Saturday, September 8, 2007

Parent Teacher Night: The Rise and Fall of Karen Burkie

Karen Burkie, West Side's new ninth grade grammar teacher experienced her first true terror as an educator tonight. Any teacher will tell you their first day of student teaching was frightening, worse than standing on a stage and forgetting your lines (as a teacher you quickly realize you have no lines, that your job is to make up your the script as you go). They'll say that the first time they stood in front of their own room was an armpit-sweat-inducing experience. Kids are always on the look-out for new nicknames and one simple error on your part early on can result in disastrous consequences: I had a teacher in middle school who bad been known as Miss Pit Stain longer than anyone could remember. The poor woman was in her sixties and nearing retirement, which makes one wonder if she'd been carrying that name since the Viet Nam War. Unless you're a PE coach, pit stains and classrooms don't mix.

Karen, fresh out of school with a shiny new diploma and a head full of genuine (read: naive) dreams, experienced her first Parent Teacher Night. It's a simple enough concept. Parents arrive at school, are given a copy of their son or daughter's schedule, and dash from classroom to classroom to meet the various teachers who make up their child's day. The class sessions are open to questions and answers and everyone is supposed to leave feeling satisfied knowing their children are in capable hands. The evening usually ends without a hitch, although in most schools several teachers wind up at a bar afterward to question why exactly it is they can't leave one or two children behind, three at the very most.

The problem this year was Laurie Murphy, our new principal. After the girls chorus had completed their ten minute presentation of highlights from Mama Mia, and after the entire ninth grade PE class had presented their line-danceaerobic routine, three hundred kids sat on the gym floor, their backs to the bleachers where their parents had settled, facing the faculty. Laurie Murphy stood up, thanked everyone for their participation and presence and began her "brief" explanation of the meaning behind the night's events. It was a speech we'd all heard a hundred times, the one about a unity between parents and their children and the teachers and the community. The faculty had gathered behind our principal, seated on folding chairs, smiling through the cliches and our aching backs. We all felt the way our students must feel every day, only we couldn't show it. We had to look alert and attentive, amused in all the right spots, serious at others, but always excited to be present and accounted for.

Karen Burkie was excited. Unlike the rest of us, she wasn't faking it. At twenty-three, her whole life had been one long push toward this moment. She'd actually gone home and changed clothes, freshened herself up. She'd put on make up and done something different with her hair. She listened to Laurie Murphy, believing every word of it. We hated her for it because most of us had been in school so long that we'd stopped trusting anything anyone told us. And yet we still wanted to believe. We wanted to know we were changing the world, not just working one step removed from changing diapers. We wanted to know parents were actively involved in keeping their kids in school, not just trying to keep them out of the Police Log. We wanted to know all the aluminum we'd been slathering in our armpits had been put to good use.

Not Karen, though. Not dimply little Karen with the small frame and high voice, the curly blond hair and good manners. Not Karen with the peaches-and-cream-complexion and every other cliche about goodness and heartiness and purity. Karen sat on the edge of her seat, her face all but glowing, her eyes on the verge of leaping from her head and rolling across the gym floor.

It was when Laurie Murphy decided to introduce the faculty one at a time that Karen began to get nervous. Or maybe it was the chalupa she'd wolfed down as she dashed from school to home and back to school again. Maybe it was the one cigarette she'd allowed herself to calm her nerves. It had been a ginger and green tea leaf cigarette and one hundred percent herbal, so surely it couldn't be bad for her. Karen was strict about the number of cigarettes she allowed herself to smoke, and this one would be only the third this year. Never mind that a friend had given her the pack back in June on a meditation retreat in the Sawtooths. When she'd finished the cigarette she'd doused herself in the sweet-smelling perfume she kept in her purse, adding two extra spritzes for good measure.

At first everything seemed fine. "Gene Talbot," Laurie Murphy introduced the silver-haired man who had occupied a lengthy and rather fabled spot in the English department. Since long before I myself had been enrolled in Gene's class, West Side's students had insisted he was a mind reader and a witch. As his name was called, whether out of fear or awe, the students clapped politely and fell into a quick hush

"Ryan Fletcher," Laurie Murphy said and Ryan, the wrestling coach and all-round good-looking guy, jumped to his feet and waved, shooting the entire gymnasium his best and brightest smile. The students cheered and hooted as Ryan returned to his chair.

"Annabell Grunge," Laurie Murphy continued, gesturing at West Side's one and only chemistry teacher, a woman who looked more like a dry leaf with bug eyes than an actual woman. Annabell's introduction immediately following Ryan's was a bit like the act that followed The Beatles on The Ed Sullivan Show: none of the students wanted to see her, in fact, her mere presence–not half as entertaining as Ryan's–was reviled and several students let her know it. There was some soft hissing and one low boo. Annabell, too professional to react, smiled through it all and adjusted the large, round glasses on her nose.

Karen Burkie felt her stomach lurch. They had booed someone. The students had actually booed someone in front of all the other faculty and the parents. This was most unexpected.

