It was spring break of 2001. I was 22 years old and on the cusp of graduating from Auburn University. For my last taste of adolescent insanity, my friends and I packed up and took the 4 hour journey to Panama City Beach. Two days prior, a girl that I’d been dating for about 1/2 a year decided it wasn’t me, rather her, and kicked me to the curb.
One would think the aftermath of being dumped that I’d be a little reckless in my decision making, especially down in Panama City Beach, where 13 year old boys with peach fuzzed mustaches could don fake IDs and get into Club LaVela. Fortunately for me, I was behaved and my friends and I stayed in a forgettable place and had a forgettable time. 3 days into the affair, we packed up and were heading home.
At this time, I did not own a cell phone. However, a friend of mine was the fortunate one and owned the classic Nokia and received a phone call from my cousin who asked to speak with me. After much debating and teeth gnashing, he convinced me to stay 2 more days at the classic PCB dump, The Chateau. Like a Charlie Brown Spring Break Special, I found out later that I was the only one over the age of 21 that could sign for the room and that’s why my cousin wanted me to stick around.
2 hours later, I met the woman that would become my wife. She took the Greyhound down from St. Louis with 5 of her friends and just so happened to be staying next door to my cousin’s crew. We drank, we laughed, we danced to Ludacris, and have stayed connected since that 2001 spring break.
Fast-forward to 2002. I worked in Mobile as a 2nd grade teacher, she went to college at Loyola of New Orleans, and we spent nearly every weekend together in some fashion. At the end of our school years, she asked her parents if I could come live there (St. Louis) for the summer and her mom gritted her teeth, but agreed.
I’ll spare the details, as it was a very hard summer as my future wife and I learned a lot about each other. However, I’ll never forget the day that I came home from my job, cashier at the “Gas House Car Wash”, to a DVD sitting on the table with a note saying, “Ryan, you should watch this”.
I’m ashamed to admit that at that time of my life, I was no movie guru. Sure, I watched them…but if they didn’t star Adam Sandler, I was unimpressed (41 year old Ryan would make fun of 22 year old Ryan). Something about my future father-in-law’s words to connect with me set in, so I went upstairs, popped it in, and immediately was swept away in the beauty.
That day, I watched Fellowship of the Ring twice, and something changed in me. I can’t really describe it, but I became more patient, branched out in my educational field, and have now developed a reputation of connecting literature to human emotion. The gift of teaching that I knew was inside of me became a monster of passion as I fought public school systems for the next 10 years to keep real literature in the classroom, not robotic, mass-produced and poorly written 17 page textbook stories. There was never much hope that I’d win the battle, and that’s why these words from Gandalf has stuck with me:
The day Two Towers came out, I was on the front row with my girlfriend. The day Return of the King came out, I was there again with my girlfriend. The day the Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey came out, I was surrounded by students that I’d taught the past 2 years, and realized that those movies had taken me on my own unexpected journey to inspire kids to read real literature. The battle had taken 11 years, but I finally got what I wanted.
And to this day, when I need to relax, or when I’m grading papers, I pop on Fellowship and once again, get swept away.
The Road goes ever on and on
Down from the door where it began.
Now far ahead the Road has gone,
And I must follow, if I can,
Pursuing it with eager feet,
Until it joins some larger way
Where many paths and errands meet.
And whither then? I cannot say.