Observations from a Substitute Teacher

In spring of 2012, while living on a farm in Plant City, I took up subbing at the charter school my children were attending in Temple Terrace. I figured if I was going to be at the school all day, every day, I might as well get paid 62 cents an hour to be there. When the P.E. Coach got married and took a short honeymoon, I agreed to fill in for him and wrote down a few of my observations in a journal.

Lessons from a Substitute on the Sidelines:

  1. I am not as cool or as funny as I thought I was. Or maybe I am and you have to be 20 to get me. Or maybe you have to be at least 20 and sort of “off.” But probably I’m just not as funny or as cool as I thought. Lesson learned.
  2. Subbing is not as easy as I thought it would be. It should come with a massage. It doesn’t.
  3. Laundry does not do itself. Disappointing.
  4. Third graders are the perfect balance of skilled, intelligent, and innocent. All except one. And I had her sent away to a place where she’ll have to earn her shoes and a right to eat. That girl was a bad seed.
  5. I did not actually do #4. Wanting to is not a crime. Don’t call the county offices.
  6. First graders are really, really bad at P.E. They only know how to run willy nilly and that is not a sport. No matter how hard I’ve tried, I can’t make that a sport. It IS however what we mostly did.
  7. First graders definitely cannot play kickball. Do not attempt this. You will need a strong drink of something afterward. I went with Diet Mtn. Dew.
  8. Insane people cannot play kickball.
  9. I’m beginning to wonder if anyone can play kickball.
  10. . First graders cry during Duck Duck Goose. Always. Every time. Multiple people crying. Big, salty, why-does-the-world-hate-me tears. This surprised me. I made it through 3 rounds, each time. During those three rounds, all 20 tiny people clung to hope that they would be picked next. Next time, SURELY, it would be them. After three rounds, they all lost hope. And I couldn’t revive it even with systems and processes and blue prints and bar graphs and a whistle. From then on, it was ground-flop crying. Come on, man.
  11. . If, for some reason, a person wearing a woodchuck costume decides to walk the car line at the end of the day to promote school spirit, you can pretty much quit whatever it was you were trying to do on the field and just sit down. Even if there’s bleeding or vomiting or wads of cash, they won’t come back to you. It’s all Woodchuck at that point.

At one point, while still under the impression that I would be able to do something with these sad-sack, uncoordinated, uncooperative, depressed and hopeless first graders, I had them warming up against the fence. And I attempted to teach them a cheer. That sounded like an easy slam dunk. Everyone likes to cheer.

“I’m going to cheer something and then you are going to repeat it back to me,” I bellowed enthusiastically. “I’ll say ‘I’ve got skills (SKILZ), yes I do, I’ve got skilz, how ‘bout you?’ And then you will cheer back to me, ‘We’ve got skilz, yes we do, we’ve got skilz, how ‘bout you?! OK? Ready?”

They said they were ready. They nodded their heads enthusiastically. So I began.

“I’ve got skilz, yes I do, I’ve got skilz, how ‘bout you?” And then I pointed to them for them to say their part.

“YES!” They all yelled in unison.

“No, no, no,” I said. “Remember? When I finish my part, youare supposed to say it back to me? Repeat what I say. OK?” Again, they nodded.

“I’ve got skilz, yes I do, I’ve got skilz, how ‘bout you?” I pointed to them again, almost dislocating a shoulder in the enthusiasm of the moment.

“YES!” They all shouted again.

They did not have skilz.

Then the woodchuck came out.

You know the rest of the story.

But I got a paycheck for that mess, so it’s all good.

The White Rat

It was 10:32 on a Monday night In the spring of 1994 when I turned on the hot water in the hall bathroom tub. I turned the knob all the way to the left because I have skin like a Komodo dragon and I like my water hot.

Todd was in his music room with headphones on. The house was quiet. This was my spa time. I climbed into my lava water and tried to read for a few minutes. It only took two questionably written paragraphs to lull me into a coma. I laid my head back against the tile and closed my eyes. The buzzing of a florescent bulb and an occasional ripple in the water punctuated the silence, but not my peace.

At 10:43, my eyes popped open in shock at a sound that was as close to a murder at a county fair as I hope to ever hear again. I expected to see a Blair witch situation in the room with me, but nothing had visibly changed. I listened intently as I gripped the sides of the tub. It happened again and I was on my feet like a cat at a fish fry. What in the world? That time I was fully alert and knew exactly where the sound had originated. It was coming from inside the wall, 10 inches from my face.

I got out of that bathroom, into enough clothes to survive a Michigan winter, and into Todd’s music room in a minute 45. His face scrunched with confusion upon my panicked entrance.

