Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Portraits of a Misfit Child

The following sketches are not written for the purpose of assigning blame. Laboring under the constraints of a one-size-fits-all system, the majority of teachers are generally motivated to work hard on behalf of their students -- all of their students. Lack of compassion and/or imagination when dealing with non-conforming children is, I think, a societal, not a pedagogical or a parental problem.

Part 1

He squats tentatively on one of the end chairs at his group's table. His teacher has told him several times that this is "not the way we sit in first grade" but his body is restless. For now, at least, the teacher does not see him. She is too busy writing numbers on the dry erase board -- numbers which he is supposed to be copying on a lined sheet of paper. Newsprint. He hates newsprint because it tears so easily. His small, lean body is desperate to be moving. At home he would be running after lizards, practicing hand stands, climbing trees. He is well on his way to becoming the best tree climber in the world...

A wild impulse seizes him and he leaps from his chair right into the middle of the table where his classmates are writing. They shriek and one girl falls to the floor and starts crying. Then the teacher is standing there next to him. Her voice sounds small and tight inside her throat. She tells him to go to the principal's office. Right now!

                                                  *          *          *

She isn't very interested in games like four square, jump rope and tag which the other second grade girls like to play. She would much rather go looking for water gnomes. She's certain several of them live under the wooden bridge that spans the small creek near the front of the school. Sometimes she's able to persuade her one-and-only friend to go gnome hunting with her; other times she's obliged to go alone. The water gnomes are transparent and kind of...well, ephemeral. Ephemeral is a word she heard her mom use recently and she's pretty sure it applies to the water gnomes. "You talk like a little professor," her friend's mother told her. She said it in a way that meant it wasn't such a good thing.

For the past two days it has rained heavily and the brook is vigorous and teeming with debris. Today she imagines she sees the top half of a gnome's face peering over a pile of branches that have gotten stuck in the middle of the creek. She turns to alert her friend, then remembers she's come alone this time. She moves cautiously down the bank, closer to the water. The burble and swish of the creek is so loud she doesn't hear the school bell clang, signalling the end of recess.

                                                  *          *          *

He can't, for the life of him, figure out what went wrong. He had done his very best just like his mom and dad had told him to, so his math paper should have been perfect. Instead, it was covered all over with red markings. "Your paper has a diaper rash," the little girl sitting next to him had said and he had felt his face turn hot with shame. Anger, too. Because they had lied to him, telling him all he had to do was his best and everything would turn out perfect.

Well, if he couldn't do it right, he wouldn't do it at all. He hated first grade and he hated his teacher with her red, ruining pen all over his very best work. Now she was telling the class to put everything away because they were going to do science.  Well, he wasn't going to do science. He reached into his pocket and took out a stub of  green sidewalk chalk he'd found on the playground during recess. He began rubbing it over his face, first his right cheek then his left. When he was done with that,he rubbed it over his forehead. That was when the teacher noticed.

"What are you doing?" she demanded.

"What do you think? I'm a greenie meany," he said, then raising his voice, "A greenie weenie cockadoodle deenie!"

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Not Yet Sick of Trees

We passed a low row
of elms. She looked at them
awhile out of
the ambulance window and said,

What are all those
fuzzy-looking things out there?
Trees? Well, I'm tired
of them and rolled her head away.

From The Last Words of My English Grandmother by William Carlos Williams

I have observed that as you get older, the list of things you care about gets shorter.

This is something I noticed with my mother. By the time she died, at age 103, even her beloved biographies couldn't hold her interest. This made me sad because  I have fond memories of seeing her ensconced in a recliner, a huge tome balanced on the tiny mound of her tummy and a smile tugging at the corners of her mouth as her eyes travelled eagerly from page to page. Eventually she'd drift off into one of those cat naps she adamantly denied ever having.

At sixty-eight, I'm beginning to wonder if the same thing is happening to me. I know that at one time there were at least six TV shows I enjoyed. Now there are only two and, half the time, I'm lukewarm about those.

Not that I was ever a big TV watcher.

On the whole, I prefer to read or do crossword puzzles.

Sometimes I surf the Internet, checking facts and word definitions. Often the latter are things I used to know and have forgotten due to the inevitable winking out of overburdened neurons.

I like to shop, too, but after the first fifteen minutes surrounded by merchandise of one kind or another, the euphoria wears off and I begin to imagine tiny Asian children hunched over conveyor belts.

