August Cleaning

English teachers need big ring binders, REALLY big ring binders. White one for all the Tempest stuff, blue one for Midsummer Night’s Dream. One for the notes from the workshops the principal sends you to and one for the new lessons you’re building. Another for the really strange poems I get them to write (while protesting loudly) in the middle of the year. The beat-up binders I’m putting in a bag to give away won’t be taken by students–they’re too fancy. They’ll be taken by English or Social Studies teachers who give a lot of handouts or collect a lot of written work. One really old blue canvas binder I’m keeping so I can remember I was a teenager once although I’d like to pretend that I ALWAYS knew everything.

And then there is that bowl of shiny rocks I cleaned out. Over the dusty, furry, cramped winter, they were invaded by average-looking marbles with a twist of their own sense of preciousness inside, squashed glass bits that belong between the stems of fresh flowers in a clear vase, and a couple of mysterious little white corkscrew seashells–no one went to the beach! I segregated the interlopers and washed the colored stones. They are drying on a plate in the kitchen like privileged vacationers on the deck of a ship. My eyes are full of sweat.

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September Sweat and Whimpering

Ending the first week of school with a toast to new students, clean desks, new notebooks, new socks, etc. is my idea of fun.  Instead, the sweat, coughing and bleary eyes I would have happily attributed to unpacking box after edifying box of Representative American Authors in my hot 2nd floor classroom turns out to be influenza–the special new bug influencing far too many young students this week. And I, refurbished biplane of a teacher, now of the the 10th and 9th grades after several zigs and zags up and down the pre- and post-secondary strata of the educational skies, am down with it in the worst sense. I have prided myself on my immunity to pre-K through college germs, but the latest had two or three tries at me and finally won.

After a couple of days either lying in bed or noodling around the computer nervously, I ventured outside into the dappled sunshine today–seeing it out the window is almost painful, because you know that its very falling on the grass this way is allocated just some hours now. Coolness slices under the rays and the leaves rustle happily, being done with their prodigious growing of the last few months.  A couple of ripe grape tomatoes hang like bells against the barrel planter’s neglected side. No more palavering with the mate about which one of us is going to mow the lawn: it’s not growing much more at this point and I pick some long grass to weave into a seasonal memorial. The hydrangeas, so nice about yielding a few flower-balls for me to take inside–even when I haven’t brought the clippers on my dreamy 5-minute tours of the overgrown backyard–are starting up their dried-flower stalls for the harvest fair. Teachers don’t get to spend enough time outside in the fall, and sick teachers practically none at all. So while the novel illness is gradually relinquishing its hold on my lungs, throat and head, my mind is still hearing a soundtrack of tragic classical compositions addressed to the waning of the light. There’s a small dog yipping and barking a few yards away, though, who doesn’t seem to have been taught such mournful human associations.

Absentminded Snow

I wore high-top boys’ basketball shoes to school today.  The ground was clear enough of ice and my ankles were enjoying the relief from day after day of wearing those heavy adult slip-ons with the driveway treads. The brown slip-ons sit like giant underbaked loaves on your feet, and you wear them because they obviate the constant changing of footgear that an indoor job in this climate requires.  You won’t fall quite as quickly on the ice and snow with them on, but you can get away with them indoors as long as there is a mat or towel to catch the melting mess you carry in on your feet.

My hightops were all about adolescent playfulness and strutting.  Yes, I feel the raw tug of desperate symbolism–the day long responsibilities of middle age brightened by the possibilities of youth– as we head into that grim late-winter early-spring stretch of work and home life. People have begun to give each other little packets of seeds as token gifts at the end of formal events. I think I see green under the melting snow and don’t know if I’m dreaming.  On the other hand, the basketball-playing girls who wanted prior notice so we could all wear our high-tops together (seeing me wearing them seems to a spectacle  akin to seeing E. T. break dance in the school entrance)  are weary champions now.

On these worn out days, sleepiness puts its soft arms around me for after 11 am.   At lunch I cross paths with another English teacher and quip that I am Sleepy, Hungry and Dopey all at once–she offers Creaky (denoting my joints) and Cranky (all of us with too much to do in too little time are)  for our Seven Dwarfs roster. My teenager has been asleep or huddled under a blanket almost every day this week when I arrive home in the late afternoon.  I was wondering what was wrong with us even as I’m wondering what kind of civilizational damage is being aided and abetted by our constant turning to coffee, the anxiety-breeding potency of which I’m just managing to avoid.  Wait, that worrying about civilization must itself spring from caffeine use, no?  My partner reminds me and I realize that there is another reason for the fatigue:  oh, it was that Spring Forward thing!  It should be called Curl Up and Cope instead, for our house at 4 pm, curled up pet and teenager being sniffed over by a barely-awake den mother in from a meager hunt, is like a cross-section of a hibernating animal den a few feet underground.

