Swallows

David Huddle Click to read more...

David Huddle is the author of seven poetry collections, six short story collections, five novels, a novella, and a collection of essays titled The Writing Habit.  He won the 2012 Library of Virginia Award for Fiction for Nothing Can Make Me Do This and the 2013 Pen New England Award for Poetry for Blacksnake at the Family Reunion.

Hired specifically to teach “Paper, Clay, Wood, and Cloth,” a class in basic craft skills, to eight- and nine-year-olds, I was 16 when I worked as a counselor/teacher at the Rock Point summer camp.  Even though I didn’t like having to ask my campers to call me Miss Wilson, it was the best job I’ve ever had,

My mother had put me up for it without consulting me first, probably because she knew I would ask her not to do it.  She did so because she knew I had a passion for making things–crafts, as we call it–but also because when she was my age she had taught a similar class at Rock Point.

Her secret agenda, however, was that my anti-social inclinations had begun to concern her, and she thought the job would require me to engage with other people.  Had she explained her reasoning to me, I would have said something along the lines of, “Mother, are you sure children that age qualify as people?”

Of course her answer would have been, “Claire, when you were that age, were you a person?”  From when I was about seven, my mother and I had been locked into what we jokingly called “our affectionate struggle.”

Being obnoxious was not my only defense against her, but it was a pretty good one.  My mother was smart, articulate, and patient, and her love for me was a potent weapon; however, she had an emotional allergy to me when my mood turned spikey.

I was only briefly obnoxious about the job–and I couldn’t help being pleased when the summer camp staff invited me to join them–because I already knew Rock Point to be an uncommonly good place.  Good in the sense that it was situated on about a mile or so of the Lake Champlain shore, that it had many woodland paths, and that it seemed to me to be infused with that loosey-goosey Episcopalian free-style take-me-as-I-am spirituality.

Also throughout my childhood the place had never failed to improve my mood when my mother took me to Rock Point, which was whenever she felt restless and in need of what she called “a change of scenery.”  For my whole life my mother has flirted with becoming a priest–though I doubt there’s any cause and effect between my birth and her religious yearning.

When I signed the contract for the two-month position, I suddenly understood that it was a bigger deal than I’d thought it would be.  I’d never been employed before, never even imagined being paid for my ability and my time, and certainly never signed a document that listed duties I had to carry out whether I felt like it or not.

If I felt a little trapped, I also felt peculiarly grown-up.  My parents seemed to notice a change in me and to treat me as if I’d suddenly become a more responsible person, and I was mildly thrilled that they were giving me more respect.

My classroom was barn-like, large enough for two or three times as many children as I’d be teaching, with a high ceiling and one wall with a table-like shelf and a row of permanently sealed windows along the length of it.  Always cool in the mornings, that workspace became warm enough on sunny days to make the campers and me sweaty by mid-afternoon.

The room had a baked cedary smell that suggested it was where work of some kind–maybe carpentry or furniture-making?–had been accomplished in the past.  It held six rectangular tables that I arranged in a square with a dozen chairs around it, though I rarely had more than ten children in my classes.

Bobby Wilson, Hershel LeTourneau, Hazel Hicks, Rachel Telford, Pete Copenhaver, Penny Hale, Elly Clay, and Katie Randall were my morning class, and those children have remained vivid in my thoughts for all this time.  When their parents brought them into that huge room to meet me, they seemed so small and shy and dear that I was instantly smitten with them.

Each child came to me, with its parents herding him or her in my direction, and I shook their hands formally, as our camp director had suggested I should.  I was pretty sure that most of them had never suffered through the ritual of shaking an adult’s hand.

During that first meeting with my campers, I was jolted by the realization that I suddenly considered myself to be an adult.  To be specific, it was Pete Copenhaver’s small, sweaty hand in mine (after his father whispered to him that he should extend his hand toward me) and his reluctance to look me straight in the face that made me imagine myself through his eyes.

I wasn’t so happy with that news.  For a little while that morning I would have been okay with changing places with any one of my campers.

The one to whom I’d have chosen to hand over my responsibility was Hazel Hicks, whose somber face and bold eyes meeting mine–dark brown eyes that continued to scrutinize me for some moments–gave me to understand that she would be either the hellion or the angel of that group.  When I told her that I was glad she was going to be in my class, she blushed and said, “I’m glad, too.”

