Categories
winter

Walk of Shame Snow Woman

Three years ago, back in 2013 when good things still seemed possible, I started a serial on Facebook involving a snow lady we’d made in the front yard. Periodically, when we weren’t shoveling out from the latest blizzard or fending off mid-winter fluesies, I’d toss out another post about this snow lady and her imagined life. 

About six people got really into it, and the rest of FB either ignored it or were bamfoozled by it. 

No matter how many understood the snow lady’s very particular vibe, I kept tossing out updates on her until one day I stopped — probably because it was so blasted cold outside that my camera kept seizing up whenever I’d go out to stage another photo shoot…or because my fingers went to frostbite before I could get the shot…or because I was sorry for how thoroughly I’d freaked out the mail carrier. All he wanted to do was drop some envelopes through the slot, but every time he got near his house, he saw this crazy white-fingered lunatic dancing around, stomping her feet, hollering swear words at her camera and carrying on an animated conversation with a snow person. 

And then, because it was the snowiest April on record that year, a few more crazy storms dropped inches of fluff, and eventually the scene out our front door was obscured by nature. There will come soft rains and all that jazz.

Anyhow, the other day on Facebook, a friend saw a photo of the snow lady crop up in his memories from past years, and he commented on it. This, of course, in the weirdness of Facebook, meant that the photo showed up in the feeds of a few other folks, and eventually, it became obvious that I should go back and dredge up the posts about my snow lady and pull them together somehow.

That somehow is here. Now. 

Please, then, very kindly: enjoy the exploits of our spirited heroine.


The mustachioed man at the bar had her in fits of laughter by her fourth gin & tonic.

After her fifth G & T, they hit the exit together.

The next morning, her head pounding, her mascara smudged, nursing a little hair of the dog, she stumbled home, vowing “Never again.”

Ladies and gentlemen, I present Walk of Shame Snow Woman.

walk-of-shame-snow-woman

***

Their eyes had met across a crowded bar.

eyes-met

Dapper. Mustachioed. How could a tipsy girl resist?

mustachioed

After last call, they stumbled back to his place. During the walk, she tried — that minx! — to grab his rear end.

Her vision blurred, she missed her target and punched him in the testes.

Fortunately, his balls were made of ice. He never flinched.

***

Forty weeks later.

baby-mama

***

It was only after part of her face fell off (warm temperatures and sheer fatigue) that Walk of Shame Snow Woman’s postpartum issues became obvious.

She was tired of standing in the same place all day, every day, feeling like she was never getting anywhere. She was tired of the baby’s clove-scented breath wafting into the hole where her carrot used to be. Damn it. She was just. so. tired.

Those once-lovin’ arms weren’t so lovin’ any more.

baby-drop baby-drop2

***

It was fortunate she’d taken his phone number during their one night together. Even more fortunate was the fact that she’d entered his digits correctly, given the five gin & tonics sloshing through her system.

It was fortunate she’d taken his phone number because now, nearly a year later, she needed him. She needed his help. She needed her Baby Daddy to step up.

As Walk of Shame Snow Woman applied herself to postpartum recovery, Mustachioed Bar Hook-Up guy, having just learned he was a father, revealed a strength of character that would have surprised both the Boy Scout troop leader (“NO, THAT IS NOT HOW YOU TIE A FARMER’S LOOP. IF YOU’VE DONE THE KNOT CORRECTLY, I SHOULD NOT BE STRAPPED TO A TREE RIGHT NOW”) and the pastor (“WHEN I SAID ‘LIGHT THE ALTAR CANDLES,’ I DIDN’T MEAN ‘SET FIRE TO THE ENTIRE NAVE'”) from his youth. Dismissed by so many, Mustachioed Bar Hook-Up guy came into his own as a father. The babe, so recently tumbled from his mother’s overwhelmed arms, was surrounded by love at Daddy’s house.

baby-daddy

***

In the meantime, rallying emotionally and physically from the demands of new motherhood, Walk of Shame Snow Woman decided it was time she did something for herself, something that would help her look forward to the future with hope and a positive attitude.

She scheduled a visit with the plastic surgeon. A few weeks later, recovering from rhinoplasty, Walk of Shame Snow Woman eyed herself in the mirror, smiling as hugely as her straight stick allowed.

Finally, she had the little button nose she’d coveted her whole life.

button-nose

***

He called her and left a message: “Could the baby stay with me for a few more weeks? I know you’ve been feeling better since getting that little button nose, and I’m sure you’re eager to have the baby come back, but, well, we’re having a really good time and enjoying all the new toys I bought, so maybe if we could extend the stay…?”

daddy-babybaby-toys

***

And although she was feeling more like herself again as the post-partum haze lifted and her new nose settled into its pit, Walk of Shame Snow Woman knew that the baby was still better off with Mustachioed Bar Hook-Up Baby Daddy, for the time being.

