“I once had a grant that financed classes in Women in the Hebrew Bible for a group of low-income women in Louisville, Kentucky. Those classes went on for almost four years. When they were finally over, the women who had been participating the longest took me for a day at the races at Churchill Downs. We stayed in touch for many years” (Looking for Lydia; Looking for God,” 9).
“The first time I taught Women in the Bible in Louisville, Kentucky, one of the women in the group, a seventy-year-old black grandmother, who had raised eight children and was now raising her three grandchildren, sat up at the end of our discussion about Eve, slammed her hand down on the table, and said, ‘I been listenin’ to that Adam’s rib shit all my life, and I guess I just don’t have to listen to it anymore!’ ” (Looking for Lydia, 42).
“And, finally, Tom Pike, my headmaster at St. Francis High School in Louisville, Kentucky, made it possible for me to put together my first class in the Bible in 1989. He changed my life in ways I’m sure he doesn’t know. My lifelong study of the Bible, and so the search for Lydia, surely started there” (Looking for Lydia, Acknowledgments, 171).
Sometime in the late 1980’s I began my first year of secondary school teaching, having declared, mantra-like, for many years, “If I ever have to teach in high school, I’ll get out of teaching.”
I had been in Louisville for a couple of years, working on a degree and teaching composition courses at the University of Louisville. I had finally admitted my dissatisfaction and had been accepted to the Ph.D. program in English at the University of Virginia. I was almost literally packed and on my way to Charlottesville, when I agreed to “just talk to this man who has started a high school downtown.”
I spent the better part of a day at that odd school, in the old YMCA building, right in the middle of an unrestored downtown. I listened to Tom Pike describe his vision for the school. I came home and unpacked. I taught there for ten years.
Since then, St. Francis has grown and changed and the photographs on their website bear little resemblance to the small, unassuming school where I started my life’s work, a school that made a place for the most brilliant and the quirkiest bunch of adolescents I’ve ever encountered.
I adored every one of them.
I am both excited and anxious about seeing this new incarnation of that old school. In 1980 we rented space in the basement and on the third floor. The walls were dirty, the hallways above us noisy with other tenants. We were very happy.
What I see when I walk through the doors today is Tom Pike’s vision realized, in every detail. This is what he imagined, this is what he saw that brought him, and all of us, downtown. This is what he described to me, on that first day: this place of air and light and open space and walls filled with art. This place of beauty where students come to learn.
I take my own pictures.
When I land in Louisville on Wednesday morning I will be returning to the school that still feels like home to me. I’ll be met at the airport by an old colleague and friend. I’ll spend time with Tom Pike; I’ll have a few hours with two students from thirty years ago. I will return to Norfolk a little sad. We survive and continue after losses, but they remain losses all the same.
‘Louisville, Kentucky’ Words to conjure by.
Louisville is only partly about the Kentucky Derby. I liked best, not the horses, but the balloon race the Saturday before. I was taken there the first time by my friend, Eddie. We arrived in the dark, while the hundred balloons lay flat in the field, and we walked among them and waited for the fires to be lit and the sounds of air filling balloons and then the nearly unbelievable sight of one huge balloon after another lurching to life, as the sun rose over the city.
It is Tuesday November 10th, and I am still at home in Norfolk. Tomorrow I leave for Louisville, Looking for Lydia in hand. I have booked an outrageously early flight so I can arrive with the day still ahead of me.
Event #1 The Arrival with visits: Prologue
5:15 am Leave Norfolk
9:00 am Arrive Louisville
Straight back to the house for lunch–Susan’s squash tart–then she ran errands, including a stop at one of Louisville’s premier restaurants, La Peche, to pick up an embarrassment of culinary delights to carry us through the week: Wednesday dinner: shrimp with pasta; Thursday: pork loin with sweet dark cherries; Friday: a La Peche specialty-chicken pot pies (these will serve the three of us and my two students who plan to be here).
Susan knows that I don’t require entertainment, or even constant company, and I spent a couple of hours alone, happily unpacking and settling in. After a thirty-year friendship, Susan is one of the people with whom I am simply myself, and I putter here as if I were back in Norfolk.
Susan and Joanna
I hadn’t seen Joanna by the time I climbed the stairs for an early bedtime. She was at her university job–teaching, going to meetings, band practice at night. Joanna is Professor of Music and Chair of the Music Department at Indiana University Southeast, where Susan teaches Biology. It has somehow taken all these years for the chance to spend time with Joanna, and I am looking forward to it.
