Bowling Me Over

I was trying to look like I was not trying too hard.  This was supposed to be casual, after all.   Honestly, I had zero expectations of this evening being anything but awkward and uncomfortable.  The middle school girl with braces who hung out in corners at the school dances was still there, in my head.  I tried to shut her up as I put on my yellow henley shirt and my pink suspender pants; I know this sounds like a crazy outfit, but I considered it hip at the time, and flattering.

Michelle nodded her approval; she was in a sweater and jeans.   We walked up to the brothers’ red bricked colonial and rang the door bell.  I was nervous, but Michelle was all smiles and reassurances.

Frank opened the door and let us inside.  “Hey guys, we’re almost ready.  Tom’s just finishing primping.”

Primping?

Frank joked that Tom was apparently a little picky about his hair.  Great, a freaky meticulous guy.  I looked down at my bitten down nails and wished I’d thought to put a coat of polish on them at some point in the last seventy two hours.  Did I have something in my teeth?  I started running a mental check of my own grooming.

We made small talk with Frank’s mother, which was not exactly easy since English was not her first language.  In fact, when Frank spoke to her, he spoke in German.   She seemed nice enough though, and she and Michelle seemed to get along; a crucial point for any girl wanting to marry a woman’s son.

Finally, Tom appeared in the hallway.

Michelle wasn’t kidding.  He was very good looking.  I was a little stunned, actually.  He was tall, somewhere around six feet or so.  He had golden blond hair that curled in ringlets all over his head.  Striking blue eyes, a strong chin, and a broad chest; I couldn’t believe the package delivered as actually as it was reported.  Wow.

He graciously shook my hand, introducing himself.  “Hi, I’m Tom.  I guess you’re stuck with me tonight.”

It was a wonderfully self deprecating introduction.  It couldn’t be possible that this guy was this good looking AND actually nice, could it?

It was.  A few hours later we were laughing our way through our third set, with tons of high fives and hand slaps when I actually hit more than five pins.  Tom didn’t get angry at my lack of bowling skill and the fact that I was dragging their average down; in fact, he told me I was “saving his life” by filling in for the regular bowler that night.  I could feel that familiar sense of “clicking” with this boy, as I had with Joe and with Ray.All the signs were there; the sitting next to me, the needless touch here and there, the flirtatious language.   He asked me a million questions about what teaching second graders was like, and I responded with questions about his internship, his school and what his degree entailed.  He was interesting, funny and clearly smart, but also a good listener and seemingly just as interested in my answers to his questions.

If I had any doubts that the evening had gone well, confirmation arrived at the news that Frank was going to go out for coffee with Michelle, and was it OK with Tom to drive me home himself?   I gave Michelle a knowing look as she and Frank sped off, leaving me and Tom at the threshold of his quiet house on the end of their street.

“Do you want to come in for a little while before I take you home?” he asked.

I gulped.  “Sure, that sounds great,” I answered as his key clicked in the lock.

I felt like I was on the roller coaster at the top of the steep hill, looking down.  I was exhilarated and scared all at the same time.

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The Set Up

Michelle taught across the hall from me.  She was “long term subbing”, which meant she was filling in for the teacher who normally taught across the hall on her maternity leave.  Michelle was a very popular substitute teacher in our building, having graduated from Wayne State the year before.  She worked in this building nearly every day because of the frequent requests for her skills, and now she was here for two months while the regular classroom teacher recuperated from the birth of her baby.

Michelle and I had hit it off right away.   We liked a lot of the same things, she lived not far from me, and we had a lot of the same experiences having gone to the same university.  We found ourselves sharing lunchtimes and prep periods often, sharing ideas about what to do next with our second graders.  I was doing nearly everything in the classroom at this, the midway point of the semester.  I welcomed the children in the mornings, taught the math lessons while Kathy graded papers at her desk, and generally was getting used to the pace and flow of teaching.  It was tough, exhausting work; Michelle and Kathy laughed when I talked about my sore feet or how mentally tired I was; it was like being on a stage for six hours straight with a half an hour lunch and a pee break now and then.

So when Michelle approached me one Wednesday afternoon asking if I had plans that weekend, initially, I told her that I planned on putting Zachary to bed early and curling up with a good book on Saturday night.  It was early March, still snowy in SE Michigan, and I was tired all of the time.  I was looking forward to using this weekend to catch up on my rest.

“Here’s the deal,” she pressed.  “Frank and I are in this bowling league, and one of the people cancelled for this weekend.”  Frank was Michelle’s fiance.  I had seen him from time to time after school when he picked her up or visited during evening activities at the school.  He seemed nice.

