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Delta Tales: We Don’t Grow Polester

1 Sep

“And it pays a hundred dollars a day.”   “Say what?”  Back then that  was more money than I could imagine.   Randy, the psychologist I worked for, was moving to Atlanta  and bequeathed me a plum consulting job at  a private school for handicapped children.. “All you got to do is go there once a month,  test a kid or two , have lunch, and  talk to the teachers. And it’s a remarkable place.  Mrs. Johnson, who runs it is a miracle worker.”

            Early Saturday I carefully started out for Johnson City. I had only been in the deep south a few months, but had learned that road hazards ranged from the sudden appearance of  highboys full of cotton to raw-boned state troopers who were unsympathetic to red sports cars with  “Land of Lincoln” license plates.

            By nine o’clock I came upon the  large white  ranch house with an oak and a rusty swing set in the front yard.  Mrs. Johnson met me at the door. Her appearance was overshadowed by her enthusiasm and sense of  urgency. She was a personable  woman in her early forties, but she was obviously a woman with a mission. I remembered Randy saying that the Johnson’s  started the school after having a disabled child who died at an early age.

            The spacious living room had only a couch and chair and was dominated by a   white brick fireplace and  a sailfish mounted on the wall. Mrs. Johnson asked me to sit and launched into a description of the school. They had 10 children, four teachers  and few part-time aides.   The teachers were all young women  who lived at the school. Usually one of them was off attending the university  as part  of a home made work-study program, the Johnsons sponsored. The  house was larger than it appeared with separate  living quarters for the family, children, teachers, and even the farm help. Behind the house was a long narrow building with a  tin roof that served as the Chicken Coop School.

            Through the front window I could see a boy of about 10 years riding a bicycle with a tether attached to the handle bars. He could only ride in a wide circle. Mrs. Johnson told me that  was Donny. He was an appealing child with shiny black hair and steel gray eyes. Donny also was autistic  and spent most of his life isolated in a private world  with only the most slender  connection to our reality. The tether was devised to prevent him from running his bike into the trees. Donny couldn’t use language and Mrs. Johnson eyes virtually glowed when she talked about teaching him to communicate.

            At lunch time, Mr. Johnson arrived looking like he just hopped off a tractor, which he had. He looked more grizzly bear than human and he shook my hand vigorously. The children flocked around him and he herded them all into the kitchen.  We all sat around  a huge wooden  table. Each child was seated between two adults. I saw  Mrs. Johnson expertly  redirect Donny when he started slapping at the place setting. I was feeling out of place–  not sure how I was suppose behave. A petite black woman appeared from nowhere and   poured sweet  tea into big plastic tumblers. I immediately knocked  mine over, soaking the  tablecloth. Mr. Johnson and the children laughed out loud, while the teachers  politely grinned. The farm hands ignored it and continued  dishing out the cornbread stuffing. Mrs. Johnson explained  to the children how that everyone makes mistakes, even one hundred dollar a day consultants.

            As I ate the chicken  and fresh figs, I heard Mrs. Johnson telling her husband  that the children needed new clothes. He agreed but insisted that she buy  100 % cotton underwear, because as he put it, “Honey, remember we don’t grow polyester.”

             After lunch we reviewed the case of a very disturbed five year old girl.    The week after she arrived  Mrs. Johnson carried her to a church service. The girl started screaming racial epithets disrupting  the sermon. Mrs. Johnson  stared down the  parishioners. gently held the girl on  her lap. and gestured  to the traumatized preacher to continue. The girl finally fell asleep as the sweating preacher quickly finished his sermon. The screaming eventually extinguished, but the First Baptist Church was never quite the same.

              Mrs. Johnson told me  more about Donny. He had shown little progress since he came to the school a year ago.  His parents had abandoned him and the school was the was the end of the line after a series of foster homes. Mrs. Johnson said she had decided to take Donny  down to the state university, where they would both live in a trailer  in the parking lot for three months, while she took him to specialists in speech and language twice a day.   She planned to  work with him individually the rest of the time. 

            When it was time to leave, Mrs. Johnson pressed a check in my hand and saw me off. I drove straight for  a town where my Lebanese friend, Saleem  lived. Once  I got there there I ate kibbi and promptly lost the entire hundred in an all night Boo Ray game.

            A few months later I  left for a job in another state. I never found out if   Donny learned to speak, but if not, it wasn’t for lack of effort. They didn’t  grow polyester  down there,  they grew hope.



