I Go Back There Often

Great southern oaks...

The slow, gentle back and forth creaking of the rocking chair is the only thing to break the silence. While the air is hot, humid, thick and unmoving, I cannot help but feel at home. The chair and I sit on a second-floor balcony of the retreat house. There, the giant oak branches seem to embrace the balcony, the chair, and me.

The oak trees in Grand Coteau are reason enough to visit the small, quiet town. There isn’t much else there: an old parish, a few shops, a few houses… The town’s two biggest fixtures are the Jesuit college—long-ago converted into a retreat center—and the Academy of the Sacred Heart. Both are old, nearly as old as the giant oaks which decorate the landscape.

As I sit in the chair rocking back and forth, I think about how much I’ve missed this place. I’ve missed the people, the oaks, and even the unhurried rhythm.

A slight breeze gentle rattles the leaves of the oaks—it sounds not unlike the waves of the ocean. Looking at the oak branches settling back into stillness, I smile. I had forgotten how often I come back here.

***

Late in the summer of 2012, I had been hired to teach at the Academy of the Sacred Heart. Less than a month till classes began, and I had to write my course plan for the entire year.

I was starting from scratch. Instead of the former teacher’s records, I had a wall of wooden cabinets nearly six feet in height and fifteen feel long; they were stuffed, packed, and crammed with papers and books. While I had a beautiful, multi-colored diagram of my proposed curriculum filling the entirety of my whiteboard—which made it seem like I had it all under control—I had absolutely no idea what I was doing.

One afternoon before the start of the semester, I was attempting to make my way through the cabinets. It was a slow-moving process, so I was happy to get a call from a friend. As we wrapped up the conversation, he paused for a moment:

       “Wait… Colt, so you’re going to be teaching at the Academy of the Sacred Heart.”
       “Yeah.”
       “The uh, the all-girls school? In Grand Coteau?”
       “Yep. Is there another?”
       “All-girls. Colt… They are going to kill you. You won’t stand a chance…”
       I cut him off, “Listen, I’m sure it’ll be just fine. Relax.”   

But then, I stopped.

At that moment, I had opened an old wooden cabinet which had been stuck. With a grinding scrape the door swung open. I was staring eye-level with a jar. It had to have held two or three gallons of clear liquid. Written on the side of the jar, “HOLY WATER,” and then underlined several times, “Just in Case.”

My mind started racing: Why would anyone need that much Holy Water? Sheesh, that’s enough for an exorcism or something. Wait, am I going to need this? Oh my God. I’m going to die… I promptly shut the cabinet door and went home for the day.

***

My classroom was on the third floor of the old building, beautiful in its grandeur and age. I had access to a balcony which overlooked a courtyard and long row of ancient oaks, a row which connects the Academy of the Sacred Heart to the old Jesuit college just out of sight.

Most mornings I would arrive early. I would trudge to the second-floor teacher’s lounge, clean out the pot of coffee, and start a new batch. While the coffee brewed, I would walk upstairs to my classroom, set down my bag, arrange handouts for that day, and update the homework board. I’d then grab a cup of coffee and return to the balcony.

Often leaning on the wrought iron railing, I’d sip my coffee and savor the joy of being there. A joy unexpected and overwhelming.

Before me, no matter the chaos of the day—or the grading, which at one point I measured in inches of stacked paper—before me would stand the beautiful sweeping arms of the old oak trees. In the early morning midst, they seemed solid and immovable—always there for me.

***

It turns out that I didn’t die at the Academy. They didn’t kill me. And despite how nervous I was, that year with the girls was simply wonderful. I often go back to that jar and laugh: maybe things which seem scary at first can in fact be absolutely beautiful.

As for the oak trees, they still remain. It’s been a few years since I taught at the Sacred Heart, and there’s not often reason for me to visit sleepy Grand Coteau. This past week though, under the outstretched branches of the oaks which create a natural arch, dressed all in white, the girls—my girls—graduated.

The heat, the threat of rain, and the long drive couldn’t keep me from coming back to Grand Coteau to see them. Truth be told, I don’t visit often—I only taught at the Sacred Heart for a single year.

Yet, as I sit in the rocking chair gently listening to the stillness of the trees, I realize how often I come back to the memories and treasures that occurred amid these oaks.

-//-

The cover image is a photo taken by the author.

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