Current Occupation: English, Journalism and Photography Teacher, Newport High School
Former Occupation: Caretaker of Nestucca Bay National Wildlife Refuge
Contact Information: Matt Love is the author of Gimme Refuge: The Education of a Caretaker and Love & the Green Lady. Both are available at independent bookstores or through www.nestuccaspitpress.com.
Taking the Bridge
On Wednesday night, after eight inches of rain in five days in Newport, I prayed to the Oregon Coast Gods for a divine intervention from the ongoing deluge so I could mount my cultural offensive otherwise known as a field trip.
I had organized a Thursday morning mission to transport seventy students on a bus to assault the north and south approaches of the famed Yaquina Bay Bridge and seize the bridgehead at both ends with an overwhelming righteous firepower of art, photography, love and a little teen angst. My tactical plan was foolproof. In my youth I had seen The Bridge at Remagen, A Bridge on the River Kwai and A Bridge Too Far a hundred times on TV. I played army in the woods with friends at double the intensity that contemporary kids play Call of Duty alone in their bedrooms. Believe me, I knew how to steal a butter knife from my mom’s kitchen and use it as a bayonet, dig a foxhole and take a fucking bridge!
My troops would shoot a million photographs and sketch a thousand drawings that would later become part of a special Newport High School publication commemorating the seventy-fifth anniversary of the bridge. The field trip would require four permission forms, cover one and a half miles, last seventy-five minutes, and cost approximately three hundred and thirty-seven dollars. If the rain persisted however, I would have to scrub the mission and I might not get a second chance considering the Byzantine mandates of staging any field trip these days when testing often consumes weeks of a school’s schedule.
Approximately eighteen hours earlier I had nearly lost my mind in a faculty meeting where testing dominated the discussion. Did I tell you how much I hate testing, let alone the discussion of testing? Outside of the SAT, I never took a single standardized test in high school. So what? I did get to take creative writing, guitar, journalism, psychology and an art and music appreciation class. No one ever remembers a test they took in high school unless all they had were shitty teachers. You know what plagues education in America? The Masters of War and Jack Rippers who sit at the heads of the Chambers of Commerce evangelize their answer. They pass their laws in the political world where mercy has walked the plank and you don’t need an accountant to know which way the money blows. I can encapsulate their sick view of what plagues education by excerpting a letter below that appeared in the New York Times about the same time I planned my field trip with artistic and existential outcomes that would never, couldn’t possibly ever, appear on any test:
To the Editor:
At a time when America is struggling to retain its competitive advantage over countries like China and India, the caliber of America’s teachers must be first-rate. Take a lesson from Singapore.
The country consistently scores near the top of most international standardized tests in math and science, while spending less per child on education than almost any other developed nation.
Twenty-first-century trade will be defined by who makes things better, and new ideas are essential. This means graduating more scientists and engineers—whose paths start with inspiring educators, new and old.
Malmesbury, England, 2011
The writer is an engineer.
Mr. Dyson, if you mean producing more engineers like Conde McCullough, the master bridge builder who conceived the Yaquina Bay Bridge, then I heartily agree. If you believe that turning Oregon into Singapore will solve our education problems, then I think you are diseased in mind and desperately need to get laid in one way or another to restore your celibate soul. How about graduating more artists and photographers? Whose paths start with inspiring the Philistines that run and ruin the planet to consider—and confront—what is beautiful and sacred in this world? How about more rocking in the free world?
I awoke at four thirty a.m. and heard nothing tapping on the roof. I threw open the window and saw stars in the sky. I checked the weather report online and the forecast called for sunshine and temperatures reaching the high fifties. Driving to school, I heard Dylan on one of my ancient mix tapes made when high schools had darkrooms and kilns where students felt each other up or made bongs. In that jingle jangle morning…and Bob never sounded so good or so prescient.
My orders to the troops were to rendezvous with me at approximately eleven fourteen on a bus parked in front of the school. We would roll out at eleven fifteen. If you’re late, you suffer worksheets, videos, bologna and banality back in class.
Executing a successful high school field trip can challenge even the most battle hardened teacher and I have pulled off many a glorious one in my career. For that I can probably thank my Old Man, a master teacher of forty years and former combat Marine in Korea who taught me how to get teaching things done right and anticipate every contingency. Thus, I had every mission parameter timed to the second and brought along tampons and lunches from Subway.
But when I stepped onto the bus just seconds prior to departure and saw ten obviously special education students that I had absolutely no idea were going to join us, sitting in the first few rows and looking anxious, anxious like before a rock concert, well, this was an unforeseen development. I had never taken special education students on a field trip before.
I covertly asked the art teacher who was accompanying me with his two classes about the presence of the special education students.
“They’re in the class too. I forgot to tell you.”
I looked at them clutching their art supplies and then the word somehow got out that the Subway lunch contained a chocolate chip cookie. A cookie! Undoubtedly the greatest cookie on earth! A few of them rubbed their hands in anticipation of the cookie. You haven’t lived until you’ve seen a teenager get this fired up. There wasn’t a shred of that accursed adolescent malaise known as “whatever” in any of their faces, about the cookie, or the prospect of following me to the death on a jingle jangle morning, or life itself; they looked positively unhinged with giddiness and weren’t fiddling around with their goddamn phones! These were my crack troops!
A teacher dreams of having students like this. So what the hell? Let’s rock and roll on Highway 101 revisited and get unstuck from inside the Newport blues again!
I introduced myself to Mel the bus driver and briefed him on the mission. I actually used the word “mission” and impressed upon him that we didn’t have time to dick around. He said, “I drove a semi for nine years. I can handle it.”
On the way to the bridge, Mel jumped a couple of curves and took us in hot. Given the command, I think he would have driven right off the bridge for art’s sake!
We stopped under the north end of the bridge near the pedestrian plaza that virtually none of the students had ever visited. Surrounded by the seventy, I screamed, “Gear up!” and “spread out!” I swung four different cameras around my neck and stuffed another in my pocket. I had only one rule: you can’t walk on the bridge. Too much potential for grab-assing and a flattened freshman on the deck. They saluted and then…the assault of art and photography on the Yaquina Bay Bridge began. It was as gorgeous an aesthetic operation as has ever been recorded in the annals of Oregon history.
Some thirty minutes later, the seventy and I stood under the bridge at the south end and I barked out my orders: inhale your lunch and then mount another assault! The principal showed up with his awesome new camera and super telephoto lens, He was shooting eight frames a second, looking at the bridge at interesting angles, and sharing his passion for photography with students. He felt like my General.
At one point, a girl spread Fritos on the grass and the gulls swarmed in like gilded vultures to a loophole in a securities law. The special education students went completely nuts and danced in the swarm. I wanted to join them but refrained. A little discipline for the troops, you know?
In the course of the field trip I saw images of the bridge I never imagined seeing. The students got shots no one has ever got and will never get again.
We arrived back at school five minutes late and I worried a bit about teacher retribution for tardies. Some of the unhappy personnel in the rear act like that sometimes. These are the same teachers who students will never remember, except, if later in life, they read Catch 22, and then all the lessons of school and life and America become clear.
We took the bridge.