“What area you doing?” he asked.

“There’s something in the walls,” I heaved.

“Huh?” he asked, removing his headphones.

“Something terrifying is living in our walls. I heard it in the bathroom. It sounds like the love child of a donkey and a wolf.”

Todd’s face registered raw bewilderment and he followed me into the bathroom where we heard nothing but daffodils and rainbows. Of course there’s never proof when you need it. But an hour later as we tried to go to sleep, I heard it again. We both did. Todd jumped up and turned on the light. But again, the creature was inside the wall. Light was no help.

At 8:01 the next morning, we called our pest control guy. We communicated our desperation. He’s told us we had a rat. He then told us to go buy a tray of DCON rat poison. He said one night of that would be all it would take and the rat would run out of the house and die.

Ok. Good plan.

We bought the DCON pack on our lunch break and stuck it just inside the utility closet door. On Wednesday morning, after a night of hearing the rattled spirits in the walls, we raced downstairs to see if the rat had eaten the poison. Sure enough. High five. It was empty. But that wasn’t the only thing the rat had eaten that night. The inside of the closet door was chewed up and out to the point that the rat had almost made it to the guest quarters of the house. And who’s to say he didn’t? What if he pulled an Ethan Hunt during the night and flattened out, spread eagle, and then slipped under the door? Good thing he’d be dead 12 hours from now.

I carried my relief with me that day like a pashmina. But that night I was forced to set my hope aside, because we heard him again. He was angry and clawing the insides of my wall with an unrelenting energy. Was this his manifesto? His 95 theses? I laid there awake for a long time, thinking about creative ways to destroy a rodent. The following morning I bought more poison and placed it in the closet on my lunch break . Second verse, same as the first.

He ate the poison. All of it. He did not die. Not at all. Nothing was dead. His limbs were all working. His voice was working. The only thing dying was my soul, little by little, night after night.

“I can’t take any more,” I announced to Todd before getting in bed Thursday night. “We have to move. Tomorrow.”

“Obviously we aren’t moving,” he answered. Why was that obvious? It was all we had left. “Just check the tray in the morning and surely this time, he’ll be dead.”

We laid in bed that night like wooden planks with googly eyes. Listening to our friend frolic in a townhouse we were making hefty payments on. Ridiculous. Maybe I will be the one to die, I thought. Or maybe I’m dead already. One of us has to die. Me or the rat. Tomorrow there would be a final showdown.

I woke up ready for a showdown, and tiptoed downstairs with a fly swatter. I stopped quietly at the door of the utility closet. Listening. When I didn’t hear anything, I opened the closet door and looked down at the poison tray. It had been disturbed, but not devoured. I tiptoed back up the stairs to get ready for the day and wondered if maybe I had just seen my first sign of progress.

Todd and I worked at the same company that year. He had a real job. I peeled labels off of floppy disks in the shipping department and made $5.25 an hour. I looked forward to lunches at home with Todd in front of Days of Our Lives. Don’t judge. I was young. And Carly was buried alive with a mic system in her casket. I had to know what was going to happen. When we walked in just before 1, I was greeted by a smell I wish I hadn’t recognized so easily. Death. In this particular case, it was a pungent welcome wagon. A fruit basket sent from long lost friends. It was Christmas. We were able to set the smell of death aside for our show (priorities) and spent commercial breaks looking for a carcass. There was the very real possibility that the fella had died in a section of wall we’d never have access to. But before I had time to again suggest moving, Todd uttered some sort of life changing exclamatory sound from inside the closet. Then he came out and shut the door behind him.

“I found him,” he said. “He’s dead alright.”

“And?” I asked. “What else?’ He looked like he’d seen Carly get up out of her casket, so I needed more details.

“He’s huge,” Todd replied. “I’m getting a shovel. Open the sliding glass doors.”

Now. I was very confused by this last statement, but I got the doors prepared while he went for the shovel. He went in with a flashlight in his teeth. There was a lot of knocking around in the closet behind the hot water heater. And then, they emerged. Todd, the shovel, and the largest white rat I have ever seen in even in national geographic articles of rat infested places. It was a foot long. Twelve inches. It almost didn’t fit in the shovel. Todd carried it out in front of him, holding the shovel as far from his body as he could. I was pressed up against the kitchen wall.

“What are you going to do with him?” I asked.

“Throwing him over the back fence,” he answered, as if it were the most natural thing in the world to heave a rat over a fence. OK, sure. Dead rat on conservation property. Circle of life. I followed Todd out because it isn’t a common thing to watch a rat get tossed like a javelin. Todd reared back, carefully keeping the rat level, and flung.

