How I realized I was exhausted

When I walked into the library at 3:30 today, Amy the school librarian waved her hands to stop me from going into the copy-machine room.

“Don’t go back there!” she whispered. “Don’t!”

Oh, I thought dully. It’s a hostage situation. Hopefully, they’ll resolve it soon so I can make my copies. I’ll go do some grading while they deal with the gunman or whatever,  and then I’ll come back. That way I won’t have to get up at 5:30 tomorrow to prep for class.

I accepted the hostage situation calmly, and turned to go.

“Bye, Amy,” I said. “See you later, I guess.”

“Leave your copies, though!” she chirped. “I just didn’t want you to have to futz with the machine this late in the day. You know how it gets hot and jams up.”

 

P.S. Here is the best excuse I got for laziness today:

“I’m really cranky and tired ‘cuz my mom messed up my birth control. She got me Seasonale instead of Seasonique. How am I supposed to deal?”

“School is a totl waist of time.”

Well, there you have it. A scathing-er indictment of U.S. education than its 18-year-old author knows. That little nugget was turned in to me today as part of a seven-word memoir assignment, as was “Who needs school, dude, we have computers” and “Blah blah blah blah blah fuck you.”

Have you ever thought that maybe we’re extending childhood too long in North America? On any other continent, in any other era, 17- and 18-year olds are married, have their own children, and work at least 8 hours a day. At the very least, they’ve got their own fruit stand. They’re adults. None of this my-mom-is-filling-out-my-community-college-application bullshit.

So I teach according to the Fruit Stand Principle. “You don’t need me to explain this assignment half a dozen times,” I’ll say to a kid who hasn’t listened all period. “In 9 months you’ll be one of us, wondering, ‘Who the hell is FICA and how did he get half my paycheck?'”

We’re one of the only nations that offers — that pushes — free public education through age 18. But there should be better options for kids who hate reading and writing; who’d be happier learning a trade or driving a truck or farming. If we had enough viable blue-collar jobs, we could lower the dropout age to, say, 13. That way, kids who watch the classroom clock and make paper-clip weapons wouldn’t take their boredom out on classmates who do want to be there; who will succeed academically given enough resources and time. It’d also be easier on crumbling school buildings, not to mention crumbling teachers.

I wish there were more viable blue-collar jobs.

I wish my students didn’t tell me they “hate” reading. I wish I could find THE book for each one of them that would make them lifelong readers.

I wish they understood that the limits of their knowledge are the limits of their lives.

Notes from the chalkboard

I wanted to teach AP English. I had plans involving brilliant Toni Morrison exegeses, candlelit slam poetry, and Princeton acceptance letters.

But I got regular English. At first I felt like Renessa, the trainer in Jackie Warner’s 1-on-1 Work Out video who has to do the modified version of every exercise (push-ups on her knees, etc.) even though she’s a beastlike physical specimen. Not fair! I wanted to see Renessa do all the military-style push-ups she was capable of. I wanted to slow down the DVD so I didn’t…miss…a second.

Anyway. I am surprised and thrilled by many of my students. I have scads of math-and-science types; visual artists; advanced dance kids and one role-playing aficionado (who ironically hates group work). I have half the football team, which is great in terms of classroom discipline: They can’t play ball if they act like dicks. Hence, there has been no dick-acting.

One student, Enrique, just turned 18 and lives alone because both his parents are in prison. Two nights ago, someone robbed his apartment. I found out when I asked the kids to draw a picture of their houses, and his drawing featured broken windows and punched-in drywall. No matter what happens this year, I will not become discouraged or dread my workday: Enrique is there. He gets up, goes to school, and works hard five days a week so he can maybe go to college as well as hold down a full-time job. I’d show up for him even if no one else came to class.

Also, I have six out LGB* kids! I asked to sponsor our Gay-Straight Allliance, so I am now Head Gay in Charge of Gays. My classroom will be a safe place, where everyone can be exactly who they are, and Justin R. can talk about elite gymnastics and Hugo Boss all he wants to, and no one can stop him!

The out kids are really out. “No one cares,” a bisexual named Rina told me cheerfully. For a second I felt like someone who’d lost a lung to bacterial pneumonia watching someone else flash her brand-new penicillin prescription.

