Born with a Grimace
When people ask me how I became a teacher, I tell them my career literally crashed into me. I was twenty-six and had been in New Mexico for barely two years, and married for less than twelve months. Everything seemed fresh to me--my beautiful wife, Lala, the pale blue southwestern sky, even the crusty enchilada casserole I served waiting tables in the evenings. After leaving a hectic advertising job in New York City, my life seemed as simple as an inmate's wardrobe choices. Then, one day, I was visiting a friend who worked part time at a local hippie school. While we were talking, a boy tore around a corner and ran straight into my groinage. I doubled over while he hit the deck headfirst. Just as I'd always done with my younger brothers, I picked the kid up, brushed him off, and sent him on his way. I didn't ask him how he was feeling about our collision, or if he needed to apologize to my bruised junk to create a sense of closure. We did no art therapy, aromatherapy, or Real Boys sharing out. The head of the school had been watching from her window and liked my simple, direct approach, which my friend translated later into We desperately need a goddamn man around here. Even though I was waiting tables at night, I thought being a teacher might be fun. I imagined a lot of picking up, brushing off, and sending kids off to play in the fields of the bored. Obviously, as any teacher sober or otherwise would tell you, I didn't know shit.
And, as I learned later, if you teach in a private school, you don't have to. Private schools don't require a certain number of degrees or multitiered levels of certification the way the public schools do, which was perfect for an uncertified guy like me. I was assigned to be an assistant first-grade teacher in this alternative school on the southeast side of town. Classes were held in a series of ramshackle adobe buildings with low ceilings adjacent to a moldy greenhouse and a hardscrabble playground. Like any hippie school worth its patchouli, we offered circle time and a rabbit named Loveheart, and instead of saying grace, we sang about the earth being a harbor, a garden, and a holy place, which covered the mariners, horticulturists, and zealots among us. Even though the school was founded on pursuing kindness and peace, many of our students had felony-with-training-wheels behavior patterns that had barred them from attending the local public elementaries. Since this was my first teaching gig after a short career in the backbiting business some call advertising, I was eager to help these little critters learn to read and write and do the kind of simple math even the actors from Saved by the Bell could master. I imagined myself sitting next to a girl in pigtails, helping her sound out Dick and Jane books. In this hippie haven, I never saw the Janes, though, and dealt mostly with the dicks. While Carly*, the head teacher, was leading counting games using rods made from recycled organic materials, I was escorting Jack, a local ambulance chaser's son, to the bathroom to flush the giant turd he'd left for his classmates to view, and then rinse out the liquid soap he had kindly poured into all our drinking cups. Other days, I would try to coax a walrus-toothed kid named Elijah Muhammad into joining our circle instead of scowling at us from his scrotum-like throne on our only beanbag chair. This little baseborn Bartleby, however, preferred to do nothing most days but construct elaborate forts in thornbushes, swear under his incisor, and pendulate exclusively on the middle swing outside.
The freakiest student we had by far was a nine-year-old girl named Ray who was born to a crack addict mother and immediately adopted by a man whose love for elaborate drapes and exotic sea salts made it apparent that he was probably playing for the wrong team. Today we would bandy about famous names for Ray's tangled and moist web of issues--Tourette's, Asperger's, Kanner's--but back then everyone just called this oddity with the short and uneven bangs "that girl."
At one of our first circle times that year, all the six- and seven-year-olds were gathered near the turquoise-tiled fireplace sharing their fear of fascism and wishes for renewable energy resources, but I couldn't help watching Ray because of her smorgasbord of twitches and tics. It was as if a violent video game had been implanted into her brain and her face was the exploding screen. Her eyes were never both open at the same time, and the side of her mouth always held a small balloon of air--ready to spit, whine, or bubble in some spasmodic sound effect. Maybe the other students were accustomed to Ray and kids like her, or they had their own inner twisted shit to contend with, but they basically ignored Ray until she jumped up and ran to the outside door screaming, "Watch out for the danger! Watch out for the danger!" Shaking her fist at the small glass window, she stamped her feet and then butted her head against the wood like a ram learning to count the hard way. Carly quietly asked me to handle it. I had absolutely no training dealing with crazies other than my three brothers, their sketchy friends, and the high-maintenance (read: bitchy) customers at the hotel restaurant where I worked at night. I didn't know what to do other than open the door and let this girl follow her batty-ass bliss. Once she caught a glimpse of daylight, Ray bolted out of there like a rabbit violated with a cattle prod. She scooted down the open stretch of dirt road in front of the school--legs and arms akimbo--like the scarecrow's love child in The Wizard of Oz. Since I was chasing her, I guess that made me Margaret Hamilton sans broom, which, given my naturally squinty eyes and the way I wore my hair at the time, is a pretty fair comparison.
