Thursday, March 28, 2013

No Fish, No Games

The itch under my shirt sleeve threatened to distract me in my favorite San Simeon chair, pillows and blankets arranged to optimal comfort.  I ignored the crawling sensation, deep into a Janet Evanovich novel checked out from the Cambria library. 

The sensation returned, just a muscle twitch.  

The book was light fiction, but I was hard pressed to suppress the kind of raucous laughter that would shatter my wife’s concentration as she pounded down cards on her Smart Phone Solitaire Game.

How does this Evanovich lady, do it?
If only I could write something so funny and exciting!

The sensation relocated, higher on my shoulder.  I reached under my shirt and pinched a small lump.

Reluctantly, I got out of the chair and went out to the front porch, and opened my fingers.  A brown spec with a familiar cream pattern landed the white railing and started to creep away.  I flicked it hard with my fingernail, hoping to send it to oblivion never to be seen again.

The walk in Cambria that morning had been wonderful, with old growth forests that provoked fantasies of a Hobbit movie.  The hill top ocean vistas made me with a wish for the steel nerves takes to climb into a hang glider.  We had taken Ardath to the Trenton road trailhead-- maybe you’ve been there?

A couple of our dear friends were visiting us in San Simeon and I wanted to impress them with my choice of  hiking route.  After dropping down into the Fiscalini ranch area, I pretended to be momentarily lost (only half untrue).  Then we climbed a steep grassy hill.  Between rapid inhalation and exhalations, I told one of the friends, Andrei, about how some wrong decisions on an ATV nearly resulted in disaster.  I asked if anything like that had happened to him.

Several weeks ago he was driving with his brother on a rain soaked section of Highway 99 at 75 mph and his vehicle began to hydroplane.  He felt the car slide from his control and immediately braked to disengage the cruise control (good decision).  Then as the car continued to glide toward the shoulder he turned the wheel left, against the direction of  of the slide (bad decision).  The car spun around  two and half times, crossed the median, and cars were approaching head on as they sat in their stalled vehicle.   Fortunately, the suprised drivers coming at them were able to break in time.  Andre started his car, nobody hurt, nothing hit or damaged and made a U-turn.  He took the next offramp and returned to the highway resuming his previous direction.  
"Sort of makes you appreciate little things after something like that, doesn't it?"
"Yep, it sure does," I said,. and about that time we crested the ridge.

Before long, we all piled into the car, still a little out of breath.  I hoped our friends had enjoyed a memorable hour and a half of light exercise and worthwhile conversation.  

Food was next on the itinerary.  I felt the lump in my right pant leg, horrified at the realization that is was not a wallet but my camera.  The trip back to San Simeon to get my wallet was an embarrassing 25 minutes of apology, accompanied by various suggestions about how we could pool our resources and have enough money for the cash only restaurant.

Eventually, we enjoyed an excellent lunch at our favorite al fresco Mexican eatery.  Our dessert cravings led us to the den of the Red Moose, a fabulous cookie shop in the quasi-industrial collection of aluminum buildings known to Cambrians as “Tin City”.

Our friends, tired and full, were homeward bound somewhere between San Simeon and Fresno when I catapulted my tick friend into the middle of Avonne Avenue.  Going back inside, I was met by my wife's expectant stare.

“Yes,” I admitted, "it was a tick.”

We knew what had to be done and had done it before.  Time for “tick lockown”.

The front door was locked and bedroom door closed.  One of us began to disrobe and having reached a state of complete nudity, a full body scan was intiated, all cracks and crevices carefully examined.

Nothing, so far.

Then the other person disrobed, the routine repeated itself.
If no insects are found, this ritual often leads to playful groping, typically initiated by a partner I refuse to identify.

Negative, no ticks, nothing undesirable.

“Still we really should notify our friends, let them know.”
“Absolutely.  How can we pass up an opportunity like this?”  

“That’s what I’m thinking.”

