Sunday, April 6, 2014

This is a Happy Two-Bit

A few days ago, Ms.Pam demonstrated to us the proper way to tell Ken the deaf kid how to stop touching people.

"It has to be black and white with him," she said. "Very strong. It can't just be-" and then she yelled no! in kind of a quiet little voice, and weakly signed 'stop', which is a karate chop into your flat palm. "Not like that at all, you have to do this." And then she did something unusual.

She began the signing of her 'stop' high in the air, almost on tip-toe, and brought it crashing down, taking her body with her into a full squat, her buttocks just resting on the floor. As she did this, she screamed "STOP! NO! WRONG!" into the crotch of my co-worker seated in front of her. 

Ms.Pam continued to shriek while she pantomimed tearing Ken away from the stranger, like Moses bracing himself against the sides of the Red Sea.

She repeated this demonstration several times. I looked around the room, hoping to catch an eye, just one sane eye, but not a single other person was as much as smiling.

What would be more alarming to a guy on the street, I wondered: a deaf young man coming up to shake his hand, or a frantic lemur of a woman plunging between that hand shake, shooshing and chopping and deep squatting while screaming at everyone to stop.

Several days later, I was fortunate enough to see the scenario play out in real life.

Our class was on its way to a meeting of the "Aktion Club". This is a charity group that, in coordination with the local Kiwanis, does fundraisers for different causes. The smiley, ever-tan host of Aktion Club is an old fella named Ed. He always wears creamy sweaters with animal crests, and looks like the kind of person who drives a golf cart down to get their mail.

When Ken tried to hug Ed, I froze. Could I recreate Ms.Pam's apish display of ground pounding and bellowing? Would it give kindly Ed a heart attack?

Luckily, Ms.Pam never suffers from that disorder known as "hesitation". She was suddenly there, flinging herself quickly around a blind corner and shoving her body between the hug.

"No, no, no!" Her hands worked at Ken's embrace, prying it free and sending him backwards. "It's wrong!" She stared accusingly at me. "Didn't we just talk about this?"

I mumbled something about not realizing it was happening, as if in that narrow corridor I could have possibly missed what was going on directly in front of my face.

Knowing she expects me to be incompetent comes in handy. When caught in the act of doing things differently then she would have it, I can just make this face:

It's one of the few times in life that having crooked front teeth is an advantage. I just curl in my upper lip and twist my jaw so that my wayward left incisor (nicknamed Simple Bill) pops forward, and instantly, people's expectations for what I am capable of drop off drastically.

We squeezed into the Aktion Club board room and all the students took their places around a long wood table. At one end, the club president, a tall black kid in a brown fur coat, lounged in an office chair. There was a large brass bell and wooden hammer in front of him. The president was supposed to use these to call the meeting to order, but he was instead lightly pounding his cheeks with the gavel and clicking his tongue to make a beat.

As with all things, Ms.Pam takes Aktion Club very seriously.

"Call the meeting to order, Mr.President," she hissed.

"What up, ya'll?" he asked, and leaned forward to thump the bell with a finger. She gave him a strained smile, then turned to the table, clearing her throat loudly.

"It's time to say the pledge, everyone. Stand and face the flag."

Seventeen students and eight or so staff stood up, turned to the American flag in one corner, and began the Pledge of Allegiance. We were about half way through when Ms.Pam started shushing us.

"No! That's not right, is it? We're saying it too fast. It's way too fast." She said this for the benefit of Ken's interpreter, who had been frantically signing the pledge in double time. You could see the stress of it in the widening of her eyes.

We muddled through the rest of the pledge, and then sat back down.

Immediately, I heard the clattery ringing of a little bell, just like the kind you might have on your bicycle.

"Benjamin," Ms.Pam said sternly, "It's not time yet." 

A smiling young man at the opposite end of the table from the president apologized. But when she started to talk again, the bell rang another time.

Ms.Pam laid the minutes from last month's meeting down on the table.

"Benjamin, when is it time to ring the bell?"

He brushed his flat brown bangs back from his eyes and looked down at the long stick in front of him. On one end of it was a metal bucket. The other end had a rubber handle, and attached to that was the little bell. He rubbed the button for the ringer with his fingers but then snatched them back as if they were burned.

"Happy Two-Bits," he said. 

When it's Happy Two-Bits, Benjamin goes around the room and shoves the bucket in people's faces. If they have a quarter, they can throw it in and say something they are happy about that day.

"And is right now the time for Happy Two-Bits?"


She began to address all of us.

