Sandra

She sat against the wall, three rows back from the teacher’s desk, with the windows at her back. Her short blonde hair formed a ragged frame around her thin face. Dressed in worn jeans and a faded tee, she could have blended innocuously into the mix of juniors lined up in tight rows in the dilapidated trailer masquerading as my classroom, except for her eyes. Her eyes held a determined gaze, keen and steady.
I passed around a seating chart. Her name was Sandra.*  Later I checked the roster for her address. Trailer Park. The one nearby with the abandoned vehicles and muddy lanes. 
In classroom discussions Sandra showed she had prepared for class. She read the books we discussed.She did well on multiple  choice tests but dismally with short essays or personal journals. Sandra couldn’t complete a sentence. She wrote single words or phrases in patterns meaningful only to her.
In exercises, Sandra could identify which sentences were complete and correct, and which ones were not, but could not write a logical, complete sentence.  She could argue fluently out loud but not on paper.   Puzzling, I thought. 
She agreed to work privately with me twice a week during a study period. We can fix this, I believed. We would do sentence exercises. Combine parts of sentences. Analyze sentences for parts of speech. Use sentence exercises with prepositional phrases, adverb and adjective clauses. Determine sentence types. She mastered the exercises. 
But in her classroom journal her opinions, reflections, and narratives persisted as ragged words and phrases separated by periods and sometimes by blank spaces. 
Tell me what you mean here, I’d ask.  She couldn’t or wouldn’t tell me. 
Our classroom had once been a trailer on a construction site.**  It was thin and long, not a double wide. The school district at the time was underfunded while the population had quickly grown beyond the physical capacity of its facilities. As a temporary solution, the district had purchased used trailers and parked them behind schools. Students walked out into the elements to get to literature and language classes. 
On rainy days the roof leaked so badly in our classroom that I kept a mop and bucket handy. When I complained about leaks, the janitor brought me big coffee cans to catch the leaks. The floor had soft spots, rotted flooring.  Fiberglass insulation fluffed from holes in the back wall. Students sometimes picked at the insulation, pulling it out further or stuffing it back. In August and September a window air conditioner hummed noisily and often had to be reset. In December and January, the heater either roasted us or failed to warm us. 
One grey winter day as the rain pummeled the metal roof and the wind rocked the trailer, Sandra spoke up, “You’d think that our government would provide us with classrooms better than what I live in!”  Water was once again dripping into cans on the floor. I was mopping up puddles walked in by students entering from the broken sidewalk outside. 
“That’s right!” echoed her classmates. 
“What’s wrong with the leaders that they are sending us to learn in junky trailers like this?”
“What would you like to do about it?”  I asked. 
“Let’s write a letter.  Can we?  To the school board!”
“And the superintendent,”  chimed others. 
“Okay, what do you want to say?”  I shelved the lesson and opened a brainstorming session until all their grievances about the trailer were listed on the blackboard. 
Sandra took over. She couldn’t write the letter but she could direct its composition, which took three days of negotiations between the students and the selection of a best writer. The students signed the letter, made copies, and mailed them.  Our principal was bemused by their audacity. I didn’t have tenure yet. I felt vulnerable. Within the month, maintenance repaired the roof and secured metal plates over rotted flooring.  The assistant principal directed a janitor to cover the holes in the walls and delivered to me a desk with drawers that opened and a rolling chair. 
Sandra’s weekly journal began to make more sense. The daffodils were blooming. Redbuds and pear trees flowered. It must have been late March when I opened her journal on a Sunday afternoon and read, “My stepfather abuses my sisters and me while my mother watches.”  A complete sentence, not just one complete sentence but one after another detailing years of sexual and emotional abuse of three terrified girls. Anguish in complete sentences. And finally the last sentence:  “…promise not to tell anyone. He might kill us.”
State law requires teachers to report such information to school authorities. I met with a school counselor and the principal. Protocols are in place to protect children victimized by parents or guardians. I didn’t need to determine if Sandra was lying or if I should protect her privacy. The safety of the girls was primary. 
Sandra, on the Monday after I shared her journal with school authorities, had been called to the front office and then disappeared off my roster. “Transferred.”
The ensuing scenario was revealed in snippets. A police car. A thank you from the counselor. A wordless pat on the back by the principal. Headlines in the local newspaper: Parents arrested on multiple counts; Step-father pleads not guilty; Mother accepts plea bargain. Until one day, I saw that the step-father had been severely  sentenced, the mother receiving a lesser sentence but one that would remove her from her daughter’s’ lives for years. 
Sandra eventually graduated with honors from the local university. She was active in university life and worked in programs to assist students like herself. I would see her on campus during my summer work in Upward Bound. We never talked about her journal or that fateful day when social services swept in to protect the three girls.
The fragmented sentences?  They were a symptom immune to book exercises and communication drills. The subtext had been fear of disclosure and discovery, the fragments a code for “Help us.”  
_______________
  • Not her real name.  The name “Sandra” means warrior.  In every story of my 2018 blog posts, I do not use real names of people and avoid specific references to school names and actual years.  
** The state of Kentucky eventually revised and improved funding for school districts.  The high school was renovated and expanded, the trailers hauled off.  

