It was the spring of 1980. I was well into the last months of my first real year of teaching school. In August of 1979, after having filled out numerous job applications, and having a degree, but no teaching certificate, I got a teaching job.
Avery School, some 15 or so miles to the west of my home town of DeKalb, Texas, needed another teacher. Being hired last and being hired to fill in some schedule gaps, I had an unusual patchwork of classes. I taught 2 remedial reading classes (with no training in that area), a 7th grade math class (an equally great surprise), a journalism class (chaotic, to say the least), and fifth and sixth grade physical education (after all, I had a history degree). And the job was in Avery!
For all those reasons that just happen to seep into one’s mind, I always looked upon Avery as a cultural backwater. That was from comparing it to DeKalb! Avery seemed more rural, more locked in the past, less educated, more separated from the modern world. I pictured it as barely past horse and buggy days, as a place for the one-room school house, a well with a rope and bucket out front and an outhouse out back, and living in the past glorious age when it was the Tomato Capitol of East Texas.
There is no rational accounting for such provincial snobbery. We always wonder about those who are separated from us or different from us. How do they function or live or think? Do they have feelings like us, that is, like real people? So Avery was something of a mission field, and Avery was a job.
A lot of educating occurred during that year, and as is the case with all first year teachers, it was the teacher who got the education—over and over again. It was, after a few initial stresses, a fun year, a very memorable year, and a defining year. I have had no on-going contact with the students and families of that community, but I have never forgotten them. I should add, that my family roots are in Avery. My father grew up there, and when I worked there, people still remembered my grandfather, his vast strawberry fields, and his work ethic. The superintendent said to me, “I worked for your grandfather. He was an old man who enjoyed working young boys to death.” It was a compliment, and it still leaves me wishing I had known (as in, experienced) that part of my grandfather’s manner.
Roaming around the school library, I picked up a copy of a book called I Heard the Owl Call My Name by Margaret Craven. The book was published in Canada in 1967, but was not published in the U. S. until 1973. It became a best seller, which has usually been a turn-off for me. But it was a small book of some 159 pages, so I read it. And I loved it.
The short novel paralleled my own life, slightly. The story is about a young Anglican priest who is sent to minister to a tribe of Indians in a remote village in British Columbia. Through his experiences of getting to know these people, listening to their talk, seeing their customs, sharing their losses, fearing their fears, and loving them, he learns much. His bishop sent him there because, although trained and schooled for the ministry, he had so much to learn. Also, he did not have much time. (This part of the story, thankfully, was not a point of similarity for me.) The young priest was suffering from an unnamed disease and had only a couple of years to live. So, living fully was what mattered.
Becoming a part of a community, getting to know people, seeing the lives and pains and gifts and weaknesses of my students, and embracing a life calling were all a part of my Avery experience. The sadness of the book resonated with a sadness I felt, especially, when a better job took me away from the community.
I loved the book in 1980 and always felt a pang of remembrance of the way the book and the experience were meshed in my life. In October of 1983, I picked up a used paperback copy of the book at a library sale for 25 cents. In various moves, it was shuffled here and there and finally was placed in a box of trade paperbacks that don’t command shelf space.
A few weeks back, I picked the book up again. Old cheap trade paperbacks are great for carrying along. They are my Kindle. I take such books in the car while running errands (lest I get caught with time and no reading material). I started reading I Heard the Owl Call My Name for the second time—in 33 years.
This is a short book, but for me, it was not a fast read. Usually, I read a chapter or two at night (after starting it on my town-errand runs). The book is slow, but not dull. It is more lyrically paced than plot driven. At times, it is even confusing to keep the characters in mind and to see what is happening. All the while I reread the book, I wondered how the young teacher/reading experience of 1980 would translate into this phase of my life.
Upon completing the book, I wonder why it took so many years for me to return to the village. Books don’t change, but we do. The book was good then and is good now. It speaks to different seasons of life, but it still speaks. To some degree, I read it more now as a pastor identifying with the joys and travails of a flock. I saw more of the inevitability of change. I felt more for the old in the village who lamented their loss of a way of life. And I felt more for the young in the village who saw and needed the larger world beyond their distant outpost.
I saw seasons, weather, and nature. All those things that are in view from the window where I write, but are only glanced at in my busyness about business. There is a close connection between what this book says and what the Agrarians said.
Looking back is not going back. But looking back is not forgetting either. We are all sent to some outpost for a short time because we have so much to learn. And later, even 33 years later, we learn it again in a different way.