Friday, February 24, 2012

Conversation in a Teacher's Lounge

"I'm thinking of recommending Melanie Hobbs for Honors English," Natalie Kassbaum said.

"You're kidding, right?" Natalie's companion was Gretchen Hollerman, a tenured teacher in her late fifties whose conversation, when she wasn't complaining about a particular parent or student, had mainly to do with plans for her retirement. Natalie, on the other hand, was relatively new to teaching and possessed what Gretchen considered to be a starry-eyed view of the profession.

"I'm not kidding; I think she's gifted," Natalie said.

"Her handwriting's atrocious and her spelling's only marginally better," Gretchen scoffed. "When she was in my class, I had to move her away from the window so she'd quit staring out of it all the time. The way she acted, you'd have thought there was a three-ring  circus out there instead of just an ordinary parking lot."

"Yes, but it turns out she writes beautifully. Listen to this..." Natalie thumbed through the pile of seventh grade student papers she'd placed on the table in front of her. "Here it is," she exclaimed, pulling one out. "I'll read it to you."

                    In summer's dawn
                    My mother's long hair hums,
                    All the vibrating strands of it
                    Responding to sunlight
                    The way harp strings respond
                    To the touch of the harpist.

                    She prunes the wild rosebushes
                    Without a glove,
                    Her hand passing easily
                    Through tunnels of thorns
                    And never getting scratched.

"Amazing, huh?" Natalie said with enthusiasm.

Gretchen's long, drooping face, which was generally in frown mode, darkened with renewed displeasure. "Isn't the idea of someone's hair humming kind of weird?" she said.

"Unusual maybe, but not weird except in the way all poetry is kind of weird."

Gretchen was experiencing a massive surge of annoyance. These flibbety-gibbet teachers fresh out of college got on her nerves with their "look I discovered hidden genius" attitude, along with their fairytale visions of making education a joyful experience. What they'd learn eventually was that most students were indifferent learners, lazy and spoiled rotten, and all the bright hopes and heroic intentions weren't going to make one bit of difference. The point was to get to where you could afford to take the whole summer off and during the rest of the year, simply endure until you reached the blessed age of retirement.

"So you don't think Melanie qualifies for the Honors English program?" Natalie said. Her voice now carried a faint note of uncertainty.

Gretchen paused for a moment, taking in her young colleague's wholesome good looks -- dark, shining eyes, smooth complexion, perfect teeth. She was Natalie's mentor, had been for the past two years. It was just one more wearisome chore the administration had assigned her but it did give her a small amount of power. "Let me put it this way," Gretchen said, "if you recommend Melanie Hobbs for Honors at the next English Department meeting, you'll be laughed straight out of the room."

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Jane's Tale

Ours was the kind of town where people took care of their own. Otherwise, Janey Von Dyer would have been placed among strangers after she lost her family.

The Cabots were the first family in Grimes Cove to open up their home. That was when Janey was six, a month after her daddy suffered a fatal heart attack swimming out to Green Island and two weeks after her momma went crazy with grief and tried to kill Janey and herself with an overdose of some kind of tranquilizer.

Nobody ever figured out why Malcolm Von Dyer took it into his head to go swimming in the freezing-cold North Atlantic Ocean, especially on an October  day when the wind blew hard from the Northwest and especially knowing he had a bum ticker. Maybe his wife knew, but after her suicide attempt, no one could get a single sensible utterance out of Lucinda Von Dyer. First she howled like a banshee, then she shut down altogether and hasn't spoken a word since. Last I heard, she'd been moved from a mental institution to a group home, still skittery as a bush rabbit and silent as summer grass.

Janey never spoke a word either though some say they'd hear her muttering to herself when she thought no one was listening. Her voice when she used it was strange-sounding, folks reported, sort of a rumbly monotone way down deep in her throat. She was a strange-looking little thing -- brown hair straight as a poker and big amber-colored eyes that stared at you the way a mountain lion stares before it pounces. Her skin was fish-belly white almost like she was part albino and she was skinny as a twig but healthy, nonetheless. Only thing she'd eat much of was chowder -- fish, clam or lobster, didn't matter which. Lucky for her she lived on the Maine coast where those items are plentiful and fresh.

