I had driven through High Desert on my way to Phoenix the day I sat for the teaching exam. In fact, I think I actually mentioned it. “Globe. Superior (no lake).” It’s after That Canyon and before the bridge and TUNNEL. I remember thinking the place was stark. Uninviting. Poor. And that was before I got to Top of the World (that’s a place, not just a song lyric). But they had a job opening. Middle School English.
I don’t have English certification, I told them. My certification is from Massachusetts. Spanish, grades 5-12. Not to worry, she said. I have a Master’s in teaching, I said. Yes, she said. And I’m in the middle of a second Master’s, this one in English, I told her. That’s excellent, she said. The superintendent would write a letter letting the families know I was in process of becoming highly qualified. What about the October 1 deadline? I asked. Do I have to pass the Arizona teaching exam before October 1? No, she said, you’ll have a year. How much does the position pay? I queried. Ball park figures sounded good. Final details to be hashed out. When do I need to be there?
I had three weeks.
So long, farewell, auf wiedersehen, etc.
I packed in a hurry. Gave notice to the summer camp where I’d been hanging out with special needs kids – and singing Grey Squirrel, Grey Squirrel for hours on end with my charge, a beautiful, but decidedly stubborn little girl with Down Syndrome. She was a hoot. But if she didn’t want to do something, her lips would jut out, her arms would cross, and I’d get the Look. So, if I started singing “Grey Squirrel, grey squirrel, swish your bushy tail,” she’d end up giggling and we’d avoid a confrontation. If she had misbehaved, and wanted to be sure I still loved her, she’d start singing. We’d change the words every now and again, to get a rise out of the other person. But we had a fun two weeks. I was very sorry I wasn’t going to spend the summer with her and the other campers. So many of the people involved with care of special needs kids understand the need for patience, consistency, a sense of humor, and fortitude. They understand human nature, and most of them have seen the best and the worst sides of it. These kids were definitely not Kentucky Wonder Horse Children. I kind of liked them better.
Nonetheless, I ignored the heavy sighs of Mr. You’re Going to Keep Nala Because She and Hannah Fight Too Much, and packed my things. With much regret, I left the guitar this time. I also did not take a case of soaps: bath, cleaning, or laundry. I knew where to shop in Arizona. I’d been there before.
Yeah. Like Arizona is anything like itself from one county to the next. I think I mentioned that earlier, yes?
Hannah, Maeda, Freckles and I started our expedition much the same way Maeda, Nala, and I had started. We headed to Massachusetts to say good-bye to friends, then we headed to Pennsylvania.
Westfield, Massachusetts, Sunset
My friend and her daughter met us at the KOA in Jonestown. We spent the day discussing all manner of things two good friends discuss when one has a young adult daughter with a diagnosis on the Autism spectrum. What comes next? We wondered. What came very much next was keeping her daughter and Hannah apart. K. had been having a bad day, so when I wiggled out of a hug that lasted too long – and too tight – for my comfort, she took exception, and started charging at me with her angry fists raised.
Hannah is my Protector. A mix of Rottweiler, Black Lab, Husky, and Shepherd, she takes this job very seriously. K. couldn’t figure out that her raised fists and angry expression were agitating my dog. And my dog couldn’t figure out that K. wasn’t really trying to kill me.
It was a little difficult, to say the least.
What was relaxing was the flowing muddy river that ran beside the campground. Every now and again, an inner tube loaded with cheerful, laughing people would float on by, their hands and voices waved in greeting. Reasons to go to Jonestown KOA.
Jonestown, you should know, is one of those towns that sits outside the city of Lebanon, Pennsylvania. Lebanon is the town where Dad and the Barracuda lived. When I was a teenager, and Dad wasn’t so keen on coming to pick me up anymore, my cousin – four years older, and my very best friend – would borrow his dad’s car, and we’d go for a visit. It was a little hard to swallow when, years later, the Barracuda sent me hate mail, throwing anger at me in many words, including the phrase “you never even came to see him.”
Oh, really? Gee, I was his DAUGHTER. As in, I HAD NO DRIVER’S LICENSE, no … wait. I’ll stop. There I go again, bleeding family mayhem into this story.
Dad died in 2007. I still miss our phone conversations and the monthly letters. I had resolved all those family things with him before he left. But with the Barracuda?
Thank you, but let’s just put that on the list of reasons I’m living in Arizona now.
But before we leave the family completely behind, I’d like to share a few significant things that happened while I was in the East.
#1. My Aunt Jane died December 21. Oh, I heard so many people say, so close to Christmas.
