The Fringe Grabber

The place reeked of hard luck, bad people, and sob stories.

I was in that place, trying to gather up the scraps of what was left of my soul.

************

   There was nowhere for me to be, and no one to care if I got there.

   I was sitting on the sidewalk watching the news van unpack some gear.

   The reporter was a walking mannequin of bleached blonde and silicone, pretty in the plastic way such people were.

   I heard her say, “These homeless people are on the fringe of society,” as the cameraman boldly took a shot of me on my urban perch.

   At least now I knew where I was in relation to the rest of the world.

   On the fringe.  In my mind it was a wet, flapping, fringe growing more slippery the tighter I tried to hold on with a hand full of frostbite, arthritis, and gods-knew-what-else.

   I wanted to make her beg.

   Beg for what?

   Her life? Not a killer.

   For me to stop? Not a rapist.

   To make her cum? Not a billionaire.

   Maybe food. Yeah. Beg for scraps in a trash-strewn alley scented with alcoholic urine, and take some half-eaten pastry at the top of the trash for dessert.

                           

                                                ************

The Homeless: brought out for the holidays like decorations, and tucked neatly away again after New Year’s.

But I digress. That was long ago, but she was that pretty, that annoying, and the phrase just stuck with me: “…fringe of society.”

I was still holding on to that fringe, but I didn’t know why.

Below me was nothing but blackness, full of peace and quiet.

Poe used another phrase that stuck with me: ‘…surcease from sorrow.’

All I had to do was let go, but I was no quitter, either.

You don’t qualify.

  The apartment was rented.

  I don’t have any money, bro.

  Get outta here, perv.

  Fuck off, monster.

  And the ubiquitous Get a job.

The funny thing is, part of the reason I didn’t give up was pride.

What would it take to actually kill me? I’ve certainly become strong.

  Surcease of sorrow/ the sun will come out tomorrow. Not a good mashup, but it’s what I held onto for now.

“Kevin Gilliam?”

Ah, at last, summoned before the throne of Her Majesty Civil Servant, the Millionth.

But this voice was different; it didn’t have that world weary tone, and it was actually pleasant.

I rose like Leviathan out of the mud.

The young Lady of the Pleasant Voice favored me with a smile.

Ah, she’s new, and yet believes in what she’s doing. Be kind, and don’t shatter her dreams of making a difference.

   “Good morning, Mr. Gilliam.”

“Good morning.”

“Follow me, please?”

I followed.

We walked through a Land of Cubicles, strewn with soulless drones vainly trying to stem the tide of hopeless refuse, to reach down and boost up the fringe grabbers like me.

They probably all started out like this young lady here, full of determination and hope, with a noble sense of purpose.

Tilting at windmills…

“Sit down, please, Mr. Gilliam.”

“Alright,” I sat.

She settled herself in, tapping the folder full of papers on the desk to straighten out the edges, put it down, and extended her hand across the desk.

“I’m Tina. Nice to meet you.”

I was so surprised I gave her my name too though she already knew it.

She laughed, but I sensed it was at the moment, not me.

“Sorry.” I found myself smiling.

“Don’t be. Nice to meet you, Kevin.

I found myself beginning to relax as we released hands.

“What happened to Althea?” I asked.

“I’m sorry, but she got sick and had to resign. She didn’t know how long she was going to need, or …if she was coming back.”

I was sad, but not really surprised. Althea hadn’t been the same in a long time, and I knew what I was looking at after awhile.

“Sooo, they gave me her case file, and you’re in it.” She turned to her computer and fired it up, then went back into the folder.

As it booted, I said “She’d been talking about retiring for awhile anyway. I hope she’s okay.”

Tina gave me a small smile. She had a nice one.

“Last I heard, she was fighting it all the way.”

“Good for her. So you’re gonna help me now?”

“I’m going to do my best.” The computer blipped and the dark monitor lit up, an electronic Cyclops with a blind eye full of wisdom it didn’t understand.

“Alrighty, let’s see…”

She tapped some keys, read a bit, tapped some more.

I slouched in the chair and looked down at my hands.

Tina was young, vibrant, and beautiful; I didn’t want to be a creep like I’d been with the reporter.

