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.


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.



Is this Sally Blake?”

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

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


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—“


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.
Please hold while your call is transferred.


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.
Please hold while your call is transferred.


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.
Please hold while your call is transferred.


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
Please hold while your call is transferred.


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.



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.


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.