Janey stayed with the Cabots for about a year and when they said they couldn't care for her anymore, she moved in with the Thompsons. After six months the Thompsons said they couldn't keep her, the reason being young Benny Thompson woke up every single night screaming that Janey Von Dyer was scaring him in his dreams. Cabots never would say why they couldn't cope with Janey but the DeWitts, who were the third family to take her in, said they caught her in the backyard lying down nose-to-nose with their big old ginger tom cat, the two of them just staring at one another like they were reading each other's minds. Well, Bryn Williams and his wife, Bitsy, laughed like hyenas when they heard that story. "We'll take her in," Bryn said. "Don't matter to me if she talks to kitty cats," and Drake DeWitt blushed redder than a boiled lobster but Mattie DeWitt looked Bryn straight in the eye and said, "you'll see."

By this time, Janey Von Dyer was nine years old and still as white and as silent as new snow. She went to the local school and learned to read and write. The DeWitts tried to get her to use her writing to communicate with them but she wouldn't. The most she'd do was nod or shake her head if someone ashed her a yes or no question.

Her teachers complained that Janey was rude because she stared at them so hard it made them drop their chalk or stop in mid-sentence forgetting altogether what they'd  been planning to say. One teacher, Ms. Clooney, even yelled at Janey to keep her eyes looking down at her desk or she'd send her to the Principal's office. Another teacher transferred schools mid-year and left the class with a bunch of substitutes who couldn't add two and two.

As for the kids, they pretty much left Janey Von Dyer alone but sometimes one of them would dare another to run over and give Janey a shove just to see what she'd do. Tommy Jones did that once and Janey stared at him for days after making him shrink down in his chair and finally crouch under his desk til the teacher told him to go out and stand in the hall which he was more than happy to do. Later, Tommy Jones said the reason he'd never touch Janey again was that she was a zombie girl who didn't ever laugh or bleed or cry.

Well, the Williams hung onto Janey for two and a half years and they had her doing chores like setting the table for supper and bringing in wood for the fireplace. Janey didn't seem to mind doing those things but she never would do them on her own and always had to be reminded even when Bryn Williams praised her to the skies. Bitsy Williams complained that, as far as she could tell, Janey never slept. Bitsy suffered bouts of insomnia and every time she'd get up around midnight or an hour or so thereafter she'd find Janey in front of the fireplace, staring at the dying coals with a queer sort of smile teasing the edges of her mouth like she'd done something wrong and gotten away with it.

Bryn Williams insisted that Janey's strangeness was because of the trauma of losing her dad to the ocean and her mother to mental illness. Bronson DeWitt said he thought Janey's father had been in the grip of some panicky need to get away from his spooky-eyed daughter and Bryn Williams retorted that Bronson was as ignorant and superstitious as the people of Salem during the famous witch trials.

Then Malvina Arnold told how, one time, she'd spotted Janey with a Monarch butterfly perched on the edge of her hand. Malvina watched while the butterfly opened and shut its wings thinking maybe Janey Von Dyer was some kind of insect charmer. Then the butterfly's wings stopped moving and it fell dead right into the palm of Janey's hand.

"Well, she didn't actually kill it," Bryn Williams said. "Oh, she killed it all right," insisted Malvina Arnold. "I just don't know how she killed it," and Bryn Williams walked away making scoffing noises and shaking his head.

Soon after Janey turned twelve, Bryn Williams came down with some kind of mystery sickness where his body temperature jumped all the way to 105 and past so that he went into convulsions and died.

Well, the very next day after the funeral, Bitsy turned Janey out of the house and no one in Grimes Cove ever saw the child again. one except Randolph Cabot who swears he saw her in a skiff rowing over to Green Island. And although no one claimed to be taking Randolph seriously, even the lobster men gave that island a wide berth from then on.
illustration by Leonard Weisgard

Wednesday, February 15, 2012


It was one of many sites where Sir Francis Drake, on his journey round the world, might have landed.

It was one of many California sites where Sir Francis Drake, on his journey round the world, was thought to have landed.

The beach was one of many coastal California sites where the English pirate and royal protege, Sir Francis Drake, might have stopped on his journey round the world.


The fog-wrapped beach was one of many coastal California sites where the English pirate and royal protege, Sir Francis Drake, may have stopped during his circumnavigation of the earth.

