Nonfiction by Julie Rogers
We sat in mock night, the shades drawn, staring up at the flickering screen that projected driving simulations: clean cars very carefully and mindfully winding their way through wide streets of manicured neighborhoods. It was Friday afternoon and Drivers Ed was the last class of the day. Our limbs pressed together, knees bumping up against the metal legs of our desks and chairs, we squirmed and sweated in the cramped portable waiting for the weekend to begin. We’d had enough of fake driving. Our sixteen-year-old bodies itched to get behind the wheel, to feel the hard resin beneath our fingers, the stiff pedal beneath our toes, to launch ourselves into freedom.
Our teacher, Coach Parker, never shifted his gaze from the screen – the images refracted through his enormous metal-rimmed glasses with lenses so thick they made his eyes look three times their actual size. His bald head was so closely shaven, we could actually watch the film reflected on its shiny, smooth surface. Coach was most likely a former military man and cut a striking figure. Strong and taut, he was always neatly dressed in fitted trousers and short-sleeved, button-down shirts with a pocket on the left. He was much beloved by the school’s athletes, but his stern approach intimidated and alienated those of us disposed to less active pursuits.
So, when he suddenly turned those mantis eyes on the back row and said rather loudly, “Do you two have something to say?” we were all drawn out of our stupor.
Joe Bettis and Andy Planck were being as they always were: stupid and loud and feeding off each other’s inability to sit still. We all groaned because we knew only too well what was coming next.
“You two can’t pay attention and I see a lot of sleepy eyes in here, so I guess you know what time it is,” said Coach. “Well?”
“It’s time for a visit to the Wisdom Tree,” a few students in the front row murmured.
“What’s that? I can’t hear you!”
“The Wisdom Tree!” we all shouted so we wouldn’t be asked again.
“That’s right, people! Let’s move it!”
Coach turned off the projector, opened the door and blew his whistle. We stumbled from the trailer, single-file, eyes painfully squinted against the sun. We did as Coach had instructed months ago during our first class: “Run up the stairs, do a lap around the front of the school, touch it and give thanks!”
The Wisdom Tree. It was a young maple – the diameter of its trunk no bigger than that of a basketball’s and its tallest branch no higher than the roof of the single story school. Because the tree was neither old nor impressive in its reach to the heavens, we were perplexed as to why Coach believed there was even a hint of wisdom to be had by slapping its dull bark. His near mystical relationship with what seemed to us no more than a sapling was bewildering. One by one we were made to jog beneath its scant canopy, lay our hands on the object of our scorn, and give it thanks before quickly returning to our makeshift classroom. We found this exercise neither inspiring nor heart-warming on a Friday afternoon, summer just starting to make an appearance, and the sound of car keys tickling the brain. We’d tapped the Wisdom Tree countless times, felt the injustice and indignation of it all, but soon we’d be free.
The week before school let out, I went 4-wheeling with my friend Amy and her boyfriend James who was two years older than we were. He had an old Jeep and a case of beer and he took us up into the hills that surrounded our town. We sat looking out over the woods to the bay and the San Juan Islands beyond as we drank our beer.
“I hate my new house,” said Amy, whose parents had just built a home miles from town.
“How am I supposed to get anywhere? They built that house just to keep me from having a life. Like Greg’s party last weekend. I couldn’t get a ride and … Hey, how was it? What did I miss?”
I could barely remember the party but fragmented images passed through my mind like a slide show of shame: too much to drink, Greg, the sad drunken ride home, slipping into my house without waking my mother. “Oh, you know, the usual crowd, the usual beer, the music. It’s always the same. I can’t wait to be done with this school.”
The more we drank, the more worked up we got about our many teen grievances: our parents and their fighting and their stupid curfews; friends we no longer liked because they’d become stuck up; the neighbors who spied on us when our parents were at work and ratted us out; and, of course, school. We couldn’t stand the office lady who wouldn’t accept our forged late slips; the counselors who were never there when you had a problem, but who were great at chiding you for bad behavior; Coach and his damn tree.
“I swear to God, one of these days I’m going to cut that fucking tree down.”
The enormity of Amy’s words hung there above the three of us. Something in her tone let us know she wasn’t fooling around. We sat silently looking at each other and it was obvious we’d all had the same thought many times, but none had dared speak it.
“Let’s do it. Tonight,” Amy finally said.
