Saturday, July 1, 2017

Not our usual haunt

My friend Maggie and I are partial to Irish pubs. Actually, I think a better description would be "pubs with a British Isles bent" since the one we go to most often I believe claims to be Welsh, not Irish. It's all optional ethnicities at this point anyway, it's basically "pasty white folk bar".

We are partial to them, however, because I like Irish beer and we both like Irish whiskey. So when we go out and feel like maybe a beer sounds like a good idea, we have several to choose from but you know how it goes, you like a certain table, a certain noise level, a certain easiness of one place over another. And they also give you to-go plastic cups for your water and now you have enough to build one of those Tiny Houses on HGTV out of them.

So it was a Tuesday and she picked me up and we debated. Did we want to eat? Just get a drink? We decided eat. But we felt like maybe we were in a rut and was there someplace new we could try? I listed the standard ones we'd been to recently. Then I mentioned another one, one I hadn't been to since Brooklyn was an Irish dancer and used to dance jigs in bars the whole month of March. Because of course she did.

"Well, let's try something new," she said.

So we went down to Dogtown, which is where some Irish immigrants moved as the St. Louis red brick industry took off, and went to the tiny little Irish pub. As we were walking up to the door, a man a little older than us opened the door and my eyes met his. He was so familiar to me but I couldn't place him. We thanked him and went in. Got a booth along the wall and debated with the waitress about the fish and chips. I got a Smithwicks. We had the fish and chips and talked and it was all just like any other evening.

The man who held the door for us came in with an older man and two younger, very dirty, men. They sat at the table one down from us and I read the t shirt of the man I thought I recognized. It was from the union that Troy had worked for. I pointed it out to Maggie and explained. I was overcome by a bit of nostalgia and looked over at the the guys as they ordered fried chicken and beers and fries.

"You should say something to them," Maggie urged. But I didn't want to intrude. I was starting to put it together. I think I'd had a beer with the one guy, one time when I brought Troy his checkbook and wound up hanging out with them a bit before a union meeting. But they were busy talking and I never know where I stand, or where Troy stood, and I didn't want to intrude. I just didn't want to intrude.

But I eavesdropped like mad.

And then the young guy who had obviously come from some awful dirty job, said, "Well I'm taking the day off because Troy Cooper, he was a good guy."

I looked at Maggie. We both knew I had to go say something.

I went over and introduced myself. Told them I'd heard them talking. Explained that I saw the union logo and wondered if they'd known him. The two young guys started talking about Troy--one of them had been in his apprenticeship class--about how he wasn't that hard a worker but he always brought good food for everyone at lunch so they liked him. They talked about that power plant job down in Labadie and I found myself listening to them explain what a magnesium burner was and how Troy would use it...

Just like when he would sit at my kitchen table and bore me to death with stories about concrete and jackhammers and oh so many other rough hard jobs.

I left them to their chicken and beer and went back and sat down with Maggie.

We were in a bar we'd never gone to.
On a Tuesday.

The week after I learned Troy had died.

And four guys who knew him--and I haven't run into a a union t shirt since Troy lived with us--sat down at the next table.

And talked about him.

It wasn't our usual haunt.

But it was more than a little haunted.

Saturday, April 22, 2017

Some things from 64 hours in a children's hospital

London is ok now. So I can write about this now. She started wheezing Sunday morning and by 9 that night it was uncontrollable. We checked in at the ER at one of our two local children's hospitals (we are so lucky considering the size of our city that we have two excellent children's hospitals) around 10:30 that night.

*Easter night in a children's ER is surprisingly empty.

*Children's hospital's nurses in the ER are nice but registration staff are as gruff as they are in normal ERs.

*A staff doctor with a stutter makes me want to assist her in communication.

*Time passes both quickly and slowly. The moments drag but the hours fly and I don't know how I made it from somewhere around midnight until 4 in the morning.

*Twelve year olds do not want you to take their picture when they are in the ER.

*It's been so long since I had my first IV, and I've had so so many since that first one, that it was hard to live through her as she got her first one. Especially when the first line blew and the nurse got a phlebotomist to do it again and there was blood all over the bed.

*Twelve year olds, however, can be notional and like the idea of hospital beds and how they go up and down at different spots and wheel around and raise up and have rails and so forth. Very entertaining.

*Being told that your child is going to be hospitalized isn't actually that bad.

*Being told it's the PICU is devastating.

*Calling your father, the former ER nurse, at 7:30 in the morning while you drink a cup of coffee the social worker got you a voucher for and hearing him say: "The next step is they will intubate her" destroys you.

*And then when he walks into the ER room and you can tell how worried he is, then you know for sure. This whole time you've been thinking a breathing treatment and then we'll go home. Ok, three breathing treatments and then we'll go home. Ok, magnesium and then we'll get a room and they'll observe her the rest of the night. Oh. Oh this is happening. My child is dying.

*Children's hospitals are both grim and cheerful. I've been to both in town before for appointments and MRIs and whatnot, but PICUs are only grim. So many people. So many upset serious people. London was in room 28, and to get to her room I had to walk past all the other other rooms (hers was the last on the floor). There was a secret back exit I could leave through, but to come back I had to walk past every single room. A gauntlet of human misery. Hallways filled with equipment and cabinets and trash cans and machines.

*They break news to you in bits, although I already had hints from friends over text who knew ICUs and children's hospitals and emergency situations. But the biggest bit was status asthmaticus. Asthma that won't break.

*After being awake 27 hours, a single hour's nap in a parent lounge while my father paced back and forth is frighteningly enough sleep.

*People help. Meals were made. My house was cleaned. Brooklyn and Niles were fed and cared for. My phone wouldn't stop dinging from text messages and facebook responses.

*I am very very lucky. For two reasons, one of which I'll get to later, but the reason I saw and felt palpably in the PICU was how lucky I was that my child was well. That all three of my children were ok until that moment. Many sick, many chronically terminally sick children shared my living space those three days.

