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Fires, Storms, and Metaphors

Bradford Philen
Fires, Storms, and Metaphors

I told my son the noise sounded like thunder though I knew it didn’t. We were stretched on the playroom floor, huddled over blocks, each of us building a house, then inviting the other to visit. We had Hot Wheels too. I had a green van; my son had a sporty red car with spoilers on the front and back.

After the rumbling, he ran to his mother who was reading with our daughter. He’s four, she’s two. Noises are exciting and scary. Feet scurried. Questions flew like paper airplanes.

My wife called the lobby. Maybe it was a fire. The Barangay fire department may have been contacted. It wasn’t clear. We live in a high-rise in Manila. It was a Wednesday night and time for pajamas. “I think you should go down and check, just to be safe,” my wife said.

I nodded.

“Take your phone, please.”

As an educator, I’ve been accustomed to replaying classroom conversations in my mind over and over. At times this comes involuntarily. How did that really sound? Was I clear about whatever it was I thought I said? Did I get that right? What’s really right anyway? It’s a part of the job that can’t be fully explored in any master’s degree program, summer course, or afternoon PD. An educator’s conscience is a wildfire that runs faster than bell schedules, assessments, and curriculum. As educators, we are often in the business of rescue and recovery.

If I’m honest, the last year and a half has been a shambles. I’m not the only one: teaching in or from a different time zone, teaching while parenting, teaching from spotty home WIFI, teaching while stressing over rigid quarantines and lockdowns. Teaching while sore from all the sitting, teaching while angry, confused, sad, depressed. Teaching while my father suffers from Alzheimer’s. Teaching while wondering if I was better suited for another profession. Teaching while watching the world uncover pandemic after pandemic.

I have to be honest and vulnerable. Those are my two key takeaways from a tumultuous 2020-2021 year of distance learning, and what lingers in my mind is, if all that was a struggle for me, how do my students feel?

In 1963, James Baldwin delivered a speech titled “The Negro Child – His Self-Image” that was later published under the title “A Talk To Teachers.” In it, he details the difference between the Park Avenue of Harlem, his neighborhood, and the Park Avenue of Downtown where, “People walk about as though they owned where they are – and indeed they do.” He imagines what the future might look like for young Black boys and girls when they’ve had “almost all the doors of opportunity slammed in [their] face, and there are very few things [they] can do about it.” He recounts a familiar story told about the triumph of America’s Founding Fathers and counters that narrative with the horrifying truths of those mythic heroes. The speech serves as a powerful history lesson, one that hits every nerve and poignantly calls teachers to urge students not “to be bound by the expediencies of any given administration, any given policy, and given morality; that [they have],” and that furthermore, they have “the right and the necessity to examine everything.” It’s a Baldwin piece I return to at the start of each school year for an extra dose of motivation and a sobering reminder of why I weather the storms of high school hallways.

Downstairs in the lobby, I joined the gathering of onlookers, all cell-phoned ready to make an emergency call or capture an Instagram worthy pic. Mesmerized by the red flames and billowing black smoke across the street, we drifted to the horseshoe-shaped driveway and then I went further still to the street edge of the condominium complex.

It was a slow-rising construction site ablaze, some future tower like the hundreds of other nearby towers with arbitrary names like Pacific Plaza, Avida, and Infinity. Outside where I stood watching, the crowd grew. I found familiar faces—neighbors, colleagues, friends. We small talked, which is one way to validate your safety.

Did you hear that big boom?

It sounded like—yes!

We felt it!

Where are the fire engines?

I hope they turned off the gas…

Should we be standing here?

I didn’t feel any immediate danger, and yet I didn’t need a reminder that this wasn’t the year or decade to play daredevil. Others were walking away from the scene to further and safer settings, just in case. I called my wife. In the background I could hear the kids chattering.

“Yeah,” I said slowly so my wife could interpret my something’s-not-quite-right tone. “Let’s not make a big deal, but we should get to the car.”

“Now?” she said in a hurry. She paused, then followed along. “Okay.”

“I’m coming up,” I said. “Let’s get shoes on, masks, water bottles.”

