Belated: Xamp Xmas

Xamp Xmas began as a kind of reclusive, experimental approach to the holidays that grew from my dread of spending the holidays without Ruthie. Without my little buddy, Christmas just felt ridiculous. She spent ten days with her father, and I decided to spend those ten days quietly and without all the bustle and hustle–no presents, no parties, no long trips home, no big family dinners. I allowed my days to be enveloped by a growing entropy that made time pass in strange, unmarked ways. The experience was relaxing, like living in the eye of a storm.

Armed with documentaries I’d been wanting to see and books I’d been meaning to read, Xamp Xmas was a generally cozy experience, though there were parts of it that were hard. Since I would get Ruthie back on the 26th, her dad decided to “do Christmas” a few days early so she’d have time to play with her toys and stuff. So Ruthie called me on December 22 to wish me a Merry Christmas. When Ruthie called on “Christmas morning,” I was up in Atlanta hiding out during the days while David worked. Something about that phone call made me feel sad deep down in my marrow. I hated that I didn’t get to set out her presents, that I didn’t get to wake her up and see that sleepy, swollen excitement leap into her eyes, that I didn’t know until I spoke to her on the phone that Santa was bringing her a guinea pig (which would be a lovely pet for her to keep at her father’s house). I hung up the phone with her and was overwhelmed by the desire to be a part of the holidays. So I jumped in the shower and headed to the MECCA of Christmas: Lenox Mall.

Traffic was a mess. I had to valet park. Ten freaking dollars. Clusters of people were waiting for their cars with their hands full of bags bloated with the “perfect presents.” Inside, the mall was positively vibrating with “Christmas spirit,” which felt manic. I walked from one end of the mall to the other, found a restaurant and had a mojito while I read a book. I felt ridiculous. The mayhem, the bright lights, the noise, the energy all felt so arbitrary. All of these people were fighting to cram in their shopping ahead of time while my baby girl was having her Christmas day NOW. The hype, the energy, the mania–all of it was disorienting.

That night, I picked up David from work and told him about my day–how I’d talked to Ruthie, how she’d gotten a guinea pig, how I’d gone to Lenox Mall, how I’d drunk a mojito next to a woman at the bar who didn’t speak English, how terribly cliche the experience of being a single parent without her child on Christmas had felt. I perked up when he affirmed that indeed, that did sound depressing and suggested we do take out for dinner. So we watched the Banksy film and ate a quiet dinner of Pad Thai, the unopened fortune cookies between us holding some kind of promise that felt warm and comforting to me. My cookie reminded me not to rush into things, his promised wealth and opportunity. A good night.

Christmas Eve, we made white-chocolate-covered pretzels with sprinkles and watched half a dozen movies that weren’t “Christmas” movies, but that were set during the holiday season: Die Hard, Ghostbusters 2, Batman Returns. We walked across the street and had dinner, and declared this a most excellent Christmas Eve. My family was in Colorado skiing, and, though I missed them, I was perfectly content to be sitting next to my favorite guy eating a white truffle chicken salad sandwich and sipping on a “Ruby Slipper” (a drink with rosemary syrup that tastes like Christmas). And herein lies the paradoxical emotional experience of the single parent: that you can miss your kid so completely, so deeply, that it settles like a stone caught in the bottom of your gut; and that you can, at the very same time, enjoy (down to the tips of your toes) the quiet adult time you are granted because of her absence. It’s a complicated, confusing, often enriching experience that makes me truly appreciate both the time I have with her and the time I have to myself.

Christmas morning, we woke up to a dead car battery, which, with the help of AAA, we overcame. We schlepped to David’s parents’ house two hours away for an early Christmas dinner. Their warm house and the mimosas we drank were a relief to me. Our dinner was quietly festive and warm. I had decided not to join my parents and brothers on their trip to Colorado, and, though I didn’t regret my decision, I felt sad when my dad called me that afternoon. He’d decided to call it quits earlier in the day than everyone else, and I felt a pang as I realized that, if I’d been there, I’d be sitting next to him drinking a beer and looking out at the snow and the mountains. I could hear the distance in his voice so many miles away on this, the first Christmas I’d spent away from him in 28 years. The presents my family had shipped to me before they left emphasized that distance–humbled by the brown paper packaging, the lip gloss and old holiday movies my brothers sent me were particularly touching. The simplicity of those gifts–two or three thoughtful items– made me appreciate why we give gifts at all. Because “the perfect gift,” at any time of year, reminds us that we are understood, that the people we love and care most for “get us.”

