White Wine and Hot Tubs

It was 1990 in Pennsylvania, certainly not the 1950’s and certainly not the deep South. My soon-to-be-ex had been transferred to a suburb outside Philadelphia, and I took a leave from my teaching job in California to follow him, except he was traveling most of the time so I was pretty much alone.

At the time — before internet, if one could even remember those olden times — California could just as easily have been a foreign country floating somewhere in the Pacific. I felt completely cut off, except for AT&T phone lines.

Desperate, I signed up for substitute teaching positions, but, alas, there were no jobs to be had, until one dreary, rainy day when a call finally came.  I must have driven a good hour to a high school in a small, rural community.

The principal came out to greet me which was a bit unexpected, but then, I wasn’t familiar with rural Pennsylvania norms.  He was tall and probably in his early 40’s. He asked about my experience and said that the schedule was pretty standard, except for the period around lunch.  It was a split period, with half before lunch and half after.  And, he warned me, it was a very difficult reading class.

Not to worry.  I’ve taught reading to high school students.  I’m sure it will be fine.

You are from California, right?

Yes, sir.

He visibly grimaced.

The first two classes were a breeze, primarily college bound students.  I was used to suburban California schools, with classes filled with young black, brown and white faces; these classes were filled with pale white faces and blonde hair. Brunch bell rang and the principal was waiting for me as I locked the door.

How did it go?

It went well. The kids are wonderful and the lesson plans were extremely clear.  You’re very fortunate to have such great kids and teachers.

He nodded, then hedged. Ah, I have a concern.

I waited.

Well, lunch will be in a another period and a half.

Yes, thank you.

And, I know you’re from California.

Yes.

And, hmmmm, well, California teachers are pretty liberal.

I had no idea where this was heading, but my intuition told me it wasn’t good.

Not everyone is a liberal. 

Well, ah, that’s good. I understand. But, we have heard ah, we know that you California teachers, hmmm, use the lunch break,  hummmm, for hot tubs and drinking white wine.

His un-asked question hung in the air.

I don’t know what I was thinking.  I wasn’t thinking.  My only excuse was that I was in high school teacher mode, where quick, snappy somewhat wise-assed comebacks are a staple in surviving teenagers and, so I immediately responded.

Oh no, that’s only in Marin County, not all of California.

With that, I no doubt sealed the doom of any teacher from Marin County California from ever getting a teaching job in Pennsylvania and for that I want to offer my deepest, sincerest apologies.

The principal looked visibly relieved.

Well, then good luck with the upcoming reading class. It’s mainly gang members.

oh.

The reading class had all of twelve students.  Only six, all black, made the first half of the class before lunch.  I’ve taught gang kids, and believe me, these students were young kids and no more gang members than my own two children who were students at UC Berkeley.

I looked at the lesson plan which was a quick drill ‘n kill assignment. For an hour class, it seemed very skimpy.

How long will it take you to get through this?  Kids can be notoriously honest.

About 10 minutes.

Great. Can you do it and then we’ll do something more interesting?

Yep!

We had gotten well into Gwendolyn Brooks’ We Real Cool when the lunch bell rang.  The kids all wanted to stay and keep on going.

No. I need to eat. So do you. See you in thirty.

The principal was standing outside the room

Was that the lesson plan?

No. They finished the assignment, so I’m filling the hour with poetry.

hmmmm.

After lunch, the rest of the class showed up as well, so I had full contingent of twelve kids.  Evidently word had spread that I was okay. And, to answer your question, yes, all black students.

We finished Brooks and continued with Harlem, by Langston Hughes.  When the class period ended, the kids exited, excited and still debating the poem.

Remedial Reading and gang members, my foot.

It was the only time I was asked to sub in Pennsylvania.

Truth in Advertising

You look just like your photo.

I can pretty much count on the statement within five or ten minutes of any first date.

um, yes. And whose photo were you expecting me to look like?

Apparently, it’s an issue of Truth in Advertising. My dates have shared some of the craziest stories about the photos women post, evidently with the hope that men will not notice the duplicity.  Hint:  men notice.

She:  I posted photos of my daughter instead of me because people say we look just like sisters.  He: She’s twenty years younger and looks like her father.