On and on Laurie Murphy went. Mostly the faculty were met with silence, but at those times when they felt strongly for someone, be it Rick King, our basketball coach who jumped up and raised his hands above his head in triumph, encouraging a similar response in the students and their parents, who all had nearly fanatical opinions about our winningest coach, or Zack Brode, the deathly boring and inept pre-algebra teacher who almost everyone hated with every cell in their bodies, the students let us all know who had won their favor and who deserved a harsh punishment, possibly even death. Throughout it all the faculty remained stoic and professional, not batting an eye through whichever response they received. Laurie Murphy, for her part, tried to minimize the damage by pushing on in attempt to stave off any embarrassment, although never quite soon enough.

Karen Burkie didn't like this at all. In fact, as the introductions moved steadily her way, her mind was racing through the past month trying to figure out if she'd be met with respectable silence, a blessed applause or the symbolic equivalent of a rotten tomato tossed in her face. Her stomach lurched again and she shifted uncomfortably in her chair.

The first few days had gone well. The students seemed to like her: she was young, almost one of them, pretty (which always played well) and passably humorous. It was in the second week that the cracks began to appear. The students weren't paying as much attention, often ignored her requests for silence and focus, and weren't as excited by her subject/predicate lecture and the role-playing exercise as she'd hoped. Her strengths, she learned, were also her weaknesses: she was young, almost one of them, pretty and only passably humorous. So she tried harder. By the third week she'd made some headway by following the recommendation of her advising teacher, Cissy June, who told her simply, "Cull the herd and don't smile until Christmas."

And so Karen had adopted a seating chart, separating the troublemakers, adding more homework and actually sending three students to the principal's office. The class had started paying more attention by the start of the fourth week, but now they openly glared at her as she put them through their paces. For instance, whenever she said the word "adverb" the entire class was required to repeat her mantra three times: "adverbs answers how, when, or where." Her classroom was finally under control, but did they still like her? As the introductions moved closer, Karen knew she'd soon find out.

As her nervousness grew, so did the perspiration on her face, specifically above her eyes and lips. She blinked twice and dabbed at her forehead with the back of her hand. The introductions, which had taken all of about two minutes, were only four teachers away. She felt flush. As her body temperature rose, so did the scent of those three spritzes of perfume she'd donned in the car. Her stomach turned with butterflies–or were they racing burros?–and she shifted again in her seat. Only two to go.

Craig Hurley was next. As a coach, and not a good one, he was also required to teach remedial classes such as Business Communication and something called Careers. A bit of an amateur sociologist, Craig made a point in each of his classes of criticizing all of society by commenting on the sorry state of its restrooms. Whether this was because he honestly believed it or because his classroom was located directly across the hall from the boys lavatory is not clear. Regardless, in his thick Brooklyn accent he often told students, "Those toilets in there, they're filled and no one does a thing about 'em. Well somebody should! Somebody should flush them. Flush em all!" When his name was called, several students performed remarkably accurate impersonations of a toilet actually being flushed, causing Craig to smile demurely and nod his head, a silent, "I get the joke."

And then it was Karen's turn. She sat up straight in her folding chair, sweat dripping into the corners of her eyes. She could taste it on her lips. Her stomach did one last flip and as Laurie Murphy called her name, Karen smiled sweetly, blinked twice and farted.

It wasn't a long fart and certainly not loud, but it was high in pitch and ended abruptly with a punch, on a sort of staccato note. The faculty did not move, although the two people sitting immediately next to Karen turned their heads ever so slightly. Those two heads were all the accusation and confirmation that was needed. Karen Burkie had dealt it. People began to giggle, both parents and students, and Laurie Murphy, a good principal, moved right along, right past poor Karen, who was forced to hold her head head with that crazy frozen smile on her face for the next two minutes. Craig Hurley, out of the corner of his mouth, congratulated her. "Thanks fer the perfume at least."

Needless to say, she did not sleep at all that night. Over and over she played it in her mind, breaking it down, trying to determine whether or not it could have been prevented. At three she'd concluded that it had been a complete surprise, that she couldn't have squeezed it off for a few more minutes. It had crept up on her and announced itself like a sneeze. By four-thirty she'd decided it was the chalupa–that she'd sabotaged herself–and swore them off for life. At six, as the alarm sounded and she climbed out of bed, she'd come to accept that her students would tease her and make jokes and that she would deal with them in a mature manner... and then make them pay for the rest of the semester.

She arrived at school half an hour early, bypassing her classroom and heading to the office to check her mailbox. Standing in the doorway was Gloria Fletcher, the regal and perfectly coiffed head of the English department. She held the door for Karen.

"How are you feeling this morning, dear?" she asked.

Karen smiled sweetly, knowing she could count on her fellow faculty members to support her. "I'm fine, Gloria. Thank you for asking," she replied.

Gloria nodded. "Welcome to West Side," she said sweetly as she moved back into the hall. "Just toot if you need me."

Take the Karen Burkie Grammar Challenge here!

