Friday, July 6, 2012

October Lights

I've been thinking a lot about Halloween lately because of the recent death of Ray Bradbury.   Despite any objections about a strained or overly "poetic" style he might have employed, he was the best writer about Halloween and all things spooky, windy, bone-rattling, and autumn chilly.  In books like Dark Carnival, The October Country, Something Wicked This Way Comes, and The Illustrated Man, he turned Halloween into more than a night of masks, discount costumes, tricks and treats; he made it his own realm--a strange wild territory he conjured like the Mars he still owns--where the thrills and scares were composed of a rarer, more life-enhancing energy than the shock-porn of most horror fiction and films today.  His descriptions of that daily-darkening autumn country could change your sense of self, make you feel that your bones had a life of their own, force you to feel more alive by dealing in beautiful death.  When as a kid I read a Bradbury story like "The Jar" or saw its unforgettable adaptation on "Alfred Hitchcock Presents"--a man buys a mysterious jar from a carnival barker that contains what seems to be a pulpy tentacled horror and later contains something worse--I was deeply disconcerted, afraid, and the world seemed a vertiginous place, but I was somehow eager for more.

Halloween is my favorite time of year, and I love discussing it with schoolchildren.  However, in public classrooms you've always got to be careful about raising the topic of All Hallows Eve.  Plenty of religious-minded parents and teachers don't want their offspring and students cavorting with the Devil.  And there's always a kid on hand named Jerry wearing a T-shirt that looks at first glance like a "Coca Cola" add, lettering and all, but actually says "Christ is It!" that he got at Bible Camp who says, "Halloween is evil," in a flat, dead voice.  

If the room is already bedecked with skeletons, silhouettes of flying witches, and gauzy spider webs, you've got an all clear to use subjects like favorite monsters, costumes, candy, tricks, etc. as a sure-fire time filler or just an opportunity to get to know the kids better and occasionally hear a funny story or a kiddie tall-tale (a lie) about getting chased by a ghost or seeing "Bloody Mary" conjured up in the bathroom mirror by their cousin Jocko.  Few things are more fun than telling a story with a slow, repetitive build-up to a "Boo!" ending that you can actually shout at the kids, making them shriek and do the boogie dance (See Mark Twain's How to Tell A Story for his terrific rendition of a an old African American shocker (His performance would be seen as racist today, but check it out anyway,  and note his advice about how to time a climactic scare--preferably aimed at a girl who looks like a screamer). 

Sometimes teachers come right out and leave you a note along the lines of "No Halloween talk!"   Once, walking to a classroom with a young teacher who was going to guide me through her lesson plan for the day, I casually mentioned that I liked a Halloween mural  painted by several different kids and obviously school-approved because it was hanging in the hallway.  She stopped dead, turned, fixed me with glazed eyes and gritted out, "the Devil does not come into my classroom.  If other teachers want Satan in their rooms they have that free choice, but it doesn't happen in my room and never will.  I emphasize the harvest season.  We have pumpkins but don't carve them, and we have a scarecrow, but not an evil one.  Is that all perfectly clear?"

"A kindly scarecrow, eh?  But does he have a brain?" I asked brightly, pointing with index finger at my head.  Her eyes went weird, then weirder.

"Is it clear? she repeated.

"Yeah, sure," I replied.  "What church do you go to?"

She mumbled the name of some Assembly of Something or Other and we were off to a really bad start.   During an afternoon birthday party for one of the kids supplied by her visiting Granny, to get back at the life-denying, cold-hearted, Martinet/Harpy/Gorgon, whose room was an anal-retentive Skinner box festooned with Shocking Pink Post-Its all screaming versions of "Forbidden!" I kept referring to the fruit punch as "blood."  "Finish your blood, little ones!  It's the blood of the innocents--like you."

When I left the room at the end of the day, I tacked her scarecrow's finger to its strawy noggin and affixed one of her Post-Its to its hat: "The sum of the square roots of any two sides of an isosceles triangle is equal to the square root of the remaining side! Oh, joy, oh, rapture!" It's always a risk to do things like that, but I'm the kind of sub who likes to live on the edge.