…because she still had some livin’ to do before settling down, returning to motherhood, and introducing Baby to its first solids (softened ice cream sandwiches). Thus, two days after agreeing to let MBH-UBD continue to care for their child, WoSSW left him this gleeful voicemail: “I did it! I’ve always wanted some ink, so I did it! Thank you for helping me find the time and space to make some of my tattoo dreams come true! I’m sending you photos of the work I had done last night after last call. They closed the bar, and then Charmaine and Patricka and I walked down to The Poison Pin and got inked! Check your phone; I’m texting pictures! I got one tatt on my bottom ball and one on my middle ball–wanted to get one on my head ball, too, but chickened out. Probably a good thing I didn’t have that seventh Fuzzy Navel, actually!”

He checked his phone. He saw the images of her tattoos.

hungry-hippos tattoo

He wondered how hard it would be to gain permanent custody.

***

Whistling “The Wheels on the Bus” as he and the baby exited their Daddy and Me Gymboree class, Mustachioed Bar Hook-Up Baby Daddy checked his messages.

Well, there: a message from Walk of Shame Snow Woman. She was finally checking in. It had been a few days since he’d heard from her. MBH-UBD had been starting to worry she’d been hospitalized for Tattoo Infection or jailed for Exuberant Denial of Motherhood.

She picked up her phone on the first ring, bursting out, “HI! How’ve you and the baby been doing? Bonding a lot? I’m really glad you two are having this time together–”

“Yes, about that–” he tried to interject, but she interrupted.

“I know I sure am having a blast. Charmaine and Patricka liked my new ink so much that we had to go back the next night and get some work done on them. And then today, I thought to myself, ‘Girl, you need to pamper yourself; life is short!’ so I went to the salon and had LeTrice do my make-up and give my hair a blow-out, and now I’m feeling like a kajillion!”

the-blowout

***

Although his first reaction was to redefine “pampering” as “selfishness,” he counted to ten and aimed for compassion. These last months hadn’t been easy on WoSSW, and, to be honest, he, too, had gone through phases of self-exploration, like the time he got into ear gauges and stretched his lobes to the point of sporting 3/4″ plugs.

gauges

“Well, okay, then,” he replied slowly. “I’m glad you’re flying high, albeit from your same frozen spot, and I’m sure that blow-out looks appropriately storm tangled. I’d like to propose an idea, though: why don’t we have the baby continue to stay with me while you work on some things that are less, well, body oriented. Since you’ve put in some time on your appearance, could I ask that you now focus on strengthening and improving the other parts of your life? I really feel like our baby could use a mother who can read books more than pour drinks; who can tell stories that aren’t about hours in the tattoo artist’s chair; who can make food instead of eating other patrons’ Happy Hour leftovers off the bar; who can play freeze tag instead of quarters.”

There was silence on the line. Finally, she spoke: “Huh to the what at the where?

Trying to clarify, he asked more directly: “I ask this with complete empathy — I mean, I’ve definitely sown a few wild oats in my day what with being the drummer for a major rock band and all — but how about you take some time now to grow up and become a parent?”

***

Still on the phone with Mustachioed Bar Hook-Up Baby Daddy, registering his strong words regarding her need to grow up, Walk of Shame Snow Woman felt defensive.

What was wrong with getting a nose job? She’d have him know her confidence had skyrocketed since getting that little button nose! She was handing out her number to all the elves at the Horn O’ Plenty since the rhinoplasty! And what was so bad about her new tattoos? They were symbolic…of…you know…things. Like how sometimes she got hungry just like a Hungry, Hungry Hippo.

However, the same sense of self-preservation that had gotten her through eight months in juvie when she was fifteen kicked in now. If she lit into him and tore him another carrot hole, he might get peeved in return and refuse to keep the baby for a few more weeks.

She wasn’t quite ready for the baby to come back to her place yet. She and Charmaine and Patricka were going to the casino to play some keno Friday night, and then she wanted to go get her nails done at Klassy ‘Cures like that one lady at the bowling alley who never bowled. It wasn’t easy, having a broken lacrosse scoop for a hand; what girl wouldn’t want to freshen that look with a kick-ass mani?

manicure
Her cuticles were shredded.
never-bowled
The lady at the bowling alley who never bowled.

What she needed to do was buy herself some more baby-free time.

Thus, Walk of Shame Snow Woman tamped down her urge to shriek and instead warmed her voice so as to sound less icy:

“You know, MBH-UBD, you’re right. I do need to start being less selfish. I do need to start improving other parts of my life besides my own appearance. At some point, a girl should just say to herself, ‘Sweetheart, relax. Your bottom ball of snow is already as taut as a watermelon rind. It’s okay to miss a day or two at the gym.'”