Well, of course, I said. We always got together as a family at her and Uncle Bob’s house for Christmas night. That was the tradition. Grandpa and then later Uncle Bob would distribute the gifts while we all crowded into the front room where the tree was. I sat with Grandma, when she was alive. Later, I sat with Abby, my niece. And then, eventually, I quit going home for Christmas, so I didn’t sit in the living room. This wasn’t so bad by that time; my aunt and uncle didn’t live there anymore, anyway. They had moved into the first floor of their son’s home and their family traditions shifted to their grandchildren, and their grandchildren’s children. Dying so close to December 25 was just her way of having us all together again for one last Christmas together.
I saw cousins I haven’t seen in years. And the children I babysat introduced me to their teenagers.
Time. Time is good.
I loved my Aunt Jane.
I’m going to throw in the memorial I wrote about her here. I had asked my cousin to read it before the funeral, and let me know what she thought. Since I hadn’t gotten the go ahead from her, I didn’t read it. I thought maybe she thought it might be too harsh for my mother to take the last line: “My mother always told me I took after my Aunt Jane. One can only hope.”
I thought it might be, myself, and despite the Silence, I didn’t want to aggravate her unnecessarily at the funeral of her last sibling.
Well. I just spent time searching all my flash drives, and the computer I’m working on to find a copy of the memorial. I guess the Universe doesn’t want to aggravate my mother, either, because I can’t find it.
Funny thing is, I can’t find the poem I wrote after my dad died, either. I’m not sure where things like that go. I do know that grief generates some strange and unusual behaviors, so maybe I gave them away without saving them.
Ok, maybe it isn’t strange to everyone, but I thought it was pretty odd when I found the egg slicer in my dresser drawer. Sure “everyone” died that year, but in the underwear drawer? Doesn’t everyone keep kitchen utensils right next to their granny panties?
The strangest thing I did the year Dad died was – yes, this is true – organize my french fries on the plate in the – thank you, God – otherwise empty restaurant. It looked like a potato pan pipe by the time the waitress around again. She was a peach. She just smiled, asked if I was doing ok, and poured me more water.
Just to be clear, Dad died the year after “everyone died” – Uncle Bob (lung cancer, October 2005), my neighbor Stewart (drug overdose, November 2005), Uncle Paul (skin disease, January 2006), Helen (heart, February 2006), Mrs. Kreiger (complications due to diabetes, March 2006), Mr. Morgen (diagnosed with brain cancer in December 2005, he died May 10, 2006), and Jasmine, the 14-year-old cat (stroke, May 25, 2006).
That was also the year, as if there wasn’t enough going on, my once-upon-a-time-best friend had an affair with Prince Studly, divorced her family (sic), and moved with the Handsome but Seriously Alcoholic Prince across the country. My love life wasn’t shaping up any better since Mr. I Don’t Love You, It’s Just About the Sex went off to Venezuela with someone else’s wife….
Yes, Ladies and Gentlemen! I can pick ‘em! And if you need any more reasons why I should spend time with dogs instead of men – well. Don’t ask. It’s embarrassing.
The car I had (remember the Can?) would only start on dry, sunny days – and I was living in the Berkshires – not known for their dry and sunny days. Ice and snow, they do very well. Sunshine? Not so much.
I had a job in a school whose valedictorian’s claim to fame was her participation in the Prom Committee.
The Definitely Not Kentucky Wonder Children in the AP class were also Definitely Not AP Wonder Children. When I went to discuss this with the other language teacher, she smiled and said, “They were my students last year, so I don’t want to get involved.”
This was the same school district with the principal who called me into his office the day I spoke with E. about not driving his new jeep into the same stone wall for the fourth consecutive week.
“Are you discussing suicide in your classroom?” Principal asked. Briefly, I said. Well, apparently they didn’t hire me to protect the children. I was simply to teach the target language and mind my own business.
Right. Never mind the HUMANITY issues involved with this, there is also a small matter of the LEGALITY of ignoring suicidal tendencies as a teacher.
You tell me. When a 16-year-old boy drives into the same stone wall for three Saturdays in a row, is it just a small driving problem?
I went into the community for support for myself, but since I wasn’t suicidal, there was none to be found.
According to all sources, I was handling all that loss and death really well.
Turns out I found the cure for grief: Take two dogs, hike four to six hours a day, three to five days a week. If you can’t fix it in the woods, you can’t fix it, and you just have to deal with it.
Somewhere along the line you may want to read Murdering Marilyn. This is a story that is not finished, simply because I wasn’t sure I wanted any evidence pointing my direction if Marilyn actually got murdered along the way.
Not that I didn’t think about it. Not that it didn’t cross my mind. But Marilyn was at the bottom of a long list of crazy women I have known since childhood (see Mom, the Barracuda, and Others, elsewhere), so I just made nasty comments and was rude and obnoxious back to her.