She could have been quite a formidable hellion if she’d chosen that path, but before she even attended our first session Hazel was on board with “Paper, Clay, Wood, and Cloth”.  She was a child who, for whatever reasons, had grown impatient with childhood and who I think was desperate for activities that would challenge and engage her.

It is as hard now as it was then for me to distinguish between what Hazel told me about herself–which wasn’t a lot, really, she wasn’t chatty–and what I surmised about her from watching how she behaved.  I sometimes felt guilty because my attention was constantly drawn toward Hazel who (without awareness or effort) was an intense presence among the other kids.

What she had, at a ridiculously high level, was focus, and that resource wasn’t necessarily to her advantage.  She had poor social skills, didn’t make friends, seemed to have no athletic ability, paid little attention to her appearance, and could barely tolerate her classmates’ childish ways.

I mostly had to give up on assigning her to work with any of the other campers on our projects.  To give her credit, she did not try to alienate her co-campers–mostly she just ignored them–and if they became angry with her, she didn’t quarrel with them, she just walked away, but she always seemed a little surprised that she’d upset any of them.

For me observing her was a pleasure because in many ways she was absolutely transparent.  I was moved by the way she was attracted almost physically to most of the materials we used for our projects–she loved handling the pieces of cedar and pine we used for making small boxes; the bits of cloth we used for making placemats and doll quilts amused her; she liked arranging mosaics out of the beads we used for making necklaces and bracelets; she even made exotic weavings with the stupid strings of colored plastic we used for making lanyards.

Mostly because of Hazel–and because Rock Point had a pond and two small but lively creeks–I introduced a unit on ponds and streams so that we could see and talk about turtles, tadpoles, frogs, salamanders, and birds.  To watch that girl lying flat out on the wet grass, conversing earnestly with a turtle, was to understand something profound about both childhood and the world we lose when we become adults.

Those eight students of my morning session became my beloved ones, though I believe that the afternoon class was just as lively and funny and that my success-to-failure rate as a teacher was pretty much the same with both groups.  I believe it was because the morning students came to me not exactly straight from bed but when the day was still fresh for them and when their dream-life still lingered in their minds.

There was also a slowly-evolving change that I witnessed with the morning kids–of the group slowly coalescing around Hazel and Hazel unconsciously accepting their almost unwilling approval.  Initially an outcast, that lonely girl–before my eyes–became a peculiar version of a leader.

I have to be quick to say that I doubt that Hazel thought of herself as lonely or an outcast or a leader of any kind.  As I’ve said, her first quality as a person was that she possessed focus, though I now realize a therapist might have diagnosed her as unbalanced, a child who needed coaching in social behavior.

If in the first week of our session another child saw Hazel standing still as a stone to watch a blacksnake shed its skin, that child very likely would have laughed at her and summoned other kids to come and look at the weirdo.   In the next-to-last week, that same child would have slipped quietly up beside Hazel and watched the blacksnake with her.

Yes, it’s likely I noticed that evolution because Hazel was my favorite–there’s no denying that–and I feel neither shame nor guilt for having observed her more carefully than I did the others.  I didn’t treat her as a favorite, and if I had, Hazel would very likely have lost respect for me.

My point is that she was a constant, and her eight classmates were the ones who changed their attitudes toward her.  That dynamic, of the community moving toward harmony, was immensely rewarding for me as both participant and witness.

In the fourth week of the session, in the second week of July, by eleven o’clock, the day had become so hot that I opened the classroom door in hopes that a breeze from across the meadow would cool our room down enough that our last hour of the session wouldn’t be so sweaty and miserable.  I had barely turned back to the children and the table where we were making origami owls, frogs, and flowers, when two small black forms flew into the room.

Because they were about the size of badminton shuttlecocks, at first I thought they were bats, but almost immediately I saw that they were not darting erratically as bats do but were swooping in arcs over our heads.  Only a second or two later I realized they were barn swallows–of the sort that every evening flew over the meadow catching mosquitos and other insects.

The children were shrieking and covering their heads, and Hershel LeTourneau, the biggest boy in the class, had even scooted down out of his chair and seemed to be cowering under the table.  I felt the panic of the children but maybe because I was the teacher and the grown-up in the room, I sat still and in that stillness sensed a wave of serenity come over me.

The other person in the room who sat still and remained in her chair, her head lifted to watch the swallows above our heads, was of course Hazel, and when her eyes met mine I felt–I know this is strange!–so joyful the girl might have been an angel smiling me at me.  I’m certain these were not the words that she meant to convey to me–and probably she was thinking nothing she wanted to share with me, but what I thought in that moment as the way Hazel and I were perceiving those birds was like they’re little souls frantic to find the bodies from which they’ve fallen.

