It was an uncomfortable meeting; Hugo Barns, the high school football coach was alone in the teacher’s lounge with Heather Primly, the English and literature teacher. Coach Barnes planned it that way.
“It’s unusual to find you in the lounge at this time,” Miss Primly said.
“Well,” Coach Barnes said. “There’s something on my mind.”
“Does it concern your star quarterback, Max Handly?” Miss Primly said. “If it is, there is no compromise. If he doesn’t pass English Literature I can’t help that.”
“If he doesn’t pass English his grades will keep him off the football team,” Coach Barnes said. “That puts the kid behind the eight ball the rest of his life.”
“I know the boy better than what you think,” Miss Primly said. “He daydreams, doodles, he makes a mockery of my class and my ability to teach. He thinks that his athletic ability will get him through life. I have an obligation to not only teach him English Literature but to teach him about life; it is not a free ride, it is hard work. That is final, Mr. Barnes.”
“I understand, Miss Primly,” Coach Barnes said. “If there’s one thing I’ve learned from playing football and coaching it for twenty-five years is that bending the rules to win is not really a win. Everybody plays by the same rulebook. I’m just glad that you want to teach Max a lesson that may benefit him for the rest of his life. He’ll probably thank you for it someday.”
Miss Primly walked to the window and looked out. She smiled and recited,
“The spirits of the air live in the smells
Of fruit; and Joy, with pinions light, roves round
The gardens, or sits singing in the trees.”
“Blake,” Coach Barns said.
“You like Blake?” Miss Primly said.
“I could say ‘yes,’ to curry favor, but you would see right through that one, wouldn’t you?” Coach Barnes said. “If about fall, Blake really doesn’t capture the fullness that Shakespeare does.” Coach Barnes stood at the window and recited,
“That time of year thou mayst in me behold
When yellow leaves, or none, or few, do hang
Upon those boughs which shake against the cold,
Bare ruined choirs, where late the sweet birds sang.
In me thou see’st the twilight of such day
As after sunset fadeth in the west;
Which by and by black night doth take away,
Death’s second self, that seals up all in rest.
In me thou see’st the glowing of such fire,
That on the ashes of his youth doth lie,
As the deathbed whereon it must expire,
Consumed with that which it was nourished by.
This thou perceiv’st, which makes thy love more strong,
To love that well which thou must leave ere long.”
“That is impressive,” Miss Primly said. “It’s well to know what others feel and think, but they should move us to think for ourselves. The fall is a warm reflection of life and living from the fruits of hard work. It’s gathering your thoughts to feed you and keep you warm through the winter. How about you, Mr. Barnes?”
“I see all the things the poets and thinkers want me to see,” Coach Barns said. “But if I don’t see things for myself I really don’t see. Life should not be looked at through the eyes of poets but through your own experience. When I see fall I smell shoulder pads, plastic helmets, and locker room stench. I hear rapidly beating drums and the blasts of trumpets off key. The smell of popcorn wafts from the concession under the stands. I see people with rosy cheeks in heavy jacket huddled under blankets of red, orange, blue, green, yellow, and brown. I see hats pulled down around the ears. They are all happy. I hear the voice of young men huddled together trying to embolden the spirit of each other with voices trying to sound like men. I look in the stands and see men who wish for one moment to be back on the field again with those boys. It was the best years of their lives.”
“Every game I look at Mr. Ratliff, our principal, and smile. We were rivals in our high schools days. We are bound together by an epic football game that occurred thirty years ago. When I see fall I think of a teacher, Mrs. Crumly. You can imagine what we did with that name. Mrs. Crumly gave me a pass. I didn’t deserve it. I went on and got an athletic scholarship. When I got there a light went off in my head. I loved literature. I loved it so much I nearly lost my starting position my senior year. I earned a masters and will soon have my doctorate.”
“That kid, Max Handly is bright. He has nearly 100 plays memorized with another 200 variations. He sees them once and that’s it. If he goes on to college the light will come on. It will come on.”
“Yes, Miss Primly, I see a lot of things in the fall. I see brightly colored leaves, a freshness, and cleanness in the air. I smell and taste caramel apples, hot cider with cinnamon, warm doughnuts, and burning leaves. I feel the glow of a warm fire and the feel of an old sweater. I remember first loves and walks through parks and kicking and rolling in the leaves. And I remember jock itch. And as indelicate as that sounds, that reminds me that fall is hope, all those things tell me that fall is a time of hope.”
Miss Primly turned to Coach Barnes. She smiled. “I hope you and Max have a good season.”
“Thank you, Miss Primly. We both want for him the same thing, a good life.”
“A life with hope,” Miss Primly said. “That’s what good literature offers, Mr. Barnes, a life with hope.”
“And meaning,” Coach Barnes added.
Miss Primly walked to the door of the lounge to leave. She turned to Coach Barnes. “I had three brothers. They loved sports. I loved them. It was the itch that wouldn’t go away.”