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Gary Hanna
Bearing Up

A boy comes face-to-face with his worst nightmare. The story is followed by an informational text about the science of dreaming.

By Matt Hughes
From the February 2018 Issue

Learning Objective: to support the analysis of a fictional text with information from a nonfiction text

Lexile: 930L (combined)
Other Key Skills: mood, figurative language, text structure, theme, key ideas, interpreting text, integrating ideas
Topic: Science,
As You Read

How does Mike conquer his fear?

He would kick and yell his way out of dreams where the bear was after him, his chest cold and sweat-slick. When he was little, the noise brought Mom or Dad to check on him, tuck him back in, kiss the bad stuff away.

At 13, he didn’t want his parents coming to his rescue—well, maybe a little, but it would have bent his self-image. So it was enough if Mom called out, “Are you OK, Mike?” from across the hall, and he would call back, “Yeah, I’m OK.”

Sometimes he would hear them mumbling about him, but in the morning, nobody made a big deal about it.

He’d had the bear dream for as long as he could recall, although it didn’t start out as a bear. Back when he was a kid, 1 it had been a dagger-toothed tyrannosaur stomping through the patio doors, hunting him across the family room at the old house in Ottawa. Another time, a golden-eyed tiger glided after him into the garage, and once, when he was really little, Cookie Monster shadowed him around daycare, goggle-eyed and blue-shaggy.

Now it was the bear. It would come for him every few months; not that he could count on it to keep to a schedule. Sometimes it was twice in the same week.

The settings varied but never the sequence of events. He’d be doing something ordinary—getting off a bus, walking up his front steps—when he’d catch a flicker of movement from the corner of his eye. He’d turn, and there’d be a glimpse of something dark sliding around a corner or dipping down behind a wall. 2 The glimpse always shot through him with a bolt of white terror. He would back up, turn around, edge off in another direction. If he fled the house, the bear would lurk in the yard. Get on the bus, and it would come snuffling at the door. Try to outrun it, and he would feel its breath bursting hot on the back of his neck.

At the end of the dream, he’d be trapped, hedged in, the bear stalking closer and closer. 3 The bear seemed to enlarge toward him, like a dark balloon swelling across his field of vision, or as if he were a lost astronaut falling into a vast planet.

Then when it was about to touch him, there’d come a high-pitched whine, loud enough to make his teeth buzz, and he’d burst out of the dream, sweating and gasping.

Mike once asked the school counselor, Mrs. Skinner, if she knew anything about dreams.

“Well, I’m influenced by Jung*,” said Mrs. Skinner, interrupting her perpetual search for order in the jumble of her desk.

“OK,” he said.

She closed a green file, then reopened it. She took out a blue paper, peered at it, then slipped it into a red folder and looked up.

“How do I put this?” she asked. “Jung’s idea was that we are a collection of different people inside our heads—like your personality is made up of different pieces that mesh together. When they don’t mesh properly, that’s trouble.”

“Trouble like scary dreams, like where something’s chasing you?”

“Uh-huh,” she said, picking up a yellow form and frowning at it. 4 “A monster in a dream might be some part of you that frightens you, some fear that your unconscious wants you to deal with, maybe, and so one part of you is trying to get in touch, to get you to look at the problem. But you don’t want to, so you run from it, and you can’t get away.”

“So what do I do?” Mike asked.

“Stop running. Anything you meet in a dream is part of you, so what’s to be afraid of ?” She peered at him. “Something you want to talk about?”

He had a feeling that if he started talking about the bear, 5 he’d wander into parts of the forest he wasn’t ready to deal with. Things would come up. Things like moving here from Ottawa, like leaving all his friends, like being lonely, like not fitting in. Like being scared but not knowing why.

Here was the tiny town of Comox, at the end of a little stub of land that hung off the east coast of Vancouver Island into Georgia Strait. It was home to a few thousand people, many of them attached to the air force base at the far end of the peninsula.

Three squadrons operated out of CFB Comox. One flew the big, gray submarine-hunting Auroras that wheeled over town on four throbbing turboprops, their fuselages so jam-packed with electronic detection gear that the crew could spot a soda can half-submerged in the Pacific from a mile high. Or so kids at school said.