On my drive home I noticed that the snow remaining at the sides of the road is mighty dirty? I cringe when children exclaim proudly that they’ve thrown it at each other. Remaining at the roadside is the kind of fossil snowbank out of which,in another Northern state,  a fluffy rainbow-hued synthetic clown wig once emerged during the slow thaw. It added real mystery to the usual spring revelation of dog toys and poop.  Standing in our boots staring and laughing, we could only wonder what had transpired outside our cramped rental house some night, months ago, in the deep of winter. 

As I pulled up to our inland Maine house today after chuffing like a moderately courageous engine through another day at school, an absentminded light snow swirled through the air but did not deign to set its fairy feet on the ground.  I paused for a second and wondered, when it started, barely visible, if it might be “something else”.  What else? Apple blossoms for crying out loud?  Ticker tape for the coming parade of spring, so far nowhere to be seen as we sullenly refuse to crane our necks around the corner?  I hope it’s not a futile pursuit to keep asking the snow for a hint of something that is not snow.

Red Buttons

DSC_0042It was a crackling cold day outside, and inside the partitioned hangar of the junk store, I felt woozy from fatigue, caffeine and the space-port feeling (“Loading buses for Planet Q”)  shed by ranks and ranks of blueish neon tube lighting high up in the metal rafters. My serious work–finding a few hand-me-down letter trays and storage racks for my 10th grade English classroom–was done. Then I noticed a jar and several tiny drawers full of old buttons on a metal shelf.  Nothing I needed for school, certainly, and I had been doing a little better giving away junk rather than collecting it. . . but, buttons that have lasted through the wear and tear, washing, and finally, separation from the clothes they held on long-grown or long-gone bodies deserve a look.  Besides, even if one were to acquire a few, they wouldn’t take up so much room. I decided that as far away from home as I was, a few minutes of indulgence would not cause a complete collapse of the known universe. 

I began to notice in the brown- and white-flecked jumble of the jar a number of jostling reds calling out, their gloss slightly, poignantly, dulled by decades-old grime. Most vintage things in stores are pretty picked over these days, so someone like me with no spare time usually does not stumble upon lucky finds.  Some of the wee denizens in this partly sorted (someone had begun and also given up) stash were clearly more than fifty years old.  I would allow myself to touch.  I set my bags down and told the cashier lady that I was going to take a bit of time now–she could hold my other stuff if she needed to.

I got stuck–I mean time stood still and my afternoon fatigue was either suspended or it actually helped me to forget about the rest of the afternoon’s obligations.  I began picking the tiny things out one at a time, and setting aside the less interesting “modern” shirt buttons, predictable pink pearly swirl sweater buttons etc. I woozily swerved into an uncharacteristically simple decision to collect the old red ones.  I could almost hear my mother’s voice telling me that red was always the most cheerful color, a fact inescapable in this warehouse chock-full of somewhat worn and shabby things.  I was middle-aged now, so my youthful scorn of a color so basic and popular as red was finally gone.  Red was now the joy in the midst of practical drabs, of hard-bitten workaday blacks.  I no longer saw red as gaudy and suspect, i.e. the color of self-advertisement, as I had in my cynical decades.  So my fists were filling up with little red plastic raspberries, jewels, and swirls, when the cashier lady decided something too, and offered me a plastic baggie for me to collect my treasures in.  I kept picking out red ones until I had picked through all the buttons the store had–the deep red of un-self-conscious yesteryear, with a few green ones thrown in–yes, we were coming up on Christmas and I was giving in to all kinds of traditional compulsions I usually resist. The  snub rounded shapes tended to fly out of my winter-chapped fingers, and so I started making tiny piles of the buttons I was “still thinking about” on the edge of the metal shelf that was the small stage for my small drama of impulse. I could swear I recognized some of the cake-like shapes from coats and pants my brother and I had worn as children, rather long ago.  I could remember the roughness of plaid wool, of thick corduroy–the lower tech fabrics that we still wore in the colder months in the 1960’s, mingled with exciting new nylon jackets with zippers.  I could remember being an actual child (before my young-Turk cynicism came to roost on the family’s shoulder like a brooding vulture) and cherishing those few bright red things we owned–skirts, book satchels, sweaters–as life rafts of sartorial confidence, brazen boldness!  Red buttons and red piping could exalt a plain white blouse or dress into a beloved favorite. My then-little brother considered red his special property too–no one would get a red car or a red pencil away from him.  (Even as an adult, hasn’t he had some red cars??)

