Friday, August 17, 2012

Over the River and into the Wilds

One day last spring I took a sub teaching job at a south Fresno school.  The bus took me only part of the way, and I ended up walking three miles into the country--green fields, clucking hens, ramshackle cattle sheds--following directions from the friendly school office manager, with whom I maintained cell phone contact.  She was an hysterically cheerful woman who brayed laughter when I told her I was walking. 

"Walking, hun?  Oh, fresh air! Fresh air! Ha! Ha! Haaaaaaaah! Just keep coming on down the road you're on and turn left just past the train tracks.  Don't go right or you'll end up at the middle school with all the hooligans!   I'll have some coffee ready for you! HAAAAAAHHH!"   I turned left after the tracks, just as she'd said, walked a another half mile looking about thinking, "I really am out in the country!  Look at all the evidence: barns, snarling dogs, billowing sheets hanging out to dry, barbed wire, ducks, a couple of horses, a hazy horizon, even a glimpse of the Sierra Nevada to the east.  And just a short while ago I was at the downtown bus stop looking up at the Holiday Inn bulking above the seedy, sinister casino watching a man on a fifth floor balcony perform Tai Chi in his underwear."

I'd had no sleep the night before in the Mission dormitory.   The fat slug next to me kept rolling over and smacking me on the chest while he emitted a horrid combination of snores, wet burbles, mutterings and groans. At one point he yelped "I'm not anybody's puppet!  I'm my own man!"  Glad to hear it.

At first look the little school had the appearance of an empty field surrounded by chain link onto which a few portable buildings and trailers had been airlifted and dropped.  It looked forlorn and scattered, like something a giant child might leave behind after playing with blocks and getting bored.   Closer, concrete walkways painted with strips to guide the kids appeared, along with a nicely standard playground--climbing structure and wood chips, basketball courts, a turfy, humpy athletic field. 

Finding my way to the office I shifted into silly simplification mode and reflected, It's all about lines.  Yes, that's all it takes to carve out a space in the urban jumble or the rural wilds for the sake of the kids and the Enlightenment: some straight lines laid down by the loyal maintenance crew, a bit of non-aggressive fencing,   some pointing arrows, some shallow furrows in the turf, a brief list of posted rules--and you've got a school.  Seriously, though, that's what I've always loved about elementary schools: once you've entered their mostly benign geometries (some administration offices have a trippy, disturbing Non-Euclidean aspect to them, depending on principal and staff), it doesn't matter where you are, boiling city or cold flat nowhere land, you're on  campus, in Kid Land, and the bulk of what goes on there (yes, we all know about violence and national education failure) is a scaled-down and believable utopian dream.  Even in south east Fresno.

This little school dropped down in the ragged country seemed an outpost at the edge of the wild, like something out of Joseph Conrad or early J.G. Ballard.  Then, instead of falling out of the sky,  its tacky temp structures, trailers, concrete walkways seemed to have sprouted whole from the ground like mushrooms after midnight,  here between awful, irredeemably doomed Fresno and the faint promise of open land still not gone forever in battered California. 

"Look, kiddies," I said to the chirpy third graders I had for the day. I was still sipping the coffee provided by the laughing lady.  "It's going to be a hot one today, so why don't we change the schedule a bit and have P.E. this morning instead of after science?"

"You shouldn't be drinking in front of little kids," one of the Hailies said.  It's a grade school law that if a class contains one Hailie (or Hailee or even HeyLee), it must contain at least one more, often three total. 

"I'm not drinking, you dingleberry.  I'm sipping coffee.  And you all have water bottles and Powerade."

"Dingleberry! Dingleberry!"  all the kids shouted, then giggled.

"Mrs. B says teachers shouldn't drink coffee or soda in front of kids.  And what's a dingleberry?"

"You are, and so is everyone else, me included, for doing this job, and living this life," I said, hoping to diffuse a discussion or argument. Or a trip to principal's office for me.  "You can all call each other dingleberries or wet smackers or boggy bompers or squiffy biffies and no one will be hurt or in trouble.  If you're good, I'll give you some other silly names that don't hurt and you can all call each other funny things.  Here's another: wonky bonky!" 

