Run away

Back in the old days when we walked to school uphill both ways in snow knee deep, we teenagers had nothing better to do than to cruise the four-lane and eat burgers at the Burger Queen. We had a few game rooms, where for a quarter, we could play Ms. Pacman and Joust. We could always bat a dot back and forth on a game called Atari.

But we didn’t have iPods and iPhones and laptops and 3-D game systems. We just had each other face to face. “Message me” meant “Hey, sneak me a note across the room during Spanish class when the teacher isn’t looking.”

We also didn’t have Bonnaroo. I bet a lot more people I graduated with would have stuck around had they known the world would come to them.

What we had was the county fair—the highlight of every year.

When I was a little kid, my backyard swing set transformed into the Zipper and the Himalaya. And when the real fair rolled in every September, my cousins and I counted the quarters we had saved in the glass baby food jars we kept on my Mom Bell’s window edge.

I begged my parents to let me go every night. They didn’t. I always entered my artwork in the competitions, and I always won a ribbon. My Mom Bell pulled okra from her garden and slapped my name on the entry slip. I couldn’t wait to see if I won anything. I always felt as if her garden was mine. It was all of ours really.

But my feelings for the fair changed my senior year. It was one of the best days of my growing up years–and one of the saddest because it came to an end. I went with a group of my friends, all of us band geeks. The last night we vowed to stay until they shut it down.

And we did.

Sometime after midnight the carnies pulled the plug on the rides, and they let down the canvas covering their games. And the midway without its lights lost its magic.

We had a grand idea. “Let’s follow the fair to wherever it goes!” And, suddenly, the magic was back—but short-lived when we faced the reality that Monday morning we had to go back to school.

It’s true though. Every year some kid would run off with the carnival. It happened when I was in high school, and for years after I began teaching I always lost one or two who ran away. Kids today don’t go. They don’t need the fair anymore, and they don’t believe in magic.

I still believe in magic. I have a dreamer’s heart. It’s the one thing I hope I can pass on to my students. One of mine caught it. He ran away with the circus.

Literally.

I have been so blessed to have had students in class who have gone to do great things in life, but I never expected to teach a student who would someday become an official Ringling Bros. clown.

A former journalism student of mine, Chris Sullivan joined me and my current newspaper staff for lunch Thursday when we celebrated the publication of our third issue.

Chris captivated me with his stories of being a part of the Greatest Show on Earth.

He never set out to be a circus clown, but his work with theater put him in the right place at the right time. He tried out but didn’t expect to get the job. He waited for the call. Meanwhile, he received a spiritual call to go to India to share his clown talent with orphaned children during a Vacation Bible School program. He answered that call, and when he returned, another call waited for him—an invitation to join the circus.

So now he lives his life traveling all over the nation on a circus train, living in a 5 x 7 room that he calls home. He has learned to simplify, simplify, simplify—not just materialistically but philosophically too. He focuses on his job at hand…publicizing the circus, helping transport the elephants to the arena, or meeting children during the pre-show. He lets his other worries go. He leaves them miles behind somewhere down the track.

Seeing Chris again was good medicine for a weary soul. He reminded me life doesn’t have to be so complicated and running away with the circus isn’t always a bad thing.

I doubt that I’ll be boarding the circus train anytime soon. Nor will I follow the fair.

But I do have a fascination with gypsies and Travellers. Ethnically, I don’t think I qualify to be either one, but who says I can’t use my imagination and run away with them in a story I write.

Ah, imagination. I hope my students never lose theirs. I’m so proud of Chris for following his dream and never betraying his imagination.

Sometimes it’s the student who teaches the teacher. Maybe it’s time I enjoyed my imagination again and let the magic lead me to a story I can treasure.

Dream on

Note: If my children read this, I will be in some serious trouble. But as they say, forgiveness is easier to get than permission.

Last night I treated my sons to a delicious meal at the Hong Kong Buffet. When the waitress brought us the ticket and our fortune cookies, Josh grabbed one and looked at me in horror.