The rat went up.

Shooomp.

The rat did not come back down in the other side of the fence. Todd and I looked at each other.

“Whoops,” he said.

“Where’d he land?”

Todd pointed to the sycamore tree in the neighbor’s back yard. Our dead white rat with stiff legs in the position of a sky diver, was hovering on a branch next door over the Millers’ back deck. Hanging over their propane grill like a piñata. The gentlest nudge from gravity or a single puff of wind would be just the thing to bring that sucker down and liven up their 4th of July barbecue. We both stood there for a second, thinking through the impacts on karma, neighborly relations, property values. And Todd motioned toward the door.

“Go inside,” he whispered. We slid the door shut behind us and saw that Carly was still in her casket and Vivian was still threatening to actually kill her. “Maybe moving isn’t such a bad idea after all…”

Friendly Competition

It’s a sign of adulthood when you pull every muscle in your body painting the family room. So, clearly I’m an adult. But in so many ways, I’m operating on a 7th grade level. Fortunately for me, my friends are no better. I have a friend we used to call the Organizer. But it’s weird to call people by titles like that unless you’re in the mafia, which we aren’t. So we’ll just call her Matilda. Matilda and I have always competed. At everything. But it’s always friendly and all in good fun. And you never really know who’s going to win, because we are both insanely obsessed with victory. (At the end of the post, you can watch a YouTube clip where I was clearly not the winner.)

This morning was a little unusual in the sense that I had to stop by Todd’s office to deal with some documents. While standing around waiting for a page to print, I started throwing darts. I was just killing time, chucking darts at the board like bricks. It was more like a shot put contest. Matilda saw my form and in my form she saw an opportunity. She’s pretty good at darts. And again, she likes to win. So she piped up.

“I’ll play ya,” she said, with a game on tone to her voice. Well, duh.

“OK,” I said. “But I’ve never played an actual game of darts.”

“I’ll teach you as we go. We’ll play 501,” she said.

She sniffed fresh game. She was on the hunt. I went first. My first three throws were nothing special. I was mediocre with a technique that could get its own reality show. Matilda went next, throwing just enough better to worry me. We traded turns, whittling down our 501 and trying to be the first to 0.

When you get to the end, you have to be precise. If you are 20 points from 0, you have to get precisely 20 in your turn. She got down to 7. Bummer. That’s hard to do. I got down to 30. And in one fell swoop, I hummed up a beauty and it landed in 15. I hummed a second one and it landed in 15. 15 + 15 is 30. Booyah. Guess I don’t stink at darts even if I do look like I need a horse tranquilizer while I’m playing.

So Matilda did what any 40-something would do when they lose. She threw a tantrum and invited me to stop by tomorrow morning for a rematch.

Game on, sistah. Hope she practices. Sheesh.

https://youtu.be/TAmPHFweYHs

The Spanish Teacher with the French name

I taught middle school English for one year in 1995. One year is all it took to run me off. I was good at the subject but not at the kids. I enjoyed the kids but not stuffing poetry into the kids. Note confiscation was my area of expertise. Reading the notes during lunch break was my joy. Laughing at the contents of the notes and sharing them with the teacher friend next door–well, I should have been fired. 
Ironic, really. 
Because it hadn’t been so long since I’d been the one pushing the pen across the paper to create the masterpiece that got confiscated. Or almost confiscated, I should say. 

It’s funny what kids think they are getting away with. Every kid tries it and every kid thinks they’ve escaped notice. I certainly thought so. My sophomore year in high school led me to Spanish II under the tutelage of Josephine Bourgeois. I was immediately confused upon walking into the room, because her name was Bourgeois. She was the Spanish teacher with the French name. But she confirmed we were in the right place and launched straight into a language we remembered none of after a long summer break.

I knew from the first 6 minutes that I was in for a ride with this teacher. I wonder if she knew the same thing with me. We were made for each other. And she was smarter than I was willing to admit.

Mrs. Bourgeois was small enough to fit in my backpack and had a voice like loose gravel. I don’t know if she smoked. I don’t remember smelling it on her, but she sure sounded like the habit. Her eyes told stories and held secrets and I loved walking into that classroom every day. I walked in daily, trailing my chorus buddy, Cathy Thursby. We were a problem. We were a problem in chorus and a bigger problem in Spanish. Mrs. Bourgeois kept those eyes on us far more than we wanted. And though we didn’t get caught for everything we committed, I’m now convinced she just got worn out and let about half of it go.

