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Saturday, March 24, 2007

First Period

I suppose I should write this today lest I wait another week and attribute my current love for my first period class to a bout of temporary insanity. Remember, please, that this is a one-day story of pleasantries and is no way indicative of my actual year-long experience with this class. Remember too, however, that these children are ninth graders and are thus prone to daily vacillations in their behavior.

I, as their teacher, must remember the same thing.

On Tuesday of this week I was perilously close to repeatedly banging my head into a student’s desk. The day wasn’t much different than any other: first period a few students took fourteen minutes to find a pencil; I collected homework to discover that the majority of my students have been lying to me about completion presumably all year; then my second period class decided to “raise the roof” during my attempts to teach and somehow managed to signal the beginning of a human “wave” which swept through my room as I discussed imperialism. The day went downhill from there, and I thus concluded that I would either sacrifice my desire for perfect attendance by getting “sick” on Wednesday, or I would have to show a movie in order to survive the week. As I own a copy of Hotel Rwanda, I opted for the latter and, on Wednesday, preemptively discussed the connection between the Rwandan ethnic conflict and Belgian colonization.

During first period on Thursday, at the midpoint of the movie, I felt myself start to unravel a bit. Despite the fact that I’ve seen the movie twelve times already, the removal of the majority of the United Nations peacekeeping force, coupled with the separation of the Europeans from the Rwandans strangled my idyllic belief that good ultimately triumphs over evil. So, in sticking with my apparent predilection for self-imposed public humiliation, I started to cry. I knew full well though, that if my first period class witnessed my emotional outburst, I would never command their respect again, so I tried really hard to fight off my tears. I expended so much energy attempting to do this, in fact, that I started to sweat and felt my face flush fuchsia. Then it happened: my eyes got wet, and my nose started to run. I tilted my head upwards towards the ceiling and tried to mentally will the tears to stay in my eyes, and the snot in my nose. I knew if I sniffed (which I obviously needed to do) or wiped my eyes with my sleeves, I would attract the attention of twenty-seven pairs of eyes. Such an attraction, in my paranoid mind, would undoubtedly unleash a litany of mini-disasters: the kids would find the undoing of their teacher more entertaining than the movie; I, resenting their amusement at my expense would be forced to act teacherly and mean and turn off the movie; I would be forced to spontaneously invent some type of alternative assignment on the following chapter which I had yet to read, and they would never understand the connection between European imperialism and the mess that currently exists in Africa. God. Please don’t sniff!

But amidst all of my internal pleading, an innocent tear ran down my cheek (bringing mascara with it), and a small line of snot suddenly stretched between my nose and my mouth. It was disgusting. I had to do it. I had to sniff.

The row of kids sitting closest to me uniformly whipped their heads around to look (as predicted), and one of them blurted out, “Ms. Hooks is crying!” (Also predicted.) But then, rather than the predicted sequence of mini-disasters, four of my female students turned to look at me and they were crying too (I have never been so relieved to see other people in tears!). One of my kids stood up to hand me a roll of paper towels (it’s a city school, we have no tissues), and Darrin, whose mom’s phone number is on speed dial in my cell phone, piped up with, “Ms. Hooks, it’s okay – I’m crying on the inside.”

So this is what I conclude: my first period class, while driving me effectively batty all year long, is filled with the exact thing that the movie so pointedly lacks – goodness.

Saturday, March 10, 2007

Airports, Cancer, Anger and Sunshine

Last year I went on a blind date to the Holocaust museum in D.C. Not only was the location intensely romantic, the actual set-up was too - it was planned by my students. In fact, they came along. So did my mom. So my "date", my mom, my students and I all traveled from Baltimore to D.C. on a yellow school bus. My 9th grade students had been raving about their old middle school teacher, Mr. Sanders, for months, so when it came time to organize the field trip a few of them were adamant that he join us as a chaperon. It seemed innocent enough (especially since Mr. Sanders was my little brother's age and had a girlfriend), but in the days leading up to the trip I was bombarded by comments like, "Ms. Hooks, Mr. Sanders is so cute! You'll love him. He looks like a J. Crew model" and, "Ms. Hooks, Mr. Sanders won't care about the wheelchair - he's so nice." Suffice to say, the whole thing started to make me feel a little bit awkward. My kids were right, though - Mr. Sanders was exactly as they described. Plus the fact that he was 3+ years younger than me and had a girlfriend, allowed me to quickly replace my trepidation with appreciation for the 24 year-old "J. Crew model" who took a day off to accompany us to D.C.

That story becomes relevant later.

In the meantime, my ex-boyfriend's mom was diagnosed (for the third time) with cancer. The chemo treatments seemed to be effective until about two weeks ago, when the cancer decided to spread to her brain. While my ex-boyfriend is really more of a current friend than an actual ex, there was a good ten-minute span of time when I thought he had to be "the one" merely because I loved his family so much. I still do. So after Eric and I tried (unsuccessfully) to date, we remained friends - a relationship that has been far more sustainable than any romantic endeavor ever was. So now, every time I fly home to visit my family, I visit Eric, his wife, and his family as well - I'll never find in laws that I love as much as I love them.