Stuttering a bit, for he’d rather expected to melt in the face of a blistering response, he managed, “Tha-, that’s great to hear. So maybe you can get your life pulled together, and then the baby can have some time with you.”

“Yea, sure. Just give me a few weeks to, y’know, do some laundry and find the toaster and catch up on Springer. I’ll let you know when I’m ready.”

Attempting to rub his head with frustration, but finding his arm couldn’t bend, Mustachioed Bar Hook-Up Baby Daddy put on the pressure: “You might need to fast track some of that. The thing is, I actually need to you take the baby next week, because I’m going out on tour with the boys.”

***

What? What boys? What tour? Whaddya mean you’re ‘going on tour with the boys’? Wait a moonshine minute: do you lead rich dicks on some sort of Grand Tour and drag them through Les Invalides or something? Do. not. tell. me. you are a cicerone who exposes the upper crust to fencing and the Alps? Do you bend the ears of callow youth in the Uffizi as you babble about about the subtle use of light in di Cosimo’s ‘Portrait of Lucrezia Panciatichi’? Well, well, well, slam the rusty gate on my festering big toe and get me a tetanus shot!” she bellowed, scratching her armpit and inhaling as she lit a Marlboro (menthol).

Completely exasperated, Mustachioed Bar Hook-Up Baby Daddy clipped out, “Come ON. No, I am not a cicerone — and by the way, your accent is amazing — nor do I lead lads from the Hamptons around Europe. You know full well what I mean when I say I’m ‘going on tour with the boys.’ I told you the night we met that I’m a drummer in a band, that I’m known for my unique style of not using drumsticks. I told you how I just use my arms because they percuss and chshshshsh and whama-whama-whama like no manufactured stick ever could. I told you all this.”

Although his words beat a faint bada-bing on her mental hi-hat, WoSSW didn’t exactly recall all this information, what with the five gin & tonics she’d had the night they’d met. Attempting to appease him, WoSSW asked, “You know, although I was very clearly attracted to your sassy knit cap that night at the bar, I actually am a little fuzzy about the rest. Like, for one, how we got a baby out of it. Also, um, that you’re in a band. Do you do, like, a drumline? Whenever drums go by in a parade, I jump around like I’m moshing and can’t stop until the woodwinds body surf me over to the clown candy.”

Sighing deeply, once again blaming the eleven shots of Jägermeister he’d had at the bar that night for messing up what had previously been a relatively simple life, MBH-UBD informed her, “NO, I do not make my living playing in a drumline. No one does, you powder-for-brains goose. I’ll send you a picture of me with the guys, and then you’ll get it. And once you realize who the lead singer is, you’ll understand why I’m so good at taking care of babies. Hang up. I’m sending it.”

on-tour-with-the-boys

***

Given a timeline, motivated by the hope that she might gain access to Slash, she reassessed. Frick yea, she could do this.

Giving it her best “wastrel tramp who likes Jim Beam” effort, Walk of Shame Snow Woman started to make some changes. Two days later, MBH-UBD’s phone rang; it was she. Breathlessly, WoSSW announced, “Dude, I rule. I got a job. Sure it’s seasonal, only a couple of days this week, in fact — but that just means I have more time to work on getting my trash heap of a subsidized apartment ready for the baby to move in while you’re touring with Axl and the boys. And the great thing about this job is that I totally get the idea of working now. Working is killer! I just stand there and vape a little Peach Schnapps e-cig and chat with my colleague Aunistee while people drop stuff off. I get seven bucks for every sixty ticks — and that’s totally two margaritas at Happy Hour!”

Wanting to be supportive but feeling flummoxed, Mustachioed Bar Hook-Up Baby Daddy managed, “That’s great, Walk of Shame. Yea, work can be all right, depending on the job. I know with Axl, sometimes things get tense, especially when I suggest he consider a little bit more in the pants department, but mostly, being a drummer rocks. Soooo: what IS your new job?”

axl

A bit distracted by the notion of Axl’s lack of pants, WoSSW didn’t answer at first. Eventually, though, she revealed, “Oh, I’m a Christmas Tree Drop-Off Site Logistician and Coordinator. I run the chipper.”

wood-chipper

***

And that’s where we left this romance of and from the snow: with two lost souls lurching through their days, banging their way through the world. The baby is now three — benefiting from the enrichments of Head Start. Currently, Mustachioed Bar Hook-Up Baby Daddy is drumming for Kings of Leon.

And our heroine? 

Sometimes she still gets overwhelmed. Sometimes she spends her rent money on new ink. Always, she drinks too much. Every week, she spends two hours at her job — emptying the quarters out of the machines at a laundromat, pouring them into a heavy plastic bag that she then thumps onto the desk of a cigar-chewing guy named Lenny. 

