Learning The Hard Way

A few moments ago I was sitting in front of the TV trying to kill some time before running some errands. I flipped over to HBO and The Ice Storm was in progress — specifically the scene where Elijah Wood’s character stands before a class at school woodenly delivering an oral report on molecules. I immediately flashed on one of the most disappointing episodes of my high school years and shut off the TV to come transpose it here.

My tenth grade English teacher was a man named Stern. I believe his first name was Leonard. I remember he was a tallish dude with curly black hair and he wore glasses. Not old… if I had to guess I’d say at the time he was in his early 30s.

I’d moved back to Beverly Hills from Hollywood in the summer of 1979 about two weeks before the new school year was to begin. Having graduated from Le Conte Junior High I had been all set to follow my friends from that school to Hollywood High, that is until my mom found an apartment in the slums of B.H. and just like that: change of plans. So, much to my disappointment I found myself trying to find my way through this new school where I knew practically no one and resented or envied practically everyone else.

With such a wild anti-social life I could often be found haunting the school library, a place where I felt the least uncomfortable. I spent countless lunches and free class periods (they were called “mods,” short for “modules”) in there leafing through bound volumes of Time magazine going back to its beginnings.

If I was in the mood for something a little more stand-alone I’d hit the shelves and pick out the first book to grab my attention. It was this method that introduced me to Allan W. Eckert’s The Silent Sky: The Incredible Extinction of the Passenger Pigeon, originally published in 1965 by Little, Brown & Co.

I believe I’d heard of the passenger pigeon but I didn’t know they were extinct. I opened it and read the inside of the jacket:

In 1813, John James Audubon recorded the passage of a flock of passenger pigeons migrating south which he conservatively estimated to exceed one billion individual birds. This was only one of many such flocks that filled the American skies. It was estimated that nearly forty percent of the total bird population of the United States was passenger pigeons.

Yet, 101 years later, the last passenger pigeon in the world died at the Cincinnati Zoological Gardens.”

I was hooked. And I tore through Eckert’s unique and compelling narrative that heartbreakingly re-creates the permanent erasure of the bird from our planet and the reasons behind it. So moved was I by this tale that when Mr. Stern assigned the class oral book reports of two to five minutes in length and passed out a list of required literature to pick from I approached him and asked if I could do my report on The Silent Sky. He said sure.

Thrilled — and keep in mind what self-respecting high schoolers are ever thrilled at the prospect of getting up in front of their peers and talking — I got right to work preparing my presentation that would teach my fellow classmates all about this book, this bird and its shameful destruction.

When my time came to give the report, sure I was a nervous wreck, but I was confident I could provide a compelling opinion about the book and the bigger picture of the consequences of our lack of environmental awareness. I stood before them at a lectern and took a deep breath.

“The book I read is by the author Allan Eckert and it’s called The Silent Sky” I began, holding up the copy from the library. “If you’re like me you may have heard about the bird called the passenger pigeon somewhere along the line, but you probably didn’t know that it used to fly in amazing flocks that numbered into the billions.”

Audubon's Passenger PigeonI held up a grainy photocopy I’d made of Audubon’s famous illustration of the bird. “You probably also didn’t know something even more amazing, that in the span of about a century the passenger pigeon went from those billions to completely and utterly extinct in 1914.”

I looked up from my notes and out at the sea of students. I expected them to be looking out the window or passing notes or staring off into space or sleeping, but no. All eyes were on me. I had their attention. Even Mindy Fenton, who every guy in class pined over. And dang if she didn’t smile at me when I looked right at her.

Mindy Fenton!

I took another deep breath and stepped around the lectern. “Here, pass this around so you can get a closer look of what the passenger pigeon looks like.” I handed the paper to a student at the front of the first row.

Back at the lectern, I talked about finding this book by chance in the school’s library and what a powerful statement it made against the careless destruction of which human beings are capable. I told them that what made this book especially fascinating was that Eckert didn’t just provide a dry documentation of the bird’s demise, but that he wrote it from the perspective of various passenger pigeons, making it not only more intriguing, but entertaining as well.

To illustrate that point I cracked open the book to the page I had paper clipped and read a passage from it. Then to bring home the destruction man wrought I read another passage about a systematic harvest:

It was on the seventh dawn after the hatching that the men moved in. They worked systematically, these 800 or so men, each going about his business without too much concern for the others. Conversation was out of the question, for only when a man shouted into his companion’s ear could he make himself understood over the din.

The females showed no fear of these men moving about and even when a bird in a neighboring hest was grabbed about the middle of the back to pin her wings, and her head and crop werer popped off with one savage jerk, they showed little concern and their bright orange-red eyes stared steadily at the intruders.

The low nests were the first to be assaulted and these were everywhere between five and seven feet high by the tens of thousands. A man working hard and fast soon established a rhythm — step, reach, grab, retract, yank, drop, stuff in sack — and a bird in the bag every five seconds, a dozen per minute, was an extremely good pace.”