Pomp and Circumstance

15 Apr


                      Last year  I attended a double graduation and sat through  four hours of national anthems, platitudinous advice, and the mispronunciation of names. The four hours were only interrupted by a brief foray into the blazing hot sun to take pictures of sweating graduates. I would rather have attended a double murder. This large public university held four separate graduation ceremonies in one day to process all the graduates. I attended the first two. Although I suppose such rituals are necessary  to help people mark major life transitions, this is one passage I  would have  just as soon avoided.

            Graduations are intensely emotional  events. It’s like attending one of  those old Moonie  weddings with a thousand  brides and grooms. Feelings of joy, relief, and anxiety intermingle  while vague despondency charges the air. The faculty and staff share these feelings but mostly seem fatigued and can hardly wait for the ordeal to end.

             As each graduate’s name is  read for their ten seconds of immortality,  their personal  mini-fan club  erupts in applause, yelling, or even stomping. I  wonder about the students who get a real loud response. Do they have exceptionally large families? Are they very popular? Promiscuous? And I always feel sorry for those who don’t get any fuss made at all. What’s with them?  Do they feel rejected or upset?  At college graduations the people are so loosely connected, that even surrounded by thousands of revelers, each celebration  is still private.

            The first of the two graduations I attended was the liberal arts and sciences crowd. As a group they were serious and pretentious. Their featured commencement speaker was a fading local politico who tried some standup comedy and  superficial sensitivity — like Jay Leno meets Rod McKuen. I felt embarrassed for him, since he obviously didn’t have the sense to feel embarrassed for himself.

            Hundreds of nurses and social workers graduated in the next group. They were a  much rowdier bunch. It was as if they actually knew and even liked each other.  The crowd booed vigorously  when a stick-in-the-mud  security person  removed the giant beach ball that had suddenly appeared and was  batted around during the speeches. At one point of high emotion the nursing student section erupted into a massive free-for-all of silly string and confetti.

            The guest speaker this time was a feckless social services bureaucrat who was also a big shot fund-raiser for the university. In his precise introduction the university president diplomatically neglected to mention that this man was also a notorious slumlord. This bozo didn’t bother to make any sense at all. I wasn’t even embarrassed for him, just annoyed.

            Despite the inane speech I liked this ceremony better. The students showed more spirit  and the faculty  sported more dramatic threads. Some faculty wore silk gowns of  bright gold and red and most of them wore those classy soft caps, instead of the usual mortarboards.

            Several years ago at my graduate school commencement, my elderly advisor appraised the rakish university president, decked out in a color coordinated brown velvet cap, and said, “Damn, I got to get me one of those hats.”  I hope he did.  The chic president was fired about a month later for putting massage parlor bills on his state credit card. I can only imagine what he would have done if he didn’t have a Ph.D. The story was so popular  in  all the local newspapers that  when I told a colleague that I  had just shook the  president’s hand at graduation,  he said I should have worn a rubber glove.

             No medieval rite of passage would be complete without some old fashion humiliation.  Throughout my life I’ve been  repeatedly embarrassed about my gender bending name– “Terry Lynn.” Like Johnny Cash’s  mother, mine  had an odd sense of the appropriate. My nominal distress culminated at graduation. I thought it was pretty impressive as the hung a hood on me, until  the  announcer said, “And now will Terry Lynn Stawar and her advisor come forward.”  Even the largely indifferent crowd found this mistake highly amusing and it’s something I will remember always—Graduation Day.

Things You Can’t Put in a Cup: Another Steeltown Story

4 Oct


Danny Halderman got into big trouble the day the kindergarten teacher asked him, “What are some other things you can put in a cup?” “Milk”, “water”, “soda”, “tea”, “coffee” and every other reasonable answer had already been suggested by the gaggle of butt-smooching girls sitting in front row by the time Danny was forced to play Mrs. Crook’s version of Family Feud. “Piss.” he said with enthusiasm to Mrs. Crook’s horror and the class’s great amusement. “Well, yeah… ‘piss’ may be technically correct, but such language is simply not acceptable.” Mrs. Cook must have thought to herself, as she sent Danny to the principal’s office, simultaneously quieting the hysterical class with a gesture and the ole stink eye.