She: I posted photos from college days because I really haven’t changed that much.  He: …except for marriage, children, divorce, career, birthdays and all those other life events that age a person  

She: I posted a friend’s photo because she’s cuter. By the time he meets me, he’ll forget.  He: I want to date her cute friend.

She: I didn’t post a photo, but, believe me, you won’t be disappointed.  He: Believe me, I was.

I’m really not quite sure what these women are thinking. Eventually, you may actually meet the man you’ve been corresponding with and then what?  Most men are going to make the connection: the photo and the woman are not the same.

And if he doesn’t make the connection, it’s probably not a man you’d want to date.

Most everyone fibs a bit except Mr. or Ms. Senior Universe and they don’t count because they’re not on dating sites.

Women subtract pounds from their weight; men add inches to their height if under six feet tall. It’s pretty much the norm. The photos, however, tend to tell the truth, unless they’re the same ones that have been used for the past ten years.  Then, you wonder about who is actually going to show up for the date.

A few years back, a man opened an online email correspondence with me.  My profile’s waxing poetic had captured his imagination and he began adding to it with his own waxing and poetic. It was delightful and, being a former English teacher, I wanted to jump right in.

But not before reading his profile and viewing his photo. We were, after all, on a dating site not a writing site.

He was teetering on the very, very tippy-top end of my marginally acceptable age range.  He fostered rescued German Shepherds, a positive in my mind although I’m not sure why. His photo showed a retired gentleman with a jaunty straw hat.  It was enough for me to jump into the fantasy writing.

Back and forth our emails flew. A short story, if not a novel or best seller, was fast emerging.

He paused the spell by asking me out for lunch. I immediately accepted. In keeping with the Mediterranean setting of which we had been writing, he chose a small Italian restaurant in a courtyard setting overlooking a large fountain. He was seated at the table waiting, when I walked in.

He had to have been fifteen to twenty years older than his profile age or photo.

It was, needless to say, a strained luncheon.  It ended with his berating me for not being as flirtatious and engaged as I had been on email. 

He was right but, in my defense, it was really, really difficult to flirt with a man that looked like my grandfather.

The Raging Inferno

I was a second year teacher, marginally seasoned in life, but certainly not the classroom.

But I knew, just as any seasoned teacher knows, the class right after lunch can be difficult.  Sugar highs. I had 20 squirrely freshman, which made it all the more challenging, in a low-level reading class.  Somehow these kids had managed to get through eight years of school without ever having learned to read. That aside, we were a couple months into the first semester and had fallen into nice routine with the students feeling good about their progress.

Lunch had ended, the final bell sounded and my students were settling in their desks when there was an enormous roar of an engine outside the room.  The door opened and, as we all watched dumbfounded, the doorway darkened.

There was a motorcycle, a massive Harley-type cycle, entering the room, being pushed by a mountain of a young man. He had long black hair pulled back away from his face, dark eyes and probably weighed a few hundred pounds. 

He parked the cycle inside the entrance of the room, grinned broadly and sauntered towards me with a new student ticket clutched in his fist.

My freshman students dove under their desks.

The teacher next door came out of her classroom, looked in and mouthed you ok? I nodded yes, knowing she had 35 students waiting for her, but not really knowing if things were actually okay.

The mountain approached me, holding out the entry ticket.

You’re a student?

Yep, just out of juvie.

uh huh. Your bike?

Yep.

It’s very nice. Think you could park it outside?

He grinned and pushed the cycle outside of the room.

His name was Masou and, early on, he decided he liked my class because I didn’t hassle him.  Of course, he was always on time, did his work and was pleasant. There was no reason to hassle him.

He and the bike would be at the door waiting for lunch to end and the class to begin, while the freshman cowered behind.

In time, I realized I was no longer having to discipline the freshmen; if anyone acted out, as they were apt to do given their age, the class period and the sugar, Masou would simply turn and glare at the offender who would then hide under the desk.  I grew increasingly fond of Masou.

Slowly, his life story emerged in bits and pieces.  Life stories of each of the students tend to come out, especially in English classes and especially if you listen. Some of them can break your heart; Masou’s touched mine.

