First Grade Gun

First Grade Gun

Tyrone bragged that his friend brought a gun to school. In the six months I’d known him he’d told me a few tales, like he and his little brother went to Winter Wonderland at Navy Pier. He didn’t have a little brother, but I often held my confrontational tongue with him in an effort to give him space to be himself. I thought if I earned his trust, eventually he’d stop trying to beguile me with fanciful stories.

He was my seven year-old charge in a weekly volunteer tutoring program. During our first getting-to-know-you session we followed a Q & A script developed by the program administrators. We both had dogs. He had a baby sister. I had grandchildren. He went to a school on Chicago’s west side. I was not sure who mothered him. He mentioned an aunt and a grandmother. He proudly mentioned his father. He wasn’t explicit, and looked away in silence when I pressed for details, what does he do? I eased off to save him from having to think up a story. And really, I didn’t want to know.

The tutoring session consists of helping kids with their homework, creating art projects and playing board games. Tyrone didn’t need help with homework. I guided him while he wrote down answers to math problems and filled in words in sentences. He never got anything wrong, and I praised him for being so smart. I helped him put his homework neatly in his backpack. When I started to reach in and straighten other things in his backpack, he balked at that intrusion. He often hid a football or basketball in there and feared others would see. I surmised he was prohibited from bringing balls to school, and he thought they may be forbidden at tutoring as well. Maybe he was afraid for other reasons.

When I quizzed him about the details of the gun, he said he saw it in his friend’s backpack, that his friend found it in ththe backyard and that it had bullets in it. I asked if he told his teacher. “No! He’s my best friend!”

Research finds youth from risk-filled backgrounds who successfully transition to the adult world of employment and good citizenship have had the consistent presence of a caring adult. Tutoring programs give kids this opportunity. As a first-time tutor, I attended orientation where consistency and trust were emphasized.

I connected with Tyrone in summer camp. Some kids would point to volunteers and brag, “That’s my tutor!” Having no information about what a tutor is, Tyrone asked me to be his tutor. Yes, I committed to years-long care and support of Tyrone beginning that fall.

I doubted Tyrone’s tale about the gun, but gun-in-school carries weight. I couldn’t  bear it alone. I consulted with a supervisor. She knew Tyrone’s caregiver.

“I’ll take care of it,” she said.

The next week he came to tutoring with his sidestep story: his friend brought gum to school. When next I arrived for duty, Tyrone was absent. I knew he’d not return. He dropped out of tutoring and so did I.

Was I right in reporting Tyrone’s story? I doubted myself for months. I switched my volunteering from one-on-one tutoring to leading groups of first graders in meditation. A supervisor caught me in the hall one evening and casually mentioned the gun was no tale.

Tyrone’s friend had walked into first grade with a loaded hand gun in his backpack.

How to Survive Grade School: Leave Thy Low-Vaulted Past

How to Survive Grade School: Leave Thy   Low-Vaulted Past

 

First Grade  You have chicken pox and can’t go to school. You have mumps and can’t go to school. You have measles and can’t go to school. We’re all going to live in a hotel for a while so you can’t go to school.

Second Grade We’re moving to a new town and you’ll be going to a new school. The nun says you can’t read so you have to repeat First Grade.

First Grade We’ll buy you a bicycle to take your mind off your shame. What color do you want? Green? Ok. Oh, your sisters want bicycles too, blue and red.

Second Grade The nun says you read well enough to advance to Third Grade.

Third Grade Why don’t you know how to multipy? Come to the convent after school. We’ll have snacks and I’ll teach you arithmetic. You’ll be late going home. Can you cross the street by yourself?

Fourth Grade We’re moving to a new town and a new school. We’re moving again and you’re going to another new school. We’ll be living in a hotel until we find a home. You’ll be riding the public bus to school.

