Monday, February 28, 2011

Unnamed Madonnas (a novellette)

 Unnamed Madonnas: Chapter one
Nel mezzo del cammin….”                                                                                         
Friday morning. Day Five of our Italian Trip.
Venice. Hotel Il Viaggiatore. The phone woke me around two a.m.
“Pronto?  Signora Palmer?”
“Yes?” I responded.
Venice Police. We are following up on the missing person report called in last night regarding Steven Palmer. Your husband, si?”
“Yes. Si.”
 “Has he returned yet?”
“NO! ” I looked around the room for any signs of him. I had fallen asleep with the TV on and the bathroom light on. No, He wasn't back.
“When did you see him last?”
“We were  in Piazza San Marco  having drinks with friends from our tour group. Then, I left for a few minutes.”
“Tell us exactly where you went, and what Mr. Palmer was doing the last time you were together. Describe him for us.”
“He is fifty eight, medium built, five ten, graying hair Last night he was wearing jeans and a brown coat. I left for a few minutes.”
            “You said you left him?  What exactly did you say or do before you left. Did you have a fight, a disagreement?"
“They, a couple that we met on the tour and my husband were talking about going out to dinner to the same place we had gone for lunch, Antica Sacrestia, I think.I needed to stop at the bathroom before we walked to go to dinner. I could not wait. When I returned, they were all gone, and I assumed they went to dinner, thinking I'd know how to get there on my own. It was still early. I waited for a while, figuring Steven would return to get me if I didn't show up. Then, it got late, and I went back to the hotel with the tour group, and when he didn’t return after midnight, I asked the hotel for help in calling the police.”
“How long are you staying in Venice, Mrs. Palmer?”
“We’re leaving for Rome this morning! In five hours or so. We leave for Los Angeles Monday night. This was supposed to be just a nine-day tour. How long do you think it will take for you to find him?”
“Not long, if he wants to be found! Will the hotel know where to reach you?”
“I’m not going until my husband is found. I will stay right here, in Venice.”
“If you change hotel, inform us.”
The speaker spoke perfect English, yet, the whole time, I was worried that I would not be able to understand, would not be able to talk to anyone, and that Steve’s situation would not be resolved.  
 It was Good Friday, a drizzly spring morning.  Early Church bells  were waking up in the distance, from all  four corners.
I turned off television, brushed my teeth, took my clothes off and went to  bed,  pulling the covers over my head. This was supposed to be the trip of a lifetime. I tossed and turned as my head ached and my mouth turned  bitter.
Rome, Florence, Verona, Venice, and then  Rome again for a farewell dinner and on  our flight back to L.A.  A taste of Italy, the tour brochure called it. Nine days of art and architecture. The kind of trip my Italian mother always dreamed about, always praying to this Madonna or that, year after year..
She would have gone back to her hometown for sure, and maybe give up the tour to spend all nine days with her family, catching up, visiting and being visited by all those childhood friends she had left behind.
She planned those trips from the time we arrived in America, from the time I spoke no English. When people asked her about her hometown, our hometown, she told them that it was not a tourist destination, too remote, too far from anything.
She spoke of Italy as her mother, longingly, full of regret for not keeping close, not making enough of an effort to reconnect.  Every year, something would happen to thwart her plans.
In my imagination, Italy was all the mothers and godmothers I had, Maria, Tina, Nonna, neighbors whose faces I could not remember, a church-full of old ladies with shawls on their heads, rosaries in their hands, praying in a hush in every corner of every church. We were all connected by the words to the Virgin Mary whose medal was still around my neck on the day my husband disappeared.
Venice, on a cool morning, reminded me of the promises I had made too.
I never did fall asleep, so, just before six, I decided to meet with Umberto,let him know that I was remaining in Venice.  I showered and went down to our usual meeting spot,  the hotel lobby.
Umberto was giving instructions to the porters and overseeing the loading of the bus.
 “Do you have any information about my husband?” I said, interrupting him. He smiled and still engaged in his previous task, told me to go to breakfast with a couple of hand movements, indicating he would catch me later.
 Jim and Gail approached me with worried looks. The previous night when I remained in the lobby to wait for my husband, they had waited with me for over an hour.  
  I  picked up my croissant and coffee, and tried to make small conversation with them. They wanted to know what I would do; I wanted not to think about that, about anything.  I told them Steve must have been detained by our other couple, the Germans, how they had moved to a nearby hotel, and he must have had drinks and dinner, and the night passed without him realizing it. Did I have a fight? Not really. Just that he had spent all this time with them; no, I meant, he wanted to spend time with them. I was tired.  I knew he would find his way back. Just as if he went out to get cigarettes.
Finally, Umberto came to save me, “I suppose you’ll be staying behind? Did the police contact you? 
“I talked to the police this morning”
“Good. Don’t worry, I’ve seen these things. I do hope to see you in Rome.” He called everybody to board the bus. I stood at the door as the bus pulled away.

Sunday, February 27, 2011

Driving in the rain

Nothing else, except maybe snow falling, can hypnotize  like rain can.
Soft rain, drizzles of baby wet kisses on your hair and cheek.
The wipers are hesitant, confused, fog or dog licks?
Lights in the distance and Douglas firs  guide you for miles.
When we get out of the house to replenish the larder, adventure is calling.
Worth the price of gas, the wear and tear on  these tired limbs.
I'm usually the passenger, hypnotized by the green, even in the fog and the rain.
I want to scream sometimes,  incoherent words that call for color, any other color.
Give me Red! Yellow would be nice too! Give me Sun!
Soon, I fall in line and the greens lull me into reverie.
We'll die here, I think.
 I'll bury my love here.
I'll rest here in all this green.
I'll turn around, if I need adventure, and go visit the ocean blue and grey and sandy and green.
Or, I'll go south to L.A. where the freeways will cure me.
Or the smog.
Or the crowds.
Or the arid land.
Or the price of parking.