As with my 3rd grade brush with the Citizenship police, my problem in Spanish was talking. Cathy and I loved to talk. Any topic would do, as we were not picky. But our favorite topic was other students and the teacher herself. She was funny. She said funny things in two languages. We liked responding to those funnies under our breath. In English. Or Pig Latin.

“Miss White!” She would call from the front of the classroom, so loud it would sometimes be followed by a cough. One would think that the frequency with which I got in trouble would take the edge off the fear, but I never got over the panic of hearing my name pop like an expletive. My name was always followed by a punitive statement. The most common of these was a seat move. There were 3 empty desks in that classroom that she used to shift her problem children around.

“Why don’t you grace this seat with su topetazo (that was my butt) and make this your desk from now on…” she would say, pointing to my new location. I always gathered my things with an air of shame and moved away, leaving my cohort behind. Soon into the year, I learned that Mrs. Bourgeois was a tad soft on her enforcement of “from now on.” The next day, I would return to my old desk in front of Cathy and no one would say a word about it. I fancied that she forgot. But as I’m solidly standing in middle age now, I’m certain she forgot nothing. She knew I snuck back to my roots. And she just let me do it, because she was a little bit awesome that way.

When Cathy and I weren’t having terribly conspicuous secret conversations about inappropriate gossip, we were writing those conversations down. Note writing was a religion in high school. We were very religious. One day, Mrs. Bourgeois was on fire about something, telling animated stories about pet squirrels that she raised to adulthood. I was amused enough to put some commentary into a note, along with a rather unflattering picture of this beloved teacher. I was putting the finishing touches on my picture in gloppy ball point ink when I heard that name again.

“MISS WHITE!” Oh, sweet Davy Crockett. Busted. I looked up from my sure downfall. “I think you’re working on something I’d like to see.” Oh goodness me. Oh no.

“No, Senora, I’m not,” I said politely, trying to throw some Spanish in for grace.

“Oh, I think you are,” she said again, smiling with every wrinkle in her face. “I know I want to see it. I think the class might want to see it too.” She paused and addressed the class. “Class? Would you like me to read what Miss White has been working on so diligently?” Well, of course they said yes. Every person in that room was rooting for a bloodbath. I was shaking my head no. This time, my confidence was gone. I was cornered. Miss Thursby couldn’t save me. Mrs. Bourgeois was sharpening her sword. It was over.

“OK, class she doesn’t seem to want to share her work today. So Miss White, you have two options. One is, pass the note and we have a class read-along. The other is, you eat it.”

“Eat it?” I asked. “Like, swallow it?” I asked, stalling.

“That’s the typical result of eating something,” she answered.

I looked at my picture. And my commentary. And back at her. There was only one viable option. I crumpled up the note, inwardly grieving that Miss Thursby would never see such a glorious and artistic display of wit and whimsy, and shoved it into my mouth.

“All the way in,” she said, enjoying the show. I pushed until the sharp corners poked past the roof of my mouth and I gagged, chewing as I went.

I chewed. And I chewed. And I chewed. I was drooling blue Bic like a dog on his deathbed. Mrs. Bourgeois crossed her arms and sighed with the satisfaction of a champion.

There were still 15 minutes left in that period. 15 minutes to eat note. Parts of the note disintegrated and made their way down to my stomach. Parts of it just stayed in my mouth until I could spit into a bathroom trashcan after the bell rang. But the words of that note hung deep in my consciousness for years. 30 years.

I hadn’t thought about it much until my brother called last week to tell me he had been reading the Tallahassee obituaries and Jo Bourgeois had passed this life on January 4. Never mind that my brother reads obituaries from other towns. That’s another post for another day. When he sent me the link, I sat down from what I was doing and read the life story of this woman that had the number of every student that walked through her door. This woman who could wield words like weapons but was as warm as a patch of sunlight on the June grass. This woman who literally made me eat my words. I felt a tinge of sadness. Followed by a surge of happiness. Which ended in my pulling out a piece of notebook paper and writing a quick note in blue ballpoint pen.

“Dear Mrs. Bourgeois,

Thank you. I’m sorry. Rest in peace, mi Maestra.

Love,

Miss White”

The thing about teachers

Good teachers teach. Great teachers transform.
~Queen Rania of Jordan

Teachers are the launching pad for every other career in the world. I don’t think I realized until recently how extraordinary that is. Every person goes through the third grade, and Civics, and Algebra I. I may never hire a lawyer (joke’s on you, I have a lawyer RIGHT NOW  in place to rescue an unnamed person from having points on their license). I may never cross paths with an actuary or use a massage therapist. But I’ve had teachers. Lots of them.

