The office phone chirped, but Simone got to the handset first. "Miss Heller's office. How may I help you?"
Between bites of her too-mayonnaisey tuna fish sandwich, Rebecca Heller glanced at the phone's LCD screen. From the special ringtone, programmed by one of her students, Rebecca knew it was an in-school call. The fading LCD displayed the caller's extension - of David Stroeman, the guidance counselor in the neighboring cubicle. Rebecca listened with pride as Simone continued, "Whom should I say is calling?"
Simone covered the mouthpiece, gestured with her thumb and mouthed, "It's Mr. Stroeman."
Rebecca one-minuted with an index finger and Simone, said, "Please wait a moment, Mr. Stroeman. She'll be right with you."
After Rebecca finished chewing and took a sip of Diet Coke, Simone handed her the handset. "Hello, Mr. Stroeman" ... "Okay, I'll ask them to quiet down" ... "No, I'm not going to tell them to leave ..."
If she could hear his voice, muffled though the translucent reinforced glass, she was sure the students could, too. She tried to keep calm: "They hate the cafeteria" ... "Well, you'd hate it, too" ... "Have you ever been down there?" ... "No, I won't throw them out and I'm not going to have this discussion right now" ... "Okay, fine. We'll talk about this some other time" ... then barely stopped herself from slamming the handset back onto its cradle.
Because of poor scheduling, especially oversubscribed science labs dovetailing with lunch, the cafeteria was overflowing during fifth period. Intrepid students who slipped out of the building and could not return through locked and guarded doors then skipped their afternoon classes. Others were written up for walking the halls or got into territorial fights in the urine-befouled stairwells. The library, a relative haven other periods, was filled with students who snuck in food and had to keep their activities from the watchful eyes of the always-suspicious librarian, Mrs. Brunion, who screamed and "dissed" them and then banned them for breaking her rules.
Rebecca sat back and thought about "her kids": Simone, who was so foul-mouthed and out-of-control two years before that the principal had threatened her with suspension; The math-loving Marlon, who had changed the rings - "I'm no fuckin' geek ... oh, sorry, Miss H"; Jacinth, who was almost expelled for fighting in tenth grade - but was only defending herself, Rebecca thought - and who was now passing all of her subjects; Reggie, who had a crush on Jacinth and was so obvious about it that Rebecca had to keep herself from bursting out laughing; and Kimberly, a foster-care senior who observed it all with detachment and a 17-year-old's sophistication, but who had survived years of turmoil and neglect being bounced around the foster- and group-home circuit.
Rebecca thought fuck David Stroeman! But she had to poker-face her anger. She knew how perceptive her kids were and how much of a role model she was to them. She also knew that Stroeman would probably march into her office after dismissal, after all the students had cleared out, after the other counselors and faculty hightailed it out of there to their split-level homes in the suburbs or outer boroughs. Rebecca pictured staff members fleeing Dodge City on snorting steeds, being chased and shot at by the sheriff's posse.
The last time, with a raincoat folded over one arm and carrying a monogrammed Lands' End attache in the other, Stroeman closed the door and quietly but forcefully berated her for having children "in our workspace" ... "especially during our lunchtime - it's the only quiet time we get around here." Rebecca had argued that he could just as well go down to the faculty lunchroom, where the secretaries and paras sat by themselves, where the guidance counselors ate at their table, where each group occupied its own table as if seating were assigned, and where bitching and complaining, and counting down the days to Friday, to the next vacation, to their retirement - to their death, she thought - was the norm.
During the last period of the day, Rebecca got her belongings together and walked into the main office. She asked a secretary to sign her out, a generally-accepted practice except when it was abused. Rebecca knew there were teachers who cut out every day, perhaps to go to a second job, or perhaps just to get out of the "over-utilized" building, where most classrooms were filled every period, and where the only place to spend non-teaching time was in a cramped, spirit-stifling department office or the equally depressing faculty room.
She heard the tone signaling the end of the period as she bolted down the back steps to the basketball courts that were converted into faculty parking when the staff demanded a safe area to park. Although municipal workers had always been urged to live in the city, many drove in from the suburbs in bumper-to-bumper traffic, only to suffer the indignity of circling the school, searching for a parking spot, with the start of first period approaching, and with the distinct possibility of having their cars vandalized during the day. Though the courts were used for parking only when school was in session, many students were incensed that, once again, the administration had ruled for the faculty and, thus, against them.