Anyway, when Eric told me about his mom, I could not stop crying - it was pathetic, actually. One of my best friends was telling me about his mom, and I couldn't even keep it together to offer support or ask proper questions. Plus, I am completely incomprehensible when I'm crying, so even my meagre efforts at compassion sounded much like my mom's 8-pound shitzhu howling. Comforting, I know. So I decided to fly home the following weekend to visit her; there wasn't much to say anyway.

Unless a terrorist had commandeered the plane en route to Rochester, NY, I doubt the weekend could have been much worse. But, in the words of Walt Whitman, Eric's mom, Phyllis, is "so much sunshine per square inch" and just being in her presence is like finally holding hands with someone you've liked for a really long time - it just feels right. Warm and still and right. So despite the fact that I think I cried more last weekend, than all other times in my life combined, I am so, so glad I went.

During the flight back to Baltimore, I realized that this was the first time in my life, where the upcoming work week seemed less stressful than the weekend (even though I couldn't remember what I was actually teaching about the next morning). When the plane landed, I got my suitcase, placed it on my lap, and headed outside to wait for the bus that would take me to the airport parking lot. While waiting, I heard someone call my name:

"Ms. Hooks!"

I shuddered a little, assuming that one of my students was at the airport. Cautiously, I turned around. There, looking as J. Crew model-esque and kind as my students had promised, was Mr. Sanders.

"Hey! What are you doing here?"

(Is that not the stupidest question you could ever ask someone who is at the airport?)

So Mr. Sanders and I proceeded to talk - mostly about school - until the bus arrived to take us to the daily parking lot. When the bus arrived, 20+ other people scrambled on, and Mr. Sanders asked the driver to put the ramp down so I could get on. This request, however, seemed to confuse the bus driver, who was unable to operate the ramp. Eventually Mr. Sanders climbed into the bus and manually pried the ramp up and out so I could board, but once I was on, there wasn't really anywhere for me to go. The only empty spot was right next to the driver, and the driver started to explain that he couldn't drive the bus until I was "strapped in."

I fly a lot, by the way, and I take these airport transport buses almost every time I do - I had never been "strapped in" before. I told the driver that wheelchair strapping was totally unnecessary, and went back to my conversation with Mr. Sanders. A few minutes passed and Mr. Sanders was in the middle of his weekend story, when I realized we hadn't moved. I briefly interrupted, and asked the bus driver why we hadn't moved. His response?

"I told you, I need to strap you in."

Why he never made any effort to do this himself alludes me, but apparently the entire bus load of people needed to wait until another airport employee was available for the job. In the meantime, I stopped listening to Mr. Sanders and started to feel my face get hot. I immediately forgot all of my other redeeming features, and traded in my inner peace and social competence for oppressive sentiments of guilt. I was a. embarrassed, b. horribly burdensome, c. ridiculously conspicuous and d. helpless. I wanted to jump out of my wheelchair and throw myself dramatically off the (non-moving) bus, but my MS kept me still. Still and mortified. Then, two men - both in their late fifties - started to get impatient.

One man moved towards the front of the bus, "Hey, why aren't we moving? I have places to be."

The bus driver explained that I needed to be strapped in. This did not appease the angry man.

"Well let me off this bus then, I'm not sitting here for one more minute because of one person."

The bus driver calmly opened the door, and the man squeezed by me and hurriedly stumbled off the bus. His absence provided another angry man the opportunity to berate the bus driver (and, through proxy, me). Angry man # 2 stormed to the front of the bus and began aggressively pointing at me,

"You are telling me that we're sitting here because of ONE person?!" (He continued to erratically point at me. His face was red and the line through his brow was so deep that I thought his head might split open.)

The bus driver said nothing, the man kept angrily gesticulating and telling the entire bus load of people that the delay was entirely my fault, and I started to cry. I also felt like I was in a sauna. So instead of saying something witty to appropriately verbally combat Angry Man # 2, I just sat there sweating while my eye-makeup ran down my face in streaks. At this point, Mr. Sanders had apparently heard enough of Angry Man # 2, and decided to say a few of the things that I would have said if I wasn't silently choking on sobs.

"Excuse me sir, but this is not her fault. You do not have to talk about her like this - she's crying now!"

Angry Man # 2 did not apologize. He looked at me, appeared somewhat pleased to see me crying, and looked back at Mr. Sanders. He continued to coldly stare at Mr. Sanders for the next five minutes while the airport employee (finally) strapped me in, and we (finally) headed towards the daily lot. The entire bus load of people was entirely silent, and the only words uttered between the airport and the lot were directed at Angry Man # 2, and were assertively articulated by Mr. Sanders,

"STOP looking at me like that." (Mr. Sanders has an exceptionally powerful teacher-voice. Though it must be noted - the man did not stop glaring at him.)