Saturday, February 26, 2011

A perfect pairing

At lunch the other day
at the beach
we sipped ambition martini slowly
and thought about ordering dinner
slumped in roomy leather chairs
that embraced our backs
exchanging figures
yearly goals,-we in power-suits that cost
the same as  mortgage
a few years earlier-
congratulating ourselves
with bonuses, plaques
trips to the Bahamas
the world, we toasted
is richer because of us.

Wet and cold, on that first beach outing
I  couldn’t hear your joy for the
screeching  seagulls and crashing
waves erasing our early footprints
we ran
after empty sandwich bags
and errant waves
doing fast retreats
enough joy in the day
to warm our toes
and feed our hungry eyes
for the rest of our lives.


Friday, February 25, 2011

The Room Mom-Part Four

The only thing about  Ryan’s  behavior  that stood out was him  sitting in the back row on a regular basis working with  his mother, Mrs. Spencer, the Room Mom.  On the day Carlene had complained, Mrs. Spencer had not  reproached Ryan for his behavior, minimizing the incident.
“Oh, the girls are exaggerating. They don’t want the boys to exclude them from basketball. They can have their own games. Nobody is complaining when they exclude boys.” These were Mrs. Spencer's remarks at that time.
“Is that what this is about? Girls wanting to be included?” I had asked, not sure I knew the whole thing, but nevertheless not wanting to jump in and solve their problems too readily.
The next day Carlene came to school with her mother.  
“Carlene is upset,” her mother began, “you and the aide did nothing about the harassment she suffered yesterday.”
I turned to Carlene, “Why don’t you tell me the whole thing,” and then to the mother, “I might have been too hasty yesterday."
Carlene's account of the incident was that Ryan had been teasing her and her friends, and the basketball part was the last straw. Mrs. Sarnoff  finished Carlene's remarks with one of her own, "He's being abusive with his language, calling her and her friends 'whore'!" Then, turning to Carlene, "Tell your teacher the whole thing, all the times he's been teasing you and your friends."
  I remembered Mrs. Sarnoff as the lawyer who came to talk to the class on career week. Surely, she has places to go this morning.
We talked for a good twenty minutes and when the bell rang for the class to start, I got up to usher her out with, “I'll talk to Ryan and the other boys, and if things don’t calm down," I turned to Carlene, " let me know.”  I wasn’t sure we had finished, but I had a squirmy group of sixth graders pounding at the door, and she seemed fine. She handed me her card, as though I was a potential client and scurried out.

After Christmas, both Carlene, Ryan and Mrs. Spencer changed classroom assignments, and I forgot the entire incident until  I saw  Mrs. Sarnoff ,in the parking area, after school ,waiting by her car for Carlene. I was doing supervision when she came to talk to me.
“I know Carlene is no longer in your class, but I wanted to talk to you anyway.”
         “What happened?” I asked.
         “She won’t ride the bus and she doesn’t want to come to school. I took your advice, let her work out her conflicts with her friends, but it is getting worse.”
            “Have you spoken with her present teacher?”
         “I want her back in your class, and if it’s o.k with you, I’ll make a request from the principal.”
         “Sure! If that’s what you want.”
         “Mrs. Spencer  is always protecting her son. She's been like that in every class since kinder. We used to be friends, she and I. Our whole family used to take vacations together. She's now so wrapped up with her boy's school, she can't see anything else. Does his homework for him. Did you know that? Well, what Carlene tells me, he's out of control."
         Usually, parents have to have a darn good reason to change classes; but, I understood the situation and had no objections. Besides, the students who had been promoted mid-year needed so much work, it was good to get back a good student like Carlene.

Two days later, Mrs. Macke, the teacher in the classroom Ryan was in approached me at lunch time.
“Jean, what I’m about to tell you is between us,” she started, “promise that whatever…” I interrupted her by pointing to the three students who were doing their homework. She waited for me to dismiss the children before continuing.
“Ryan has been expelled,” she started, "Mrs Spencer called me at home late last night and was furious with me. She thinks I am being partial to other children. But I don't doubt what I had to report."
“What happened?” I asked.
“He touched a little girl inappropriately. I was wondering, how did he act when he was with you? I heard another child had complained about him in your class. Is that right?”
I couldn't say much that would explain or improve the situation for either Ryan or Mrs. Macke.
"He and Carlene had words at lunch time a while ago. Nothing that they couldn't handle themselves, if you ask me. But, Ryan has some kind of anger issues, and is on an IEP according to Mrs. Jones."
"Oh? I heard nothing of that!"
"Well, if the expulsion is put in place, you will. You should have known."

