Of Oz

I think this is the longest I’ve gone without posting here.  I wasn’t sure I was, so I wasn’t sure what I had to say.

Or I was nervous about who would be writing here.  So I will give her the third person.

She crumples with sad when the sixth graders start punching each other because the day was almost perfect, why did they have to?  What did she do wrong?

Grins when the kindergarteners dance and jump at their special day of bowling in the gym.

Sees the boy in sixth grade, and the boy in first grade, who are hopelessly behind, and need the teacher’s constant attention, and imagines (with cause) what their high school years will be like.

Sees and knows this is where the grinding, sticky problems of poverty and race are growing in their youngest stages, and that try as they might, the concerned, kindly, hardworking, thoughtful and wise adults there are doing the best they can and poverty and race will not be solved.

Walks the halls of the beautiful school where each classroom is sponsored by a real estate agent or a cafe, and then the halls where the reading center is put in by the football player who did it as community service to compensate for his mistake.  The teachers who are overly thankful because they know a lot of people won’t come to their school.  The grade school with a metal detector.  All the schools with their insane “no concealed weapons” signs outside.

She is hugged every day by kids who just met her.  It’s good.  Apart from the fact that she has been warned never to touch a student for any reason apart from dragging them out of a burning building.

Though it is like putting on favorite gloves to be a teacher again, she may feel at the end of the day her introversion, like, “Stop talking to me, nobody talk to me,” even when the kids are sweet, so sweet.

She arrives at the restaurant, the apartment, the house, the party, and several people say, “Liz!” and hug her, and get her a drink, and surround her in conversation.

On Friday night, she decides if she will go to the movies with her sister, to see her friend’s work at the gallery, have a drink with friends, or just go home and fiddle with the hot glue gun, glitter, cardboard, and duct tape for hours, prepping for Mardi Gras.

The KCMO schools pay the least.  They are the easiest gigs to get.  She doesn’t have the paperwork done to sub in the more affluent districts, and she wonders, driving as she so often does now, around the interstate loop of the city, is she going to do gigs that pay more, in fancier schools, now that she is all in debt, or is she still going to do the work she feels she can do, with kids who need someone so much?  It’s just one day.  It’s just a sub.  Other kids need teachers.

She has to get gas right after teaching at a school in the deep hood.  She drives past a mess of fire trucks and police cars.  The gas station is not a chain.  Across the street is a thrift store with a handmade sign.  You cannot pay at the pump.  Ever.  She likes this place, it’s bereft but free in a way a place no one gives a shit about is free.

Inside the place, a white guy behind the counter is chatting with a black guy, and another guy is hanging around like he has nothing else to do.  “Twenty on four,” she says.  She has more than twenty dollars now, but this seems easiest.  “What’s up with that?” she says.

“Police chase, like a ton of police cars,” the white guy says.  The black guy shakes his head.  There’s one of those cutouts by the door on the way out, a guy who makes her start, thinking he is a guy standing by the door.

“He doesn’t have a dad,” a kindergartner says, cocking her head.  Why does it have to be the black boy?  But it is.

As a sub in an elementary school, she smiles big and hard, especially at the poor schools, because she worries they don’t see enough people happy to see them, not enough people will now, or ever, be happy to see them and praise their enthusiasm and their good manners.  “Very nice manners,” she says.

Sometimes she has to make her voice sharp, or louder, but she saves this for the last hour of the day, which is like the last day of school: do whatever you want, precedents don’t matter anymore.

Until you go back to the same school twice.  Then the kids treat her like a celebrity.  “Miss S!”

It’s Ms S, but no one can say that, so it’s fine.  This is a little bit of the New York City anonymity she used to dread and enjoy.  When on Friday night she was deciding between watching TV or having a drink alone at a neighborhood bar, with a book she’d rather was a person.  (How rarely has she thought that!)

She attends Mardi Gras parties, and people she barely knows, or doesn’t know, are happy to see her and talk about fun times past.  She remembers that evenings in silence, actual silence, with only the art supplies thrown everywhere, doing her messy work, she has no patience, how engaging, how warming.

She says she moved back here from New York City, and people say, “Why?!”

She walks down one flight of stairs in her pajamas to do laundry, instead of three flights down and three blocks over.  She tries to buy her own groceries, but her parents buy them before she can.  Her cat is staying with her sister, so the pet she has is the parents’ dog.  She sings songs to the dog, walks the dog, takes the dog to the nursing home to visit her aunt.  The ladies at the nursing home stare happily, and stare blankly, and some of them are enlivened by the dog, like they were hungry and didn’t know it until they smell garlic being sautéed.

Her aunt has dementia.  There are a lot of things she doesn’t know or understand, but one thing she does know is “The Wizard of Oz.”  She knows who the characters are, says their names: Dorothy, Toto, the Scarecrow, the Tin Man, the Wizard of Oz.

Image: “Water Carrier by Moonlight” by Marc Chagall, Metropolitan Museum of Art.

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