I was raised in the public schools in Tallahassee, Florida. If you add up the 13 years of primary/secondary/high and then 4 years of college, I found myself in the classrooms of roughly 60+ teachers. Of those 60+ teachers, I can remember the teachings, the voices, the mannerisms, and the quirks of maybe 20. Of those 20, I would say 10 were great. And of those 10, a very small handful changed my life.

It’s not a small thing to change a life.

Susan Upchurch was my 3rd grade teacher at Kate Sullivan Elementary. I loved her. She was young, blonde, single, and excited about her job. I sat at a black-topped, 2-person table with Gabe Whatshisname. Gabe was my friend. He was everybody’s friend. He was the kind of kid that showed up on picture day wearing his cub scout uniform. The most notable thing about my uniform wearing, friendly tablemate was that he was a talker. I was a friendly kid, too, and it would be rude not to speak when spoken to. So when Gabe spoke to me, I spoke back. That’s what you do. Gabe did what Gabe had to do. I did what I had to do. And Ms. Upchurch did what she had to do. Which was to give Gabe and me each an “N” in citizenship on our report cards for the first 9 weeks. An N in citizenship? I was a model citizen. A friendly citizen, even. A slightly social citizen.

N is the 14th letter of the alphabet, the third in the LMNO series, and necessary for spelling all kinds of really neat words like Nefarious and Nincompoop and Nap. But an N was not to be seen in any column of any report card of any person that lived in my house. For any reason. Ever.

My mother was livid. And when my mother got livid, she could be quite scary. I think Ms. Upchurch got an earful of why I didn’t deserve that N, why it was all Gabe’s fault, and where I would and would not be sitting in that classroom from then on.

I moved seats the very next day. I don’t remember who my new seatmate was. I do remember missing Gabe (what WAS his last name?) and his gregarious spirit. I also remember that I didn’t talk so much after that.

None of that impacted me in 3rd grade all that much. I continued to love the classroom, the kids, and the teacher.

But one day, I remember loving the work. That day is a full color, 8×10 glossy memory for me.
That day, from the front of that small, square room with the brown indoor/outdoor carpet, Ms. Upchurch opened a brand new door and stepped aside so we could catch a glimpse of a universe that was completely unfamiliar and 100% glorious to me. She taught us creative writing. I’d always been a reader, but had never given a thought to the authors that labored over the books I got lost in. But that day, following her lesson on creative writing, she gave an assignment. Write a story. Illustrate it if you want to, but not if you don’t.

Write a story. Wield words. Create. Mmm. Yes, please.

I did write a story. I think it was pretty dumb. So dumb my mother, who saved everything, who saved even my 3rd grade class picture, did not save it. But the story itself was not important. That lesson changed me. She changed me.

I walked up the street from the bus stop that afternoon, thinking about my story with every step. I thought about settings and characters and really dumb plot developments. When I walked through the back door of my house, my mom was in the kitchen. I hopped up onto the counter next to the kitchen sink while she poured me some Koolaid and asked me about my day.

“I know what I want to be when I grow up now,” I said. My mother looked over in surprise.

“Oh, yeah? What’s that?” she asked.

“I want to be a writer,” I said.

“Huh,” she said. “Alright then. You can.”

I don’t know what I expected her to say. I don’t know that anyone believed me entirely. And I’m sure everyone expected me to change my mind a few hundred times. But I didn’t. Not once. I never wavered. I took every lit class I could get my hands on. I got a degree in English with emphasis on Creative Writing. And I tried to find jobs that involved writing, even if it wasn’t writing fiction. Words were, and still are, my jam.

Ms. Upchurch unwittingly set me on a path I’m still tripping along today. If it hadn’t been her, would it have been someone else? Mr. Beurkley in 4th grade or Mrs. Turner in 5th? I don’t know. Maybe. Maybe not. All I know is, it was her. She set me there. She opened the gate. She lit the match.

I wish I had told her while I had the chance. She died of cancer many, many years ago, still a relatively young woman. I hope someone along the way told her that she was a game changer. A life transformer. A light.

I hope all teachers know this. I hope my kids’ teachers know this. And if I don’t tell them–if I get too busy, or preoccupied, or forgetful, or lazy, or timid–I hope they’ll somehow know. They need to know.

Ms. Upchurch is long gone from my life, but her light did not snuff out. Because she passed the flame to a weird little kid with hair like chewed up steel wool. That kid peeked into a universe she presented and tiptoed through the door with streaks of light trailing behind her.

Thank you, Susan Upchurch Wager, and all great teachers, everywhere.

The Failing at Life Club

I have a friend, who shall remain nameless, who is my equal in all the wrong ways. We are screw ups. Dimwits. Dunderheads. Oafs. Doltish.