Sunday, September 2, 2007

Death from the Ankles Down

Nancy McKenna was destined to be a Home Ec teacher. Granted, she may not have expected she'd do it in southeast Idaho, but no matter where her path led, her Scandinavian blood and good, hearty mid-western upbringing ensured she'd spend her days teaching people to bake, sew and perform minor household repairs. Nancy was a natural at unstopping a drain, replacing a drier cord; she even mastered the laying of carpet and linoleum. She brought her own special flair to home economics, taking the kids on field trips to grocery stores where they were graded on how many items they could purchase with a mere $20. Having converted to Mormonism back in her twenties, she'd perfected the jell-o salad and could produce a hundred varieties of fruit punch. A mid-westerner by birth, she could whip up potato and macaroni salads which made her a natural leader among the Relief Society women. Nancy's pride and joy, however, had been the introduction of her six week project on parenting. Each student was assigned an egg, which she herself had initialed with her signature purple Sharpie. Students had to name the egg and care for it, had to arrange for and pay people to babysit it when they went out. It was the culmination of her work as a teacher and she took great pride in it.

Nancy was good and dependable and had only three flaws: first, despite her height, her trunk was rather short, which only made her long, lean neck look even longer. This led to the nickname that dated back to before I myself was one her students, The Turtle. Second, regardless of the fact that she'd spent the majority of her life in Idaho, far from the green and rolling blandness of Minnesota, she'd retained her Minnesotan accent, pronouncing words like book as "boook", and saying things like, "You betcha," beginning her sentences with 'So' and ending them with 'then,' as in, "So, it' time to turn your homework in, then." She never quite learned the Idaho way of saying things, like "woof" instead of "wolf," "warsh" rather than "wash," "supposably," and "libary." And third, she was just too good and too dependable, which meant that it was impossible not to like her, and people in Idaho love nothing more than a reason not to like someone. And yet the people in her ward and the parents of the children she taught recognized Nancy as a fine woman, a strong member of the community, a good Mormon, even if she never acquired a taste for Idaho's famous Fry Sauce (a mixture of ketchup and mayonnaise) or, despite the numerous sightings, adamantly denied drinking any caffeinated beverages.

It was in July when Nancy's world began to crumble. Stories had started appearing in the news and online about Oscar, a cat which had somehow become a harbinger of death. Nancy, like everyone else, had been fascinated by the story of the nursing home cat whose presence signaled impending doom for those patients with whom he chose to cuddle. The story ran in the Washington Post and The Idaho State Journal, but Nancy didn't learn of it until it appeared on Fox News. It was the talk of The Old Timers, those long-time faculty of the high school who met for lunch at Perkins once a week.

The story made Nancy nervous. While the rest of the group didn't like the thought of Death coming in the innocuous shape and size of a friendly feline, Nancy was particularly concerned because her dog Nike had been doing much the same thing for most of the Summer. Nancy knew if anyone found out it could be the sort of thing that could ruin someone. No longer would she be The Turtle, or the inventor of the Egg Parenting Program; no, people in the supermarket would know she kept Death on a leash and let him sleep at the foot of her bed nightly.

Nike was not a friendly dog. The chihuahua had been rescued from the side of the road in March while Nancy, her husband Paul and their two grandchildren had been driving home from a weekend trip to Salt Lake City. They'd discovered the dog at a rest stop not far from the Utah border and had instantly taken a liking to him. Nike, as his tag read, did not take to them. No one knew how long he'd been there, or what he'd been subsisting on, but from the moment they put him the back of the mini-van, his gas had been a clear indication that they were off to a rough start. At first the two grandchildren had giggled at each squeak and toot that emanated from the little thing, but not twenty miles later, Nancy's granddaughter started complaining, ten miles past that her grandson began coughing and by the time the reached home, the windows were open and all four of them were gagging.

Paul demanded that until they could take the thing to the vet Nike would have to sleep in the garage. No one opposed him.

Except Nike, who chewed a hole in his lawn mower's grass catcher.

After the vet cleared him as healthy, if not just a little underfed, Nike moved into the McKenna house full time. The family had been without a dog since right after the kids went away to Boise to school and Nancy was eager to teach Nike a few tricks and get him house broken. She secretly fantasized about letting the little thing cuddle on her lap while she crocheted him a sweater, or tucking him into her bag (or "beg" as she pronounced it with her Minnesotan accent) while she perused Vines Department Store for new shoes. Nike's warm, little body and soft weight would be her secret. She imagined Nike barking at Paul when her husband came home from work out at the I.N.L., smelling of grease and plumbing. She entertained the idea of slipping him soft treats that would seal their relationship for eternity.

The only trouble was that Nike took no interest in Nancy or Paul, or even the grandchildren when they visited on the weekends. Nancy had purchased a dozen different toys for the dog, from pink fluffy squeaky mice to Kong balls that could be stuffed with peanut butter. The children came with miniature tennis balls and feathers on nylon cords tied to plastic sticks. Nike was more than happy to play; he simply took the toys and ambled under the bed to gnaw on them without being disturbed. If anyone came too close he simply farted them away.

It was on Nike's second trip to the vet that things began to change for Nancy. She'd picked him up and placed him in a cat carrier in the back seat and drove to the clinic. Nike hadn't minded, had hardly seemed to notice in fact. Nancy, however, was acutely aware that Nike seemed indifferent to everything, herself included; her dreams of shopping trips and fuzzy boas flung across his narrow little shoulders had been dashed. Quite frankly, Nancy was beginning to admit she didn't like the dog at all.