I told Rina that back in my day, kids would have rather eaten a big plate of their own hair than admit to being a friend of Dorothy; a bird with lavender feathers; a Sister of the Inclination. “We didn’t have these Internets,” I said. “We had ‘Homosexuality’ in the library card catalog and some Bikini Kill mix tapes, and we were grateful to get them.” 

But she was already bored. She asked if I’d sponsor the rugby team, too.

 

* No T’s yet.

The Night Before The First Day of School

Teaching at my old high school, I run into ghosts of myself around every corner. The same copy of Susan Brownmiller’s Femininity sits on the library’s social-sciences shelf. My old locker is spiffy with new paint. The hallways smell the same — a custom blend of AquaNet, asbestos, and teen angst. There are no doors on the bathroom anymore, though, because my generation abused the privilege. Remember 80s bangs?

Do you know how some girls achieved that look? They’d put their foreheads on the linoleum wall, hold their bangs up vertically, then spray the hell out of them with one hand while lighting an unfiltered Camel with the other. It was really excellent to watch.

Another thing that’s different, besides the no-restroom-doors thing, is that I can be out — to students, parents, co-workers, and administration. My district is serious about no-discrimination/no hate speech. Too late for the kid I was then, who walked around afraid that someone would find out her secret — but right on time for the woman I am now.

Posting will be light this week as I do things like figure out my copy-machine code. I’ll leave you with one of the most notable items I ever picked up in the hallway. Here it is, verbatim:

List of Goals/Stuff I Want To See Happen

1. Attractive female president

2. Turbulence solved

3a. Man on Mars

3b. Life discovered

4. Honorary degrees

5. Be in a room with 3 modern-day geniuses

6. Meet/be a true polyglot (Top 6: German, Chinese, Japanese, French, Spanish, Arabic)

7. Ask questions that are really good and keep up with the answers in succession for a lecture period

8. Bike transnational

9. Be in an orgy with twins

10. Be in an orgy that occurs spontaneously

11. Read the entire works of Shakespeare with the utmost diligence and dedication

12. Drive a super-fast car while singing

13. Live in an era where people live over 150+ years

(Icked out as I was by goals 9 and 10, I did appreciate that the kid knew an orgy with twins was NOT likely to occur spontaneously, and thus split his orgy goals into two separate, more realistic categories. He was in the gifted program).

Protect and Defend, Lite

Sometimes I wallow in bad memories in order to stoke the gratitudinal fires. Sadistic, but effective. When I feel anxious about teaching, I remember the worst job I ever had: Being a security guard in Toronto.

Toronto gets ugly fast. One minute you’re enjoying the downtown core’s hipster delights — Korean barbeque! hot yoga! sex in a Smart Car! — the next you’re stepping over a syringe in the hallway of a gang-infested high rise. The assorted criminal element created a bleak public housing zeitgeist that terrified new immigrants. They’d just left someplace warm; someplace relatively relaxed like Ghana or Mozambique, only to run headlong into an icy urban dystopia where everyone spoke with a repetitive verbal tic, eh?

Have you ever known a security guard? They’re generally young men who want to be police officers but never will because their personality disorders stand out in sharp relief on psychological tests. A preoccupation with power, say. Anger at minorities and women who “steal” spots on the force. Impulse control problems. Remember, this is the employment pool that brought us Andrew Uridales, who used his uniform to convince women to trust him.** He raped and murdered eight of them that we know of.  Felons can and do get security guard jobs, because companies don’t sweat background checks.

Anyway. During a time of desperation — i.e., I couldn’t nanny for overprivileged children and their smug parents another minute –I applied at Sketchy Security and got a $10-an-hour* job on the spot. They sent me to Jane and Finch, epicenter of the worst public housing complexes in North Toronto. I worked the 6.a.m. to 6 p.m. shift, walking up and down reeking hallways and parking garage dungeons with nothing but a radio and a notepad on which I took copious notes in the company’s style of inappropriate quotation marks and weird third-person narrative: 0200 hours: This writer checked lobby of building lobby. All as expected, however, a “pop can” was wedged underneath the northwest-facing sliding door. This writer removed the “pop can.” Door closed properly.