*Finding yourself texting a friend that you are afraid your child is going to die and then following it up with "I haven't gotten enough time with her yet" breaks your heart open as you realize how much of life is totally out of your hands.

*Having to tell the story again and again makes you relive it just a little bit and your heart races.

*For some reason this continues even days later. Your heart doesn't stop racing.

*Getting downshifted from the PICU to a pulmonary floor is a huge letdown in terms of staff attentiveness. It's like moving from a Ritz Carlton you never wanted to go to, down to a Quality Inn you can't get out of.

*The Ronald McDonald Lounge is absolutely amazing.

*A good nurse and a child life specialist can make a huge difference for your kid as she gets well enough to be bored but not well enough to go home.

*Going home is a huge relief and also overwhelming in a whole new way. And your heart doesn't stop racing.

*Sitting on your dad's front porch the next evening as he pours you a glass of whiskey with a splash of water and he starts a sentence with, "I can say this to you now..." is a really hard moment. The rest of that sentence is "Status Asthmaticus is one of the three true lung emergencies, with embolism and edema. I've seen people die of this." You know you're going to carry that around with you the rest of your life. The rest of your life, and anytime you hear your child wheeze or cough, your heart is going to stop.

We are home. She is well. All is once again right in this corner of the world.

And I'm terrified.

Saturday, April 15, 2017

I can't even

Warning: gross story ahead.

London tried out for and got a role as "extra with lines" in a student film. A university in town with a film school has student films that need actors and London saw a notice for one looking for child actors and she tried out.

I was busy with pertussis and remember vaguely telling her that sounded cool but not putting much weight into the idea that she might get a part. She got a part, and we went down to the filming location last weekend for blocking and costumes and whatnot. It was being filmed in a field in the country near a house belonging to one of the students (or rather, his parents). Found out while I was there (I'm sure there was an email but: pertussis) that the filming was happening over Easter weekend in the same location. Fair enough.

So on Friday we drove down and planted ourselves in a field somewhat near yelling distance from the set.

Wait let me back up.

Last weekend, I met a couple of the other parents while I froze in the field (why I was unaware of the location and it being outside, I'm not sure. Oh yeah, pertussis). Including a family from outstate Missouri whose kid was one of the leads.

Within ten minutes of sitting down in my camp chair, I knew the birth years of both parents, how long they had decided to wait to have kids, why they only had one, who had a drinking problem, where everyone grew up, and so forth. Kind of awkward but the sort of awkward I can handle. Then the dad insulted London in a vague way, telling her that she had to start somewhere, once she said what her role was. I could see that London was going to have no more of that nonsense. Lucky for her, the actors were busy from there on out and I was trapped with the family from hell.

I was grading papers; he told me what he thought about teachers. About math. About how things in schools are nowadays and how they used to be better. This is MY LEAST FAVORITE DISCUSSION ABOUT MY PROFESSION. I can talk about math, about why I teach, who I teach, about teachers other people loved, about school violence, about any and all sorts of things. But don't talk about how calculators make people dumb. Or tell jokes about how hard math was back in the day. Or how the nuns used to beat you and that was somehow better. Because it isn't better.

I had some knitting....he talked about knitting. He talked about blood thinners. He talked about...everything. He was the expert.

So coming back this weekend, I was determined that someone else was going to be the sacrificial lamb. I brought a friend. We sat waaaaaay far away and talked in whispers to each other. We did not engage. There were other people for him to talk to, and frankly, there were so many people and they were so busy with the filming that he didn't have much to say.

A little set up: we were in a field. The house attached to the field was down a one lane gravel road about a quarter mile. That's where we parked and we were shuttled to the location, although once I realized it was a pleasant little walk, I declined the shuttle service. Beautiful weather under the stars. Might as well walk. The house was also the location of the bathroom. Also not a big deal, I'm a girl scout, I understand walking a little hike to the facilities.

But this family didn't like the set up. Neither adult was in good shape and a long walk to the bathroom was not wanted. The shuttle service (which was a minivan) was fine until filming began at dark--they didn't want the headlights messing with the lighting. So once it was dark, we were stuck with a walk back to the house. Well neither of them wanted that and they both opted to find a spot in the woods. I get this--I've been on hikes where this was the only option.

Ok so back to this week. Sitting apart from them and the other families, talking with my friend Maggie, she looks over at one point and asks in a whisper, "what is going on over there?"

My eyes take a moment to focus on the dim light. On the edge of the trees there's some movement and I finally can see that someone is holding up a blanket. I realize its the dad from that family, and obviously he's shielding his wife from view while she does her business.

After they make their way back to the camp chairs where they are sitting, we focus in again. There's a bucket where they had been.

"Oh no," I whisper. "He held up a blanket while she pissed in a bucket."

We have to investigate. Of course we do. We make a pretense of walking to the house so that we can walk past the bucket. And it has a lid. It has a toilet seat and lid. I have so many questions I cannot answer.

We get back to our chairs and wait to see what happens next. The whole thing is so weird. Did they bring the bucket? Surely the students didn't provide the bucket. Are they going to take it with them? Where did they purchase the seat for a five gallon bucket (this question I answered with a google search)?

Time passes. They both appear to be asleep in their chairs. It's like 10:30 at night in a breezy country field. Other parents are staring at their phones. Everyone is silent.

And suddenly the man topples out of his chair. Maggie runs over, another mom holds up her iPad as a flashlight. I get up to go help and when I get there, he's just starting to get up off the ground.

And he's buckling his belt.

Then his wife, who hadn't gotten out of her chair until we all got over there, goes over with him to the bucket and that whole thing happens again.

We sit down and I turn to Maggie. "His belt was undone?"

She nods. "And his pants. And they were pulled partially down. He was trying to pull them up when I got over there."