Nancy preferred this clinic to others because the waiting rooms for dogs and cats were divided. Once in the foyer you either turned left for dogs or right for cats. Nancy liked things that could be so easily demarcated and never paused to wonder where someone with a guinea pig or a parakeet would go. She simply turned left as she had done since she'd brought Lehi, her children's now deceased golden lab, here. She clutched Nike in the nook of one arm, her purse in the other. The waiting room was empty, with only two receptionists sitting behind the big desk, one of them a former student, the other a silver-haired woman who had worked at the clinic since before Nancy had began bringing Lehi here.

She greeted but them, but both women merely smiled until Nike caught their eye. Nancy had never much paid attention to how people fawned over small pets, cooing baby talk at them as if they were infants or capable of understanding anything at all, but now, as the women spotted Nike under her arm and began ogling him, she became distinctly resentful of it, especially because Nike had never greeted her with anything even remotely resembling enthusiasm.

"Careful," she said. "He's not very friendly." Lisa, her former student pulled away, but May reached in and scooped the lazing chihuahua up. Almost immediately Nike rolled over in her arms, perked up his ears and allowed his long tongue to fall out of his mouth. May squealed in delight as Nancy leaned forward to see for herself. Nike was smiling.

"He's never done that," she said, shaking her head in wonder. Curled up in May's big hands Nike looked exactly as he had in Nancy's dreams of the perfect dog, the Paris Hilton dog, the dog who would be her best friend.

May scratched under Nike's chin and the little dog pushed his head back, closed his eyes and grinned like a gremlin, his big ears lolling back and forth. His paws reached out, his back arched and his hind legs kicked playfully against the woman.

"You just have to know how to do it," May chirped, not looking at Nancy. "Isn't that right, Little One? You just have to know how to do it." As if in response, Nike perked up and swiped his pink tongue across May's chin.

Nancy gasped. "Honestly, May. He's never done this," she shook her head. "We thought he didn't like us. Even Doctor Merry said she'd never seen a more disinterested dog."

"Nonsense," May scoffed and handed Nike back to Nancy, who took him as if her were a delicate statue. She was careful with him, not wanting to break the spell. Nike, for his part, paid Nancy no attention but turned to look at May again. His ears shot up and flipped in her direction, two giant dishes on his head.

The trouble began ten minutes later while Doctor Merry was examining Nike, who was standing politely, if not more than slightly aloof, on the silver examining table. Nancy was still telling the doctor the effect May had had on Nike when there was a loud crash from outside the room, followed by a scream. Nancy and Doctor Merry froze, but Nike merely laid down, licked his paw and closed his eyes. A moment later the door was flung open and a wide-eyed Lisa was standing before them.

"It's May," she cried. "She collapsed!"

For the next twenty minutes Nancy stood frozen in the corner of the lobby–unaware that several people had come over with their cats–watching as the paramedic team tried to revive the fallen receptionist. Nike, still clutched in her arms, slept the entire time.

She'd returned home that afternoon and anxiously recounted the day's events to Paul over dinner. She kept shaking her head and saying, "She was fine one minute. How were we to know she'd have a massive coronary embolism and die?"

"You couldn't know," Paul said over his mouthful of green bean casserole.

"So, she's dead, then," she muttered. "Right there in front of my eyes. I've never seen such a thing."

Three weeks later Nancy saw it again. A late Spring storm hit southeast Idaho, blanketing the entire region in five inches of snow. Idaho is quite proud of its ability to manage sever weather, however this storm caught the residents and county officials off guard. The trees had been blooming and the additional weight of the snow had downed several limbs, knocking out power lines and closing down the city. Paul had managed to catch the bus to the I.N.L. earlier that morning, but school had been shut down and Nancy was home alone with Nike.

Once the storm had exhausted itself in the tight little valley, battering against the narrow mountains on three sides, Nancy decided to shovel the walks. From next door she heard John Blackwell, her neighbor, scraping the snow and ice off his own walk. As she was bundling up in her scarf and coat, pulling on her big black boots, Nike jumped up on the couch, yipped once or twice, his tail wagging and scratched his tiny paws against the window. Thinking it could do no harm, she decided to let him roam in the snow while she worked on the driveway.

Nancy went out through the garage, carrying her heavy shovel with her. As soon as the garage door came up Nike dashed under it and trotted, head up, into the snow. He darted into it and vanished under the white powder, his two ears the only visible part of him. She watched as he leapt again, pushing snow before him in strange little advancing wakes, yipping each time. Slowly but with determination he moved across the yard, pausing long enough to take a sound reading with his satellite dish ears, adjusted his course and moved steadily toward John Blackwell. When Nike cleared the snow, he burst onto the sidewalk like a bullet, a trail of powder billowing after him like smoke. He landed at John's feet, practically under the man's shovel and barked.

"Nike, get down," Nancy called, moving quickly toward him.

John put his shovel down and scooped Nike up in his arms. "Who's this little fella?" he asked, bringing the happy dog to his face. Nancy struggled not to slip and reached them just in time to see Nike licking John's bearded chin.

"Oh, Nike, stop that," she scolded, but did not move to take the dog away. It was another one of those magical moments, seeing the dog excited and playful, responding to someone in ways he'd never responded to anyone in the McKenna home.

