My fingers tap heavily on the desk like a metronome counting time for an elegy that only I can hear. I stare out my classroom's solitary window - a post-modern monstrosity, which was no doubt designed for a prison before it was diverted to my school. With the open-mouthed vacancy of a Hindu cow, I watch snow fall heavily in the courtyard beyond the glass.
I cannot help my blank expression. I've had enough of winter, and the nor'easter blowing outside has me wondering if I've done something to anger the river gods. Clearly they're angry. Why else would they conspire with the weather gods to trap me here, at the frozen center of Dante's Inferno. I should be off chasing steelhead or trout.
Two days ago, the air tasted of spring, but today the wind wrestles violently with itself, conjuring little cyclones of sleet and ice that battle each other in the square. Mr. Roe's greenhouse - built by last year's departing seniors to teach this year's incoming freshmen the value of all things green - rattles and shakes, its spring hinged door flapping open and slamming shut in time with my finger tapping. I'd be surprised if it survives until April. I'd be surprised if I survive until April.
Today's study hall is overfull. I've been assigned 39 students this semester, but there are only 27 desks in my classroom. Typical. Students squat where they can; some stand while others recline on the floor. To my front sits a young woman and her boyfriend. The boy wears a Volcom t-shirt and what I believe to be his sister's jeans; he smells strongly of menthol cigarettes and unwashed nether parts.
Regardless, the wintry mix outside prevents me from opening my classroom's double paned porthole to better ventilate the too small space, so I turn on my fan and quietly hide from the stink in the vortex created by the blades. Kids are great; they're talented, insightful, and uninhibited in ways that adults simply are not, but there's a steep learning curve when it comes to hygiene that many find difficult to master. Some don't even care to try.
Before long, my mind - if not my nose - is quieted by the gentle thrum of the fan's motor. With my gag reflex momentarily suppressed, I drift off to happier times.
In the space of a moment, winter has given way to summer, and I'm no longer a teacher. The world is green and warm; everything is fresh and new - as it would be when seen through young eyes. I'm six years old, younger by a year than my own three children, and my father (who was then younger by a decade than I am now) has only just given me my first fly rod. We're together, dad and I, each of us in cut-off jeans and running shoes and standing in one of the Battenkill's shallow riffles. One quarter mile above us is Shushan's covered bridge.
My father, a dedicated bait fisherman, drifts his nightcrawler through the deepest part of the slot. I stand upstream of dad - as I always did when I was a boy - and whip the fly line back and forth as he had shown me only moments before. Throughout the morning, I managed a handful of casts to four or five yards, but for the most part the line would fall at my feet or wrap itself like a hungry python around the tip of the rod. When the line did stretch out in imitation of an adequate cast, the current would grab its thick PVC belly and sweep leader and fly at a sprinter's pace down through the head of the run. Mending was beyond this particular first grader, which meant the chances of hooking a fish were miniscule. This only made the brown's splashy take all the more remarkable.
"Wrapped around the pole again?"
"I think I have one."
"No you don't."
"I think I do."
"Just keep casting."
"I can't. The line is stuck in the water."
And then the scene changes. I'm a grown man, albeit a younger, less rotund man than I am today. It's a Tuesday in mid June, and while I should be at work - I am not. I've played hooky from my classroom, and later in the evening I will be absent from graduate school. As late as it is in the school year, my students are checked-out, their minds on summer vacation. They won't even know I'm gone. Professor Kelsh and research studies will just have to wait. Today is a mental health day; one that I have been desperately needing. Today, I am neither student nor teacher.
The day is beautiful in the way late spring days so often are: a brilliant sun climbs high in the cloudless sky, the water is a deep aquamarine that reflects the sun in its riffles, and the air carries the scent of blooming cornflower and coreopsis. Unfortunately, beautiful days are sometimes harbingers of poor fishing, and such has been the case throughout the morning. My partner and I had a few half-hearted nips as we nymphed through run, but as we stepped away from the tailout we had nothing to show for our efforts.
"I think I'll head up top and give it another go. I know there's fish there, and I'm sure I can get one of them to take."
"Alright, I might switch over to a sinking line and try the slot down below."
"Give a yell if you zip one."
I cross the river in the shallowest portion of the tailout, and when I reach the far bank, I do as I said I would and switch over to a 200 grain sinker. My fly choice is simple: a #4 woolly bugger with olive hackle and a barred yellow tail - one of my favorites on this river. On my first cast, the line slips free of my off hand, and my double haul becomes an underpowered single that ends with leader and fly wrapped around the rod's tip. It's been twenty odd years since I caught that first brown, and my casting hasn't improved at all.
Fifteen minutes and four feet of tippet later, I'm again false casting. This time, I remember to hold onto the running line; the forward stroke and the second haul are timed as they should be, and everything is right in the world. The line slides through the guides with a pleasing "Pfffffffttttt," and the rod jumps a little as weight of the shooting head pulls against the reel. I watch the fly turn over the leader, the tuft of yellow marabou touches the surface, and the water erupts in a turquoise explosion. For a moment, I'm convinced a bobcat or shetland pony has jumped into the pool. I look to my reel, vaguely aware of an unfamiliar screech coming from its inner workings. When my eyes finally focus on the freely spinning spool, I witness a sight that until that moment I had only ever read about: backing - white as a sucker's belly - stealing away from the reel like a falcon diving on a hare.
Again, the scene changes, but this time I'm not looking back; I'm dreaming forward. And in my dream I see that next steelhead trip, which is likely to be the last for the year. I see the first day of trout season and the hendricksons that will soon drift in circles through the eddies of the Flats, the Ball Field, and The Springhole. I see snouts poking through the surface of the Delaware and ice cold beer and luke warm scrambled eggs served on the bow of Shawn's drift boat. I see cruising carp and slashing pike. I see bowfin and gar, brook trout and sunfish. I see the shadow of a musky, and the whisper of a laker. I see all the promise of a year on the water.
The bell rings, and it's all I can do to wade out from under the stupor. I look up from my daydream to find the room empty of students; the odor that accompanied them seems to have followed them out the door. I sigh heavily, knowing I have to put my dreams on hold for a while. In minutes, twenty-four young men and women will cross the threshold separating the chaos of the hallway from the tranquility of my little corner of the world. Some of those young people will need my attention.
Some will almost certainly want to spend the class daydreaming, and today - I think I'll let them.