Snake Charmers

The school’s outter walls are a dizzying pattern of smooth, black rocks lodged in cement.  Bikes are parked out front, aligned in teetering rows, some with baskets, some without.  We walk in like we always do: Dallas carrying a box of books, Rubin with his camera case slung over his shoulder, Mikey with the video camera, and myself, with my purse full of notebooks.

Light filters into the main hallway through a few open classroom doors, their rooms empty of children out on recess.  A woman saunters towards us wearing three different shades of green and a long skirt.  She introduces herself, casually taking bites of the apple in her right hand.  Her name is Shannon.  We will be reading to her third grade classroom.

The children are seated at their desks when we arrive.  Our presence creates a polite stir; heads crane in our direction, little girls stare at me intently, wondering if I’m what they’re going to look like when they grow up.  Shannon asks the class to please say hello.  They oblige with a symphony of immature vocal chords.  Each of us are introduced to the class by name.  Dallas.  Micky.  Rubin.  Jenny.  A motley crew.  Dallas Clayton and his strange, little entourage.

Shannon dismisses her class for recess.  Two children introduce themselves to me by first and last name as they shimmy out the door.  They are eager and smiling.

The classroom is not unlike my own growing up.  It seems most public schools look the same: boxy, mid-century utilitarianism awash in the same shade of beige and an accent color, usually a sour teal.  The inside of the room is yellow.  Old fashioned chalkboards feature multiplication problems and a drawing of the United States in purple and pink.  Diffused Portland light pours through a wall of windows facing a play area, passing through buttercup yellow curtains and onto the small desks.

Ten minutes pass.  Kids come back inside, hyper and chatty.  Shannon’s voice comes over the commotion, calm and smooth, “Boys and girls, please sit straight and tall.”  Almost immediately, the children come to attention, lifting their heads towards the ceiling and placing their arms on their desks.  This woman is a snake charmer.

Dallas asks for two helpers to pass out the books.  Arms shoot up and choices are made.  The room is momentarily filled with the disappointed thuds of unchosen hands.  I remember that feeling – wanting to participate so badly, wishing that I would be called upon.  I can’t even remember why it was so important.  It just was.

When Dallas finishes reading the book, he starts talking about dreams and aspirations.  He speaks of how in our sleeping dreams we imagine fantastical, crazy, amazing things.  But when we wake up, we often settle for dreams that are less exiting, less ambitious.  The point of the book is to remind us that we don’t have to settle or dream small; we can dream as big in our waking life as we do in our sleep.

Dallas opens it up to the classroom and the classroom shares their dreams.

A blonde boy with hair down to his chin raises his hand.  “I want to make a band … I play guitar.”  Dallas asks plainly, “Are you good?” and the boy says he is.  Immediately, Dallas asks Micky to go grab his guitar so he can treat us to a song later.

We move from hand to hand, dream to dream.

“I want to invent a robotic arm to climb on walls.”

“I want to be an actor and I want to own a lot of cats.”

“My name is Julius and I want to be an architect.  My former neighbor had a lot of Legos and we used to build things together.  I like diagrams.”

“I want to eat sushi every day.”

“I want to be an author and have a doggy day care and have a ton of families.”

“Stuff, stuff, and more stuff.”

A girl with long brown hair and broad shoulders corrects Dallas when he mispronounces the name written on her desk.  She talks rapid-fire about how she wants to do something with zombie cats and create a shot that can bring bugs back to life.

“I would like to be an artist,” says a petite girl towards the front of the class.  Her peers apparently think this is a good idea; enthusiastic guffaw-noises and thumbs up hand gestures indicate their faith in her ability to draw.

The class begins to unwind a bit and Shannon calls out in a language I have never heard before.  The class quits their chattering and sings back a response.  And there is calm.  Just like that.  “Whoa,” Dallas says, “What was that?”  It’s their secret language.  The kids respond to it well because it’s like being part of a club.  The call and response is so beautiful that even the children forget that they’re being asked to quiet down.  It turns an order into something entirely different, as though not demanding obedience, but requesting their participation in a particular mood.  Their teacher is magical.  She gets it, whatever “it” is.

Dallas calls up the blonde boy who dreams of starting a band.  The boy sits on top of a stool and Micky hands him his guitar.  “I’ll do ‘Seven Nation Army’ with lyrics,” he squeaks out, small and diminutive.