“Just removed a vicious tick,” the message began, “Suggest you remove all clothing immediately and inspect each  thoroughly before they burrow in.”
We laughed ourselves silly thinking about their reactions.

But, alas, no text response.  People really need to learn how to take a joke, I thought.

We sat in our chairs and read a while until a low tide that afternoon.  Time to head north, another collecting (and farming) expedition for me.

I gathered the necessary materials, rock hammer, rope, two beers, and a can of sardines.
I kissed my wife goodbye.  She warned me again not to do “anything stupid.” 

There was a gradual up tick in my pulse.
If you’ve read “Fish and Games” parts 1 through 3, you know why.

But all went well.   That is, until I saw the CHP unit on the side of the road.  Panic mode nearly took over before I realized that the black and white was nowhere near my special beach and wasn't lying in wait for me.  Still the rear view mirror commanded my attention.

After another ten minutes, I parked where recommended (as suggested in Fish and Games, Part 1), and  dawdled a while getting my gear together.  Then I rechecked everything, half expecting a law enforcement car to pull up behind me.  Didn’t happen.

I was still nervous as I stepped over the barbed wire fence and caught by the inner part of my pant legs, nearly destorying my man parts.  Probably quite a scene viewed from cars that zoomed north and south while I untangled myself.

Familiar and upside down black funeral flowers surrounded me as I walked the sloping field that ended with a cliff.

I went down the guide rope without incident and began a forced marched to the far beach where I immediately made a contribution to future generations—again, a task best understood in the context of previous “Fish and Games” articles, all absolute fiction in case someone wearing a badge might be reading this.

On the way to my destination, I stumbled over slippery seaweed but managed to avoid another knee injury. Right away, I found a rock with obvious flecks of jade.  Who says you have to go all the way to Jade Cove to find this stuff?

Tired as I was from walking with friends that morning, I slogged on and tried to enjoy the moment.  

Today was abalone day, I realized, finding a whole shells and many nice pieces everywhere, some ocean- polished to perfection.

Along with the shells, I collected some decent rocks and popped open my first beer.

So after an hour of collecting I made my way back to the rope, my spirits greatly improved.  Giddy with last minute success, I decided some sort of ritual was in order like Native Americans who offer a pinch of tobacco to spirits of the wind. 

So before climbing up the rope, I ate a tin of sardines, thankful for the bounty of  the sea, and drank the second beer, grateful for fruit of the land, hops.

I even documented the happy moment with a photo.  Afterwards, I looked around, found a for a few more  worthies, and climbed up the rope.

I peeked in the direction of my car and ducked back down.  Nothing.  I raised my head again, quickly looking left and right.  No rangers on the cliff, no distant observers with scopes and, amazingly, no cruisers parked behind my car.

I stood up in plain sight, hearing neither helicopter nor jet, no holstered folk telling me to "face the fence" while they searched my bags.  What the Hell was this?   Where was the welcoming committee?  Had word gotten around that I was not worth hassling?  I felt ignored and unimportant.

I opened the back hatch of my car and sorted my gear in record time still expecting a cruiser to roar up, red and blues blazing. 

Deprived of such stimulation, I drove back to San Simeon waiting for something that never happened.

Crossing the Pico Bridge I turned left into peaceful San Simeon,surprised to find myself "home free".

Nothing wrong with a day without drama, I told myself.  Place more value on simple moments, that's what Andrei said.

The next day, I opened the Tribune: six cars involved in a chain reaction accident eastbound on Highway 46, 2:15 pm.  Right after we said goodbye to our friends.

A quick text confirmed they were unharmed, but close enough to experience a two hour delay as mangled steel and broken parts were removed from the roadway.

I paused to thank the One True God for everyday events and everyday mercies, like the delay of a forgotten wallet.

Thursday, March 21, 2013

Male Communication 101b

“Two burritos, three tacos?”

"Sorry, no.  One large burrito, four tacos with everything.