And twice a week, she has a session with her therapist, the renowned Dr. Paco. Known for his unorthodox methods, he reclines on a snow chaise longue while WoSSW stands rigidly in the corner. But as soon as the kindly doc looks her in the leafy eye and asks — with the only compassion she’s ever known — “Why do you suppose you’re so bent on self-sabotage?” — 

she melts.

ending

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Categories
winter

Salt on the Road

Salt Stain

Grey sky hangs low, a cinder block compressing the horizon. Lifeless, yawning fields spread to the left; decaying tillage muddles the acres on the right. The car flits past a “Did You Know? My Heart Beat 18 Days from Conception” billboard, then another, this one taking the tack of “My Doc Says I Could Smile Before I Was Born.” Next is a sign touting high-quality smoked fish on offer at an upcoming truck stop. Along the berm runs a fence, its broken posts half buried by drifts of blown snow. In front of me, leading me, the black asphalt of highway is narrow; one lane is clear, but the other is coated with grey glaze, turning passing into a dicey prospect. On both sides, the shoulders of I-35 are covered with dingy whorls from a recent blizzard. The car’s defroster battles the chunks of freezing moisture flapping onto the windshield. When a truck passes me, dirty muck smacks the glass; I squirt the wiper fluid, clearing a 2 x 3-foot expanse, and my eyes once again scud across the somber flatness of February, the month when winter tips from glory into grind.

I’m on the road for work, driving south to visit two high school teachers whom I’m mentoring. In Minnesota, high school students who qualify can enroll in college classes using the “post-secondary” option. Some take classes online. Others come to campus and sit in college classrooms. Still others complete college courses that are offered within their high schools, taught by high school teachers. In all cases, the state covers the cost of their books and tuition. Particularly clever and motivated students can graduate, simultaneously, with a high school diploma and an A.A. degree.

The third option, the one where high school students complete a college class without ever leaving their high schools or having a college instructor take the helm, is controversial. Problematic. In most cases, the classes they take are “concurrent enrollment,” meaning the students earn both high school and college credit for the same course, accompanied by the caveat that the class will challenge students with “extra” assignments and assessments to boost the content from secondary to post-secondary level. In many cases, these courses are taught by high school teachers whose academic credentials would not qualify them for hire by the colleges granting credits to these students. In the next few years, that issue will be resolved, when a new policy (thank you, teachers’ union!) is implemented, one requiring that all teachers of classes resulting in college credit have the requisite credentials. What will not be resolved are the issues of atmosphere and curriculum that crop up when high school students stay in their high school classrooms and are taught by high school teachers, all while earning college credits.

The bandaid on this sticky issue is the college-instructor mentors. Through a carefully hammered out agreement, every high school teacher and post-secondary class benefits from the oversight of a college teacher, someone who evaluates the syllabi, textbooks, assignments, and examples of student work.

Simultaneously, this is a good idea and a fraught idea. Yes, we should have our hands on what’s being taught in remote locations under our college’s name. But. It sets up a bizarre power differential in which two colleagues–united in mission, skill, and passion–are thrown into a relationship where one makes demands, conducts reviews, and completes paperwork about the other. While that differential can be largely neutralized by sanity and interpersonal awareness, there remains a whiff of “Kapo” about the whole thing, at least to the nose of this taking-a-jiff-to-sniff-for-a-whiff-of-spliff-or-a-reason-to-miff-and-roll-out-some-rhymes-in-a-riff mentor.

So I’m driving south on I-35, blasting the defroster and squirting the windshield in order that I might sit, one-on-one, with two high school teachers in two different towns, running through a checklist with each of them, ultimately, ideally, deeming legitimate the work they do.

Getting into other people’s business is not my jam. Then again, assigning respect and value to a college education is.

A decade or so ago, I willingly agreed to be a mentor. We who sign up for the gig trade off a bit of teaching time for a bit of mentoring time. To an English teacher, the prospect of reading a a hundred fewer papers in a semester is a kind of bliss. Yes, I said back then. I will mentor.

It’s possible I had conflated mentor and Mentos and was actually thinking, “Mmmm. Candy.”

What I discovered over those years of mentoring was that, unlike the uplifting experience of eating Mentos, it left me feeling as grey as a February sky inside. Back in that era, site visits were “optional,” with no clear process set up to compensate instructors for the gas and food they’d need in order to travel to schools a few hours away, so virtually all communication took place through email and over the phone. One of the high school teachers assigned to me was phenomenal, a glittering diamond, but the other was…well…the opposite of diamond. Coal?