"Oh, he's fine," John replied, letting Nike lick all over his face. His tail wagged so hard clouds of snow caught in his short fur wafted up around him and fell down the front of John's coat. "I've never seen such a happy little fella in all my life," John laughed.

"Me neither," Nancy said, not quite truthfully.

After a few minutes of neighborly chat, Nancy reclaimed Nike, who'd started shivering but had not ceased his affection for John Blackwell, and walked him back toward the house. The familiar sound of John's shovel grating over his icy sidewalk resumed behind them. Nike climbed up her shoulder and barked twice at the man before Nancy carried him inside and went to fetch a towel. It took her several minutes to find one suitable for her dog and when she returned to the front room, Nike was again perched on the back of the couch, wagging his tail and barking softy out the window. She scolded him, scooped him up and rubbed his small body vigorously under the old towel. The dog did not move at all, simply waited it out and once she was finished, climbed back into window and watched John Blackwell.

That night over her prized Sunshine Glazed Carrots, Nancy explained to Paul that John's wife had found him face down on the sidewalk in front of the house. He'd had a heart attack and died instantly.

She did not tell him that Nike had taken a strong interest in John just as he had May. In truth, the thought had not completely formed in Nancy's head. Rather, it was a distant foggy idea that would not materialize until May, when Paul's brother brought their great aunt Iris to Sunday dinner. Nike had loved and loved that woman and sure enough, that night she suffered a stroke and died in her sleep. After Iris, Nancy began to suspect. A month later she caught Nike humping the garbage man in the alley, blushed out an apology and took him inside, only to read of the man's death in the next morning's obituaries.

By July Nike wasn't allowed outside and Nancy had put a strict moratorium on visitors to the house. The idea had firmly crystalized in her mind that Nike was a killer. She no longer trusted the dog and when Paul began to question her about her dislike for him, Nancy reluctantly explained. Paul listened while he washed down his peach cobbler with a glass of milk and shrugged. "Iris was ninety-seven," he said simply. "And I went to school with George Saighman. He was a bum of a man!" It was not a very Christian way of thinking, but Nancy had to agree; she'd never liked George.

It was the day before school started that Nancy's panic reached its peak. Paul had insisted they take the dog with them to Battle Park for a walk before the sun slipped down behind the western mountains. She agreed, but only because she knew it would be all but deserted on a Sunday afternoon. The park was mostly ignored by the community, except for the Veterans of Foreign Wars and West Side's students who used it as a place to smoke cigarettes during their lunch breaks.

She was shocked, therefore, to discover her new principal, Laurie Murphy, walking her own dog near the enormous anti-aircraft guns and the World War Two tank that had been erected near the VFW Hall on the south side of the park. She gasped and tightened her grip on Nike's leash. Laurie Murphy had not seen her yet; perhaps she and Paul could cut across the river that split the park in two and make a clean getaway before Nike mounted his pale horse and claimed another victim.

But, as any good story would have it, it was too late for Laurie Murphy. At almost the exact moment she spotted Nancy and called out, Nike had spotted her.

Nancy, not wanting to be responsible for the possible consequence, relinquished Nike's leash to Paul and entwined her arm through his and tried to pull him– ever so slightly –in the direction of the foot bridge.

"Nancy," Laurie Murphy said as she scooped her dog into her arms. "It's nice to see someone else enjoying the park." She held her hand out to Paul and introduced herself. "This is Higgins," she said, holding out her Benji look-alike for them to see. "Who is this little one?" She asked, bending down and tentatively holding her hand out for Nike to sniff. Nancy held her breath and waited for what seemed an eternity. She tightened her grip on Paul's arm and felt the muscles in her long neck strain.

"This is Nike," Paul said. Nancy did not speak. She kept her eyes glued on Laurie Murphy and Higgins. She was just beginning to relax when Nike suddenly perked up and pulled on his leash. Paul, caught off guard, let the leash slip from his hand. Nancy startled as Nike jumped up against Laurie and whined, his tail flapping energetically from side to side. Higgins, caught in Laurie's arm sniffed and whined back. He wiggled and Laurie was forced to tighten her hold on him as she gave Nike one last pat. Nike barked twice and tried to climb onto her foot.

Oh my God, Nancy thought. I've killed my boss.

Laurie laughed and scratched Nike's back, causing him to arch and dance on his hind legs. She smiled and rose to her feet.

"Don't let this little one keep you up; it's a school night," she said, shifting Higgins from one arm to the other. She tried to ignore the look of utter horror on Nancy's face and smiled at Paul instead. "Have a good night. Maybe we can make a play date for our little ones some time."

"Sure," Paul said, trying to extricate himself from Nancy's grip. "That would be great. Nice to meet you," he said, pulling Nike back even as he freed himself from his wife.

"So I've killed her, then," Nancy murmured, shaking her head. "She's dead for sure, you betcha."