She didn’t exactly deserve my attitude. After all, it was her son who died from the drug overdose, so maybe she was just trying to be helpful when she’d stop me outside and tell me my dogs had been barking. Dogs. Barking. When someone passed the house. Imagine. Or the day she called my landlord because there was a skunk in my garage (note the pronouns: my landlord, my garage). But when someone from the dog pound left me a phone message that someone had called them to let them know I had a dog that was dying and I wasn’t doing anything about it, I blamed her.
I feel sorry for whoever it was I spoke with at the animal rescue facility. This the year I was told my dad’s Parkinson’s diagnosis had been changed to brain cancer; my brother’s Hepatitis C had caused his kidneys to shut down; and the Dead and Dying were dropping around me, I wasn’t at my most tactful. Hell, if I could have stopped my Best Beloved from dying of brain cancer, don’t you think I would have done something about my dad and my brother?
Just asking. Seems like a simple question.
Dad waited a year (2007).
Jeff’s kidney rallied, and he got a liver transplant that – wait for it – was followed quickly with a diagnosis of Cancer! He died (2010).
I wasn’t doing so well by this time, so I had moved back to Connecticut, started graduate school (why not?), and eventually participated in the Grief Share program at a local church. Best thing I ever did. God. Real people who are also Christians (not always the same, in my experience). And a bunch of prayerful people around me. Life was looking up.
Which is part of the reason – and a good part, I must say – I applied to teach in C. in the first place.
Really. When friends and family are leaving, doesn’t it make everyone yearn for new and exciting places?
I didn’t want a week’s vacation in Venezuela with anyone’s husband. My left knee thinks I should have given up hiking a few hundred (thousand?) miles ago. And besides, not everyone was dying in 2005/2006. My aunt waited until December 2014. My little brother, Doug, died later that spring. And, my friend, John, died a few weeks later.
I know that this may seem out of place, but after Aunt Jane, Doug, and John died in such a short time, I took it really hard when RR. Martin had Jon Snow killed in Game of Thrones.
Non sequitor, if you please, but Game of Thrones has all the elements of Grief Recovery necessary: gods to pray to; angry people; protective family members who do dumb things; wild animals; and violence. Oh, how delicious the violence!
It messes with the mind, does Game of Thrones. I didn’t realize I was capable of watching a fight scene that lasted the whole hour. Now I know. I am.
But I was a wreck when Jon Snow was stabbed over and over again by his former mates. That about did me in.
I needed to get myself back to the desert, and figure things out from a distance.
We left Nala with Mr. V. Nala and Hannah weren’t doing so well in the same green acre. There was no way we were going to survive inside the Elantra GT. Besides, she prefers being the one and only dog. She doesn’t like to share. So, she stayed.
We visited friends, we traveled familiar roads in Pennsylvania, and then we headed south.
Tennessee was cool. I think I need to spend some time in Nashville. I would like to spend time in Nashville with my mountain friends from the Pioneer Valley. They like country music, as much as I do, maybe even more. But I would like to share Nashville with Jessica.
I knew that my friend John had friends and acquaintances in Nashville. He was a prolific songwriter, and a hell of a blues man, who had dreamed of “making it big”, and was on first name basis with some really successful musicians. (Yeah, I’d be happy to meet Tim and Faith. Sure, I’ll be right over to meet Kenny Chesney. No, I won’t be able to say a word to him, so, yes, make sure there is something for him to be doing instead of talking to me. oh, my.)
Tennessee, of course.
The dogs and I got a place to stay in the KOA outside of Nashville. In the site next to us was a woman and her two small children. They had decided to sell most of their things, and move into a travel trailer so the family could move to the next job site as the husband/father. I was impressed by the woman’s dedication to her children, and to her marriage. A lot of women wouldn’t dream of trading in their solid foundation for one with wheels and a gas budget that was eating away at the profits of her husband’s itinerate jobs.
We chatted homeschooling, relationships, children, traveling, loneliness, dogs, and all the other things perfect strangers feel comfortable sharing with one another.
Why is it we sometimes share our most intimate secrets with a someone we’ve only known and hour, and that hour by candlelight, but we are shy about telling our family, our friends, the same thing?
I was sorry they were still asleep the next morning as I packed my gear, and the three dogs back into the car. I hope they are well. I think of them often.
Dear Hallmark: This book is just a really long card to the people I want to catch up with.
The road out of Nashville was mystical – I am telling you the truth.
I turned onto the road, and heard a rattling of some sort. Great. I thought. Just what we need.
I pulled over, and checked the things in the back with the dogs. Had something gotten loose? Was there something metal I hadn’t covered?
I got back on the road, and darn, if the sound didn’t continue.
Let’s not panic, I thought. It’s just metal rattling against metal. In a car, it could be anything. Let’s not panic.