The first chords come, his little fingers moving along the strings.  I’m gonna fight em all.  A seven nation army couldn’t hold me back. Kids tap their toes to the beat.  And I’m bleeding and I’m bleeding and I’m bleeding right before the Lord. A boy bangs his head overzealously, barely able to contain himself within the confines of his desk chair.  The kid is good, amazingly good, and so very brave.  When he finishes, the class erupts in a supportive uproar.  It is apparent that there is not an ounce of jealousy amongst this group, only overwhelming and unerring enthusiasm.

Shannon mentions that the kids have prepared a few songs for us of their own.  Our group moves to the front of the classroom to watch the children bang on their handmade drums with wooden sticks padded at the tip with orange cloth.  Again, the language is one I am unfamiliar with, but it sounds soft and sweet and beautiful and I nearly cry in front of thirty little faces.  I want to tell this classroom that I hope they know how special they are, how unique and gifted and blessed.  Instead, I listen to the banging of the drums and words I don’t know and debate moving my future children to Portland just to sit in this classroom with this teacher named Shannon one day, because, honestly, it would be worth it.

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Dallas Clayton Book Tour: Driving/Dying to Reno

An amber sign up ahead announces from the darkness, “CHAINS REQUIRED NEXT 30 MILES.”   It’s the end of May, where everywhere else in the world is luxuriating in the throws of early summer.  But Reno, special place that it is, is having a fucking snowstorm.

Micky is behind the wheel when we pull over to the side of the road after being waved over by a man wearing a waterproof-looking suit and heavy rubber boots.  Law abiding citizen that I am, I immediately think these guys work for the government in some capacity.  As it turns out, they’re just capitalizing on the sign a mile back.  After two minutes into a window-side conversation with him, we figure out he’s part of a crew selling and installing chains to the tune of $90.  It’s highway robbery…literally.

We ask the man if we can please have a moment to discuss the issue and wind up the window to debate whether or not this is a total scam or its actually worth forking out the cash just so we don’t die early on into the book tour.  After deciding that this little roadside setup is 3 parts scam and 1 part legitimate necessity, we err on the side of cheap badasses and decide we’re going to carry on sans chains.

The first mile back on the road seems safe enough; there is snow on the side of the road but nothing our little mini van can’t handle.  Soon enough, however, the snow begins to coat all lanes in a thick layer of white.  Another amber alert sign up ahead reminds us “CHAINS REQUIRED.”  My blood pressure escalates.

Micky and Rubin have switched sides.  Rubin is from Kansas.  I make a joke about snow in his hometown in regards to his experience driving in it.  He assures me he’s had plenty of practice.  For some reason, most likely The Wizard of Oz being my only reference point for the state, I didn’t even know it snowed in Kansas.  I never even thought about it geographically and connected the dots.  His confidence in his driving abilities – in combination with a medium-grade, pervasive neuroses similar to my own – makes me happy he’s behind the wheel.

Dallas turns on the florescent reading lights and commences the sixth round of Trivial Pursuit, which I’ve discovered is a game that just asks ridiculous questions like “What is the subgenre of this subgenre?” or “What type of grandstand music did Lyndon B. Johnson listen to while in the Lincoln Bedroom?”  Two times out of ten the answer in the musical category is either a repeat of the question it just asked or “Celine Dion.”  I can’t tell if I’m stupid or the game is.  I’ll be generous and surmise to guess it’s a little bit of both.

The snow gets thicker as we twenty-five-mile-per-hour our way up the hill, getting passed by gigantic angry semi-trucks and cars with chains.  My stomach turns and I know myself well enough to just call a neurotic spade a neurotic spade and put myself to sleep like I do on airplanes.  I can’t have panic attacks when I’m sleeping; it’s pretty much the same principle by which anxiety medications work upon – you can’t be anxious when you’re numb to the world.  I make the decision between naptime or a heart attack.  I take the former.

I close my eyes, leaving the boys with their Trivial Pursuit cards, fall asleep, and wake up in Reno…alive.  Imagine that.

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The Dallas Clayton Awesome Book Tour – Day 1

The outside of the school is shockingly quiet.  Purple leaves of a fruitless plum tree rustle in the breeze.  A pink plastic headband lays abandoned on concrete.  Three of my future travel companions round the corner: Dallas with a box of books in hand, Micky holding a guitar, and Audio, Dallas’ son, wearing a shirt with neon dinosaurs.  And so the adventure begins.