I was going to miss Althea; she made me laugh in spite of my circumstances. She never found me anything, but I always left feeling better for a little while.

“—were a professor?”

I looked up. “What?”

“You were a professor.”

“Yes. You had my file…”

“No sir, well, yes, but I got your file so I could get your name; I didn’t get the chance to read it yet. I didn’t see this information.”

“Oh.”

We fell into a silence as she read through what I taught, and what happened.

The silence held a mild tension, stretching into awkward, when she seemed to make a decision; she turned her chair facing me.

“I may have something for you.”

I stopped fidgeting. “I’m listening.”

“I’m still in school, taking night classes, and I need help.”

I sat up straight and rolled my chair back a bit, hoping this wasn’t going to take a bad turn.

“Help with what?”

“My research and term papers.”

“How is that going to help me?”

“I’d pay you, Mr. Gilliam.”

“What do you mean, Tina…?” My stomach sank.

She laughed and shook her head at my expression.

“With money, Mr. Gilliam. I’d pay you to help me with my papers.”

My face heated. “Oh! Oh, well, I… Tina, I don’t have a bank account anymore.”

“I can help you with that too. Mr. Gilliam, I’d even refer you to my friends, if this works out.”

She gave another small, somewhat embarrassed laugh and rolled her eyes.

“We all need help. I don’t know if you want to teach anymore, but if you’re willing, will you do it?”

“Won’t you get in trouble?”

She sat back, smiling. “I handle the paperwork. If I can’t, I’ll call Althea to find out who can. I won’t do anything to jeopardize you or me. We can set it up as a tutoring service. You’d be self-employed, Mr. Gilliam.”

Her chair came toward me again, her eyes hopeful, her voice quiet.

“What do you say?”

Things got blurry, and at first I wasn’t sure why…
“Mr. Gilliam? Oh!  Mr. Gilliam?” Smiling, she handed me a tissue. “Mr. Gilliam, please don’t cry.”

In my mind I wrapped the wet fringe around my fingers. It was a start.

Surcease from sorrow…

 

Just Say Know

No thermostat heat

No central air conditioning

No storm windows

No waxed floors

No cafeterias

No new books

No shiny desks

with compartments

for your stuff

 

No high tech lighting

No cell phones

No smart boards

No desktops

No laptops

No gaming consoles

No wi-fi

 

No bullies

No nonsense

No cheating

No missing homework

No disrespecting teachers and elders

No smartass remarks

No sagging your pants

No midriffs and cleavage

No smoking to get high

No cutting class to have sex parties

No baby daddies

No baby mamas

No drug dealers

No gang bangers

 

No dropouts

Just say Know…

Know technology
Know reading
Know math
Know science
Know history
Know music
Know mechanics
Know carpentry
Know electricity
Know geography

Know your brothers
Know your sisters
Know your purpose

Know your future
is in

your hands

You do know that, right?

 

Sharing Homework with Cheerleaders: A Cautionary Tale

Nothing made my day brighter in high school than when there was a game pending, and the cheerleaders would walk around the school in their outfits, pleasant distractions from the daily drudge of learning. They carried themselves like queens, however, and we males would smile and nod and greet, trying not to ogle, and then wipe the sweat and drool from our faces when they passed. One of them happened to be in my homeroom, and in she walked, strong, shapely legs in a short skirt,  and all the bells and whistles in my heart rang with adoration, and not a little lust, but I was tongue-tied around pretty girls, like most nerds.

She was a nerd too,  with aspirations of being a writer, so the yearbook said when we graduated, but she was also a cheerleader: popular, pretty, capable of breaking hearts with a dismissive swish of the hand, and I was a tragic figure, secretly in love (and not a little lust)  hiding my feelings.

Then, one bright magic morning, in her cheerleader outfit, she approached me, and I felt the stupid grin spreading, willing it to go away, and making it worse. And then she smiled at me! I was, for whatever reason, deemed worthy of her smile.

And then it got better: she spoke to me. If it had been manly to swoon, I would have done so on the spot.

“Alfred, did you do the homework for English class?”

In the midst of controlling my swoon, I thought: Who doesn’t do homework for English class? But I replied that I had.

“Can you let me borrow it; I didn’t get the chance to do it.”