Rebecca slipped between tightly-packed rows of small sedans and minivans to get to the ten-year-old beige Toyota that her mother had gifted to her before she died. After reveling about beating breast cancer some years before, the Big-C came charging back with a vengeance. Mercifully, it was quick. Rebecca was left with the Japanese sedan, and with a bitter, irascible father: the emotionally-scarred Saul, an old man who had eased off from being abusive only because he did not have the energy anymore; a father for whom nothing Rebecca did or accomplished had any meaning or provided any joy: "You're still working in that goddam place?" ... "You're wasting your life on those shwartzes" ... "Waddya think ya gonna do for them?" ... and the best of all, the taunt "When the hell're'ya gonna find someone and settle down?" Joy was not in his vocabulary, contentment was not in his reach and the idea of a future for him or for his daughter never came to mind.
As always, Rebecca quickly locked the car door from inside. When she turned the key in the ignition, she was startled by a knock on her window. She looked up to see David Stroeman gesturing to lower it. He looked haggard in the graying afternoon light; his salt and pepper hair was no longer in place, having been buffeted by wind gusts that had animated shreds of paper and plastic bags dancing in its swirls.
Again, he flicked two fingers and mouthed, "Open up." Her immediate urge was to back over him three times, by accident - "He made me do it," the lyric from Chicago, slithered into her mind - but he looked so different from the imperious know-it-all who inhabited the adjoining cubicle..
She pressed the button to lower the window. "What d'ya want?" It sounded harsher than she had meant.
"Listen, Rebecca. I want to apologize. I've really been a jerk. It's just that ..." he swept his hand towards the white brick building ... "the damn place gets to me. Drives me crazy."
"Yeah, I've noticed." Rebecca was surprised that the malice she had intended with that comeback was tempered by the beginning of a smile.
"I know it gets to everyone ... and it's got to be getting to you, too. No one with compassion or feelings can survive for long in that emotional bedlam."
Rebecca shot back: "Whatever. I've gotta get going." Stroeman's parking lot insight struck a chord that she didn't want to hear. She wanted to get away. Rebecca reached for the button to raise the window.
As the window began to groan upwards, Stroeman said. "Wait! ... Wait a second! I was wondering if you'd like to ... uh ... maybe grab a cup of coffee." She stopped the rising window. "Jesus, Rebecca. I feel so awkward. I haven't done this in a long time."
Others school workers were squeezing between the narrow rows, and then prying themselves into their cars like arthritic gymnasts. The lot emptied as they eased their cars through the chain-link opening to the sidewalk, and then bounced out into the street.
She thought for a moment for a reason not to, but relented. "Yeah ... okay." Both hands were tapping the steering wheel, as if to placate it, as if to placate her own unsure self. "So, where to?"
"Over to the diner on Utica. Follow me. I'm the black Honda."
She watched "I'm-the-black-Honda" stride away. She knew that he would pass behind her and honk his presence.
When they got to the diner they parked side by side in the almost-empty parking lot. He held the door open for her as they stepped into the chrome and glass place. Rebecca stared at pastries in the glass display case until the host guided them past fake philodendra-filled planters to a booth next to a window.
A bus boy set out two paper mats and cutlery wrapped in a napkin. He left and then soon returned with a pair of diner-china white cups and saucers.
Almost immediately, a waiter approached them with menus. "Will you be 'aving somet'ing to drink?" he asked, in a thick Jamaican accent.
David answered, "Coffee, black" and motioned towards Rebecca, who replied, "Coffee, too, but with skim milk on the side." She liked her coffee light, but hated the tiny containers of half-and-half and the creamy aftertaste.
David continued, "I'd like an apple turnover. But could you warm it please? And not too hot?"
"And de lady?"
"How about a blueberry Danish?" Rebecca answered. "And make sure they're fresh, okay?" Damn, she thought. I sound just like my mother.
"Very good." The waiter finished scribbling on his pad, picked up the unopened menus and said, "I'll go get your coffee."
David took a breath and sighed. "First let me apologize to you."
"You already have."
The puzzled look on his face and his still wind-swept hair made her smile. "Back at the parking lot. Don't you remember?"
He thought for a moment. "When I walk out of that place, I try to leave it all behind. Like, there's a part of me that's there, and another part - a distinct and separate part - the real part, I hope - that is not."
Right then, when David looked at her, he saw Rebecca differently, as if he were in an enhanced realm, where he really saw her as a complete other living being and couldn't believe that he was there with her. A few seconds later, the extremely rare moment of ungraspable epiphanic perception was gone.
