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I murdered a pigeon the other morning.
I didn't mean to. I was just driving along, minding my own business, listening to a Lou Bega song that had just come on the radio. Then all of a sudden I see this large, kinda bluish chunk of (I thought) debris getting kicked across two lanes of freeway. It landed on its feet, its clearly broken wing flapping awkwardly beside it as it madly hopped into my lane. For a split second, I caught the expression in its bird-eyes: the pain, the terror, the confusion as it tried to grasp what what happening.
Then it was over. A horrific series of thunks starting on the inside of my front passenger wheel, bouncing the undercarriage, and finally kicking up and off the back wheel sent the ill-fated avian on a quick trip to whatever lies beyond this realm. The cloud of exploded feathers in my rearview mirror assured me that death was instantaneous, so at least it didn’t suffer. And there was no way it could have been avoided - the poor thing was bounced from the opposing lanes first, already battered and injured, into an area it had no hope of rescue from and would have died slowly even if it had somehow managed to pull itself off the road. Probability said that the bird was slated to die of its grievous injuries; chance just decided that the vehicle would be mine.
It wasn’t my fault. But that’s hardly a consolation.
This pigeon has been on my mind all day. I think the reason I can’t let go of it was that split second of eye contact just before its world ended. The bewilderment. The misery. The panic. All of these things mixed together into one expression I’ve seen more times than any person should have to for the sole reason that chance, or fate, decided I was the one who was supposed to find them. On occasion, I was able to help these proverbial pigeons to safety, mustering just enough protection for them to get off of the highway and their broken parts set. It’s no guarantee of survival, but they’d have at least a chance to heal. Other times, I arrived just long enough to watch them find peace on the underside of a set of Michelins. The unfortunate reality is you can’t save everyone, and really, at best, you can only help them find ways to save themselves.
I celebrated my ten-year anniversary at my job the same day I killed the pigeon, leading me to think back to the path my career has taken and my very first students. As an undergrad, the university I attended had a grant to host a workforce re-education program for returning adult learners. Many of these students were from my parents’ generation, people who lost their jobs and their livelihoods when the factories in our rural towns closed. The goal was to retrain them for technical jobs and help earn college degrees to supplement the experience they’d already earned in the workforce. It was 2003. I was nineteen, hired to tutor algebra and help students learn to advocate for themselves as they acclimated to life in the classroom. My first student was a 42-year-old widow with two young boys who spent as much time talking about her hopes and fears and the challenges of being a single parent as she did about her questions on graphing and systems of equations. Her experience was vastly different from her younger classmates, some of whom would stumble into the morning class hung over (or, on occasion, still blitzed from the night before).1 She was definitely a broken pigeon, trying desperately to get across that proverbial freeway to survive and be there for her sons. So was my friend Katherine, who I met when we were both finishing up our respective masters’ degrees - I didn’t find out until years later that her first attempt at college had been cut short by the death of her best friend, and the business she created (out of her masters thesis, no less!) was a living memorial to the person who had been her rock in a tumultuous time. So were a number of the men and women I have the honor of seeing walk across the stage of the State Theatre this July - their stories are all different, but at one point they were all broken little birds just trying to find their way.
But for every bird that makes it, there are so many others that don’t. My very first day as an undergrad, our psychology professor told us that one out of every ten students in the class would be gone by the end of the semester, and that only one in four would make it to graduation day. The longer I stay in education, it isn’t hard to see why - it’s not just the course work or the expense, but for a lot of people, it’s also trying to raise kids, keep a roof over their head and food in their bellies, trying to deal with emotional issues and shitty relationships and caring for others and all the other heavy baggage that comes with being an adult. You do what you can, but sometimes it’s just not enough.
Sometimes that rubber tire feels like a blessing.
The pigeon was the beginning of a long day of relatively minor but constant grievances. The particulars are too trivial to recount, and indeed many when described out of context seem a lot less attention worthy than what they were given that day. It’s suffice to say that by the end of the afternoon I was ready to find my own speeding Michelins to flop in front of when my phone rang.
“I’m sorry your day sucked,” my favorite Marine said by way of greeting. “But I have some good news that might make it better...”
And thus we reach the berm of safety once more.
WHAT I’M CURRENTLY READING: David Fontana, The Essential Guide to the Tarot (it’s for something in the story)
THREE THINGS I’M LISTENING TO ON REPEAT: Goo Goo Dolls, Acoustic #3; The Cranberries, Dreams; Lou Bega, Baby Keep Smiling
1: ACTUAL DIALOGUE FROM ONE CLASS ON QUIZ DAY, PER MY NOTEBOOK FROM THAT SEMESTER:
Drunk Student One (whining to professor): “Professor Parizek, I’m drawing a blank!”
Drunk Student Two: “That’s dumb. I’M drawing a UNIT CIRCLE.”