Everything hanging on racks or displayed on shelves begins to look like potential landfill material. I feel as if I'm on some sort of junkie's treadmill, pushing my cart in circles round and around the store. What did I come here for anyway? Do I really need those?

I used to enjoy music, too, but lately I find there's nothing I'm really in the mood to hear.  If I do listen to music, I'm apt to play the same song over and over because...well because it's the only one I care to hear.

Yes, yes, I manage to get out -- to socialize, if you will. In the last couple of months I've been to luncheons, breakfast gatherings, even a dinner party. I'm on the substitute list for the local elementary schools. I'm a paid babysitter and -- more often -- an unpaid one. My six-year-old grandson and I are virtually joined at the hip.

Truth to tell, old age isn't much fun. Why would it be? When you bend, your knees crackle and creak like hinges on thin wood. You're lucky if you hear half of what people say, and you can never predict which seemingly innocent foods will exile you to the bathroom for hours on end. Meanwhile, your face looks like the cross between a raisin and the surface of the moon. Depending on your current food plan, you are either paunchy or bony -- never buxom or slim. You can exercise all you want and pour vitamins down your throat but -- face it -- you'll never really look good again.


Clearly, bitching and moaning does no good...

...neither does pasting a smile on your face and pretending the sunset years of your life are bathing you in liquid gold.

You're born...you grow up...you grow old.

You face death -- a skeleton with a scythe, Charon poling across the River Styx, a hooded wraith challenging you to a last game of chess.

 You wonder who the hell set all this up. Could they not have thought up a less depressing progression? A more joyful set of transitions?

If you're Christian, it all makes sense. The toil and tedium of a human life ends in heavenly bliss.  All the dead sit around on clouds chatting and eating angel food cake.

My question is this:  why was it ever necessary for them to suffer? Does the frosting taste sweeter after swallowing so many bitter pills? Is the cloud only soft when contrasted with the hardness of a hospital bed?

I really don't get it and I never will.

One thing that's still on my Things I Like list is the first cup of morning coffee along with two pieces of toast smeared with spreadable fruit.

I also like to look out my window and see snow falling softly, quietly, wrapping the earth in peace.

I like the way my grandson's small, brown body leans into me while I read to him.

and the way my cat cuddles next to me at night.

I like it when I come upon a crossword puzzle that's challenging without being daunting.

And I'm not yet sick of trees -- cottonwood, aspen,

 oak and maple,

   willow, cypress and spruce

       branches twisting in the wind
              waving and tossing

                          blurring in my mind
                              swirling softly

                                         in my mind

                                                     as I go past.

Thursday, January 19, 2012

Back When There Were Hobos

I have been trying to determine how the romantic, free-spirited hobo evolved into the pitiful homeless person. I'll admit, I have so far been unsuccessful in my research.

It's always possible, I suppose, that the two distinctions still exist and represent two different types of individual. However, I think it more likely that hobos are figures of the past while homeless people entered the collective consciousness when President Reagan "liberated" schizophrenics and veterans with PTSD from mental institutions.

It used to be quite common to see children dressed as hobos on Halloween. On the other hand, one doesn't usually see kids costumed in mismatched layers of smelly outerwear pushing overflowing shopping carts.

Hobos travelled light, their possessions tied to the end of a sturdy stick flung over their shoulder. They travelled on freight trains, stopped at farm houses offering to do chores in exchange for food. Many had interesting tales to tell. After all, they had travelled all over the country.

Hobos were not forced into homelessness; they actually chose it as the freest possible lifestyle.

When I was a child I wanted to be a hobo. I wanted to ride the trains, feeling the clickety-clack rhythm of the wheels beneath me and watching the scenery whiz by.

I imagined myself bathing in a clear brook while my only set of clothes hung on a tree limb to dry.

I would scribble poems with pencil stubs on scraps of discarded paper which people would later find and publish, proclaiming me "the true voice of the twentieth century". Agents, publishers, and professors of literature would try in vain to discover my identity and would end up calling me "the vagabond bard

I can't explain why hobodom was, hands down, my first and pretty much only career choice. Clearly there must have been something terribly wrong with me.

At ten, eleven and twelve most of my girlfriends wanted to be actresses or airline stewardesses. The boys imagined themselves as athletes, cowboys or soldiers. Some of them wanted to be juvenile delinquents modeled after James Dean in "Rebel Without a Cause."

I wanted to be a hobo, traveling so fast no karma could cling to me.  Here, and then gone -- mysterious as the Lone Ranger, untraceable as Robin Hood, living freely outside the prison of authority, the chains and fetters of the law.

