To begin the story at the beginning, read "Part 1: Post 1: Beginning Again," published in January, 2013. To consult a description of the campus, read "Part 1: Post 14: The Greening of Campus," published in March, 2013.

Thursday, February 6, 2014

Year 2: Part 1: Post 2: Every Class Is a Test, Every Test is a Class

You know, I'd forgotten how good Sadie's cooking is.

Today with lunch, for example, there were these little dumpling-things filled with peach preserves and warm honey drizzled on top. They're just amazing. I'd remembered eating a lot of root-vegetables and jams in the winter, but I'd forgotten that in the winter they use a lot more wheat flour. We don't grow wheat on campus, so we don't eat a lot of it in the summer and fall--we have squash bread and potato rolls and so on. But I guess in the winter they start running out of vegetables to feed us, so we get these amazing crusty sourdough loaves and all these pastries and cakes full of jam and dried fruit.

And while I'm just knocked-over-amazed by the food, the new students are complaining about it. They're feeling restricted, I suppose, because they can't get bananas and Rice Crispies whenever they want.

It's funny, at breakfast I watch the older students gently interrupting the complaining, asking the new people where they're from and why they're here, and drawing them out into these long, marvelous conversations about everything in the world. I remember those conversations. I just never realized that it was being done intentionally, how much the senior students did to induct us into what amounts to a new culture. And now the senior student is me, so I guess I'd better learn how to do it.

In case you've forgotten,"senior student" doesn't necessarily mean someone in their last year, about to graduate. It just means anyone who's been here longer than a year.

To graduates are all gone. I didn't quite see them go, though we had a fantastic going-away party. The day after Brigid I just noticed a lot of unfamiliar cars on campus, and then they were all gone.

For me, life has gone back to what passes for normal this winter: reading and tracking. The new students are all busy with their introductory events, their workshops and talks and so forth, and none of that applies to me, so I have nothing specific to do. I don't even have to go to zazen. I thought about going voluntarily, and maybe I will, but Greg said not to go just out of some vague sense that we're supposed to, and I think that's what I'd be doing. So I slept in for two days and now I've decided to alternate between Kit's yoga class and Karen's fitness class. That's more or less what Charlie told me to do anyway.

Speaking of Charlie, we haven't really talked yet. That makes it sound like we used to have these in-depth conversations, these real talks and I'm not sure we've ever really done that, but I mean we haven't talked about what I'm supposed to do next. I have seen him. He joins me on the couch in the Great Hall when I'm reading and he silently picks up his own book. Today it was Sand Country Almanac.

The book surprised me, because he's obviously read it before--I read his copy.

"Your review of it inspired me," he said, by way of explanation, his glasses sitting at the end of his nose. He had a pencil in his hand, ready to make another layer of comments.

It was snowing outside, hard, a perfect afternoon to sit around reading by the fire. Sometimes I could hear the wind whistle around the Mansion, Or I could hear the people in the Office or the Library talking quietly, but mostly everything was silent.

About three, Rick walked up to us. I think he was about to ask Charlie a question, but he didn't get that far.

"Oh, hi, Rick," Charlie said casually, hardly looking up from his book. "Tonight's a shelter night for you."

Rick blanched. I knew enough about what he's doing to recognize the phrase; it means that tonight Rick is not allowed to use a tent or any of his established shelters for sleeping but must build a new one from scratch, using only the materials he finds and his knife and whatever else he has in his pockets. It's as though he were stranded out there unexpectedly and has to just cope. There's a certain number of days he has to do it over this next year, but he'll never know when. Charlie said he'd just spring it on him. And today he did.

"It's a major winter storm out there!" Rick protested. "And it'll start getting dark in an hour."

"Then you'd better hurry," said Charlie, calmly, not looking up from his book.

"Charlie, this is...some test," said Rick, no longer arguing. Charlie looked up at him and spoke seriously.

"Well, then, you'd better pass it, hadn't you?" he told him, and looked at him until Rick turned and walked away. I saw him put on a second cloak and his oilcloth rain cloak and his boots and then I watched through the window as Rick walked away into the snow.

"Charlie, he could freeze to death out there," I said.

"He'll be fine."

"But what if he isn't?"

"Then he'll be not-fine. Daniel, I wouldn't send him out there if I didn't think he could handle it, but
his project is not without some risk."

"If he does die," I said, slowly, "his parents will sue this place." Charlie put down his book and shook his head.

"There are no records of this aspect of Rick's studies. The others have plausible deniability. If we get sued, it'll be on my head alone. I'd rather risk my job than deny Rick a good education. He asked to learn what it is to live 'on the land,' like some paleolithic person. This is what that means. Risk. Anyway," and his manner lightened a bit,"I don't think I'll lose my job. I do help run this place."

And he grunted in mild amusement and went back to reading.

I had a hard time picturing Charlie losing his job. I didn't think it would happen, either, but the phrase "plausible deniability" suggested Charlie had, indeed, been thinking about the possibility when he had planned Rick's course of study. Possibly, he had discussed it with the other masters. I tried to imagine what he would do if he lived and worked somewhere else and I couldn't. This school is so thoroughly his habitat.

I was really surprised to hear someone talking seriously and calmly about the possibility of getting sued, of losing, in his case, nearly everything of value to him, for a student. And then I was surprised that I was worrying about Charlie's career and not Rick's life. Shouldn't that be the more important thing?

I'm not really worried about about Rick, of course. It took me a few minutes to realize that, but it's true. I don't really doubt that he'll be at breakfast tomorrow, cold and uncomfortable at worst. He'll be fine. But I'm used to that being the priority--organizations paying more attention to worrying about getting sued then to whether they might actually hurt people. I never realized before how messed up that is.

I'd say escaping that crappiness is worth going without bananas and Rice Crispies for a while.

[Next Post: Monday, February 10th: Surprising Parts]

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