"Okay, one burrito, no cilantro, and three tacos.

I hung my head and sighed.

"Speak up, your voice is too low,” my wife would say if she were

present at the moment.  I looked over my shoulder.  Nope.  
Just a Cambria friend who was buying my lunch because I tried
to help him install some new windows.   Not that I was good at
that kind of thing.  Maybe it was just my loquacious personality?

But he was useless as an interpreter.  I did my best to convince
 him that we were about to eat the best Mexican food in the
 universe.  Now, it seemed, I couldn't even communicate our
order.  If the male owner of this restaurant was on the other side
of that window, I told myself, there would be no failure to
communicate.  His English isn't any better than my Spanish,
but we've always reached a satisfactory level of understanding
without a struggle.

Eventually my friend Bob and I enjoyed a great lunch, very close to what we originally ordered.  We expressed our enthusiasm for Buenocaro's fine cuisine through a careful progression of incomprehensible grunts, resounding burps and, in time, deadly farts.

A week later I sat on an ATV flying down a dirt road with the same friend.  Bob and I were exploring a huge recreational area known as Hungry Valley OHV (Off Highway Vehicle).  Perhaps it was just the name but I was feeling kind of hungry.  Availability of food was not an issue (we'd brought an obscene amount) but expressing my need for it to someone wearing a helmet in a howling wind with the roar of ATV engines was proving to be a challenge.  So I pointed to my stomach.  Bob immediately understood.  Not for a second did he think appendicitis or I was having a baby.  He turned immediately toward camp and before long we were chowing down on chicharones and guacamole.

The monumental significance of this narrative so far has but one purpose: to explain how a chance pointing gesture inadvertently gave birth to a brilliantly nonverbal and endlessly flexible method of communication.  Bob and I nourished a newly discovered language as we rodeo ATVs over the next few days, and it grew like a precocious child.

It's time to share what we have so far.  The world (at least the male half of it) needs to be briefed on the rudimentary but highly effective components of this ever evolving (but not so talky) language.  First entry in our male quad rider lexicon is...

Hold your hand up, use an index finger to mimic a rolling wheel. This means,
           All right, you take the lead.  It's my turn to eat dust.  Fair enough.

Or raise an arm above your head and make circling motions as if holding a lariat.  Simultaneously, use the thumb of your other hand to make jerky movements toward an open mouth.  Meaning, of course, let's wind things up here and head back to camp for a cold one.

Then there's holding all fingers together but extending your palm like a traffic cop.  Several possibilities here,
1. Call of nature
2. I have no idea where the hell we are, did you happen to  
     bring a map?
 3. Or, and this is my favorite, let's sit here a while and talk 
     (with real words) about how much fun we're having.

Extending Mr. Tallman while holding back all other fingers is a well known gesture, but the language of John and Bob (Qaudish) allows the little birdie to fly under only specific nuances of context and mood:
1. I told you this was the wrong way to get back to camp!
2. I know you told me this was the wrong way and you were  
     right, but I'm going to flip you off before you flip
     me off (so there!)
Is this not a healthy way for males to convey disappointment and safe amounts of emotion?  Right?  Seriously, am I right???!!!

I'll admit that things can get a little graphic in our new language.  Consider two tired riders pulling into camp.  One of them immediately walks over to his friend’s ATV and begins to urinate on a tire.  Which means,
          I'm still pissed-off by your dumb-assed choice of turns, 
          causing us to be an hour late for the first beer of the day.

Not surprisingly similar methods of communication have been adopted by other male riders.  There must be some kind of universal understanding among men.  It's comparable, I think to the Indians (oops, I meant Native American) whose braves shared a common hand language with other tribes, enabling them to trade beads, hides and I suppose, women. 

