for Mrs. Ramsay
We lived in a fantasy of
brick terraces and reflecting pools
marble fountains and darting fish
beneath lofty cypresses and cedars,
hopping irrigation ditches from
pomegranate to orange grove
rose bush to pansy bed,
squeezing the jaws of snapdragons
just to hear them roar.
Outside the walls a feudal monarchy
catapulted into the twentieth century
by petrodollars, Anglo- American
imperialism and naked ambition,
a bedlam of wildcatters and con men
elbowing past long-sleeved clerics,
big-finned Chevys blaring around
donkey carts, a cacophony of
medieval poetry and early rock and roll.
Inside a life of calm and comfort
coffee tables strewn with Look and Life,
a waffle iron for Sunday breakfast,
a wringer washing machine that
had to be pounded back into shape
after it fell off the top of the truck
when the goat hair rope broke,
couches and chairs, a dining set, dressers
and beds, a cook, and a fully stocked pantry.
A good education was paramount
to first generation college graduates,
so every morning my sister and I would
mount the steep mud brick steps
to a classroom equipped with steel desks
imported from our Iowa school district,
chant “Good morning, Mrs. Ramsay,”
and pledge allegiance to the
48-star flag in the corner.
At first we picked up where we left off
in the workbooks we’d brought from home.
When the correspondence courses arrived,
we followed their spiral-bound guides
through stacks of textbooks
carefully selected to provide
fully accredited American schooling
anywhere in the hinterland
they decide to send us.
Gradually we dropped the pretense
of calling my mother “Mrs. Ramsay,”
and I discovered the joy of working
ahead at my own pace as long as
I took the tests and quizzes in time.
I particularly liked the history course,
tracking the sequence of historic events
on a timeline attached to the chalk tray.
Then one day I added a name that sounded familiar.
Cyrus the Great, king of the Persians.
Didn’t we visit his tomb just the other
day on our trip to Persepolis?
Pasargadae, some really ruined ruins, not much
to see there but a stone shed atop a pyramid,
yet now I had a connection between
that spot and an abstract dot on my timeline,
and it all began to fit together.
The walls were about to tumble.
Swiveling in my seat
feet firmly on the classroom floor
my mind could wander aimlessly
out the window into the garden
soaring over the walls, the Koran gate,
the poets’ tombs, the barren mountain passes,
the crumbling palaces of ancient kings,
pipelines and platforms, seeing the world
on a magic carpet of opportunity.
Outside the walls I was free to learn from
tracing airline flight paths at a window seat,
adult conversations around a restaurant table,
our Anglican vicar’s translations of ancient inscriptions,
our house guest’s experiences living among the nomads,
lying on our backs outside the satellite tracking station,
acquiring other languages by making up our own,
reading license plates to master the real Arabic numerals.
And inside was still safe at home.
I’d dreamed of tunneling under the wall
to escape the chafing safety and
security of learning from home,
to embrace the unpredictable.
Now I can appreciate the disabling
price that outside forces exact,
leaving one capable only of survival
and nostalgia for the happy days of
being schooled at home.
© 2014 Jim Ramsay, all rights reserved.