I stepped onto a barrier-less rooftop roof one night and thought, I could just step right off the side. Ninety-five stories to the pavement. Toronto would just…absorb me.

I walked those halls again and again, trying to figure out how the hell my life had become an experiment in terror. I had wanted to prove I could be OK in Toronto — even dumped and broke — but I suspected that the light leaving from OK would not reach me for another several million years.

My one distraction: the odors. I could almost see cartoon stink lines wafting out underneath each door. Sometimes it was cooking; sometimes marijuana; occasionally perfume. But one night, there was a NEW smell. It was at once chemical and organic, and something in my primitive lizard brain told me to RUN AWAY.

“What is that smell?” I gasped to my partner as we put on our needleproof gloves.

“That,” he replied, “is ass and crack cocaine. These guys love to stay up all night, getting high and having buttsex.”

I thanked God that Lucy Maud Montgomery was dead and would never know about this.

I also spent a week at a fairly nice, predominantly gay building right at Church and Wellesley, asking gay partiers to turn the house music down. Women would ask me to stay and PARTY! but I’d hitch up my polyester pants, straighten my clip-on tie, and tell them that duty called. In midwinter, I watched over a picket line outside the old Dove factory by the lake. Dove had fired all the old employees — blue-collar guys who’d been there 25 or 30 years — and replaced them with new immigrants. The old guard kept a round-the-clock vigil outside the gates, and my job was to stay in the Sketchy Security car and make sure no one destroyed the property. I spent my time turning the heat on as I got cold and off as I got hot. I read radical feminist manifestos. I played club music, pretended I was on E, and used my flashlight as a crazyass strobe on the roof of the car. Then I just gave in and masturbated.

There must have been three feet of snow. The picketers fought the cold by making trash can fires — burning lots of toxic, brain-damaging painted wood in the process — and drinking as much alcohol as they could. To distract them from yelling racial slurs, I taught them old labor songs like “Bread and Roses”:

As we come marching, marching in the beauty of the day,
A million darkened kitchens, a thousand mill lofts gray,
Are touched with all the radiance that a sudden sun discloses,
For the people hear us singing: “Bread and roses! Bread and roses!”
As we come marching, marching, we battle too for men,
For they are women’s children, and we mother them again.
Our lives shall not be sweated from birth until life closes;
Hearts starve as well as bodies; give us bread, but give us roses!
As we come marching, marching, unnumbered women dead
Go crying through our singing their ancient cry for bread.
Small art and love and beauty their drudging spirits knew.
Yes, it is bread we fight for — but we fight for roses, too!
As we come marching, marching, we bring the greater days.
The rising of the women means the rising of the race.
No more the drudge and idler — ten that toil where one reposes,
But a sharing of life’s glories: Bread and roses! Bread and roses!

 

Eventually, I’d get tired and call my friend Jay, Toronto’s leading pothead:

Me: “Dude, are you awake?”

Jay (cheerfully): “I’m always awake. ”

Me: “Are you high?”

Jay: (more cheerfully still) “I’m always high. I just went to the convenience store. I have this…amazing…bag of M&Ms.”

Me: “Dude, I’m so tired, and I’m not allowed to fall asleep. Here’s what I need. Listen. Are you listening?

Jay: “Worddd.”

Me: “OK! Good! I need you to come down here to the docks and keep me company. BRING THE M&Ms. OK? Are you coming?”

A half-hour later he’d show up and ask why I wasn’t wearing any pants.

“That is not important right now,” I’d say with affronted dignity. “Did you bring the peanut kind?”

As Jay loped off into the icy darkness, I got out of the car and waded through the snow to check the inside of the factory. It was vast and empty of sound except for the stomp of my heavy-booted ghost feet. Pallets of laundry detergent and soap arched hundreds of feet into the air like cleanliness made architecture; their forms a reminder of the churches I saw in Europe when my life was still going according to plan.

As the watery sun rose, I slogged my way to the streetcar to the subway to the bus, knowing there was no such thing as safe; not really. And I thought, Someday, all this will be a long time ago.

 

*Remember, this is Toronto, home of skyrocketing rents and irresistible artisanal melons.