It was with great reluctance and fear that Nancy awoke the next morning and made the short drive to school, taking 8th street past the College Market, where she occasionally stopped for a cup of coffee–for thirty years her mid-western love of caffeine had trumped her Mormon promise of salvation–made a left on Benton and took the overpass to downtown and West Side High. Traffic was a bear and as she sat at the stoplight on Main and Center she couldn't help but wonder what had befallen Laurie Murphy during the night. Had her new home caught fire? Perhaps she'd contracted bird flu or some other horrible and foreign disease in the night. What if she'd transmitted it to Paul and herself? She'd have to be on the look-out for any affection or interest from Nike. By the time she pulled into the teachers' lot and had found a parking space, Nancy was sick with worry. Her hands were shaking as she crossed Arthur Street and entered the building, which smelled clean and old and full of new cologne and perfume. Trembling she made her way through the hall, toward the administration office.

Before she opened the door she spotted Patty Dunlap, the bursar, and Janice Mason, the registrar, huddled over the large desk which divided the room in two. Both women bowed their heads and shook them softly back and forth. Nancy felt her eyes sting back the tears as she pushed the door open and entered the office, her heart racing in her chest.

"Oh, Nancy, there's terrible news," Janice frowned. Patty Dunlap did not look up at her. Nancy thought her a witch of a woman, whose own Brooklyn accent even Nancy couldn't abide.

"When did it happen," Nancy cried, her hands drawn up in tight little fists at her chest. "How did it happen?"

"Old age," Janice said. "The old heart just gave out."

Nancy, prepared to cry out at news of the disaster, caught her gasp in her throat and choked it back. "Laurie died of old age?" she asked. "She couldn't be more than thirty-five!"

Patty sighed. "Not Laurie! Higgins, her dog. Laurie found him dead this morning. She won't be in until after the assembly."

That night Nike was taken to the shelter and Nancy McKenna never had another pet. You betcha.

Saturday, August 4, 2007

Of Teachers and Toothpicks

My first week at West Side High in nearly twenty years, but also a bit of a blow to my ego and self-confidence. I don't know that I've felt this way since short and mean Craig Stratton called me a homo in the locker room during P.E. Everyone froze, as naked boys are wont to do when someone near them is accused of the ultimate breech in locker room behavior, and I was eyed suspiciously for weeks. Eventually, when no one observed me doing whatever it was a homo did--I don't think anyone had the vaguest idea--I was silently cleared of all charges and allowed to resume my pre- and post- P.E. routine without further incident.

Meeting with my fellow teachers the first day was a bit like that awkward moment after the heaviest of accusations had been leveled against me. Those that had known me then had no doubt been informed that I was returning as one of them. Stan Eck looked me up and down, as did Gloria Fletcher, who studied me over the long point of her nose, as if I were some kind of hideously large and hairy insect, the same way she'd looked at me since I was 18 and came to her British Lit class drunk on my birthday.

Eck, the now-aged girls cross country coach, had been my home room teacher. He'd been at West Side for years and had managed to acquire almost no reputation whatsoever. None of the students complained about him. In fact I knew no one who ever took a class from him. I'm not even sure I know what it is he teaches. Then, as now, his classroom was located on the humanities floor, nestled between Cissy June's (who taught composition and something called "Western Lit," which meant the books of Louis L'Amour, Zane Grey and Max Brand) and Dwight Mallory, our French instructor. The only thing we knew about Stan Eck then--and that I know about him now--was that he coached girls cross country and always kept a toothpick lodged in the corner of his mouth. He was ruddy-complected, had straw-colored hair and eyebrows so blond they were almost invisible on his forehead. Stan didn't quite know what to do with me and he certainly never liked me; I was neither a girl nor a runner. Plus there was that embarrassing incident three years after I graduated when I'd returned home for the summer and took the only job I could find, at my step father's taxi cab company, which also doubled as one of the town's three porn emporiums.

The cab office had been a small, cramped place, occupied only by a squat little entertainment center that had been patched and taped together, on top of which sat a television that showed only the grainiest and green-tinted of pictures. A decrepit and urine-scented couch hugged a wall, and it was here that the cabbies sat and waited for calls to come in. Southeast Idaho is not a cab driver's Mecca and during my graveyard shift it was not uncommon for one or two drivers to spend the majority of their shifts watching re-runs of Hazel or American Gladiators. My desk overlooked the room, topped by an inherited IBM, a map of the town and the radio transmitter with which I dispatched and coordinated the drivers.

The porn shop was was next door to the office but the wall between them had been cut to allow a door and a sliding glass window, both of which were located directly behind the desk. Our porn emporium, unlike the other emporiums, did not sell merchandise, but relied solely on video rentals. It was a minimalist's dream, a single room without shelves or aisles and there were no embarrassing products on display (that Summer the hot-selling title was John Wayne Bobbitt's foray into the world of adult cinema, quite the feat considering his wife had tried to assure that such a thing could never happen. Regardless, John Wayne Bobbitt...Uncut was a runaway hit). Instead, the store was occupied by three small podiums--kept a safe distance from one another to allow some sense of privacy-- each topped by a large photo album which contained the front panels of the boxes the videos had come in. Many of the box covers were also available in poster format and occasionally we'd hang one up to advertise new releases. The videos were kept in a storage closet on the cab office side of the window and occasionally, when the cabbies were gone, or asleep on the couch or so engrossed in the life-lesson Hazel was imparting to the Baxters that they didn't even notice my presence, I'd slip back into the closet and get a chuckle from the various titles on display. To this day Shaving Ryan's Privates can make me laugh and blush.

