mind the gap

Posted: November 22, 2010 in gap
Tags: , , , , , , ,

In the National Gallery in London Pierre-August Renoir’s “The Skiff” lights up the room. I am falling in love with it a little more every minute, and so I’m not sure why someone here  put it in a corner. Never mind, it takes over the space it is in, the green grass jumping up out of the lake in the foreground, the sparkling blues blue water grabbing the sunshine out of the sky, the women in the white dresses calm in the middle of the burning orange skiff. It is the orange that gets to me, the orange, orange skiff, I can’t get over the orange skiff  – all that warmth absolutely  dominating the blue lake, leaking off the canvass and banishing the picture frame, the museum wall, the museum floor, and the whole of the room we sit in. I can’t see anything else.  I am totally smitten by incandescent orange paint. I can’t stop ogling at it. 

The women in the painting are so calm,  one reading, the other rowing so casually, sitting. They seem unstartled,  sitting demurely, much like the people around me in the museum, respectful.

But I am not so calm! I think I might be vibrating. I don’t know what to do. Perhaps I  should stay right here on this bench for a long time looking and pulsating. I will; I am deciding now to eat here tonight, and then sleep here.  Now I am deciding not to. It won’t work; this Renoir won’t stop glowing, like a fire, and  it won’t go down,  like the sun. If I stay, it will be too bright to get any rest at all.

I won’t stay, but I will stare. The  bottom edge of the skiff I can see that the orange is coming off  of the wood, and it is getting in the blue water. Renoir let it can away from him. The orange paint is jumping around in the ripples of the boat, getting all over the blue paint, taking over the gap between the boat and the lake. I can’t stop smiling. I like it that the orange has taken this step, has crossed over, has created an interface, has made a transition. I want to spread paint around freely like Renoir and Manet, but I know that it isn’t always this fun.

We leave the National Gallery. We get on the tube to ride through London to our place in West Finchley.  We stand in the isle because there isn’t enough room to sit down. A bell rings. The electric doors whoosh closed, and off we whir into the tunnel. We come to another station, slowing, then stopping. The doors open, and a woman’s  voice, very British, says, “Mind the gap between the train and the platform.”  We get off and mind the gap.

We always do.  I still distinctly remember walking into room 408 at Lincoln High School on my first day as a substitute teacher. I was young, a new teacher, and I was afraid, I had reason to be, and I would wake up with a knot in my stomach pretty much daily for the next couple of years. Charlie Mann, the math teacher in the next room told me, “If there are no fights, you have the job.”

 There were no fights, the vice principal didn’t get called down to the room, and so I got the job of Lincoln high school English teacher, but that year, there were so many days I wished I hadn’t.

The first day didn’t go that well, there were not enough desks in the room, there were no books, and there was no lesson plan, and except for Charlie Mann, I was the only white person I saw. For one of the first times in my life, I experienced a deep sense of confusion, inadequacy and isolation. Many people have felt this.  There are places that we end up in where we just don’t seem to fit very well. It is awkward, and can be for a long time.

That first year didn’t go that well. I threw Kevin Briggs out of my third period, ninth grade English class too many times. I wrote on his referrals, “Kevin refused…” and then added what he refused. Kevin refused to do much of anything I asked of him that year — write, read, be on time, not be rude. It was Kevin’s first experience as a student at high school, and it was my first experience as a teacher. I didn’t really know what I was doing; neither did he.  

The space that exists between immaturity and maturity can be really difficult. The orange doesn’t always come off the boat into a nicely complimentary blue.  I remember a couple of years into teaching, conducting a really excellent discussion of Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men, and then taking a moment after school, sitting at my desk in the empty room, and smiling to myself and saying to myself, “I am a teacher.” I had safely crossed the gap. I had mixed the colors in the spaces in between before and after. And there was more retouching to follow.

 I remember Kevin Briggs walking into my classroom three years later, his first day of eleventh grade and my first day as a third year teacher. We stood near the door, he not very far in, me not to far from my desk, and he said slowly, “I don’t know Mr. Hasper.” And I said, “I don’t know, Kevin.” But  he came on in, and I initialed his schedule. We were different by then, through the gap, and all during that year, we had no rough spots between us. And I taught him Harlem Renaissance literature, Langston Hughes and Countee Cullen and Claude McKay and to show him who he was and where he had come from and what he might aspire to.  