I admit, I yearned under the influence of certain songs, the most influential being "Fast Freight" by the Kingston Trio.
I feel my pulse a-beatin' wtih that old fast freight
And thank the lord I'm just a bum again...

Needless to say, my aspirations came to naught. As an adult I lived briefly on the verge of homelessness which, rather than romantic, was a nightmare vision of a failed life.

My guess is there are no longer any hobos leading the life I fantasized. For one thing, not many family-run farms exist where one can chop wood in exchange for a hearty meal. There are fewer trains, too, and more sophisticated ways to detect the presence of a stowaway.

Worst of all, there are very few streams pure enough to bath in and wash one's clothes, and the likelihood of being arrested to indecent exposure has increased due to urbanization and population growth.

It makes me sad in a way that my grandsons will grow up in a world without hobos. Not that I'd recommend this as a career choice for any of them.

It's just that it was pleasant to think there were some truly free spirits roaming this world...

...living they way they chose.

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

How Cheerful Slogans and Sweet Euphemisms Saved Annabelle From the Valley of the Shadow

One day when Annabelle was in the third grade, she was called into the Principal's office and told not to walk home from school as she usually did. Instead, a friend of the family would be meeting her outside the main entrance. "Why?" asked Annabelle, but the principal. a thin, elderly woman who looked something like a nervous egret, merely fluttered and preened uncomfortably before pushing Annabelle gently out the door.

As it turned out, the friend of the family, aka Aunt Nettie, was the bearer of great news:  Annabelle's mother had been "called home."  "But," Annabelle protested, "the house where Daddy and I live is Mommy's home."

Turns out Annabelle was wrong and that her mother's real home was with Jesus and the angels up in the sky. The minister of Annabelle's church soon confirmed this, tears of joy collecting in the creases of his jowls.  Even Annabelle's father joined the celebrants though his professed delight over losing his wife to God seemed a tad wooden and unconvincing.

What was required of Annabelle in this situation was that she rejoice in her mother's good fortune and look forward to an eventual family reunion in the form of a celestial banquet with Jesus himself presiding. Annabelle wondered if her mother would be making her special pineapple upside down cake to bring to the feast or whether they'd all have to eat fish (which she didn't much like) and loaves of butterless bread.

As Annabelle grew up she noticed she had a hole in her heart -- not an anatomical hole, more like a metaphorical one. It felt kind of corporeal though -- a cavern full of dark wings and mournful echoes sucking her down, piece by crumbling piece, into its depths. She began to find Aunt Nettie annoyingly perky and the minister of her church a pompous, blubbering fool. As for her father, the years of stoic acceptance had pretty much turned him to stone.

As an adult, Annabelle knew she projected a kind of sad sack image, one of plodding obedience to a life of endless drudgery. No one wanted to be her friend or marry her. No one even wanted to be around her. Her only companions were the disturbing echoes from that dark pit at the center of her being.

One day she saw a bumper sticker that suggested she "practice random acts of kindness and senseless acts of beauty." Was this the pathway out of perpetual gloom?  The escape route away from the abyss?

During the next few days Annabelle went around offering to carry grocery bags for elderly people with thin, blue-veined arms. Some of them were happy to accept Annabelle's help, though others seemed to resent the implication that they were too fragile to fend for themselves. Annabelle also offered a twenty dollar bill to a homeless man who snatched it out of her hand and headed, hell bent for leather, to the nearest liquor store.

After that, Annabelle tried to concentrate on senseless acts of beauty. But what did that mean exactly? After thinking it over for awhile, Annabelle bought a packet of mixed wildflower seeds and proceeded to toss them hither and yon -- in vacant lots, along sidewalks, even into the bare patches on people's lawns. This latter action got her in trouble with a homeowner who insisted she was trying to sabotage his yard by planting weeds.Eventually Annabelle gave up on random acts of kindness and senseless acts of beauty. Meanwhile, the hole in her heart grew bigger, the mournful echoes louder.

She tried to concentrate on the larger picture -- visualizing first inner peace and then world peace but the only image she could conjure up was a cliched picture of a lion lying down with a lamb. The lamb even had a sign around its neck that said "Eat me."

Annabelle grew older and the hole in her heart grew bigger. One evening she was watching the news on TV when a sign some protester was holding rekindled her hope. The sign said "Occupy your heart."