I got off the road, crawled around looking under the carriage of the car: nothing seemed out of place. I removed the branch I had snagged, hoping that might be the cure. I didn’t hear anything, so I turned onto the highway.
And then it started again.
Lots of early morning praying goes on in the right hand lane of an early morning flow of traffic. Emergency lights flashing, I drifted off the highway, and onto a side road, where I did another round of crawling under the car, rearranging gear, and sighing heavenward.
O, Most Merciful God On High.
Then, this butterfly lands on the hatch. Just lands there, where it had not been before. Preening its wings open and shut. Open and shut.
So, I got the key, lifted the clam shell, and, sure enough, the bolt on the front left attachment had come loose. I tightened it as best I could. Went around and tightened the other three. And said a prayer of thanks, got back into the car, onto the road, and headed toward Arkansas.
Arkansas is the home state of one of my dear friends. I had met her step-dad, and am on facebook with her mother and her aunt. I figured, why not go through her home state on my way to Arizona? Seemed logical. So we headed west.
Arkansas is hot. Teddy had warned me. She had also cautioned me about tornadoes. If there is a warning, she told me, do not under any circumstances ignore it. Seek shelter.
Her mother and aunt had echoed this advice on more than one occasion.
Now, I’ve probably seen The Wizard of Oz about eighty times, and I annually watch Twister, so I have some big screen associations with tornadoes. I’ve seen green skies in New England. We had a down burst a few weeks before I packed us out of Connecticut. I’ve even been on a bus that pulled off the midnight road in the middle of Kansas because there were tornado warnings, but I have never been in Arkansas for one of their tornadoes.
Thanks, all the same, I’d rather not do it again: And I wasn’t even near the darn thing.
The radio announcers were diligent in preparing the listening community for potential dangers. But to the weary driver from New England it did absolutely no good to post warnings county by county. I was headed for Little Rock, but I didn’t then, and I still do not, know what county Little Rock is in.
I pulled off the highway, and, pride in hand, scouted out the maintenance man in his office. Pardon me, I’m a twit from the north who has no idea what the heck I’m supposed do if I’m in the car and there is a twister heading for me.
He laughed, kind gentlemen that he was, and asked where I was headed. Little Rock KOA.
Stay on the highway, then, he said. Keep an eye to the east and keep driving. I’ll most likely hit rain and some of the wind, he said, but I should miss the storms.
God Bless You, Wherever You Are.
I drove to Little Rock. And I did not drive slowly, so I probably owe the transportation department and the state police a significant debt for speeding along the highway.
I watched the east as closely as I could between trees, and fields, and what the heck do they grow in Arkansas that is that color green, anyway? I did not stop to ask, and I still do not know. But it was an awesome image of life-filled neo-greens against the darkening sky.
The sky stayed a blend of greys, and since the only green was that interesting stuff growing along the highway, I think we did well to heed the man’s advice.
I did not pitch our tent that night. I rented a cabin. I bought a spaghetti dinner – which, even though it was delicious, I could not eat in its entirety because I was so keyed up. I considered a bottle of wine, but settled for a calm and quiet evening listening to crickets, katydids, and the summer’s first cicadas. After all, if there was going to be a tornado, I wanted to be sober enough to deal with it. Would we have time to evacuate to – where? the ditch in front of the cabin? Perhaps the bath house? Hail Mary, full of Grace…
Our cottage was somewhat secluded from the pull-through sites and tent campers. I took advantage of the darkness to sit and calm my nerves.
Tornadoes. Who invented this place? I’d like a word.
We did not wake up in Oz. We woke up in Little Rock. And then we headed through Oklahoma.
Now I know there is no way to step into the same river twice. I also know that there is no way to travel the same road twice. But, just to make sure, we did not drive through Oklahoma City. We didn’t even get close. I was considering heading north, but that might have put us in Missouri, and enough already with Missouri.
Instead, we drove a very long, long, long, long, and very, very, very flat way out around Oklahoma City, rush hour or no rush hour.
Now there are many opportunities a person has to spend some time reevaluating the decisions in one’s life. And there are, no doubt, moments that not only inspire this sort of self-reflection, but demand it. Let me tell you, it is not the mountaintops where I questioned myself the most. No, gentle reader, nor was it along the edges of the Atlantic Ocean where I spent many hours in deep contemplation. But to really have a chat with yourself, I recommend those damn flat back roads of the state of Oklahoma where distance is an illusion, and tomorrow and the week after tomorrow are visible to the naked eye waaaaaaaaaaay at the end of the visible road.
Yes, I waved at the locals who waved first. Nice people, these Oklahomans.
I pulled into a gas station, very hungry, because let me tell you, there are few restaurants along the flat back roads of the state of Oklahoma. I ate a really lousy sandwich that they said was made that morning, but who cared? I hadn’t eaten in – how long had it been? It seemed like eons. Oh, only a few hours? ok. Pass the mustard, please.