We both turned to James. “I have an axe in the back,” he motioned to the jeep with a shrug.
With the sun low in the sky, we barreled down the mountain at perilous speeds, spinning mud and gravel, nearly toppling over several times but laughing at the danger. Beer in the veins and risk on the horizon. Back in town, James got us some more beer and we sat in a field near the school waiting for the sky to darken. I’d blown my curfew again.
Just after midnight, we parked behind the school and walked around to the front, giggling nervously and scoping out the scene. The school’s entrance was lit by a few flood lights so the tree was not in total darkness as I’d imagined. Its spindly frame cast a sharp thin shadow against the lawn and, for a moment, something akin to pity washed over me; but the fear of getting caught quickly made a prisoner of my thoughts. We’d have to move fast.
James drew his axe back and landed the first blow with a muted “thud,” barely making a chip in the thin bark. The blade was dull. “Shit!” was all he said before hacking maniacally at the base, sweat pouring off his nose and chin. Amy and I kept looking up toward the road, knowing the cops made their rounds all through the night.
The crack of the axe against the moist pulp reverberated off the walls and down the exterior corridors of the school. “Someone’s going to hear this. C’mon, James! God, I can’t believe we’re doing this!” Amy was both panicked and laughing hysterically. I knew how she felt though I stood in dumb, paralytic stillness watching the massacre, watching the road, back and forth, until it was all over. It took over half an hour to fell the Wisdom Tree.
On Monday morning an announcement went out over the loud speaker: There would be an afternoon assembly to discuss the vandalism that had occurred over the weekend. Attendance mandatory. The day stretched out before me like a piece of taffy, each tick of the clock’s second hand caught in its sticky sweetness. I found myself panting in the girls’ bathroom, my head hung over the sink, unable to shake the vision of the small tree as it stood, just before joining its shadow in the grass. I stayed clear of Amy.
The atmosphere in the gym was electric. A low rumble started up as Coach, microphone in hand, just stood there, tears slowly rolling down his face.
“We love you coach!” some of the girls’ basketball team shouted and, as the power of the collective took hold, a low rumble mounted. “Yeah, Coach, we love you,” from what seemed like most of the student body.
Finally able to speak, Coach started his booming voice, “As you all by now know, over this past weekend, someone came onto school property and chopped down …” and here he had to pause. “The Wisdom Tree was a symbol. A reminder that sometimes we get too caught up in our thoughts, feelings and problems and, when that happens, we need to go and touch something real, something that’s rooted and that connects us to nature which passes no judgment.”
“And so, I believe the person, or persons who did this were caught up in their own petty thoughts and feelings and perhaps felt powerless against them and that’s why they did this thing. Because this was an act of weakness. Weakness of character and spirit. Whoever’s responsible for this, please come forward. Naturally, there will be consequences but, if you come clean now, you might actually be able to start forgiving yourself because believe me, someday – maybe today, maybe tomorrow or even many years from now – you will regret what you’ve done.”
Going to Drivers Ed class after that speech was like being dragged to the gallows. I was sweating and couldn’t stop shaking. I was convinced that Coach, with his magnifying lenses for eyes, would be able to see right through me. But when I got to class, he was distant and didn’t make a lot of eye contact with anyone. He spoke a bit about class certificates and what to expect on the state driving test. He told us we’d been good students and that he was excited for us to start this new chapter in our lives as drivers. But before he released us for the day, he rather quietly and somberly said, “There’s one thing I want you to do before you head out for the day. C’mon, people, let’s go.”
And so we marched up and out to the lawn and, without having to be asked, one by one bent down and touched what remained of the Wisdom Tree and whispered, “Thank you.”
Summer came and went and Amy and I slowly drifted apart. I simply found it difficult to look at her, though I blamed her for nothing and none of us ever confessed. Shame is a capricious bedfellow. Eventually, I left our small town and have since lived in far-flung cities, suburbia, and the quiet of the country, moving frequently, restless and eager for a fresh start. Rootless.
But now that I have daughters of my own, I’ve settled into a house in an old neighborhood where the streets are lined with ancient trees whose branches form archways the residents drive and walk under. In front of my house stands a dark-leafed tree in which my husband has hung a swing for my daughters from its largest limb. As summer begins to show itself, I watch my girls sway back and forth and, though the bough sighs and creaks under their weight, I trust that it will hold. I know how strong a tree can be.