“Meeting the Lion,” New Era, Oct. 1986, 12
Jerrison had made certain he read his English assignment: Ernest Hemingway’s “The Short, Happy Life of Francis Macomber.”
With any luck, Jerrison figured Mr. Hammel shouldn’t call on him to respond to the story about a man who wounded a lion in Africa, then ran from the beast’s charge—leaving guide and gun bearer to deal with it until later finding his courage again. There were over 30 students in the class. Three or four would be sufficient for enough discussion to do the Hemingway story justice, then move smoothly to the next author. At least that had been the pattern of Mr. Hammel’s literature challenges in past English classes here at Churchill High School.
But the law of averages wouldn’t prevail, Jer reasoned, because Mr. Hammel now suspected he was LDS. Jer was the only active Church member in his school, and his family was one of the few LDS families in the entire eastern Canada community. And hadn’t Jer just had the courage, or the gumption, or the gall, or whatever you call it, to disagree with the teacher just the week before? At issue was the presence or absence of deity in Mark Twain’s “The Mysterious Stranger” and whether there was any hope for an afterlife. Lars Hammel had been quite adamant about that. Jer had never seen his teacher so unyielding on any point. Perhaps Mr. Hammel deserved his reputation as an unrelenting atheist.
“Miss Cromar,” came Mr. Hammel’s inquisition, “What did you think of the lion incident in Hemingway’s Mr. Macomber?”
Dana smiled awkwardly. “He, well, he ran away from the lion. He was a coward.”
But Mr. Hammel would not let Dana off so easily. “Why is that being a coward, Miss Cromar? Wouldn’t any of us run from a lion suddenly charging directly at us from the tall grass? And wouldn’t we expect a professional guide who makes his living at this sort of thing to have the skills necessary for dispatching the creature?”
It wasn’t normal conversation, thought Jer. But then what English teacher speaks normally? Even a sympathetic one?
“I, I guess so, Mr. Hammel.”
“You’re easy to get along with, are you not?” The teacher looked down at her from his oak desk.
“Yes, yes,” she agreed.
“And Mr. Allred, do you concur with Dana here?”
“Macomber ran away. He was a nerd. Even his wife thought so.”
Mr. Hammel paused thoughtfully. “Well, let us see what Mr. Broman has to say about Mr. Macomber’s temporary lack of courage.”
Jerrison felt too tall in his seat now. He ran large hands through his dark hair. His mouth groped to synchronize with precisely the right words. “Relatively speaking, I don’t think the man was as much of a coward as some might think,” Jer heard himself say.
“Eh? Intriguing thought here. Why do you say that, Mr. Broman?”
“Well, he chose to go on the lion hunt. He didn’t have to go on a safari like that. And no one forced him to shoot at the lion, or wound it in the first place. And he did finally overcome his fears.”
Mr. Hammel waited. “And is that all there is to it, Mr. Broman?”
“It’s just that this is only an example of one-time courage. Physical courage.” Jer found that it came out easily. But then, “His greatest fault might have been talking so much about the whole thing.” Jer felt all eyes on him now, and he turned his heavy thumbs up above the desk. “I’ve seen greater examples of true courage in everyday life than shooting a lion, anyway.”
“An example, please?”
“Well, my aunt …” Did Jer have to go into all this?
“Your aunt?” It was true what they said about Mr. Hammel. Couldn’t he see that this matter was becoming more than Jer had intended it to be?
“I guess some would think she didn’t have much to live for each day. Robert, her husband, left her, and she has a Down’s Syndrome baby, and she has to work nights …”
“Is she not remarriageable?” Mr. Hammel said evenly. The class tittered.
“Not much chance of getting remarried right away. Not to just anyone, right now.” Jer squirmed.
“I see, Mr. Broman. And tell me, how would you compare this item of literature with what you read of Twain’s ‘Stranger’?”
“I liked Hemingway better. I like to read about courage.” Now he was warming up. “At least if it’s real courage. And if the author tries to honestly discover the full meaning of courage, not just an outside veneer.”
“Mm, Mr. Broman. Could you please see me after class? I’d like to talk with you privately if you don’t mind.”
When Jerrison appeared at the long oaken desk, Mr. Hammel was smiling only faintly. “I’m intrigued with your definition of courage,” he said. “Tell me more about your aunt, Aunt …”
“We call her Ren, Rennie.”
“Your Aunt Rennie. You say she has courage.”
“Every day. The child—and her job. They’re her lions.”
“And she handles this without lashing out at the world?”
“Ren … doesn’t usually talk about it.”