We inched our way back toward the highway and then waited out the fringes of the evening rush hour before getting into the flow of things and aiming for the El Reno West KOA. We got there after dark, and were immediately surrounded by several families’ worth of kids, wanting to know – everything.
Children are great, aren’t they? They don’t care if you’re hungry, overtired, smell bad, or have had too many hours of introspection. They ask questions. Any kind of question. All kinds of questions. Questions. Questions. Questions.
Where are you from? Are these your dogs? What are their names? Why are they in the car? Where’s your husband? Do you have any kids? Where’s Connecticut? Do the dogs like hot dogs? Will they eat my donut? Do they bite?
We pulled in after dark, and were greeted with the Lilliput National Greeting Committee – or something just like it.
I kept trying to fill in the registration card, but had to keep an eye on a small – oh, horde seems about right, but it was probably just a flock – of children who kept tapping on the car windows, and trying to pet my dogs through the air vents at the top.
Will they bite?
How should I know? No one has ever stuck their hands through the windows with a donut before. Want to give it a try?
They thought I was joking.
I looked around. There was no rescue in sight. So I caved in, turned off the engine, and chatted with the little ones for an hour or so.
That donut looked pretty tasty, let me tell you. It wasn’t Hannah who was going to steal it, it may have been me!
Finally, I managed to answer most of their questions, then took us to the site where Maeda, Nala, and I had stayed the year before.
Familiarity is never a bad thing, especially if you’ve spent an eternity in Oklahoma contemplating your navel.
Some things – any thing – familiar are necessary to reground the spirit.
I ate breakfast the next morning in the buffalo burger restaurant. I didn’t see the rancher, or his beautiful wife.
This time, I didn’t buy a turquoise and quill bracelet, either. I knew a lot more about Native Arts than I did the year before.
I did buy a couple of postcards, mostly those with cowboys on them to send to some of the women I know.
You should know a thing about cowboys. They are not at all like Hollywood portrays them. John Wayne – at least by the time I got to John Wayne movies – was not nearly skinny enough to be a real cowboy. The cowboys I’ve met in the west are thin. Not unhealthy thin like our man in Kentucky, but lean. Tall. Lean. Rough around the edges, even if they are Christians.
But they are not built like John Wayne ever was.
Sorry, Mom. That’s just the way it is.
From Oklahoma, we headed toward Northern Texas.
You know, after my winter in the Northeast, driving through the chimney of Texas felt like I was coming home.
Yes. Yes. I know. New Mexico is in between Texas and Arizona, but it was still like coming home.
I waved at the Jarvis Ranch as we bopped on by. But I pulled off at the official Texas roadside stop adjacent to Johnson land, and had a break.
Johnson Land – I love this place.
We slowly drifted into New Mexico. This time I was prepared for the clouds. I was not disappointed. We didn’t stop in Albuquerque, though. We kept on going, stopping in Tucumcari.
I rented a cabin there, too, for two nights. I needed to slow down. We were almost in Arizona, and I had still not secured a place for us to live. I had no idea where we’d be staying once we got to town, and I had to start work in about three days.
I did the laundry, walked the dogs, ate the food from the KOA kitchen. My Netherland Guru was not there this year. But the folks were kind. They warned us about the horny toads.
Warnings are meant to be heeded, especially when it comes to horny toad lizards. The cabin area was absolutely overrun by horny toad lizards. They kept Hannah entertained, even if she did dig a hole large enough to swallow the porch, trying to catch one of them.
I have come to love lizards. I had known one or two housed in heated terrariums, but wild lizards are a lot more fun. I didn’t know anything about the horny toad lizard, but I had one as a neighbor in Globe for a while, so I learned something about them. And what did I learn? I learned that there is more evidence to support the concept of evolution in the Southwest than there is in the Northeast. Horny toad lizards look a lot like frogs with feet combined with turtles. Very odd.
While we were in Tucumcari, I contacted the principal who had been scouting for housing for me. She had some recommendations, but I was not comfortable making a decision based on an online photograph and the opinion of a stranger.
I called another housing manager, at one of the many (thousand) mobile home parks around Globe. Yes, she said, she’d be there until 5 p.m. on Saturday. Yes, I said, I’m sure we can make it.
By the hair of my chinny-chin-chin, and the blessing of two time zones, we zoomed across New Mexico, waved at the Arizona border patrol, dashed into the “Danger, Poisonous Animals” rest stop, and then flew to Wheatfields. We arrived at 4:35 p.m. only to find…. the office was closed, and the housing manager gone for the weekend.
Oh, yes. Welcome to Arizona, where the office is open until 5 p.m. except for the days it isn’t.