For two years, my dynamic with Coal was this: I’d start the semester by letting him know there were certain materials I’d need to see and review, as part of the contract between his school and mine. Coal would return neither calls nor emails. Every three days or so, I’d send him another message. Eventually, I’d get a one-liner in response, making an excuse. He was busy. Would get on it, though. In a couple of weeks.

After a couple of weeks, I’d send a reminder message and then sit in my office, humming to the melody of Jiminy Cricket’s legs sawing together. One semester, I never received any materials from this teacher. When I approached the person in charge of the mentoring program and complained about this lack, she said she’d contact the school principal. The semester ended. We all went on break. The end.

The next year, that same teacher was assigned to me. The sound of my much-put-upon sigh still echoes off Lake Superior on particularly starry nights. By the second year, I’d heard from parents and students, whom I happened to know in my personal life, about Coal. I’d heard that, even with high school instruction, he was everyone’s worst idea of a teacher–truly terrible at his job. That he was teaching classes for our college was mortifying. I hounded him endlessly for copies of his syllabi, samples of assignments, a peek at student work. Behind the scenes, I pumped the person in charge of the mentoring program, asking what the consequences were for not adhering to the agreement. Possibly, the college could decide not to renew its contract with this school in the future, which would mean the college would lose money. Possibly, a different teacher could have been asked to teach the college classes, had the school been in a bigger town, where there was more than one teacher as the option. Ultimately, the bottom line was that he could continue to stall, continue to be crap, and continue to compromise the education received by the students under his tutelage.

Through sheer, unwavering, constant pestering, I finally squeezed some materials out of Coal. In the last week of the semester, an envelope arrived, and in it were his syllabi and some examples of student papers that he’d already graded. The idea was that I could look them over, decide how I would have graded those papers, and then we could discuss any discrepancies in our perceptions of the quality. Generally, this is an extremely productive exercise for teachers to undertake; the discussion of “why” behind assigning a score is hugely helpful for all involved.

So Coal sent me a handful of essays to which he’d assigned “A”s and “B”s.

After I read them, I had to rest my forehead on the little wooden table–the grading table–in my office.

If I squinted really hard and played make believe in my head, these were “D” papers. At best.

Not only was it frustrating to discover how highly he was valuing low-quality writing and thinking, it was frustrating that his grades had already been assigned, and even if I objected to them, there was no recourse. Crushingly, the high school teacher’s grades were submitted for college credit, and under the agreement between our schools, they were filed using the mentor’s name. In short, students whose work I would have failed were assigned superlative grades with my name attached to them.

Worst of all was this: well-intentioned students had received a faulty message about their performance. Excited to take college classes, they were given the impression that they were rocking post-secondary education. Under another teacher’s eye, many of them probably would have been. However, the entire thing served a colossal injustice to the students, and that lodged in my craw.

The next year, I asked to relinquish my mentor role. Gratefully, I added another section of writing students to my teaching load and graded those hundred+ student essays each semester, having learned an important lesson about myself: I’ll gladly assume masses of fruitful work rather than pour energy into inauthentic rigmarole. So devoted to this concept was I that I checked into paying for a run of a few thousand t-shirts with those words on the front, thinking I’d hand them out at the mall on sunny days to shoppers heading into J.C. Penney, but when the lady at the silk-screening shop wanted to add an extra “a” into the middle of rigmarole, the deal fell apart.

So how, then, did I end up driving around Minnesota on a grey February day?

Always, the nuanced explanation is complicated. The Twitter version, however, would read: Enrollment is down; sections were cancelled; teachers still need to fulfill their credit loads; fewer papers to grade = heaven. The follow-up tweet to this would summarize: Contractual obligations intersected with a fatigued instructor.

Fortunately, in the interim between the last time I mentored and this go-round, the program has been significantly improved. There is a new director heading the program, and not a single duckling waddles out of her well-organized rows. There is process. There is paperwork. There are funds. There are mandatory site visits. There is a checklist. There is accountability.

Still, there are no Mentos.

Fortunately, on that mucky February day, as I close in on the school of the first mentee high school teacher, I exercise one of my superpowers by getting completely turned around, needing to stop at a gas station for directions, and using the opportunity to purchase day-brightening treats (Mentos + donuts). After driving back in the direction from which I’ve just come, crossing over the highway, put-putting down the town’s main street–ruffled awnings galore!–and spotting a hulking brick building, I park in the lot near all the other cars. Picking my way through slate-colored slush, I head towards the nearest door.

It has a sign on it, a notification that all doors except the southwest one are locked during the day. I need to head to the southwest set of doors and get buzzed in there.

…as though I have any slip of a sense which way is southwest. There’s a reason I pursued a career that lets me read Alice Munro, the masterful short story writer who once famously asserted, “No thinking person should ever know which way is southwest.”