"Benjamin is our constable, right? And what does the constable do?"

The bell chimed.

"He keep order," said the president. Ms.Pam smiled and patted his shoulder.

"That's right, Mr.President. And what else?"

"HAPPY TWO-BITS!" Benjamin leapt from his seat to yell out. Ms.Pam shushed at him, and made a motion like she was trying to clear the room of cobwebs.

"But not now, Benjamin!"

He muttered Happy Two-Bits again as he sat back down.

The meeting plodded on. I couldn't stop myself from counting the number of times that Ms.Pam said "cha-ching!". She says it a lot, and even does the little downward arm pull with it. My favorite was the time she got it backwards, and said "Chi-chang!" and then corrected herself, saying it again the right way. Or sometimes, she shakes things up and says "Ta-ching!", but I think it kind of confuses her when she does this, because afterwards she stares hard like she's trying to remember something.

I counted up to fifteen, but started feeling guilty. I would not want someone scrutinizing some tic of mine, recording in their little yellow legal pad how many times I furtively cupped a hand to my armpit and then brought it to my nose to sample my own body odor, feeling like I got away with it, or squirmed unsubtly on my chair, in the obvious grips of some kind of anal discomfort.

"Ok, Benjamin-"

"YES! YES!" he shouted, ringing the bell like crazy and almost leaping on the table. He swung the bucket around and around. The students near him had to duck.


Very few people had brought money that day, however. 

Ed was always good for a Two-Bit, but he said the same thing he said every time.

"Just happy to be here today." It always reminded me of AA meetings when he said that.

A stocky guy with Down Syndrome, slumped low in his chair beneath a large camouflage trucker's hat, threw in a Two-Bit and told how he was happy because finally, finally he had a new girlfriend. Without glancing at her, he pointed a finger at one of the college girls who volunteer at the Club. She was checking her phone and didn't seem to notice.

Benjamin returned to his seat. I could tell he was not happy with the day's take.

After the meeting, Amy Ting and I hobbled outside towards the bus station.

"Oh my god, it's raining," she said. Several other people behind us began discussing the rain as well.

The people I work with are obsessed with the weather. Not only do they spend a good twenty minutes of class time on it, they follow that up with staff to staff recaps.

"I like the way Terence chose the word 'cool' instead of 'cold'. Because it's not really cold, is it? It's sweater weather. It's, well, it's what he said. It's cool."

"Supposed to be cold tonight though."

"Is it?"

I've been practicing my weather conversations, and I'm getting better at it. I gained major ground by discovering that, when it comes to weather, it's perfectly acceptable to just look up at the sky and say nothing. I even do this indoors, as if the perforations in the ceiling tiles will tell me the chance of rain.

You just have to squint upwards with sufficient gravity and weather talking people feel certain that you get them.

I looked up at the cloudy sky silently, but Amy was not going to let me off the hook.

"This girl does not like the rain, Savior!" she screamed in my ear. "You think she like the rain?! She does not, she does not."

Amy still insists on calling me Savior. It's getting uncomfortable. The other day, I lightly pressed on her back to inspire her off of a curb.

"BE GENTLE WITH ME, SAVIOR!!!" she had shrieked. People took notice.

I saw our bus up ahead, still a block off. It began to pull away from the curb.

"We have to hurry, Amy."

"This is my hurry," she said. It felt like we were walking on the bottom of the sea.

"So c-c-c-cold, Savior." Amy nuzzled her head into my shoulder. I could just imagine her saying weakly I'm so tired, so very tired as consumption sent her coughing mouth back into a blood-spatted kerchief.

We barely managed to get to the bus on time.

I have been riding the same 11:48 route to Ypsilanti for almost a year now, in this same new classroom, no longer new, with this same Ms.Pam and all that she brings with her.

I'm tired.

There is a small group of high school boys that ride the bus with us every week. They are some kind of jazz combo, shuttling to and from practice. 

So fresh faced they could've walked right out of the 50s, like they should be chewing licorice gum and scouring the railroad tracks for dead bodies instead of cramming onto the city bus and burying their faces in smart phones.

I think this has been a year of change for them, too.

Tod or Taddy or something, hard to hear over all the bus sounds, seems to have drifted from the rest of his bandmates. 

He must have discovered rock 'n' roll; his blond hair has grown long, curling at his shoulders and looking unwashed. He's traded the bright colored sports team sweatshirts of his peers for a black on black ensemble, a ragged suitcoat over a T-shirt. A skull necklace made from colored beads dangles around his neck. On his chin, an embarrassed cough of a beard.