To explore the frivolity of men I turned an extended passage describing the many ridiculous “medicinal” uses being found for the birds and their parts into a mini performance by reading that like a snake oil saleman:

“Step right up, ladies and gents! Get your dried passenger pigeon gizzards here — proven to cure gallstones in no time! You say your gallstones are fine? Well then don’t be put off by this next product’s main ingredient but it’s been shown that the birds’ dung — you heard me right — when mixed with molasses was a ready remedy for migraines, stomach aches, pleurisy, colic, dysentery and apoplexy. And if its your eyes that are aching, I’ll have you know that one single solitary bottle of Pigeon Blood Eye-Easer is gay-roan-teed to cure sties, halt failing eyesight, and on occasion can miraculously restore sight to the blind!”

I was rolling. I had my classmates eating out of the palm of my hand. They were into it. And I started to bring them home. I gave them a series of short passages that told of the decline in the birds numbers and the paltry steps taken that were way too late to save the species.

Then I read to them Eckert’s account of the last known wild passenger pigeon, killed in 1900 by an Ohio boy with a BB gun he’d gotten as a gift:

For the old bird there was a flash of brilliant light as the tiny round pellet slammed through his eye and came to rest in his brain. And in that fractional instant before he died, the old passenger pigeon may have heard the gust of wind which swept through the tops of the trees with a sound not unlike the murmur of a million distant wings.”

I managed to make it through that without any waterworks, but I knew I wouldn’t be able to keep the tears at bay during Eckert’s epilogue, which I told the class shows readers the sadness of the last remaining passenger pigeons at the Cincinnati Zoo. I bit the bullet and proceeded with the final paragraphs of Eckert’s book:

“In 1900, about the time the old passenger pigeon was killed, only three of the birds remained alive in the Cincinnati Zoological Gardens; two males and Martha. In April of 1909, one of these males dies and the remaining male now took to perching close to Martha for companionship. But the loneliness was an awful thing —.”

Right about there my voice caught in my throat, but I managed to keep on going.

“…and he became ever more frail until on July 10, 1910, he too died and, with him, any remote hope that their number might increase.”

I was pretty choked up by now and I’m sure I heard a sniffle from somewhere out there among the desks, but I kept my head buried in the book and exhaled deeply in hopes of getting through Martha’s death.

“And now Martha was alone. Alone in a way that can be described but never fully appreciated, for she was the last… the only living creature of her species in the world. For over four years longer she lived in isolation in her cage.

At 12:45 p.m. on September 1, 1914, her head sagged and she trembled. And then, without ever having known the joys of hurtling through the heavens at great speed; without ever hav —.”

I stopped abruptly at the interrupting sound of Mr. Stern clearing his throat loudly and turned to him sitting at his desk looking at his watch.

“OK,” he said very casually, “I’m afraid your time is up.”

I was dumbfounded.

“But… I’m almost finished!”

“I’m sorry,” he said, “but you’ve gone well beyond the five-minute limit.”

I turned and looked at the clock then out at the students hoping they might suddenly burst into a chorus of “Let Him Finish!” but of course there would be none of that. They just looked shocked and uncomfortable in the awkward silence.

So I did the only thing I could do. I bolted out of the classroom with Stern yelling behind me to “Come back here and get back in your seat!”

“Fuck that Mr. Stern!” I yelled back and heard some surprised laughter come from the room as the door closed behind me and I ran away. To the library, where I stayed for the rest of the day. Among friends.

The situation was never resolved. There was no reprimand or punishment for me, nor was there opportunity for me to gain any closure or take him to task for his insensitivity. I showed up to the next class tensely expecting Stern to order me to my counselor’s office, but instead we simply stared hard at each other for a few seconds after I answered when he got to my name during roll call, then he moved on to the next name on the list.

I’m not sure if Stern was just anti-enviro or was an emotionless jackass who was getting uptight at my display of feelings and decided it was time to shut me down. Maybe a passenger pigeon shat on his great-great grandfather Moishe during his bar mitzvah and became the laughing stock of the family. But whatever his reasons, his pulling the rug out from under me certainly wasn’t because I’d exceeded any bullshit time limit. Most of other students were hard-pressed to spend anything beyond the two-minute minimum up there mumbling woodenly and disinterestedly about Hemingway or Faulkner or Fitzgerald or Twain or whoever it might have been that they didn’t really give a fuck about.

But where any decent human being or even sub-adequate teacher would have recognized the strong connection I had to the book and the importance of its subject matter and let me read a few more lines and make my closing statement, instead he just flat out shit-canned me, invalidating my feelings and my enthusiasm and my spirit and making me feel not only tremendously helpless and angry, but even more worthless than I already was feeling at 15 years of age and lost and alone in a land not of my chosing — as alone as poor Martha was those last four years of her life, just in a far bigger cage.

It’s a bitterness I obviously harbor to this day and was somehow dredged up from the depths by a snapshot of Elijah Wood in a nine-year-old movie that just happened to be on HBO this afternoon when I turned on the TV.

Perhaps in hindsight, I suppose I should be thankful for what Mr. Stern taught me that frustrating day early on into an entirely frustrating and pathetic experience at Beverly Hills High School. He delivered tailor-made and personalized unto me the hard lesson that the world doesn’t give a shit, kid. Whether it’s passenger pigeons. Or passion.

Well to that I say what I said then” “Fuck that, Mr. Stern!”