The building is massive, so I climb back into my car and drive around two long expanses of wall, eventually parking by the town’s post office, which is across from the high school. From that vantage point, I spy a different set of doors! A set of doors with the same notification taped to them! Just as I start to despair that I’ve plunged into an alternate reality where southwest is their heaven–an invisible promise, always just out of sight–I realize there’s yet another corner around which I haven’t yet checked, and after trotting another few hundred yards, I discover: damn if it isn’t SOUTHWEST. Praise the God of Cardinal Directions. I sought, and I did find.

Between getting lost and then getting loster, I’m ten minutes late. I hit the buzzer, leaning towards the intercom, ready explain my purpose, but after a two-second delay, a friendly voice crackles, “C’mon in, Hon!”

It’s swell to be inside a school I’ve never seen before, especially one where I’m anointed “Hon” before they’ve learned the reality of me. Gawking at posters and trophies, I make my way to the second floor where I spy the main office. There, I ask the pony-tailed secretary where the hell I can find the teacher in question; in response, she darts from behind the high counter, her tennis shoes squeaking on the linoleum, jerks her chin my way, and leads me all of ten feet across the hall.

Two hours into this professional outing, and I have yet to actually do anything exceptmentos. Felicitously, mentoring plays to my strengths.

Sitting behind her desk is an English instructor who, at 11:00 a.m., is done teaching for the day. She has reached the stage of her career where she’s in partial retirement, so her load consists of two classes, both of them college-level. She grabs a folding chair, and I settle in across from her, noting that her bright clothing reminds me of a summer dress I wear in the hottest months and that she seems completely without issues. Her easy confidence stems from decades of facing the battles and joys of the classroom and from a delighted sense that she’s almost done, nearing the day when she’ll head out that door, and not necessarily the southwest one, for the last time.

We chat for about 40 minutes. Clipped together on her desk is a packet of papers–the syllabi, assignments, strategies–that she uses in the two classes she is teaching for the college. When I ask to take a look at the textbook she is using for the literature class she’s teaching, I have to use both hands to heft the thing onto my lap; I ask if she’s ever actually weighed it. Easily, it’s more than eight pounds. As she explains the readings they’ve been doing–we both emit a relieved “Whew!” when she notes they’ve just finished Beowulf–I leaf through the immense text. She did not choose this book; it’s the one her high school requires for the high school version of the class. Luckily, the contents of the book qualify as college-level, too, although I marvel at how large, crude font can make even “The Wife’s Lament” feel like The Diary of a Wimpy Kid.

I enjoy talking to this seasoned teacher who is still rocking the classroom while also admitting, “I always loved my job. But now that I teach only two classes–to the cream of the crop–and I’m done dealing with special ed and behavioral problems and the more challenging students, I really love my job!” She has 5 students in one of her sections, 9 in the other. A faint moan of envy is born in my diaphragm.

What I like best about this meeting is what she and I don’t say: I am just one more thing she has to deal with. I understand this feeling. Much of my life, of all our lives, if we’re honest, is built around squaring our shoulders and facing tasks that are necessary but not likely to be folded into our hearts for safe-keeping. From paying bills to returning library books to calling someone back to watching someone check items off a list and then ask for our signatures, substantial amounts of energy are poured into drawing a line through the things that need to get done. My visit is the equivalent of returning a library book for this gracious teacher, and I appreciate that she and I are meeting each other with smiles that scrub a shine onto the subtext: “I am being patient and pleasant because this is something I have to do, and then it will be over, and then I will go get something to eat and talk to people who mean something to me, the real me, outside of this professional construct.”

We are good together in the room for 40 minutes, and it is lovely to see her face light up when she talks about her grand-daughter, but then the feeling of “Okay, we can be done” creeps in, and so it is over, and that is great. I return the textbook to her desk, offer to put away the folding chair, gather up the sheaf of papers, make sure she’s signed the form, and wave my way out of the room.

Walking in a southwesterly direction, I watch students in the high school corridor mess around at their lockers, and my stomach growls. I feel a roast beef sandwich calling to me–“Jawsin, I here for you!” (roast beef sandwiches favor baby talk). Ten minutes later, I watch a 50-year-old Hardee’s worker with two sleeves of tattoos and four rubber bands in his ponytail repeatedly yell “I’M MISSING MY HOT HAM!” and marvel that my per diem from the college barely covers a fast food sandwich and drink. Having said yes to the curly fries would surely have broken the bank.