Preface to 2018 blogposts: love is a birth right.

Before senility sets in, I want to share some people with you, dear readers. Although the characters for this year’s blog are today’s adults, in my memory they are still teenagers, budding into mothers, fathers, employees, employers, and sometimes unfortunately into prison inmates or victims of violence. For the most part, however, the characters represent determination bordering on heroism. 
Because I cannot remember most of their names and because their identities should be private, I will be using pseudonyms for them.   In every case each story happened after 1985 and before 2009, although to use actual dates would not serve my purpose since the events are more universal than particular, and representative of humankind’s hunger for justice, affection, and respect. 
I was their teacher for an hour a day, for ten months. My lesson plans met all the requisite guidelines for curriculum and learning. I kept an orderly, hospitable classroom. I was always available to my students. I kept long hours, creating thoughtful activities, providing extra help when needed, returning papers quickly. But my stories will not to be about me, the teacher. If anything, they will be about me, the learner and them, the true instructors. 
Once At a dinner party, a guest said to me, “Students today aren’t like they used to be. How do you manage?”
“Love,” I answered. 
Her puzzled face revealed she hadn’t expected THAT one word answer. “No, I mean, we hear about how students are so disrespectful, how classroom discipline is almost impossible. What do you do to maintain order?”
“I love them.”
“How is that possible?  Don’t they act out, refuse to cooperate?”
“Sometimes. Still my answer is the same. They believe I love them.”
The guest looked skeptical. I hadn’t convinced her, I could see. Even today over 20 years later, I can still see her eyes lifted toward me as if I were showing off or putting her down. 
Restarting my work-life in my mid-forties required student teaching at a local high school known for its heavily disadvantaged students.  That’s professional talk for misbehaving, rebellious, angry teenagers.  Three weeks into the semester when I was thinking “I got this!”  my supervising teacher asked, “Do you like them, the students?”
During my college classes no one had ever insisted on the topic of liking students. We studied educational psychology, learned how to understand adolescents, practiced manipulation strategies. “I’m not sure,” I answered honestly. 
“You must learn to fake it ‘til you make it.  Stand at the door to greet them with a welcoming smile. Ask them how they are. Mention last night’s game. Tell them you like their hair cuts, their shoes, whatever.”
So I did. And guess what? It worked!  I learned how to worm my way into their personalities, to break through their barriers—a lesson I employed for ever after. 
And I learned to appreciate each one, even the one who threatened to stab me, the one who urinated all over my desk, the one who sexually harassed me, the hoodlum, the stalker, the clown, the boss-man, the drama queen, the bully, the list goes on and on. 
How is that possible? The guest had asked. Because—there was the sexually abused girl who saved her sisters. The foster boy who prevented a thief from stealing my camera. The girl from the projects who found love through reading.  The bully who learned to share.  The young mother-to-be who learned to read. The dyslexic brother and sister who overcame their disability with determination. The drug addict who struggled to free himself.  The bullied gay boy who dodged discrimination and graduated. The liar who rewrote his senior paper twice before he grasped the concept of honest information.  The rebellious boy whose grandmother turned him into a scholar. The boy raising his little sisters. 
Most of my students were like my own children and grandchildren, just kids marching through high school, bell to bell, doing what they were supposed to do. I see them sometimes behind counters, in the clinics, at the grocery. I know them to be managers, physical therapists, teachers, techies, attorneys. These students came to me fully loved and nurtured;  they were smart, disciplined, reliable people. You need to know that my classes were packed with such promising youngsters. I am however interested in convincing you that even struggling, damaged children, are worthy of our love and attention. Not every child receives what you and I know is their birth right, to be loved. 
I hope you are ready for each of these stories. Stay tuned. 