The thing I loved the most about Xamp Xmas was its balance. It was the perfect mixture of holiday and rest. Rather than being a time marked by obligation and chaos, it was a time rooted in the present and marked by gratitude.

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Don’t Smile Before Christmas

[This is the second in a series of posts about my first year of teaching. If you would like to read more, please click on “Becoming Ms. Reed” under Categories. Names have been changed to protect the privacy of the people in this story.]

Don’t smile before Christmas. Don’t make too much eye contact. Rules. You need rules. Make them think you’re crazy: Slap a stack of papers off of your desk and then yell at one of the students to pick them up. If there’s a fight, take a step back and say Stop. You are the one in charge. YOU are. Not them. Lock up your purse.

In the week before school started, I received lots of unsolicited advice from my colleagues who, ever since I threw up in the tip jar at Subway, loved to reference my “delicate condition.” As in, “Oh, you can’t ask Miss Reed to do that! Not in her delicate condition.” I was a 22-year-old white girl who had never worked a day in her life. I had just graduated from college. I drove a fancy new car. My whole life had been handed to me. If I had to work with my 22-year-old self, I would hate her. Thankfully, my colleagues were more gracious than I would have been.

On the first day of school, the first student to shamble through my door was Trevonte Harris. He smiled when he saw me, and I, being a human (and a Southern one at that) broke the first piece of advice I’d been given and smiled back. Then he asked me the first question I would be asked as a teacher. “So! MISS Reed, huh? You married? Kids say you pregnant. You married?” Before I could answer, Demarcus had come up behind him. “Yo, you Miss Reed?” And then three young women joined us: LaShonda, Janecia, and Star. All looking at me. We were crowding the door. Everyone was looking at me. They were waving over their friends. I slipped out of the group, mumbling something about homeroom, and into the hallway so packed with students that I couldn’t see any teachers. Panic.

The shrill sound of the bell was met with the heavy closing of doors. Bam! Bam! Bam! Bam! All the way down the hall. Then quiet, save for the rustling of a dozen or so students shuffling to their respective classes. A boy and girl kissed on the mouth before separating to join their homerooms across the hall from one another. I turned to walk into my own class. No one acknowledged me. I managed to take roll. The announcements came on. When our principal started speaking, I heard Bitch! emitted from a young man who was too large to sit in a desk. He was sitting in a chair at the front of the class with his head rested on his chest in a way that made him look like a fat bird sitting on her nest. I said, “Excuse me?” He stood up, reeking of smoke, and looked down at me. “I SAID Bitch!” He said the word like he was spitting, but his face registered no anger or resentment. He said it like it was a fact. I snapped back that he was headed for a referral. “Well let me just go then.” And off he went, sauntering down the hallway before I could even remember where I’d put my referrals. I scampered down the hallway to my friend’s class. I could hear the class falling out behind me as I slipped through the door. Peels of laughter and the echo of stomping feet followed me down the hall to Tanesha’s room. I asked her what to do. “Write his butt up!”

By the time I made it back to my room, the bell was ringing. First period. I was very proud of my writing prompt on the board. Write about your summer vacation. Students came in talking, sat down with their friends. I can’t remember if anyone spoke to me. What I do remember is that no one had any paper and no one had anything to write with. My mouth was hanging open. “How did you not bring something to write with on the first day of school?!” They weren’t expecting to do work the first day. Once everyone got something to write on, most of them wrote one word: sleep. Going over classroom procedures was about as successful as the writing prompt. I talked for most of the rest of class since no one had anything to share from the “writing exercise,” so by the end of the day, I had watched nearly 70 kids sleep with their eyes open and I was forced to confront a hard truth: I didn’t know these kids. I got their jokes only well enough to understand that they were mostly about me. “Hey, Ms. Reed. Is your daddy a window?” I had never heard students talk to teachers like this. I had never seen kids come to school without backpacks, without paper or pencil. By the end of the day, the trash can was filled with all of my brightly colored handouts balled up or ripped in half.

The words are purposes. / The words are maps.