Today kids like Danny would be get diagnosed with attention deficit disorder and pumped full of stimulants, but back in 1955 he was just another pain in the ass and was packed off to Mr. Paleski’s office for a lecture or a couples of swats. “The principal is your pal.” we were taught. Danny spent a lot of time with his pal. And when he wasn’t with his pal, he was standing outside class in the cloakroom. “The cloakroom” sounds medieval, and is where you were banished when the teacher could no longer stand the sight of you and she was afraid of pissing off her pal by sending you to him too often. The cloaks were long gone and only quilted winter coats, galoshes, and funky milk crates filled the room. Danny preferred it to the classroom and would rummage through our coat pockets and belongings to amuse himself.

But Danny wasn’t nearly as sad a case as Nancy, the short stout girl in first grade, who rambled through all our lives like a stampeding heifer. She was obviously mentally challenged or and possibly autistic, but mostly I remember the teacher’s constant screaming at her. All the kids had long since quit laughing at her, because we had uniformly concluded that she was as nuts as a rat in a coffee can and laughing, like screaming, seemed sad and pointless. One day Nancy just vanished. No one was surprised when the rumor circulated that her rambunctiousness resulted in a fire in which her clothing ignited and she perished. No one ever told us what really happened, but the tragic myth was one of those things that was true enough .

Sarah and Judy were known as the “hag sisters.” Their ages were unknown, but it was assumed that they were a lot older than the rest of us. Unrelated by blood, they looked alike and only socialized with each other, although not by choice. They seemed pretty much incapable of learning and never talked in class. When asked a question, they just sadly shook their heads. Other times they grinned a lot with spooky vacant looks on their faces. Now I recognize those stares as dissociation and shudder at what horrors of abuse and neglect these pathetic girls, must have endured. They both wore bizarre clothing– mostly long faded house dresses and occasionally ancient tattered formals with anachronistic scarves and veils. They were always filthy and smelled of decaying fabric and feces and were desperately in need of dental work.

Their distinguishing feature, however, was stringy Medusa hair. It was so witchy looking it scared us. In the elementary school collective unconscious they were illustrative of archetypal childhood “cooties.” I remember once watching Sarah get swats for not paying attention during math. Her dress looked like dry-rot and I half expected her and the dress to disintegrate under the assault of the paddle. As her absent eyes filled with tears, I felt furious at the teacher for not knowing what every kid instinctively knew– that Sarah had bigger fish to fry in her dismal life than worrying about stinking long division. I wondered what Sarah would look like in normal clothes, cleaned up, hair combed and with a little dental work on those yellow buck monstrosities. But I could only speculate for a second or I might get tainted myself. Where the hell were all the grown-ups?

Wayne couldn’t read and the whole class would cringe when the teacher forced him. It was painful to watch. What was she thinking? Everyone else knew exactly why Wayne always picked a fight right after reading. The third grade teacher once broke a ruler over his head. I guess she was as frustrated as Wayne. I always fantasized that Wayne got a GED and became the world’s wealthiest dyslexic auto mechanic. But the scuttlebutt was that he became cannon fodder in Viet Nam, which of course was statistically more likely.

And finally there was Tom. Tom only had one little problem. One day he took a small plastic horse out of another kid’s desk to play with during recess. And suddenly all hell broke loose. For some mysterious reason this incident escalated into a case of immense proportion, as if the crappy plastic horse were the crown jewels. This was incomprehensible, since most of us had our lunch money stolen or extorted every day we weren’t actually beaten up by some large psychopathic classmate and usually no one seemed to give two hoots in hell. After a massive investigation, Dennis was apprehended and taken into custody. Although we full expected an execution, instead Dennis was sent to the kindly and motherly school social worker, who I will refer to as Mr. Wilkins.

Evidently Tom beat the rap by copping a not guilty by reason of insanity plea. When we asked Dennis what happen in his sessions with Wilkins, chagrined, he said the social worker asked him if he liked to play with little plastic toys. Mortified, Tom said. “I guess so.” and Wilkins produced a couple dozen plastic toys from a leather briefcase and let Tom play with them for the next hour. After a few months of playing with little plastic toys, Dennis was pronounced cured and the sessions stopped. Tom was forever deeply embarrassed by the whole incident, which was duly noted in his permanent record. If you don’t count opening soda pop bottles, still in the vending machine, and sucking out their contents with a straw, in the seventh grade, Tom never stole anything else in his whole life. Well done, Mr. Wilkins. The bad news is Tom’s whole life was only about nine more years, since he was shot to death in a dispute outside a tavern shortly after graduating from high school. I’m pretty sure it wasn’t over a little plastic horse.