You get the idea.

We are not usually stupid at the same time, which is helpful. Because if we were stupid in the same ways at the same times, we’d either be in prison or the hospital. We trade off stupidity.

For instance, one day we had decided to meet another friend at the new Chuy’s that had opened 20 minutes north of us. My nameless friend–ok, I have to name her–we’ll call her Sybil. It would be too confusing to continue discussing her as a nameless friend. So, Sybil was coming from work. I was coming from home. And our other friend was already close to Chuy’s and just wanted a 5 minutes heads up so she could go get us a table. As I entered the highway from the onramp near my house, I saw Sybil go zipping by. Well, look at that, I thought to myself. Us on the highway at the exact same time and place. What a good thing.

It was not a good thing.

I called her from the bluetooth in my car.

“Hey,” I said. “I’m directly behind you in traffic. Do you know where you’re going?” I can’t believe I even asked it. She never knows where she’s going. The fact that I had to ask her means that I was worse off than she was.

“I have Chuy’s plugged into my gps and it says we are about 17 minutes away,” she answered.

“OK,” I said. “I’ll follow you then.” 17 minutes seemed too soon, but she was so confident. I wasn’t thinking. Because sometimes I just don’t. And I followed Sybil. The first thing that seemed suspect was that we took an exit that was not what either of us thought we should take for Chuy’s. But we went with it, because it seemed a viable alternative route. Then we turned on a major road. Still workable. But the final turn was onto a street called something like Nantucket. It was a subdivision. With stucco houses and cul-de-sacs. We were going further and further into it. Sybil called me.

“What are the odds this is going to lead to Chuy’s?” she asked.

“I think 0%,” I replied. She pulled up in front of a house and came to a complete stop.

“It says we’re here.” she said. “I think we are in front of a house that belongs to a Mr. Chuy.”

We were late to lunch. Really late.

After hearing about some of this, Sybil’s daughter texted my daughter and said, “I think your mom and my mom should start a Failing at Life Club. But I don’t know who would be President.”

When she spilled soup and mayonnaise all over her car interior, she moved into first place. Her car smelled like the inside of a cow’s stomach for weeks.

When I ran out of gas AND ran my car battery dead, I had to spend 3 hours in the August heat while my teenage son attempted to rescue me. I got a text from Sybil that said, “Guess who just LEAPT into first place?”

We trade off. It’s fun if you aren’t into success.

Recently we both started following the blog posts of Sean Dietrich. He is the reason I got back to writing. Because of that, I thought I would just see what his speaking schedule for the year was and discovered he’d be in north Florida on January 10. I texted Sybil and asked how insane it would be to drive up for it. I expected her to say very insane and that would be that. Instead she took a day off work and said “I’m in.” This was a great idea.

Unfortunately no adults were along to supervise. No one with any gps skills. No one with good karma. Or good fortune.

We took off today about noon. I had a perfect plan laid out: (1) Drive to Tallahassee, (2) Check into a room, (3) Eat at Barnaby’s Family Inn (best pizza ever in the world), (4) Drive to Marianna with 2 minutes to spare.

It was all going so well that I began to get a little too leisurely with my time. We had an hour and 20 minute drive to Marianna and needed to be there by 7. We didn’t leave Barnaby’s until 5:35 and I took the scenic route.

We were somewhere between Quincy and Marianna when the skies blazoned a burnt sienna and the pine trees stood up proud and black against them. It was dramatic.

“Looks like the Lion King,” Sybil said.

“Yeah,” I agreed.

I was getting nervous about time. I had done everything obnoxious in my power to shave a couple of minutes off our time. The skies were a thick charcoal now and we were zipping along unfamiliar roads in a town neither of us knew. We passed a Po Folks in town, both lamenting that we hadn’t known there was still one Po Folks in America still serving food. This one had only the “olks” lit up on the sign but I bet you can still drink sodas from a mason jar. Damage from Hurricane Michael was piled 2 stories high along the sides of residential streets in the form of debris and splintered trees. Even in the dark, we could see it. Soon we began to see signs for Chipola College. We’re here, I thought. We should make it just in time.

It was 6:58 when I whipped into a parking space and took off running for the Center for the Arts building. I was hoping Sybil was behind me but I wasn’t waiting for her. We ran into one building. Clearly not the center for the arts. Where are the people at this college? The Student Center looked like it had been boarded up since 2015. We ran across a courtyard into a neighboring building. Also not the Center for the Arts but there was a guy who looked official standing inside.

“Center for the Arts?” I asked.