The windy, fog-wrapped beach was one of many coastal California sites where England's celebrated and intrepid pirate, Sir Francis Drake, may have stopped during his two-year pillaging expedition round the world.

The tiny, isolated fog-bound cove was just one of many California sites where England's celebrated and intrepid pirate, Sir Francis Drake, may have stopped during his wildly successful two-year pillaging and exploratory voyage which circumnavigated the globe.


The small, fog-blanketed cove, surrounded by sandstone cliffs, was one of many...AGHH!!!!!

This Time

The opportunity has arrived
For you
To re-do your life:

Choose from a list
Of assets you don't possess;
In your case, friendliness,
Or, might we say, sociability.
And now for a crocodilian skin,
An impervious skin that slings and arrows glance off
As innocuous as bubbles.
No outrageous fortune for you
This time around.

This time around
You'll keep a tight rein
On all your emotions, your actions
 Planned in advance
Your words leached and strained through a filter;
You'll marry a billionaire;
Your children will be raised
By no-nonsense British nannies;
And if they turn out wrong (the children that is)
Well, it's really not your fault.

This time around
You'll be able to resist
Temptations in the form of sugary foods,
Or mind-altering substances.
You will learn to swan dive, ski and sail,
Skate gracefully over ice, and shuffle cards;
Even converse with ease in the presence of strangers.
Your frequent dreams of flight,
Of leaping, arms outstretched from some high cliff or hilltop
Will no longer be wistful or wasteful.

This time around
Your life will really take off.

Thursday, February 9, 2012

Portraits of a Misfit Child

The following character sketches are inspired by children I've encountered through teaching, parenting, and just having once been a child. Again, there are no subtle hints of blame or judgment. Navigating the social world is often difficult for the eccentric, the highly imaginative, abused, physically-challenged or learning disabled child. Compassionate and highly motivated adults can sometimes help.

She sits at the very back of the class in the middle row of desks. By keeping her head bent over her reader and her long hair covering her face, she hopes to escape notice. Sometimes she wishes her hair were thicker so that  her ears wouldn't poke out from between the thin strands. The image of her protruding ears makes her think of a naked person lurking behind a bead curtain. When thoughts like that barge into her mind, she grabs them and shoves them into the Big Bag of Secrets. These days the Big Bag of Secrets takes up so much space in her brain that her other thoughts have barely enough room to squeeze past it.

She looks down at her reader, at the page full of ordinary fifth grade kids skating on ice skates and shouting to each other. She has no idea what the story is about even though, for the past fifteen minutes, people have been reading it aloud. People. Her classmates. Suddenly she hears her name. Her head jerks up involuntarily and she sees the teacher talking at her, talking right at her face. Quickly she lowers her head and lets her hair swing down, but her ears, her shameful, naked, ears are warming and turning red in front of everyone.  "Erika can you answer the question, please? Or, if you don't know, just say you don't know."

If she could just manage to mumble, "Don't know," the teacher would probably leave her alone, but her voice is stuck way down at the bottom of her throat. She looks at the picture of kids skating and imagines herself among them, skating so fast no one can ever catch her....

Skating like the wind.

                                                    *              *                *

Tony, seated behind him, is jabbing his back again with the sharp end of a pencil but even though it hurts, he doesn't flinch. He tries to concentrate on his reader so he can answer correctly if the teacher asks him a question. Jab, jab, jab! He bites his lip to prevent himself from yelling "ouch!" In  second  grade, and even at the beginning of third,  he used to tell the teacher when someone was hurting him. Now, he realizes, telling only makes things worse. "Fairy boy, fairy boy, little baby fairy boy!" He can still hear the taunts, feel the barbs of  laughter.

He does not  blame Tony for trying to hurt him. Or the others for laughing at him. Who he blames is his mother, the one who'd read to him about faerie dances, changelings, enchantments and marvelous hidden worlds. If only, during that fateful day in second grade, he had drawn soldiers or superheroes instead of butterflies turning into faeries and moths turning into dark elves.  He had been stupid. And ignorant, having been home schooled in first grade and kindergarten. Sometimes he wishes he could be home schooled again. His mother is working now, though, and doesn't have time to teach him.

