by cheri block
Thoreau said that one could choke on too much courtesy. In my daily world of rambunctious and hormonal high school students, people for whom the word courtesy had shifting connotation, this quotation provided an opportunity for discussion.
Can one be too polite? I asked, keeping my poker face as stoic as possible, forcing my eyebrows to remain seated.
As you can guess, the responses varied.
When all was said and done, after a stimulating hour of wrangling, elbowing, and shouting, most agreed that being polite was better than being rude.
What do you think, Mrs. Sabraw?
This was the inevitable question I answered after every discussion. Kids wanted to know what I thought.
Just because I might disagree with Thoreau does not mean he was wrong. I could be wrong, you know. You know? At that point, I set my eyebrows free and they went up in an arch and then came down in a very straight line. Everyone in my audience became serious and quiet as the early morning dawn.
Let me tell you a little story about fishing at the mouth of the Klamath River up in Northern California with my dad and my brother, Stevie. I was ten years old and he was eight. We’d get up very early at the Requa Inn, eat a hot meal of scrambled eggs and crisp bacon, wash it down with orange juice, all while hoping to hook the biggest fish of our short lives.
We’d meet our guide Oscar Gensaw, a member of the Yurok Indian tribe, who would row a green boat out to the mouth of the river. I remember the creak of the old wood of the boat, as Oscar rhythmically moved the oars forward and back, in customary Yurok silence and respect for what was about to happen. An old Thermos, filled with hot coffee, rested underneath Oscar’s worn boots.
The Fenwick fishing rods–big ones, able to bend into the tug of a 50 pound Chinook salmon–lay horizontally in the front of the rowboat.
We baited our hooks that cold August morning there by the sand spit that guarded the mouth like a long tongue. Oscar kept rowing, being careful not to crowd another small green boat, filled with other anglers, off there in the foggy mist of a Northern California summer morning. All in all, there might have been ten boats out in the water.
Suddenly, without warning, a strike to my line. When a 50 pound fish strikes the line of a 75 pound girl, about 25 pounds of uncertainty are up for grabs. And grab my body, my father did, quickly…before his number one child entered the cold water, gripping her rod and reel for dear life. She would not lose that fish.
Something amazing happened at that moment (students) and it has to do with courtesy.
Oscar yelled, “Fish on!” The other Yurok guides suggested appropriate fishing manners.
All other fishermen,women, and children reeled in their lines, so the biggest darn Chinook of the day could be battled by one small child with the help of her father.
Years later, when the mouth of the Klamath looked like downtown Manhattan at rush hour and Anglo guides rowed eagerly into Yurok fishing spots, the meaning of courtesy and respect for the fish and the ritual all came to me like the strike of the salmon I had successfully landed.