**Security guard uniforms should NOT look so much like legitimate police uniforms. They should be hot pink instead.

The Pussy Oversoul: Bite-Size News O’the Day

  • Our next-door neighbor has a rooster who crows on Rooster Standard Time. Neighbor asked us not to turn him in to the the neighborhood association, because it’s an accidental rooster: “We just wanted to keep chickens for eggs, but one of the chicks turned out to be a boy.” Butch Concentrate and I are OK with this because our workday starts at 7 a.m.
  • I just renewed a library book for the 3rd time. Its title? Meditation Now Or Never.
  • If you have 4 cats and mad factorial/permutational skills, you know that the number of possible cat conflicts equals 24. But if you don’t live at our house, you’ll be surprised to learn that the aggressor in all current conflicts is a hairless cat with no claws and four teeth:

I will totally fuck your shit up.

  • Butch Concentrate and I are exhausted, so our conversations are semi-lucid:

Me: “I had the weirdest dream last night.”

BC: “I can’t find the storage room keys, but I know I left them RIGHT HERE. ON THE TABLE.”

Me: “About bats.”

BC: “It’s not like I need anything in the storage room right NOW, but I WILL, you know?”

Me: “A school of vampire bats rushed at me and attached themselves to my skin. I couldn’t get them off! One was on my LABIA, but no one would help me. Everyone said, ‘You brought this on yourself.’ I think it means something about systemic sexual vulnerability; societal draining of Woman as a construct;  patriarchal colonization of…of  the Pussy Oversoul.”

BC: “Hey! I found the TV remote! Do we get the Sundance Channel?”

Hail fellow, well met

School starts on the 15th, so it’s meeting season: Staff meetings; department meetings; curriculum meetings. I think we even had a meeting about meetings, but I stopped listening because my Intrinsically Morose Selective Attention Deficit Disorder (IMSADD) kicked in full force. I have eaten a lot of dry sandwiches, people. I have sent a lot of furtive text messages.

Today, some dudebro told me that “a lot of boys don’t respect female teachers.They come to me and say, ‘She doesn’t respect me!’ All they hear is another old lady yelling at them.”

He shrugged, like What can you do? That’s how boys are.

But then. He added: “It’s usually not a problem with stronger female teachers, though.”

That’s a full-service damned-if-you-do, damned-if-you-don’t menu, eh? There’s nothing women teachers can do about boys’ disrespect — it’s just nature! — and ALSO, if a female teacher isn’t respected, it’s her fault for not being “strong enough.”

My hackles were up at dudebro already for assigning Ayn Rand’s “Anthem” — the most morally bankrupt, narcissistic, badly written pieces of bilge ever penned by a 20th-century sociopath. I mean, even Mein Kampf had a funny line or two.

No.

Evolution of a Lesbian Radfem, Part The Third: Treading Water in the Well of Loneliness

Summer, 1999: I’m 25 and divorcing a man I haven’t slept with in three years. I think there’s something wrong with me. He agrees. I move into a shoebox apartment on the corner of Park and University in San Diego, directly across from a dyke bar called The Flame! At night its neon sign buzzes on and off: The Flame!…The Flame!…The Flame! It drives me crazy, there in my shoebox. I would like to investigate. What’s going on behind those opaque glass doors?

Across from The Flame! is a men’s bar, and every time their door opens, foam comes floating out on music: “DO YOU BE-LIEVE IN LIFE AFTER LOVE…AFTER LOVE…AFTER LOVE?” They hoot and holler. They’re having a blast. But when The Flame! closes at 3 a.m., I hear:

Woman #1 (boots stomping): “What’s wrong, baby?”

Woman #2 (high heels clicking): “If you have to ask, I’m not going to tell you!”

Woman #1 (sighing): “Aw, baby. She came up and talked to me. I didn’t wanna be rude. And then I came right back to where you were.”

Woman #2 (sniffling; tripping over heels): “Oh, whatever. What-EVER!”

