This morning, I was reading the paper this morning when I came upon an odd section. It was printed like a magazine instead of the newspaper standard. It was the Anchorage Daily News Sunday Life & Arts section: “Creative Writing.” All of page five is devoted to Palmer High School's graduated Ruth Hulbert. For those of you in the know, that was the school I graduated from last year; she's something of a friend. Acquaintance, really.
This isn't the first time she's won first place in something, I'm sure, nor is the first time she's been exhibited in the Anchorage Daily News. She certainly seems the literary type: literally an Emily Dickinson look-alike; a rationally dressed, small-framed studious type with shoulder-length hair and thin-framed glasses. The newspaper article identifies her as a poet; she identifies herself as a writer, painter, and musician if you ask. “Right now, if I have an idea, I don't know if I'm going to reach for a pen or a paint-brush.” she offered to the overwhelmed interviewer.
I was out on the town today (I have the weekends free) when I ran into kokely and gerek. We ended up talking about Ruth, and kokely commented, “I wish I was that popular.”
gerek offered, “Well, she is pretty talented.”
“Skilled.” I annoyingly corrected.
The page is naturally divided into thirds: her award-winning poem in the upper-left, her photo adjacent, and a half-page article, about her, beneath both. Her poem is a semi-sestina (as the editors insist on clarifying via footnote) about language, her classes, and Palmer High School's chaotic class schedule. Her photograph is in the senior locker banks in the lower commons, and she's trying to look like she's not trying to strike a pose. ”Love of language motivates high school poet” bellows the title of the article. It reads like a list of fantastic achievements: national spelling bee participant, winner of a book slam competition, award-winning painter, and jazz musician.
One day at Fairbanks, I was having a terrible time in a model session. I just couldn't get it. No matter how hard I tried, it just wasn't working; the lines just weren't landing right. Choked and frustrated, I organized my supplies and rushed out of the drawing studio. Not twenty yards out of the art building, a familiar image falls out of a bus. “Sam?” a voice inquires.
It was Ruth Hulbert. She was well-dressed and had a clarinet case. I recognized all of the young people pouring out of the bus behind her as students from Palmer High. “I forgot you went to school here!” she said cheerfully. “We're here for the jazz festival. You should come!”
I said that I just might do that. Then, I walked up the hill to the freshman dorms, entered our chamber, then preceded to rot a tearful lack of self-esteem for hours beyond the end of the jazz festival.
It can be surprising to learn that despite her interests in language and literature, she's annoyed by the rules that structure our lives and languages, as her poem reveals. She equates biology with fluidity: a sound connection. “No lexical laws nor syntax levied, in history,/ Could halt words from evolving, untamed as biology.” she asserts in the second stanza of “Palmer High Sestina.”
In my first semester of my senior year, we shared the first section of “Doc Dent's”biology class. I still have the college-level textbook for it. I didn't get to take the second section, sadly. It was a great class, even if there was a lot of social pressure in it. Sitting on my right was a person who would later — through pure chance of fate, position, and conflict of personality — tear apart my already fragile teenage ego. On my left was a pair of intelligent young men who thought me an incapable child and took every opportunity to remind me of it. Behind me was twenty students, some of which knew well, others very little. One of these was Ruth Hulbert. (For the curious, there was nothing but an immovable science-classroom counter in front of me. I don't know how it felt about me.)
During one of these classes, we found ourselves broken into groups, where we had an opportunity to talk with one another. I was chatting with Ruth and a few others about the some topic, when I said something that indicated that I intentionally did or said things that tweaked people.
“Self-alienation... interesting.” Ruth pretended to amuse, pointing out my folly.
“Uh, well... No. Well, perhaps, but...” I stammered, her comment having the intended effect.
Language is one of Ruth's main interests. It was a visit from Ken Waldman, fiddler and poet, to her English class last fall that helped inspire the poem that won Ruth the page-full of honor. She's been a favorite in every English class she's been in. Mrs. Thomas's strict and exacting standards bounced off of her, same as me. We both thrived in those classes, but she fully bloomed to reveal true brilliance in free associative thought and creativity; the kind of creativity that wins scholarships through the Western Undergraduate Exchange. Come this fall, she will be overachieving at Western Washington University. At the same time, I'll be struggling with my second drawing class, in a start of a long-running effort to be a well-skilled and versatile illustrator.
From the moment I met her, I was amazed how different, yet impossibly alike her and I are.