Likely the band is frustrated with him. He's thrown out his Duke Ellington records and keeps bringing an amplifier to practice. None of their instruments can plug in to it, but he turns it on anyway, loud, and gets a faraway look in his eyes. 

I've watched the people at the Fitness Center change through the year as well.

One guy, I think of him as Big Fella, has been steadily losing weight. I envy his success, but I find his regimen to be kind of strange.

He spends his time bouncing a large rubber ball. As he dribbles, he jogs around the main floor, weaving around exercise machines and pausing to make small talk with people who seem unhappy to see him. He talks and bounces and jogs in place. His grey hooded sweatshirt with cutoff sleeves grows dark with cleavage sweat.

Between his booming voice and violent slaps of the ball, Big Fella is easily the loudest person there.

I stare at him a lot, and sometimes my perception blurs: is Big Fella bouncing the ball, or is the ball bouncing him?

I'm finishing this post up at my son's floor hockey game.

I am not a sports dad, yet I find myself yelling things anyways. Safe, non-specific things, because I am uncertain of how the game is played.

I'm selling it, I think. I'm really selling it. Blushing after every expulsion of "Chase it down!" or "Good hustle!" because it's kind of embarrassing to yell those things.

At last week's game, a kid pulled one leg of his shorts up and showed his penis to my boys. He fixed me with a challenging stare, as if to say, go ahead, tell my dad. I dare you. Tell my dad you saw my penis. 

Like I do in so many situations in my life, I froze in place, having no idea of what to do next.


  1. Oooo so excited to be first!

    Doing mental health at the moment, constantly evaluating my own and finding all sorts of ways in which I am out of step with this crazy world of ours. Could I please have you as the eyes of sanity meeting mine when interventional weirdness is so much weirder than the things it intends to challenge? Ms Pam sounds like a chuffing nightmare; you draw such a vivid picture of her I can feel the draught as she whooshes that censorial hand down..let there be no doubt as to her boundaries!

    Love love love your work as always - the upside of intermittent internet is the happy discovery of TWO shiny new posts to devour. And if you ever make a T-shirt with Personal Best on it, please reserve a size slighly larger than I'd like to admit for me! xxx

    1. She IS a chuffing nightmare. How come Thomas the Tank engine says 'chuff chuff' if chuffing is bad? Thanks for reading Esme

  2. I notice the parents at my son's hockey games scream "SKATE!" at their children on the ice.

    What else would they do?

    Ms. Pam terrifies me.

    1. Ha! That's awesome. At the next game, I'm just going to yell 'hockey!'.....hmm....hopefully it will be funnier when I actually do it, cause when I wrote it down, it did not seem funny at all anymore. Darn it.

  3. old was the flasher?! Sounds like that kid has problems...

    1. Hard to say....I am bad with ages.....maybe a 15ish late bloomer? He had quite the googly eyes, I tell you.

  4. A captivating read.

    Ms Pam makes me feel squinky. I think if I got the karate-chop stop command, I'd quit touching everything. Other people, myself, the atmosphere--name it.

    Happy Two-Bit sounds like a seventies cartoon character to me.

    Appropriate things to yell at a game: "Be good at sportsing!!" "Acquire more goal units!"

    Not appropriate: "Hey, kid, nice dong!!"

    1. Oh cool, I can totally see Happy Two bit as a cartoon character. A carefree anthropromorphic hobo maybe

  5. Ah, Ms. Pam. It's like she's doing some sort of corrective interpretive dance. Odd. As for the flasher, seems like that kid has some problems that hockey ain't gonna' fix. Yikes.

    1. Ha ha, yes hockey might not be getting to the root of the issue. She does seem somewhat dancer like at times, but with terrible choreography

  6. Imagine yelling out positive things to your kids while they help you shop for groceries. I like the idea of going for yelling out different sports terms at the hockey, or maybe ballet.

    It is s'pposed to snow here in Texas in less than 24 hours and it was 90 yesterday but hopefully things go smoothly for my air conditioner installation. I got my tools dusted off and checked yesterday, so I should be ready to go.

  7. I think, if I'd have had a penis I probably would've shown it to people too and esbboston is right.

    1. Hahahaha - thanks for including me you silly silly girl. I miss you posting.

  8. Ms Pam makes me feel squinky. I think if I got the karate-chop stop command, I'd quit touching everything. Other people, myself, the atmosphere--name it.

    Happy Two-Bit sounds like a seventies cartoon character to me.