I smiled. Ah. There’s no place like home. There’s no place like home.
There’s no place like home.
As in, it doesn’t really exist, so smile and take a breath.
I walked around the cul-de-sac to ask one of the office neighbor what she knew about available housing.
She called the housing manager’s house; no answer.
Where are you planning to stay tonight, she inquired. I figured we’d head back toward Roosevelt Reservoir. There were plenty of sites there.
Why go so far, she wondered. She had a fifth wheel across the lot. I could stay there.
I have three dogs, I reminded her.
Have you eaten, she asked.
Do I like spaghetti? I nodded.
How about zucchini? Sure.
Home made chocolate fudge?
So, D. moved out of the fifth wheel – with a smile on her face and everything ok, and into her parent’s house for the night, and the dogs and I made ourselves at home in L’s tag-along fifth wheel.
The next day, we met the housing manager, who got us the key to a trailer across the road from the park. Don’t worry about paying anything until you get your first pay check, she said.
I have three dogs, I said. Isn’t it the park policy to only have two? And they need to be less than thirty five pounds. None of mine are less than thirty five pounds.
You’re over here with one other neighbor, and he pretty much keeps to himself. Don’t worry about it.
She told me what it would cost.
Having come from the land of $1400 for a duplex with a tiny yard and electric heat, I was amazed.
Watch out for the javelinas, she said.
I unpacked the car. We moved in. Javelinas?
I was more concerned about those lobster-sized scorpions I found dangling from the ceiling. Those suckers are hard to kill. And I am not kidding about that. They do not squish. They need to be machete-ed to death, diced into tiny little bits that wouldn’t even think about regenerating piece by piece into thousands of tiny little scorpions. Ok, so I watched too many horror movies as a kid. But still. The damn things do not die easily. And then, after they’re dead, there is still the small matter of how to pick up the pieces which are still painfully dangerous.
There are ways, little children, there are ways. Creative, and ridiculous, but there are ways.
The first couple nights were disturbing. Scorpions like to climb. They hide in shoes. They prefer dark places. They glow under black light. Did I want to buy a black light so I could see them along the edge of the yard.
What, are you nuts? I don’t like seeing them in broad daylight, never mind about after dark.
I flipped the bedding every night before turning in.
I must confess, I still take a look under the covers before I climb into bed. But there was no climbing when I first got here. There was no bed. No, we were back on the floor.
Just in case you need to know, I sleep with my mouth open. I know this, so it was with no small concern that I tucked myself into bed at night. For the first time in years, I kept enough lights on so I could open my eyes and immediately see what was around me. I laid me down every night, exhausted by my anxiety about what might wander through the room in the middle of the night, what might drop down from the ceiling, what might warm itself next to my toasty self before daylight.
Yes. Yes. Yes. I have three dogs who like to chase shadows, so the chances of anything with eight or more legs getting close to me were pretty slim. But I’ve seen those creepy Vincent Pryce movies. I watched Fantasia. I know how things COULD be.
I prayed like you wouldn’t believe, then had a heart-to-heart with myself:
I have come to Arizona from the land of Lyme Disease, Equine Encephalitis, West Nile Virus, Swine Flu, and thousands of other ways to die from insects and arachnids you can’t even see. So, what did I think I was doing worrying myself silly about scorpions or other odd novel things.
Logical, don’t you think?
It worked for me! I began to sleep better, even if I did get annoyed by the light.
Yes, folks, I was living large! I felt that I was in the center of God’s grace! I pulled into town, met friendly and generous people, was given keys to a place to live! Bring on the JOB!
The first week of teacher training consisted of a day of paperwork with the human resources and business office personnel. How do you do, Mr. Superintendent who will write the letter to the families so I can have a job teaching writing to middle school kids. Life is good.
The following days were filled with a very positive and upbeat team-building seminar. We shared our reasons for teaching. We played games. We bonded over newness and ideology. I drank the Kool-aid, and totally thought I’d found a school district where I was going to be successful because they – the administration – were honest, caring people.
Oh, go on, guffaw. I know. I should have known better. But after the decade I had before, I was grasping at any straw that looked like I might be able to stay put among the living, and be happy. Besides, they told me I was going to be able to stay. They told me I wouldn’t need to take the teaching exams for a year. I’d be done with the Master of Arts English/Creative Writing program by then, and – tralala, tralala – I therefore wouldn’t have to sit for the standardized teaching tests! Tra La La! I hate standardized tests! This was Awesome.
Wait for it….
The second week was spent getting acquainted with the school, our staffmates, our computer programs, our classrooms, our curriculum.
Please sign this form, so we have documentation that you participated in this workshop.
Please sign this form, so we can submit your work hours to payroll.
Oh, would you please stop by payroll on Thursday. We have no school on Fridays, so Thursday is the last day of our week.