Mr. Hammel frowned. “Yet, what choice does she have?”
“She’s always smiling. But she knows Becky will always be dependent on her.” Jer felt an impatience stealing over himself now.
“Then there’s no reason to smile?”
“Some might say that.”
The teacher turned his head. For several minutes he did not speak.
Jer was about to say something, maybe “See you tomorrow” or now that he thought of it, a clever “Who’s next, Thoreau?” But then it didn’t seem so clever, and he heard Mr. Hammel speaking, low at first, then with more voice.
“Your aunt is a remarkable woman,” he said at last. “I know someone like her.”
“Who is that?” Jer said softly.
“Not really important. But you have not yet told me what it is that gives your aunt her courage.”
“First,” Jer said, “you must tell me your background. What is your feeling about God. Do you agree with Mr. Twain?”
“Yes, I see. That is a hard point. I don’t know. Jerrison, I would like to meet with you tomorrow, or the next day, after the last class.”
“Wednesday? I think I could do that. Right after school?”
The next day Jer thought he noticed a change in Mr. Hammel’s mood. The man appeared brisk and abrupt. He stood talking to another teacher, something about sophomores and assignments. “I’m in charge of the 10th graders’ get-acquainted party,” he was saying. “These kids are so glum these days about helping the new ones. Can’t get the haves to mix in and include the have-nots. No compassion.”
When the other teacher walked away, the two just stood there. Jerrison waited. Finally, Mr. Hammel looked directly into Jerrison’s eyes. “What is it that gives this woman the strength, as you say, to fight lions … every day?” He said it as a statement, not a question.
“Are you certain you want to know?” Jer asked.
“Yes, I would not have asked a year ago, or perhaps even a month ago. No, certainly, not even a month ago. Before I knew you. Now, go on, tell me.”
“The same thing which enabled Daniel to subdue his lions, the ones in the den.” Jer had not managed any eloquence. But he had said it.
Mr. Hammel studied him. “You are a Mormon, are you not?” he broke the silence.
“And you … you’re saying …” he broke it off. “Yes, I see what you are saying. It is very clear.”
Two days later, Mr. Hammel again asked Jer to remain for a few minutes following class. “Mr. Broman.” His voice seemed again aloof and piercing. “I have a special assignment for you. For extra credit, of course. Would you write me a story about courage. What it means to have courage? Compare it with Mr. Macomber, if you will.”
That night, Jer struggled with the assignment. What did Mr. Hammel want from him? He had told him how he felt. What else could he say? He asked his father about it. “What do you regard as courage, Dad? True courage? It’s an English assignment.”
His father seemed slightly puzzled. Jer tried to help, without putting any words in his father’s mouth.
“Let’s put it like this. Is a man a coward for running away from a charging lion?”
“Yes, I think so. But wasn’t there anyone around to stand up to the lion?”
“The guide. An Englishman stopped the animal a few feet away. Stood there and pumped lead into a roaring lion.”
“I’d say that was an act requiring some courage. But who attacked whom in the first place?”
“The American. He shot the lion. Macomber. He hit it in the flank with a bad shot.”
“Oh. Sounds like the lion had a bit of courage himself, eh?”
“I told Mr. Hammel that there are many greater acts of courage, if an author wants to write about courage.”
“You said that?”
“Yes. I told him about Rennie.”
“I think she has courage.”
“You know what, Jer? I think you’ve got it. Courage.”
Later that night, on the assigned paper, Jer wrote:
“Many of us think of courage as a single act of dramatic proportions, with the world watching, reporters ready to describe in detail the slaying of the lion in our lives. But if the world was watching to give us a badge or a compliment, giving life our best wouldn’t be that difficult. The real test comes in rising to meet the challenge every day, and again, with no fanfare, when you are alone, and you know what you ought to do, and determine to do it with your full zeal and strength.”
On Friday Mr. Hammel asked Jerrison what grade he thought his paper deserved.
“It doesn’t matter,” he said. “I wrote it because that’s the way I feel. Not for a grade. It’s the way my aunt is.”
“That’s why I’m giving you an A,” Mr. Hammel said. “For courage. And your aunt … I’m giving her an A, too.”
“I’ll tell her that.”
“Oh, and a … tell her I’d like to test her courage—helping me with the backward ones at the class get-together coming up. I haven’t reached them in a dozen years. Maybe your aunt can give me some clues. Anything.”
“And the baby?” Jer asked.
“My mother. Put up with me. I guess she’s got the courage to put up with your aunt’s baby for one afternoon.”