          In a few hours, everyone knew about Ryan’s expulsion. His mother was absent from school, and his aunt, who was the dean probably had to do all the paperwork and interviews for that expulsion. Mrs. Jones asked me to join her at the pre-expulsion hearing.
     “You are one of our most trusted educator, Jean. Please attend.”  These are the words Mrs. Jones sent me in a handwritten note. She even offered to drive me there, way out of my way. I thanked her, but drove myself.
     The room was full with parents and community members. I had never been to these events, and didn't know if I just raised my hand and spoke, or had to wait to be called.
    The district administrator called different people to the podium.  Everyone was angry at a teacher or at the principal for something they did or didn’t do to one of their children. He could not control the angry crowd, and was letting anybody who wanted to speak, speak on anything, even not directly related to the case. 
     Mrs. Spencer was there with a man I assumed was her husband. She didn’t speak; but, he did, complaining that Ryan’s teachers didn’t bother to help his boy whenever he needed help. Why, his wife had to quit her job to volunteer at school, so Ryan wouldn't get further behind. 
     Another spoke about his child being kept at lunch time as punishment; another, about the transfer of his child and how upset the whole family was with this arrangement. Even kindergarten parents  showed up to complain about low test scores, even though they wouldn't have any scores for their children. I took notes, trying very hard not to take any of these complaints personally. Though the parent who complained about the lunch time homework  had not bothered to come to me with that problem.  I would have told her to sit with her child at home and get the work done with her child. 
     This was a lynching mob, I thought. The Spencers had created a major distraction so nobody would be talking about Ryan's problems. Even Carlene’s Mom was blaming the teachers for not being alert and preventing harassment.
            The district administrator just sat there and took notes.
The room was  buzzing with a year's worth of accusations when I finally left without my two cents being shared with anyone.
By the time I reached home, I was in tears.
The minute I walked in the door, I called my son in Oregon.
“What is it Mom? Did something happened?”
           “David,  I’m glad you’re  up. It was a long day at work."
          "Are you  O.K?"
          "I'm just realizing I've not seen you guys for a while."
          "Well, come spend the summers with us. Little guy is a joy right now."
         "Easter! I want to visit you during Easter. And summer too. I can't wait another day."
      "Great! Just tell us where to pick you up."
      "I want to drive, put this place behind. Guess I'll take your suggestion too.”
“What suggestion, Mom?”
“To live a little. To get to know my little grandchild!"
“Great, Mom. You’re welcome anytime.”
“You know, I’m not getting any younger.”
“None of us are! So, next month?”
"Yes! Yes. My love to Moanie and Keeley."
      I didn’t know what I would do next; but, I knew that my teaching days were over.


Wednesday, February 23, 2011

The Room Mom-Part Three

     I tossed and turned and counted the many ways I could be wrong. Ryan might not have written that note with my name on it; his mother may not have concocted all the changes going on;Mrs. Jones was not avoiding me. I dreamt Ryan’s note was a coded message,  and that I was partly blind, missing my glasses for some reason, and couldn’t make out much of anything,
    The next morning, I  expected to be called into the office first thing, but it didn’t happen. Again, Marylyn was busy with so many things that I couldn't get any answers out of her. Nothing in my mail box either.  At lunch, Mousy-actually, her name is Arlene Anderson, but I can't get Mousy or Mousey, or whatever out of my head- showed up while I was tutoring waving her test scores. 
“So, how did we do?”
“How different could they be from last year?” I retorted.
“Your class always does better than anybody’s, Jean. How did you do this year?”
I was about to say that I didn’t worry about all that nonsense when I saw the secretary outside my window on her way to the cafeteria. I rushed out to speak to her, leaving Mousy to find her way out.
“Marylyn, did Mrs. Jones see my note I left yesterday?”
“Drop in this afternoon, after bus duty.”  Her look was friendly toward me.
“Ok.” I said, buoyed.
After bus duty, I reported to the office and Mrs. Jones waved me in right away with,   “You’ll get five more students from fifth grade promoted because of their age, and a couple of new ones coming from Phelan Elementary.”
I wanted to tell her that twenty students was not a small number when they all came to me behind in their skills and I spent numerous lunch hours tutoring. She jumped into Ryan Spencer’s note.
“Did something happen between you and Ryan?  I spoke with Mrs. Spencer this morning, and she said you were nice to him. But I don't want you to speak to Mrs. Spencer or anybody else about this. We don’t want to complicate matters. Let’s keep this confidential, between us.”
“We'll continue to investigate and follow up. You'll be amazed at how many children say these things all the time, to their friends, on the phone, in notes like the one you found.”
“My name is right at the top of the list!” Without my realizing, my voice had become strident.
“Jean, are you all right?  This can't be bothering you!”
“Even if he meant nothing by it, he needs a consequence of some sort. Why if people had paid attention at Columbine, if those students’ parents had known what their darlings were up to, if someone at school had followed up…”
She interrupted, abruptly, “Jean! You are over-reacting. Are you feeling o.k.?”
“I’m fine; I just can't understand why you are sweeping this under the rug. Don’t we have a policy about zero tolerance for violence threatened or implied?  How about those five other people, those children who don’t even know that their names are on that list. Shouldn’t they be warned, or something?”
“We’ll continue to investigate. This is not something to  worry about.”
“What is he learning if he gets away with these threats?"
“Discipline is a fine art, Jean. We don’t punish blindly. Especially nowadays, with schools being sued left and right. Remember when Marylyn asked that new girl about her ethnicity, and the next thing,  the Office of Civil Rights is coming down to investigate? This is a  delicate issue. Ryan will have an IEP and the team will discuss consequences.”
“An IEP? I had no idea he was on an IEP. What’s his disability?”
“Oppositional disorder.  He’s being seen by a family psychiatrist.” She stood up, the signal the conference was over, and if by magic, the phone rang too. I wanted to explain more things, talk about how his mother might have poisoned him, but I left the office.
I walked straight to my car, aware of  a headache, a big one, right at the back of the neck.
            In the parking area, Mousy seemed to be waiting for me.
            “Jean, I’ve looked at all test scores. There is no way your sixth graders could go up twenty points from fifth grade. There is a secret, right?”
            “Twenty points? It must be my discipline methods!” I smiled, thinking of how people can be so paranoid about things. Mousy and her test scores. I wanted to tell her that this was not a good time to talk to me about anything.
            “Nobody is allowed to fail in my class or skip their homework. I pester them. If the homework is not done, it gets done during lunch.” I told her this with scorn. I knew that she hardly paid attention to the curriculum she was supposed to teach, until test results.
            I got in my car and left, deciding then and there to call in sick the next day.


