Thursday, 22 January 2009

No Magical Mid-night Moments, but Life is Good

I am getting so little sleep these nights (and days) that I can't seem to be fully awake at any time, let alone truly receptive to magic.

I managed to have fun yesterday afternoon despite exhaustion. Shopping therapy of the best kind. I went to a secondhand store in a local community centre basement and spent $6.50. I got a sweater (possibly for felting), a great cotton shirt to wear with jeans, two books on crafts, and several interesting tins for keeping my craft materials organized. Then I went to Giant Tiger and (for $25) bought a very cheap bookcase with heavy fabric bins in cheerful colours to put into the bookcase with the tins. I am creating a craft corner in my den where I can keep all these bits and pieces organized and cheerful. Today I will pick up two more bookcases so that I can stack one on top of the other horizontally and place one beside those vertically.

I also did the "legwork" acting as a go-between for Layla's Sound the Alarm fund raising and an old friend in Kenya who is putting a neighbour's son through high school. It is never as easy as you hope, but I have established a good network now that makes it possible. I have also learned to navigate the murky waters of self interest and politics so that the money can flow without rancour or malicious gossip.

Layla will be going to Kenya this summer to do her own research into finding where to put the money she raises. She will have to establish all those lines of communication and make her own way through the tangled growth of lies and malice that mark the world of good will in Western Kenya. I hope that my experience can help her as she makes her way.

I would love to go with her to make this first trip easier but I can't figure out a way to raise the airfare and other expenses. And I would love to see my old friends one last time as well. The last time I was there I felt as if I had come home.

Today I will also go to see the ophthalmologist again and hope that he has something to suggest for the side effects of the prednisone.

Here is Chapter 2 of Explosion for anyone interested.


Alice Johnson looked around the home economics lab after the last grade nine student had hurried through the door. She often thought that it was a pleasant room when it wasn't overrun by clumsy adolescent girls who would rather be anywhere but in a classroom. Even on a grey November day like this one, the cheerful red-checkered cloths on the institutional arborite tables, and the cafe curtains, with their checkered tie-backs that Doreen Hilton had sewn last year, created a cheerful atmosphere. She remembered her mother's kitchen with its startling fire engine red ceiling, the only touch of colour in a scoured white kitchen. It had always pleased her that her mother had, one day, in a whimsical moment, brightened her life in this way.

A shadow crossed Alice's face as she turned to take a crumpled brown paper lunch bag from the refrigerator. She filled the enamel kettle with water for her tea. It was exhausting having to face a new group every term; having to re-establish the rules and teach them things they should have learned at home. What were parents doing with their children these days? Some of these new girls had never boiled an egg, and were quite disinterested in learning the correct procedure. And they never seemed to listen. Even after they had copied a note stating clearly that gentle cooking was necessary to prevent toughening, there were two stations where the heat was turned to high for the entire fifteen minutes. Her mother had made sure she understood the necessity of keeping a decent house long before she'd ever taken a home economics course.

She poured boiling water over the tea bag in the small metal pot and returned the kettle to the stove, giving its already spotless white surface a swipe with a tea towel. Then she removed two wax-paper-wrapped sandwiches from the refrigerator, one tuna, the other cheese, carefully re-folding the bag and putting it into her purse. She seldom varied her lunch menu; it was easier to stay in a routine than to think of something new to eat each day. She'd heard that in Norway, all the teachers in the country opened their lunch bags at 11:00 a.m. and ate bread and brown cheese as they drank coffee in their staff rooms. She seldom ate with the staff, preferring the solitude of her classroom to the discussions about students and the idle chatter she associated with the teachers' lunch room.

For the first few years, Alice had attended staff functions, thinking it politic to do so. She recalled vividly the Christmas party five years ago which had ended her reluctant participation.

They'd all gathered in the staffroom at four. The room, decorated by Elsie Maxwell's art class looked a little gaudy, but no matter; it was the thought that counted. Elsie had collected her accolades with a great beaming smile and the words,"It was all the children's doing, really."

Stuff and nonsense, of course. The students would never have thought of the idea on their own, let alone executed it. It was a good way to get out of the last class before the Christmas holiday, that's what it was. But Alice had said nothing.

The food was all laid out near the kitchenette area ... cookies, cakes, dainty sandwiches, and Alice's Christmas mints. A punch bowl with little cups hanging on the rim sat at one end of the table. Doreen Hilton said cheerfully, "There are only eight punch cups, I'm afraid, so after that we'll have to use paper." Grace Hanson had asked, her thin scarlet lips pursed, whether there was alcohol in the punch, and Doreen had laughed and said, "No fear, Grace. Mr. Harris warned me that the school board would look askance if I added the usual rum."

Grace had sniffed and whispered later to Alice, "I've no doubt she'd have put it in if she thought she could get away with it. In our day, Alice, young women wouldn't have thought of drinking alcohol."

She'd looked at Grace thinking that their day had been a hundred years ago, and wondered if the librarian had ever been young, but she'd said merely, "Times change, Grace," and had walked over to the food table.

Doug Adams and Helen Brown were filling their plates."What in God's name are these things?" Doug had asked pointing to the pastel mints.