I was almost angry at the Mission this last Halloween morning for making things too easy. After all, I thought, this place is a real haunted house, with moans, drafts, odd decaying odors masked by disinfectant, clanking chains and screeching gate hinges; the whole labyrinthine tomb inhabited by dimwit characters from the Monster Mash: skeletal meth-heads, implacable syringe-zombies, werewolves beholden to the med cycle instead of the lunar;  drifting wraiths scoured by the street of all personality and substance;  and all manner of slavering, fanged and rabid beasties tottering about on their hind legs; the blasphemous Black Mass chapel with its campy sound system and video-worship kiddie show stage where rangy, thuggish fiends calling themselves “Pastors” and obsessed, absolutely obsessed with the Hot Place, stride about showing off their pompadours, bandannas, and their bad anti-Darwin/ pro- Nazi motorcycle gang poetry; Lovecraftian creatures groping about in the showers with cilia and tentacles; and a new breed of Pale People who are planning, although they don't know it themselves,  to live in deep underground caverns, to turn white, pulpy, and blind and live in slithery darkness for a thousand years. And did I mention there are lots of people who are 7 feet tall  and have one eyebrow?

Much of this blog so far has focused on the jarring transition I frequently experience going from the Mission to the playground, but this was almost embarrassing, like awakening on Thanksgiving morning by a bunch of Disciples dressed as Heathen Scalping Redskins, caterwauling and wielding rubber tomahawks, then skipping off to the Pilgrim Playhouse to make trace-your-hand turkey art. 

That was months ago.  Back then, I could pretend the Mission, the street, the hordes of Fresno homeless wrapped in filthy blankets in doorways, were all elements of a farce staged for my benefit.  Oh, fun stuff still happens:  Last night in the dormitory someone kept screeching at irregular intervals after midnight, "Fire Phasers, Scotty!  I need more power!  Sperm! Sperm! Start flagellating!  Warp factor Nine!"  In this respect, the Mission never lets you down.  But now the summer heat is bringing the demons out, steaming off their skins, and their sinister writhing is worse than anything last winter brought shuddering in.

All my life when I've set my sights ahead, or felt my prospects brightening and vistas opening, it hasn't been things like the last day of school or summer vacation or Christmas and Baby New Year that turn the cosmic rheostat toward the brighter, the dawn.  Instead it's always been the drawing down dark of Autumn Country rolling into view, Sleepy Hollow just ahead, the ambiguous greenish-gold glow of the hilly land beyond the dark vault of the covered bridge that tugged at my spirits.  Now my sights are set again this year on October as the time to escape this godawful place.

I don't care if I never celebrate another Christmas or New Year.  I want out of here in more ways than one, more days of the week than is healthy.

Last Halloween I headed off that morning across the moonscape toward the day's bus ride and 1st grade sub job feeling jaunty and reckless.  The night before, adrift with a few extra dollars in pocket, I decided to buy a few props for a stunt I'd read about but never tried.  I bought some black construction paper at the teacher supply store, a selection of those little food coloring squeeze bottles, and the cheapest glass pie plate I could find and stuff into my backpack.  

When I checked my cell phone voice mail later before lights-out, I found a rushed, cheery message from the teacher, a woman I'd worked for before:  "I left out a bunch of Halloween xeroxes and coloring pages, a couple of videos, a bingo game and a jar of candy for prizes.  Bring in your own stuff or ideas.  I know you'll do fine!  Happy Halloween!  Oh, yeah, I've got a new girl, Tanisha, she cries a lot, can't be with the other kids, Mr. Garza will take her part of the day, call his room if she gives you too much trouble."

Well, then.  Okay.  Anything Goes . . .

On the bus I recalled a sad story my mother told me about something my father tried for Halloween early in my parents' marriage. Instead of giving out candy that year, he decided to invite the neighborhood kids in for hot apple cider and homemade donuts.  You already know how those lousy little late 50s-early 60s juvenile delinquents reacted.  "Your father was so disappointed!  He couldn't understand why those kids didn't appreciate his efforts."  If you tried a stunt like that today,  the kid's whole damn tribe would show up on your lawn with blow torches and chains.  