Tuesday, February 22, 2011

The Room Mom. (Part Two)

 The Room Mom.
Part Two

After Christmas vacation, a note in my mailbox explained that ten of my students had been transferred to another teacher’s room. Among them, Ryan Spencer. The school secretary did not stop what she was doing to answer any of my questions, and  I made my way to my classroom, careful not to slip on the icy pavement.  Kurt,our custodian was sprinkling sand on the sidewalk,  greeting each of us, with “Be careful, you don’t want to fall. Happy New Year!”  My Christmas purchase of a new pair of comfortable walking shoes made me feel like a new woman. I did not expect Mrs. Spencer to show up.
 I was right. The whole morning passed quickly. When children asked why we had such a small class, I ventured changes were inevitable in our lives.
At noon, I walked my half-class to the cafeteria for the first time that year and felt great. The Antelope Valley was not known for great weather, too hot in the summer and too cold in the winter. But, it had good clean air most of the time, unlike the smog-laden pall over L.A. The San Gabriels were our dividing line, the only real landmark to position ourselves outdoors during our physical education program. “Look to the South, look to the mountains!” I’d shout, often, as everything around us was flat and non-remarkable. The Mountains told us we were north of the other valleys that looked, smelled and acted like L.A. Here, jets from the Mojave conclave of Edwards Air Force Base reminded us often that our mission in life was to look up to new frontiers.
The sun was shining, though it hadn’t melted the ice and the snow on the ground. As I walked back to my room, I ran into the mousy first grade teacher who greeted me with enthusiasm.
“It’s so good to see you!” she said smiling, “Do you know that now I  have your Evelyn  in the afternoon?” A genuine halo of cheerfulness smiled down on her.
“Oh? ” I said less enthusiastically.
“I get the kindergarteners left over from the morning. Evelyn is still with you in the morning, right?”
“No! Her son and half the class has been moved.” I was feeling anxious about the conversation, and didn’t want to say anything that might be misunderstood.
“We were all envious when you got her…” Mousy chattered with no commas or periods and though I continued toward my room, not quite  catching or responding to her, she kept on.  Conversations get out of hand so quickly. You say something, meaning nothing, then, well. I wanted to ask her, how is it that you have your first grade all day and then add kinder in the afternoon? My goodness! I would have quit if I had no help. I mean, how do they  prioritize these things?
Right at my door, she added, “I heard  Mrs. Macke always wanted sixth grade. But they always gave it to you.”
If I responded to her, I could get the information I needed; nobody else  seemed to get into the conversation. I mumbled, “If two of us want the same assignment, we draw straws.”

 “Well, her test scores were never high enough, so she couldn’t really bargain for anything with you having so much seniority. How did you do this year?”
Ah, ah! The test scores conundrum. I shouldn’t be talking to Mousy about this.
“There is plenty of time to…” I started to say something vague and unimportant, nothing she could quote to somebody else and get me in hot water. I had learned that these new teachers were so eager to please they became conduit of instant interpretation.
“Easy for you to say!” She rebutted all too fast, before she knew what was on my mind, “ You’re about to retire and nobody… Oh no! I didn’t mean that!!”
She looked concerned.
I wasn’t.
They were all counting the days to my retirement.  I had no intention of retiring. What would I do with all my time, with nothing to do, with no grandchildren to spend time on?  My only son moved to Oregon following his hippie girlfriend, to live out their environmental dream, and doesn’t even call me on Mother’s Day. No. Retirement was not appealing to me.
“How many students does she have now?” I asked, to be polite. We were at my room, and she walked in  and sat down in the front seat by my desk, as though she had been invited to fill me in on all the details of the change in my class.
“Some of her fifth were combined with fourth. And some of the fourth went to third. I got Jennifer’s kinder so she can be assistant principal in the afternoon. Isn’t that a great idea?”
“Assistant principal?”
“Mrs. Spencer must have put a good word in for her.”
“They are sisters! The entire family is devoted to this school. You should have seen the lunch they catered for us at the Christmas Party. Oh, I forgot. You didn’t come.”
I was too old to handle a full classroom, they thought. Maybe this whole change was Mrs. Spencer’s and her sister’s idea.  How could they get away with so many changes for so many families in the middle of the year?
The first bell rang, and Mousy gathered her stuff to leave. I noticed  she left her paper bag on the desk.  I  looked to clear other stuff from the desk, since the child that had sat there had been transferred. I wanted nothing out of place.  Then, I moved down to Ryan’s desk where I found a crumbled piece of paper in his textbook. Instead of automatically tossing it in the trash with everything else, I read it. It was a typed  list of people he hated and was going to take care of. Five names. My name at the top.  
All capitals.
My children were lining up outside, but right then,  I marched over to the office to talk to the Principal.
“This is what Ryan Spencer left in his desk! What are going to do about this?” I said as I approached Mrs. Jones’s desk. She was on the phone and motioned for me to wait. Well, I couldn’t wait, not with the bell and the kids waiting in the hall, confused that I left my room after the bell.  I waved the note at her,  and left it on the desk, fuming on the way out.
Nothing like this had ever happened in this room, I thought. No student had ever threatened other students in this way, or their teachers. What have I ever done to Ryan Spencer to get him so riled up? What was going on with that family?
At the end of the day, after everyone left and the bus duty was over, I went back to talk to Mrs. Jones.  I was going to talk about the note and also about the bill Mrs. Spencer had accrued for the holiday show, which had bothered me all Christmas vacation. I had even decided to pay for those things and be done with. No. This is the final straw, I thought.
 “Did she see the note I left her?” I inquired of Marylyn, the secretary, after she told me Mrs. Jones had left campus.
Marylyn didn’t know anything about the note.
“Well, there is another thing she needs to have. Give her this when she returns.” I gave the secretary the bill of the  Christmas program expenses Mrs. Spencer had accrued.
Marylyn looked confused.
 “You see? Mrs. Spencer had no permission to spend that money. She had offered to help, to come up with the sets. Instead, she went out and spent all this money with no permission from anybody.  Mrs. Jones or somebody might have given her permission. But I didn’t!”
 Feeling exhausted and light-headed, I walked straight out of the office and to the parking lot. I left school at 3:00 p.m. for the first time in my teaching life.