I was at Lincoln for ten years. Eventually, I became the English department chair, teaching the new teacher how to teach in what was one of the most challenging assignments in San Diego City schools. We had the lowest test scores. We had the worst reputation. We were at Title One school, receiving financial assistance for most of our students,  we were referred to as a “minority isolated” school. But we weren’t isolated. Everything that happened everywhere else happened here. And it broke my heart in a way, the ego shattering realities of the black American male in this country, and it made me smile, Kevin, learning to think, to write, learning with me how to paint, and how to make a contribution.

I saw a girl on the tube in London yesterday, and she  smiled to herself, sitting in the crowded car,  reading a text on her cell phone.  I saw a woman in Starbucks today, and she smiled, reading an email on her computer screen. I love the little smiles, made alone, but not alone, a person satisfied with a connection, how something is going, how it is turning out. Both girls were paying attention to a space where  two different things  were meeting.

It’s interesting, the transitions. Lincoln worked for me. It taught me so much. It made me real, but I sometimes think about the space in between there and my next job. I left Lincoln feeling like a failure after ten years of success. I  had become a respected teacher and a successful department leader.  I had become a  mentor to the young, but I was done with the whole high school thing, much the way I was done when I was a senior in high school. You grow past a place sometimes. You want to get out of the boat. As a teacher at an inner city school, I was sick of marking slashes in my attendance roster —  absent, again, slash lines one after another in a long row. I was disgusted with picking up homework from only a third of the class. I was sick to death of recording 14 “F’s” in a class of 23 students at the end of a semester. I was done with students putting their heads down on their desks.  I wanted out.

And so, after  ten years in this challenging high school,  I took a job as a pastor at a middle-class church. That follows! My wife said it was pretty much the same thing: “Mind control.”  She pretty much hit it, but the real interface between schools and churches is significant. In both texts are central. In both, success depends on  communicating well, with passion. Both need leadership. Both require incredible courage, stamina, guts. In both people go missing, get marked absent, and do little to learn and apply what is taught.

And so I made the transition.  I took what I received from school and splashed it into the space I received at the church.  I stepped across gap. It is special,the bringing of one thing to another, when we make a change,  splashing the colors from one place into another. I remember one of the members of my church, John, telling me he had never heard a few of the words that I had used in some of my first sermons. I told him, “Bring a dictionary to church with your Bible.” And I should have added, and  ‘bring your copy of Shakespeare. Next weeks message will be from 1 Macbeth, chapter 2, verses 1-10.” I jumped across, carrying stuff with me.  I reveled in the same colors as before, but I learned to paint them on a new canvas. And I carried more than that, I am realizing now, since I have also left that church.

At Lincoln, I learned very precisely how to respect people who were different from me, black people, Mexicans, Asians. And I worked with women, who were my equals and my superiors, and I accepted them and respected them, my equals, my sisters, my friends. And I carried some of that into the church, except that the majority there was white, and staunchly middle class and some of them didn’t have the same view of women that I did.

And so,  I couldn’t carry all I brought with me across. At the church, I hired women onto our staff. I put women in place as teachers, despite some resistance. I had the leadership team, the church board read a book on women in leadership in the church. I wanted us to put women on our board. But the senior pastor and some of the elders wouldn’t go for it. It grieved me, the discrimination, the unfairness, the superior attitudes. It grieved me the whole time I was there; I never got over it, but I couldn’t change their minds. I remember an early-on-in-my-job discussion with a leader, in the parking lot. He had a very hierarchical view of the universe and of men and women. Little did I know how this would come back on me.

It is interesting, the stuff people believe who go to church, the things we go through in institutions. My friends and I have howled over the things that have happened to us in doctors’ offices and hospitals –the proctologist with his movie camera and crew, going places angels fear to tread, the psychiatrist with his own mental disorder straightening up our minds when they are less disturbed than his own, hospital gowns simply not large enough to cover our modesty and other things personal, shy and diffident. I am so glad that I live in the era of modern science; strangers have kept me alive. But some of them have been stranger than I might have wished. The proctologist said, “I’m going to go around the corner now, sir. This may hurt a bit.” You can’t believe how much it hurt.  

People do stuff to you, or try, but mostly I try to stay calm. Calm works for me, and laughter. During our conflict at the old church, the board member, a self-appointed proctologist of sorts, the one with the hierarchical view of men and women, came to me and said with a serious face that the main problem would be solved if I would basically just be a good wife. But me being a man, and the other pastor at the church being a man, I wasn’t sure quite how to take this.  I think, knowing his view of women, that he meant, “Submit, like a good wife!” But it came out something like, we have a problem here at the church, and it will be solved if you just lay down in the missionary position and do your duty.”  Hilarious! Don’t get me wrong, of course submission can be good, sometimes, for all of us. And church can be so fun, sometimes.