 I know that I must have smiled for just that moment, but in Hazel’s face I saw–or imagined I saw–her understanding that the swallows were much more terrified than her classmates.  They flew toward the windows and scrabbled against the glass, then flew back up into the ceiling space, but in a few seconds they swept down and again and fluttered horizontally along the shelf below the glass, wild in their entrapment.

Almost at the same moment Hazel and I stood up and turned toward the windows and the birds.  I wasn’t especially surprised that Hazel and I acted so similarly, as if we’d discussed a plan and had risen together–though truth be told, I had no notion of what I was going to do beyond moving toward the small black birds.

Swallows swooping in graceful arcs over a meadow or zooming a foot above the grass at twilight are mesmerizing to watch, but they are not likeable creatures–they build nests underneath the eaves of porches; they splatter their poop on porch-floors and railings; and when their babies hatch, they dive-bomb anyone who comes close to their nests.  Their sharp beaks and wing-tips, and their forked tail-feathers make them look like tiny fighter jets, which is how they behave when they’re riled up.

As a grown-up who often returns to Rock Point for spiritual sustenance, I’ve come to know swallows very well, but at the time those two swept into my classroom, pity for them welled up in me–and probably in my nine-year-old student Hazel as well.  Though I believe that I’m a good person and generally an honest and compassionate one, I’m not someone who’s ever acted with notable courage or intelligence, and so I’m proud of what Hazel and I managed to do that morning.

That there were the two of us makes all the difference–and really at nine and sixteen years old, I could claim that we were both children.  Nowadays I believe everything in that classroom–the birds, the bright day, the shrieking children, the desks, the windows, the vault of space overhead, even the baked-wood fragrance of the room–enchanted Hazel and me so that we were ageless in those moments.

She on one side of the window wall, I on the other, each of us managed with our hands to guide a single bird down into the corner between the glass wall and the shelf that served as a ledge.  “Just be really gentle,” I murmured, more to myself than to Hazel, “and you can cup them between your two hands.”

She caught hers a few moments before I caught mine.  Once we had their wings pinned against their sides, they submitted calmly, with their swiveling heads extending out of the space between our forefingers and thumbs.

When we looked at each other, I smiled because that is how I am, and Hazel merely directly looked at me because that was how she was, but the intensity of her look informed me that her heart was thrumming away in her chest the same as mine was in mine.  We both turned to carry the birds to show the children, and as we circled in opposite directions around the tables, they ooohed and aaahed appreciatively and wanted to put their faces right up to within an inch of the birds’ beaks and eyes.

Those minutes of showing my campers the swallow in my cupped hands–and I swear I could feel the high-pitched rattle of its heart–foretold my future.  I would teach children about the age of these campers, and I would try to find opportunities for them to witness the extraordinary events that sometimes happen in ordinary settings.

I walked outside with Hazel close behind me.  We walked a little way out into the meadow, which was shockingly green underneath the plain blue sky.

Then we turned to each other.  “On three,” I murmured, and she nodded.

I sounded the one and the two very softly, but I shouted the three, and we flung our hands and the birds upward.  They knew what to do and zoomed up and out away from us, and we knew what to do, too, though I’m certain neither of us had done it before.

We danced a quick-spinning little jig out there on the grass and then stopped and laughed.  If on my deathbed I’m granted the memory of a single human face, I’ll ask that it be Hazel’s, flushed and breathless, just before she and I turned to go back to our classroom.

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Discussion

2 Responses to Swallows

  1. Nick Clary says:

    I just read “Swallows” and thought it remarkable in its narrative simplicity. You certainly imagine Claire Wilson (and Hazel Hicks) unforgettably for your readers. This line, and others, triggered my remembrance of remarks that David made about spending time with his grandchildren during our conversation in the car on the last poker night: “I would teach children about the age of these campers, and I would try to find opportunities for them to witness the extraordinary events that sometimes happen in ordinary settings.”

  2. Linda Farley says:

    I really enjoyed reading this as it brought back fond memories of the time that I spent at summer camp at Rock Point as a young girl. It was for girls only and we stayed in the main house in large dorms that we shared with 3 others and had wonderful meals in the dining room. We also made lanyards out of those plastic strings. I was a member of St. Paul’s Church and in a girl’s club called GFS – Girl’s Friendly Society.

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