Now he can feel Tony writing something on the back of his shirt, probably the word, "FAG," in big tall letters. He will need to spend all of recess scrubbing it off with water and soap. Even if it doesn't come out, he can maybe turn the letters into an unreadable smear.

That way his mother will never know what a stupid loser he is at school.


Monday, February 6, 2012

No Sense in Fretting About It

You wake up feeling as if you'd spent half the night in some highly agitated variation of REM sleep. Really you have gotten more exercise tossing and turning than you're probably going to get during the entire day, especially if you forgo (as you've been inclined to do lately) your 30 minute morning walk. What traumatic situation were you dreaming about? Something to do with smuggling tiny illegal aliens across the U.S./Mexican border in your purse and running like hell with La Migra in hot pursuit.You decide not to try to analyze this.

Today of all days you are in dire need of your ritual caffeine boost. Unfortunately the milk in your refrigerator is in a transformative state, going  from liquid to solid, and so you are obliged to manage with a can of whipped cream.  Which would be fine except that there are only enough squirts for one mug of coffee and you really are in need of refills, but "Oh well," you say, "Black is fine!."

Having adopted what you believe is a positive attitude, you go forth bravely into the daylit world. You carry your trash to the dumpster, slipping and almost tripping over random heaps of dirty old snow but, nonetheless, making it there and back without falling and breaking a single one of your elderly bones which you have been told are now certifiably brittle.

Next you attempt to vacuum cat hair off the carpet which, given the amount of shedding your cat does, is a little bit like trying to sweep the sand off a beach.

After that, you decide to tackle the laundry. No problems there until it's time to take things out of the dryer. "Nice, warm, clean clothes," you tell yourself in a chirpy Harriet Homemaker voice.  However... The strings on two pairs of your drawstring pants have apparently crawled out of their casings and wrapped themselves like anorexic pythons around various articles of clothing. Thus, you are engaged for several minutes in an untangling, re-threading event which plainly demonstrates that your fine motor ability is only marginally better than when you were in second grade. You also discover that out of nineteen odd socks, only six are legitimate pairs.

At this point, you are somewhat irritated but nowhere near what one would call upset. Then you go to retrieve the mail and discover that your health insurance has been cancelled. This makes no sense to you since you know that the monthly premium amount has been regularly deducted from your checking account. A visit to your bank's web site confirms that this is so. You go to print this evidence of fiscal responsibility only to find that your cartridge is out of ink and the two new (expensive) cartridges you just bought are the wrong ones.

You attempt to call the insurance company and are informed,  after listening to a number of irrelevant messages, that their offices are closed.

At this point, you are thinking that the best course of action might be returning to bed. Instead you attempt to quell your anxiety by doing a crossword puzzles but the one you choose only serves to demonstrate that your mental acuity has definite limits and you can no longer remember who wrote the poem, Musee Des Beaux Arts though you're pretty sure his name begins with the letter a. You wonder if living with integrity decrees that you should give back your BA in English lit.

You decide to spend some "down time" rocking gently and quietly in your antique bentwood rocker which is located next to a window that overlooks the courtyard of your apartment complex. This seems to work for awhile until you spy a strange man who is apparently peeing against the wall of the opposite building. You reflect that you live in a proper, mainly upper middle class, community where behaviors like this are not supposed to happen. "Perhaps the poor soul has a urinary tract disorder," you reprove yourself. It also occurs to you that your reaction is based on some snobbish sense of entitlement. I mean what qualifies you, in particular, to live out your life in an environment free of public urinators? At this point, you realize there's absolutely no sense in denying that you have become demonstrably UPSET.

You arrive at your daughter's house for dinner in an agitated state and manage to spill almost the entire contents of a pint size container of feta cheese all over the table, the chair, the floor and yourself. Pebble-sized white chunks of this substance are lodged in the grooves of the chair and a few have already been crushed and smeared under foot. With downcast eyes and burning cheeks, you quickly begin the process of cleaning up. "It kind of looks like barf," your eleven-year-old grandson comments matter of factly.

Suddenly find yourself laughing so hard you have to cross your legs to keep from wetting your pants. After staring down at you in consternation and disapproval for several minutes the rest of your family starts laughing too.

After all, what else can one possibly do.