Fifth Grade We’re moving to another town and a new school. We’ll be living in a hotel until we find a home. March to class. March to lunch. March to recess. No talking in the hallway. No talking in the classroom. No talking at lunch. We’re moving into a house in another town and another school. They don’t wear uniforms, so let’s go shopping. Whew! No uniforms. No marching. And lots of talking.

Sixth Grade Hey new girl! Let’s sneak into the church at recess and read the booklet about sex. Let’s go ice skating after school and play Steal the Bacon with the boys. Want to join Girl Scouts? We’ll go camping and collect badges. We’ll sneak off in the middle of the night to meet the boys. I hear the nuns sent you home for wearing a sweatshirt to school. It’s ok. You just have to know the rules.

Seventh Grade We’re moving to another town and a new school. You have to iron your own white shirts, polish your brogues. Learn French. Work harder on arithmetic. You and your sister are playing palace guards, dressed in frog costumes, in Gilbert and Sullivan’s The Mikado. Ride your bike to play summer softball. Ride your bike to Cathy Riley’s, then ride her horses into wild raspberry fields.

Eighth Grade You’re on your way to win the all-school trophy for all-around best student. Keep up your grades, sports, tutoring and extra credit projects. We’re moving to a new town without your father. You’ll be living with relatives for the last six weeks of the school year. The school requires all eighth graders to memorize nine poems in order to graduate, including Oliver Wendall Holmes’ The Chambered Nautilus:

Build thee more stately mansions, O my soul,
As the swift seasons roll

Leave thy low-vaulted past!

Let each new temple, nobler than the last,
Shut thee from heaven with a dome more vast,
Till thou at length art free,
Leaving thine outgrown shell by life’s unresting sea!

Change Your Life with Lima Beans

Change Your Life with Lima Beans

     When I put the light green kidney shape in my mouth, my tongue moved it to my baby molars, gingerly munching up and down, side to side, until I felt a mushy bean pop out of the slimy skin onto my tongue. I gasped, and my reflexive inhale involuntarily pulled the glob to the back of my throat. I gagged on the paper-like skin, exhaling the sodden lump back through the front of my teeth and out onto my plate. My little five-year old body sat at that table until “you eat those lima beans.” After everyone went to bed, I dumped the loathsome things in the garbage. That night I vowed to forever hate lima beans and thus seeded a recipe for an unyielding, uncompromising, black and white life.

     Whatever possessed my mother to force me to sit at the table of uneaten lima beans for hours? Was it a doctor who told her that her children needed to eat vegetables? Or perhaps she was trying to introduce exotic foods into our menu so she could show off her three little girls and their sophisticated palates.

     My sisters and I all hated vegetables. The older, Mara, would feign putting a forkful of beans in her mouth with an air of superiority, a competitive streak born in her and never pruned. Erin, the youngest, figured out how to put her vegetables in a neat pocket formed by her napkin and dump it in the trash while no one was looking. Hiding unpleasant situations is perennially rooted in her life.

     When the self-actualization movement bloomed in the 1960s and ’70s with books such as The Prophet, I’m Ok You’re Ok and Be Here Now, I cultivated my deeper self by rooting out my hatred for lima beans. I tilled the soil for a backyard garden in Toms River, New Jersey, and planted the formerly-detested vegetables. When they sprouted, I thought the light green shape hanging from the stem was a single bean. After a few weeks, bumps appeared under the thick skin of the seed pod. I diligently hosed away aphids, leafhoppers, and mites, but I was sure my crop was deformed. Consulting Rodale’s Basic Organic Gardening book, I learned the bumps were actually beans – four lima beans per pod. After a few months, I pulled the bean pods from the vines, broke them open and started eating the sun-drenched crop right there on my knees in the garden. My neighbor flew out of her back door and yelled Stop! You can’t eat raw lima beans! They’re poison!

     Uh-oh.

     This was a new reason not to eat them, cooked or uncooked, but I was determined to use lima beans to crack open the hardened space between “what is” and “what could be.” I brought an apronful of beans inside, cooked, salted and buttered them and ate the day’s harvest for breakfast. They were good.