The Endowment

Whispers of air push the tender limbs of the potted hemlock on our deck.  To realize the subtlety of the action between the air’s voice and the shrub’s reaction we must sit still, watch, and wait.  Everything we see beyond the French doors of our den reveals the results of nature’s power in companionship with our own labor.
In the beginning the acre around our house was an extension of unruly woods that required bush hogging every three months.  Like 19th century homesteaders, we slowly pushed back the woods with saws and a maddox.  Eventually, disappointments as heavy as mature sugar maples would mangle favorite dogwoods and Japanese maples. Ice storms would splinter giant trees.  Termites and fungal rot would destroy the children’s favorite old maple with its swing.  Drought would damage a magnolia and kill a birch clump.
The inevitably of these future disappointments did not deter us.  The depth of a hole to be dug was an opportunity for exercise.  Lack of rain was a conquerable challenge.  Weeds were an invitation to exercise providence.  
With repetitive order, natural organization, and indubitable rules—durable certainty accompanies gardening.
And we are reminded, as we look out at the whispers in the hemlock, the dancing buff colored balls of bloom on the hydrangeas, and the drooping berries of the nandinas how infinitesimal are our voices in the rampant bramble of politics and social conflict — but also how capable is our steady, plodding influence upon the course of life and social discourse.
Would we replant the crepe myrtle in the shade?  No.  Would we again allow the aggressive cannas to overtake our vegetable patch? No.  Would we indifferently neglect to winterize our roses?  Never again.
In the repeated lessons of gardening are the repeated lessons for living well.  Begin hopefully, maintain, and correct.  Keep what works; toss what doesn’t.
And so it is that we have arrived near the sundown of 2017 with candles, angels, gifts, holly berries, pageantry, and celebrations at a festival of hope, at a ritual of love renewed.  
Yes, we are disappointed by uncivil discourse.  Yes, we are concerned about errant disregard for our environment and suspicious of the motivations of people in power.  BUT we can see in our own little plot, how steady is the inevitable correction of the natural order.  We cannot bend the rule of physics or the will of God; we all must be in companionship and obedience with creation and providence.  If not, we suffer.
If I hit a rock with my shovel, I must dig elsewhere.  If my neighbor objects to my leaves, I must rake more frequently.  I cannot buy my way out of wind, drought, or fire.  I cannot lie my way through life and be believed:  if the tree fell on the truck, it DID indeed fall on the truck.  
We honor Christmas for its advent anticipations and Hanukkah for its covenant faith.  This is the season to remember the common lessons around us, to stop and notice, and believe, not in schemes, not in sycophants, not in the power of money, and not in disbelief, but in the endowment of love given freely and usefully to all to practice in order to experience an abundant life full of hope and promise.
Diane
December 2017