Anyway, let me provide a concrete example: 
Screaming down a narrow slot canyon on a big-assed quad
(48" wide is not unusual), you come upon a two wheeled motorcycle twerp.
Let's also say that this dirt bag (I meant dirtbike!) rider has heard the roar
of mighty engines and wisely decides to shield himself behind a rock.  
He might in this case, throw up two fingers.  At first you think it's a "V"
for victory.  Damn right, my machine is bigger than his!  But then when you encounter another rider fifty yards down the trail holding up a single index finger, you force your vibration addled brain to think (for the first time that day).

And then there's a moment of male-to-male insight: the last guy was 
telling you to please be careful because there's another member of
my party ahead.  So when you see the third rider cowering behind
some bushes, another cerebral moment manifests itself and you
show him a single index finger.  
Which means, 
          Another big-assed quad is barreling down on you so watch
          out motorcycle boy!

After similar but less pleasant encounters of this type, you might also 
adopt this gesture: thrusting a finger into your open mouth, the old
"gag me" pantomime.
In the Quadish language, this can only mean one thing:
                 I'm still about to throw up thinking about how messy 
                 things might have gotten when we rounded the blind turn
                 nearly colliding with dick-headed dirt bikers who
                 mistakenly thought they, not we, owned the road.
Now let's move on to more important aspects of this new language, 
the drawing of a finger horizontally across your throat.  
A definite red flag.  Meanings are as follows:
          1. State park ranger right behind you.  Better ease down to 
              the 15 mph campground limit.
          2.  Worse yet, continue in that particular direction and
               there's a strong possibility flying off  a cliff, being airborne
               only a few seconds before certain death.
          3. In the same vein, this hand across the throat gesture could
              warn about other conditions, like when the rider ahead of
              you barely negotiated a sharp turn on a high pass and wants
              you to know that taking that hairpin any faster than he did
              will only end happily if there's a parachute involved .    

But in the Quadish language, the critical (and most dangerous) gesture
has important stages.  To describe it in Cold War lingo, we're talking 
"defcon," levels one and two: 
           1. Hold one hand like a pistol and place it against your head 
               while your other hand extends one finger.  That's pretty
               bad right there.
           2. Next level and worse: hold against head like a pistol 
               (as before) but extend two fingers on the other hand.
Number two is way more dire and scary, meaning: 
              It's so late that unless we pack our shit up and 
              head for home right now, both of our wives will kill us.

And the last aspect of this new language is not a hand signal and derives meaning only by the mere absence of gesture.

Having made it safely back home you silently unload camping gear, observed by a wife who thinks you must be mad at each other.  She doesn't understand that shaking hands is an unlikely conclusion to male recreational events and hugging is so obviously out of the question.  There might be an indirect goodbye at some point (minus the giddy emotional overtones of women who part after a successful shopping expedition).  And I suppose someone might mutter "good trip" under his breath before driving off.  But that's it.  In the quiet jargon of guy talk, 'nuff said.

Sunday, March 17, 2013

True Lies

As if helicopters and jets weren’t bad enough (see last blog), I ran into a family friend in Cambria with a connection to enforcement (he was driving a CHP cruiser).  We traded pleasantries, and he left me with some worrisome news (future blog).  Basically, though, his news was about an open case involving someone selling moonstones over the internet.  Oh My!

Though not guilty of that particular crime, I thought it best to stay below the radar for a few days.  Those law enforcement guys would just have to find someone else to harass!

And you got to love it when the substitute teacher phone-robot calls the night before.
Then I know in advance to retire early.  But not before my wife approves my fashion choices.  Does this shirt match these pants?  Will these shoes work with that combination?
Please set an alarm for me, my cell phone needs charging--and so on.

I packed a lunch the next morning, kissed my sleepy wife goodbye and, attired in my spouse approved outfit, headed for the school on the hill.

Not the one on the highest hill but the north of it.  And as I angled into the nearly empty parking lot, I realized I had worked here before.

The secretary was friendly and quite impressed that I recognized her from the Painted Sky concert the night before.  There's no future for you in education until you learn to schmooze with the secretaries.