We sit and consider this a moment. And another moment while we watch them and their bucket ordeal at the edge of the woods.

We hash this out once we are safely in my car on our way back to the city. And we come to the conclusion, in her words, that "he is a filthy old man, that's why" and just sit in that fact for a while.

I drop her off at home, take London home and get her to bed and I'm still thinking about the whole thing.

And yes, they took the bucket with them when they left.

And yes, they brought it back tonight.

Tuesday, April 4, 2017

Birds: Sparrow

In college, my freshman year, I didn't have a phone very often. My first roommate had it in her name but she moved out on me and I didn't have the money to join the 20th century. So my neighbors would take messages for me, or the dorm desk, and I would make phone calls from payphones.
My father worked at a private psychiatric hospital at the time and there was a 1-800 number for his place. It wasn't supposed to be used for lonely freshmen to call their fathers for free during the workday, but that's what I used it for.

I was conflicted. I didn't know what I wanted to be when I grew up. I didn't understand human relationships and I was having troubles with friends and with the boyfriend back home. And later in the spring, I was sick, probably with histoplasmosis from a caving trip, this unending cough and fever.

I was troubled and worried about many things.

None of my choices seemed clear. Nothing looked easy or even like a good challenge I was up for. I was lonely and conflicted and I would call my father at work on a Tuesday morning.

He had no answers for me. 

No--he did. And they are things I still think about. Life is better through a classroom window than from behind a lathe. Pretty sure he said that to me for the first time on one of those calls. Also: life is too long to spend it doing something you hate.

"You mean life is too short," I corrected him.

"No," he was never to be corrected. "It is too long."


So here I am twenty four years ago. I'm conflicted. I don't know what I want to be when I grow up. I still sometimes don't understand relationships and I'm not sure where I'm headed. I am sick, this time with pertussis, this unending cough.

I am troubled and worried about many things.

None of my choices seem clear.

But I also know no one has any better answers for me than Terry did back in 1993. I need to do what I can. Do what I love. Don't waste a single moment. Hustle and try and get back up and sweat it out and do it, Bridge. Life is too long not to.

Have some faith that you can do what you need.

We all are mostly sparrows--we think of ourselves as cardinals and hawks and doves but most of us are sparrows.

God's got his eye on the sparrow.
And I know he watches me.

Friday, March 31, 2017

Birds: Great. Horned. Owl.

I remember when I was going to write about birds. Then there were so many birds I couldn't figure out how to get started. I wrote about ten birds or so last spring and then let it fall by the wayside.

I'm ready to write about birds again.

And I'm going to start back up with an owl.

I sit on the trunk of a car, twenty-five years ago, leaning up against the back window in the dim light of post-sunset Houston. The orange lights from the oil refineries are blocked by the live oak trees all around us, the summer heat never lifts, and me and a boy are on the back of the rusted yellow orange Datsun.

The air smells like the still water on the other side of the railroad tracks, something poor, something stagnant. It infuses the gravel driveway, the wooden porch, the house and the crawlspace underneath, the car.

I rarely ride in the car; I rarely visit the house.

We lean back, not touching, looking up towards the breaks in the trees. So much of the time I filled with talk, he filled with movement. But now we are silent and still.

And there it is, the floating flash of feathers as the owl passes overhead. Time passes, and we hear the who-who-who. I don't know until much later that it's probably a great horned owl--it was a large creature, it didn't have the spooky barred owl call, it didn't shriek. Just "who".

We lie there on the back of the Datsun, not touching, not talking. It's over in just a few months. We will never know each other again, we will never see or talk or touch each other ever again.

Who.

I'm wondering who. Who was that girl? Who did I think I was? Who did I think I could possibly be?

But I think I know who I am now.

Monday, March 27, 2017

May I direct your call elsewhere?

"Defeat is not the worst of failures. Not to have tried is the true failure."
-George E. Woodberry
I'm probably going to get a job Saturday. I hope so. It would make life a lot easier. If I do, then I'll work for the city for 3 or 4 years, take some time off to get my master's degree (sub or aide some?) and get into a good district "for life" (or until I burn out and go back for my MBA or something). And if I wind up in a decent school first off, things will be great.



 And if I don't get hired Saturday (their second round, actually--when they hire new teachers), then I'll most likely get hired on in October (their third and final round, when they find out "Oh, we need another sixteen elementary teachers!") or November (when St. Louis begins to have teachers break their contracts), or January (when some teachers decide to go on an extended winter break), or I will make a concerted effort, to get a classroom position for next year.



I'm also going to take a physics or ecology course at Forest Part this fall, since I need three more classes in science and a middle school methods course to become the most sought after classification--middle school science--in the St. Louis metro area.



--



Well, no job yet. The job fair didn’t go as planned. I have this inkling of a clue that the professors who tell me how to get a job really never tried. Or maybe the City is just so bad at hiring that a job fair is just their way of checking how many needy people are out there. I don’t know. All I know is that I showed up and I was one of 10 dozen nervous young girls surrounded by some largish angry older women and a handful of middle aged burnout men. I tried to leave my resume in various places, and nobody wanted it. They simply kept giving me the phone number and application packet—GOD! Why did I slack this summer? Why didn’t I get up out of bed sometime and make some phone calls? Visit some schools? Why didn’t I spend the last two years kissing ass? What is wrong with me? Of course, I say that now.



--



My worst negative fantasy has come true: it’s September 2nd and I don’t have anywhere to go tomorrow. I’m still trying to get a position in the city, though. I am amazingly calm and normal, considering. “Hello, Sally, come on in. I assume that you were briefed on the job requirements by Sandy?” “Yes, thanks.” Why am I still here? I don’t want this job. This is an assistant position. I would make zip. I would have to answer to other teachers, people with the same education, and maybe the same experience I have. How demoralizing. But here I stand, well, now I sit, across the desk from a bearded white guy, a bit overweight and even though he’s the superintendent, he’s dressed like a football coach in skin tight shorts and a polo shirt. Maybe this is a warning. This district is a little podunky.  “Graduate from SLU. That’s good. Not a lot of experience yet, right?”

