Notes from Napa

Tuesday, May 11, 2010



September 5, 1996 St. Helena Star

Of course we didn’t call him by his first name. Unlike my daughter who addresses her high school coach as Sarah, we called Pete and every other teacher at St. Helena High “Mr.”, “Miss”, or “Mrs.”. We had some nicknames-- printable ones like , Papa Snipe, and some unprintable. I don’t remember if Mr. Ainslie had a nickname or not. In fact, I don’t remember much about him except he introduced us to poetry.

First you bite your fingernails. And then you comb your hair again...

Probably, that doesn’t sound like much. Except you have to understand that we were a bunch of wise-acres who had other interests--like getting our driver’s licenses, earning money for those dream cars, (my grandmother sold me her 1950 Dyno-flo Special for $65), and beating Calistoga at every opportunity. Oh yeah. And chicks.

Then the doorbell rings. Then Peg drops in. And Bill. And Jane. And...

Football dominated our consciousness that first fall when he arrived. After all, we were in the middle of a Win streak and Mr. Ainslie’s English class was one of half a dozen such periods we had to endure until it was time for what we were in school for--football.

And first you talk, and smoke, and hear the news...

Poetry to us was a five line limerick that usually began something like this: "There once was a girl from Nantucket..."

Though we’d never used the word “relevance” you can bet we knew intuitively, that poetry had none for us and worse, was the special province of grandmothers and wimps.

..And then you walk down the stairs...

But Pete wouldn’t let up. He hammered on us, challenging us to at least consider that there was more to life than a hamburger at Vern’s after a Drive in movie.

And then the table wit. And then the check. Then home again...

He enlisted the aid of Holden Caufield and kept shoving Kenneth Fearing at us.

But first, the stairs.

He yelled, cajoled, pleaded and begged us to question who we were, what we were doing, where we were going, what we were going to become.

Do you feel again as you felt this morning? And the night before?

Were we gonna ever know what Jason Robards was talking about in A Thousand Clowns when he says he wants young Max to “know the sneaky subtle reason he was born a human being and not a table or chair”?

...What is one more night in a lifetime of nights...

Through poetry, he challenged us to dare to be somebody. Somebody special.

What is one more death, or friendship, or divorce out of 2 or 3 or....

Recently, in one of the schools, I saw a sign: “This child isn’t gong to be something special. He already is”. What a nice sentiment. It sort of captures the 90’s. I’m glad Mr. Ainslie never read it.

One more face among so many, many faces, one more life among so many million lives?

He knew we weren’t special. We were no-bodies--headed down a blind path to Nowheres-ville. Simple kids in an Ag community that had little direction, and less ambition. Through the force of his personality and his love of poetry, he challenged us to become somebody.

But first baby, as you climb the stairs..

Challenged us to think, to question, to feel...

(and they total the same) ...

Challenged us to be different. To be great...

..did you sometime or somewhere, have a different idea?

To have passion. To follow a dream. And he did it without computers, VCRs, color copiers, or parents in the classroom. He did it the way teachers have done it since Socrates. He simply challenged us and inspired us.

Is this baby, what you were born to feel , and do, and be?

We remember that first poem, Pete. We remember poetry. We remember that passion. That concern. That stubbornness that wouldn’t let us think we were already “somebody”. We weren’t. And we never would have become anybody, if it hadn’t been for you and a dozen other teachers like you, who simply refused to let us be average.

P.S. And even if it hadn’t changed my life, poetry was a great way to meet chicks at Cal.

Ainslie was the most influential teacher in my life. Nice essay!
Guess that makes two of us.

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