The kids tried out the names on each other.  "Write them down!" they pleaded. "Write them on the white board!"

"You're not supposed to call names," persisted Hailie.

"Yes, yes.   There are lots of things you shouldn't do.  Try very hard to be a bit more literal-minded, darling.  By the way, all of you are simply a scream to me with your rapper clothes and pouty looks and "Hannah Montana" backpacks and the glitter hair and so on.  Now let's get back on topic.  Who wants P.E. this morning after the spelling test?"

Some classes are more compulsive and protective regarding the posted daily schedule than others.  This one voted for hope and change.  A few kids whined but I quelled their objections by describing my P.E. proposal:  "We're going on a safari--that's like a Jungle Adventure you might have seen on the Disney Channel.  All sorts of dangerous and exotic animals.   Hmmm?"

I don't have the faintest damned idea what sort of act or persona works best with kids.  Today I was trying a patrician snob because I was tired and felt like a languid and dissipated scion of some obscure billionaire languishing in a New York high-rise apartment. Actually, I don't have any idea what that's like but it was my guiding star for now.

"I don't like it that you called me a dingleberry," said Hailie.

"Would you like to be my number one assistant on the safari, Hailie?" I asked.

"Oh, yeah!" She brightened right up.

"Okay, go find us two jump ropes.  Borrow them from someone, I'm sure you know where.  And no, we're not going to jump ropes.  It's something much better."  She skipped out.

"Teacher, where do you live?" asked Johnny, a miniature boy gangster in full street regalia.  "I saw you walking to school this morning.  Where your car, man?"

"I live beneath the roof of the sky, and tread upon the grassy earth, over hill and dale, companion of trees and animals.  Beholden to no man or human institution, I am as free as the unfettered autumn leaves." (Yes, and just this morning a felon with flames and big black spiders tattooed everywhere yelled at me to get out bed)

"But where your car?"

"Oxidizing somewhere, no doubt.  Now, study your words SILENTLY! for a few minutes, then we'll have the test, then the safari.  Ahh!  The ropes!" 

Hailie had just shoved through the door, trailing a couple of ropes with knocking wooden handles.

Outside I led the kids, most in school uniform--white shirts and some sort of blue underneath, navy skirts, blue slacks or jeans--out to the lumpy green athletic field.  It was difficult to find a place that wasn't muddy from watering or rain.

"Heads high! Shoulders back!  Watch your spacing!  Don't stamp, we don't want to attract the beasts or natives.  Chest out, eyes forward, but keep a sharp look out for snakes!"  I'd shifted into bluff, stiff upper-lipped and pith-helmeted explorer mode.   These were sharp, enthusiastic kids and most of them got into the whole jungle adventure thing.

"Sir!"  a girl named Brandy shouted.  "We're headed into Giant Black Widow Spider Swamp!"

Others chimed in with warnings about various beasts, mostly venomous, quicksand, cannibals and booby traps.  

After finding a relatively dry spot, I laid out the ropes,with Literal Hallie's help, in two parallel, slightly snaky lines.  Pointing at the space I'd just created on the turf between the two ropes I said,  "That is the most the most dangerous river in the world.  Absolutely lethal!  Death soup!  In that river are crocodiles, alligators--yes I know they live in different parts of the world but not in my river--sharks, angry hippos, stingrays, barracudas, killer octopuses, giant squids, electric eels, piranhas, poison stone fish, stinging jelly fish, giant lampreys, toxic leeches and many, many other deadly species not yet cataloged.  Plus the river is polluted and full of sewage."

"Some of those species are fresh water and some are salt water," said a scholarly kid named Jordan. 

"You should have told me about your scientific credentials before we started out," I said.  "I could have made you safari naturalist just like young Darwin on The Beagle. Now, here's how the game works.  You line up and take turns running and jumping over the river and each you all finish and are lined up again, Hallie and I make the river a bit wider.  Anyone who so much as touches the inside of the river with heel or toe is dead or injured and has to go the nurses station over there and sit down.  Finally we'll be down to one best jumper who's the winner.  Anyone played this game before?"