As is always the case with a roast beef sandwich, no matter how towering the pile of meat, it disappears too quickly, leaving me a few odd moments of dickin’ around in my car before I need to hit the highway again and head towards the day’s second location. I amuse myself by looking in the rear view mirror and realizing I am wearing both underwear and lipstick, which is significant adulting for this arrested juvenile. Then I visit social media to relate the tale of the 50-year-old Hardee’s worker. Watching him in his element had not been just one more thing I had to deal with. Standing there, clutching the plastic chip with my order number on it, I had been completely committed to the moment I inhabited. Observing that frenetic man dancing to fast food choreography under the heat lamps, feeling my eyes crinkle as he hollered about his hot ham, I had definitely felt the moment folding into my heart for safe-keeping.

Fueled by protein and people watching, I am ready to move on and drive another 70 miles. This time I let my phone, not printed directions, serve as guide, a clever strategy that lands me at the next school early–allowing me to text Byron a bemused “I’m here 14 minutes early. I am unaccustomed to this feeling.”

The second school is a newer, slicker building than the one I’d visited earlier. In drawing up the plans for this school, the architect, a fan of Alice Munro, had ordered, “There shall be no southwest. Simply make a front to the thing, and put doors there.” Blessing the architect, I walk in, talk to a nice lady through something like bullet-proof glass, negotiate the need for me to run out to my car and grab a photo ID, and eventually get buzzed into the main office where I lounge on a mauve chair until the final bell of the day rings, thus freeing up the mentee teacher to come retrieve me. Before he arrives, a gangly teenager slumps into the office and mutters to a cardigan-clad assistant, “My mom was going to drop off a bag for me.” When he is handed the bag, I spot tennis shoes. I hope he plays volleyball. This kid needs a team sport.

After he shuffles out, a perky 16-year-old and her best accessory, a boyfriend, enter the office. “I need to pick up my balloon and flower bouquets!” she chirps. As she floats out into the end-of-day crush of her peers, held aloft by 12 helium balloons, flanked by a boyfriend carrying a mass of flowers, she is proud, glamorous, the best-possible version of A Birthday Girl.

“I just hope she doesn’t ride the bus,” notes the assistant.

“Nope, she has a ride,” chimes in another secretary. “Her mom called and told me before she had all that stuff delivered.”

My eyes crinkle again. So Mom had balloons and flowers delivered to the school and now, most likely, is sitting outside in her car, providing them with a ride home. There are infinite kinds of nonsense in the world. Between the joys of hot hams and chauffeured balloon bouquets, it hardly feels like February.

Just then, a lanky man in his mid-thirties sporting a plaid flannel shirt enters the office holding a travel tumbler. If he walks the halls holding a beverage container, this man is clearly committed to his beverages. He is the second mentee teacher, and I like him already.

In his classroom, we sit side-by-side in student desks, which creates a very different vibe from the day’s earlier “I am behind the teacher’s desk while you are in a folding chair across from me” interaction. He offers me tea. He could be Pete Seeger’s grandson.

There isn’t much I need from this guy, outside of a face-to-face connection. Months earlier, during the summer, I had received materials from him when he was gaining approval to teach a new literature course as part of the college in the high schools program. He had wowed me back in August; his syllabus and semester calendar made me salivate with interest. As I approved his proposal, I also typed, “Pretty much, I want to be a student in your class.” In the intervening months, we have emailed a few times, and the previous week, he had arranged for me to be given access to his school’s online platform, through which student work is submitted and graded. This way, I am able to see both his assignments and students’ responses to them.

We talk for almost an hour, and I feel happy for both his wife and daughter, that they get to have him in their lives. I feel happy for his students–they who draw fantastic anthropomorphized horses onto the whiteboard, drawings that will remain for days because their teacher can’t bear to see them erased. This thoughtful teacher has many questions for me. We consider how he can know, for sure, that his grading is at a college level. We talk about how he will observe an online section of one of the courses he will soon be teaching for our college. We talk about textbooks, feedback, seeing plays, career development. As our conversation winds down, he asks, almost plaintively, “So can you come visit again?” I am unsure, as the college will fund only one visit. However, we can communicate through email, and we can definitely do some “norming” where we read and respond to the same pieces of student work. We can continue to foster this collegial relationship.

Pete Seeger’s grandson assures that he will be folded into my heart for safe-keeping when he directs me to a coffee shop on my way out of town. Just as I’m ordering a breve and a cranberry-white-chocolate scone that will curl my toes with pleasure, Pete Seeger’s grandson is emailing me a thank you and a link to a Fresh Air episode that worked particularly well for him in the classroom. Later, when I read the email, I will grin at the monitor

and flash back through the golden moments of that grey, flat day.

Splatters on the windshield.

Getting lost.

Donuts. Mentos.

A happy grandmother, vibrant, loving literature and the idea that she is almost done.

Roast beef. Hot ham.

Balloon bouquets.

A gentle educator, thriving on tea and teens.

That scone.

The day redeems more than February for me.