© rosaria

Friday, February 18, 2011

The Room Mom

On the first day of school, I received a note in my mail box that Mrs. Evelyn Spencer was volunteering to be the room mom in my sixth grade class at Liberty Elementary.
“Oh good!” I said, as a greeting to her and her boy Ryan when they showed up the first day of school. I wastoo busy to pay attention to her, or to give her any specific instruction about the duties of a Room Mom. I saw her in the back throughout the morning, moving about and keeping busy, sorting and labeling the new  textbooks piled high on the back shelves. At lunch time, she informed me that the lunch count to the cafeteria and the student count to the main office were taken care of. Then, before I could even thank her for saving my morning, she offered to walk the class to and from the cafeteria, saving me ten minutes additional minutes on a very busy morning.
“Oh, good!” I said, catching my breath, anticipating the minute I could kick my heels off, shut the door, and close my eyes for twenty uninterrupted minutes.  I had a good feeling about her as I closed the shutters and collapsed with my now cold coffee.  
She was unlike all the other Homeroom Mothers who came and left, who tried to convince teachers that their little angels were specials. She lasted an entire day and not once interrupted me. She smiled approvingly when I sent home the big packet of homework for the week. Yes! I finally had won the Lottery.
I finished the first day gloating, anticipating  how Room 26 could become the class  recognized regularly at monthly school assemblies, and win top prizes in  contests and yearly magazine subscriptions and Christmas cookie-dough pre-sales. I could tell she was artistic and hard working. Most of all, she was inconspicuous.
The next day she wanted to talk about putting together a weekly newsletter to inform parents and community of the important work we were doing in Rm 26.  She spoke about it as though it was already taken care of.  
“Newsletters take too much time, and nobody reads them!” I stated, beginning to feel a bit of irritation.   She assured me that it was going to take no effort on my part, adding,  “Just wear your pretty theme sweater on Friday, for a real surprise!” 
Someone from the local paper came to take our picture that Friday. Evelyn had written the copy, all about a canned food drive to help local churches that our class was starting. I didn’t even know about that campaign! I wanted to sit down and explain to her that she had to clear these things with me, but I didn’t want to dampen her enthusiasm.
She seemed to know just what pictures and stories the paper would print, and kept suggesting contests to keep people reading and responding, a special feature each month she had invented with everyone’s favorite activity.  Parts of our local newsletter inevitably showed up in the local paper, the only school newsletter to get so much publicity.

Evelyn kept coming up with contests to stimulate our circulation.  At the local supermarket, people would stop and congratulate me on all the things we were doing. I was becoming a minor celebrity thanks to her.
As the front desk person informed me, Evelyn was making herself useful everywhere. On a morning when Evelyn was waiting for the Xerox to finish and Marian, the front desk person was organizing the mail, Evelyn came right out and offered to help.  
 “You must have better things to do. I can do that for you when I come in on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday before I go help Jean.”  Evelyn had volunteered to help Marian, just like that.
She did a whole lot of other tasks here and there with different people. I stopped counting, after a while.
The woman was ubiquitous.
She had begun to call me Jean in front of the children, instead of my  Mrs. Reed. 
I was quite taken back, actually.
Offended, in fact.
Then, I thought, what’s the big deal, everyone already calls everyone else by their first name. I was the only one holding back, being old fashioned, in my own world. 
Her words, in jest, as in, “Mrs, Reed, Jean, may I call you Jean? Everyone thinks you’re in your own world. I told them you are as modern as anyone. You really understand these pre-pubescent!” 
That’s what she said, pre-pubescent.
 She arrived at school before any of us, before  seven thirty every day,  sorting boxes of mail that had been delivered the day before. She  knew what everyone was doing; what messages were being received by whom; how field trips went for that mousy teacher in first grade and how was it that nobody had complained about her yet? Simple remarks like that told me what everyone else was doing in their classrooms.
One afternoon, at the bus stop, as I supervised children board their different buses, she started to talk about the work her boy Ryan was completing in my class.
“Was his work o.k?  Did he miss  instructions?  If he didn’t get it 100% right it was my fault! I told Ryan not to rush through that homework!” She went on as we walked back to my room, all the while listing this and that  activity the two of them were obliged to follow through.
 “Well,” I said, “maybe I need to give Ryan more time to finish things.” I had not realized how busy with community projects they both were.  

  “No special treatment needed,” she said. “Absolutely not!  It wouldn’t be fair!”
I insisted. “But he can do it again over the weekend, if he wants, take all the time that’s needed,”  adding,  “really, with all you do for this school, we can bend the rules a little bit.”
“Absolutely not! Won’t think of it. He needs to learn to work within the rules. Why, the last homework wasn’t even worth the C you gave him.”
I was impressed with her integrity.
She was solid, and I liked her a lot.
I decided then and there  that the lowest mark each student had,  would be eliminated at midterm. I offered that as a compromise, realizing that was the first time I had changed my grading scale. 
“You’re the best  teacher I know!” She declared, with a big smile, and a big hug, and trotted out to her car in a very happy mood.
I didn’t mind when she showed up unexpectedly, on days she wasn’t scheduled in my room. I got used to seeing her around. She’d drop something off from the office, and stay in the background if a particular lesson was of interest to her.

One day, I asked if she had any suggestions. She appeared  uncomfortable,  “Ryan is going to ask me to explain the lesson at home. I was trying to understand it myself!”
In many little ways, and casually, reviewing my lessons carefully, I  wrote down in advance every thing I was going to say, word for word. Something she had said, about something I said, as though  she didn’t want to cause trouble for me.
 “You have so much to share, still! I can’t believe people think you’re too set in your ways!”
I didn’t know how to ask for details. Did she mean to share that information she might have picked up in the main office?  She must be gossiping with everyone, I thought.  Besides, I had won all those contests, had received good reports from the principal on her yearly visits. I began to resent her hovering, but I couldn’t tell her to stay away from my class.  How would that look? When I casually asked the other teacher how was it with Evelyn around, they had nothing but praise for her.
Everyone wished they had room moms like her.  
After the holiday performance I received a bill from a vendor for materials  that Evelyn had used to construct the sets and make costumes.  The bill was for eight hundred dollars, and already overdue. My name  at the top of the invoice.
“But, we didn’t mean for you to go buy stuff! We thought you had collected these materials. We don’t have this kind of budget for holiday performances!” I  confronted her without hesitation.
I was surprised at her response.