I just graduated.”

He nods and puts the resume down. “You’ll be a floater. We’ve gotten a grant to hire special education floaters. We have an open school environment, without complete walls between the classrooms. Your job would be to stick with a set of students….”

Don’t drift off. Keep smiling and nodding. Special ed? There are big reasons why I didn’t go into special education.  am so desperate.

“…color coded and filed. Does that make sense?”

Sure,” I lie. What is color coded and filed? He hasn’t asked me a single question I’ve prepared for. What about my philosophy of teaching? My approach to student needs? My behavioral management plan? What about my goddamned portfolio?

Do you want to see my portfolio?” I ask when he stops for a breath.

No, not necessary. This isn’t a creative kind of position.”

I can’t take this job. I can’t make zilch for a whole year following behavior disordered children around on the playground. I can’t do it. I just hope Marilyn from the city calls me back. I yearn for a fourth grade classroom all to myself. Even a third grade one. Whatever. I’ll teach P.E. if they want me to. Just not special education aide. Not for a whole year.

--

Hello?”

Is this Sally Blake?”

Yes, well, I’m married now, but that’s me.”

Is this Sally Blake?” the voice demands this time.

Yes.”

This is Marilyn Jefferson from 911 Locust. You have an appointment with Vincent Poole at Woodward Elementary at 10 this morning. Can you make it at 10?” 
 
Yes. Thank you so much for getting back to me.”

Goodbye.” She hangs up. Time to call Vincent Poole. Wait, first I’d better get out of bed and take a shower and drink something so I don’t sound like I just woke up. I have to get this job.

May I speak to Vincent Poole please?” I ask so politely.

Who do I tell him is calling?”

My name is Sally Bridge—I mean Sally Blake, and I have an interview with him at ten and—“ click. She must have transferred me.

Hello?” says a man’s voice.

Is this Mr. Poole?”

That it is. How may I help you?”

My name is Sally Blake and I have an interview with you at 10, and I’d like to know—“

Who?”

Sally Blake. Marilyn Jefferson called to tell me that I have an interview with you at 10 this morning, and—“

There’s been a mistake, then, because I have a full complement of teachers this year already. None of them first-timers either. So there’s no interview.”

Should I call Marilyn back then?” 
 
I guess you should.”

--

You have reached the administration offices of the St. Louis Public Schools. If you know your party’s extension you may dial it now. Otherwise please choose from our menu of options. If you are a teacher reporting an absence press 2. If you are a substitute reporting duty press 3. To use our automated personnel file check system press 4. If you are calling regarding open positions please press 5. All other calls please hold for the operator.
*5*
Please hold while your call is transferred.

Personnel.”

May I speak with Marilyn Jefferson please.”

Ms. Jefferson is not available at this time. May I direct your call elsewhere?”

May I leave a message?”

Go ahead.”

My name is Sally Blake and I was supposed to have an interview at Woodward but Mr. Poole cancelled on me and I’m still looking for a position—“

What’s your phone number?”

--

You have reached the administration offices of the St. Louis Public Schools. If you know your party’s extension you may dial it now. Otherwise please choose from our menu of options. If you are a teacher reporting an absence press 2. If you are a substitute reporting duty press 3. To use our automated personnel file check system press 4. If you are calling regarding open positions please press 5. All other calls please hold for the operator.
*5*
Please hold while your call is transferred.

Personnel.”

May I speak with Marilyn Jefferson please.”

Ms. Jefferson is in a meeting. May I direct your call elsewhere?”

Well, I left a message with her this morning about a job interview, and she never got back to me.”

She hasn’t been back to her office all day.”

Is there someone else I can talk to about a job search? I’m already in the system.”

No, Ms. Jefferson is the person who sets up the appointments. Nobody else does her job, you know.”

I know. Thanks.”

--

Later that day I get a call from the other district. They’d love to give me the job. No shit. I tell them I need a few days to think on it. They tell me that’s not an option. I tell them, skidding towards disaster with every word, that I’m not interested. But like someone in a car crash, I’m not so much panicked as experiencing everything in slow motion as I turn down my only job offer. Gotta keep focus on the city. They’ll figure it out eventually.

--

You have reached the administration offices of the St. Louis Public Schools. If you know your party’s extension you may dial it now. Otherwise please choose from our menu of options.
*5*
Please hold while your call is transferred.

Personnel.”

Is Ms. Jefferson in?”

No she isn’t. May I direct your call elsewhere?”

I left a message for her yesterday about a job interview, and she—“

Is this Sally Blake?” My god, a spark of interest?

Yes it is,” I tell her eagerly.

Ms. Jefferson told me to tell you that you would have to speak with Dr. Berkley about another interview.”

Can you transfer me to Dr. Berkley?”

He isn’t in right now. Can I take a message?”

--
You have reached the
*5*
Please hold while your call is transferred.

Personnel.”

May I speak to either Ms. Jefferson or Dr. Berkley?”

They’re in a meeting right now, may I direct your call elsewhere?”

No thanks.”

--

You know, you can only put up with so much bullshit before you realize that you aren’t needed. The ironic part of this is that I heard a radio ad this morning about the city schools needing teachers. No wonder they need teachers. Of course, Marilyn probably thinks I’m happily teaching away at Winchester School or have already talked with Dr. Berkley. So I guess it’s back to Cloth World for a year. I’ll look again maybe in December, maybe I’ll sub for a year. It won’t be that bad.

--

Hello?”

Is this Sally Bridge?”

Yes it is.”

Hello, this is Marilyn Jefferson from the St. Louis Public Schools. I have an interview scheduled for you at Simmons School with Dr. Justin. Can you make it at 1 p.m. today?”

