Tuesday, December 15, 2015
Sometimes crazy screaming at them seems to help; they pay attention when Daddy escalates, because something outrageous or memorable might be about to happen.
But usually, all my noise is for naught.
I turn to the slightly older girl in the front seat next to me, hoping she will provide some baseline calm and sanity.
"What are you learning in school right now?!"
"We talked about Hitler!"
"Who is Hitler?!?" asks one of the animals in the backseat.
The car is cramped, tiny, and so worn down by age that all of the insulation around the doors and windows has fallen off. The sound of the highway is deafening, every conversation shouted. That is why I used so many exclamation marks in the dialogue above.
Before she can answer, stabs at Hitler's identity fly fast from the boys behind me.
"He was a king guy!"
"He talked in another language!"
"Germany!" someone blurted. It was me because I got caught up in the excitement.
The girl, nine, self-assured, socially imperial, rolls her eyes, clears her throat, and tucks a stray flipper of brown hair behind her ear.
It always amazes me how little boys will hang on every word spoken by a young female, but when a five foot eight, two-hundred and-three pound walrus of a man with the eyebags of a prizefighter on a losing streak bellows nary an inch from their faces, they stare right through him with the unblinking grins of the mentally troubled.
"Hitler was..." she begins, and taps her chin as she gathers her thoughts. "Well, he was someone who probably never made a good choice in his whole life.
As she speaks, I can't help but picture Hitler struggling to make good decisions.
She trails off about Hitler but keeps a wrinkled up expression on her face, like she is offended by a stinky smell in the air.
Speaking of the lingering stench of Germany's dark past, I turn 40 in a couple of days.
My students are oblivious to the usual baggage that goes along with this particular birthday. They keep smiling and patting me, proudly murmuring "Forty....." like I am their little son whose all growed up.
Iva, the Eastern European girl, has decided she is now my caretaker as I pratfall into middle age. Every morning she prepares a cup of coffee for me before I get to work. She hides somewhere in the kitchen, waiting for me to take my first sip.
If I declare the coffee to be 'good', she explodes into triumphant air kicks and waves around rock'n'roll fingers. She yells "In your face!!" at me, which does not seem to fit with the overall intention of being helpful.
But as my birthday has gotten nearer, her efforts have become more invasive. When I am about to put my bread into the toaster, she places herself between me and the kitchen counter, and puts both of her hands over mine to assist me in getting the toast into those troublesome slots.
As I turn to get my peanut butter from the cupboard, Iva is already there, jar in hand, unscrewing. She sprints to the drawer to get a table knife. The toast is not yet done, but she has popped it out and begun to spread a half pound of peanut butter on the soft bread, shredding it all to sticky bits.
"It's really okay," I say, trying to deter her from further helpfulness.
"I'm juz taking care of you. It's hard."
"Um...here, you can carry my coffee out to the classroom." Her face lights up.
"Yes, I will carry it."
As she walks, the hot coffee sloshes wildly in the mug and spills out onto her fingers.
"It's burning me," she says, and giggles a little.
I sit next to her and eat my breakfast.
"Forty...that's so old," Iva whispers. She tries to stroke my elbow as I lift my food to my mouth. Then, in a gentle little sing-song, she begins to chant, "Mikey, Mikey, fucky, fucky".
"What did you just say??" I ask her, certain I had misheard.
"Nothing. I'm sorry! I don't know why!" She runs into the bathroom to hide.
Forty. The Invisible Killer. From here on out, young people will see me as nothing more than a cadaver. I'll be reduced to a frightened little voice, pestering a hip barista for more half and half. Or a chubby finger stabbing at an error on a grocery receipt.
Twentysomethings will call me 'Gramps' or 'Big Papa'.
I'll be an annoyance and most likely an imbecile.
"Did you juz see that?!?" Iva gasps.
We're walking back to school from the YMCA. It's a three mile path that takes us past rows of cheap, rundown student housing. The yards are often littered with red plastic cups and smashed pizza boxes.
She is gesturing back to a gray pair of thong underwear that had been discarded on the sidewalk.
It amazes her that I am not more alarmed by the sight of it.
"Mike, Mike, that is not underwear. It is....I can't say it....it is a T-H-O-U-N-G. It is what they wear."
"It's what who wears?" I ask her.
The way she misspells words aloud reminds me of the Frances books by Russell Hoban. I picture a little badger girl, making the painful decision to share her candy with a bratty sibling.
Meanwhile, Iva struggles to spell the word 'stripper'.
"Strippers are not the only ones who wear thong underwear," I tell her, using my most authoritative, teacherly tone. "Lots of people do."
"No! My god."
We cut through a park, Iva some ways ahead of me, and as she veers towards a drinking fountain, a small boy runs up to tell her something.
"What did that kid say to you?"
She launches into a shrill, satanic imitation of a child's voice: "They turned the water off for winter."
"Jeez, did he really sound like that?"
She doesn't answer me.
Back in the classroom, Christmas decorating has been interrupted by an emotional incident.
Apparently, Grandma Got Run Over by a Reindeer had come on the radio, and one of the students, claiming she had recently lost her grandmother, found the song to be too painful. She burst into tears and started ripping down strings of Christmas lights.
I manage to get her into the small conference room. She kicks a chair and plops onto the floor.
"I'm sorry this is hard for you. When did your grandma die?"
I try to put on my sympathetic listening face, the one we are trained to use when a student is having behavior problems. I have practiced mine over and over again, but it still doesn't look right; it's less "I'm sorry for your bad choices" and more "Mickey Rooney won't stop goosing me."
"I don't know. Five years ago."
I use my patented "tease therapy" to boost her spirits. A little tapdance act, some off-key singing, and a fake fart put her back on track.
When we exit the conference room, she is all smiles.
"He's a teaser," she announces, pointing at me. "A forty-year old teaser."
She means well, but it comes across as awfully creepy.