He was Native American, with a mom and stepdad.  Stepdad was an alcoholic and beat his stepson until Masou got large enough to return the beating, which ultimately led to more fights and Juvenile Hall. 

Despite everything, Masou had the Native American connection with the earth, her spirit and all growing things. Whenever he spoke or wrote of the environment, it was with a profound sense of awe and reverence that few people will ever experience.

Then, before we knew it, it was the Christmas holidays and we all wished each other well and left on break. Masou never returned.

A few years later, a small fire started in the mountains surrounding our valley and quickly grew into a raging inferno that forced the evacuation of 4,500 people from 2,500 homes.  The thick black smoke blanketed the valley for the better part of a week while evacuees huddled and worried over their homes and belongings. The rest of us watched in horror as the fire consumed the mountains that we loved and had mostly taken for granted.

The fire caused over $7 million in damage, destroyed 42 homes and charred some 14,000 acres. The inferno left the mountains scarred for a decade or more.

The local news announced that a suspect had been arrested in connection with the fire but released for lack of evidence.  It was Masou. I didn’t hear of anyone else ever being charged with the crime.

I had such a overwhelming sense of sadness that a young man who had such an connection with nature could have ever been filled with so much rage that he’d turn on her, if indeed it was him. I hoped it wasn’t him.

I also wondered what we could have done at the school to have averted this tragedy and the subsequent scarring of the environment, the homeowners, the greater community and even the person who set the fire. Whether police arrested the right person or not, it was obvious Masou needed help far beyond what a teacher could provide. It was also obvious we had no services to which to refer him.

Here we were, in a relatively affluent area and without readily accessible resources for kids. It wasn’t a priority. It was too expensive. That was over 40 years ago. I wish I could say things have changed.

They haven’t.

The New Neighbor

I lived in a small cottage in an old neighborhood tucked into a large suburb that resided in a major metropolitan area.  It was one of those anomalies that looked out of place until you realized it was a neighborhood that gave birth to the rest of the sprawling city.

We had narrow streets, small lots, large shade trees and modest homes with red tiled roofs. Because of the close proximity to our neighbors, most of us knew one another.

One summer, my next door neighbors decided it was time for a change and sold their home. The new owner moved in and immediately began shuttering windows and putting up tall antennas. 

He was tall and athletic, a single middle-age man. He drove a nondescript American-made dark grey sedan and didn’t make much eye contact with any of us, although if greeted by a neighbor, he would smile, return the greeting and disappear back into his home.  He was away a lot, sometimes for weeks at a time, and there were never any of the typical notices given to immediate neighbors.

Serious men, all wearing dark grey suits, would occasionally appear during his absences, walk through the gate into his backyard and fifteen minutes later, leave.  As neighborhoods go, ours was not a particularly inquisitive one.  Even so, a few eyebrows were raised. 

On one of his trips, newspapers and mail began piling up on his front porch so I started collecting everything, leaving him a note that I had his mail and papers.

A couple weeks later, the doorbell rang and there he was, bottle of wine in hand.

Hi, I’m your neighbor. Brought you a thank you bottle.

And I have your mail. Come on in, I’m not going to drink the wine alone.

We settled on the back patio, under the shade of an gnarled old elm, to enjoy a glass of wine.

When he found out I worked with School Safety, he shared he was with the FBI, attached to Homeland Security. I should have known it had to have been something like that from his car. No one purposely drives a nondescript American-made dark grey sedan.

He also had a pet guinea pig that needed a bit of food and exercise when he was in the field, so colleagues would stop in to care for the rodent.  I know a lot of men and women in public safety.  None have guinea pigs or, at least, none who would admit to it.

Why not a Doberman?

Guinea Pig.

German Shepherd?

Guinea Pig.

He asked what I was working on and I answered that we were currently working with Public Health, developing roles, responsibilities and training for schools in anticipation of a probable pandemic

At the time, the nation was waiting for another terrorist attack, the Avian Flu or both.

Hey, that’s great! We’re covered!

What?

If you come home and find both our homes surrounded by barbed wire, you’ll know a terrorist attack is imminent…

…and if I come home and find surgical masks on the front doorknob, I’ll know the pandemic is on its way.

We toasted our good fortune with another glass of wine.