Saturday, October 17, 2009

The Ghost of John Proctor

The sky is the color of slate, the wind blows icily through my soul, and the Atlantic boils in cold foam around my feet. Massachusetts quickly moving toward winter. Dawn of a new day that looks suspiciously like millions of others, and I am walking. The scrub grass pokes through the white sand, and seagulls scream overhead. Where am I going? I do not know.

I am not alone. A tall, gaunt figure accompanies me. His clothes are in tatters, his face streaked with dirt and pain. A frayed circle of rope hangs from his neck. I know him through the pages of hundreds of years.

“John Proctor?”

“Aye.”

“What of Salem?” he asks.

“You would not recognize it.”

“Oh, I believe I would. And who are you?”

“I am a teacher.”

“A noble and true calling.”

“It is also how I know you,” I say. “Your story is familiar to history, and to the stage. Arthur Miller wrote about you and those events.”

“My story is real,” he says bitterly. “It is not fit subject for pretend, for actors. My story is a warning, a presentiment of the danger of living the truth.”

“All the more reason why it is a fit subject for theatre,” I tell him. “Because things have not changed. Because they never will.”

The wind whips our hair as the waves crash all around. We are on some kind of coastal plain, the aquamarine swirling and smashing around the rocky coast on one side, and hills of scrub grass and low trees on the other. The sky has gone red and orange.

“Red sky in the morning, the sailor has his warning,” I recite.

“Aye, winter is coming,” John Proctor says. “So teacher, where do you teach?”

“I teach the young at a school across the country from here.”

“Harvard still exists?”

“Yes, but it is very difficult to go there. It is one of the best schools in the country.”

“There are more schools than Harvard?”

“Many.”

“And why is it so hard to go there?”

“Because there are too many people.”

He contemplates my words for a moment. “Decent learning is a valuable thing.”

“It is not valued now,” I say. He stops and turns to face me, his eyes bore into me. “The people of this country do not value education,” I explain. “They value the piece of paper that comes at the end of education, or they value the name of the university they attend, but few value the learning itself.”

“This makes no sense.”

I search for a metaphor he would understand. “It is like farming,” I say. “A field must be cleared of stumps and rocks, spread with manure in the early spring with the plowing, seeded, watered, allowed to grow, so that the crop will be good for the harvest in the fall. Today, people are only interested in the outcome, the crop yield. They are not interested in the preparation for growing, the work that must be done during the other parts of the year. And if the crop is not sufficient, they condemn the farmer: the teacher.”

“This is illogical.”

“This is ignorance,” I tell him. “America is a nation of ignorance now. Children are neglected, abused. People cannot make enough money to put bread on the table. And those in power at every level are cowards without vision, without imagination, without ideas.” We resume our walk. “This is why your story is important. You stood up for the individual. You died for the right to think differently.”

“I did not,” he sighs. “I simply would not give in to the hypocrisy. I wanted to save my wife, preserve my family, keep my name so my children could be proud of who they were.”

You died for something,” I insist. The words hang in the misty air. “You died for something.”

“Ah, but what matter is that now?” he replies.

“It is everything. Will always be everything. The right to think, to believe, to determine your own destiny, that is the bedrock of what the country you colonized was founded upon. But we are losing the battle.”

“Teacher, you have the power to stop this error. You can teach the children to hold fast to their ideas. You can encourage them to think differently.”

“I am speaking into the wind,” I reply. “Those that run the schools, who should safeguard the system, they are often the most ignorant.”

“Teachers do not run the schools?”

“No, and if they did, the system might be saved.”

He turns to me, stopping our progress down the beach. He places his palm on my shoulder. “Teacher, you must not give up. You must not back down. You cannot surrender your name. You are the teacher.”

“I may not be able to go on,” I choke.

His eyes well with tears. “Like me, you have no choice. These are the wars we must fight.”

“Everyone dies,” I tell him. “Maybe this fight is not my destiny.”

“Wherever you go, whatever you do, you will always be the teacher. You have no choice. You are helpless in the face of your own nature.”

“What will happen?” I ask him. “What is to come?”

He looks out over the roaring sea, the golden light of the autumn sun. “I cannot tell you, nor could you imagine.”

“Is it bad?”

“It is neither bad nor good. Those words have no meaning. There is only what is. And what is will be beyond your ability to dream.”

“The mass of men live lives of quiet desperation,” I recite to him.

“Time is the fire in which we burn,” he replies. “Wisdom transcends death.” He smiles at me. “All the words of the wise, the wise themselves, they continue on after. Wisdom does not die.” He grabs me by both shoulders. “Teacher, you must go on. The only way wisdom dies is if it is ignored. One cannot force someone to be wise; one must embrace the lesson, the process to learn, to discover, to understand.”

“Keep spreading the manure each spring, clearing the stumps and rocks, seeding the soil?”

“It is what you do.”

He turns from me and continues walking down the beach. The waves crash, the gulls scream. I am alone in the frigid daylight.

I watch him walk away, moving down the beach, a solitary man striding purposely into the future, until the fog swallows him up, and winter descends.


3 comments:

-MVP- said...

Beautifully written. Modern tragedy, in every way...I just learned the Crucible for Literature classes this year and am rivetted by how you use John Proctor as a parallel for teachers.

jguy said...

Thought provoking. I loved how you used 17th century speech in Proctor's comments. You brought out the personality of the character. I read "The Crucible" for English in my sophomore year in high school. Sometime I'd like to review the book on my own site, which I haven't had time to post on for a long time.

Paul L. Martin said...

Thank you both for commenting. Indeed I cannot help but be moved by the plight of those individuals in the 1600s every time I teach this play. Arthur Miller's words always have a parallel meaning for me. Haven't we all, at one time or another, faced our own Judge Danforth and Salem prejudices?

Take care,
Paul