We sign in and are given giant yellow stickers to distinguish us as visitors although the fact is apparent enough as it is.  Just to the left is a library where the reading will be held.  Dallas wrote a book and tours the country reading to children; I’m just along for the ride.

Temporary metal bookshelves brought in for last book fair of the school year stand arranged in a circle.  Clunky gray metal.  Gigantic, easily read titles.  Until this moment I have completely forgotten about book fairs and how much I loved them.  Taking ten or fifteen of my parents’ dollars and buying stories about bunnies or adventures on a river.  I loved to read.  You forget what you were like as a kid.  You forget that you once did things simply because you liked them.  You forget that you just didn’t think so much.  You forget how that life was good.

Audio turns seven in a week.  His face is sweet and perfect; his little nose sprinkled with freckles.  Trying to make friends, I ask him what his favorite dinosaur on his shirt is; he points at a place on his elbow where there are no dinosaurs at all.  This kid is thinking in the abstract before he even understands what “abstract” means.  I love him already.  Kids rip your heart out that way sometimes.  You just want to give it over to them carte blanche.

He runs towards a pile of black fabric in the corner, knowing with a childlike instinct that it’s a soft heap of beanbags.  He tucks himself under a shelf and sits there for as long as he wants, looking out over the carpeted room lined with books.  I’m so far removed from my youth that I would never have even thought to just launch right into them the way he did.  Instead, I start thinking about why they are there, what they are filled with, if they’re made with canvas or tarp or heavy-duty cotton.  Useless thoughts.  Audio just goes.  There’s trust in youth – trust and adventure and fun.  Now I am spending my adult life trying to replicate this mentality, this passion for life and living.  Not just in brief, treacherously fleeting moments, but permanently…all of the time…now…tomorrow…always.  That’s why I flew across the country to go on a children’s book tour with three virtual strangers.  This is living.

The first group of children is ushered inside.  They are from the kindergarten class.  A librarian with graying strawberry blonde hair and reading glasses asks her charges to politely keep their book fair money tucked in their pockets and to not play with it while Dallas is reading.  In my estimation, kindergarteners are in that adorable-primate phase.  Their brains are still mushy and they get distracted easily.

Dallas asks if anyone would like to help him pass out books.  In the next few days I will see how Dallas manages to flatter children by constantly requesting their involvement, asking questions, listening.  Wherever we go, children eagerly shoot up their hands in hopes of having the chance to just get involved.  Two children are chosen and they pass around hyper-green books to their classmates.

“This book is for Audio, the most awesome person I know.”

They sit on their knees, cross-legged, attentive.  Little bodies with little hands and little feet wearing little shoes.  They are dressed in clothes their parents picked out for them.  They are all miniature versions of what their parents think they should be.  The class quiets down and Dallas begins with his son standing alongside him.

“There are places in the world where people do not dream…”

The children flip past rocket-powered unicorns and musical baboons.  The thick pages make gentle cardboard noises as they turn.  “This smells new,” one child says while pressing his nose into the folds of his book.  Everyone follows suit, giggling in agreement.

At the end of the reading, the kids automatically turn their books into Dallas in a pile at his feet.  They know the drill.  Organized chaos.  You forget what it’s like, being so little and trainable and wild and bubbly.  It’s almost impossible to imagine.  “Criss cross apple sauce!” hoots the librarian, sending all of the children into a seated position on the floor.

Another group comes in after they leave, this time from the first grade.  It’s amazing to see how rapidly children grow and what difference a year makes.  They are physically larger, sharper, more alert and engaged.

At the end of their reading Dallas has a question and answer segment, something he does after every reading.  There are always some lighter questions like “How do you make the cover of the book?” or “Where do you get that gold sticker from?”  But there’s always a question or an answer that illuminates some simple yet profound truth.

“What happens when a good writer makes a mistake?” asks a seated child.

Dallas suggests that Audio respond.  And then Audio, at just six years old, says, “Turn it into something new!”  The answer is true and malleable and accepting of our mistakes and in possession of such understanding on how the world works and how to deal with our expectations of ourselves.  The statement is so important for children to learn and adults to remember.  I nearly cry.

The tour will be filled with many of these small moments.

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