John Harper peeked into his assigned classroom.
So this is night school: no desks, no chalkboard, no flag, not even a clock to watch?
Instead, he counted five chairs on one side of a large table facing a single chair on the other. School had changed a lot in forty years.
And John had sworn he’d never go back.
But then he made that promise.
John blamed Hennessy and hubris, the latter causing him to climb those stairs on weak knees and sore feet.
The classroom occupied a third-floor corner of a recreation center. The local college extended its studies to remote locations, courting day-workers and day-dreamers.
John was neither.
A horn honked. John walked to a window. Main Street looked like an airport runway lined with streetlights. He guessed it would take him twenty minutes to reach the end of that runway. But he’d fly as fast as he could after breaking his promise.
Another horn honked. Someone yelled. Not much has changed in this old Navy town.
John should know.
He covered the naval base for the town newspaper. He wrote stories about sailors, their achievements bust mostly about their misdeeds.
A month ago, a deck seaman named Eddie Black drank too much beer and robbed the local credit union with a toy gun. He got caught. John wrote the story. The newspaper published it. His boss called it a “three-shot” effort.
His editor poured a third glass of Hennessy and handed it to John. A knock on the newsroom door startled them both. Two minutes later, his editor ushered a well-dressed lady to John's desk.
She handed John a copy of the Eddie Black story with red-lines and margin notes. And then she invited him to her writing class that started Monday night.
Lesser men would have been angry. Others hurt. John opened his desk drawer and set her notes on top of the rejection letters for his latest disappointment of a novel.
John wasn’t sure what led him to tell her he would be there. It could have been her moxie. It could have been her confidence. Or it could have been that handwritten note a publisher left on his last rejection letter—consider a writing class.
“So, you’ll be there?”
John finished his whiskey and thought about Eddie Black. The reason he robbed the credit union was simple. He wanted more.
And so did John.
He answered. “I promise."
Dottie Barnes entered the classroom and smiled at John. A pencil held her bun together over black-framed glasses and a gray fuzzy sweater.
“I didn’t think you would show up,” she said.
John smiled back. “I made a promise.”
“But that was an Irish whiskey promise. Do they count?”
“It’s funny you mention that,” he said. “Maybe I made a-“
“These have promise.” Dottie pulled a scrapbook from her satchel.
John fanned the clippings. He recognized them by his byline. They were clean copies. “You work fast.” He handed the scrapbook back. “We just met last week.”
”It’s not my scrapbook,” Dottie said. “My mom is a fan of yours.”
“Your mom?” John feigned an arrow to his heart.
“She’s the one who edited your credit union story. She thinks you need to work on your similes and metaphors.”
“Well,” he said, “old folks tend to stick together, you know, like Fixodent and false teeth.”
“Mom was right.”
The door to the classroom swung open. A middle-aged lady entered, smelling like talcum powder. Her white blouse was one button off and bedazzled with the stains of a hectic day.
She approached John and said, “Excuse me, Professor, but I might need to leave early.”
John froze. “Do you think I’m the-”
“I’m the professor,” Dottie interrupted. “This old man can’t decide whether to stay or go.”
Another arrow to the heart, this one carried the truth.
Dottie pulled her aside, listened to her request and pointed to a seat. Then she pointed John to the end seat next to the lady in stains.
He watched her dig through her bag, worried she'd pull out a small child. Instead, she placed a diaper, bottle, and notebook on the table.
“I’m sorry I mistook you for the professor,” she said.
She rummaged deeper into the bag. “I’m not used to being around adults.”
“We’re even,” John said, “I’m not used to being around youth.”
“Is it true what the professor said?” The lady in stains found her Bic pen, tested it on the cover or her notebook and returned the diaper and bottle to her bag.
“It is,” John said. “Why do you ask?”
“Let me explain it this way.” She leaned closer. “Do you know how many moons there are around Neptune?”
She opened her notebook and drew a small circle in the middle of a page. She said, “There are fourteen.” Then she drew fourteen random dots around the circle.
“What are you getting at?”
“For me to sit in this class, I’ve had to align all fourteen of my moons in a single line.” She re-drew the fourteen dots, this time aligned. Then she added, “Do you know how hard that is to do?”
She closed her notebook like slamming a car door at the end of a bad date. “That’s what I’m getting at.”
John wanted to move to the seat on the other end of the table but couldn’t. The expression on Dottie’s face said otherwise. She had heard the whole conversation and had chosen her winner.