“This is my first day on the job,” he shrugged. Of course it is, I thought, as I turned on my heel. We ran around another group of buildings to a building that was full of life and light. The Library. I didn’t see anyone reading or studying. There were two women inside. One was at the check out counter. The other was restocking bookshelves.I ran over to the check-out lady and whispered, “Center for the Arts?” In retrospect, it is very weird to ask for directions in broken german shepherd.

“Excuse me?” the lady asked.

“We are looking for the Center for the Arts,” I repeated in sentence form.

“You here for the program?” she asked in an accent so thick you could have spread it on toast.

“Yes, ma’am,” I replied.

“OK,” she said. “Where’s your car?” I pointed in the general direction, but we were nowhere near the car at this point. She started giving us driving directions and the whole thing got very bogged down. There were three different street names, a gym, a series of parking lots, and then the Center for the Arts.

“Ok, thank you,” I said. “Just to clarify…you think we should drive there? We shouldn’t walk it?”

“Oh, no no,” she said with emphasis. “Definitely drive.”

“Too far, too far,” the stocking librarian now chimed in agreement.

Sigh. We thanked them and took off running. Out the library door. Out into the dark, sparsely populated campus, toward the car. We cut through a field between buildings. I was in a full on sprint, but became aware that I was hunched over like I had a set of twins on my back. Sybil was running in high heeled boots and rolled her ankle right out of the gate. I left her in my hunchback dust. She was calling after me. I looked at my watch.

“It’s 7:12. Now we are REALLY late,” I mourned. We made it back to the car and tried to remember the strange combination of turns and streets and parkings lots. At precisely 7:20, we busted through the fancy glass doors of the Center for the Arts and ran past a lobby full of old people sitting on their walkers, not really milling or talking to each other. Why were there people sitting in the lobby when we were so late? I ran up to the box office window with my tickets displayed on my phone.

“Do we show these to you? We are so late!” I heaved, leaning over the counter.

“You’re fine. It hasn’t started yet,” one of the girls said. She had a call security look on her face.

“But it’s 7:20,” I said in disbelief.

“Eastern?” She said. Eastern. What’s she talking about?

Oh. Eastern. We were now in central time, which apparently happened 30 minutes ago. My phone didn’t get the memo. Sybil was leaned over laughing hysterically. I was still in the middle of a really stupid conversation with the box office girl. We just drove from. Busted our butts. Eastern time. You know what? Never mind. Walking away.

So instead of being 20 minutes late, we were 40 minutes early. It was a win for punctuality, but a tie for the loss in the Failing at Life Club.

The event itself far exceeded my expectations. Sean Dietrich was funny, entertaining, interesting, and had a voice I would gladly let sing me into heaven.

After the show, we waited in line to get our books signed. Sean was friendly and warm to everyone in line to meet him, including us.

He talked to me about writing, about self publishing. He told me to email him and he’d offer what he could. When I mentioned we had driven 5.5 hours for his show, his eyes got huge, he ran over to his book table and grabbed one of every book except the one I was holding and returned, signing them all.

When I busted into the auditorium tonight, I wanted a good experience. A show. When I walked out of building, I had been given an amazing experience, 6 free books, a hug, a couple of selfies where I am still inexplicably hunched over as I had been all evening, a little lesson on time zones for future travels, and two fistfuls of hope.

I want to write.

And as long as it’s not my turn to fail at life, maybe I’ll give it a shot.



The Siren Song of Salt Water

Now that I am well into my adult life–hateful people might even say my middle aged years–, I can look back on my childhood and identify the things and places and people who fused and molded my soul. These are who I am. I look at my children and wonder what it will be for them some day. Please don’t let it be Roblox or Fortnite. One thing’s for certain, it will not be for them what it was for me. Their childhood has been vastly different from mine.

For me, it’s chocolate sheet cake and softball and St. Teresa and flying over someone else’s ravine on a tire swing I shouldn’t have borrowed and church in a bad neighborhood and milkshakes on Wednesday nights and a neighborhood full of kids and fried fish and cheese grits and Mama and Florida State football games where we brought our own hot dogs and sodas wrapped in newspaper.

And water skiing.

There was so much about growing up at St. Teresa that I loved. This kind of childhood almost requires a quiet reverence when I tiptoe through the memories. It was sacred. Author Diane Roberts described St. Teresa as an “unglamorous colony of old cottages, named for Teresa Hopkins, granddaughter of Florida’s last territorial governor.” Unglamorous. Yep. Colony. Absolutely. And sacred. I think that was the Saint in St. Teresa.