“I’ll grab their blankets.” Water bottles and blankets go everywhere we go. “Should I get our passports?”

“Maybe.” She knew what that meant.

As a high school English teacher, I don’t just dabble in metaphors and symbols, I believe in their tricky, magical powers. I stress to my students it’s one thing to identify these crafty tools and techniques in a poem or story and to write about them in an essay, while it’s quite another to let them slowly seep into your soul.

Here’s where you laugh.

I know that’s all gobbledygook. I was one of those disbelievers myself in high school. I was hoops and mall jobs; you couldn’t pay me to read a book. Sure, students are curious and inquisitive and malleable, but how do you force your passion onto another? If life has taught me anything, it has taught me that you can’t. You can lead a horse to water—as the saying goes.

By the time I returned to our apartment on the 29th floor, my son was yelling and screaming, trying to catch his heaving breath in between stuttered shouts of “No” and “I don’t want to leave this house.” I had never seen or heard him like this before. It was a moment of complete panic and hysteria. Our daughter, who follows her brother like a shadow, looked on, a little more confused than sad. She hadn’t quite replicated her brother’s fears, but when she saw me enter, she took a turn to scream and yell. My wife became frantic. “Son, you have to stop crying,” her voice rising. This was my son’s truth. He was sharing his purest, most vulnerable self in the moment. He wanted me to hold him and not let him go. An urgency washed over me, like a…

The last year and a half has made me reflect upon priorities and I keep coming back to Baldwin. My students may not wax poetic about rhetoric or syntax or get goosebumps like I do when I share one of my favorite Baldwin quotes: “You want to write a sentence clean as a bone. That is the goal.” But I’m a writer. I’m about that life. I get stuck in stories and lose myself in the rhythm of sentences. I know that’s not for everyone, and yet, I’m also a teacher and this is no normal profession. It’s a new year and time to be honest and vulnerable.

I held my son.

Of course I did.

I listened to his cries and wiped his tears and comforted him.

He was lost, confused. He thought an emergency exit might mean goodbye to our happy home, his safe space, forever.

This, too, was a moment—a fire, a storm.

I held my son.

It’s okay to cry…

Tell me how you feel…

It’s okay to be afraid…

I’m here for you.

I love you.

I’m proud of you.

We eventually made it to the basement garage. We drove out of our condominium, just to be safe, and our son was soon infatuated with the fire trucks, hoses, and gear, the lights and sirens. He had calmed and recovered, though his suffering was still raw and his COVID mask still wet with tears. We drove and took comfort in the safety of the wailing sirens.

I breathe.

We breathe.

What do we learn from these fragile moments? From the urgency of the now? How do we discuss these moments of vulnerability?

This essay is sparsely vegetated and roughly organized: snippets of moments and just-trust-me anecdotes…

My son—in his moment of truth—pushed me to empathize. The same can be said for any classroom any educator enters. How do we listen for those cues and moments? Sometimes the fires and storms are just Monday mornings and awkward Zoom pauses. How do we know?

There’s more: as a white, male teacher—I have a duty and responsibility to push, probe, and deconstruct the systems and policies that need rescuing and revisioning. That is, too, part of the New-Normal. 

Writing is recovery.

Writing is an ocean is a fire is a storm.

Here’s the segue, I don’t care if my students like or do well in English class, I want my students to burn with an urgency for justice, to empathize with the world like an innocent child. Baldwin calls upon every teacher—no matter their specialty—to do just that: “The obligation of anyone who thinks of himself as responsible is to examine society and try to change it and to fight it – at no matter what risk.” This is the curriculum.

There’s Baldwin, teaching, social justice, writing, all blending together, flocking, swarming, moving. “Everything is Everything,” Lauryn Hill sings, which might be the greatest metaphor every written.

Bradford Philen has been an educator for eighteen years and currently teaches high school English in the Philippines, where he lives with his wife, kids, and dog, Bear. He is the author of the novel Autumn Falls (2011), the short story collection Everything is Insha'Allah (2014), and, most recently, the short story collection When the Color Started (2020). He has had several essays published with The Good Men Project pertaining to race, identity, and fatherhood. Find him on Twitter, IG, FB, and more here.

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