     Abiding in the distasteful takes practice. The once indigestible lima bean aerated my closed mind and paved the way toward a paradise of tasty, fresh vegetables.

 

What Is My Work, You Ask?

What Is My Work, You Ask?

 

1962. My work is to stop laughing like a nervous little girl and start smiling like an unflappable young lady in the coffee shop on the Asbury Park boardwalk. To turn away from the seagulls fighting over dead fish on the beach and write “pancakes” and “bacon” on my notepad. To pay attention to the old telling the story of the 1934 wreck of the cruise ship SS Morro Castle on the beach. To save money for tickets to Joan Baez and Bob Dylan at the Asbury Park Convention Hall.

1967. My work is to read Dr. Benjamin Spock’s Baby and Child Care and apply its 51hjigsfuol-_sx309_bo1204203200_commandments to week-old smiles, cries in the night, a nine-month old sprinter and a child who eats only chicken. My work is to stand my ground in the whirlwind advice from mothers, aunts and grandmothers. To learn to ride a baby on the back of my bicycle. To animate words as I point to clouds, trees and cars as if I’ve never seen these things before in my life.

1976. My work is to bypass the door to the secluded basement with its graveyard of empty vodka bottles. To surrender to my new single-motherness. To trust my untrustworthy father and move from a sandy Jersey Shore cottage to a downtown Chicago highrise. My work is to know this is the best plan for a nine-year-old boy’s future happiness.

1982. My work is to dress up in business clothes, act smarter than I am, eavesdrop on everyone’s conversations in a boiler room full of political operatives, ask stupid questions and digest enough information to schedule Nancy Stevenson in places that help win votes for her husband’s campaign for governor.

1990. My work is to be a motherless child. To lament the loss of my uterus and ovaries, and, my boyfriend. To escape to Paris and London with my twelve-year old niece. To atone for all my past sins.To feign self-confidence while running the Illinois Democratic Party.

1993. My work is to take Prozac on the way to Washington to join the management class of the Clinton Administration. To imagine I have power and to hide humiliation when I’m exposed. My work is to honor the ruling class. To recognize they are human. To protect myself from evil-doers and self-promoters. My work is to mourn the loss of naiveté.

2006. My work is to shield myself and others from Cook County Government officials who believe if you are happy at your job you’re not working hard enough. To cherish those I lead for what they are today and not for what they will be tomorrow. To protect them from those who refuse to know their names.

2017. My work is to record how far my shadow falls behind me. To tell the truth about myself and trust God with where the words go and what they do when they get there. My work is to proclaim the US Constitution guarantees me the freedom to assemble publicly and express myself openly without retribution. My work is to say I love America and when the saints go marching in, oh! how I want to be in that number.

Inspired by “An Address to My Fellow Faculty,” by A. Papatya Bucak, from brevitymag.com

Casper the Holy Ghost

Casper the Holy Ghost

The Holy Ghost appeared to me in the first grade on the day our Catholic school nun taught our class about the three persons of the Trinity.  My shimmying skin signified Casper the Friendly Ghost had floated into our classroom with his new, deeper nature as the Holy Ghost’s doppelgänger. A 1950’s cartoon character, the bubbly, happy, peaceable Casper tried desperately to befriend humans because his fellow ghosts were too sinister.But the poor guy terrified most people even though his spirit was warm-hearted and affable. Now he was one of the persons of God. And I needed Him.

My original first grade at Stone Ridge Academy of the Sacred Heart in Washington DC was interrupted by illness. I didn’t learn about the Holy Ghost until I got to my next first grade in a parochial school in Terre Haute Indiana. I was happy to repeat the first grade so I could be with my younger sister and best friend, Erin.

Third-gader Mara, my older sister, teased me relentlessly about flunking first grade in front of her friends – and what would have been my friends if she hadn’t poisoned them against me. I prayed that my one new friend, Casper the Holy Ghost,would scare Mara away from tormenting me.