“I’m sorry, Mom. I didn’t open it. I’ll put it back.” And he pulled his hands away. It was too late. He had already touched it.

See, we have this “thing” in my family. I ALWAYS get to pick the first cookie. I choose my fortune. Michael ALWAYS gets the last cookie. His fortune chooses him. Whoever’s left gets what’s in the middle.

But since Josh had already touched it, I told him to take it. I chose another one, and Michael’s cookie chose him.

Michael’s cookie said he needed some relaxation time. My cookie told me to pursue my long-term goal, and Josh’s cookie predicted mystery and romance.

“Hey, these cookies went to the wrong people. I think Michael needs the mystery romance cookie.”

Michael balked at Josh’s words. He’s is in that “in-between world” of not knowing whether he should run to or from girls.

I don’t want you to get the wrong idea. We don’t put much stock into these “fortunes,” but we have a lot of fun with them—Michael, usually more than others. He likes to add the words “in the bathroom” to everyone’s fortune.

Try it. It’s fun—even though it’s obnoxiously juvenile. I always scold him when he says it at the restaurant, but on the inside I’m laughing.

I told Josh I believed his cookie was meant for him because the word romance didn’t necessarily mean “huggy, huggy, kissy, kissy.” And both of us proceeded to explain to Michael that romance also referred to adventure in a King Arthur kind of way.

I like to think both of my children are adventurous and romantic. When they were little, they became so caught up in their imaginations I had a hard time pulling them back to reality.

For eight years Josh was an only child, so he invented imaginary brothers and a sister—Kinder, Mark, and Folla. They road atop our van along with his imaginary uncle from England.

Josh went through a Batman phase. Even when it wasn’t Halloween, he used to dress like the superhero. I remember taking him into a Shoney’s in Knoxville. He signed autographs for the waiters and waitresses—as THE Batman.

He also created his own detective agency and made me print business cards for him.

Michael, on the other hand, has always been creative but in a different way. He’s always had Josh, so he didn’t need imaginary siblings. I could buy him expensive gifts at holidays, but there has always been one gift that enthralls him—pencil erasers, as long as they come in two colors so that he can create intricate battles between opposing teams or armies.

Isn’t that weird?

Michael also wants a golf cart more than anything else in the world. Who knows what he plans to do with it. For years he has pleaded with me. When Old Stone Fort shut down its golf course, Michael begged to go there so he could ask a park ranger for one of the golf carts.

Not going to happen.

Sometimes I wish I could go back to the days of my childhood. As only child, I spend nearly all of my waking moments in another world. It was okay back then. When you’re a kid, you can imagine all you want, and nobody thinks you’re weird.

I loved horses, so my mother’s brooms became my mighty steeds. My golden banana seat bike transformed into a palomino. I spent weekends at my grandparents’ hiding in the bathroom with my cousin Robin, my partner in crime, and we spent hours mixing Jergan’s lotion, Comet cleanser and other cleaning supplies into magical potions. Were we scientists or actresses in commercials? I don’t remember. We just had fun.

Sometimes I find myself drifting off into my imaginary world again, even as adult. When Josh read his fortune at the Hong Kong Buffet, I found myself drifting off again. I had a plan.

Josh is a journalism major and sometimes falls into media opportunities. There is a possibility he might work a major awards show in the near future. A possibility.

Sometimes these workers drive the celebrities to their appointments. If I recall correctly, one Steven Tyler showed up at last year’s event. Who’s to say he won’t come back this year?

So here’s the plan, man:

Josh finds a way to grab golf cart duty. He looks for Steven Tyler. He drives Steven Tyler in the golf cart, but he doesn’t stop at the awards show. He brings him to our house. (I don’t know what we’ll do with him once we get him—I don’t want to keep him. I just want to borrow him for autograph or a picture. Maybe a song.)

Mission accomplished.

If the plan works out, not only will I get to meet Steven Tyler, but Michael will get his golf cart. Josh will probably go to jail, but hey…he’s the one who grabbed the first cookie.

And it’s MY imagination.

Oh well. I guess I can just “dream on.”