Teachers. Classrooms. Standardized testing. No child left behind, supposedly. All aspects of a conventional education. But here’s the thing – learning is seldom conventional. Lessons are constantly swirling around us. Everyone has taught someone, something without realizing it because the best most enduring lessons are often unexpected.
They may even come from a stranger you’ll never meet again.
I was one of the first performers brought to Louisiana after Hurricane Katrina. It’s not like it was me vs. Bon Jovi and I was chosen. No. A comedy troupe I performed with had been hired beforethe storm. The city reopened just in time for us to keep our commitment. So, Louisiana got our improvisational comedy revue – as if they hadn’t suffered enough.
Shows blur. I don’t remember what we did, or what was said. I do remember an audience grateful for the distraction of laughter.
Then it was over. Time to go home. Business as usual.
The car service demanded we get to the airport hours before our flight, claiming there were too many variables. Too many people wanting to get the hell out.
They sent a well maintained, very used forest green limousine from the 1970s. A boat with wheels. We floated over back roads taking shortcuts through neighborhoods visitors wouldn’t normally see. Tract homes with boarded up windows. Plywood with bright orange, spray-painted messages,all of which were variations on a theme.
We’re still here.
Looming over those homes was a skyline of trash. Furnishings, formerly precious, now mildewed and ruined. Photos from an era when photos were still printed, wadded together like the memories of grandparents counting on those touchstones. A rusted bike. A wheelchair abandoned or no longer needed because someone had died. Mobility compromised in every sense of the word.
A tribute to FEMA.
Detours navigated, despair rationalized, we finally got to the airport. One terminal. Limited flights. Limited resources. No magazines at the Hudson News kiosk. No WIFI. Just weary, sad travelers ready to be somewhere else.
Word came through a restaurant in the center concourse was about to open so I headed over that way.
And there I met a teacher.
About 20 of us stood in front of a pull-down gate. Blocking the entrance to a formica cafe was an older woman, tired in an I’ve-seen-some-shit way, dressed in crisp white clothing. Her drumstick arms were folded. Her piecrust jaw was set. She was clearly done suffering stupidity.
“Good morning. I’m glad you’re all safe. Now in just a second, I’m gonna open this here gate. You’re gonna see a big menu full of delicious food. I got news for you – we ain’t got any of it. We got ham. So please don’t come in here wasting my time, telling me you want a hamburgeror a salad. We don’t got that. We got ham.“
Then she opened the gate and started serving her customers. I bought 3 plates. One each for me, my friend Annie and our stage manager Carter.
We opened our soon-to-join-the-mountain-of-trash Styrofoam containers, and saw it. Pinkish. Tenderish. Ham. Sauce from brown sugar & raisins, neither of which spoil or require refrigeration. A few seen better days potatoes. Hardly delicious, but sufficient. Filling.
Now, years later, someone, maybe me, will complain about something that in the long run just doesn’t matter. In the back of my mind I hear a woman I didn’t really know reminding me I’ve got ham.
I was lucky enough to grow up with a mom who knew how to scallop her ham to make it feel special. Then she’d thinly slice a few fresh potatoes, add a little cream, some shredded cheese, a touch of mustard and call it au gratin. It was my favorite meal, built on a foundation of ham.
Many of my school lessons have long since been forgotten. Why did I take the History of the Old Testament? Prove a right angle? No thanks. I’ll take your word for it. Somewhere in the ether of my brain I know the name of our 19th President. I’m more interested in electing the best possible 46th. Katrina becomes Sandy. Bush becomes Obama. Obama becomes someone else becomes someone else. Today’s concerns are not permanent. They will be replaced as history continues to move forward.
I’m often overwhelmed by life’s potential. What I’ve been lucky enough to do and see. The exciting things that will happen in the future. The hopes and dreams of my friends and family. Life’s possibilities and the choices we are all called upon to make. That’s my definition of infinity.
Good lessons guide me through those moments.
Since that day at the New Orleans airport, fourteen years ago this month I know that before you can have more, you must to appreciate what you already have– and then like my teacher in a hairnet, share it with others when you’re fortunate enough to have ham.