I laughed.  “Michelle, you do NOT want me to fill in for your bowling league.  I’m a terrible bowler. ”

She wasn’t taking no for an answer.  “OK, I wasn’t going to put it this way, but I might as well.  Really, I’m trying to set you up on a date.  You’d be doubling with me and Frank and his brother.”

A set up.  A blind date.  Ugh.   “Why would you want to do that?  You know I’m a single mom.  Guys my age do not take well to the girl with the two and a half year old.  How old is Frank’s brother?”

“He’s twenty.”  Ah, a younger man, even.

“No way, Michelle.  That’s insane.  Guys my age do not deal well with the kid thing.”

“Actually, I don’t think it really will matter.  See, he’s home doing an internship this winter; he goes to school up in Houghton in the Upper Peninsula.  He isn’t interested in a long term, serious relationship.   So that really shouldn’t matter to him.”

“Wait, have you talked to him about this already?”

Michelle smiled slyly.  “Maybe a little.”

A date.  Was I really up for this?   Then again, if I went in with the expectation that this was going no where and just a short term thing, just some companionship for a few weeks until he went back to school?  Maybe.  Maybe that would be a good thing.

“I don’t know, Michelle.  I haven’t been on a real date in ages.  I wouldn’t know what at all to do.”

“No problem,” she laughed.  “It’s bowling.   You’re busy doing stuff, and you talk about the ugly shoes and the crappy scores you’re getting and have a few beers.  If this helps sway you at all, Tom’s really good looking.”

Why on earth would a good looking twenty year old guy want to bowl on a Saturday night with a single mother?

“Alright, Michelle.  I’ll do it.  I can’t imagine why on earth you’re pushing this, but I’m in.”

“Great!  I’ll pick you up at 7 on Saturday and we’ll drive over and pick up the guys together.”

What had I gotten myself into?

Amethysts

February 8, 1992.

It was my mother’s 52nd birthday.  I had the idea that now that we all were living in the same area again, with things going well seemingly for all of us, that we give our mother a fancy birthday gift and dinner to celebrate.

My brother had come home from the Navy a few months prior.  He had been discharged early from his duty for some “not dishonorable but not honorable” reason.  Our parents were suspicious but no one asked a lot of questions.  He was hoping his training would come in handy in landing a decent job; he had been trained in repairing and maintaining submarine engines.  Unfortunately, there weren’t a lot of submarines in the Detroit suburbs, so he had to settle for working at a gas station garage, driving their tow truck.  It wasn’t a great job, but it was steady and earned him enough to live in an apartment with some friends, without help from my parents.  He seemed grateful for the job, the second chance back at home outside of the military, and interested in sometimes being a part of our family again.  There weren’t exactly apologies for some of the awfulness of the past, but there was a mutual agreement amongst all of us that some things were simply Probably Better Left Unsaid.  And so we did.

My sister was at home with her baby, and her husband was doing very well repairing cars and working at his family’s business.  So much so that they’d just finished their basement with the earnings from his work, and had installed central air conditioning in their house.  My mother thought my sister should consider going back to school, because she worried always about a woman not having the ability to get a job that you could support yourself and your children on, because (as was my mother’s experience), you just never know what could happen.

Me, I was doing my student teaching and graduation was the light at the end of the three year tunnel I’d been in of being a single parent and going to college.  It was going very, very well and I was building my confidence daily.

My mother had a boyfriend these days and a new sense of what was really important.  Her cancer scare last November had shaken her up enough to really prioritize quitting smoking.  It wasn’t easy.  She discovered that the habit was so ingrained, she had to find new things to do with her hands.   Plus, the smoking was as much situational and social as it was truly a need for nicotine; she found her urges the most strong when she went out for drinks with her girlfriends.  Fortunately, her girlfriends were so supportive that they all started sucking lollipops with their wine spritzers instead of smoking around her.  And these few months later, she was feeling confident that this time, her addiction was in her control.   She had never gone this long in her life without smoking since she’d started.

I wanted to give my mother a gift that she would always look back on and remember this night.  The happiness of all of her children around her, all of her grandchildren, the positive feeling of us all doing well.  I wanted it to be special.  My mother loved jewelry; she had about eighty pairs of earrings, varying from cheap costume jewelry to more expensive, semi precious stones.   We agreed to buy my mother amethyst earrings, all of us together.  We didn’t have a lot of money, but between the three of us, we found a pair we could afford.

