Penny-wise

…I am not crying
on the inside. I am no brave faker
On the contrary, I am a simple laugh
-Donald Hall “The Clown”

I picked up a copy of Stephen King’s It at Powell’s on Valentine’s Day. 1500 miles from my wife, my nerves still jangling after a job interview in Oregon, I spotted the book while browsing in a book shop to try to relax.

As thick as an upended business card, its heft enthralled me. I’d owned a copy before, a paperback with a wonderfully lurid claw reaching up from a storm grate on the cover. Alone in the bookshop, I couldn’t help but plunk down $10, curious to revisit the novel on a rainy Portland night.

The last time I read Stephen King’s 1986 behemoth, a book I can’t think of without remembering a high school friend’s amazement that anyone could write a book so long, I lived in Oregon. I can’t recall the circumstances of that first reading; there was so much pop fiction in my young adulthood. I suppose it was at least in part read alone in a room to the sound of falling rain.

It coverThe differences of more than a quarter century struck me as I read the novel through the eyes of a dad, and husband, and high school principal. …and a fellow who has been away from his home state for a long, long time.

It’s not that I haven’t felt at home throughout my adult life, but seeing Mt. Hood as I drove from the airport to my interview I felt a wave of emotion not unlike Ulysses must have experienced when he stepped back onto Ithaca.

It saw me through the flight back to San Diego, and up and back to a second interview and then a third. As I turned the pages I found that while there was so much I didn’t remember, the story, or better put the stories; It is at its heart a collection of related tales about what it is like to be human, carried with it a feeling of familiarity.

Not unlike the Sunset Highway or the stacks at Powell’s, It felt like something I knew, and at the same time it felt a little surreal.

For any who haven’t cracked the book, It tells the story of a group of friends from the fictional town of Derry, Maine who confront the manifestation of evil, often in the guise of a demonic clown, as kids in the summer of 1958 and again in 1984. In the twenty some years between the two events all but one of the “Losers Club” as they dub themselves leave the state and create adult lives of their own.

Those adults return “home” different than when they left it. The decades between their moving away and coming back, roughly the same amount of time I’ve been away from Oregon, changed them, and they returned altered versions of the selves who had gone away.

This more than struck a chord.

The twenty something teacher I was when I moved to California has been replaced by the forty something principal I have become. Along the way I’ve had experiences good and bad that have matured me, humbled me, and inspired me. As I prepare to return to the Pacific Northwest I do so with a feeling of hope, expectation, and excitement.

Staying in California would have been, to use the old saying, “penny-wise and pound foolish.” My days at San Dieguito, surrounded by gifted educators and blessed to work with so many friends, have been a dream come true, but for life beyond being a principal, my life as a dad, and a husband, Oregon was the choice that was more than a pound wise. Foolish youth, replaced by something akin to maturity.

Stephen King captured the feeling those characters had looking homeward after so much time away, across the miles and years alike, and that understanding of leaving youth and becoming an adult.

It was no big deal; it didn’t go all at once, with a bang. And maybe … that’s the scary part. How you don’t stop being a kid all at once, with a big explosive bang, like on of that clown’s trick balloons … The kid in you just leaked out, like the air out of a tire. And one day you looked in the mirror and there was a grownup looking back at you.”

And now the grownup in my mirror, so different from the fellow who filled a U-Haul and drove from Forest Grove to Oakland, is packing boxes and cleaning the garage, preparing to drive back up I-5 in the company of cats and kids who were not yet born when we left Oregon so many years ago.

I’ve got no maniacal clown to fight or promise from youth to fulfill, but like those adults from King’s novel I’m preparing to go home to a place that has not stopped changing in my absence.

Both of us are different than we were, me and the state, and how we will find each other when we meet again in July carries a delightful, if a little unnerving, uncertainty that I’m ready to meet head on.

The spring sun makes it feel all that more real. The boxes piling in our garage, the seemingly endless decisions as to what we keep and what we give away, and the steady stream of work to be done, these realities of moving will end soon and I’ll find myself back in the Willamette Valley preparing for the next stage of life.

Has the kid in me “leaked out” slowly? Maybe some; I certainly see an adult in my mirror. But working with students does much to inspire a spirit of youth. It’s tough to be too adult when every week or so someone invites you to be silly.

So I hope that as I return to Oregon I do so with a little gray hair, a few more wrinkles, and a youthful heart. …and no clowns.

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