Yes, thanks for finally getting back to me.”

Well, we only just got your file reviewed today. Your police record check was late.”

Oh, ok, then.” That’s odd. “I can be there at one.”

--

Simmons School is in a rough part of town. Perhaps the roughest. When I called my parents about the hopeful presence of another interview, my father was amazed that I’d drive to Simmons.

You know that’s right down the street from the deadliest corner in America,” he reminded me. “St. Louis and Sarah. More gunfights and deaths there than any other.”

Yes, but wasn’t that in 1975?” I ask sarcastically. My father had been an emergency room nurse back then.

How much could it have changed in 20 years?” he retorts.

I drive around the red brick, seemingly abandoned, school several times before I decide where I should park. I stop the car in the parking lot behind the school and walk around front to the locked doors. A security guard sees me through the bulletproof glass and opens the door. I explain who I am and he lets me in without conversation.

A middle-aged black woman, impeccably dressed and manicured, looks up from her high desk and smiles at me. Her hair has been bleached a golden color, which matches her nails and her shoes, I note as she stands up and walks around to greet me.

Are you Sally Bridge?” she asks.

I certainly am,” I respond. This is where I’ll teach. This will be just fine.

Dr. Justin is in his air-conditioned office behind a windowless door. The woman—who turns out to be the instructional coordinator for Simmons—leads me down the narrow corridor and knocks. He answers the door and flashes a bright white grin at me. He welcomes me in.

The interview goes like so many others. He asks me no specific questions. He talks about his school and that it’s part of the systemic urban initiative. They have a science grant as well. He wants me to teach fourth grade. I offer him my portfolio and he shakes his head.
I’ll see you in action soon enough and that will tell me if you can do the job.” This comment reminds me of a temp job I held once, making reference check telephone calls for corporations too busy to do it themselves. Thing is, the people I was checking on had already been hired. Once Dr. Justin sees me in action, it’ll be too late to do anything about it. Of course, I’ll do well.

He takes me on a tour of the peculiarly empty school. “We’re missing about 100 students,” he says without alarm.

Where are they?”

Who knows? They move, or perhaps they are on a bus to another school. I was told 250, and I have about 140 this year.” We take a wide curving staircase up to the second floor. He points up and down.

Kindergarten is that way, and first grade. There’s a few special education rooms as well. Down there,” he waves in the opposite direction, “is second and third.” We continue up the stairs.

The third floor, he tells me, and I believe him, hasn’t been used in over 30 years. I choke on the dust as we stir it up on the way to what will become my room. We pass the fifth grade classrooms and the other two fourth grade rooms. Mine—my own room—is at the east end of the hallway, next to a stairwell that terminates on the second floor, he points out.

The room is large and probably coated in lead paint. Just as I’m about to remark on the age of the paint, he tells me that the painter is due this week. That’s a good sign. There are built in lockers made of wood, and the desks are the old fashioned kind with the writing surface attached to the desk chair in front of you. They’re all stacked in one corner. There are two bookshelves, designed for primary classrooms, low to the floor. The other furniture is more odd. Three free-standing metal gym lockers, a rolling audiovisual cart without any equipment, a teacher’s chair without a desk, and an assortment of long poles.

Anything in here is yours to have,” he tells me over-generously. 
 
Does this mean I have the job?”

There was no question of that. This isn’t an interview, this is a tour.”

I leave Simmons with the elation of a marathon winner. Exhausted, happy, and desperately in need of water. In my case, it’s not due to thirst but the cakes of dust and grime on my hands from touching the windowsills in my new room. I have directions to head to 911 Locust for my orientation and to report to Simmons tomorrow. My first teaching job, I keep thinking to myself. I win.

Still dressed in the cheap interview suit that was all I really could afford on the salary from Cloth World last fall, I find myself sitting on the 4th floor of the 911 building, as it becomes to be known in my mind later on, with each number enunciated like an emergency call—9-1-1. Marilyn Jefferson comes out to greet me and two other frightened girls clutching what are obviously unread portfolios. She hands me off to Helen, who then escorts me to a cubicle to fill out the paperwork. Easily accomplished. I’m given a handbook and an instruction sheet for calling in absences to the phone line. Helen asks me which school I’m headed towards.

Simmons.”

Oh yeah? Don’t count on staying.”

I don’t ask for clarification. I’ve learned that the administrators at 911 are bitter, uninformed, and uncaring. If I’m destined to move on in one of the city’s famous teacher reshufflings, I’ll deal with it then. No reason to worry right now. I have a job either way.

I sign the contract for first year teachers—who turn out to be the only teachers who get contracts in St. Louis City due to labor disputes—and take my canary copies and handbook back out into the September sunshine. My car doesn’t have a ticket or a broken window, although it will have plenty of both by the end of this school year. I drive home, my head bursting with plans for my Simmons fourth graders.

But this adventure hasn’t yet begun. When I get home, there’s a message on the answering machine: “Sally, this is Marilyn Jefferson at St. Louis Public Schools. I have an interview scheduled for you tomorrow at 10 at Scruggs School. Please call me back to let me know if you can make this interview.”

As it turns out, St. Louis Public Schools didn’t simply make a note in my file about my name change once I was married—my letters of reference, for instance, were written about Sally Blake, not Sally Bridge. They had separate files. They also had two other files, on Sarah B. Blake (I never go by my first name, but my old Social Security card did), and Sarah Bridge, which is a name combination that never existed for me. Never mind that these people all had the same addresses, phone numbers, and dates of birth. To put it simply, if I had wanted to, I could have signed up to 4 contracts with them and probably pulled in a few paychecks for each before 3 of them were fired for not showing up for work

Saturday, March 18, 2017

A little corner in Shaw

Some places have an aura of sorts. There is a corner in the neighborhood just west of where I live that is like picking up a sleeping baby and resting her on your shoulder. It's a melty place, a soft place.