When we presented the tiny box after a rich meal at the local steakhouse that night, she started to cry.  My mother, who had been through much in her life, hardly ever cried.  It just wasn’t her style; she was a master at the Public Mask and Keeping It All In.  But that night, her emotions were on her sleeve.  I told her that the gift was from all of us, and we wanted it to always remind her how grateful we were to her for always being there for us, for being our champions, and for never giving up on any of us, no matter how dire the circumstances looked.

“Thank you,” she said simply.  “Thank you.  I will never forget this night.”

Mission accomplished.

Noisy Kids and Little Stars

I looked around at the raucous noise in the second grade classroom and smiled.

Normally, that would not be the case.  Quiet was king, even in a class with kids this little.  Quiet meant control, quiet meant things were being accomplished by my small humans.  Quiet meant they were doing what I asked them to do, not what they naturally wanted to do.  There were any number of ways to achieve quiet control in the classroom, and I was slowly learning how to achieve it.

But not today.

Today, I was asking for the students to make noise.  I was teaching my first observed lesson of my student teaching semester.  A professor from the university came out three times during my time with these students and watched me teach.  These three observations, combined with the report from my cooperating teacher Kathy, would comprise my grade.

I had chosen to teach a science lesson about sound.   In order to do this, I had students bring in lots of items that would normally be thrown out or recycled at home:   old toilet paper tubes, milk jugs, tubs of margarine, plastic soda bottles.  I brought in things like rubber bands, rice, beans, and marbles.  Together with the students, we talked about how sound was created, and then I asked them how sound could be created with the disparate items in front of us today.  From there, we talked about how sound came from air or impact.  I brought in my own flute, a drum of Zach’s and borrowed a maraca from the music teacher down the hall to demonstrate the concept with real instruments.  Using the real instruments as an example, and keeping the ideas of air and impact in mind, the students then were tasked with creating their own musical instrument out of the items we had assembled.

My cooperating teacher loved the lesson and was enthusiastic about turning over the classroom for it.  Other second grade teachers came to peek in our classroom and asked me for the lesson plans so they could replicate the lesson with their students.  I was over the moon that my lesson was a success and that it was being noticed by others in the building.  The grade from my professor was important, but at this stage in the game, more important was the positive reputation I was earning amongst the teachers at the school; teachers who I hoped would want me on their staff next year should a position open up.

“Teacher, can we learn science like this all of the time?  This isn’t like learning, this is fun!” little Donna asked me as she gleefully shook her Land O Lakes tub full of rice and beans.

“Donna, that’s the great news,” I told her.  “You can.  Science is all around you, every day.”

I’d made learning fun.  I’d hit the sweet spot.

Busy Gears

Busy Gears.

That was the hit gift of choice for my two year old son that Christmas.  A big plastic board with dozens of holes in them, in which you could place big spools and wheels and levers which all could work together to make a hugely technical, mechanical fun toy that was different each day because you could set up the wheels, spools and levers in a million different ways.

My mother had quit smoking.  Gone were the cigarettes from every photo.  Instead, she sucked on lollipops and chewed nicotine gum, having taken very seriously the doctor’s warning that she would indeed find herself diagnosed with cancer soon if she didn’t.  She felt very keenly that she had been given a chance that she didn’t expect and took it; she approached the Christmas holiday that year with gusto, decorating the tiny townhome we shared with every possible holiday knick knack we owned.  She even purchased new ones.

She asked my father to come over on Christmas morning, as he had the previous year.  My sister and her husband and baby daughter would come, and my brother too.  My father was going to make a big Christmas breakfast for all of us and bring over his gifts and we would all celebrate together, as a family.   Last year, my brother hadn’t been home.  But this year, he’d been discharged from the Navy, and was living in an apartment not far away.   So this year, we would all be together, for the first time in years.

It was a happy time, that Christmas.  My son was at that great age of toddlerdom when every toy seems like the most amazing thing ever created, and his obvious joy lifted every one up.  My sister’s daughter was smiling and sitting up and eager to try and keep up with her older cousin.  My father took over the kitchen and made Eggs Benedict for all of us.  There was a warmth and an ease between all of us that had been missing for much too long.  There were no more angry words between my parents.  My father held his tongue when he searched for the pans in the messy cabinets, and my mother held hers as my father too scrupulously scrubbed out the pans afterwards.   Nobody yelled about money, or who was doing what, or wasn’t doing something else.    We all instead enjoyed the company, the camaraderie, and the happy plans we’d all started making for the New Year.