One night, I visit The Flame! but I’ve never had a bar life so I don’t understand that showing up at 9:30 p.m. won’t get me anywhere. I lurk by the jukebox, nursing a Chardonnay and giving off a sketchy bi-curious vibe. That doesn’t work, so I start hitting the LGBT bookstore to chat up the woman working there (if your definition of “chat up” includes the opener, “Hi! So, hi. I like to read. You have a lot of books here. Are any of them, you know, good?”

Her name is Jamie. She wears tiny men’s clothes and walks around the store in bare feet. This slays me. She recommends Jeanette Winterson’s Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit, so I spend $15 I don’t have and run home with it tucked underneath my arm. Jamie goes to Costa Rica to save the rain forest for two months, after which I get a phone call: Would I like to come over and look at her Costa Rica photographs?

Would I like a million dollars? Would I like the sky to fill with rainbows? I’ll be right over! Don’t move!

Jamie answers the door with a cup of beans and rice in her hand, the smell blending evenly with Nag Champa incense. Her tiny apartment is decorated in circa 1999 California Dyke Classic: twin bed covered with an Indian print spread; huge CD collection; cat on a papasan chair; big poster of Ani DiFranco’s Living in Clip cover with a lipstick print on the bottom.

“You should see the birds in Costa Rica,” Jamie says after I turn down a bite of her beans and rice. “They’re so intense. I felt like I was walking with the Goddess every day. It gave me this total creative force.”

She flops down on the bed. Ani’s Up Up Up Up Up Up album is on repeat. From the height of the Pacific to the depths of Everest/from the height of the Pacific to the depths of Everest.

I flop down next to her. It’s a little weird that we’re on her bed, but she doesn’t have a couch. Maybe this is just what lesbians do when they hang out?

We talk about this and that. And every little while, I scooch closer to her. Inch by premeditated inch. After a couple of hours, my arm is touching her arm and she isn’t moving her arm away. And then her lips are in my hair. I feel like I’m falling out of a plane, but I’m still in my head and I think, Maybe this is the ultimate act of self-acceptance: holding and kissing a body just like your own. Or maybe it’s the ultimate act of egotism.

My arousal shocks me because it’s so familiar, yet taken out of context. A liquid doing a solid’s job. Like those photo prints I saw at the mall where an escalator somehow descends on the beach, waves pounding its serrated steps.

Ani sings: god’s work isn’t done by god/it’s done by people. Jamie’s tiny hands are surprisingly strong.

“These are the best pictures of Costa Rica I have ever fucking seen,” I say into her ear at 4 a.m.

Jamie pulls away; sits on her haunches. “I think we went to a very deep place just now,” she says. “I have to be careful with deep places.”

This somehow turns into a conversation about:

1. Jamie’s ex-girlfriend
a. The processing she’s still doing surrounding their relationship
i. Jamie is a Sagittarius but Amy is an Aries, so you know, it was pretty fraught from the beginning
ii. Amy is the redhead who works at Jamba Juice; do I know her?
b. Jamie is totally not ready for anything serious; is that cool?

2. STD’s in lesbians
a. Sex should always be safe
i. Because it’s not just AIDS, it’s things like Hepatitis C
b. Jamie is totally out of gloves, so.

I’m OK with that. Gloves?

We watch the sun come up through Jamie’s crooked miniblinds as Ani sings: She crawls out on a limb/and begins to build her home/and it’s enough just to look around/and know she’s not alone.

 

Next, in Part the Fourth: I move to central California and fall in Big Giant Huge lesbian love for the first time.

Why Be a Teacher?

Lots of reasons! The joy of helping young minds grasp an intricate concept; the accomplishment of awakening nascent readers and writers; the sacred duty of tilling pedagogical soil so that incipient intellects might flower and grow.

Also, if you get a job at a school for young offenders — like my last gig — you find notes like this one on your classroom floor (spelling and punctuation as original):

Darrick, you’ve been locked up for awhile…and theres alot I feel like I got to tell you. First, I beat your sisters ass for talking shit about my sister. I did 3 home invasions with Wooda, Snoops, & my brother but shit just got outta controll & guns started going off & my brother shot Trey in the back of the head and he got the death penalty.

I’m also pregnant, but I don’t plan on keepin it. Me and you have been thrue alot but I just dont think we should be together anymore. Youve been gone 4 so long & I no your going to be away 4 longer…you should just move on…and maybe I should just do the same.