If aligning fourteen moons were a metaphor for personal drive then John did not need to be here. He had the drive. He even had the resume. And he had a desk drawer full of rejection letters and manuscripts.
He swore off Irish whiskey and took stock in his situation. Dottie’s mom was not reason enough for him to stay. Neither was Dottie. And neither was Miss Neptune. Her fourteen moons were of her own doing. It was like complaining about weight loss from a well-worn stool at the donut shop.
How’s that for a simile, Mrs. Doubt-Crier?
The door swung open. Six-feet-seven-inches of muscle mass entered the classroom, topped with blonde hair, blue eyes and white headphones. A white chord snaked its way under his Mount Rushmore chin and over the big A patch on his letterman jacket.
The young man nodded to Dottie and said, “Sup?”
Dottie pointed to the seat next to Miss Neptune.
John heard the next student before the door even opened. The first thing through the door was a camera mounted on the end of a selfie-stick followed by the short balding man who carried it.
“Don’t forget to press that subscribe and like button,” he said into the camera. One click later, everything shut off and the movie star sat next to the college quarterback.
Dottie checked her watch and said, “Okay class, it’s time. Let’s begin with—“
But the door swung open. The whole class turned together and watched a young lady in a big scarf cross the room. She unraveled the scarf with one hand and stared at a thermometer in her other. She set her scarf on the table and the thermometer beneath it. Then she lifted her eyes long enough to offer an apologetic smile under her runny red nose.
Dottie offered the girl a packet of tissue while Miss Neptune offered her a baby wipe. The girl accepted the wipe and shoved the packet of tissue back to Dottie. Then she wiped her hands clean. Her eyes never left her scarf.
Dottie took charge. “Okay class, let’s begin with introductions. I’m Professor Barnes. I run an informal class, so call me Dottie.”
She read from a piece of paper. “Dirk?”
The quarterback raised his hand.
The movie star said, “Here.”
Miss Neptune waved her pen.
“Call me John, please.”
With the introductions over, John pondered the headline for his next column: Four patients escape psych ward.
Dottie gave each student an index card. She had pre-printed a diagram on their backs. She held hers up. “These are railroad tracks.”
“For now, let’s focus on the top track.” She ran her finger left and right across the top track on her card. “Imagine it is your lifespan.”
Dottie smiled, “For some of us, this track is 60 or more years long.”
John grunted louder.
“And for others, this track might only be 25 years.” She set her card on the table and marked it with her pen. “The purpose of this exercise is to identify your greatest personal achievement and mark it on your card near the time it occurred in your life.”
“For example,” Dottie held up her card.
IIIIIIIIIIIII | IIIIIIIIIIIII
“The line across my tracks tell you that my greatest achievement occurred 25 years ago."
Tasha asked, "What was your greatest achievement?"
Dottie looked relieved that someone asked. "It marks the birth of my daughter.”
Amber sighed aloud from her end on the table.
Dottie looked at Amber. “Do we need to take a break?”
“No, it’s just that—” Amber stopped. “My greatest achievement is a few months down these tracks.”
John wondered if Amber had invented a thermometer that measured vanity. You placed the thermometer in you mouth and it told you when attention has drifted off of you and onto someone else.
Dottie said, “For this exercise, you should identify an event that has already happened.”
Dirk interrupted. “What’s under the scarf, Amber?”
“It’s personal.” Amber said.
Peter tapped his phone. “When you’re ready to tell us, can I film it?”
Tasha pointed to Dottie’s card. “So, you’re about 50 years-old?”
“Close.” Dottie smiled.
John noticed it was a grateful smile.
“Now think hard about your greatest achievements.” Dottie said.
Amber checked the reading on her thermometer again.
John rolled his eyes.
Dottie looked towards Amber. “I'm going to rule out childbirth as an achievement." Then she scanned the eyes of the rest of her students. She said, "That's too easy."
Tasha asked, "Can give us another example?"
Dottie thought. "Earning my doctorate is a better example. I’m going to redraw my line near the end of my tracks.” She held up the revised index card.
IIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIII | I
Tasha asked, “So, you earned your PhD at fifty?”
Dottie said. “Better late than never.”
"Better run while you can," John whispered.
Dottie heard but ignored him. She told the class to draw their own line and waited until they finished.
When complete, she said, “It is important to understand the top track also represents the knowledge, skills and experience you gained along the way.”