Another squadron flew 44-year-old T-33 jet trainers, the same machines that every pilot in the Canadian Forces learned to fly in, the fast-movers that zoomed up from the base and out over the harbor, with torpedo-shaped pods at the tips of their stubby wings that made each one look like a flying X.

Whatever he was doing, Mike stopped and looked up when the planes went over. Especially one bright spring morning when the aerobatics team appeared over Comox for practice. He couldn’t believe how the locals kept puttering around in their gardens, not looking up as 10 red-and-white snowbirds hurtled over their roofs, practicing how to spiral up and loop down in tight turns, wingtip to wingtip, so fast and so just right.

Mike’s father had been posted to the historic 442 Transport and Rescue Squadron out of CFB Comox. He was an air force Search and Rescue Technician—a specialist, he liked to say, “in getting people out of situations where, if they had any sense, they wouldn’t have got themselves into in the first place.”

SAR Techs went out in the slow-flying De Havilland Buffalo or in the lumbering, two-rotor Labrador helicopters. If a fisherman abandoned a burning boat, the Lab would hover in the air so that Dad could jump into the cold sea, put a harness around the man before hypothermia killed him, and wait in the water while the victim was winched to safety.

It was dangerous work. Once, a Lab was picking stranded rock climbers off a mountain. The shivering climbers had been lifted aboard, and the last rescuer was coming up the cable when an engine suddenly shuddered and died. One rotor couldn’t hold the helicopter in the air. It fell, crushing the life from the SAR Tech dangling beneath it.

Mike’s father said there was no point thinking about it. Somebody had to go when people needed help; if it was risky, then it was risky.

“It’s not being a hero,” Dad said. “It’s just a job that’s got to be done.”

“You didn’t have to be a SAR Tech though,” Mike said. “You volunteered. You used to be a cook.”

Dad shrugged. “Don’t worry. Nothing’s going to happen.”

“But don’t you get scared?”

“You don’t let that get in the way.” His father hunted around in his mind for a moment; he wasn’t good with words. “You have to walk through the being scared part. ’Cause on the other side of scared is this place where everything opens up, you feel really great, and . . . you’re just there.”

Mike didn’t tell his dad about the bear. He did tell Jonah Hennenfent, the only kid he’d gotten to know at Highland Middle School. Jonah was smallish, with hair that stood up straight and a tendency to practice different facial expressions. His parents were ground crew at the base; they’d transferred in about the same time Mike’s family had arrived.

Mike told Jonah about the bear over sandwiches in the lunchroom. Jonah waved his arms and experimented with an open-mouth gawp. “This is your spirit guide trying to get in touch with you,” he said, having studied aboriginal culture over the summer.

“Uh,” said Mike.

“For sure,” said Jonah. “The bear goes, 6 ‘Hey, man, let me get closer.’ And you’re all, ‘No way, bear, I’m outta here!’ But it’s gotta keep coming back ’cause it’s gotta make contact.”

Mike moved off the subject.

After dinner that night, Mike was scrubbing fried rice off a skillet, not thinking about anything much when he asked, “Mom, do you worry when Dad goes on a mission?”

His mother put three plates on the counter and looked through the archway into the living room, where Dad was watching sports.

“I used to,” she admitted. “But your father’s very good at what he does.” Then she sighed. “Besides, there’s no point worrying. He loves it. He’s not going to stop doing it. It’s a big part of who he is.”

“Pretty dangerous though.”

“It’s what he does. What you and I have to do is live with it.” She put a hand on Mike’s arm. “Are you afraid he might get hurt?”

“Nah,” Mike said. “I was just wondering how you felt.”

On a late September afternoon, a wind blew up—not a big wind, but big enough to whittle white points on the gray-green chop of the water in Georgia Strait. That was too big for the comfort of four couples who had crowded into an undersized skiff to go hand-trolling for salmon a few miles out from the shore.

The boat owner, a welder who worked at the sawmill, decided it would be wise to head for shore. But when he tried to start the engine, it sputtered and died. He did all the things he knew to do: checked the spark plug, checked the fuel line, checked the gas tank—and found it empty. He’d forgotten to fill up before leaving the shore.