Lots of smiles. Lots of encouragement. Lots of programming of the positive and upbeat kind.
I went to see the payroll officer. She informed me, because I was not certified in English, in Arizona, the school would be paying me ten dollars an hour.
Yes. I apparently moved three thousand miles away from a higher-paying job to be given the base salary of a paraprofessional in a middle school in Arizona.
A word, please, I said. I need a word with the superintendent, because this was not part of our agreement.
He and the HR chair explained the many ways they could keep me on staff, and, well, meet the requirements of the State of Arizona Department of Education. It was, after all, their fault, not a failure in communication between the principal and me.
Door Number One. The district was willing to pay to hire a certified substitute to sit in on my classes. That way, they could meet the state requirements, and I could keep my job.
Or, Door Number Two. I could rush off to Phoenix tomorrow – at their expense – and obtain certification as a substitute. My credentials made that possible. Oh, yes, the pay was less per day than that of a para, but Wait! There’s More!
Door Number Three. If I got the sub certificate, and if I taught under it for five weeks, they would then begin to pay me the rate of a Long Term Sub, which is nearly what they promised me as a full-time teacher, but not quite.
And, then there was Door Number Four. If I sat for the teaching exam in Arizona, and passed it before the October 1 deadline, Then they would pay me the teaching salary they had originally promised, back-paying to the first day of my employment, and they would call it a Signing Bonus. No, sorry, but they would not put that in writing.
Hmmm. Boy. With options like these….
I went and got the sub certificate, because I thought, what the hell, I can use this anywhere in Arizona. I don’t have to stay here at this school. It would allow me options – which I planned to explore.
So sad to report, I ran into another new hire, this one from Mississippi, who had the same false promises given to him, along with the various options.
We learned that the couple from North Dakota had some “misunderstanding” about what they were promised, as well.
I worked for another few weeks. I got acquainted with the kids. I created lesson plans that matched the state and federal requirements. I decorated our room.
I’m an enthusiastic teacher, but I don’t tolerate shenanigans in my classroom that are not respectful or helpful.
I tolerated the HR/Payroll situation because I was in Arizona with what remained of my very low savings account (read: student loan), and had no options staring me in the face.
However, at the second payday, I was given a check for only one week of training. Apparently, despite those many forms I had signed, my timesheet had been mislaid.
Besides. The week not paid was the week that was training for “certified staff”.
Thank you, good-bye.
I was a wreck. I was unemployed. I was in Arizona. I had no place to go. I had no money to get there, even if I did have a place to go.
So, I wrote a letter, and went to the local newspaperman, and he printed it.
I want to say how impressed I am by the people of this community. What goes on in this particular school district is, I learned, not uncommon. But the generosity of the community is overwhelming.
The couple I met when I first pulled in covered my September rent until I had a job and could repay them – I’d only known them a few weeks.
I needed a thyroid prescription refilled, and couldn’t find a doctor who was taking new patients, so I went to the emergency room at the town hospital. I explained my situation. The nursing staff covered the cost of my prescription.
I spent time at the local job search center. They sent me to several different social workers who made sure I had electricity, heating fuel (“Winter is coming”), food, and medical coverage.
It was getting late in the afternoon the day I went to social services. I asked if I should just come back the next day. No. I was told. They’d stay as long as necessary to be sure I got the help I needed. They had read the letter to the editor. Did I want to apply to work in their office; they had an opening.
I’d come from a community where kindness is scarce. I’d come from a family where insults, stupidity, drug and alcohol abuse were honored more than sobriety, education, and safe living situations. I’d come from working as a substitute teacher and paraprofessional to a school that had promised me a “real” job. I had been lied to, deceived, insulted, rejected. I had lost relatives and friends, permanently.
And the people of this town took exception, and took care of me.
I went in for an interview for a teaching job at a charter school. I chatted with one of the two men who had opened the school in the mid-90s. They had the classes covered, he said. But, he’d have a chat with the financial manager, and the principal, and see if there might be an opening. He’d have to check my references, of course.
Yes. I expected as much.
You should also know, I told him, I have an interview this afternoon in Show Low for a similar position.
Did I need any money for gas, he asked me.
Now, tell me. Where else in the Universe can a potential employee go into an interview, be candid with the interviewer, and be offered cash so the potential employee can go to an interview somewhere else?
Yes, Ladies and Gentlemen! I think I’ve found a HOME.
It’s been nigh unto four months since I was hired to teach reading and writing at the charter school. The place is amazing. Students are expected to learn. I am expected to teach. I get paid. I got paid for two weeks of work the fourth day I was here.
Oh, you should know, the first week was a real trip. I have been so used to teaching in sound bites that I was unprepared for a classroom of students who actually listened, took notes, and then waited for more information.