This is a woman whose skills and intellect are a powerful counterpoint to Susan’s Renaissance interests, which include entomology, Dorothy L. Sayers, Anthony Trollope, and Bach.
When I met her, this maker of squash tarts served White Castle hamburgers with a fine red wine at her formal dinner parties.
Joanna has the slightly withdrawn focus of someone who has had one commitment her entire life; she started playing the piano when she was three years old.
At the last minute, Tom called to say he couldn’t make it to Susan’s. He had come from a long funeral and was preparing to leave the next day for a grandchild’s wedding on the west coast. He was, simply, too tired. He sounded older, and I was aware for a moment of all the years.
Event #2 St. Francis School: Prologue
Almost no parents showed up, a disappointment only briefly, until I realized I suddenly had an unexpected hour to relax, sit, and catch up with several St. Francis alums who had made a surprise appearance. So far, nobody is buying books, and I am both a little frantic about money and beginning to suspect that this return to St. Francis is about much, much more than selling books.
A full hour of energy, discussion, great questions, full engagement with the whole 150-strong student body. I remember that these are St. Francis students.
I started them off with my YouTube video, “Lydia’s Bloopers,” which turned out to be one of those last minute ideas that works. It cut right through any expectations–on their part or mine–that we were about to spend an hour in which yet another teacher lectured while they tried to listen.
I followed the “Bloopers” with an offer: send me an essay and I will publish it as a “guest blog” on my website. It will go out on the social media. Several students asked for my email address. I would love to be able to do this for these young writers.
I am aware of how much I miss the dynamic of adolescents and a good independent school.
A gourmet lunch ordered by the English Department. My former colleague, Ron, appeared for my presentation to the students, and he joined us. I was aware, as he spoke in a quiet familiar way about one of Shakespeare’s plays, that no one I’ve known since knows more about the Bard and no one has ever quite taught the plays like Ron did. Thirty years ago he taught me nearly everything I needed to know about teaching. Today, he just outclassed everyone in the room.
Event #3 Students: Prologue
Thomas Clay Jr., class of 1988
Bates Fisher Webster, class of 1984
And so they came, one after the other. Thomas arrived early, carrying a dessert he had made and about which he was clearly a little anxious. He spent a few minutes in the kitchen, grating chocolate, which gave us all time to take a breath and settle in to this much-anticipated moment. Susan and Joanna made it easy; they are comfortable people to be around.
Bates was late and came in looking much more beautiful than I remembered. Her face was bright from what I thought was sun, but she tells me is the result of welding this morning without a mask. She comments on her “wrinkles.” Actually, her face is marked with the fine lines of her fifty years, and they only enhance her looks.
She seems unaware of this quality, as she was of the movements of her body on the soccer field. Bates is at home in her body as only an athlete can be.
Event #4 Carmichael’s Books: Prologue
No time to prepare for this final event; Thomas and Bates are here, dinner is served, and we begin the process of stuttering our way through small talk to the safety of real conversation. We have come together to talk about something that has happened to Bates. Bates and Thomas and I have become a team; Susan and Joanna elect to join us.
We find, in the event, that we don’t really talk that much about the situation; we have really come together just for the palpable sense that we are together. We have needed to see each other after all these years, to look across a table and think–‘Yes. This is real.’
A small audience. A pleasant and warm space. A good talk, not especially focused, certainly not adhering to my outline and notes. I know I am leaving out things. It doesn’t seem to matter. People are engaged and ask questions. More students from the past walk through the doors.
Helen Jones, Tom Pike’s wife, comes in, smiling, and tells me quietly how disappointed Tom was not to see me. I think I will try to go back after the first of the year; I suddenly know how important seeing Tom is.
People buy nearly all the books the store has.
Tomorrow I will be at home with Isaac and my grandson and life will resume.
We all come back to the house, along with Brooke Barnes, class of 1989, a student who graduated with my son and is now a pediatrician in Ohio. Brooke and I have had a few long conversations by phone, and she has driven in to see me.
We finish off Thomas’ dessert, read the news from Paris. I find the video of the President singing “Amazing Grace” at the funeral in Charleston. We are quiet.
Louisville, Kentucky, after thirty years, has been an intense experience.
In many ways, the seed for Looking for Lydia; Looking for God was planted in Louisville, Kentucky, far from the coastal city in Virginia that serves as its setting.
The community of caring people and the love among them are the same. Looking for Lydia is a perfect gift, for Christmas or any other time–for a friend, a family member, or yourself.