"Who's in danger, Ray?" I asked when I caught up with her and my breath. She'd stopped at the edge of a steep arroyo, the bank thickly lined with juniper and chamisa bushes.
"The deer," she said plainly, but pointed to the sky, then twirled around three times.
"No, the mama and her babies." Ray's intonation seemed to suggest we had both been here before and I knew this family deerly. Her eyes spun around her head like she had bought them from a costume shop.
"Right," I said, rolling my own eyes.
Then she slipped down the elastic waistband of her pants and farted. "I have gases," she said, and shrugged.
"I can see that." I hung my head at my pathetic life. "Smell it too."
It became pretty clear that the bulk of my time would be spent escorting Ray, keeping her from running away to join an invisible family of elk or infringing on the other kids' low safety thresholds by screaming strange non sequiturs in their ears. Her little outbursts caused more than one girl to wet herself and aggravated the problems with Carly's already depleted immune system. Carly was the kind of mellow educator who prided herself on her ability to stay calm under all circumstances, and Ray's explosions put a dent in her goals and a bloody ulcer in her gut. As for me, each day with Ray started to feel more and more like the few disturbing times I'd dropped acid in college; here I was again, half a decade later, trying desperately not to let Ray become the Cheshire cat in my Go Ask Alice in Wonderland nightmare.
Even though Ray was at least two years older than the rest, she wasn't even close to first-grade level. She couldn't count past three, spell words other than her name, or articulate anything clearly except for this one phrase taken from The Great Mouse Detective, a video that her father admitted she'd watched more than a hundred times. Like a comedian who bases his or her act on general annoyance (read: Jeff Foxworthy), Ray found her catchphrase funnier every time she repeated it.
"Good morning, Ray." Carly would be on her knees, arms open wide, welcoming her student into our quiet and serene class environment.
"BYE-BYE, BASIL!" Ray would shout, doubling over in spittle-infused laughter.
"Would you like to color a petroglyph or push heirloom sand in the Zen garden?"
"BYE-BYE, BASIL!" She'd be flat on the floor by this time, gagging on her own giggles.
"Ray," Carly would whisper through clenched teeth, "it helps people when you react to what they are saying because . . ." She leaned closer, hoping to make an intimate connection to her lost sheep.
Carly would turn and call, "Rob?" which was my cue to drag the little one-hit hyena outside.
I don't know if it was Stockholm syndrome of the special ed variety, but all that time together established an oddly close relationship between my little Rain Girl and me. Even though I was completely exhausted and covered in various fluids and flakes of animal excrement by the end of the school day, we had still survived our own buddy movie, albeit a warped one. What made the situation even more like Dumb and Dumber was that shortly after I started teaching there, the hotel where I moonlighted demanded that I get my hair cut. I had prided myself on my long, rebellious Jesus mane and thought I'd done a good job slicking it back off my face with Vaseline, but the manager said I looked like I was sporting the helmet hairstyle of one of the Golden Girls. He put it plainly: I had to cut it or get another job. Pissed off, I stormed into Supercuts, closed my eyes, and had it all chopped off by a trainee who didn't know the sharp side from the dull on a pair of clippers. When I faced my new head in the mirror, I gasped. With my short bangs and uneven sides, I looked like an older, male version of Ray. On our decompression walks, with my new asylum hairdo, I'd often be mistaken for her father or older brother by the On Golden Pond neighbors strolling along that dirt road. When a stranger initially pegs you as a relative of someone you're not sure you even like, you feel a bit unnerved by being grouped so intimately together. If people do it all the time, you grow weary of explaining, especially given the complicated bond I shared with Ray, so I just gave in and nodded along with the gross misconceptions. I was now this crazy little girl's bitch, plain and simple.