‘Twas the Night before Thanksgiving

With the pumpkin and apple pies resting on the counter, the dressing chilling in a refrigerator, and the cranberry salad congealing, we set to cleaning and straightening the kitchen.  Pastry clung to my apron front and lined the cuffs of my sweater.  Flour dusted the floor.  Bits of onion and celery stuck to the tile floor.  Sticky cranberry juice spread like melted candy on the stove top.
The dishwasher was packed.  Pots and bowls drained in the sink.  Dish towels and rags spun in the washing machine.  The mop hung precariously from a laundry room perch, dripping with Mr. Clean.  
My feet complained.  My back ached.  A sharp pain radiated from my left hip.    We had forgotten to buy whipping cream and ice cream for the pies.  Our eight year old GE Profile refrigerator had failed.
Otherwise, we were ready for “Over the river and through the woods” after a good night’s sleep.  
Except that the good night’s sleep refused to cooperate.  The day’s events trailed me to bed.    Between sautéing onions in butter, slicing apples, and draining pineapple, we had bought a refrigerator.  My evening reading of text messages and emails had detailed how much awaited us after Thanksgiving.   I worried about and prayed for loved ones dealing with anxious situations.  I agonized over national and cultural discord.  I ruminated helplessly.  Autumn hikes replayed through my memories.  Anticipation crept into the wrinkles of hopeful slumber.  My husband’s steady breathing and quiet body reminded me how luscious sleep can be, could be, might be, if only I could let go of the day.   
What a stew the brain can be before a celebration, I thought.  Just like Christmas Eve when I cannot quite relax enough to sleep, when the energy of preparation refuses to stop, here I was humming along under the blanket as if I had had three cups of coffee and a brisk walk.  My crazy thoughts ran in such random directions none of it would ever make sense in conversation.
So I gave up, slipped into a robe, made a cup of lemon ginger tea, turned on the lamp in the den, and picked up a novelOllie, our designer mutt, left his bed, jumped onto the sofa, and snuggled up beside me.   A chilly wind tossed the trees in the night’s silvery light.  With each gust, the rocker on the back porch struck the exterior wall.   This is nice, I thought.  Here’s the Afghan my friend crocheted, the humming furnace, the ticking of the bookcase clock.  Here I AM.
The spicy tea warmed my senses.  Peace came so surreptitiously I hardly noticed until I was thinking about all the recent manifestations of God’s love and mercy.   My mind quieted.  The book kept slipping.  I switched off the lamp.  When I climbed back into bed, I fell into a deep sleep — gratefully.

Empress of the Salon

Vietnamese and English hum throughout the nail salon. Water swishes in foot spas. The acrid scent of acetate hangs in the air.  In the waiting area, customers waiting for fill ins and pedicures stare out the front windows at the geometric neatness of vehicles parked diagonally, the blazing sun reflecting off car hoods. Oversized LED screens play muted Houzz renovations of worn out houses gutted and reformed into stunning contemporary homes, construction cosmetology for real estate as entertainment.
“Pick out a color. Please seat here. We will be with you in a few minute.” The manager, a lithe young woman with jet black eyes, directs a nail attendant toward a waiting customer seated in one of the faux leather chairs. The manager’s mobile phone buzzes. 
‘Yes, yes, you have appointment. Yes. You come now. No waiting.” 
An eruption of Vietnamese causes uncertain steps, backward, forward, sideways — an apparent trading of which attendant would do which customer.  A woman waiting in a spa chair watches expectantly, her sandals neatly arranged beside her chair, her feet soaking in warm water. 
“No, no, wait, two appointments are coming,”  says the manager in mixed English and Vietnamese, speaking clandestinely to her attendants.   
A wispy woman enters.  She walks carefully, her feet in dainty sandals.  From within a lemon yellow cotton bucket hat her doll-like face materializes: taut skin and smooth complexion, a rosebud mouth, and a Marilyn Monroe chin. Thin, trembling flax colored hair dangles from beneath her cap. The high kimono collar of her embroidered silk blouse almost camouflages her desiccated neck. Slipping off her sandals, she selects her chair, this empress of the nail salon. All eyes on her. 
Opening her bag she removes her personal polish. A deep aqua for her toes, blush for her fingers. Her thin hands and arms expose veins and ligaments, aged rivers running over parched land. 
Another woman enters confidently and takes a seat. Middle aged and dressed in casual career clothes, she is coming in for her bi-monthly pedicure appointment. 
“That’s a gorgeous top you are wearing she says to the Empress.” 
“Thank you. I got it in Korea.” Her voice, a soft soprano, had not lost its intonation of authority, only its projection. Her  reply unmasked distant details of memory, imagined, not shared, its significance signaling a personal history of romantic travel, of geography and psychology, held in place by the extravagant blouse.
The waiting customer, who has been patiently soaking her feet, assesses the scene. The nail attendants are now occupied with other customers. She has been upstaged by “the appointments.”
A male attendant appears and offers to give her her pedicure. 
“No, no, it’s fine. I need to go.” She has already shifted in her chair to gather her belongings.
“You come back. Make appointment. We make room for you,” says the manager .
“No no. It’s fine,” she says as she slips into her sandals and exits swiftly.  She is not one to make a scene over a pedicure.
Beads of perspiration rise above the manager’s brows. The empress had arrived and thrown off the schedule.  The empress never waits. 
Her toes finished, the Empress sits for her manicure. She places three bottles of polish on the counter. “This one first, then this one, and this last.” 
The attendant patiently points out, “I think not this one. Last time this one not dry. We use first coat also for last.” 
“This one first, the polish next, then this one last,” insists the empress. 
“No this one not dry.  Last time sticky.” The attendant moves the bottle aside.
“Okay. We’ll do it your way.” 
Above the nail attendant’s head on the LED screen, engineers oversee enormous drills and dozers sculpting a pool and patio rooms from a granite hillside facing a valley below, the owner’s three story executive home with its wrap around windows towering above the noisy work. 
“Impressive,” says a customer. 
“Yes,” says the Empress. “Shame we don’t have experts like that around here.” 
“I’m sure they would be glad to fly in for a fee.”  There is a hint of irony in these words, as if the customer might be testing the Empress.
“Yes, that is true.” She answers with conviction; with enough money you could call on such people.  She watches the blush polish go on her nails.  “I can’t use color on my nails. No color, said the doctor. I’m having surgery tomorrow. So no color.” 
Her facelifts and restructured nose and chin can not mask the weariness and resignation in her voice. She rises to go. 
The attendant intercepts her and directs her to a seat at the drying table. “Here.  You sit here.  Dry nails.”
“No. I don’t want this.” She sounds plaintive as she leans onto a chair.  She looks out the window toward where she wishes to be, somewhere beyond the well ordered parking lot.
“Oh, all right.” She sighs and seems to shrink as she sinks into an oversized chair. 
She places her hands flat on the table under ultra-violet light. The doctors will be able to see when her fingers go blue. She has not allowed color on her nails. 