“If I hadn’t jumped in and helped, you would have had nothing. I saved your neck! ” was her reply.

At the performance, I had been harried and exhausted getting each group on stage and on cue, and when the principal closed the assembly, praising the costumes and set, praising the children for their efforts, she asked the parents and community to publicly thank Mrs. Spencer for saving the holiday program:
“We  are so lucky to have Mrs. Spencer! Thank you, thank you.”

My name was not mentioned once.

At the end of the week,  when the principal visited my room, I expected then to be thanked for the performance, the work I had put to organize the assembly, and the wonderful reception by the parents. 
She was brusque and to the point: parents were unhappy with how I explained things; students had a tough time understanding my explanations; I changed the rules with some children, and I was bad-mouthing Mrs. Spencer with the other teachers.
I was speechless.
I didn’t have the courage to talk about the eight hundred dollar expense.

Part one of four
2/18/2011 5:42:41 PM
© rosaria

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

observing words being traded

"Word of the Day: Abundance."

What if we could only use that word today.
And if we didn't use it, we could bank it for future use.
What if we chose another word meaning the same or opposite?
What if words had a value, like atomic weight. Love: 2;  Hate=1
What if they had taste?
What if words WERE TRADED, up one day, down the next.
What if we got paid in words. Will poets be the richest or the poorest?

Sunday, February 13, 2011

Words for Valentine

These days, I  note every change in your face-
a tick, a tired gesture, a slumping into the chair-
time is signing the last chapter right in front of us.
Your body has become your father's  
your childhood
spent long ago, and again with our children
and their worries.

I could never tell you how   
the past becomes the future
right in your face
each other's eyes
time stopped when we met at twenty four.
Today, I'm afraid to shatter
all that we salvaged,
each trauma
written in our grey hair and in
our acking backs.

It isn't easy to smile this time of the year,
words expected to fall at our feet like blooming roses.
It isn't roses or jewels I crave.
I crave the never-ending story.

Saturday, February 12, 2011


If these men were wines:

Salman Rushdie is almost Moscato at times,  light and playful, in The Enchantress of Florence.  His Verses, much maligned; though, like Dante, he was getting back at lots of folks, for lots of good reasons. He rocks with an arugula salad, sprinkles of hazelnuts, shavings of pecorino. Or, a deep curry.

Pirandello is darker, moodier, a robust Angiovese, lingering with you through your entire meal of pasta bolognese, and a rack of lamb with new potatoes.  He's the South, I feel, the South of Italy the way I remember, dark, fierce, full of concerns and traditions that pop up whenever you try to get too comfortable. 

Kundera is a breath of fresh air, a young Pinot Grigio, full of hints, peaches and pears, and a hint of shadowy truffle. Best with stroganoff, with light sourcream and lots and lots of mushrooms. I want then to lie in bed for the afternoon, or in a hammock under a big oak and talk trash with the likes of Kant.

Looking for Agates

Your days and the continent behind you,  you push through sand in a simple  rush of anticipation, looking for agates,  shiny stones hidden in common gravel, your way to feel empty, to have everything in your past washed  away by a big wave.  If it kills you, you  accept that from the Ocean.
You've lived a life of  a dog trained to sniff bombs, ears, nose and eyes open and attentive all the time, staying on top of things, managing danger, naming your various days and your various feelings as things you collected and displayed.
 Today, you trust  your body would lose itself in the sounds of the surf, the rhythms of the waves, finding distance and peace.
You buried your own needs for years.
Now, they pop out in the light, rocks finding their way up. The archeology of your wounds in front of you when you least expect it.
Scenes of past days flash in front of you. You dismiss them, digging deeper for shiny agates, pushing yourself to forget you are even here. 
But Something keeps appearing, scratching and whining at your back door like a new puppy, asking to be let in:  
You are in elementary school, early morning, snow on the ground, very cold.   Instead of cold, mother had said, think of how the angel flakes fall down gently.
What really happened when you shut out your senses?  How did it really go?  You are working it out, moving people around so you can see beyond them, to the space, the smells, the rhythm of that scene, that morning, when your angel flakes distracted you.  
You had your coal bucket with you, though your father had walked you to school and had carried the bucket up to the schoolyard for you.  There, he said, wait  for your teacher to open the door and let you in. Don't stray. 
You carried your grape jam sandwinch because you got up too late for a proper breakfast.  You saw your neighbor girl in a circle, huddled around  an old man. You left your line and joined them. Were you too cold to stand and wait? 
“This is our secret.  Nobody needs to know.  You don’t want your teacher to shoo me away.  I will freeze to death.  You don’t want to do that, do you?  You are good girls, keeping an old man from freezing to death.” This he said, and touched each and every one of you, and in turn asked you to teach your neighbor, to keep warm, to feel good, he had said. Funny, you thought, this is not feeling good.
That scene jars you, makes you stand up straight and turn  to look at the surf in the distance. How often did you hear natives tell you never to turn your back at the Ocean? 
You have known all along what it did to you, decades later, you in charge of protecting  young girls in the play yard, keeping warm under heavy coats, huddled like you and your friends decades before. You commandeered the scene:
“Girls, it’s too cold to be waiting for your parents out here.  Go to the cafeteria.”
“We are doing nothing wrong.”
“I want you to stay warm.  Go, go.”
You had a flash of recognition in those words, “We are doing nothing wrong.”
That’s exactly what your friends said to the teacher when she came over to check on you, seeing you with an old man in your midst, all cuddled up with heavy coats.  The teacher sent the old man away.  You all said, “We're doing nothing wrong.”
You rein in that memory, the stains of grape jam still haunting you today.
Picking up agates you find yourself transformed, living all your ages at once, the girl and the woman at the same time.
Some things should be washed over like sand castles, or buried like agates.
They say nothing is ever lost, only transformed.