About a month into my work at the school, I was huddled with two other teachers, Holly and Agnes, on the playground, all three of us sneaking coffee in Dixie cups since caffeine had been outlawed by a New Age board who rolled their own tampons. We were discussing how that little fucker Loveheart was crapping all over the place and some of the slower kids were snacking on the pellets, mistaking them for raisins. Ray galloped over with her hands cupped together in front of her. We hid the shots of java behind our backs as if she cared or would have even noticed. She stood before me like a little Oliver Twisted wanting more gruel from me, but instead of begging, she was making an offering.
"Here, Rob." She had practiced saying my name clearly, which made me feel rather proud. She pushed her hand cocoon forward so it was about an inch from my chest. I expected to see a shiny rock or a stinkbug, maybe, an insect whose name alone never failed to make her laugh, but when she unhinged her hands, all three adults recoiled in horror.
"Oh my God!" Holly, the younger teacher, dropped her forbidden coffee from behind her back as though her water had just broken. Agnes, who'd been at the school for over ten years, calmly stepped back.
Resting in Ray's white palm was a perfectly formed human turd. She had somehow managed to neatly shit into her own hand just for little ol' me.
Holly spoke to Ray sternly in rapid-fire commands: "Forthe-loveofJesusRay, you go put that in the toilet and flush it twice, then you wash your hands in hot water with soap twice also, and if you ever, ever . . ." Holly escorted my charge into the sagging building without touching her. I prayed that Jack hadn't left his Yule log in the toilet like he did every other day.
"I think she loves you," Agnes said, and winked.
"What every teacher must dream of," I said, running to the bushes to throw up.
The gifting happened on a Friday, and I felt dizzy that evening during my entire shift at the hotel. I dreamed all night of serving elaborate five-course meals, each dish offering a different type of exotic animal dung. On Saturday, I thought I would be a good husband and visit my wife at Trader Jack's flea market, next to the Santa Fe Opera. We had been married for about a year, and Lala had just launched her art business at what locals called "the flea" because it was a cheap place to tout her wares. After I hung out with Lala at her booth, I strolled the aisles, passing the toothless guy who sold unsterilized probes, hooks, scalers, and mirrors so you could do your own thrifty dental work at home. Next to him were the Rasta beekeepers in a narrow space adjacent to a traveling band of albino Gypsies whose children and dogs were impossible to tell apart. In those days, before the flea was taken back by the tribe who owns the land, before the FBI raided the stolen pre-Columbian art, before loaded firearms were outlawed, it was a fun place to hang out. Kind of like a carnival sideshow where you could buy stuff directly from the Bearded Lady, the Pinhead, and a gun-toting, pissed-off Tiny Tim.
On the last aisle there stood a bleak booth with a handmade banner that read "Learn About the Method!" Under the sign, a guy in a wool cap kicked the dirt, his hands shoved deep into his pockets. On a folding table, stacks of sun-bleached papers languished next to small plastic bags so cloudy I couldn't see what was in them. I felt hung over even though I'd had nothing to drink the night before. All this weird shit was happening to me, and I wasn't exactly sure what to do about it. I had left a lucrative job in advertising in New York because I thought Santa Fe would offer the kind of personal freedom I couldn't get in the tight gridlock of the East and thought I might have found a new and noble calling: teaching. Instead of freedom for myself and inspiration for others, however, I was a guy with a prison haircut who collected turds during the day and lousy tips at night. So much for my fancy education and fresh life plan.
From the Hardcover edition.
Excerpted from Tales from the Teachers' Lounge by Robert Wilder Copyright © 2007 by Robert Wilder. Excerpted by permission of Delta, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.