The Raging Inferno

I was a second year teacher, marginally seasoned in life, but certainly not the classroom.

But I knew, just as any seasoned teacher knows, the class right after lunch can be difficult.  Sugar highs. I had 20 squirrely freshman, which made it all the more challenging, in a low-level reading class.  Somehow these kids had managed to get through eight years of school without ever having learned to read. That aside, we were a couple months into the first semester and had fallen into nice routine with the students feeling good about their progress.

Lunch had ended, the final bell sounded and my students were settling in their desks when there was an enormous roar of an engine outside the room.  The door opened and, as we all watched dumbfounded, the doorway darkened.

There was a motorcycle, a massive Harley-type cycle, entering the room, being pushed by a mountain of a young man. He had long black hair pulled back away from his face, dark eyes and probably weighed a few hundred pounds. 

He parked the cycle inside the entrance of the room, grinned broadly and sauntered towards me with a new student ticket clutched in his fist.

My freshman students dove under their desks.

The teacher next door came out of her classroom, looked in and mouthed you ok? I nodded yes, knowing she had 35 students waiting for her, but not really knowing if things were actually okay.

The mountain approached me, holding out the entry ticket.

You’re a student?

Yep, just out of juvie.

uh huh. Your bike?

Yep.

It’s very nice. Think you could park it outside?

He grinned and pushed the cycle outside of the room.

His name was Masou and, early on, he decided he liked my class because I didn’t hassle him.  Of course, he was always on time, did his work and was pleasant. There was no reason to hassle him.

He and the bike would be at the door waiting for lunch to end and the class to begin, while the freshman cowered behind.

In time, I realized I was no longer having to discipline the freshmen; if anyone acted out, as they were apt to do given their age, the class period and the sugar, Masou would simply turn and glare at the offender who would then hide under the desk.  I grew increasingly fond of Masou.

Slowly, his life story emerged in bits and pieces.  Life stories of each of the students tend to come out, especially in English classes and especially if you listen. Some of them can break your heart; Masou’s touched mine.

He was Native American, with a mom and stepdad.  Stepdad was an alcoholic and beat his stepson until Masou got large enough to return the beating, which ultimately led to more fights and Juvenile Hall. 

Despite everything, Masou had the Native American connection with the earth, her spirit and all growing things. Whenever he spoke or wrote of the environment, it was with a profound sense of awe and reverence that few people will ever experience.

Then, before we knew it, it was the Christmas holidays and we all wished each other well and left on break. Masou never returned.

A few years later, a small fire started in the mountains surrounding our valley and quickly grew into a raging inferno that forced the evacuation of 4,500 people from 2,500 homes.  The thick black smoke blanketed the valley for the better part of a week while evacuees huddled and worried over their homes and belongings. The rest of us watched in horror as the fire consumed the mountains that we loved and had mostly taken for granted.

The fire caused over $7 million in damage, destroyed 42 homes and charred some 14,000 acres. The inferno left the mountains scarred for a decade or more.

The local news announced that a suspect had been arrested in connection with the fire but released for lack of evidence.  It was Masou. I didn’t hear of anyone else ever being charged with the crime.

I had such a overwhelming sense of sadness that a young man who had such an connection with nature could have ever been filled with so much rage that he’d turn on her, if indeed it was him. I hoped it wasn’t him.

I also wondered what we could have done at the school to have averted this tragedy and the subsequent scarring of the environment, the homeowners, the greater community and even the person who set the fire. Whether police arrested the right person or not, it was obvious Masou needed help far beyond what a teacher could provide. It was also obvious we had no services to which to refer him.

Here we were, in a relatively affluent area and without readily accessible resources for kids. It wasn’t a priority. It was too expensive. That was over 40 years ago. I wish I could say things have changed.

They haven’t.

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