Oh, and the best part? Angry Man # 1, who had abruptly evacuated the bus because he had "better things to do than wait" ended up back on board, because no other bus had arrived. It is only in retrospect that I can appreciate the irony of Angry Man # 1's misfortune.

Mr. Sanders and I got off the bus at the first stop in the lot. He helped me get my wheelchair and my luggage off in a reasonable amount of time, and I tried to stop crying for long enough to properly thank him for his help. There were a lot of things I wanted to thank him for, actually, but communication was apparently not my forte last week.

I headed off towards my car (or where I thought I had parked my car. I lose my car in the garage every time I go to the airport. Thank God for the panic button.), and while I aimlessly wheeled up and down the aisles of the dark garage looking for my navy Toyota, I overheard a few girls in the adjacent aisle, at a nearby car. The girls couldn't see me as I was (obviously) in my wheelchair and significantly below eye-level, but they were close enough for me to hear their conversation. This is where my faith in humanity begins to be restored:

Girl # 1: Can you believe the assholes on that bus?
Girl # 2: Seriously. I am so glad that guy finally said something.
Girl # 1: I wanted to do something, but didn't know what to do.

Relieved to know that other people on the bus were more mortified with the behavior of the angry men, than the time we spent waiting for my wheelchair to be properly strapped in, I did what any slightly irrational and extremely emotional person would do: I cried. Again.

Then I found my car, disassembled my wheelchair, shoved my green suitcase in the trunk, and began the 20 minute trek back to my apartment. Except I had a perilously low amount gas, so I had to stop at the first exit I found on 295 to prevent further drama from infiltrating my evening. At the B.P., where the gas was drastically over-priced, I stuck the nozzle into my gas tank, and leaned up against the car while unleaded fuel dripped life into my car and out of my bank account. Listening to the cheesy 80's music that blared into the lot of the gas station, I continued to think - about the weekend and about the angry men on the airport bus. The juxtaposition of people like Phyllis with the two mean men on the bus, was almost disorienting; an extreme example of beauty and goodness on one hand, and unmitigated self-righteousness and evil on the other. It was smothering. And I was on emotion-overload from the weekend anyway, so naturally I continued to cry.

Then a man in a red Subaru drove by me in the opposite direction of the gas station parking lot. I felt him look at for me for a second, and keep driving. He continued to drive for about fifteen-feet, stopped the car, and threw it into reverse. Suddenly the red Subaru was directly across from me, stopped in between the two gas pumps. The man rolled down his window:

"Hey. Miss, are you okay?"

(I've mentioned already that I cannot talk while I'm crying, right?)

I squeaked a barely audible, "I'm fine, thank you", but the man was apparently unconvinced.

"Really? Are you sure? Do you need any help?"

I shook my head, but my continued sniffles caused the man to probe a little further into the state of my disarray.

"What's wrong?"

Noting his persistence, I realized that I had to respond. So I did,

"People were really mean on a bus."

(This must have seemed the singularly most ridiculous thing to hear based on the fact that I was pumping gas into a car, and was no longer particularly near the airport or, for that matter, any means of public transportation.)

The man was apparently unfazed and continued, "Okay. What bus? Where were the people mean to you?" (He was definitely talking to me like I was missing some chromosomes, but I can't blame him. Really.)

I tried then to briefly explain what had happened - I was at the airport and I needed to take the bus from the baggage claim to the parking garage, the driver didn't know how to strap my wheelchair in and two mean men became exceedingly impatient etc. (Please remember, though, that I am standing at my car pumping gas. There is no wheelchair in this man's line of vision. My sanity must have been in question at this point.)

He seemed confused, but calmly reassured me and told me not to worry about impatient, "mean" men. I thanked him for his concern and compassion, he smiled and started to roll his window up. Before he drove off, though, he said one more thing,

"Well, at the very least I hope you had an excellent vacation."

Why I couldn't maintain composure for 30 more seconds is beyond me, but I couldn't. I lost it entirely. Again. The man was appalled,

"God. What did I say? What? What happened?"

Still crying I told him, "I was visiting someone I love very much, and she has cancer and it just spread to her brain and it's so, so unfair."

At that point, the man opened his door and muttered, "Sweetie, you need a hug." Leaving his car running, he walked between the two gas pumps and hugged me. It was a real hug too. I held on tightly, burying my face into the strange man's shoulder while I sobbed. He let me cry for a few minutes before letting me go. When he did, he looked at me very seriously and asked if I'd be all right. I told him I would. He told me not to drive while I was crying. I told him I wouldn't. Then I thanked him and he left.

So that is where this story ends. In a gas station parking lot, with bad 80's music, a strange man and a hug that convinced me - at least for the time being - that everything would be all right.