It doesn't look like any different corner, there's nothing special about it. A bar on one corner, a coffee shop catty-cornered. A neighborhood garden on an abandoned lot. It has nothing to do with the buildings or street or shops or churches or any of it. I hardly ever pass it, just when I'm headed home from one specific place.

One day long ago when the wounds from working at the Carnivale with Simon were still brutal and fresh, when I'd been told I wasn't wanted, in the one place I really wanted to be wanted, I went to my cousin's house. Her mom, my dad's oldest sister, had just died and she had a box of fabric to share with me, the contents of which went into two beautiful Triple Irish Chains I made the following year.

I stayed too long at her house, lingering in this moment of grief, mine borrowed, hers owned. I gathered up my kids finally and stuck them in my car and headed home, only 20 blocks or so, with my orange boxes filled with plaids.

We drove down the cross street headed to the park and reached this corner I mentioned, and there was Simon walking out of the bar. He saw my car and waved at me. I stopped.

I stopped because he'd been fired from the Carnivale too. Now, neither of us had actually been fired of course. I wasn't being paid, to begin with. I just wasn't welcome any longer. Simon was bought out of a contract. We were told we weren't their kind. And I handle heartbreak with two middle fingers straight up, cut people out of my life, fuck them all. Simon was part of it...until he was on the outside as well. And I let him back in, right there on that corner, with my kids witnessing my heart softening.

He came over and was so glad to see me. Told me of where he was headed next. Kept touching my arm, like he couldn't help it, he was so incredibly glad I'd let him back in. We spoke for just a moment. And then I drove away in tears.

He's moved away since then and I haven't seen him since. I send a Christmas card, we like each other's photos on instagram. But it's ok.

Last night I drove my daughters over to my cousin's house to babysit. Brooklyn has watched their kids many times, and London is hoping to get into the business and was apprenticing, for lack of a better term. I made a U-turn at the end of their dead-end street, headed back towards home. As I drove past the corner, I wasn't thinking about Simon. I wasn't really thinking at all. But I glanced up at the corner where we'd said hello and goodbye that last time, and there was a pick up truck parked.

On its back window was a decal that said, "Love will win."

I think perhaps it will. I know it can when I let it.

Saturday, February 18, 2017

Ten on Tuesday: Ten Valentines I'd like to send

To persons, places, entities unlikely to respond, I'd like to send a little love out into the world.

1. Turtles. I love that you continue to exist in a world with your armor and slow movements. I've taken to stopping my car and moving you to the side of the road, beyond the little fences, hoping that's the direction you were heading, knowing that not everyone will stop. And some people will even aim. I want you to make it.

2. Tim Gunn. Thank you for using your voice to speak out for those who don't get heard, even when it doesn't seem like it matters that much. It matters to me.

3. St. Pius V School. Early in the mornings, looking out at the sunrise from my third story window, hearing a rooster from someone's yard deep in south city, thinking about the journey that brought me to these polished granite floors, these slate boards and built in wooden cabinets, hand me down textbooks and refugee children mixed in with Americans and me, me! I got to feel like I was doing something that truly mattered, for the first time in my life. I was part of what was making the world a better place. Thank you.

4. Carondelet Park. Walking through it as a child or sitting on the side of its one way meandering roads waiting on soccer practice or enjoying the view under the gigantic oak trees, I love this park, I love this park.

5. Heart shaped rocks. I can decide they are nothing, or I can decide they are love letters from the universe. Guess which I have decided. Love wins.

6. Algebra. The reconciling of disparate parts. The reconciling of disparate parts. I love that my job, my life, is the untying of knots and the tying of new ones. We can find the unknown. The answer is hidden in the details.

7. Juncos. The first bird I taught myself how to see. Yeah, everyone knows cardinals and house sparrows and red tailed hawks. But you, you tiny little bird dipped in slate gray, I saw you in my magnolia tree and knew I didn't know who you were. And I wanted to know you better. So I gave you my number and told you to call me sometime. Or maybe I just looked you up in the field guide and awaited your return each fall.

8.Soccer games, swim meets, tennis matches and cabaret nights. How lucky am I to get to watch them do what they love.

9. Mt. Cammerer Fire Tower, Tennessee,on the Appalachian Trail. I know you're there. When I lie down at night I know you're there, watching over the valleys on the stone outcropping. I am lucky to have placed my foot upon your trail not once but twice. Each hike pushed me to my limits and made me grow.

10. My readers. Thank you for reading. Thank you for loving me enough to want to read what I say. I love that you're in my life.

Saturday, January 14, 2017

Ten Things I Have Learned From Project Runway

I've been watching Project Runway for years. You know it, most likely. A group of clothing designers gather in New York and produce pieces for the runway each week based on a theme (a makeover for an awkward friend, make a dress out of hardware store supplies, make a red carpet look, design a new look for a drag queen--these are all actual challenges).

Each week one designer wins, and gains some benefit (immunity for the next week, a photo spread in a magazine, an ad in Times Square), and one designer goes home. There's nothing more fun than listening to Michael Kors tear something apart ("she's like a mother of the bride who's a belly dancer"). I love rooting for designers and watching what they create.

I know enough about clothing construction, fabric, and sewing to follow the details and be amazed. And as I've been watching, I've learned some things. Here are a few of those things.


1. Representation is important. The models on Project Runway are all skinny little things, yes, but they from all sorts of ethnic backgrounds. More important than that, though, are that the designers are not all gay white men. They aren't. I swear. And as the seasons progress, the standard designer becomes less and less apparent. There are plus-size girls with low self esteem. There are weird Japanese guys with afros. Southern black gay men. Hippies and freaks. A deaf guy. Yes, there are a lot of gay white men. And a lot of tattoos and a lot of severe white women. But there are a lot of others.

