This Friday, May 14, at 2:30 p.m., approximately 45 students from Newport High School on the Oregon coast will board a yellow bus to Portland to go to Powell's City of Books, the greatest bookstore in the quadrant, to attend a presentation of my new book, Gimme Refuge: The Education of a Caretaker
I teach English and journalism at Newport High School and all these students are mine. I organized the field trip and will ride the bus with them. In other words, I will supervise 45 teenagers for three hours in a moving vehicle, unleash them for several hours upon a major American city boasting an unofficial motto of keeping itself weird, eat hippie pizza at Rocco's, and then suggest they get lost in Powell's, a place most have never visited. All, I might add, before the biggest literary gig of my life.
In my classroom a week before the trip, I stood before a senior girl on the verge of not graduating, telling her she couldn't attend the trip because her grades and attendance were terrible. Frankly, in my mind, she hadn't earned the privilege and I said as much.
Her face went white, red, she didn't say much, and then she began to cry. Her arms went down to her side in a strange crooked way. I said I was sorry and she left the classroom. I actually wondered if I would ever see her again.
Thirty minutes later I stood before her, this time in the hall. I had summoned her after reconsidering my decision and questioning my essential purpose in teaching. What is my role? To hold students accountable or to open doors? Often these goals do not mesh. Sometimes holding students accountable can thwart opportunities. Sometimes a struggling student only needs one break and one faith to see something new and change her life.
When she told me she'd never visited Powell's, I knew that if I didn't bring her, she would never see it.
Twenty-eight years ago, my creative writing teacher at Oregon City High School, Doug Winn, at the time a certified member of the counterculture, insisted I visit Powell's City of Books. I'd never heard of it.
I rode the Tri-Met #33 bus to Portland alone, disembarked on a block swarming with shaky people straight from Midnight Cowboy, and somehow found my way to Powell's. I entered. I met a surly clerk who ignored me and my pleas for directions. In those days, I don't think the store had a map. I saw books everywhere: on shelves, in boxes, spilled into aisles. Many looked as if they hadn't been touched for a century. Most of the paperbacks cost less than a buck and I could have shoplifted 25 books with ease. Did anyone at Powell's really care back then?
Thirty minutes inside, my whole life changed, and Powell's became a second home to me. (No, I never shoplifted a book, but over the years, I did read dozens in the coffee shop.)
I want my students to experience Powell's. The experience might go nowhere. It could go everywhere.
Yes, I probably will lose my mind by the time the trip concludes at 1:00 a.m. in Newport. Luckily, my father served as a combat marine in Korea and taught me a thing or two about executing a successful mission; I will get them all home safe and sound.
Friday's trip marks the third time I've brought my students to Powell's on a bus to attend a presentation for one of my books. (Surely that's some kind of record for a teacher; I hope it lasts forever.) Last year I remember seeing one senior girl walking aimlessly around the third floor in obvious distress. (She would later become the first of her drug- and poverty-ravaged family to enroll in college, a full ride to the University of Oregon.)
I went up to her and asked what was bothering her and she said, pointing to all the books, spinning in a circle, "This is very intimidating, Mr. Love. I'm not from this."
"You are now. This is your world. You've moved beyond where you came from. And you won't believe all the great things that will soon happen."
I saw a new look on her face. I know I'll see it again Friday night. Powell's makes it happen like no other bookstore on Earth.