With a nod to the advertising agency genius who hatched the seven words that characterize life in Sin City, allow me to take the slogan one step further: What Happens in High School Stays in High School.
Nah. No can do. What goes down within those four walls is essentially too – well – us: over-the-top quirky, capricious, glazed, and confused. This zaniness becomes even more necessary in an age where the daily drumbeat of doom and gloom envelops life in the garden of adolescence, malnourishing the rising generation.
I remember well my very first day on the job. While sitting with a young lady to help craft her college application, I asked her why she had opted out of applying to a nationally honored university with a wonderful STEM program.
“Science, Technology, Math. They’re all the things you love!” I enthused. “Why did you change your mind?”
Her answer didn’t mince words: “I toured the campus, Mr. G. I liked the setting. Quiet. Far away from big-city noise. Suddenly, I saw a zillion squirrels race across the parking lot! I’m terrified of squirrels! Once, when I was running to catch the school bus, a squirrel crossed my path. I froze. I missed the bus and had to walk to school.”
“Well, sweetheart, squirrels will do that,” I tried reassuring her. “They’re wild animals just doing their thing. But we all have phobias.”
She applied and was accepted into a college where squirrels weren’t her main focus. I’m uncertain whether she realized the school she got into was comfortably nestled in the mountains. I guess she found out next fall.
I knew in an instant I was in the right job.
Another student I worked with recently was so appreciative of the weeks I spent revising and editing and editing and revising her essay, she presented me with a brightly wrapped Christmas gift. I was taken aback by her thoughtfulness.
“Thank you, Maria, for the...deodorant,” I said, only a little paranoid and self-conscious.
“Are you trying to tell me what I think you’re trying to tell me?”
She took some time to mull over that one. Then it dawned on her.
“Oh, no no no, Mr. G! It’s from Mexico, where I’m from. Everyone in Mexico uses deodorant. It’s so hot and dry. Don’t you?”
Shortly thereafter, a Korean student I helped slipped a Christmas present into my briefcase. Man! I thought. These teenagers like my work. I could turn this gig into a cottage industry; you know, take all this stash and sell it online. Of course, I was kidding.
When I opened unwrapped it, I found a pound of Korean noodles. I was speechless.
“I had my dad drive me to the Korean Market over in the shopping center,” she said, her tone ever so soft, her gaze sparkling. “I remember all the conversations we’ve had about the rising popularity of Korean food in America. Merry Christmas, Mr. G!”
In return, I brought her a tin of baklava, always a thoughtful Greek’s go-to confection when he’s caught off guard. She loved it.
Then there are the teachers. They produce their own refreshing zaniness.
“Whew!” exclaimed one English teacher, hitting the last key on the computer in the staff lounge. “That’s the final grade for the first quarter. Only 79 more quarters until retirement!”
“You won’t believe what happened in class during Eight Period,” reported another educator. “A kid started vaping. Right in class. An honor student. I called security.”
One of my best friends at work is a Paul Bunyan of a guy you wouldn’t want to meet in an alley, dark or lighted. He once sold
Christmas trees and built furniture in the backwoods of his native New Hampshire.
When he was a young cub reporter for a small-town newspaper, he was roughed up by a sheriff’s deputy for publishing the name of a woman – not his wife – he was sleeping with who was charged with a petty crime. My friend was wise enough to just go with the flow and the blows. After that moment, he decided it was time to stop making the daily 100-mile commute to a job that paid slightly more than enough to buy gas to make the daily 100-mile commute. Smart move. Teaching, he knew, especially in a sprawling, wealthy urban county, paid more and featured solid benefits.
One day, during his planning period, he went out for a walk to clear his head. He had 90 minutes so he strolled the mile that separated him from Home Depot. He was an inveterate tool guy, the kind of character Tim Allen plays on “Last Man Standing” on Fox. The kind of character that makes me feel ashamed I didn’t learn how to hang a picture the proper way. When he didn’t show up for his class, the staff became concerned. He wasn’t answering his cell. What happened?
“I go so immersed thinking about my lesson plan for that day, I took the wrong turn and wound up way off course,” he said with his typical shrug. “This is between us, but what I was tempted to do was to make a quick pit stop at the pub for a beer, but showing up tipsy back at school, wherever that was located, wasn’t such a hot idea.”
There’s a ratty old sofa in the staff lounge. Teachers sprawl out on it for power naps, especially when they’re supposed to be grading quizzes they gave weeks before.
One lazy afternoon, just before the dismissal bell sounded, a snoozing teacher noticed the pillow moving ever so slightly. Unbeknownst to him, deep in the cushions, Mama Mouse was busy giving birth. Sadly, the weight of the man’s body crushed Mom and two of her newborns. The third clung to life. The consensus of opinion around the office: “Eww! Flush it down the toilet! Eww!”
Enter Deb, the senior member of the teaching staff, a proud member of PETA with a heart of gold. (Ok, unlike a true Marylander, she boasts she has never taken even a solitary bite out of one of the state’s iconic blue crabs. Her loss).
Gingerly placing the surviving baby in a cardboard box, Deb took it home for the weekend, hoping to nourish it back to health. She even carved out space for a feeding tube.
Her selflessness paid great dividends: the critter lived to see another day, possibly more. But, as Deb was reminded, no good deed goes unpunished. She was written up. Whatever the vice principal said in his comments was plunked into her permanent file.
As is the case in other schools in the United States, security is being beefed up in order to hold off, God forbid, the possibility of an attack. In our school, 10 miles north of the White House, teachers do what teachers do everywhere: lift sprits, bring out the best in their students and in each other. They campaign for positive outcomes born from hardship and heartache – the stuff of our fallen humanity. So much of the foundation on which a meaningful life rests is built in a well-watered garden of geometry and human geography. I realize I’m living in an alternate universe.
I don’t spend much time thinking about how all of us in that building, brimming with kids whose parents often work two and three jobs cooking at Cheesecake Factory or scrubbing toilets, are vulnerable to evil. I feel secure just being there, playing my minor role while vacuuming up gifts that mirror the cultures of the 130 countries our students hail from.
The rabid squirrels and infant mice of academia must go it alone.