There was very little contact between the patrons and myself. They would shuffle in, accompanied by the jingle of the bell at the door and peruse the pages of an album. I quickly learned that men in porn stores behave the same as men standing at urinals, observing the two unspoken rules of etiquette: never stand too close and never, ever, raise your eyes. The men who visited the store often wore sunglasses or hats, and kept their faces down and they always kept at least one podium between themselves and another customer, the only exception being if both end podiums were occupied in which case the hats were pulled lower and the faces were aimed almost directly at the floor. Each page of the album was labeled with a number and when the gentleman had made his decision, he simply approached the window and told me the number, preventing anyone else in the store from seeing or hearing which video the man had selected. There was nothing seedy about the place and we prided ourselves on our cleanliness and open, safe atmosphere, things neither of the other two emporiums could match.

That Sunday morning, while two drivers lounged in the office watching TV the bell chimed, I peeked out the window and saw Stan Eck saunter to the podium at the furthest end of the room, that ever-present toothpick protruding from the corner of his mouth, it's end flattened and glistening. He did not look up at me and there was nothing in his demeanor to suggest this was his first time in the shop. I'd had to explain the photo albums to countless newbies, but Stan knew exactly what they were, and appeared to have a clear sense of where to look for what he sought. He flipped through the pages, paused every now and then, chomped his toothpick, shuffled a few pages forward or back, made his selection and finally, with that recognizable swagger of his, approached my window.

I'm sure I'd never made much of an impression on Stan for the three years I sat in his homeroom, sitting next to Sheldon Young, who, at times, seemed to entrance the entire classroom with his dancing biceps, and Breydon Rose, our long-haired, pale-faced, Gothic Lord Byron. Both attracted the girls for completely different reasons. I, on the other hand, sat quietly at my desk observing everything that happened, making only the occasional and wry of comments. I doubt anyone even noticed me until the day Stan choked on his toothpick and leapt from the room for water and air. I'm not quite sure how it happened, or how I summoned the courage to do it, but I found myself at his desk doing a spot-on impersonation of him with his darting toothpick, bulging eyes and panicked cough. The room had erupted in laughter but I'll never know if it was the impersonation or the fact that it was me, the quiet guy, doing it. It was my first taste of the intoxicating power of being able to make people laugh, or playing maestro to a room full of people. I loved it, and once I got a response, I revved it up a notch or two, and failed to notice Stan when he stepped back into the room. His face was still red--it had always been red!--a toothpick was wedged into the notch of his mouth--whether it was a new one or the salvaged remnant of the one that had almost killed him I'll never know--and his barely visible eyebrows were folded into two tight little slashes on his forehead. His eyes actually appeared red, but again, I don't know if that was the near-death experience or his embarrassment.

He said nothing. Instead, he waited for me to shuffle back to my desk, then resumed his seat. I kept waiting for his ire, even long after the incident was past, but forever afterward he regarded me with caution, like something dangerous about to strike. It was only years later, my last day of homeroom that Stan mentioned the incident. As we were filing from the room after the bell, he stepped in front of me and nodded.

"Funny Man," he said. "You're graduating tonight. What's next?"

It was the first time Stan Eck had spoken directly to me. One on one. "I hope to be a teacher," I told him.

He nodded and thought for a moment. "A teacher," he mused, dancing the toothpick from one corner of his mouth to other. He reached into the breast pocket of his short-sleeved button-up shirt. Clenched between his thumb and first finger he held a toothpick. "Careful," he said, slipping it carefully behind my ear. "They can kill you." Then he turned and moved back to his desk. Behind me, Sheldon Young tittered and slapped the man on the back.

Three years later at the emporium, I decided to play with Stan Eck once again. As he sauntered to my window, observing the silent rule of not looking up, he barked the number of his selection and waited while I fetched it. After searching the shelves of videos in the closet, I located his movie and returned.

"Here you go," I told him. "That'll be five dollars."

He reached into wallet, pulled out the money and still didn't look up. His toothpick was danced from side to side.

I couldn't remember if Stan was a good Mormon or not, so I had to play my other card.

"Mr. Eck?" I said, spreading a thick grin across my face.

The toothpick stopped moving.

"It's me. I was in your home room a couple of years ago." Slowly he looked up. "I did that impersonation of you? Are you still at the high school?"

His eyes narrowed to slits as I bagged the movie.

"Barely Legal Asian Girls Volume Three," I mused as I passed the bag to him. "Sounds like a good one. Hey, are you still coaching girls cross country?"

The toothpick fell from his mouth.

Quickly, surprising even myself, I plucked the wet stick off the small ledge and handed it back to him. "Careful. They can kill you."

He took it without a word and was out the door, the bell jangling behind him.

And now, fourteen years later I was standing in the cafeteria with Stan Eck's eyes on me again. But it wasn't just Stan that was unnerving. It was the whole place; it felt the same as the last time I’d stood there: the people, the room itself, the long echoes of the school halls. And the smell. The first thing anyone who ventures back into an academic setting notices is the smell. When I’d ridden my bicycle through the parking lot outside the school I’d been breathing the scent of sage up on the foothills and the freshly cut grass at Battle Park directly across the street. Entering the cafeteria was like getting hit in the face with a daycare or a hospital. Or a high school. It was a sort of chalk dust meets industrial cleaner meets canned corn odor with an underlying scent of a thousand different colognes and perfumes.