(C) rosaria williams

Friday, February 11, 2011

my generation

You stacked stones with muscles and broad shoulders
until they buried you at forty-five
forgotten in some pauper's grave
your name never etched on marble domes
but your hopes spared new generations the same fate.

We packaged your promise in a bright package
and called it our birthright 
every new promise, a calling card
used for trading your denims and your cars
for cheap packages from  abroad 
rethreads, things called happy toys.

(C) rosaria williams
Febr. 2011

Thursday, February 10, 2011

The Substitute-Part Two


I told Evelyn we could leave school as soon as the the sign-out sheets came out and the students left campus. It was too dangerous to hang around in this part of town after work.
I stated something else, with great conviction. "I stopped taking work home long ago. I'm not assigning homework either."
  “I have a had a hard time correcting all the essays I assign. Usually, I fall asleep with papers still in my hands. My  husband comes to be way after I do. He can’t understand how tire I get from teaching.”
  NO, I wanted to say, don’t get into that habit.  Nothing good comes out of that. I had a lifetime of experiences I could pass down to this young wife and mother. I wasn’t sure it was my role. 
She asked me about the police alerts, the gang presence, the graffiti on books, walls, blackboards.
I told her that graffiti were misunderstood. They were revelations in scripts, small acts of courage that looked like accidents, appearing here and there.  It took time for patterns to appear all over the city, in big bold lettering, pachucos, low-rider cars, religious symbols,  mixtures of anger, pride . old mythology. 
Diego Rivera did not know what he was starting.  I was not ashamed to tell her about my background, my childhood. 
          "I remember how it was when I was a kid in this neighborhood, when Anthony Quinn and I went to school here, had first communion at the same church, before freeway overheads crisscrossed and divided our neighborhoods, creating invisible walls.   Then, street names were not synonymous with gang names."
I had not told anybody else that I had grown up in East L.A.
          “Does he support this school?” Evelyn’s question startled me.  People expect that, I guess. 
          “Nobody wants to remember this place. I am ready to get a quiet place with a flowing stream where I can go back to my paintbrushes." I wanted to leave L. A., find adventure.      
 “Gina, the history I see here is like a dragon breathing violent air.”
 “You’re just what they need here.  Just slow down homework.”
“Look, don’t expect to follow the standard curriculum.  These kids are not prepared.  Homework is frustrating.
“It makes no sense.”
“Well, you fail them, and they’ll take that as racism.”
“Gina, homework reinforces what they learn in school.”
“We draw. If I gave homework I would have more frustrating situations.  Thank God I have an aide; she does everything.” 
“How can I get an aide?”
“Tell the counselors.”
“What about manuals? I have no Teacher's Manual. ”
“I have not seen manuals for years.”
“I just want to do a decent job; I’m hoping for a permanent position.”
“Good luck. We have fought with the district to get regular contracts for years.  They save by keeping substitutes." 
“Gina, how did you end up so far from your neighborhood?”
" It's part of a court order to integrate the schools. My folks are buried in the cemetery up the street.”
“Before Chicanos , there were Jews and Italians and Irish and the rest of the world living on these hills, and buried in the cemeteries.  After elementary, we attended Garfield or Roosevelt.  There, we pledged allegiance to our hood.  These changes are incubating all over L.A.  You can see them on every face, on every graffiti wall.  These young twelve and thirteen year old are recruited, socialized and kept in line at school.  By the time they go to high school, they have chosen their group and the group had chosen them. Their street might be their gang name.  Students wear T shirts with names of dead relatives and the image of the Virgin of Guadalupe. They look at killing and being killed as a way of life. They call this La Vida Loca.”

By Halloween, as she reviewed the organization of various pages in the Yearbook she was producing, before she approved and send it to the printer, Evelyn noticed that some pictures had been scratched.She confronted the Yearbook staff:
“Who did this?  Why did these pictures get all scratched up?”
“Miss, these people are no longer here. They are not liked.”
“What?  Who?”
“Well, those  kids left our school.”
“That’s not what you were telling me.  You said they are not liked.”
“Those boys were from Evergreen.  They’re gone.  That’s all.”
 She went to the counselor and was told  not to take herself too seriously.
I wanted to warn her that these things happened often. Instead, I asked if she spoke any Spanish.
 “Yes. My husband's family is from Cuba."
“Well, just let them think you are too.”
“I am just here to teach.  Kids are the same everywhere.”
“You’re wrong. These kids are not Anglos, nor Mexicans; they are Chicanos. They will accept you more if they think you are Latina.”
Evelyn smiled, returning to the conversation she had with the counselor.
“We have two thousand students here.  We do not have enough desks if everyone shows up.  Have you known them all to be in class at the same time?  They go back to Mexico during the holidays and never come back.  We drop them.”
I told her we were the most crowded school in East L.A.
“I saw somebody’s picture on a T shirt, a recuerdo." 
“We hear  Maravilla is busting Arizona  Gang,  drugs.Kids disappear.”

On the way home, I took a  detour  to show her the murals on
Brooklyn Avenue
,  Madonnas, mariachi’s, campesinos, bright and supersized, dwarfing everything around them.
“This is like a foreign land!” Evelyn was overwhelmed.

 I should have told her about the drive-by shootings and the locked downs. But I just added:
“These pictures appear all over this area.  Now though, they are on big murals for everybody to see as they rush by.  If you take time to study them you recognize the hopes and concerns of these people.”
“Why so much violence?  What are they angry about?”
“I guess you have not kept up with the problems of the campesinos ?”
“Campesinos?  Who are they?”