Chivalry, thy name is Alfred. I produced it, and handed it to her, thinking again: We’re both in the honors class; surely she knows how to paraphrase and make it her own.

At lunchtime she gave me back my homework, and later that afternoon, I submitted it to Mr. D. He was my favorite English teacher, a large man with a droll and deadly wit. He wore Van Dyke whiskers, and had the memory of a herd of elephants. I took several elements of style from him in my own career later on, though I never got to tell him.

The following day, he distributed the homework back, and on mine was a bright red ‘D’ with the comment: “Who copied from whom?”  He looked at me askance, and said nothing, and I took the paper in a silence of my own, thinking “How did she screw this up?”

Class was taught, and then over, but since he was my favorite teacher and LOVED my writing, encouraging me often to pursue it, even up to the time I graduated, I felt I owed him an apology. Here’s what came out:

“Mr. D, I deserve this grade for what happened, but really? You should know who copied from whom.”

His laughter boomed as he nodded, and said “Okay. That’s what I thought.”

I walked away, restored to myself, the spell of the cheerleader broken forever. Until she signed my yearbook.

Wearing her cheerleader outfit.

Dammit….

Underground Encore

Just to provide some background for this story:  I started out as a guitar player at the age of 11. I had a classical acoustic guitar and I was going to be the next Earl Klugh. Between the ages of 14 -17 I sat in with these old jazz heads in Washington Square Park.

I stayed mostly silent but they let me join them on some of the easier stuff, until one day I heard the words from the de facto leader of the group. “You did a nice job on that.” It was, at the time, like a five-star rave review in the New York Times, but way led on to way, and in time, the group thinned out, and eventually they didn’t come back. And after awhile, as I sat in with new players and did new songs, way continued leading on to way, and I stopped going there as well.

I’ve often thought about those men, old men even then, no doubt passed on by now, and I’ve been thankful they were gracious to a young man with a love for the music who didn’t have the equipment or the know-how to play it, but who took what he had, and eventually heard the words, “You did a nice job on that.”

As jazz continues to hold a precarious place on the American music scene, I wanted to write something to show my appreciation not just to those men I sat in with, but to others like them who keep the flame in the hot tunnels, smoky clubs, concert halls, and  libraries and museums around the country and around the world. Now, without further ado….

The sun was sinking into the river against the city skyline. Leon sat in a patch of it as it came through the window, his shirt and tie barred, like Cyrano’s body, with the shadow of crossbeams that separated the window panes.

The doctor came out, and Leon stood up.
The doctor’s face said everything.
“I’m sorry, Leon. The tests are conclusive. I don’t know what to say that would make it easier.”
“Ain’t nothing left to say.”
“Is there anyone you’d like us to contact?”
“Got someone, but I’ll take care of it.”
“All right then. And Leon…” The doctor offered his hand.
Leon took the doctor’s hand in both of his.
“You done what you could, doc. thank you.”

******************
He walked out into the evening, the street alive with people and lights, cars and movement, the last of the sun ray’s deepening the shadows to a dusky blue.
The subway rumbled beneath him, and he headed toward the nearest station, then stopped.
Be underground soon enough. No need to rush.

He chuckled at his own weak joke, and took the long walk home.

*****************
His daughter was all he had left for family, and he wrote her now:

“Everything you need to know is in that old cookie tin you gave me for Christmas all that time ago. Everything’s in there, along with a note for my last wishes. I got some time yet, but I don’t, so you don’t have to come tomorrow, but don’t come too late. I don’t want to go in no potter’s field, though He’ll find me if I do.
“Just try not to let it happen, that’s all.”

*********************
His battered saxophone case was under the rickety bed, with the tarnished, well worn saxophone inside. He pulled it out, and sat on the edge of the bed, and looked at it, going back in his mind to the smoky nights, spent playing til the sun came up, so dapper he glittered in the spotlight, and later the feel of a full, warm woman on his lap, in his arms, in his bed, til time passed and the people moved on, and the clubs closed, and his career stalled, and stopped where it had started, and never moved again.

********************
Bars replaced clubs, drink replaced music, and even the most stubborn woman he’d ever met who tried to stay with him no matter what, threw in the towel before her own youth was wasted with a man who couldn’t move on, whose identity was too closely tied to what he did, and not who he was.