I now had my folder, lessons, key and name badge.  Go down the ramp, then up.  I just reached the "up" part when a little girl blocked my way.  She looked familiar.
“I need you to open up the classroom.”
I couldn’t remember her name though apparently she knew me.
“Really?” I asked and turned over my key plate.  “Are you talking about room 10?”
I figured she had a late and delicate project she wanted to deliver immediately to Mr. Marlin’s classroom.
“You know, I think I remember you.  Your Wendy, right?”
She stomped a foot, rolled her eyes and said, “No, Waverly!”
Of course, how could I forget such a common name?  I affected a partial head slap and apologized.   Cambria kids are often branded with a new age, teacher confusing, neo-hippy name--even the Hispanics.  Rainbow, Gaia, Guapolissimo—seriously folks, give your kids a break!

Waverly stepped off the cement path and put her foot on a sandstone boulder.
“See this?”
A white Converse-like high-top with a pink trim.
“Nice,” I said, hoping she was referring to her shoe and not the rock.
“Well, I wanted to wear my brother’s shoes and I’m mad because I couldn’t.”
“Why does that make you mad?”
“Because all my brothers wear high heels and platforms.”
“Really?”  I wondered if I had eaten a proper breakfast or partied too much the night before.  I waited for reality to set in.
“That’s all they wear, they’re short.”
Now I was at a total loss.  Should I say, “That’s too bad” or “That’s interesting?”
I opted for an escape.
“You know, Waverly (hoping I got the name right), I think I left something in the office.  I’ll be right back.”
And I really had forgotten my coffee cup and after retrieving it, was overjoyed to see that Waverly was nowhere in sight.

But there she was, waiting outside the door.
It was cold and foggy so I let her in—but not before a slight propping of the door.  That’s how I survived long enough to become a retired teacher, never place yourself alone with a student whether a prepubescent 12 or 13 year old, like Waverly, or one of any sex or age. 

I stood at the teacher's desk, madly flipping through plans, rosters and school safety instructions.  Mr. Marlin was a resource specialist I remembered with no more than 7 or 8 students at a time, and this was a minimum day: 30 minute periods and an aid who would arrive soon, explain everything and basically run the show.  Easy money.

A burning sensation on the back of my head caused me to turn around.  Waverly’s huge and powerfully blue eyes bore into me.  I looked face to face with a child so wildly attractive that she could pass for an elf girl in a Hobbit movie. 
She looked back at me.
“Are you dressed like a woman today?”
I nearly gasped out loud and glanced down, hoping this wasn’t one of those dreams where you go to school and discover you’ve forgotten your pants.
“Uh, I don’t think so.”  What the hey, my spouse had okayed this outfit!  Yes, my doctor said testosterone was bit down during my last physical but I still had no urge to wear pantyhose.
Waverly waited for my answer.  
Reverse the question, use your psych training you dummy!
“Do YOU think I’m dressed like a woman?”
She shrugged and seemed to lose interest.
After a very long while she said, “Well, this is spirit week and today boys are supposed to dress like girls and girls are supposed to dress like boys.”
Mental sigh of relief, the emperor was not naked though I was still confused about her brother's sartorial choices.

I found a dry erase pen and wrote my name on the board, indicating that Mr. Marlin was sick but would be back tomorrow.  Then I wrote out plans for each period so I wouldn’t have to answer theese questions all day long:

1.      Are you our sub?
2.      What’s your name?
3.      Where’s Mr. Marlin?
4.      What are we going to do today?

Waverly watched as I wrote, making a few suggestions as to word choice and spelling (turns out I was right about a misspelled word after she looked it up on her school issued iPad).

“Well,” Waverly asked, “What are we doing tomorrow?”
Damned if I know, I thought because I sure as hell wasn't going to be here again.
“I don’t know, Waverly, I’m not subbing tomorrow.”
“I think you’re wrong about that.  Mr. Marlin said you were teaching us today and tomorrow.”
“Well, that’s the first I’ve heard of it.  I’ve made plans to help a friend work on his house.”
“But Mr. Marlin said you would be here tomorrow.”
“I’ll have to check on that, Waverly,” wishing I could kick her out immediately, run up to the main office and find out whether I or the school district had screwed up.