[The title of this post is taken from Adrienne Rich’s poem “Diving into the Wreck.”]

© 2010 David Parker

T.V. sounds reverberate from the living room:
loud, energetic, open-mouthed voices. Must be
a commercial. I’m trying to nail down a metaphor
to stand for the sound of her voice
(escaping through a mouth stitched shut against
crying) on the other end of the line.

And I think:
That’s a lot of prepositions.
And I remember:
to the log, over
the log, around the log,
under the log,
through
the
log,
across the log, for
the log, with the log,
about the log.

And the more I think of the word log,
the more the word becomes
not a word signifying a thing
but a strange-sounding noise
like when you say
your name
over and over and over and over until
it becomes a foreign sound and
it’s strange to think that the sound
is you
because it makes no sense
only sound.

And then you try emphasizing
different parts of the word:
YOURname, yourNAME,
you-R-name.
Or you say it different ways:
yourname. YOURNAME. Yourname?
Yourname! Yourname?!
…yourname.

But you can never separate
the sound so far from its meaning
that it won’t snap back like
a rubber band.

Try it.

Say:
tragedy.
tragedy. tragedy. tragedy. TRA-
gedy. TRA-gedy. tra-GE-dey. tra-ge-DY.
tra-ge-DY. Tragedy? Tragedy. TRAGEDY!
tragedytragedytragedytragedytragedy.
Tragedy.

That’s what we did (my friend and I
on the phone).

A Friday Folds Into Itself And Falls Away

© 2010 David Parker

Friday afternoons, I begin to breathe. I’m sitting outside with a beer that is quickly turning warm waiting on a friend whom I refer to as Aunt Bea and whose kindness always overwhelms me. She’s the type that still mails cards (you know, with stamps). And while she’s stuck in Game Day traffic, I have the opportunity to talk to another friend who is going through one of those times that makes me want to reach through the phone and press my hand into hers and just squeeze I’m here. But I’m not there, I’m here, drinking a beer and watching a young man who dines alone awkwardly make conversation with the older woman sitting near him waiting on her party. To his burger, he says, You never let me down. I’m thinking I can’t even live up to that hamburger with my friend on the phone so far away and me doing that thing I always do when I don’t know what to say, which is to say nothing except I love you because what else is there to say.

Around the time I get off the phone, Aunt Bea has arrived, ruddy-cheeked and grinning. We eat and drink and have one of those conversations that can only happen when you’re both on the same page moving at the same speed through your lives. By the time we leave, I’m sweating and a bit too full. And as I pull into the driveway, I’m overcome by that lonely, sinking feeling I get when I realize that Ruthie’s at her dad’s house for the weekend. It’s a feeling that always surprises me, because I expect to feel relief, but it’s a long time falling asleep the first night she’s gone.

High School English Afternoons

© 2010 David Parker

This afternoon is turning out to be a tease. From the looks of it, I should be able to open my window, but it’s too hot and the pitiful puffs breeze are just enough to blow my papers around. And there are so many papers. So. Many. Papers. The moment I catch up is the very same in which I fall behind. By the time my planning period rolls around, I’m over it. I’m already thinking about walking with my face turned up to the sun so bright, so blindingly bright I shut my eyes and wind up running into something. But I grade papers instead with my feet propped up on the windowsill. Somedays I can’t even stand music. Today, with my tests for tomorrow made up already, and a fresh stack of classwork that I can grade at home, I chose to write.

No one ever tells you about working inside all day and what an underwhelming bummer it can be. How you could lose your stomach from the force, the fall of a sugar crash. How you can read so much that the text begins to lift itself off the page, meeting you halfway.  Newly acquired job skill: I can actually read aloud and think about something entirely different, which is kind of like taking a vacation in the midst of the most boring piece of your day (imagine reading the same piece of text three times a day for 30-minutes to students who feel like they’re really out-doing themselves by halfway listening). The problem with work is that I don’t have time to get so totally absorbed inside of myself that nothing exists but the words I’m generating on the page. 70 teenagers come and go from my classroom throughout the day. And I love them. I do. But I can see why so many people put off writing their whole lives: because it’s demanding. Almost as demanding as 70 teenagers in five hours.

Whenever I pick up Ruthie from school, I always say, “I missed you all day!” Sometimes I feel that way about myself.