********************
Back into the evening streets, his case bumping along his spindly left leg, his suit fitting badly, but clean, and his face washed, he paid his fare, went down to the subway platform, but he didn’t open his case for change this time.

***********************
In his mind’s eye he saw her, regal in her red dress, her red lips matching, all of her full and shiny in the dim light. Her mahogany eyes gazed into his as she leaned forward to light his cigarette, and as he took her hand in both of his, she leaned forward and whispered in his ear.
“Play me something.”

She was leaving it up to him what to play, and he knew so many songs, but as he looked back into her eyes, and saw her smile at him, the song came like a lightning strike.
He played her something. And something else, and something else, til the band caught the pattern and the gist as they caught them staring, and they smiled and shook their heads, and simply followed.
“Leon at it again,” said the piano man. “On three, fellas…”
Three months later, they all came to the wedding.

*************************
Leon played the set through, but it was melancholy with a twist of bitter, haunting and bluesy and sad, with a splash of hope, and a sprinkle of joy.
A young cop began to walk toward him, but something made him stop, and he paused for a moment to listen, and a crowd began to gather. This was not the average subway joe who practiced for coins. Those who knew music knew this was the real thing, and those who didn’t felt it.

“All the Things You Are” echoed throughout the station and into the tunnels, a plaintive, restive, devotion leaking out with the realization of how utterly unattainable all of her had been, in the end.

*********************

The song ended, and the crowd clapped loudly until the rumbling train drowned it out, and they turned away to get on with their lives.
The cop came up to him.
“I know you. I know that song. My father had one of your records, and he played it all the time.”
“Did he, now?” said Leon, wiping the mouthpiece. He grinned, turned to look at the cop, a twinkle in his eye. “Only one?”
“No sir,” the cop laughed, “he had others, but that’s the one he played the most.”
“Played,” Leon said. “Is your father still alive?”
“No sir, he passed away five years ago.”
Leon straightened, gave the cop full attention.
“I’m sorry, young man.”
The cop said nothing for a moment, then “It was an honor to hear you play live, sir. I only wish my dad would’ve been here.”
“My pleasure,” Leon began to walk away.
And then he turned to the cop, and seemed to think a moment, and walked back, and held out his saxophone case.
“What are you doing?”
“I’m giving this to you.”
“Why? I can’t take it. Don’t you need it?”

Leon sighed. “No, I don’t. See, I’m about to meet your daddy, and we’re gonna be talking jazz for a long, long time.”
It took a moment, and then the cop’s eyes widened.
“Won’t be long now. Left everything else to my daughter, but she ain’t gonna want this old battered up horn. Won’t mean nothing to her except her daddy wasn’t home a lot, and she won’t even think to sell it, and probably just throw it away.”
The cop looked downcast.
“You gonna take this?”
“I can’t, sir.”
Leon leaned in, like he was telling a secret. “Tell you what, turn it in to lost property, then file a claim for it on my daughter’s behalf, and take it later.”
“Mr. Leon, are you sure?” The cop took the case like a sacred offering.
Leon straightened again. “I am. It’s the least I can do for a young man who grew up with my music, and who saw my last concert.”
The cop seemed to flinch.
“I…I’m sorry, sir. I truly am.”
Leon put his hand out, and the cop took it, and Leon put his other hand over it.
“It’s all right, son, you done what you could. Thank you.”

© Alfred W. Smith Jr.
May 2, 2014
All rights reserved

Not Your Idiom

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I had a theater teacher in college who was a playwright . We did his plays with him, and I thought they were okay, but only okay.

I remember that he hated Neil Simon with a passion, and thought he was a hack, even though Neil Simon had his finger on the pulse of the American theater-going public for a while, (longer than my teacher did, but that’s another post).

We were having a class discussion about doing ethnic plays without the original ethnic group. He began a discussion on how the craze at the time was doing plays with multi-cultural casts that were not from the playwright’s country.
He gave the example of an all-black cast production of Chekhov’s “The Cherry Orchard,” with Phylicia Rashad and some other well-known black actors / actresses, and said that doing it with an all-black cast just for the sake of doing it wasn’t theatrically valid, because they couldn’t bring to it what Russian actors could, who understood the subtlety of meaning and history behind the play that black actors could only emulate to some degree, but never really understand.