She paused to measure reactions. “For most of us, it's the experience that points to our greatest achievements.”
Tasha asked, “Could that line also represent the things you learn from your parents?”
“Yes,” said Dottie.
Peter asked, “High school and college?”
“Can I see Amber’s card?” Dirk asked.
“I don’t mind,” Amber said. “I came here to share.” She showed her card to the class. Her line was drawn about three-quarters of the way down her railroad tracks.
“What was your achievement?” Dirk asked.
Amber sighed and answered, “Prom Queen.” Then she peeked beneath her scarf to make sure her level of vanity was riding high.
“Okay, class.” Dottie continued. “Now look at your index card and imagine yourself traveling down your upper track."
John imagined a train leaving the recreation center.
Dottie said, "Now try to recall the knowledge, skill, and experience you gained right up until the point in your life when you drew the line for your greatest achievement.”
She paused to check for participation.
“On that journey to your greatest achievement, did you ever look out the window at the track that runs across the bottom?” Dottie tapped the tracks on the bottom of her card. “Did you look out your window and see yourself, perhaps on a journey to something that was not available on the tracks above?”
John understood her analogy. We travel through life on the set of railroad tracks that our parents, our schools and society gave us. All the while, there is another set of tracks that run parallel. The lower tracks on our index cards are what we really want in life. Those tracks are for the achievements we dream about.
John liked the analogy. It made sense. He just didn’t know how much time he had left in his life to jump tracks.
“But if any of you looked out your window and saw a different reflection of yourself on the other set of tracks, then you've taken the first step towards a new journey. It's my job to pull you from the upper tracks to the lower ones.”
Peter said, “Youtube considers a hundred-thousand followers a milestone. I’m almost there. Why would I want to switch tracks?”
Dottie said, “Society calls you an early achiever. Celebrate your success. Unless you have a greater goal, do not switch.”
Tasha asked, “What about you, Dottie? When did you switch tracks for your PhD?”
Dottie loosed her last truth arrow. “I achieved my PhD on the upper track. Every day, I look over at my parallel life and see myself as a grandmother.”
Amber raised her hand.
“What about prom queens?”
“Amber, you’re a beautiful young girl. If you look closer at those other tracks, you might see a model, a lawyer or a very good writer.”
But John knew the truth. Amber would never be a model, a lawyer, or a writer-not until she freed herself from whatever was under that scarf.
Dottie broke the silence of the moment by handing each student a yellow index card.
“This is a writing class. If your reflection on the bottom set of tracks was anything besides a writer, then complete this card.”
Dirk asked, “What’s it for?”
Dottie said, “Dropping this class. You can have your money back. The card is already signed by me. You simply need to fill in your name and drop it in any mailbox. A check should arrive in two weeks. I’ll give you a few minutes to decide."
Dirk pushed his card towards Dottie. “I’m in.”
Peter pushed his card towards Dottie. “I’m in.”
Tasha tore her card into sixteen pieces and dropped them in front of Dottie. They scattered like the misaligned moons around Neptune.
Amber checked her thermometer, smiled and completed the card. She said, “I’m out.”
John wondered why.
Dottie said, “Now class, it’s time for me to come clean."
Dirk asked, "You don't have a PhD?"
Dottie answered, "Yes, I do. There's something else."
Peter asked, "Can I film this?"
Dottie said, "It's not what you think, Peter."
Dirk said, “It’s a pregnancy test.” He pointed to Amber's thermometer.
Amber handed it to Dirk.
Dottie said, "Amber is my daughter. She is an actress and her role was to inject tension and conflict into my introduction.”
Dottie said. “Did any of you wonder what she was hiding?”
All the students nodded yes. Except John. He lied.
Dirk studied the test. Then he said, "Dottie, there's something you should know."
“What do you mean?” Dottie asked.
“Amber is pregnant."
Dottie locked eyes with Amber.
Amber said, "You’re going to be a grandmother.”
Dottie put the class on a break and hovered with Amber over her test results.
John walked to the window and looked down Main Street. There’s a hundred stories beneath those runway lights: stories about Neptune's moons, stories about winning and losing, stories about social influence and even stories for grandmothers.
But how much track did he had left? He checked his index card and thought about those 60 years on the upper tracks, then he looked to the lower tracks.
He saw a late bloomer.
Dottie joined him and took the yellow card from him.
Eddie Black was right. We needed more.
John Harper was all in.