Thankfully the classroom aid, Mrs. G. arrived, all a twitter after having learned from the secretary that my wife and I had attended last night's concert.
“You look familiar, Mr. Richardson.”
“Please, just John, and maybe that’s because I taught here a few months ago.  Remember the assigned story about escaping Alcatraz?”
“Oh yeah…”  I could tell she was impressed with my memory (if only she knew how rare a moment this was!).
But she was personable, friendly, and did an excellent job of filling me in on classroom the routine. 

Students sauntered in, and she introduced me to each of the nine or so students that would float in and out during the course of what I hoped would be a mercifully short day.

Then Kently walked in, ostensibly plump, immediately mouthy, and totally lacking in social skills.  But bright.  I saw that right off and knew he would be a challenge.

My "friend" Waverly cycled out for a period then returned.  I tried to remember some story from the last time I saw her.  When she hung back at the end of period and Mrs. G. was sorting out another student’s make-up work, I took the risk of speaking to her.
“Waverly, didn’t you tell me something interesting before, an unusual hobby or family activity?” 

She paused, looking confused for a moment, and I was sure my efforts had misfired.
“I have a jar,” she said indicating with her hands a container about three feet high, “filled with sea glass.”
“Wow, really?  I collect sea glass, too.  My wife and I make jewelry out of it.  Where did you find so much sea glass?”
“Clear Lake.”
“Clear Lake.  Isn’t that an inland body of water somewhere up north?”
“I think so.” This sounded a bit off to me.  Seriously, sea glass from a fresh water lake?
“It’s kind of jagged, but I have all kinds of colors.”
Now I know the odds of finding any specific color of glass along a shore.
“Do you have any red sea glass, Waverly?”
After a pause, “Just a little.”  Good answer, I thought.
“How about orange, I mean really orange, not light brown or dark brown?”
“No,” she said, “None of that.”  Another good answer!
“But there’s this special pier where everybody used to throw out their garbage.   walked out on it and looked down. There was sea glass everywhere.  I couldn't even see the bottom of the lake.”
I was reached for my notepad, hoping she'd draw me map and show me where exactly I could find that old pier.

“Waverly, better hurry or you’ll be late for your next class.”
She rolled her eyes and left.
Mrs. G. and I were alone in the room.
“I need to give you a little tip about Waverly.”
I dreaded what might come next, fascinated as I was by this little girl.  Was she psychotic, dying of cancer, or prone to violence?

“Waverly fibs.”
Did I hear correctly?
“She seems so ingenuous.  Are you sure?”
“Just ask the other students.  They’ll tell you, and excuse my language, that “she lies her ass off.”
Don’t we all, I thought.

The rest of the short day went well.  True, several times I had to “lean” on plump Kently by sitting down at his sequestered table as I silently the class novel, an Amstrong Sperry story about a Polynesian boy who eventually proves himself to his tribe.  Several times I had to tell Kently to desist with his loud and rude remarks simply because I couldn’t concentrate on my reading.  Eventually it worked.

And when I managed to finish the 88 page novelette in the spare moments of the minimum day, I leaned toward him and whispered, “I liked the ending.”  I got up and left his table.

For a moment he looked impressed.  Then he blurted out in his usual classroom disruption voice:
“So how does it end?”
“You tell me, Kently.  After all, didn’t you tell Mrs. G. last period you had a right to play  games because you already finished it and posted a book report?

A smirk from Kently but no comeback.