Being black myself, I figured he was probably right about that, though of course, some of my classmates (not just the black ones) bristled at the thought.
I personally thought it was a valid argument: it would be like Russians doing the play Fences, by August Wilson, or a Chinese cast doing Raisin in the Sun.
“It’s not their idiom,” he said. He was right.

I’ve seen writers attempt black dialogue, but it mostly misses the mark. That’s not to say it’s bad, it’s just off.
One of my favorite mystery writers, Robert B. Parker, of Spenser fame, failed at it over and over again with his character Hawk, and a lot of the black characters he wrote. To me, he never captured the nuances. I overlooked it, though I shook my head at some of his attempts, because I liked his stories. Ed McBain (Evan Hunter), the author of the 87th Precinct series, on the other hand, was fantastic at it, if a little repetitive.

And, truth be told, not every black character written is required to speak that way. It doesn’t make it any less ‘authentic’ to have a black character speak without being ‘urban’ (whatever that means).

Does that mean an author who isn’t black can’t write black characters? ‘Course not. Write whatever ethnicity / race / dialogue you can. Write all of it. But here is where the writer’s ear plays an important role; I’ve seen white comedians do dead-on impressions of black speech patterns, not just ‘ebonics’, but the inflections and rhythms as well.

There’s a music in it, a poetic flow that rises and falls, a pulse that’s hard to feel if you didn’t grow up listening to it. There are actually regional differences too, between northern and southern.

Capturing it successfully was primarily the reason for Eminem’s success in the predominantly black rap industry, because he’d steeped himself in the culture, and came away with it. It’s why (ahem) Vanilla Ice….melted away.
The comic from Africa, Trevor Noah, is a master at it, because it’s not even an idiom spoken by Africans. (Check out Trevor Noah: African American on Netflix to see what I mean.) Bill Burr and Anjelah Johnson are two others who do it well. Anjelah Johnson has a great ear for the voices that inform her comedy.

As for me, I was fortunate enough to read a wide variety of poetry and literature from around the world, from Dickens to Dosteovsky to Dumas, and see a lot of foreign movies, and watch a lot of medieval stuff, and see productions of the Elephant Man as well as Paul Robeson, both excellent, minimalist plays; the first with Bruce Davison, who wore no makeup and still managed to convey the pain of deformity, and James Earl Jones as Paul Robeson, who may be a reincarnation.

My dad was into Shakespeare, and opera, and James Baldwin, and Maya Angelou, and Khalil Gibran, among others; his library shelf provided my summer reading for a long time.
And my mom spoke French, because she wanted to go to Paris one day, but cancer didn’t let her.

In short, it was equipping me to write the way I do, though I had no idea at the time that I was absorbing all these cultural influences that transcended my own, and was certainly not aware at the time that I would ever use them.

And while I try not to consciously write to any specific ethnic / racial audience, because I want you to imagine as much as possible without my guidance, it’s because of that I can write Of War and Breakfast and Bring Me No Flowers, and be the same guy.

But even though I can understand both stories, the history of what had a bearing on the events that shaped me lies with only one of them, and when I write that story, it speaks to me a lot differently.

And that’s fine, because while one may be ‘my’ idiom, and the other one isn’t, all of it can be learned, and mastered, and conveyed, if you take the time to really hear it.

And keep writing.

D Generation

pripyat-abandoned-school

The state of education in the US is deplorable.

Now that we’ve stated the obvious, sensei, what’s the solution?

Stop looking for innovative ways to teach students that include the whole child. Teachers must hold parents accountable to see to their own child’s emotional needs, just as parents want to hold teachers accountable for the academics. I’m not saying teachers shouldn’t be involved in their students’ lives at all; by default, they already are, I’m saying there are aspects of the child’s life that are not the teacher’s responsibility, though it seems that increasingly, the circumstances of their students’ lives, regardless of income level, dictate they have to be.

We are now fostering feelings instead of dealing with academics, and consequently the children of today can’t read, write, spell or multiply; America is falling fast on the international front because we no longer treat our children like they have brains capable of being challenged.

Did you ever think you’d see the day America adopts teaching methods from other nations instead of being a leader?

