How Do You Know?

In a stack of papers called Personal.

  • Mar
  • 18
  • 2006

My parents are moving to Kauai soon. This morning, I drove over to help move junk from their house to a dumpster set up in their neighborhood, available certain weekends for free to all residents to fill. We took all kinds of things down there, some of them objects that I’ve seen sitting on the side of their house for decades.

But it was my old wagon that had the most impact on me.

My juniors wrote on death a few weeks back. Since I now only have one section of that class (a student teacher has my other one), I read through the single set of papers last Thursday and Friday. There were a few good ones, but most of them were just random thoughts spewed onto the page without any sense of coherence. We’ll be working on how to funnel ideas in to make a concentrated point.

The back left wheel, remnants of the original black rubber clinging to the metal rim, made my travels down to the dumpster slow today. There was a ca-Chung! ca-Chung! rhythm to the journey, the load of junk shifting to the right each time the wheel reached its zenith and back to the left with the wheel’s decent. But the faded yellow Radio Flyer kept on, valiantly serving for one last day, its old owner pulling it along for its final hours. The last load of junk it took to the dumpster was also its last voyage. Once emptied, I gently lifted it up, placed it into the dumpster, and said goodbye.

So many times, my students say they have nothing to write about. In part, that is the challenge of writing assignments in high school. We expect reflection that just isn’t natural and might not even be possible. Often, teenagers haven’t lived long enough to have perspective on events in their lives. An event seems insignificant because not enough time has elapsed to show its true importance. The realization that some decisions made now, some experiences lived through, some choices determined will become clear memories and have an impact on the direction of their lives hasn’t settled in.

I spent so much time in that wagon and I remember a time before rust settled into its color scheme, when it was pure yellow, though faded even in my oldest memory. Maybe it was my dad’s before it belonged to me. Maybe he bought it for more practical household use and I appropriated it for playtime. Maybe we’ve both spent hours and hours playing with it. How it came to be more-or-less mine, I can’t recall. Adorning our backyard for as long as I can remember, enduring the elements while faithfully waiting to be put to good use, it’s something that I equate with my childhood. What I used it for originally has slipped from my mind, but how I used it last is as clear as… Well, not as clear as crystal. More like as clear as tupperware, not quite transparent, but certainly not opaque. Yeah, I can remember the Wagon Battles as clear as tupperware.

Thursday’s daily for the juniors was, “When something important happens to you, how do you know?” I’ve fallen out of the habit of discussing the daily writings with classes, using the time to take attendance, check in with various students, read email. I’ll need to revisit that daily with them next week, even though I’m not sure of a reasonable answer to that question. Or perhaps because of that fact. When something important happens to you, how do you know?

I must have been around 11 or 12. My neighborhood friend Josh had a similar wagon to mine. Frankly, his was an inferior, newer model; mine was a bit older and made of tougher stuff. His was a stereotype, red with white lettering and a black handle. Mine was a rebel, yellow with black lettering and no paint adorning the metal handle. I think he bought his at an early rendition of what is now Costco. I’m sure my dad bought mine at a hardware store.

Pushing the wagons from behind to build up speed, we’d let them fly into each other and battle with them in the street. Eventually, we wanted more control over the impact. Too many times, our all-out running to get the wagon up to a good speed ended with crashes into opposite curbs as they each banked a different direction due to idiosyncrasies of pavement, plastic wheels, poor manufacturing, pushing the wagon harder with the right hand than the left. With the handle flipped around and pointing toward the rear of the wagon, a steering wheel of sorts would easily allow us to drive the wagons into a demolition derby-style game we created. We almost looked like stagecoach drivers holding onto the reigns of the two front wheels. Run and push. Build speed. Jump up. Land firmly in the wagon, feet apart. Grab on to the handle. Keep it straight, keep it straight. CRASH! Start over.

Somewhere along the way, I must have talked my dad into putting an extension on the wagon handle. Today, he mentioned that fact, though I’d forgotten. Thinking of it now, I’m sure I did it so that it would be easier to steer from inside; the longer the handle, the more control over the turning radius.

When something important happens to you, how do you know? If the event matches up with what society says is an important moment, you remember it. Many “firsts” have achieved this status: your first kiss, your first car, your first accident, your first house. But we’re all individuals and what’s important to me isn’t always important to you. If the event doesn’t match up with what society says is an important moment, we recognize its importance days, months, or years later, when the memory of the event is still clear. Even when it’s only as clear as tupperware.

My wagon was important. This is what I’ll tell my students.

1 comment

1. Debbie says:

[3/28/2006 - 12:39 pm]

That was beautiful. I recently shared some very private and somewhat embarrassing stories with my kids (my first crush…) for the purpose of writing, and they liked the story more than got the reason I was sharing it (to explain focus).

My answer to your daily: I often get a funny feeling in the back of my head, something like a tickle with a brief second of out-of-body feeling, when I realize that something I did or something I said or something I saw will stick with me for a long time. Sometimes, it makes complete sense (all those firsts) and sometimes not. I forget so much else, though; that’s the reason I take so many pictures and scrapbook now. I’m afraid I’ll forget things that happened when I didn’t get the tickle.