I never had any trouble with the Trinity. Catholics bless themselves by making the sign of the cross, tapping the head, heart and each shoulder, while reciting “In the Name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Ghost.” The concept of the Trinity was and is still simple – three persons in one, just like a cross. For the life of me I don’t know why theologians are always trying to explain it. Perhaps they didn’t have Casper to guide them in the first grade.
I dressed as Casper at Halloween –  many kids still do. My mother wasn’t the least bit interested in dabbling in children’s holidays, much less making costumes. But my Casper costume was a cinch. As long as I didn’t cut holes for my eyes, she let me drape a white sheet over my head and Erin, in her hobo costume, led me around trick-or-treating. Mara, in her I Love Lucy outfit, ridiculed us surrounded by her pack of friends.

th-5

I started collecting Casper the Friendly Ghost comic books in 1952 when I was six. By the time I was ten I had them stacked up alongside Superman comics in my closet. One day I came home from playing baseball and Mara had thrown away my comic book collection. She said it was time for me to grow up. The slick odor of those mistreated keepsakes haunted me for a time but the quivering feeling of Casper’s friendship and protection eventually evaporated.

th-6
About that time Catholics started using Holy Spirit instead of Holy Ghost. The only image I had of the Holy Spirit was an inanimate white dove hanging open-winged over statues of Jesus. He certainly didn’t look like he needed friends. I slinked away from the Holy Ghost until years later when He fell into my own spirit and turned my old fear of Mara into forgiveness. She’s still scary. But not to me.

The World’s Worst Vacation by Carol Zoha Hawk

After the Thanksgiving of 1999, my husband, Jerry came home from work with the news that his friend had offered to let our family use his new townhouse in Miami for the Christmas holiday. He and his wife had only been there once. We happily packed our bags and were off.

091027a

The pristine townhouse had all new furniture and was located in a new development in a Hispanic community. We enjoyed seeing the area’s highlights.

After breakfast on December 31st, I put the dishwasher on. We heard rain but how could that be – the sun was shining. Water was pouring from the garage ceiling. There was no handyman about. We got pots, pans and mops and eventually the deluge stopped. What would we tell Jerry’s friend?

As we started our New Year’s Eve celebration, we noticed an odor coming from the bathroom. Poo! Yes it was poo backing up into the tub. We heard the family next door celebrating New Year’s Eve as Jerry had the disgusting task of plunging the bathtub.

That same night, Emily awoke in intense pain and we decided we had to take her to the E.R. Twelve year old Robert was deep in sleep. We left him a note just in case he got up before we returned. Jerry stopped plunging and he knocked on our neighbor’s door to get directions to the nearest E.R.

The E.R. was dirty. No one spoke English. It took forever for them to get an interpreter. Lines of drunks were sleeping it off. An old woman on a gurney kept asking passers-by to shake her hand. The doctor was an unfriendly, ugly man with dirty hair and a triangular nose. Emily had refused an injection to relieve her pain, and they had no triage. He said there were three drunks to look after before he would see Emily. “We have a first-come, first-served policy”, he said as Emily was writhing in pain on a gurney. Smoke was coming out of my ears.

I asked the nursing staff to help, but they seemed reluctant. There was no administrator available. A security guard approached Jerry and said I had to leave the E.R. I wasn’t going to leave my daughter in the E.R. With his hand on his gun holster, he escorted me to the outer corridor.

Jerry stayed with Emily.

Eventually, an English-speaking nurse came out, and said that she was subbing at the E.R. just for the night. She agreed that this was an awful hospital. If any medical procedure was necessary for Emily, this Florence Nightengale said she’d take us to the hospital where she worked. Emily had taken her medication. There was a reduction in her pain. A while later, the same nurse said that Emily had passed a kidney stone and she was getting ready for discharge.

A tired Emily and her shaken parents drove to the townhouse, picked up Robert and drove to the airport. When we left, the garage ceiling was still leaking and beginning to fall and there was lots of poo backed up in the tub.