What I found most interesting is when the “Tim Gunn Save” was introduced a couple of seasons ago, when Tim Gunn (the world's best human) could decide to save a designer who had been eliminated, once a season, the first three years he had the choice he saved the deaf guy, the black girl from Detroit who was self taught, and the black man with amazing work who made one slip up. Wouldn't life be better if we had a Tim Gunn Save? And we could use it when equity would be best served?


2. Be vulnerable. But don't walk through life unarmed. Take risks and do amazing things but be strategic. Know when it's ok to risk everything and when you should maybe hold back. Learn who to trust and remember that if it's a zero sum game, nobody is on your side but you. But still take the risks you think are best because fear never conquered anything.


3. If you can edit something out and it doesn't make what you are doing less, then you'd better edit it out. Trim down that writing. Make the proposal shorter and sweeter. Make your resume packed with only the essentials. Also your suitcase for a two week trip. This summer I went through my guest room and cut out 15 bags of trash. I filled a dumpster from the attic over Christmas break. Clutter isn't just in my house, though. Clutter in my heart. What can I edit out without losing my essential self?


4. If you can find a mentor who knows you and wants you to succeed, never ever let him go and always listen to him. Tim Gunn has to be the best human. I love him. I love watching him on this show and whenever he shows up on a radio program or internet meme or video. On Project Runway, he walks into the workroom and goes to each designer and has them explain their work. He asks questions. He stands there with his hand to his chin, worried. He is usually guarded in his advice, but sometimes he is blunt. And the smart designers listen very very carefully.


5. Tears do not necessarily sway people, but they also do not necessarily make people think less of you. Crying on the runway doesn't change what the judges think. In either direction. They don't like excuses, they don't like spin. But just because you have a hard time controlling the tears, it doesn't eliminate you. They judge you based on your work.


6. People can smell self-doubt like sharks smell blood in the water. You have to be convinced of your own expertise. If you are good at what you do, but you frame it like it's not good, people will feel it. And it will likely confuse them because if the work is good, you should be proud.


7. You will be thrown under many buses. Work on a team and watch yourself become the scapegoat when things go poorly (or watch yourself as you gang up together against another team member). Watch as coworkers bond together based on meaningless divisions like what hallway they work on or whose cubicles are next to each other or what subject they teach. Know that if you risk and stick your neck out, you are an easy target.

And especially if you're a black girl from Detroit or a fat girl with bad makeup. Mean girls—mean people—will throw you under the bus. They will do what they need to get by. They will not give you a hand up.


8. If you blow it big, it doesn't matter what successes you've had in the past. So much of our lives are based on the latest thing we've done. If we are currently good at what we're doing, people love us. If we screw up, that is often all people will notice. You can be great friends for a dozen years and then make one huge mistake and it's over. You can do excellent work and then your personal life starts to drown you and it makes things suffer at work and it doesn't matter. Often folks will give you a little leeway but screw up big? And that's it. Doesn't matter how pretty your last three dresses were. That romper is gross and you're out.


9. You have no idea what's coming next and it will take everything you have and it still might not be enough. Each week is a new challenge on Project Runway. Each day brings new challenges in our lives. And sometimes when we encounter the new challenge, it looks impossible and we know there's no way we can succeed. And we put our whole selves into the challenge, to make it work, and we run around and exhaust ourselves trying and then when we offer up what we have—our outfit design, our lesson plan, our job application, our hearts—sometimes it is simply not enough.

And when that happens, it's heartbreaking.


10. Lastly, this is an important lesson I've learned from Project Runway. Every season must include a designer who looks like my sister Bevin. Seriously. I don't know why that is. There is always someone with striking features, jet black hair, pale skin, and large eyes. It's some kind of contractual thing I'm sure.

Friday, January 13, 2017

South City Musings: January Edition


Right now (Ice Edition)

Right now we are iced in.

But not really. There is ice on the branches of the trees, hanging from the roof line, but the streets are fine. No school today, but there could have been. But there wasn't and I was happy because I needed the sleep because

Right now I'm having a lot of nightmares. Tornadoes hit my classroom. Dogs chase me through junkyards. I run my car off very specific bridges.

Not sure what it all means but I'm working on it.

Right now I'm darning all the wool socks that have holes. One pair has been darned so many times I cut the sole out of it and I'm reknitting the whole thing, which is a happy act of futility because these weren't even my best wool socks and I have a whole drawer full--but it's happy because I like this little task and it keeps me in knit socks for just a little while longer for free.

Right now dinner is on the stove and in the oven and I can't eat any of it because it is full of garlic. But it was a snow day and Brooklyn made donuts this morning and I've been noshing while I darned socks and watched more Project Runway reruns.

Right now London is practicing Dance of the Sugarplum Fairies on the piano.

Right now Niles is next door at the friend's house, who also had a snow day, or rather an ice day.

It's an ice weekend.

My grandmother's memorial service was scheduled for tomorrow but it has been canceled. I don't know when it will be rescheduled. My aunts indicated with the spring thaw. Do we live on the 1880s Great Plains? But I get it. No reason to risk anyone's life. Seriously.

So this ice weekend I darn socks and watch Tim Gunn make it work and cook food I can't eat and burn my tongue on hot tea.

Right now, even though I have newly darned socks, my feet are so flipping cold I think I need to go take a bath.

Right now that I've said that about the bath? That is all I can think about. Time for a nice hot bath.

Friday, January 6, 2017

Maybe I need some new moves

But I don't stop asking. Will you please dance with me?

Today the 8th grade walked in, grabbed their exit slips, their mini grades that have become a hook for them to stay engaged in the material day by day instead of cramming at the end, and had a seat. I started teaching before they were all in the room. Notebooks were out. They were scrambling.

It was introduction to mixtures. It's like, the nightmares you have about your Algebra I class? They are probably about mixture problems. Things like:

Andy has 12 ounces of a 5% alcohol solution. He wants to create a solution with a concentration of 30% alcohol. How many ounces of a 50% alcohol solution should he add to the 12 ounces to create the new solution?

