As I understand it, I am not allowed to donate blood. I have the British Government to partly thank for this dilemma. It so happens that I resided in Great Britain during the years when Mad Cow Disease was in its very early stages. I say, “partly thank” because even though MCD began to develop in their herds on their watch, no one forced me to eat a Steak and Kidney Pie every other night in the corner of a cozy pub, over the course of a year.
That part was my uninformed choice.
The incubation period of Mad Cow Disease seems to be measured in decades, so if I had contracted it in the mid-1980s, any aberrant behavior on my part would have manifested itself by now. (There goes something else I can’t blame for my odd personality disorders of late.)
Anyway, I can’t give blood.
I didn’t go to England on a dare. I didn’t go on a whim, or to escape a vengeful husband or boyfriend, to evade charges of mail fraud in Utah, to finish my thesis on John Keats or to search for that mythical British bar-wench who still remembered what a low cut serving blouse was for (although I admit I was somewhat curious about that last one).
I went because it was the only way, I thought at the time, to keep my sanity from slipping away from me and allowing me to fall into a dark place. The root causes that led me to England happened years earlier.
I had been teaching in public schools for seven years followed by another three at a private school in New England.
During my time in the public school, I often felt humiliated, oppressed and undervalued on an almost daily basis. To be sure, this is and was an old complaint among educators.
My story does not begin when I entered a classroom for the first time. If it were only that simple, I would have little to tell. My tale begins this way:
I was on my way to class one afternoon. The late bell had already sounded. I was tardy for my own class because I had felt the need to slip down to the “teachers lounge” for a cup of tea. This “lounge” was actually a section in the basement of the boiler room of a building erected in 1908. The few times I had sat at the faculty worktable to have a tea, I could hear the flush of every toilet in the building as the water gushed through the pipes over my head. This building, I should mention, was designated for the ninth grade only. Just outside my classroom window was a new $10,000,000 facility for grades ten through twelve. I climbed the five flights of stairs to get to my room. On the way, just outside my door I ran into a student who belonged at his desk in my class. He already had several clashes with the law and his dislike of me was palpable. I touched his elbow and said, “let’s go”.
At that point he jumped me and began swinging. I crashed against the lockers and kept my head turned away as he swung at me to avoid having my glasses smashed into my eyes. We banged against one wall of lockers and he swung me across the hall. We both collided against another set of metal doors. A guidance counselor leapt from his hallway desk (we were short on offices) and pulled him off me. Ten seconds later I was standing in front of my class; they were clueless as to what had happened, and I tried to appear “normal”. I leaned against my file cabinet and looked down at my hands shake like one stricken with palsy.
I decided to file charges for assault. I felt strongly that teachers needed protections and it was up to me to send a strong message. This was the only way I could do it.
The Principal declined to support me. The teachers union turned their back on me. In the end I went to the Magistrate alone. I recall sitting in my car in the parking area of the courthouse listening to Billy Joel’s “Piano Man” and agonizing over what I was about to do. This kid was already neck deep in trouble with the school. Was I saving and serving my profession or was I burying this boy further into adolescent hell?
I settled out of court.
On another occasion, I was sitting on the stage of the school theater. I was in charge of a study hall that contained about eighty-five students, mostly ninth and tenth graders. I glanced out at the group and noticed a male student with his back turned to me and leaning toward the floor. About five minutes before the bell rang to end the class, another boy came up to me and whispered, “He has it in his sock.”
I headed the offending student off at the door.
“Would you come with me for a moment?” I asked.
I led him to the Vice Principals office located down the hall. We stood before his desk and I explained what happened.
“Well let’s see what’s in your sock,” the Administrator said.
Out came several items of drug paraphernalia, a pipe, some papers and a baggie of what I suspected was weed.
My job being done, I returned to my classroom. I had a free period. As soon as I sat down, I heard the yelling and running.
“Get him!” screamed the Vice Principal.
I stepped out of my room only to catch a glimpse of the student running past me and toward the stairwell. He descended two stairs at a time. He reached the ground floor porch before I did, but I was in time to see him throw several items into the field near the school.
It was over in a minute. The student was led away and I spent the rest of my free period poking through the brush. I found the pipe and bag of “weed”.
My class schedule went something like this: I had five classes of ninth grade Earth and Space Science. Each class had about thirty students. Consequently I would find myself teaching the same topics, repeatedly, to about one hundred and fifty kids. There were no lab facilities at all. I had to meet my classes in different locations for a few years. In some of these old and creaky rooms I would hear my own voice bounce back at me from the rear wall. I did not like the echo I heard. I bored myself and could not help but wonder what these kids thought of me. I should say in all fairness that the school district was recovering from a devastating flood in 1972 and class sessions had to be arranged according to what buildings were repaired and which ones were destined to be leveled.
What I had come to feel as a growing irrelevancy of my professional life hit me hard one fine day. To earn a few extra bucks I signed on to do “homebound” teaching a state mandated system set up to instruct students who couldn’t be physically in the classroom for one reason or another. One afternoon, I was at the home of a sixteen-year-old girl. Her mother was puttering in the kitchen. I sat at the girl’s desk in her bedroom and was in the process of teaching her about the formation of clouds as a function of condensation.
This girl was about five months pregnant. She probably would not be finishing school.
She sat and listened quietly. She was a nice girl, very polite and attentive. I stopped midway through my fascinating description of cloud formation and drank some water. During this short break, I asked myself about the quality of this girl’s future and, more to the point, what the hell clouds had to do with anything relevant at this point in her young life.
She earned an “A” for simply not putting a carving knife into my chest.
So, that is where I found my emotional self in the late 1970’s.
I drove an orange MG Midget at the time. My mind and hair should have been blowing free and easy to the disco rhymes of ABBA pulsating from an 8-Track player bolted securely below my dashboard. As the useless sense of my life grew within me, I began to dread the long drive to the school from the farmhouse where I lived. I needed to leave the house about 6 AM. The number of the mornings began increasing when I stopped listening to the radio. Instead I would pull off to the side of the road at 7 AM to weep hot and painful tears. The fear in me was growing and spreading like a tumor of the soul.
I wasn’t afraid of the kids. Most of them liked me. That’s not what made me cry at dawn. Instead, I was terrified by a life that seemed to trail off somewhere into future time ending on a hill near a tree in a pasture, or an empty seat at a honky-tonk bar at 4 PM, or later against a rusty concrete bridge abutment.
What took me from that place, wiping away my tears in an orange MG Midget to a teacher’s desk in Dorset, England several years later? That’s the story I wish to tell.
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