Totally threw me off. I had to regroup.
The students are real people, so, yes, there are incidents of bullying, racial slurs, incomplete assignments, and occasionally plagiarizing someone else’s work. But let me tell you about my students.
Most of them come from here. Here is poor. The work in the mines is slowing down. People are losing their jobs. Parents from the local rez send some of their kids to the school, rather than send them to the reservation school – and this rez is not exactly rolling in dough. Collectively, there are a number of students who are bounced from one relative to another. We hear stories of some kids living on their own – and we are a Kindergarten through Grade 8 school.
One of the bigger kids is exceptionally intelligent. He is, however, a bully. Last week, while S. was out of the room, he stole her hair decoration that was on her desk, and destroyed it. He didn’t just unbraid the cord, he shredded the thread. The other kids told me it was S’s. I was livid. I know where S. lives – and it isn’t swank. I know that S. is a special education student, and she struggles to read as much as her family struggle to live. I was angry. I gave him the appropriate measure of my anger and disgust, and sent him to the internal suspension office. S. cried when I told her what had happened. She said, a friend of hers had made that for her, special. Later that day, I went shopping for new hair decorations. Store-bought are not the same as something handmade by a friend, but I thought she should have something colorful for her hair. I purchased a boxed set, and three headbands.
Today, I took the gaily packaged purchase and gave it to S. She was exuberant when she pulled out the box with the various elastics, clips, and barrettes. She giggled when she saw the headbands. And do you know what the first words were that came out of her mouth? Not a sneer. Not an, “Is this all I get?” Not “Why’d you waste your money on these?” The very first thing she said was, “Oh, there are so many! I can share some of these with my sister.”
And there I was trying not to cry in front of her. I gave her a hug – not one of those politically correct sideways hugs, but a real head to heart hug. This child. This child. This child. “Oh, there are so many! I can share some of these with my sister.”
So, yes, ladies and gentlemen, after “everyone dies”, and the dogs eat the chair rungs, amidst the scorpion and the javelinas, there is love, dressed like a ten-year-old girl who now has enough hair ties to share with her sister.
What? I forgot to tell you about the javelinas? That means you don’t know about the coyotes, either.
The first couple of weeks I was here, everyone – and I mean, the butcher, the baker, the candlestick maker – asked me if I’d seen a javelina. It got to the point that I figured javelinas are a lot like snipes, or elbedritches, or like that left-handed smoke shifter we had at summer camp. You know, the left-handed smoke shifter, the thing we sent annoying campers to find up the mountain, and down to the lake, and over to the Nature Center, and eventually to the pool, and sometime around dinner time, in the Lodge.
I figured all these people knew I was new in town, and it was some kind of community joke played on greenhorns.
Javelinas. Right. What do they look like?
Boars? With tusks?
Yes, they have tusks, but they are not pigs. They are in the rodent family. But they’re big. Bigger than your dogs. And mean. If they go after the dog, don’t get in the way.
Right. Pigs the size of a dog, with tusks. I had seen one of these javelinas in the prehistoric animal exhibit in the Pequot Indian Museum in Connecticut.
Yes, they said. Just like that.
No, I was warned. They are real.
If you say so…
Well, one weekend, Arizona apparently wanted to introduce itself. I had murdered yet another scorpion (the size of a Maine lobster, hanging on my bedroom ceiling). I had seen my first Child of the Earth (Oh, God, What were you thinking? These things are U-G-L-Y! And Hannah loves to play with them!) I had grown accustomed to the coyotes at night (more on this, too!), and I was learning the sounds of the birds (Just in case you were content with Creationism, please explain a bird that says, “Ribbet. Ribbet. Ribbet”). I was driving home around dusk, and slowed down to avoid hitting the coyote crossing the street. This is a good thing, because waltzing down the driveway from my trailer was a family of seven javelinas – three adults, four children.
Well, I’ll be.
The following Saturday, while driving through town, we watched a trio skip down the hill. The dogs thought they were a riot. I was grateful for the silver armor surrounding us in the form of a car.
Javelinas are real.
Coyotes are very real, as well. One of the most beautiful things about Arizona are the Coyote Choirs throughout the night. We lived at the base of a canyon-sort of. I have to take a course in geography so I know how to describe what I’m talking about. But anyway, the door to the trailer opened to the incline of a hillside empty of other construction, except for electric line carriers. It was otherwise “wild”.
At night, the coyote would begin to sing. For a while, my dogs just whimpered, but eventually, Maeda – who is part Husky, and Freckles – who is a desert dog, would move to the window closest to the pack, and begin to howl along. Hannah, ever the protector, would sidle closer to me, and keep us safe. Mae and Freckles have the right kind of voices to join in with the choir. I loved it, and miss the singing now that we are living in town.