When Rebecca noticed him staring, she felt a hot rush of discomfort. She did not like being on display. "What?" she spat out, and then swept back several defiantly errant hairs.
"Oh, damn ..." How could I explain it? he wondered. "Sorry for gawking ... it's just a lousy habit I have."
The waiter returned with a coffee pot to fill their cups and a tiny glass of skim milk for Rebecca. "Turnover'll be right out."
David grimaced as he took his first sip while Rebecca poured the skim and stirred it in her cup. Then he blurted out, "It's just that, you're ... so much nicer looking here than back there."
Rebecca felt herself blushing, but David continued. "I remember when you walked into a meeting with a braid in your hair. What was it? A corn row?"
"No. Simone called it a 'micro braid.' It took her almost a whole period to do just that one."
Rebecca thought back to that day, several months before. Simone behind her, "weaving." He noticed ... and remembered?
" ... and I'm jealous," David continued. "Jealous that you have those kids of yours. Some of them were real trouble-makers, right?" He didn't wait for an answer. "It's amazing how you've turned them around."
"Some kids can be really good, if you give them a chance." Rebecca's pronouncement sounded right out of Ed-Psych 101 but David shrugged it off.
"You have your six kids or so, and that's great, really, but what I had back when I was teaching special ed was my dirty half dozen," he said. "Fact is, in front of you is a guy who's almost burnt out twice ... stage four on the burnout scale back then - I don't think I had actually acted against the kids - but now I feel like an ember. And, I hate to say it, I'm afraid."
Rebecca put down her cup, sadly shook her head, glanced outside - it was getting dark - and then looked back at him, as if asking for more.
"We had our own special ed unit back then. C.R.M.D - the E.M.R's ... now they have a MIS" - pronouncing it mizz - "designation. Who the hell knows the current nomenclature. At first, the kids were sweet. Dumb as dirt, but what would you expect? But they could read. They could do busy work. Then ... we started getting kids with real problems. Like Kenny, a sweet kid who couldn't read at all. Most of our students were at the third or fourth grade level and we used fill-in-the-blank workbooks and such. But that Kenny ... he couldn't read a goddam word. That was for starters.
"The main purpose of our four-class unit - I was the lead teacher - was getting them ready for - dum-de-dum - 'the employment world.' We had the juniors doing volunteer work one day a week at a hospital, and our seniors at a nursing home. The ninth graders spent a month at an agency downtown getting their 'taste of'work.' And we took lots of trips. Most of the kids would travel on their own and meet us at our destination, while one of us - we'd take turns - would stay behind and bring along the kids who were too afraid, or too inept, to travel alone on the subways. We certainly could never do it these days with all the restrictions and red tape."
David took another sip of coffee and continued. "Once we went to the World Trade Center where a P.A. guide took us on a tour and talked about jobs. Another time, it was a bottling plant in Queens. Then a factory near the B.Q.E. The bus depot in East New York. A warehouse near Kennedy. It was all good. We had a purpose. Travel training. Getting kids to get to places on their own."
"Wasn't it exhausting, going on all those trips?"
"Sure, but only for the teacher who had to travel with the kids from school. Meeting them there meant a couple of extra hours of sleep for us. And the kids were on their best behavior. They knew we would've beaten them to death otherwise."
Rebecca laughed and said, "It sounds like you were doing a lot of good."
"Yeah, we sure were. There was one summer - this was before the funding for youth employment dried up - when we got half our kids summer jobs. Some worked at the Botanic Gardens. Others at summer school programs, doing childcare, working in the cafeteria. They got money for clothes, whatever. Do you have any idea how many phone calls I had to make and how much nagging I did and how much work it took to get their working papers and their social security cards and their 'properly filled-out' applications put together and copied and submitted? It was really something. More than half our kids, Rebecca!"
She smiled up at him. Instead of the taciturn, gray man in the next cubicle, before her was someone who was animated, in full-color. Someone who actually cared. Or, anyway, did back then.
"The next summer, the shit hit the fan. Sorry ... pardon my French. There were only a couple of available slots. When I tried to get Harry Swinton's mother to sign the application, she refused. Said it would kill her benefits. Her SSI or SSD or whatever. Nothing we could say could change her mind. Somehow other parents heard about it and also didn't let their kids get jobs. Ended up, only a couple of kids took jobs. It was the damnedest thing. I felt like I was blind-sided. But here's the best part: She kept Harry with us until he 'aged out.' A super-senior for four years. Not learning the same things for four years straight. After all, she had the goddam right and 'parents are always right.' Our raison d'être ...flushed right down the toilet."