There are several variations. And they are where every Algebra I class comes to a grinding halt and has to regroup. They are hard for the first time. Math is hard. It's not just computation. Sometimes kids panic. But I take my time on this topic and every year, they HATE mixtures but they know them.

I just taught away. I wrote out a formula. A grid. A couple of problems. And as I turned the page, as I turned page SIX of my notes, Hank raised his hand.

"I don't have any idea what's going on."

He stated this without contempt. Jenny nodded. Kelly started to chime in but I held up my hand.

I stood up. I walked over to my closet saying, "ok, let's break it down to a simpler problem. What if I had some white beads that sold for $1 a cup. And some shiny colored beads that sold for $4 a cup?"

I opened the closet door and took out a giant mixing bowl of white beads and set them down on the table in front of Vince. And then another big bowl of colored beads next to them. I produced two measuring cups and held up a cup of white beads.

"But I want a mixture of beads that are worth $3 a cup."

I smiled as Kelly asked me how I had all those beads, why, what was going on?

We went through the basics again. I told them to put the exit slips in their folders. I told them that when I taught Ariel's brother's class these lessons, it took them 5 days and one of the girls cried.

Nervous laughter.

Maybe my best days aren't behind me.

Maybe breaking them down a little worked. Maybe creating more structure is what they needed. Maybe making me the enemy? Seriously, making me the enemy, let them not be afraid to finally raise a hand and ask a question, be a hero instead of the idiot who doesn't understand.

It was only one day. But it was a good one.

I can't change the direction of the wind but for damned sure I can adjust my sails.

Thursday, January 5, 2017

Doing Time

It's not a competition. They don't care if you're angry at them. I'm not here to win against a group of 14 year old boys who have deep contempt for me right now.

It's really frustrating.

When I started back to work, my last experiences with teaching had been in an urban middle school classroom where I had started teaching barely able to contain my terror. What if I couldn't control the boys? What if they walked all over me and walked out of the room? What if they burned things in my classroom or hurt each other or stole from me or worse? I felt like an idiot walking in those first few days.

And then I realized that really, all they wanted was to have class down in the basement in the air conditioning.

And then we were friends. It was always a little tense for me that first year, but the second? The incoming 8th grade class was one of those Camelot classes. Just so right, how they meshed together and enjoyed being together.

I walked away from the classroom to raise my children. But I went back a few years ago and found myself in front of an 8th grade class of, essentially, men. Were 8th graders this large and hairy back when I'd taught before? It seemed so improbable.

They immediately fell for me.

It was such a good feeling to find myself back in the classroom and (for the most part) well-liked by my students. I always hold their opinions higher than my colleagues'. If I am preparing them for the next year of math and they still like me, I win.

That year and especially the following year, the 8th grade boys were my favorites. And I was theirs. We shared a space and time together, fleeting and everyday, but important. Important for some of them, surely, and I found it becoming important to me. Not that my ego rested on the shoulders of teenaged opinions, but knowing that I could walk into the classroom and we could enjoy each other together and do our jobs, it made the crushing parts of the job (low pay, lower respect from other adults, some ridiculous coworkers, some even more ridiculous adults) seem so small.

The next year I fell in love with my homeroom.

Each year I fall in love.

This year I'm still in love with the students who had been my homeroom last year. One mom told me that at the end of last year, her son went home and went up to his bedroom and cried in his bed. Because even though I would be his math teacher, it would never be the same again. I was the first teacher he felt loved him, saw him, and it was over.

And he's right and he's wrong. It won't ever be the same. But just like when my pastor left for another parish and we had the opportunity to be better friends, those former homeroom lambs grow into stronger relationships when they don't have to lean on me so hard.

But my current homeroom? I like them. But it's not love, not like years past.

And the current 8th grade?

I don't even want to talk about it. Seriously.

I feel like a contract has been broken. And I feel like an idiot feeling that way. Because I'm the math teacher and they are students. There's no contract. Stop it.

But there is. When it works, you can hear the harmony as you walk past my door. I'm here to teach and you are here to learn and it's math and nobody really likes it that much except maybe Rachel or Vince but really, they'd rather be somewhere else as well, and we have 45 minutes 5 days a week to let the light in through the cracks in our bits of humanity together and I can be angry and then let it go and I can apologize and disarm you because adults don't apologize and then I can tell you a story about that little girl with pickles in her pockets or the terrible nurse at my first school or that field trip with the drug dealers or that time when I moved to Dallas Houston Columbia Georgia California and that friend and another friend said and did those things and when my aunt died or I stood at the top of Mt. Cammerer and then we can get back to polynomials or vertical angles and then maybe I'll bring in my fencing gear or my recurve bow or I'll show you that video where the older cat talks to the new kitten or the dinosaur pets the cat or that girl with too many words writes letters to Spongebob and we can laugh or marvel at it and look, the snow, look at the snow.

I tried. I kept trying to get them to dance with me. The steps are easy. You can follow along. Just like a ballerina, step lightly, crowd will catch you, come on try it. 

They won't play ball. They won't dance. They won't even learn unless there's a grade at the end, a box checked and wrapped up and put away in a gradebook shelf next to all the other meaningless numbers.

They sit there in silence when former students come to visit and hug me and tell me about their current lives, their lives outside the classroom, inside other teachers' classrooms. The 8th graders must wonder what these visitors see in me. Why they would ever visit my classroom when they weren't assigned to me any longer. I have felt this contempt again and again for instructors, for educators, for professors.

Not for teachers though.

If I could go back and see Mrs. Chott or Br. Stephen or so many others, I would in a heartbeat. And I would say things like those former students say to my current students: you will miss her when she isn't in front of this classroom.

Oh baby.

Thing is, they won't.

Somehow we have passed each other by. We don't belong to each other. We are just doing time.

And it's heartbreaking.