Then I poked around in the little drawers on the thrift shop shelf–meant for nails and screws, or alternately, cufflinks?–where the unknown organizer had indulged in some mysterious classifying and picked out some of the larger and distinguished blue or brown buttons.  I believed some of them would cost as much as a quarter, so I tried to be thrifty!  I muttered something to the cash lady about the “creative clothing”  I made when I can steal a couple of hours. I use the phrase to prepare people for the colors and fabrics I combine.  With kind incredulity, she declared “You’ll have to show me one of those things next time!”

It’s nice to think that the possibility of cutting and sewing exists at all, after four pounds of English papers are graded, after the water for the chickpeas is measured and corrected, after homework completing, vitamin gulping and boot-wiping are supervised, and after the cat who just won’t listen has been cleaned up after; but even then, I’d probably just gaze at my bagful of old buttons for a while, reliving the sensations and associations that each one evokes, and not just jump into a new sewing project.  But look at the photo, such as it is:  can’t you see the ebullience amid the practical simplicity that red buttons still suggest?

Them Bootsies

There is a horrid word advertisers are trying to make us say these days–“shooties”. “Little” or “ankle” boots wouldn’t do? But I suppose they assume that teens and 20-somethings have such a tenuous grip on the English language that you can convince them to say anything, especially if it’s the name of of something to place on one’s body.  Because, to utter that peculiar name while pointing at someone else wearing the item is important too.  “Oh my God, she wore her ______ to volleyball practice!”

A couple of years ago I stunned my fashion-conscious middle-schooler (she was then at the bossier end of the elementary grades) by showing her the ankle-high cowboy-boot-shoes I wore when living as a single professional in a state far to the south and west of here–in another life, really. “Whose are those?”–I’ve gotten used to this response to the few remnants of pre-motherhood still to be found in my closet. This week I gave my cowboy (cowgirl) ankle boots the final tryout–nope, my feet will never be that size again. A little due to rainstorm shrinkage on the boots themselves–the streets of that arid state really flow deep when a sudden thunderstorm comes–and a lot due to the burdens of childbearing and child-carrying, my feet are permanently bigger and flatter now.  There is no hope that I could even walk a few steps in these wishful allusions to (for me) an exotic lifestyle.

When I could wear them, so long ago, I loved them because they gave an edge–and a pointy toe–to my extremely bookish life.  The word “shooties” didn’t exist, thank ye gods, and if anyone had called them by that word, I’m sure I would have stopped wearing them that day, after retorting that, yes, they were cowboy boots of a sort but that the steel-capped beak did not, in fact, shoot bullets.  Except figurative ones at such awful little compromises.  You may be wearing part of a boot that might be warping your foot slightly, and enjoying it, but calling it by a name that tramples over the daily delights of language…makes my toes curl.

Hall Pass

I’m a substitute teacher these days, and usually my students are taller than me.  But yesterday I was at the elementary school, and a second grader with shiny brown eyes took a little something out of his pocket during morning round-up, and excitedly declared “I found a coconut on my way to school today!” In his small, sweaty, palm was a triangular piece of dark coconut shell. I agreed that it was a wonderful find indeed, for a humid September morning. Then, I remembered “curriculum”–“Do you think that grew around here, in Maine?” Several kids articulated their more or less completed thoughts– no, coconuts grow far away, in warm places. I joked with the boy who brought it, that since *I* was born far away in a warm place, that this bit of coconut shell could be used as a hall pass if anyone needed to leave the classroom I was supervising.

Then we launched into the day’s lessons and activities–sitting around the story-mat (which turns out to be the math-mat as well), or sitting at our small tables in small colorful chairs:  listening to Jack Prelutsky’s poetry, opening apple juice boxes, chasing and then (finally, because they were so excited and upset and carrying it out on a piece of paper did not work at ALL) sending a rather large spider on to its next reincarnation with a dainty pink plastic clog; also handling and washing little rocks of three different colors, giving pep talks to our little blue math calculators, and so on. The day did indeed fly by, as the notes from the classroom teacher promised it would. Most of the kids took the time to give me high fives when they left in batches to catch their well-spaced out buses.

A day later, emptying out my pockets, I found the little triangle of coconut shell.  The boy with the shining brown eyes– the same little guy, who during morning Science Time, had demonstrated a “tough” stance with one hand on a hip and helped me to explain the difference between /tuff/ the volcanic rock and being tough–had given me my “hall-pass”, to keep, at the end of the day.  In the flurry of goodbyes after the bell rang, I hadn’t taken much note of it.  At home, nursing my aching feet (a second-grade teacher doesn’t sit much), I had forgotten about it altogether, until this morning when I went flouncing about the house picking up laundry.