Chris Christie and I probably do not have a great deal in common beyond the fact that we are both obese and sometimes unapologetically obnoxious, but when I read that he had “smushed” a spider during a visit to an elementary classroom, I immediately “heard” my wife saying to me, “Please use a paper towel or a kleenex to kill it. Don’t use your bare hand!”
But Governor Christie’s latest brush with public dismay also reminded me of an incident that occurred when I was much earlier in my career.
For reasons that are not worth detailing here, we have always lived about 45 miles from the rural campus at which I teach. In the bad weather, I take an interstate and a four-lane, limited access state highway to the campus. But when the weather is nicer and I am not playing beat the clock, I often take the back roads. For about 35 miles, I can drive two-lane country roads on which, especially at mid-day, there is almost never any other vehicles except for an occasional tractor or some other piece of farm machinery.
One day I was driving to campus for a mid-afternoon committee meeting. At a certain place on an especially long straight road, the fields of corn and soybeans are interrupted by a double set of railroad tracks. In fact, the tracks run on a bed that is about eight to ten feet higher than the surrounding fields. So, the road suddenly rises and then drops rather steeply just before and after one drives over the tracks.
On this particular day, as I was on the upside of the steep incline, a dark shadow suddenly covered the right side of my windshield. I was so startled that I yanked on the steering wheel and almost drove off the other side of the road. I heard a pronounced thump on the roof of my car and then on the trunk.
After getting nack into my lane and far enough up the road that I would not be rear-ended by anyone coming over the tracks, I looked in my rearview mirror. A large vulture was staggering around on the railroad tracks. It must have flown up out of the ditch just as I was crossing the tracks. It now tried to fly several times, but one of its large wings was very clearly broken.
I momentarily considered taking the vulture to an animal rescue center that was actually just a few miles away. But I quickly realized that doing so would be the equivalent of taking a river rat to the rescue center. Vultures just aren’t eagles, hawks, or owls. They aren’t anyone’s idea of something that’s worth saving. And I realized that the vulture was too big to go easily into the trunk, and in any case, I did not want to handle it, never mind drive with it riding with me in the passenger compartment.
So I had to decide whether to drive off and leave the bird to suffer or to put it out of its misery. It occurred to me that it might step out in front of another car, startle the driver much as it had startled me, and cause an accident. So I put the car in park and got out of the car to look for something lethal in my trunk. But the only things in the trunk were an empty cardboard box, a half-used roll of paper towels, and a short Tote’s umbrella. I slapped the umbrella into my palm several times, but I guessed that I might have to hit the vulture with it several dozen times before I actually managed to land a lethal blow—or enough blows to have a fatal cumulative effect. That option was as unappealing as it seemed obviously inhumane.
So after thinking about my options for a few more moments, I looked past the still lurching vulture and down the long, empty road, got back into my car, put it into reverse, and drove over the bird, putting it quickly out of its misery.
When I got to the committee meeting, I must have had a strange look on my face or in some other way communicated with my body language that something unusual had occurred because a colleague asked me, with arched eyebrows, what was up. So I started telling him quietly about the vulture. When I got to the part at which I described driving over it, I heard a loud gasp and realized that everyone at the table had at some point begun to listen to the story.
Our relatively new dean had an absolutely horrified look on her face, and when our eyes met, she blurted out, “That’s awful!” And I knew that she wasn’t referring to the fact that I had been struggling with indecision about what would be the right thing to do.
This response bothered me enough that the next day in one of my classes, I re-told the story. About half of the students had the same reaction as the dean. The other half started laughing rather uproariously. Neither response seemed appropriate to me. So I asked them what they would have done.
One student exclaimed, “I would have driven away!” And most of the students in the class seemed to agree with that choice. When I pointed out that that was a pretty gutless choice, many of the students, even those whose faces had been locked in horrified expressions, started to laugh at their willingness to admit to a certain gutlessness.
Another student said, “I just wouldn’t have driven over it. That’s just a really a hard-case thing to do.”
There was a long pause. Then another student said very thoughtfully, “If I had driven over it, I never would have told anyone that I had done it.”
At that moment, I recognized one of the major things that has separated my sensibility as a writer from the sensibilities of most of the student writers in my courses. I have always had an innate fascination with “story.” So the ready-made stories that day-to-day experience offers up have always seemed to me to require being told. Quite simply, I sometimes—perhaps often—don’t even consider why I am telling a story or, more precisely, whether or not I ought to be telling a particular story.
But, much more than I do, and in some ways much to their credit, most of my students intuitively grasp the truism that the telling says as much about the teller as it does about the topic. And they are, sensibly, much more reticent than I am to let the “telling” define how their listeners may characterize them.
In the end, the students in that class seemed not to hold the vulture’s gruesome demise permanently against me.
On the other hand, that dean was never really comfortable around me after that afternoon.