"That's it!" Annabelle cried aloud. She turned off the TV and also all the lights in her apartment. Then she sat down on the floor and closed her eyes. She breathed deeply for awhile until all the tension of resistance had left her body. The hole in her heart grew larger and larger until there was almost nothing of herself left outside of it. The echoes were loud now. They flooded her mind with their wild, unbounded sorrow. She could feel the wind from the dark wings fan her face.

Annabelle knew exactly what was required of her. "My mother is dead," she said and jumped into  the abyss.

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Why I Would Rather Wet My Pants Than Talk to You

How does it feel to be shy?

I would like to think I'm writing this on behalf of all shy people everywhere and not just because I'm feeling sorry for myself. Of course the two need not be mutually exclusive.

If you are a child, being shy means that when the brand-new ball you were playing with ends up in a neighbor's yard, you let it stay there rather than going to the neighbor's door, ringing the bell and asking politely if you can retrieve it.

It means that, in a strange setting, you will risk wetting your pants before summoning the courage to ask where the bathroom is.

As an adult, being shy means feigning illness when you're invited to a party -- either that or spending most of your time at the party hiding in the bathroom.

As for the telephone, actually ANSWERING IT is OUT OF THE QUESTION and being required to MAKE A PHONE CALL to someone, even if you sort of know them, is like being asked to sing the National Anthem wearing your rattiest-looking underwear in front of an enormous crowd assembled before the Washington Monument on the Fourth of July.


Of course I can't explain that in a way that will enable your average extrovert to understand on a gut level.

For starters,  when forced to attend a social gathering, your body begins to act on its own without your permission. For instance...

Your hand, reaching out to procure an hors d'oeuvre, knocks the entire platter onto the floor.

The hors d'oeuvre itself then gets stuck in your throat and launches a coughing fit that turns your face bright red and causes you to sweat profusely until you look like an escapee from a TB ward.

When someone (out of pity or simple politeness) tries to engage you in conversation, you find that the language centers of your brain have experienced a breakdown so that the few words you're able to retrieve have little or no correspondence with what you actually intended to say.

Usually you can remember your name or something that sounds a lot like your name.

If "Hello, how are you?" ends up sounding more like "Habbaba, boody-boo," at least it's a reasonable approximation.

Answering the question, "What do you do (i.e., for a living), though is a lot harder:

"I'm...uh...teach...um...waddayacall'em -- chitlins, I mean children...derailed, I mean, delayed...with...um, disabilities...you know, autistic or assburg...I mean, asperger's syndrome at a...um...preschool...uh...up on a hill.... What's it called?...Windhill...no,no, Windell, something dell, no, dale, yeah, Marindale School in Marin...um...County. It's part of San...San...something, not Frisco, but..."

Usually the person listening catches the word, disability, and assumes you're referring to yourself. Which, in the main, is undoubtedly true.

During the remainder of the party you stand around silently, your facial muscles desperately trying to hang on to something resembling a smile. Probably you look like someone suffering facial paralysis or whose Tourette's Syndrome meds are just starting to wear off.

After the party's over, you go home and go straight to bed hoping to sleep off the humiliation, but, of course, you become an instant insomniac who must relive every embarrassing moment of your phenomenally inept performance.

The average extrovert is no doubt wondering what, exactly, it is that you're afraid of and why you can't just talk yourself out of your illogically-based assumptions.


A paraplegic can't use logic to gain control of his legs. A person suffering with the flu doesn't use logic to reduce his body temperature. A tortoise can't use logic to turn itself into an osprey. A warthog can't...well, you get the idea.

You can go into psychotherapy, of course, and many of us shy people do. In truth, though, after you uncover your repressed traumas and learn to face them boldly, you're likely to discover that you are still shy.

You could, of course, take drugs. Depending on your drug of choice, though, you may find yourself in a condition far worse than the collective symptoms encompassed by the label, shy.

I hate to say this, but in the end I think you're kind of stuck with your condition. Probably you were  born that way, a product of your genetic inheritance.

Nature is, I think, an irrepressible experimenter. Some of her experiments are kind of scary, like when she invented sociopaths to see how they might adapt to and/or influence the web of life. At some point she threw hyperactive people into the mix. And then people with autism.

Somewhere, in the course of evolution, nature decided to experiment with humans who viewed most other humans as a potential threat to their existence, humans whose inner alarm system would go off at the mere prospect of interacting with strangers. Humans, in other words, who are



               irrefutably and emphatically