If it were any other teenager, I’d just laugh. A black diamond? You must be crazy. But it’s Cody, whose shenanigans I know by heart. Who listens in class, does all the assigned reading. Who still blushes like he did when he was eleven, still thinks his English teacher is cool.
It’s a glorious, frozen wet Wednesday on the mountain, peopled sparse as the desert highway, and we’re on our sixth snow trip together. Cody and I have done countless runs over the years: Cody getting stronger, fitter, braver while I coast, a steady plateau of green and blue runs. These trips are part of what make Nonesuch School true to its name. The first year I couldn’t believe it: all fifty students in one house, the staff too, in Tahoe, in the snow? But once we were there, the kids unfurling sleeping bags in closets and shouting dibs on the hot tub, I knew it would be just like our school, the best kind of madness.
Surrounded by redwoods, meadows, and a spring-fed creek, Nonesuch looked more like a summer camp than a school. Each classroom was retrofitted with its own quiet hysteria—some had worn leather couches, others (like mine) had built-in bookshelves and angled ceilings. The students (grouped by skill level, not grade) were mostly brassy public school rejects, too smart to believe adults. They startled me with their knowledge. As a teenager, I ate Twinkies and watched Saved by the Bell after school; these kids turned their noses up at high fructose corn syrup, would rather play bongos than video games.
I started teaching when I was twenty-six and fresh out of grad school, excited by my heavy load of five English classes, from junior high Basic Lit to upperclassmen Advanced Comp. When I assigned homework the very first day, the kids were dubious. The new English teacher doesn’t take shit. Not as nice as she looks. But by the second semester, most of them had started to appreciate my high expectations, were glimpsing the joys of play-acting scenes and writing sestinas. Only the littlest ones—sixth graders, rascally and unafraid, new to the school just like me—were still unsure.
That first year we piled into half a dozen rented vans and SUVs in the middle of February and headed east, to the rugged slopes of Lake Tahoe. For me and the other newcomers, it was our first Nonesuch snow trip. For Cody, who had just turned twelve, it was also his first time in snow, period. I’d spent six months startling at his antics—a mayonnaise-coated stapler, boo! out of the classroom closet. This was my chance to win him over. I’ll take you on an easy run. It’ll be fun.
I was on skis, he a snowboard. The snow drifted down thick and heavy. I’d never been skiing in Tahoe, had no idea this run would be so flat. It took us two and a half hours to get down. Sugar N Spice my ass. He grabbed my poles and I pulled him up, along, promising hot chocolate in the lodge. He fell: backwards, forwards, sideways, again, again, again, again. And again. The wetness seeped through our coats, making us shiver. We both had long hair then, frozen against our cheeks.
Years passed. Cody’s voice changed and that’s not all: he buzzed his hair short, grew out of his old sweatshirt, became a better speller, found pleasure in unassigned reading. The snow trips started to blend into each other. Remember that time the hot-tub overflowed? Was that the year we had that epic snowball fight? When Cody got new snow pants, he gave me his old-school blue overalls. Here, Jess, I bet these will fit you.
Now, Cody is a junior obsessed with Greek and Roman history, loves politics.He says things that make me blush with pride. I loved Brave New World! I agree with Neil Postman that Huxley had it right, not Orwell. Even his pranks have evolved. One chilly morning, I found a bowl of Jell-O waiting for me in my classroom with a gift tag that read In case of emergency, eat me. Inside, of course, was my stapler. But his handwriting, like drunken ants stumbling across the page, stays the same. So does his shy laugh.
As for me, somewhere along the way, I grew into an adult. Thirty-two years old, more lines, more tolerance, less angst. I married Michael, who teaches music and math, who loves the kids almost as much as I do. I’ve learned not to assign essays due on Mondays. Grammar does matter.
We get used to things. I thought I’d never leave Nonesuch. How could I outgrow a school where I’m allowed to teach whatever I want, the same kids year after year, all of us growing into family? It’s been around since 1970, long before I was born; I assumed I’d be there until the end. But I’ve watched so many graduate—afraid at first, then radiant as they bloom anew. Is it wrong to want my turn?
Next year, Cody will be a senior. After six years, he’ll have a new English teacher. New books, new rules, new jokes. He couldn’t realize it yet, but I think he will like her. Or him.
For now, we enjoy the cold mountain. I don’t think about the students—half as many as when I started—crammed into the smallest house we’ve ever needed for the snow trip. The school shrinks, a shell of its former self. I don’t think about what my classroom will look like next year, giant light window, graffiti-filled walls, tattered paperbacks, someone else’s writing on the board.
The snow lands and then disappears into the sop of my coat. Everywhere I look I see pine boughs bent heavy with their snowy burdens, the occasional plaid or neon of a boarder’s baggy new snow-pants. I catch a glimpse of the shiny mirror of Lake Tahoe, ringed with green. The same scene, still dazzling year after year.
Deep in the pit of me, I feel warmth: half-thrilled, half-terrified. This is the steepest run I’ve ever done. A black diamond. I fit my goggles on over my soft pink hat, look down at my thighs, already burning hot inside those tight blue overalls. I point my skis downhill. All right Cody, let’s do this. He’s still strapping in when I plant my poles and take off. Soon, he will be soaring past me—Nonesuch’s top snowboarder this year. I can’t go that fast, but it doesn’t matter. When I get down the mountain, he’ll be waiting.