We can still be homies tho.

denouement

Hospice volunteering is the most honest work I’ve ever done. Pain and death terrify me, but what made it OK was that by the time I got there with my bag of plastic gloves and Grisham novels,* pain was medicated to the gills and death was a done deal. Hospice doesn’t send a volunteer until the patient is into the last 3-6 months, so the only goal remaining is to help give that person a comfortable, dignified death on his or her own terms. The peach-pit/blood recycling/energy healing wonder treatments are off the table, and the family — who probably hasn’t left the house in days — just needs a bit of relief.

Hospice is midwifing someone out of the world instead of into it. You help someone check things off on her last list and make sure all the lights are turned off before she locks the door. Dying, done right, is a project. It’s work. Dying people look still and quiet because they’re very busy in the eye of the storm, thinking and reviewing as the eternal Footman picks up their coats. This doesn’t mean they’re always wrestling with some profound epiphany, though. People get stuck on the oddest things — their older sisters didn’t ask them to be maid of honor in 1952; the sun is fading their wall art; this is the wrong kind of yogurt! Go back to the store and get the kind with the fruit mixed in!

My first patient, Elaine, was 58 but looked 80. Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease. Elaine’s thing was to take the oxygen plugs out of her nostrils, turn her emaciated body away from the oxygen tank, and take a big drag off an unfiltered Camel. Her other thing was to try and save my soul. She was a Southern Baptist in the South, and she really wanted me to find a nice man. I think I reminded her of her youngest daughter, who lived in Atlanta with a “lady roommate.” They were estranged. At that time, my own mother hadn’t spoken to me in several years, so I knew the daughter had her own side of the story. I tried to get them to talk. No dice. Elaine had a snaggletoothed cat and a DVD of “The Passion of the Christ.” She wanted me to read the Aramaic-to-English subtitles out loud, but I kept putting her off. We watched “The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe” instead.

My last patient, Sheila, reminded me so much of my mother that I dreaded my shifts. I loved her. She’d sold almost everything she owned to pay for the care facility, so all her possessions fit in one room. The detritus of her life, reduced to a few clothes hanging in a closet. A TV. Some framed photos. But she had a truckload of letters and cards from her children, siblings, former co-workers, friends, her mother. Sheila was crazy about anything sweet, so I’d bring cookies and cake — all the stuff I was baking that my girlfriend wouldn’t eat. Elaine had to be hand-fed carefully, so she wouldn’t aspirate anything and develop pneumonia. While she ate, I held the fork and talked about my long, agonizing breakup and about my mother (who by this time hadn’t spoken to me in five years). One night, after fighting a snowstorm for an hour on my way to her, I started to cry. She put her hand on my head. We stayed like that awhile. “I promise you, your mother loves you,” she said.

Sheila’s brain tumor meant that she saw weird stuff. Eating dinner one night, she said,  “That looks like Cher’s hair.”

“What does?” I asked, looking around.

“That,” she said, pointing to the long white window curtain by the bed, beyond which moved the unceasing traffic of Avenue Road. “Look how big it is. White. Like Cher’s hair; like she had it that one time.”

A few minutes went by. She looked at the plate with its slender lone cheesecake slice and said, “Is that a grasshopper? On the plate, there?”

She sounded so sure, I actually checked. “Nope, just cheesecake. Your perceptions are really cool, though. Like a cracked-out club kid at 4 a.m.”

She closed her eyes. “I have an interesting head…full of…items.” She paused. “I hear people coming down the hall. They have Portuguese accents. That’s a good sign.”

After dinner one December night, I put on some Christmas music. The first track was called El Tutu; full of delicate harp-y arpeggios like a handful of coins tossed in the air.

“What would you wear, dancing to this?” Sheila asked, fingering the sleeve of my wool sweater. She did that a lot. Textures fascinated her more every time I visited; as her sight and hearing went, the feel of things remained. “It should be something silver. Something floaty.”

“Did you like to dance, before you got sick?”

“Ohh, yes,” she said. “I was like a dervish. And I know I’ll dance again.”

 

*Also plastic. But Hospice patients love John Grisham; don’t ask me why.