There were only ever two places I slept when I was at the beach: the porch bed and my bed. My bed was in a room with my grandmother, up against the front wall that had a window out to the screen porch. That window was always open unless it stormed and the rain was blowing in from the fury. There were some strange little nautical curtains that hung throughout that cottage and I would memorize the ship types and titles when I was either waking up or drifting off. I was wishing I had a snippet of the fabric just now and did a google search on “vintage nautical ships fabric.” A full bolt of it arrives next Tuesday. Thanks, Internet.

No matter where I chose to sleep the night before, the waking up was always the same. My eyes popped open, coaxed by the sound of the gulf, the smell of the salt, and the thought of a new day’s endless escapades. Once I realized that I was at the beach and it was morning, I always sat straight up with a little surge of excitement and looked out to the water.

What mood was the water in today? Was it overcast and choppy, forecasting a day of body surfing or playing in the creek? Or was it…glass?

If it was glass, we were going skiing. I was always in the mood to ski, whether the water was or not. Sometimes we overrode the mood of the water, skiing in waves designed more for chewing us up and spitting us out. And sometimes my dad managed to talk us out of our begging, when the weather wasn’t even close to right. But more often than not, we got what we begged for, because the truth was that Dad wanted to go, too.

A boat was always anchored in the water, just out front of our little piece of the beach. We were bargain boat people. We never once bought a boat new. Where’s the adventure in that? Our motors were usually about a 75 or 80 hp. Evinrude 150s would go zipping by us sometimes, showing off, but we did just fine with our boats, switching them out when the current one died or sank in a storm. I have a whole trough of stories about this topic. I’m not sure I want to slog through the trauma. Perhaps another day.

One summer when my brother was 10 and I was 8, my dad decided it was time we learned to water ski. Actually, I think he decided it was time for my brother to learn. But I couldn’t watch the success of that whole shebang and not invite myself to the party. So we both learned the same day. I remember a lot of the advice we were given: bend slightly at the elbows and knees, do not lean back or stand straight up, do not let go of the rope until you’ve lost a ski or consciousness, thumbs up to go faster, thumbs down to go slower, and hang on tight. I remember seeing my dad at the wheel. I remember seeing my brother in the boat cheering me on. I remember the roar of the motor as my dad gunned it to get me up on those skis. And then, my memory flips to a feeling of abject terror as I realized I was trying to slide around on little slabs of varnished wood atop some very deep water where sharks eat people whole.
Then I fell.
Hard.
I did let go of the rope. With my legs dangling for the sharks, I leaned back on the buoyancy of my life jacket and fished around for my skis that had gone flying. I did not like the falling process. Whose idea was this?

My dad circled back around to bring me the ski rope again. He told me I had stood up too fast. Let the boat pull you up, he said. Get a 150, I said back. I didn’t really. That’s just the kind of sassy stuff I say now. Precisely why I worry about what my kids will think as they look back on their lives.

When the boat roared into life the second time, pulling me behind it, I sat back against those skis and waited. Five seconds later, I was up and gliding along a smooth, slick sheet of the kindest, most welcoming water I’ve ever known. I made a friend that day in the gulf. I discovered a freedom in water skiing that I have rarely experienced anywhere else. Snow skiing is similar, but I’m so bad on snow skis. It’s hard to feel free when you are constantly worrying about death.

I haven’t skied in 15 years. And the last time I did, it wasn’t on the gulf. It was in a lake. With lots of people watching. Behind a Johnson 225. Did you get that? It was a 225 horse power. The power of 225 horses were trying to pull a 30-something out of the water. It was practically a space shuttle. I was trying to get up on one ski because that’s how I skied after I got better at the sport. And I got up by dragging my left foot in the water, while my right foot anchored the ski. Right leg did the work. Left leg tagged along until just the right moment. When I was good and up, I would slide my left foot into the back pocket and off we would go. That’s how we did it. That’s how I was trying to do it behind the Johnson 225.

That day on the lake, my normal process wasn’t working for me. I fell 8 times trying to make this happen for myself. 8 inglorious, dramatic faceplants. In front of a large Labor Day audience. With a boat driver I didn’t know very well. When I was beyond frustrated and ready to give it up as “too old and out of shape,” the boat driver circled around and leaned over the side of the boat to me.

“Put your left foot in the ski now. Let me pull you up with both feet in,” he said.

“That’s not how I ever did it,” I argued. “I always dragged my other foot.”

“Just trust me,” he persuaded. “Do it my way one time.”

I shrugged. Fair enough. We’ll do it his way.

With a nod from me, he gunned that Johnson 225 with me attached to that ski in two places. I was launched so fast I was reporting on future events before we got back to the shore. I wish we had done that 8 near-death-experiences ago.

So that’s what a 225 feels like.

Don’t tell my dad.