Their pastries had been placed on the table while David was talking. The filling oozed out when he cut into his turnover. Rebecca took only a small bite of her Danish, just as Iris Heller drummed into her head all those times: "Tiny bites, 'Becca ... it shows good manners, and it'll also last longer." The Danish wasn't exactly fresh, but Rebecca didn't care enough to make a scene.
David continued: "You have your kids and I had mine. There was Julia, who ran screaming through the halls - 'You've got to do something with her, Mister Stroeman.' But Julia was right there to soothe others when they were melting down. And then there was huge smelly George, who stank so bad from ... well, you're eating ... that I had to move the rest of the kids to another room and then open all the windows. There I was, in the dead of winter, sitting shivering, with my parka on!"
"Sitting shiva?" Rebecca asked.
"Yeah ... yeah ... yeah. I get it. And there was Hector ... with a goddam moustache, no less ... whose mother slept with him in bed so she'd be close by when he had his next epileptic seizure. And Sam, who came to school on a Friday wearing five undershirts. I could tell, because of the labels. The shirts were backwards and inside out. When I asked him, 'Sam, what gives with all the T-shirts?' he answered, in his crazy high voice, 'Well, Mr. Stroeman, you told me to put on a clean T-shirt every day."
Rebecca burst out laughing, and then covered her mouth with a napkin. David started to laugh, as well. "I could do stand-up about all this, but they'd tell me to sit down."
There was no reaction from Rebecca. "... You see? ... That's why." She laughed again.
"But what put it over the top was Melody. Melody Grant. Pretty girl, soft-looking, but when she lost her temper, she turned ugly fast. For a while she wore the same dirty white jeans to school everyday. Then she started cutting. On the few days she did show, we got the idea she was sleeping around, probably turning tricks.
"So I telephoned her mother. And while I was talking to her - as she was insisting she couldn't do anything with her - yeah, the current mantra - I realized ... get this - I realized that her mother was more retarded than she was. More retarded! I couldn't believe it! And then I thought to myself: Duh! ... Where have I been all these f'ing years?"
Rebecca finished her Danish and napkinned blueberry sauce off her lip. "Boy, I really feel like a cigarette. Trouble is, I don't smoke."
David chuckled and continued. "But you haven't heard the pièce de résistance. I'd been taking classes at Brooklyn College for the salary differential. I already had a masters in special ed - an oxymoron if there ever was one - for my first thirty credits, and needed thirty more for step C-6. Instead of basket-weaving, I went for a second masters, this time in guidance. Perhaps the same thing, considering."
Rebecca smiled, and checked her watch. David raised his eyebrows and she explained, "I've got to leave soon. I promised my father I'd check in on him."
"You're a good girl." Rebecca scowled. "No ... I didn't mean it that way. It's that you're so - what's the word - dutiful."
"Don't push it, Dave. Go ahead and finish your story."
"Okay. So it was right before spring vacation, a few months into my first term as a guidance counselor. Luckily, the position opened up when Hilda Dreighton retired at the end of January. With budget cuts looming, they were thinking of doing away with the position altogether and splitting up her caseload. But when extra money was found, I got transferred into her position. There was some chicanery I'm sure, bypassing normal channels, licensing procedures and such, but I didn't care. Saved another special ed teacher's job, and saved my life, as well.
"Anyway, you know how it gets before a vacation. They had 'all non-teaching personnel' out in the halls during passing. Especially at dismissal, and I was assigned to the front entrance. Lucky, huh? In walks Odell Parker, one of the best students we ever had and she ... was ... f'ing pregnant. Odell with a big belly and proud as a peach. Looking like she had made it. Had reached her pinnacle.
"I said 'hello' and 'how're'ya doin'?' and all that, when I actually wanted to slap her silly. Then I realized that all those years, I could never've expected a student to come back and tell me he was a teacher, a doctor, a lawyer, or even an Indian chief. Never having to write letters of recommendation - well, maybe that's a good thing - but never, ever, getting a letter about some accomplishment - not that I get that many now - and never reading about one of my students. Regular teachers could have their middle class dreams and expectations for their students, but I never could have. None that made any sense to me. The best I could have expected was for one of them not to become pregnant right after graduation.
