Scenes of Steve Prefontaine (Scene 5)
Shuck never missed a day of Senor English. But that didn’t translate to academic success. She struggled with reading novels and her writing was often ungrammatical and full of clichés.
That spring Shuck was poised to repeat as state 1500-meter champion and she wanted to break the meet record while doing so. Word got out around campus that Western Oregon State University had offered her a full ride scholarship. It was a small school with no track and field legacy.
In class one day, the teacher congratulated Shuck on the achievement.
“I’m turning it down,” she said. “I want to go to the U of O like Pre did. I want to run at Hayward Field and I don’t care if I get my ass kicked.”
“They didn’t offer you anything?” said the teacher.
“Nothing. I contacted the coaches and they never responded. I’m going to walk on and try to make the teams.”
“You’re giving up a full ride. That’s worth about a hundred grand. This is your ticket. You earned it.”
“I don’t care. What would Pre do?”
“Pre would walk on and run everyone into the ground.”
Shuck clapped her hands and said, “I’m going to apply for scholarships to afford it. I’m already filling them out. I should get a good financial aid package, too.”
“You’re going to have to write great essays to win those scholarships.”
A couple days later, Shuck visited the teacher after the last bell rang on a Friday She said she’d come across the Wilson Foundation Scholarship Fund. It annually awarded five, four-year scholarships to any public Oregon institution of higher learning of the recipient’s choice. The recipient had to be low-income and reside in a rural county.
The teacher had heard of it. The Foundation was atonement for the Wilsons, a family of Southern Oregon timber barons dating back to the 19th century who had massacred more Oregon watersheds than all the other timber baron families combined.
Shuck handed the teacher the application. It was mighty thick.
“Will you write me a recommendation?” she said.
“Of course,” he said. “I’d be honored.”
“When do you need it by?”
“Next week. The deadline is Wednesday.”
“I can swing it. Have you started the personal essay?”
“Show it to me.”
Shuck extricated it from her backpack and handed one typed page to him.
He read it right in front of her which is about the hardest thing a student can endure from an English teacher.
The essay was a disaster. No opening hook. Errors galore. Nothing but a list of achievements, all athletic. There was no mention of the only reason she wanted to attend the University of Oregon. There was no mention of Pre.
“This isn’t going to work,” said the teacher.
“I know. It sucks. I can’t write.”
Shuck started crying. The teacher didn’t know what to say. Teachers aren’t trained for that.
“Will you write it for me?” she said.
“What? I can’t do that,” said the teacher. “That would be totally unethical. Fraud. I could lose my teaching license if it came out.”
“I’m never going to U of O unless you do it. It’s my dream. It’s why I run. I’ve never run to win. I just wanted to see if I had the guts to keep going.”
She started crying harder. But she didn’t leave.
This was the toughest ethical decision the teacher had ever faced.
She had quoted Pre! She didn’t even know she had. She was Pre!
“I’ll do it,” he said. “But this goes to your grave.”
“Thank you. Thank you.” The crying didn’t stop.
“Do you still have the responses to the running prompts from the first day?” said the teacher.
“Yes,” Shuck managed to gurgle out.
She dug into her backpack and came up with it.
“I want to use some of your language from those responses,” said the teacher.
He told her about the register in the Prefontaine Memorial Gallery. He asked her what she would write in it. Shuck started talking and the teacher cut her off.
“No, write it right now,” he said.
He gave her a piece of paper and pen. She sat down and wrote for three minutes and handed it to him. He didn’t read it—yet.
“Now I want you to go for a run on the beach,” said the teacher. “I mean really rip one out, record pace, and record on your cellphone what running means to you as you’re running.”
“I don’t have a phone,” said Shuck.
He laughed. He didn’t have a cellphone either. Now he was really going to write the essay!
The teacher reached into a desk drawer and produced a micro cassette recorder he sometimes used to record writing ideas and memorable quotes. He explained the device and had Shuck practice a couple of times. She got the hang of it.
“When should I do this?” said Shuck.
“I have to go to work.”
“Call in sick.”
“I’ve never missed a shift.”
“You will today. And wear the STOP PRE shirt.”
“Okay. How do I get this back to you?”
“Wrap it in a paper bag and leave it at the base of the flag pole in the parking lot. I’ll pick it up tomorrow morning.”
Shuck flew out the door.
The bag was there the next morning. The teacher listened to it while doing his laundry at the laundromat. He took notes on her best riffs. He read her responses to the running prompts. The teacher wrote the essay. The foundation notified Shuck that she was one of ten finalists for the five scholarships. She aced the personal interview and won a full ride to the University of Oregon. She made the cross country and track and field teams, but never won a race. She graduated with a degree in sports medicine.
The teacher later recalled it was the most important piece of writing he would ever write and only two people would ever know who wrote it.