Finally, 7th period, computer lab.  “iPass time” which I soon learned meant tutorial  mathematics.  My class of 8 hadn’t even settled in before Waverly and I were face to face again.
“Kently is using my computer.”
I considered what I learned from Mrs. G.
“This is a computer lab, Waverly.  Nobody owns anything here.”
“He does this every time.  It’s the only computer that will log me on.”  
While she pouted, I looked over at Kently.  He sat happily insulting students to his left and right and enjoying the best window view.
“Look, Waverly.  There are at least 30 computers here, 23 of them free.  I’m pretty sure you can log in on one of them.”
She did that stomping thing with her foot and ran out of the lab.  I looked imploringly at Mrs. G.
“Please check on her.”

Meanwhile I circled among the students, all of them pretty much engaged.
After a while Mrs. G returned with Waverly and I watched them visit several computers, trying to log on.
I was sitting next to Kently again, still trying to discourage his marvelously antagonistic jibes when I felt a tap on my shoulder.
“I think we have a real problem,” said Mrs. G.
Is there any other kind of problem?  But I followed her to the back of the lab.
“Waverly can’t seem to log on.  We’ve tried at least a dozen computers.”
“Just a minute,” I said.  I knew I needed to do something.  After all, I was the only credentialed teacher in the room.  And where was the tech guy?
I seated myself next to Kently once again.
“So what are you doing now, my man?”
“Division and I suck at it.”
I scanned the display and saw weird stacked boxes and a problem: 79 divided by three.  I knew enough basic math not to expect a smooth result.
He had his iPad out, writing on it like a note pad.  He drew the division sideways “L”, put the correct numbers where they belonged, and dropped down remainders where needed.   But the screen turned red.

“Darn, Kently, that looked good.  I don’t know how you missed it (sadly that was true).  Maybe I can help you with the next one?”
I wanted him to a arrive at stopping point so I could justify handing his computer over to Waverly.
96 divided 6?  
Were the programmers trying to set these kids up for the bitter randomness of the universe?
So I helped him, practically telling him everything he needed to scribble on his iPad.
Again, red and wrong!

“Sorry Kently, guess I wasn’t paying attention.  But we'll get the next one right." 
“I hope so, Mr. Richardson, if I get one more wrong, I’ll have to start all over and listen to the boring voice that I hate.”
Yeah I knew all about boring voices, only my experience was limited to live classroom instructors.
Damn it, Red!  And wrong again.
Kently and I both heard the dreaded voice begin its tutorializing, right from the beginning.  It droned on, subjecting Kently and I to the most obvious facts about division.

“Oh man, I’m sorry Kently!  But since you’re at a starting point, I have to ask you to move to the next computer.”

After a lot of smart-mouthed (but justified) resistance, he moved over so Waverly could take his place.
“He always does this,” she reminded me when she sat down.
Sure enough, she logged on immediately.  The aid looked at me apologetically, and I vowed to never again judge students by their reputations.

I got my stuff together, reminding students to push in their chairs and log off. It occurred to me that Waverly might have intentionally been logging in with an incorrect password.  How could either the aid or I know?  Keystrokes were just asterisks and who could track her swift fingers and match them to a master list?  But it didn't seem to matter. 

Students were packing up in anticipation of the 10 minute early dismissal for a hot lunch.
All except for one student who sat quietly reading a book in the corner of the lab.  He was apparently the only one who didn’t qualify for free and reduced school nourishment.

I checked my roster.  His name was Dallas.  I walked up to him wondering what he was reading.  He certainly didn’t look like a Dallas, more like an anemic Corey Feldman from Stephen King’s Stand by Me.
He looked up from his book (something about C++ programming, whatever the heck that is)
“Mr. Richardson, can I use the white board to play hangman?” 

“Sure.”  I glanced at Mrs. G. 

“Does any want to play hangman with Dallas?” she asked.
Nobody was paying attention. 

“I will.”
“Are you sure you, Mr. Richardson?  I’m paid to tutor until 1:00.”
“I’m retired.  I’ve got nothing but time.” 