By the time he had identified the problem, the wind was brisking up, causing the overloaded skiff to wallow in steepening waves. He looked at the three men and four women who had come with him, without life jackets or even warm clothing, and said, “We’re gonna row in. Break out the oars.”

The oars were pulled out, and the two strongest men tried to haul the boat shoreward. But the wind was offshore and strengthening as each long minute passed. Even with two men to an oar, the skiff barely made headway.

“We’re in trouble,” said the welder, watching the light fade behind thickening clouds. He reached for the radio. Fortunately, he was more conscientious about the radio’s batteries than the gas tank. When he tuned to the emergency channel and said, “Mayday, mayday,” CFB Comox answered right back.

“I won’t be home for supper,” Dad said over the phone. “Some boaters are in trouble.” A few minutes later, they heard the Labrador heading out to sea.

An hour crawled by. Mike and his mom sat in the darkening kitchen, drinking coffee and trying not to look out the window. The clouds were low, eight shades of gray raggedly streaming on the wind that bent the tops of the fir trees. Cold rain tittered on the glass.

They turned on the lights and drank more coffee, talking about nothing. 7 Mom started dinner and Mike set the table; then they realized that neither was hungry, so they brewed more coffee.

At 8 p.m., they heard the helicopter coming back and started dinner again. But a few minutes later, the Labrador passed overhead again and headed back out.

At 9 p.m., with the sky black and the wind whispering around the eaves, Mom called the base. Mike saw her knuckles whiten, watched her face go quiet. She hung up.

“There were eight of them in a little boat, out of gas,” she said. “The Lab couldn’t carry them all. Your father volunteered to stay behind in the boat. When they came back for him, no boat. Probably swamped by a wave and sunk. They’re looking.”

At 11 p.m., Comox’s missing SAR Tech was the second story on the late news. The TV showed footage of Labradors taking off and a map of the search. Mike watched the images and heard the reporter’s voice-over. “Georgia Strait fills a deep and narrow trench between Vancouver Island and the rest of North America. Strong tidal currents sweep the bone-chilling water southeast, down past the Gulf Islands and on into the Strait of Juan de Fuca, then around the southern tip of the big island.

“Anything floating on the surface gets flushed into the Pacific and lost forever. Unprotected from the cold, in seas tossed high by stiff winds, a person in the water can die in hours. Add a survival suit and expert knowledge, and life expectancy—and hope—increases. The search continues.”

The camera cut back to the news anchor, who began talking about a pileup on the freeway. Mike switched off the TV.

“They’ll find him,” Mom said. Her friends had come over to help them wait. They talked cheerfully, in low voices. Mike nodded and said “yeah sure” a lot.

By midnight the sky was clearing, stars making holes in the clouds. CFB Comox had everything up— Labs, a Buffalo, an Aurora—and a Coast Guard ship was quartering the area where Dad had last been seen.

Mike couldn’t stay inside anymore. He put on his jacket and slipped out the back door.

They lived on two acres that backed up against a stand of second-growth timber. The valley’s big spruce and cedar were long gone, cleared to make farmland and lumber back before the 20th century was a toddler. The yard was unfenced, the lawn ending in a thicket of blackberry bushes that grew between their property and the woods.

Mike sat on the back steps, but he could still hear the voices inside. The wind was dying, making a stillness under the trees, and he got up and crossed the lawn where he could cut through a gap in the blackberry bushes. A few steps into the woods lay a waist-high, half-buried boulder forgotten by some careless glacier. It was a good solid place to be.

Mike walked around the rock, then leaned his forearms on the old granite so that he was looking back toward the house. The stone was cold, and the wetness left by the rain seeped into his jacket sleeves. He listened: Far to the east, a search plane’s engines murmured at the edge of his hearing.

The last clouds tattered and moved off, letting the full moon silver the floor of the woods. The kitchen light shone yellow between the stark bars of the trunks. Then the plane’s engines faded into the distance, and the only sound was a drop of rainwater working its way down through the branches.