I winced and looked around the room with its sterile white linoleum floors and bare white walls, pockmarked by a hundred years of kids dragging their pencils or spoons and forks across their surfaces. The tables had been set up (or perhaps they’d never been taken down) and were slowly filling with the rest of the pack.

There is a hierarchy to group sitting no matter where you go. Doctors sit with doctors in hospital cafeterias and nurses and janitors and reception staff know better than to intrude upon them. At NASA astronauts sit with other rocket junkies and wary are the ordinary physicists or control room personnel who attempt to violate their space. High school teachers are no different. Stan was at the jock table near the back of the room, exactly where the jock students sat. I recognized only two of his table mates: Rick King, the red-faced basketball coach who’d led our school to eight state championships and Craig Hurley, a bear of a man with a monster mustache who coached junior varsity football and after five years still had not pulled them out of bottom place. There were several other men, all fit and tanned and somewhat ridiculous looking in their coaching shorts and golf shirts, trim mustaches and receding hairlines. It was clear Stan was not one of them but desperately wanted to be. After all, he coached girls. And cross country. And in Idaho, neither count for much.

The female coaches were seated near their male counterparts also at the back of the room. A more unhappy lot I could not have found. In general they were overly muscular, small in stature and could not have pieced together a single smile between the five of them. Only one, a lithe, blond woman with perky hair and actual make-up stood out.

The math and science teachers had joined forces at the front of the room. The outer edge of the room closest to the door was comprised of several tables of nondescript frumpy women who I could only assume were the office staff, secretaries and registrars. The English department, my group, were sitting on the far side opposite the doors. The administration had set up camp dead center. Ringing them were two powerful and opposing camps, the student counselors and the old timers, those few but powerful faculty who had been at the school since before dirt had been invented and who trusted no one to its care. They were fiercely devoted to one another and eschewed their own departments in favor of the greater good of tradition and the way things used to be. Spread throughout the room were surprisingly large pockets of family members, sons and daughters who joined the team with mom and dad. I recognized Ryan Fletcher, who'd graduated two years after me and now coached wrestling, sitting next to his mother. I saw the Pattons, a whole family of art teachers, with dad, Dave, who'd taught me, his wife, Stella and daughter Amy. The Coltens were a coaching dynasty who taught history and health as a mere formality in order to have access to the practice fields.

On and on it went. Student teachers--looking nervous and more like students than teachers--huddled, vulnerable, like hairless, pink marsupials next to their leads or paired up with other newbies. Janitors, fresh from the impromptu smoking lounge they'd christened across the street, milled together, a faint cloud of smoke enveloping them and blocking out the toxic lemon scent of industrial floor wax. The lunch room women stood near the principal and his team, who were overseeing the trays of bagels and donuts and weak juice the district office had been kind enough to provide. They watched over the dispensing of the food with strict and nervous eyes. Everyone had a place to go, role to fill.

Normally things would have been more upbeat with everyone exchanging summer vacation stories--Rhoda Bruce would tell Jay Keller, the theater instructor, about her trip to New York and how she didn't think the Grease revival was as good as she'd hoped, besides, "it's full of language," she'd hiss. Bishop Bell, the LDS Seminary teacher, would want to talk about his numerous fly fishing trips to Montana. Nancy Satterfield would whisper to Tammy Christiansen about Ryan Fletcher's ongoing relationship with the District Superintendant's daughter, which was the real reason he'd gotten the coaching job and had kept it after his DUI last Spring. The gossip and stories would've moved faster than a piglet in a sausage factory, only this year, the principal was new and no one quite knew what to expect. I'd met her once, during my last interview, which gave me a leg up over the rest of them, who kept their eyes trained on her as she smiled and waved and ushered everyone in and to their seats.

And then we got down to business. Laurie Murphy insisted she'd spare us all the lectures about how we were a team, how we'd come together to achieve our goals, how saying "No Child Left Behind" meant something different than actually doing something about it. She spared us the painful introduction to her life, to her ideas of teaching and what she expected of us. There were no odes to days gone by and brightly-lit sunny dreams of days to come. No, Laurie Murphy wasn't about any of that and by gum, she'd show us all.

Much to the surprise of everyone in the room, Laurie Murphy showed us what kind each principal she'd be and what kind of team we'd be, by making us do the Hokey Poky.

It was that simple. A group of fifty or so adults crammed into a small, ancient cafeteria, each putting our right and left feet in, taking them out and shaking them all about; we did the Hokey Poky and that was what it was all about.

That should've been the most dangerous part of the morning meeting, but somehow or another we found ourselves in front of a Karaoke machine, sipping juice and taking turns sings "The Gambler," "I Will Survive" and "Tub Thumping."

A more animated group of jaded educators I've never seen. Most people filed out of the cafeteria with smiles, shaking their heads and laughing, but of course there were those who didn't approve and were shocked at Laurie Murphy's complete disregard for propriety. But the big surprise was Eck, who stopped me as I was leaving and handed me a toothpick.

"Careful," he said, glancing over my shoulder at our new principal. "They'll kill you."