Dallas set up his gallows and letter box.
The bell rang and everybody left.
It was just Dallas, me and,of course, Mrs. G.
“Bring it Dallas!”
Oh boy did he.  A short four letter word.  I tried all the vowels in sequence until I got to “U” my first correct guess.  Then I tried several consonants without success.  I had only a leg to go.  

Dallas was already joking with Mrs. G about various mercy options--adding eyes, nose, ears, etc. 

Then I asked for an “F”.  

                                                             F U _ _ ?

Was he trying to pull the F-word on me?  How disappointing—and problematic.  If I asked for a “C” or “K”--and was wrong, both he and Mrs. G would remember me as the perv substitute teacher.
So I instead I chose a high frequency consonant, “R”. 

Right again, old man! 

I was sweating, not sure why.  I was a UCSB honors graduate in English and knew more words than the number of bacteria on this kid’s yellow, smiling teeth.


A child’s misspelling of “FERN”?  I was getting mad.
That’s it.  "FURY"  Yes!

“Okay, Dallas, now you’re going down and south just like the city you were named after.”
“Actually, Mr. Richardson, I was named after a cheerleader.”
This shook for me a moment.
“Um, yeah, whatever.  Well here’s my five letter word.”
I put five blanks on the white board.
With unnerving accuracy he guessed my “A”, my “E”, my “S” and after only two misses guessed my “T”.  All from a word that only adults worry about which contains a letter nobody ever considers:

                                                T A _ E S

Got you now Corey Feldman/Dallas Cheerleader/Debbie Does Dallas dude.  He’s going to ask for an “L” or a "P" though the latter would be unlikely because his generation doesn't listen to them anymore.   Kids his age think concretely and invariably go for nouns... though he did nearly take me out with that tricky adjective...


“How did you know, Dallas?” asked Mrs. G with obvious delight.
“Well, Mr. Richardson seemed really confident, like he was holding back some secret.  So I knew it couldn’t just be an “L” or a "P".
I looked at the clock.
“You know Dallas, I’d like to play more (I really didn’t).  How ‘bout you and I head for the bus zone?  By the time we get there, it’ll be time to go home.

We talked and passed through nearly empty halls.  Had he ever competed in a spelling bee? (Yes).  What was his favorite subject? (math and science).  I reminded him about the bulletin I read promoting the hands-on science exhibit tomorrow afternoon.  Say what you will about Cambrians, they make every effort to keep their kids busy with well funded rec centers, libraries, skate parks, and this special afternoon event on a minimum day.
“It sounds like fun,” he said after a little hesitation and changed the subject.
“I hope my grandma remembers it’s a short day.”
“Well you can always go in the office and ask to use the phone.”
“Yeah, but it will be a long time before she gets here.”

We waited on grandma a few more minutes.
“I bet you'll really enjoy that science thing tomorrow.  You’ll be there, right?”
“Uh, huh.”  I knew it was a lie--and suspected he knew that I knew it was a lie.
A beat-up ranch truck eventually rattled down the hill and lurched to a stop in the parking lot.  An elderly woman was at the wheel, an unlit cigarette dangling from the corner of her mouth.
“Get your ass in here, Dallas!”
I wanted to ask about giving Dallas a ride to the science exhibit tomorrow, transporting him over whatever remote coastal roads would bring him back to Cambria.  But I knew such an offer would not be well received in this day and age.

I waved at Dallas and heard the pickup backfire while swinging its way out of the parking lot.
So I returned my classroom key and guest teacher badge, and I walked to my car feeling sad maybe exhausted, not sure which.

I hoped for a world where blue eyed elf-fibbers became another Amanda Seyfried, smart-mouthed plump boys became the next Seth McFarland, and nerdy Cory Feldman types graduate from Cal-Tech and went on to a Mark Zuckerberg future.

Truly, middle school students can be endearing, loveable, maybe even inspiring.

After taxes, I might have made $50 dollars that day.  But for the privilege of meeting those students, I would willingly pay that and much more.