This is a guest blog by Jennifer Paulsen, President of the Iowa Council Teachers of English.
I was due for a bit of serendipity.
A three-hour flight delay in Chicago played havoc with my Washington, DC, fantasy librarypalooza plans: Library of Congress, Folger Shakespeare Library, and Daughters of the American Revolution Genealogy Library in one fell swoop fell through, and I had settled for a majestic whirlwind sweep of the Library of Congress, losing my beloved hand-knit purple hat in the process. Then a torrential downpour turned my scenic evening walk to meet an old friend for dinner into a challenging obstacle course, wading through flooded streets sans umbrella, trying to follow unfamiliar directions on my phone while keeping my reading glasses dry enough to see and my contacts from being washed from my eyes. Alone in a strange city, I was soaked to the bone and exhausted by the time my cab deposited me on the hotel curb after a lovely, if uncomfortably damp, late dinner. I fell asleep uneasy, hoping the very late arrival of my friend Erin would bring sunshine and courage.
I had not attended a political gathering of any sort, unless you count my grandfather’s kitchen table, since the 1987 Iowa Caucus. A short stint on the Iowa Core Commission completed my nonvoting involvement with government. But when NCTE President Doug Hesse issued a challenge at the 2016 NCTE Convention Affiliate Breakfast to send a delegation to Washington, DC, for NCTE Literacy Advocacy Day, I felt called to a learning opportunity that might be beneficial in representing the interests of our Iowa Council of Teachers of English (ICTE) membership. So Erin Miller and I, president-elect and president of ICTE respectively, had traveled a long distance to meet with our representatives and advocate for literacy education. To say the least, I was out of my comfort zone. But Erin makes me feel brave, so with her very late (or very early, depending how you frame it) arrival on the scene, I prepared to seize the day.
Our first item of business was an invitation from Representatives Dave Loebsack (D) and David Young (R) to Coffee with Your Congressman. As we signed in and wrote our name tags, we were warmly welcomed by a young man who, as it turned out, was also from my adopted hometown of Cedar Falls, Iowa. I studied his friendly face, dark hair, and blue eyes while he examined my name tag again, on finding out Erin and I are teachers.
“Mrs. Paulsen?” he asked. “I think you were my teacher.”
Incredulous, I asked his name again.
“It’s Mitch Adams. Class of 2003. Aren’t you the one who was crazy about Bruce Springsteen?”
And there it was. A precious gift of surprise. After thirteen years.
“Yes! That’s me! We studied Springsteen lyrics in Modern Literature.”
“‘Thunder Road’ was my song,” he said.
“I know! That’s why I picked it. Did it get me extra points?”
We dissolved into laughter, his sweet smile and merry eyes recalling his seventeen-year-old face to my mind, and I saw him clearly, lanky form half-sitting, half-leaning over a friend’s shoulder, laughing in the row of orange desks parallel to the windows in my old classroom at the high school, before the renovation.
We chatted about his friends and siblings and his job as a legislative assistant to Representative Loebsack as he smoothly steered us toward the refreshments, introducing us to the other staffers. He slipped away to visit with newcomers as both representatives introduced themselves. It was a lovely, lively conversation of personal connections and mutual interests marked by genuine curiosity about NCTE’s positions, which we would discuss in more detail at our afternoon appointment with Representative Young. Both men and their staffs were gracious hosts, and I looked forward to continuing the conversation.
As Erin and I worked our way toward the door, I found Mitch so that I could take a picture and say goodbye.
“‘Thunder Road,” I laughed, shaking my head, still not believing I’d come all this way only to find a bit of home waiting to sustain me.
“I think of you whenever I hear it,” he chuckled.
As far as legacies go, I’ll cherish it, Mitch.
My heart soared as Erin and I headed to our next appointment, the chorus rolling to its explosive apex in my mind, “Hey, what else can we do now? / Except roll down the window / And let the wind / Blow back your hair . . .”
I floated through the rest of the day on this sweet serendipity. Fearless.
Jenny Cameron Paulsen is an English teacher by day and ninja bookworm by night who grew up in Kansas City, Kansas, and now lives on a farm in Cedar Falls, Iowa, with her dear husband Chuck and her teenage son Tommy. For the past twenty-two years, teenagers have been her chosen people.