In the perfect quiet, Mike caught a flicker of movement from the corner of his eye. He turned to look, but the best night vision is peripheral vision, and all he could see straight on was a darkness in the gap between the blackberry bushes.

And then the darkness shifted.

Mike froze. He heard a heavy body rustling among the thorny bushes, wet smacking noises, and a whuffling exhalation of breath.

People had said that bears came into town to gorge on blackberries. Naturally, he’d imagined meeting one. But his imagination had always supplied daylight.

Back slowly away, they’d said. But the moment he moved to ease his weight off the boulder, the berry-eating noises stopped. He distinctly heard the animal sniff twice, followed by a deep-throated huff. Then it came toward him.

Now it was like the dream, a black mass growing larger, looming between Mike and the house. And, as in the dream, he couldn’t move.

The bear eased forward, slowly but without hesitation, until only the width of the boulder separated them. It rose up and leaned its forelegs against the stone; Mike heard the scrape of claws on granite. Then the bear stopped and stood still, as if posing for a picture of two friends leaning toward each other over a small table.

Mike’s neck hairs prickled his collar. He was so filled by fear, it felt as if thunderless sheet lightning played across the muscles of his back and down into his thighs.

Then the lightning died, and all he could sense was the unavoidable reality of the bear: the sight of its head silhouetted against the house lights; the oily-musty smell of its fur; the snuffle of its breathing; the wet warmth of its breath on his face.

It’s so real, he thought. But it feels like a dream.

He knew it was silly, but he also knew he had to speak to the bear. He whispered, “Do you want to . . . tell me something?”

The bear cocked its head and eased back a bit, as if deciding how to answer this unusual question.

But Mike already had the answer. 8 As if a tap had been opened, all of the fear suddenly drained out of him, and he was filled instead with a peculiar sensation of lightness—as if he might now float away, up through the forest canopy, off between the stars, to a place where he was somebody else, somebody who was so much more.

It could have been seconds or it could have been forever that he and the bear faced each other across the boulder. Then the back door opened and his mom called, “Mike! They found him! He’s OK!”

Then, like magic, the bear was gone. He heard it scuttling through the trees. Mike laughed, because the feeling of lightness did not disappear with the bear.

The feeling stayed with him, even after his father came home, enfolded Mike and Mom in a hug, then ate a big stack of buttermilk pancakes and slept for 16 hours straight.

And the bear never came back—not to the woods, not to Mike’s dreams.

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Step-by-Step Lesson Plan

Close Reading, Critical Thinking, Skill Building

1. PREPARING TO READ 

2. READING AND DISCUSSING- “Bearing Up” (35 minutes)

3. READING AND DISCUSSING- “Why Do You Dream?” (15 minutes)

4. SKILL BUILDING

Differentiated Writing Prompts
For On-Level Readers

Why did Mike dream about the bear in “Bearing Up”? Answer this question in a well-organized essay. Use text evidence from the story and from “Why Do You Dream?” to support your ideas.

For Struggling Readers

“Why Do You Dream?” says that most researchers agree that our dreams reflect our worries and joys. What worries or joys might Mike’s dream of the bear have reflected? Support your answer with text evidence.

For Advanced Readers

How does the author of “Bearing Up” develop the bear in Mike’s dream as a symbol of Mike’s fear? Does “Why Do You Dream?” support the idea that a dream could represent a real-life fear? Support your answer with text evidence.

Customized Performance Tasks
For Creative Writers

Imagine that when Jonah says that the bear in Mike’s dream is trying to tell Mike something, Mike opens up about his worries instead of changing the subject. Write a scene in which Mike tells Jonah what’s been on his mind. The scene can be in the form of a story or a play.

For Dreamers

Describe a dream that you have had. Then propose an explanation for what events, experiences, or emotions from your life the dream reflects.

Literature Connection: Curricular books about overcoming fear

Call it Courage 
by Armstrong Sperry (novel)

“Fine” 
by Margaret Peterson Haddix (short story)

Good Night, Mr. Tom 
by Michelle Magorian (novel)

“The Ravine” 
by Graham Salisbury (short story)