No one had.  Earlier they had told me they didn't get much P.E. time because the teachers were so busy preparing them for standardized state tests.  I got them lined up and started them running and jumping one at a time.  A couple of slugs deliberately stepped into the middle of the river to get out of the game.  One of these, a gangly girl named Sarah stood for a full ten seconds in the center of the river saying flatly, "Ow. Oh, ow.  I am being eaten.  I am being stung.  There is poison in me.  It hurts so bad. I am very sad.  Now I will go to the nurse and die here in the jungle.  Ow. Ow."

Beyond that the kids lit up with excitement.  This was something new.  I assumed this tossed-together school was an overflow measure of some sort, but there little taint of the dregs about these students, the dull-eyed signs of stressful home lives, hours watching horror porn videos after midnight with their piggy parents, meals of Mac and Cheese, Hot Cheetos and Coke.  They ran, leaped over the ever-widening river, cheering each other on and screeching when an alligator snapped, or jitterbugging when an electric eel slapped a bare leg.  

I couldn't help marveling again about what simple yet powerful things lines and borders and imagination can conjure in the middle of nowhere--all this laughing and yelling and straining and cries of "shark bite!" and "her heel touched the river!  An octopus grabbed her!"  "This is the best game in the whole world!  I want to play it again!"  (Actually, it's a pretty old chestnut) And most of the kids were seriously staining their uniforms, smearing them with grass and mud as they skidded and fell on the far side of the river.  When they stood up their palms looked coated with thick brown paint.
Yipping and yowling, several kids told me they never got to play any games.   "Be our teacher!  Be our teacher!  We hate ours!"   

"That's very nice," I said.  "Keep jumping."  I could get in trouble for this, I thought faintly, as I have many times as a substitute.  Oh well.

I'm fairly high-minded when it comes to educational standards, deplore dumbing-down and all that, am deeply suspicious of techno-solutions to the education crisis (computers can't do a damn thing for school kids--wake up, everybody), but still I was proud of this scene:  I had walked out of Fresno's expanding, creeping skid row, bused  into the country, strolled through the gates of this little school, demonstrated to staff with my identity badge that I wasn't dangerous, and created a jubilee of leaping joyful kids with a pair of lines in the grass beneath the open sky. 

Finally a stocky but locomotive-powerful boy named Giovanni, and Ally, a quick springy girl with pale skinny legs, faced off while the rest of the kids watched and shouted from the nurse's station.   The river was very wide now.  "The crocs and sharks are hungry!" I shouted.  Giovanni had been clearing the water through sheer pumping power;  he looked too big to make it but he'd cleared the danger again and again with brute pounding speed and piston thrust.  This jump was too much;  his booted heel landed squarely in the river. 

"Out!  Foot bitten off by a croc!" I yelled.   "Nurse's station."  Giovanni rumbled a bit, then shuffed off toward the other wounded.   "Ally!  come here!"   I put my hand on her shoulder.  "Last jump, girly girl.  Want to try it?  Or call it a tie?"

Her blue eyes darted about and she skittered on her pipe-thin legs like a colt.  "What do you mean, tie?  If I don't jump it won't be a tie, he'll still be ahead because he tried.  Tie?  I gotta jump, for crying out loud!"  

"Yes, yes--of course you're right.  Go to it, kiddo."  I was a bit surprised by her adamance and irritation.  She ran back to the starting line, set her face and tore toward the ropes.   When she leapt she gave out a high-pitched SQEEEEEEEE! somewhere between a scream and a bird cry and seemed to float above the river on an invisible seat, her arms thrust back, her legs dangling and kicking, her face flattened out . . . then she landed, skidding twirling in the flattened muddy grass and over a dozen feet somehow managed to dance her way upright.  

Cheers went up.  The uniformed and smeary  kids surrounded me, and Ally wrapped me in a hug, a man who sleeps in a homeless shelter and who'd entered this sancrosanct space of kids and lines as he did most days--with no idea what to expect and no clear plan aside from Just Try Whatever Works--wrapped me in a two-armed hug and said,  "Oh Mr. H!  Are you proud of me?"

"Yes, honey, I'm very proud of you."  And then, far out in the wild country,  I hugged her back. 

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