It isn’t fair, and it isn’t right. The rich kids are arrogant and selfish, and the poor kids are angry and rebellious, and the teacher has to deal with those two extremes and the spectrum in the middle, teaching to multiple learning types, with special needs kids thrown into the mix.

Administrators must stop being cowed by the fear of potential lawsuits and state, clearly, their policies on bullying, dress codes, class behavior and school citizenship. If it doesn’t come from the TOP DOWN (no pun intended on the dress code), your teachers are adrift with no paddle when trying to enforce these things individually in their classrooms.

“But the culture has changed.” That’s because it was capitulated to and not challenged. I had a student once whose mother was in prison, and had told her daughter: “It’s okay for you to give teachers attitude if they give you attitude.” With her mother’s backing, she proceeded to do the first part, not taking into account the second part, because she had very loose interpretation of teachers “giving her attitude,” which was pretty much “be quiet, sit down, and do your work.” Instead, she was allowed to take class time away from students who were doing exactly that, as well as interrupting lessons with her nonsense.

And when her Mom got out she was all too happy to come in and challenge the school, on more than one occasion, until the district finally had enough and expelled her child, who I guess by now has followed in her mother’s footsteps and is doubtless in jail. I overheard another student tell one, “My dad hates teachers.” Obviously, since she was failing her own classes because of her father’s mindset, they both felt justified when he came in to rant.

Kids I had in sixth grade were getting locked up their first or second year of high school, though I delivered the message over and over again. Another time there was a kid with an alcoholic mom who me and another teacher were finally able to get to who graduated high school early.

And then there was the boy I met in sixth grade who was growing up in a family of nine, determined to be an A student, and well on his way to achieving it.

So what’s my point?

At some point, circumstances cannot be blamed. I wouldn’t say I grew up in poverty, but I didn’t have a lot. What I had was two parents who realized how important exposure to the world beyond the streets of the South Bronx was, and who tolerated no nonsense, even though they weren’t together. I had a mentor who looked out for me, and I had, for the most part, my love of reading to sustain me. At some point, I looked around the decaying neighborhood of my childhood and said, “There is nothing here I want to be a part of,” and so I hit the books.

With my decision came all the accompanying name-calling and bullying, but I was determined and stayed my course. When I left the neighborhood to move to a new one, I never looked back, and I never went back. Recently I pulled it up on Google Earth, and there is less there now than before. The large 5 story pre-war structures are mostly gone, replaced with a one-story project building, and the neighborhood I moved into (another part of the Bronx which was not yet labeled, “South”) which I left after I got married, now has security gates on the building where I lived.

You HAVE to give your children options. Clean your neighborhoods, re-prioritize, organize, meet to advance your child’s education, and not to blame others for dropping what is essentially your responsibility. Yeah, circumstances can be daunting, but they needn’t be overwhelming. You have the power to change things, but if you don’t, who will?

It bothers me that people can’t seem to see the contributions they make to their own imprisonment. My daughter once asked me who would I be if I didn’t have the parents I did. I was honest enough to say that I couldn’t answer that question, because I had those parents, but it didn’t seem like anything complicated they did, or spectacular, or used any kind of pop-culture strategy, they simply did what they were supposed to. I knew my report card was going to be reviewed, and I knew that I couldn’t announce to my family that I was being held back. I knew they would ask me what I had for homework, and I knew that they loved me enough to keep me in line.

As for getting out of the bubble I lived in, the subways and gypsy cabs were available to everyone. I don’t know why more people didn’t take advantage of it, seemingly content to hang out in the neighborhood for the most part. When I got old enough to ride them myself, I did, and went back to revisit those places my parents had taken me, to see them with older eyes and a different view, to walk streets where I was a stranger and sometimes unwelcome, but I needed the reinforcement to stay motivated.

I was fortunate too, that NY was a multicultural mecca, and that Manhattan was the convergence point for all of them. My route usually started at Columbus Circle and went up as far as 125th St to as far down as West 4th St, and sometimes into the South Street Seaport. I met people, and saw things, both good and bad. I observed, and I learned, and I listened.