"But you know, Rebecca ... looking back, maybe Odell's visit was the best thing that could've happened. It felt like closure on fifteen wasted years."
"Maybe they weren't completely wasted," Rebecca said, her voice gentle. It was totally dark as she checked her wristwatch.
The waiter reappeared. "Will you be 'aving anyt'ing else?
"No thanks," Rebecca answered.
The waiter tore the check from the pad and placed it on the table. David picked it up and examined it. "My treat, okay?"
"Sure. You've certainly earned the pleasure."
"I know it's getting late for you."
"I still've got a few minutes. My father's living by himself. And he gets lonely, of course. He was always such a ..." - she wanted to say "pathetic old bastard" but paused to find the right words - "... cantankerous old bird but the huff and the puff seem to've gone out of him."
"It's really sad when they turn out like that."
Rebecca didn't want to elaborate, didn't want to reveal too much of herself. Let him do the talking, the catharting. There were too many hurts, too many disappointments, too much history. Instead, she said, "Besides back there, I don't know much about the real you." Rebecca assumed he wasn't married. He wasn't wearing a wedding band and he didn't act married, although she had been wrong about that too many times before.
"Well, let's see. I'm divorced. Two kids, both in college. State schools, thankfully. They're both over twenty-one so I don't have to pay child support anymore. But I still kick in half their college expenses, even when they go to grad school. It's the right thing to do. Half their tuition, room and board, the whole shebang."
"Yeah. The kit-and-caboodle. The whole megillah. The hotdog and the works."
Rebecca realized that he made jokes whenever it, whatever it was, hit too close to home. As sometimes she did, as well. In a soft voice, she asked, "What about your marriage? The divorce? To me, it would've been such an enormous upheaval. How have you ... dealt with it all?"
"Sheila, my ''til death do us part' loving bride, thought I was a miserable son-of-a-bitch, and of course she was right. I smoked a lot of pot back then. Now they call it self-medicating. Well, I sure self-medicated ... on a daily basis. On the way home from school in the car. Sometimes on the way to school. Before dinner out on the balcony. After dinner when I was out walking the dog. You name where, and I was tokin' there."
Rebecca false-laughed; it wasn't funny at all.
"The problem was, it didn't help. I was still miserable and I made her miserable ... though she had a good head start all by herself."
"You still, uh ...?"
"No. Haven't for years."
"Don't you sometimes want to?"
"Sure, Rebecca. I'll be watching a movie and in it somebody'll be smoking a joint. I find myself slow-inhaling and I can almost taste the smoke filtering through my lips. But I think I've outgrown it. Don't you think it's about time?"
"Oh, damn. Speaking about time ..." Rebecca checked her watch and said, "Listen Davie, I've got to get going. My father and all."
"Wow. I've done so much talking. Must've burned your ears off. It's not like me to open up this way."
Rebecca knew she was a good listener - a much better listener than a talker. She knew, of course, that doing the listening was an especially effective way to guard herself against opening up and being hurt yet one more time.
"Wait a sec," David continued. "How about dinner tomorrow night? It's a Friday so we can stay up late. No school the next day. Then you can tell me your story."
A rush of thoughts. Rebecca didn't want her face to give herself away, so she busied herself putting on her coat and adjusting and tying her scarf under the lapels. Do I really want to talk about that never-ending decade with Matt? Being dragged along all those years by a guy who was afraid of commitment? Maybe I should've been committed. When she giggled to herself, David looked at her strangely and asked, "So waddya say?"
More than a moment of indecision and then, "Uh ... okay. Yes ... sure!"
"I know you've gotta get going, so I'll talk to you tomorrow. Okay?"
"Yup. I'll see you" - she thumbed backwards, over her shoulder - "back there."
She started past him, but stopped to touch, for a brief instant, David's cheek. Then she rushed out to her car.
* * * * *
The next day, while Rebecca was forking through dry tuna fish salad from a Tupperware bowl, the mayhem in her cubicle was interrupted by the in-school ringtone from the chirping phone. She reached for the handset when she saw whose extension it was but Simone got to it first. "Miss Heller's office." Simone noticed the hint of a smile on her counselor's face. "Whom should I say is calling?"
When the man said, "Please tell her it's Dave Stroeman," Simone picked up the change of nuance in his voice. And as she handed the headset over to her counselor, she gave her an ever-widening grin.
Rev 6 / July 11, 2008
July, 2008 Copyright © 2008, Lloyd B. Abrams