circumstances had allowed us to explore it. Especially him – where would it have taken him?

But I had a curriculum to teach. Besides, Lou’s classmates weren’t always amused. And sometimes they were downright bothered. Annoyed. A parent complained. My lessons lacked continuity. The frequent interruptions were distracting, got everyone side-tracked. They loved Lou, we all did, but enough was enough. We were falling behind…

Both years I had Lou in my class I ran out of time close to exams. We crammed. No one was happy. And Lou was the least happy of all. He felt somewhat responsible, guilty. He’d been asked to keep his mouth in check – his brain? – countless times. Also, it wasn’t in his nature to study so much material at once, and to have to repress his curiosity, his urge to verbalize, too. Those were some punishing times! Not that Lou was in danger of failing. He always managed to get satisfactory grades. But he looked glum. And it felt as if the class had no life anymore.

Then, finally, his high-school graduation came, and Lou was radiant. He had been chosen by his peers to speak and he felt proud. He felt relieved, too. Freedom was written all over his face. School hadn’t been a very positive experience for Lou – And this, of course, he mentioned in his speech with his typical self-deprecating sense of humour.

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I saw Lou again a couple of years after his graduation. We bumped into each other in the concession area of a movie theatre. He looked excited, full of energy, confident. I am studying broadcasting, he told me. And loving it! His enthusiasm was sincere, no doubt about it. Actually, he was at the movie theatre for a school project. He was conducting some interviews, for a survey, I learned. Although we didn’t chat for too long – my movie was starting – I was left with the distinct impression that Lou had found a profession which suited him, one that he obviously liked. I was happy for him.

A few more years passed, and there I was in the sports store chatting with Lou again. What was it…His carefully trimmed beard? His haircut? What made him look so changed, aloof almost? I wondered. There was something in his eyes, in how he talked…Was that defeat? Sadness? Had his old cynical self prevailed? Hey – How have you been doing? I asked. He worked as a bike courier for a while, came the answer. And now he was a bike mechanic at this store. And… Was he happy with the job, was he enjoying what he was doing? I inquired further. He looked at me briefly without saying anything, pondering the question. This was unlike the Lou I remembered. The Lou I knew from school was a straight shooter. He wasn’t good at hiding the truth. He had difficulty concealing his thoughts and feelings. Spontaneity used to be a hallmark of his personality. Oh, yeah, it’s great! he finally answered. He loved working there, he added. But he didn’t sound convincing at all. I reminded him of our last meeting at the movie theatre. At first, he was sure I didn’t have that straight. He thought I was mixing him up with another student. But then he remembered. Right, I was studying broadcasting then, he said. I finished that too, but the degree was useless to me. His voice trailed a little. Was that bitterness I detected? Apparently, he didn’t want to talk about it. It was fine, we couldn’t talk much longer anyway. He was at work and I had to run…It had been just another fleeting encounter.

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Many students fall through the cracks, they say. It’s the schools which are failing, not the students. And it’s the truth… But alas, these aren’t much more than catchphrases to me. I’d like to know… What kind of school could have kept Lou from falling through the cracks? Does such a school exist? Or is it, as some say, pure utopia?

As a student, Lou was a captivating individual. His mind was like a swift water kayak – adventurous, agile. And so were many other young minds from my classes. School, however, is no swift water course. It isn’t a mountain stream flowing naturally and playfully over boulders. School is more like a confining, busy, slow-moving, artificial canal – a long and dull journey which many have a hard time to navigate. No wonder it’s strewn with shipwrecks – lost souls, crushed spirits. A wasteland. I wish there was a meadow instead.

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