I was comfortable in Irish bars and Times Square dives that sold cocaine (never got in a bar fight, or robbed, thank God; and no, I didn’t buy any coke. Patrons who did usually wound up with the dealer’s people ‘looking’ for them. Trouble a new father didn’t need, didn’t want, and stayed away from, thank you. In that regard, the South Bronx taught me well all by itself).

As a result, I was comfortable in the Bronx Zoo and the Museum of Natural History.

I went to the Apollo and Carnegie Hall and Broadway.

I went to baseball games and ballet performances.

It all shaped who I was, and informed me that there was a better way to live, and a better way to do things. I didn’t achieve a lot of it because I wasted a lot of time spinning my wheels in PA (see previous post),  but the awareness of it kept me in pursuit, and as Yogi Berra said, “It ain’t over til it’s over.”

Today, it all shapes my writing, probably to a larger extent than even I realize, since I’m finally, for the first time, doing it for me, rather than as an assignment, in my 50’s.

So let’s see what happens with this writing thing….

In summary:

Teachers are NOT the enemy.

YOU are the vanguard of your child’s future.

You can hold the teachers accountable if they don’t do their part, but do yours. 

It matters to your child the most when you do.

A Teachable Moment

paper-flower-folded-bowl   Once I covered

a  third grade class for a teacher on vacation for a week.  As a substitute, you have to gain control quickly, but every now and then, there are classes that you just click with, and some you never will. 

This was the former. Whenever I covered elementary, where the kids are still excited about school and eager to please their teachers and for the most part get along, I always tried to keep it fun, to be the type of teacher I wish I had.

I’ve got several notes and letters attesting to my success in this:

“MR. SMITH ROCKS, ” signed by Mr. / Mrs. _ ‘s class,

and other notes along those lines;  a friend of mine once told me those were reference letters. I’ve held onto them for sentimental reasons, to remind myself that I once made children have a fun day.

Everyone should have  a reference letter from a kid.

But THIS particular class, for whatever reason, just liked me, and I liked them.  We were determined to make each other laugh, and they gave as good as they got, turning out to be a precocious group. But they worked, and being the adult(?) in the room, I never let it get out of hand, and they kept each other in line too.  We had our quiet moments. It made them appreciate the comic stuff more.

And then one day, in the lesson plan, was an art lesson; the kids had to make something. There were instructions, and supplies, and children who were assigned to give them out.  I carried out said plan with dread, because I am ham-fisted when it comes to that stuff, but the kids were into it, and I was responsible to see it done, soooo….

There they were, working quietly, when one of the girls came up to the teacher’s desk with her broken art project in her hands. She wasn’t crying or anything, but she was holding the papery thing out to me like a communion wafer.

I took it from her, looked at it for a moment, fixed it, and gave it back, and she returned to her seat, and finished the project.

Here’s the weird part: neither of us said a word. 

It was almost a pantomime, except it was unrehearsed and unplanned. She didn’t know I was dreading doing anything to it, that I didn’t want to take it, and was going to send her to another teacher across the hall who was good at that stuff.

But for whatever reason, I didn’t.  She brought it to me, thinking I was capable, and something in me thought that if a kid thought I was capable of something, then I should be the one to do it. And I did, and she returned to her seat with her faith unshaken in the fact that adults can fix the problems kids have; that they can be approached, that they are there to help.

I realized now why later I thought the paper looked like communion: because it was offered up in faith, and placed into my hands to fix.

She didn’t need to say anything, and she wasn’t worried because she knew I could see what she needed done, and she trusted me to do it.  She didn’t know I was ham-fisted, she didn’t know I had limited knowledge; she wanted me to fix what was broken so she could finish what she had to do.

The silence between us, after all the laughter,  just made the moment that much more profound.

At the end of the week, the class asked me if I would sit with them in the lunchroom. I did, and we laughed, and shared food, and stupid jokes (What’s yellow and goes click? A ball point banana; Why was the tomato red? Because it saw the salad dressing…)

And on Friday afternoon, before dismissal, they gave me a card signed by all of them:

MR. SMITH ROCKS. THANK YOU FOR BEING OUR TEACHER. YOU’RE FUN. WE’LL MISS YOU. ❤ Mrs. __’s class.

I still have that reference letter, but that one small act of faith will remain clipped to it as long as I live.