It is very easy to look out on a classroom and see average kids, gridded in average desks. The first day of school felt as if I was corralling colts to lock up in a pen. Students were all the same–feisty, noisy, exuberant, in need of order and compliance. That was the initial view from the front of the room.
Yet, over the next days, weeks and months their little eggs cracked, and conformity ceased. Each individual emerged through comments, reactions, and casual conversation. In the place of the “American Teenager,” sprouted pretty cool people. Through the course of many years I became acquainted with nationally ranked athletes, cancer survivors, opera singers, bowling proteges, dancers, and kids who’d been cast in feature films. From generic outward appearances sprang unique and captivating individuals.
What separates the ordinary from the singular? In reality is it a shortsightedness I placed upon myself at the start of the year? I saw rows and columns instead of the garden blooming before me. It fell upon the kids to show me who they were, whether in outright admission or inadvertent comments. Do we all suffer from blind first impressions?
I came to understand that my two major characters in River of January worked hard to rise from the ordinary.
For Chum, his progress was the product of driven, conscientious mastery. He flew so often, so much, that life on the ground wasn’t nearly as satisfying! In Helen’s case she not only adored dance and studied hard, but had her mother at her side pushing from childhood.
There were reverses in their efforts. Chum’s father refused to see the boy’s uniqueness, refused to recognize the son was meant for something more than steering a plow. Helen’s willful mother was a source of such external pressure it spilled over into her life off the stage.
Both figures reached enormous heights in their respective pursuits. Chum’s air race proved to the aviation world that he had indeed arrived, and Helen’s professional career took her across three continents.
The central reason I wrote this book was to share two exceptionally eventful lives. Sifting through the volumes and volumes of their records it became clear these were no ordinary people. Helen and Chum were unusually accomplished . The better I came to know them through the things they left behind, the more impressed I became. These two deserve to be remembered. They raised the bar of living life to extraordinary levels.
And I don’t want them to be forgotten.