I worked at there in that church for twenty years. It was a great experience. We grew from a few hundred people to about 650 at our high point. We built a beautiful place for children and their parents. I made the jump there, from teacher to pastor-teacher. I learned to be a better leader there. I loved it; I didn’t. It worked for me, mostly, until the end, when I got murdered, and interestingly, the church leadership role ended, as I have explained, with me sick of it, literally.  Paul Tournier wrote a book called The Adventure of Living.   His point? An adventure is born, matures, and dies ugly, and then another dream is born.

It makes me think about my endings in my jobs. I  put them together; I see what they have in common. I left my first church in ways that were similar to the way I left Lincoln High. Both were good experience overall, I had become a different person in each space, and I when I was done,  I was well-done, actually, I was  burned on the edges.

In fact, I distinctly remember paying attention to such space at the end of my job at my former church. It was the evening when  I went down to  clean out my office. I had worked there for two decades and so there was a bit of stuff at the end, stuff to trash, and stuff to box.  A few friends and my dear wife, whom I will forever treasure for her honesty, goodness and loyalty, came to help me in the evening when we knew the others wouldn’t be there.  Endings leave bits and pieces. I know. I picked them up, paper clips and dry pens in the bottom of drawers, old power cords,  a bunch of paper clips,  a sticky with a a phone number on it, a crumb, a cracking rubber band, boxes of books, a drawer full of deeply felt and expressed  thank you’s.

Some of what was  a life in a drawer ended up as a jumble in the bottom of a trash can. We loaded boxes fast, just throwing everything in. It felt impossible. I was in a bad dream.  The last moments in my office were  incredibly silent, broken and sad. It was weird, the empty selves, drawers and desk top, the vacant end when the beginning and middle had been full of people and plans and dreams, mostly. But that wasn’t the end. Almost as I said goodbye to this church, another church sought me out and asked me, literally in a tiny gap between the past and the present, to come to them and to be their pastor, their leader their teacher. I will never forget this thing that happened.  I didn’t do it. I was broken from the leadership conflict at the old church and unsure of what to do, and this new place, what so soon to become a beautiful new canvass, came next. I only have thanks, and wonder inside at what I was given. I didn’t look for it; it was handed to me. It was given.

Only a few months after that last day in my old office, a new collection of supplies was carefully gathered in a new church office, for a new start, at my new church. And so I unloaded my boxes into new bookshelves. I hooked up my new laptop to a new power strip and a nice set of powerful speakers in my new office and thought about my new space and my new young, beautiful and amazingly skilled church staff,  and leadership team, that now included women. And I put a fresh box of big paper clips in my top drawer, just the kind that work well to clip my sermon notes in my Bible, and I looked around a new canvass in need of new paint, and I smiled. I had found a new place in which to teach and to lead and to be who I had been becoming for a long time.

And so it comes to this, in our going from old spaces go to new spaces, that sometimes we cross over the gap safely, and watch things move with us and spill their colors on to a planes and into new angles. And it is in the spaces in between things that life sometimes beautifies.

In the National Gallery in London, a Van Gogh, “Sunflowers,” hangs on the same wall as Renoir’s “The Skiff.” They team up to glow. This painting is a study in yellow and brown an green.  The green stems shoot up and twist down and bend with the weigh of the flowers. The flowers in bloom have wild pedals, full of life. The yellow has come off of them and is on the table and on the wall. Again, I am enchanted.  This painting is like my new church, it is full of shooting, twisting, glowing colors and backgrounds.

It interesting that in my new place of safety there is so much variety in color of skin. And the colors mix.  And ther are also  lots of couples with mixed backgrounds, and there are wealthy people  and middle-class and poor and homeless and we all live in the same space and and  there is an extreme gentleness that pervades the family put together there. It feels like home to me. I like the mix of colors and so do others because it seems now that new people show up each week and stay.

I love yellow and brown and I love the color orange when it goes smack up against blue.  For Van Gogh, yellow was the color of hope.  For me too it is hope,  and orange is the color of forgiveness.  People don’t know this because  it hasn’t been written about that much,  but it is nonetheless true.

I am more aware now of the colors, and more aware also to mind the gap that the colors fill.

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