——————————————

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research papers skiing snowshoes winter

She Had Eight Weeks to Work on Her Final Essay, a Period of Intense Craftsmanship That Resulted in This Opening: ‘Are kids still talking to their parents? Well, some are but most don’t talk the old fashion way or the way they should, they now talk to their parents through texting and emails and once in a while, if you are lucky, a phone call (most likely from a cell phone)’

Gasping, flailing, wiping gunk from my eyes, I’m surfacing, turning my face up from the mass of research papers that has consumed my energies in recent days. Students have told me that Americans are obese; water is scarce; language is overly casual; music should be freely downloadable; smoking bans are good; coral reefs are dying; modern animation rules; and BPA might be dangerous.

Slap my knee and call me Tiffany, but I’ll be damned if they’re not right.

Yup, I’m swimming along with their opinions, gliding through the pages, occasionally taking a break to stand up and keep rice-sized blood clots from forming in my legs.

And when I stand up, I look out the window. Well, shitbam.

Somebody put nine inches of snow out there and shut the town down when I wasn’t looking. Here I just gave Krystal an “A” for hepping me up about global warming, and during the grading, the Abominable Snowman sneezed and shook his dandruff on the house.

Easily, my grading break lengthens from a leg shaking to out-and-out abandonment of duties. I not only need to prevent rice-sized blood clots from forming in my legs, but I also need to prevent student prose from clotting my brain.

Clearly, it’s time for us to strap things to our feet.


This one is eight. She’s a better skiier than I.

In my defense, I’m only six on the inside.


That one there is five. I urged him to jump into the street and notify any passing eighteen wheelers of his presence by waving his poles around wildy should they bear down on him.


I cannot convince the obstinate lad to ask for his two front teeth for Christmas. He’s all, “Who even cares about toofs, Mom? I want some Star Wars legos. Santa can keep the buckers.”


When skis get tiring (sort of like the continuing speculation about Katie Holmes’ tense friendship with Victoria Beckham), we move to the bear claws. My tastes being more refined, I often attach French crullers to mes pieds.


After an hour’s romp, Niblet is more than ready to “act like Mommy grading research papers.”

Inspired by the drama of his body language, I head back inside and bring my computer out of its hibernation.

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age atmosphere ice Lake Superior snow winter

Safety in Popsicles

 

I love winter for ninety-eleven reasons:

1) When I wear snowshoes, my size 10 hooves actually feel petite in comparison. This is also why I sometimes sport a pair of huge “We’re #1” foam hands when I teach sign language.

2) Scarves are the accessory that can never go wrong. I read this in Isadora Duncan’s biography.

3) Cold temperatures create a perfect excuse to stomp inside and sip on a hot cup of cocoa…or, better yet, to bypass the cocoa and simply pour Kahlua into a mug.

Frankly, I bypass the mug and pour the booze directly into my gaping maw.

Oh, all right. I bypass the Kahlua and chug Isopropyl, Kitty Dukakis style. She, too, loved a good snowball fight–before the rubbing-alcohol-induced blindness set in. At least we now have an excuse for “throwing like girls.”

4) If I view my reflection in a piece of ice, my crow’s feet are hardly discernible. Frozen water mirrors are hella cheaper than laser surgery.

5) When I pour juice into a cup of snow, I am catapulted back in time to age six at the Yellowstone County Fair, to a day when I had a really kickarse snowcone. Fortunately, with my homemade snowcone, eaten far away from the 4-H cow barns, I don’t even have to cry when I trip and drop it. I just dive to all fours and start lapping.

Pride and snowcones are poor bedfellows.

6) When I go cross-country skiing, my vocal chords get a much-needed limbering up; you better believe I’m a screamer on them hills. Post-ski, my throat thoroughly warmed, I’m ready to come home, spin a disc, and hit all Mariah Carey’s high notes.

Incidentally, if I ever do willingly remain in the presence of a Mariah Carey song, please grab an ice pick and stab it into my frosty white buttocks. Then do it some more.

7) Ice skates = the poor man’s Ginsu knife. Many a loaf of foccacia has regretted my triple lutz.

8) Before the cold really hits, when local ice is still in its infancy, having Niblet sit on a lakeside cliff and tush-sled downwards is a tad worrisome. However, once a solid, fierce coldsnap hits and holds, his airborn descent is no longer given final punctuation by a “splash”


but, rather, after a silent Wile E. Coyote moment of hovering mid-air between cliff and lake, our lad hits the frozen ice mattress of Lake Superior with a dull “thud.”

What a relief that he won’t drown.


(look at this patsy priss-priss of a lake way back in November; it’s all “Oooh, look at my freely-churning waves.” But no more, friend. No more. Slowly, gradually, the little flirt is hardening into a surface reminiscent of Nicole Kidman’s forehead, capable of no natural movement.)

Way to go, Winter.

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