When I arrived at the classroom I remembered why I'd enjoyed working for this teacher before.  I'd been here at least 3 times but never met her in person.  Her classroom was pretty much empty, devoid of bright posters and props and elaborate "stations".  Still, it was somehow a bit grungy and cluttered, with broken pencils and crayons in coffee cans, and a filing system on her proper squarish wooden desk that involved stacking and shuffling.  She'd covered up the big white computerized SMART Board she was supposed to use with pieces of paper on which she could scribble.   Her student' desks snaked toward the back of the room in jagged rows, but they were rows, not groups.  Studies and experience show over and over that that the best classrooms are the ones where the teacher sits up front behind the desk and talks or reads, and the students sit facing her reading and writing, maybe sneaking in an occasional glance upward at the cursive alphabet cards or the Presidential portraits, but no one in the Education Guild ever listens.

She also had exactly what I needed--a rattling old overhead projector with a noisy fan and a scattering of colored dry erase markers.   An easy way to quiet an unruly class of any age, K-12, is to mark up an projector's glass surface with a multicolored drawing--any damn thing, lion, monkey, UFO, turn the lights out, switch on the projector bulb, let the kids see the wobbling picture on the streaky old screen for a moment, then spray it with the water bottle.  The lights swirl, the water globules form, the devouring blobs expand--red ones, blue ones, green ones, blending gobbling ones.   "LIFE!  WE HAVE CREATED LIFE!" you hiss, and you've got them, eyes glazed, faces slack.  

We did some real learning that day, practicing printing the alphabet, counting, reading sight words, but we got in plenty of kicks and giggles and shrieks.  I read them a couple of stories from some beat-up copies of "Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark," a popular set of books with remarkably gruesome details and drawings.  Some teachers have them, some don't.  

Tanisha, the problem child, turned out to be a non-problem, because she was a somnolent little mess who spent the day sniffling with her head down on her desk beneath the filthy pink hood of her puffy winter jacket.  I asked her to sit up a few times, take her hood off, etc.  She perked up for a spooky story or a coloring sheet, and snarled at me a couple of times when I asked her a question, but basically I had to file her away-- had to!  thirty other kids needed me!--thinking what I always do: "Why do grown-ups do this kind of thing?"  This from a shelter resident with broken glass and muddy gravel in his brain. 

At lunch time I cut out a few spooky black shapes--spiders, whispy ghosts--from the black paper I'd brought and affixed them to the overhead projector border.  In the middle of this crude frame I placed the pie plate, filled it with water, got the food color droppers lined up, then went out to bring the kids in from lunch.

In the darkened room the kids sat on the carpet in front of the projector in a huddled group.  "No touching, remember your space bubble," I muttered,  then switched on the flashlight beneath my chin.  I read aloud from a script I'd stitched together from Internet samples and my own head, a tale of competing witches and ghosts trying to create a magic brew for a Halloween contest.  I camped it up, cackling and HOOOOING and burbling . . . then switched on the overhead.  

Appropriate OOOOHHHS from the kids at the sight of the black shapes.  Then I started with the colors.  SOME GREEN BAT BLOOD!







I swirled the colors with a popsicle stick.  The witches and ghosts argued about the brew, a reckless cat tasted the vile stuff and turned into a winged monkey.

All the while beneath the delighted OOHs and AHHs I'd noticed Tanisha off to the side with her hood back on--some kids go hours without taking off their hoods and backpacks, no matter what you threaten.  She was pulling the sides of the hood forward so her face was mostly covered and shaking her head, making ragged ERRRRR! ERRRR! ERRRR! sounds.

Oh fantastic, I thought,  fabulous.  Is the breakdown here?   Is Mr. Garza going to walk in and see this travesty, this blasphemous unapproved display?

I stopped reading and swirling and stepped over to Tanisha.

"Tanish? Honey?  What's up?  Take off your hood for me.  Let's see you."

She shook her head and went Errrk!  Errrrrk!  ERRRRK! in a guttural croak.

What have I done?  Conjured an evil spirit?  A Demon?  Summoned a parasite within her guts?

She threw her hood back.  She looked past me at the colors still swirling, blackening as they blended, slowing, guttering, yellow, orange, green flashing their final appearances.   Drumming her heels on the carpet, she clapped her hands to her face, tears squeezing out from between fingers gripping her cheeks and shrieked, "It's beautiful!  I'm so glad!   I'm so glad I'm here!”  

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