The Bully

No era escapes life’s lessons, which takes me to how frequently I find meaningful analogies from my childhood to apply to what disturbs me presently and how persistent are our human patterns regardless of the decade or our age.

In third grade Peter was one of my best friends. I met him through Marilyn, my other best friend. We all lived short bike rides from one another, an exhilarating down hill ride in one direction and a breathless bike push home. Peter was kind and gentle, thin, blue eyed, and hilarious. Our threesome was modified by witty and mannerly Marilyn, who to this day has the demeanor of a fine hostess.

At Hoover Elementary School the rules at last bell were, as today, designed to keep us in order with single file exits, classroom by classroom. Of the event I have never forgotten, on a spring afternoon high with promise — bike rides, freshly baked cookies, sparkling scenery — we filed out of our classrooms toward the front doors. Peter was in front of me. He would be next out the front door. Behind me was The Classroom Bully, an oversized, brash boy who had to be first, had to be noticed.

Suddenly The Bully pushed me from behind into Peter, who instinctually braced  himself, holding his arms straight out toward the doors. In milliseconds Peter crashed through the glass doors. In those days we didn’t have safety glass. The glass shredded Peter’s arms. I fell into him. The Bully stood back obediently holding the line.

“She pushed him!” Yelled The Bully.

I was jerked into the principal’s office and held there. Trembling, I heard the siren of the ambulance. The sight of Peter’s blood spurting and the shattered glass, the screams, the “She pushed  him!” collapsed into a fearful collage.

“Did you push, Peter?”  Asked Mr. Lyons, the principal.

“Yes,”  I murmured. For indeed I had. I was certain I had killed him.

My mother suddenly appeared and kneeled in front of me. “Diane, what happened?”

“Is Peter dead?” I sobbed.

“No, Sweetie. Peter has gone to the hospital. Doctors will fix him. He will be okay.”

“Someone hit me from the back and I pushed Peter into the door.”

Wise mothers learn to discern a truth from a lie. My mother had lots of experience with my fibs. She pulled me into her arms. “Peter will be okay. It’s not your fault.”

The Bully refused to confess even after other children and a teacher described the incident. Mr. Lyons reassured me over and over. “Peter will be okay.”  But my kindly principal could not erase the sinking feeling of my being pushed from behind and accused, singled out and pulled into the principal’s office to await my fate.

Peter was hospitalized for a week and at home for another week. When he returned to school he wore bandages on his arms.   I had agonized for days until I learned he had been released from hospital.  I knew I hadn’t actually caused the incident but I’d been a party to it. Oddly, some part of me today says I was an accomplice, that being an unwitting accomplice doesn’t fully exonerate a person. Our friendship was forever tainted thereafter, for my outsized sense of responsibility just would not fade.