"They're Alice Johnson's mints, Doug," Helen had replied. "I'm sure they're very good."

"Probably as sour as she is," he responded, and passed them by.

"Don't be cruel," Helen had said softly, and then had looked up and seen Alice. She had reddened, dropped her paper plate, and attempted to cover her confusion with a
mishmash of French and English apologies for her clumsiness. Doug had simply walked away from the scene.

When Helen had asked Alice to join her and some of the other women, Alice had been unable to think of an excuse and had joined them on the sofa. Margaret Cole, a first year teacher, and terribly keen, was expounding on how wonderful her students were. To hear her talk, one would think that she was teaching saints, not teenagers. Helen Brown asked how she managed to control them so well, and admitted to having problems with discipline. Margaret said that the students' natural interest in stories and writing was half the battle, and Helen said she wished there were even a smidgen of natural interest in learning French. "There are tricks to discipline just as there are to anything else," a bombastic health teacher had said. "You have to look at the problem in a clear headed detached way and figure out the solution. It doesn't work to try and solve it in the middle of a classroom riot." The animated conversation had continued long after Alice had excused herself.

She found herself stuck in between Jim Sullivan and Bill Stevens, both social studies teachers, but as far apart in age, experience and attitude as two men could be. Jim had come back into teaching after the war. His ideas had been rigid when he left, but were absolutely calcified by the time he came home. Now he expected students to behave like little soldiers who never questioned their commanding officer, and who spat back his own words verbatim on every test. Bill, a first year teacher, was trying to explain the importance of getting students to think for themselves, to work with facts to reach conclusions. "Ridiculous to expect a fourteen year old to come up with anything intelligent, man," Bill had stated unequivocally. Jim had said something about how discussion among students kindled good ideas, and been given a tongue lashing that ended with the words, "Garbage in, garbage out. Keep on with that kind of sloppy thinking, young man, and we might as well kiss standards goodbye."

By five thirty, Alice had said perhaps ten words, and had heard thousands more than she wanted to hear. It seemed as if there were two camps: those who were completely out of touch with students and those who were completely out of touch with reality. She knew her students would place her in the first category, but in truth she belonged nowhere.

She was about to leave when Mr. Harris arrived dressed as Santa, and asked that June Wallace, the music teacher, go ahead with her surprise. Several teachers got up, left the staffroom and returned dressed in green tunics wearing jaunty elves' caps on the heads. June blew into her pitch pipe, and the group burst into song, performing a Christmas medley. When they asked the remaining staff members to join them in some carols at the end, Alice had not opened her mouth. Why hadn't they asked her if she wanted to be part of the choir? Because she wouldn't have looked good in the outfit? Or because no one even stopped to think that she might have something to offer? She'd left before the applause and hadn't gone into the staffroom voluntarily since.

Just as she was pouring her tea, there was a knock at the door. Who's forgotten something, this time? she wondered, as she made her way to respond. "Oh, hello, Sir. What can I do for you?" she asked, and wondered what in heaven's name Mr. Harris was doing here. "I've just seen Kate Hennigan, and wanted to let you know how I handled the situation."

"Insolent little piece of baggage, isn't she? The first day of class and already in trouble. Late, unprepared, talking to her partner, and then rude, to boot."

Mr. Harris' eyebrows lifted ever so slightly, but he said calmly, "I've told her to apologize and to behave herself from now on. She'll be in after school to serve her detention with you. She's a good student and I'm sure things will be fine from now on." Before she had a chance to say anything, she found herself looking at Mr. Harris' broad back as he hurried down the hall in the direction of the teachers' lunch room. He never knew how his words affected Alice.

As she closed the door, Alice's reddened face crumpled and angry tears began to flow down her pocked cheeks. She blew noisily into a clean white handkerchief, a pink monogram, AMJ, embroidered in one corner. You get no support in this school at all. They're always taking sides with the students, and not just the office; the other teachers too. They're all going soft. I can imagine the time I'm going to have with that one now. She'll think she can get away with murder. Well, I'm certainly not going to put up with any nonsense from her. What was it my father always used to say? Spare the rod and spoil the child.


Barbara Carlson said...

Your portrait of Alice Johnson is very sensitive, good. Three-dimensional and sympathetic. I also like your visual sense throughout. I can see the movie....

(One little thing: I would like another Saying at the very end of this chapter, tho. It seems a little ordinary and isn't up t the rest.)

Oma said...

Barbara ... many many thanks. You are exactly the kind of reader I need ... discerning and confident enough to be critical.

I will certainly think about what you said about the trite expression. It may be problematic to end on an old saw. However, if you look at Alice's language throughout, she is a woman who speaks that way ... and came from a family that did so as well.

Anyone else want to weigh in on this one?

Barbara Carlson said...

Yes, I thought of that, but still -- the line just left me "wanting". I like a piquant ending to a chapter.

Oma said...

I think you are right ... a bad way to end a chapter even if it fits into her speech patterns ... I will try to come up with an expression that is not trite, captures the sentiment and the flavour of Nova Scotia,

Now I really need input! Anyone?