Before Christmas, Evelyn got a notice that she was getting an assistant.  The administration had received federal grants to test students and develop  appropriate  bilingual programs for them.
 She told me her graduate work was in second language acquisition.
 “Go tell the administration”, I said.  “They could use an expert.”
 She confessed that she was hoping to get an assignment closer to her house.  Then, all her credentials could be revealed.
 It made sense, I guessed.
 “We’re drowning, mortgage payments and child care.  My husband and I hardly see each other.  I need a permanent position close to home.”
 “Things have a way...”
“Yeah, like this weather! We’d planned a visit to the snow; not with this warm spell; we have to do something else for Christmas!”

I called her during the holidays.  I wanted to meet the children and give them something. I had decided that the little girl would love my international doll collection. I treated them to lunch at McDonald.
Evelyn had some news of her own: “I mentioned  to my husband that we could save money if the kids could get themselves to and from school.  He said he trusted that the kids could get home on their own.  He did at their age.  And he could work longer hours and not have to rush home most days. Brianna  doesn’t like to watch Jimmy, but I promised her that she can take a dance class at the park at the same time as  Jimmy’s soccer practice on Fridays.  Steve has volunteered to be assistant coach.  It’s just one day a week. And we might be able to get a television. Brianna thinks that’s  better than snow.”
She beamed.  The kids looked smaller than I had imagined.  This must not be easy for Evelyn, I thought, trusting that the children get in and out of the house on their own, every day.  Something else to worry about.  Another precise dance.

Our school hired new aides after the holidays. Evelyn mentioned that Eduardo was getting along fine with the kids, talked to them about  the land of their ancestors, Azatlan, and then confessed that she did not know that Mexico had included California, Arizona, and most of the southwest.
After a week, Eduardo asked for a change of assignment and Evelyn was flustered.  
“He said he is not utilized properly.I want him to wait until I'm finished with the lesson, so students continue to pay attention.”
I recommended she talk to Yolanda.  So, after school, we both went to see the vice-principal, my best friend from college, Yolanda Gonzalez, who was supervising students. Evelyn got right to the problem.
“He's is a bit too eager to help.  Does anyone train the aides?”
“We used to.
“Well, I would love to talk to you at length on how to train for best practices.  Meanwhile, I need  Eduardo to know that I want him back if he's willing to go through the training.
“You’re in charge.”
“I'm trained in second language acquisition. I want all aides to be trained."

That evening, Evelyn called me at home after supper. I thought one of her children was ill, and she wasn't able to drive the next day. 
“I got a call from the dispatch. The school released me.  I no longer have the job.”
“Why?  What did they say?”
“Just that,  a phone message.”
She hung up before I could say anything. She hadn’t even finished one semester.
          When my husband Mark came home, worn out after a long court session, and settled in to catch the late news, I was dying to share Evelyn's story with him.Before I could join him, he had already fallen asleep. I woke him to go to bed and reminded him about the medical tests he was having the next day. I told him I'd get a sub and go with him. I called my friend Yolanda at home.
          “Yolanda, Mark is having some tests tomorrow. I need a sub, but..." 
          “Is he o.k.?”
          “Just tests.  I want Evelyn Castro.  I understand she was released.”
          “You know that after so many days…’’

          “She told me. I still want to request her.”
          “We can request her  after a few days.”
          “I don’t think so. She'll take another assignment and we will lose a good one."
          “ Look, I can’t make the assignment directly.  The procedure is…”
          “Yolanda. We don’t want to lose her. She is the expert we need at that place."
          “O.K tell her to cover for you.  I’ll straighten this out.”
          “Thanks Yolanda.”
          “I hardly see you, even though we are at the same place everyday.  What’s wrong with Mark?
          “Nothing.  Well, just some discomforts. I’ll call you tomorrow. Bye.”
          It was late. But I called Evelyn.
          “Evelyn, I was wondering if you could substitute for the rest of the week.  My husband is going in for some tests and I want to be with him and take care of other stuff.”
          “I think so. Is he O.K.?”
          “Oh. Routine stuff.  Don’t worry about the class.  My aide runs the show." 
Mark did have some tests and I went with him.   Something I had not really planned, but was happy to do.  Later, Yolanda called to check on Mark and told me she had figured out a way to keep Evelyn working.  

A couple of weeks later, Mark suffered a massive heart attack and was rushed to the hospital. I took a taxi from work and left a message for Evelyn. 
        She met me at the hospital a few hours later. I do not remember when they came to tell me that Mark never pulled through.When they finally let me see him, I did not recognize him. 
 Evelyn drove me home. The next morning, she was there at sixtyforty.
          I don’t know how everything got arranged, but she helped me with all the arrangements. I saw people I had not seen in decades.    
Three weeks later, I still could not return to work. It dawned on me that I was totally alone. The dreams we had made, Mark’s and mine, had no meaning any more.  I just remember how in the middle of something, I would start calling him to come and help me with a task, as though he was still in the next room, watching television.  
Evelyn stopped in every day and brought food. I pretended to be interested; but I was just content to stay home now, get reacquainted with soap operas. Besides, I had months of sick leave I could use. And I was happy Evelyn could fill in for me. 
          I applied for early retirement and put my house for sale.
          She helped me sort things out, and pack for a trip to Europe the way Mark and I had planned.  I moved, hundreds of miles away, on the Oregon coast, planning to travel to all the places Mark and I had intended to go.

That was a year ago. An article about a school shooting happened to appear at the studio.  I had been so busy creating my new life that I had not given a thought to the life I had left behind. The school shooting had occurred at lunch time in the quad of a High School, between two rival groups. Two teachers and fifty students were killed.Suddenly, I wanted to reconnect with Evelyn, find out how things were going with her and her family. I tried to call them at the old number. No luck. For a few months our lives had crossed, making us family. Death has a way of reminding us of what's important. 

(C) rosaria williams
February, 2011