To this day I have a visceral dislike of bullying behaviors, of brash, careless people willing to discard or harm others to maintain narcissistic supremacy.

Still, the adult me wants to know why The Bully was as he was and what happened to him.  Peter, I believe, matured successfully.  But what of The Bully whose name I forgot long ago, like pain.

Dishonesty as Disruption

When I was five years old. I told a whopper to my mother in order to save my own skin. I didn’t wish to be a lesser person in her eyes so the whopper was absolutely necessary — under the circumstances. 
The situation began honestly enough when I twisted a simple fact into an alternative one. In my kindergarten class when someone had a birthday, our teacher Mrs Alexander would ask, Does anyone have a birthday today?”  Up went Jimmy’s eager hand, and then mine. Jimmy was turning six that day, one year to the date of his fifth birthday. I was however simply one day older. 
“Are you sure,?” asked Mrs Alexander, giving me a gracious out. 
Here was my big chance to bow out, to admit I was just kidding. Or confused. Or looking for attention. “Yes.  Today is my birthday.  I’m six. ”  I almost convinced myself; if I could wish it, it could be true. 
So both Jimmy and I received 28 paper birthday cakes crayon colored by our classmates to take home. 
Hoover Elementary School was four blocks from my home. When Kindergarten ended at noon, Mrs Alexander released us into the hall with smiles and hugs. I avoided her eyes as I left class with the paper cakes heavy in my cloth tote bag.  I walked down the 20 plus steps to the school parking lot,  crossed the street to a sidewalk along a shaded avenue, dawdled alongside the ivy covered chain link fence securing the Whiteside family estate, and climbed  the 30 steps up to Alvarado Avenue. As my feet inevitably moved me closer to home, to lunch and my waiting mother, my mind was at work on an explanation about the paper cakes. 
If I slipped into the alley that ran behind our houses on Alvarado, I could dispose of the papers into a neighbor’s trash can. I stopped at the first trash can and reached into the tote bag.  The papers clung to me like glue.  What if someone sees me and asks what I’m doing?  I’ll keep them a little longer. At the next trash can, I thought again, a little longer. 
Torn between disposing of the paper cakes and fabricating a clever story for Mommy, I walked on, passing one trash can after another until I reached the back gate of our yard. 
One voice said, toss these cakes in the garbage right now!  Another voice said tell Mommy that everyone received 28 crayoned colored birthday cakes that day because Mrs Alexander didn’t want anyone to be left out. 
What a happy, wishful thought!  Everyone with paper cakes. A perfect solution!  Into the yard, through the back door of the basement, up a flight of stairs to the kitchen, I went. 
There was my mother at the kitchen sink preparing lunch. Did I happily hand her the bag and say, Guess what happened today?!  No. I slipped off to my bedroom and set the bag down on my desk. 
“Where’s your school bag?”
My tuna fish sandwich felt like cotton in my mouth. “Mmhh. I’m not sure.”
By the time I’d finished my grapes, Mommy had discovered the school bag and the paper cakes. 
“What’s this?”
“0h nothing.  Just color book cakes. That’s what we did today. Color.”
“Oh, how pretty. Look this one is chocolate!  Oh here’s a nice strawberry cake. This must be lemon. And on she went. Through 28 cakes, admiring each one, but barely noticing mine. 
I was stuck at the table. 
“Who had a birthday?  Today isn’t YOUR birthday “
Here goes, I thought. “Jimmy had a birthday, and Mrs Alexander said it would be nice if everybody had a birthday today so we all colored cakes.”
“Everyone went home with this many cakes?”
“Uh huh.”  
“All that coloring must have taken a long time.”
“Uh huh.”
“All morning?”
“May I be excused?”
“Well, how very thoughtful of Mrs. Alexander. You should save these cakes. They are all so nicely done.”
Like a scarlet badge were those cakes hidden in my dark closet in a paper bag until I could safely dispose of them. 
Of course, in my heart I meant to say, we all need attention and because of that I ended up with a bag full of cakes that felt like hot ugly rocks. That was a fact which stuck in my throat. 
I didn’t get off easily. I still remember the incident as if it were yesterday– words stuck in my throat,  guilt in a bag in the closet.