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.