So interesting that here we were, with all the same people, but arranged in such a different way.  Just like the busy gears that amused my son so much, when we found the right configuration that worked for our family, the wheels turned unimpeded, and we all worked together towards a happy holiday that year.

We were busy.  And we had finally gotten ourselves together and in gear.

Second Grade or Bust

It was 9am in mid December, 1991.  I was going to visit the school where I would be student teaching in January and meet the teacher that I had been assigned to.  I had been told her name was Kathy, and that she was a second grade teacher.   I was also told she was 29, which made her much younger than I thought anyone willing to accept a student teacher should be.

The idea with student teaching is that you learn the nuances of the craft at the hands of an experienced teacher, kind of like an apprentice.  There were a million and one little tricks that a teacher employed in a classroom, and they varied from grade level to grade level.  Almost none of them had been taught to me in my methods classes.

I wasn’t entirely pleased with my second grade placement; I intended on building my career in later elementary or middle school.  But since I’d already taught in a sixth grade classroom and a fourth grade classroom, second grade was the logical place to go for my K-8 degree.

Upon entering the school, I immediately started comparing it to my other two assigned buildings.  Even though this school was actually in the same school district where I’d attended school myself, this was the most affluent district I’d taught in.  My previous experiences had been in an inner city school and an inner ring suburb.  For the most part, our school district was middle class, with some more upscale enclaves.  This particular building was older but in good repair; the hallways were covered with carpet, not the cold tile I’d seen in the other two buildings.  In the previous school I’d been in, the desks were old, the buildings had seen better days and were crowded.  As I walked down the hallway here, colorful decorations were affixed to the walls and hanging from the ceilings; the other buildings had been less decorated, and more stark.  This building oozed warmth and welcoming; there were desks and the odd chair or two in the hallway with parents working with children or cutting out laminated letters.  I’d not seen any parent volunteers at either of my two previous schools.

I knocked on Kathy’s door.  I had been asked to come during her preparation period, when the students were at music.  This left her with half an hour to speak to me before she had to go pick up her students.

“Hi, you must be Amy,” she said as I stood in the doorway.  “Come on in.”

I fell in love immediately with what I saw on the other side of the door.  The room looked comfortable and cheerful.  There was more artwork affixed to the walls and hanging from the ceilings; holiday decorations.  The desks were grouped in small groups of four.

“Yes, I am.  You must be Kathy,” I responded.  She was young, definitely.  But she had a take charge attitude and an easy mastery of the job that she had been doing for the last six years.  She told me she’d done exactly what I was doing; taken a position student teaching in this building, and it translated to the position she had now.  She talked to me about the math and science concepts we’d be studying in January, and how she tried to make every lesson in the day translate to these concepts; if they were studying the water cycle, they did math problems about water, read stories about underwater adventures, took field trips to the water treatment plant, etc.  I nodded eagerly, taking notes.

She was eager to know about me, so I was honest with her about the fact that I had a young son but lived at home with my mother.  She was polite and interested, but didn’t ask intrusive questions.  I told her about my GPA and my previous experiences, where they had been (“Wow,” she said as I recounted Highland Park to her), the things I’d already taught.  When I told her about my pen pal unit, I told her that the teacher I’d worked with actually taught at the high school here, and that he was already interested in working on a “book buddies” type of pairing between his classes and hers.  She seemed impressed that I’d already thought of things to do with her students, and offered to allow me to walk with her down to the music room so that I could meet them before I left.

As I walked down the hall with Kathy, I could feel my old excitement bubble up in me.  I couldn’t wait to come here and get started teaching.  The building brimmed with enthusiasm and energy.  I could picture myself here next year, with my own kids and own classroom, hanging up the students’ artwork after school and checking my mailbox in the office.  It was nearly here; soon, I was going to start the rest of my life.

The Waiting Room (A Different One This Time)

I was alone in the hospital waiting room.  My mother was in surgery somewhere in the hospital, with a tube down her throat, having a brochoscopy.  The doctors said this test would show whether or not the abnormalities they were seeing on her x rays were cancerous or not.

The doctors were extremely optimistic that this situation was not a big deal.  They were so optimistic, in fact, that my sister did not even take the day off of work for the surgery.  Since I was only student teaching half days, it was less of a problem for me to miss that than my sister’s paying job.  My mother told my brother to do the same, not to miss his paying job for the outpatient procedure.  My mother didn’t seem too worried at all that morning either, joking with me as I walked next to her gurney towards the doors of the surgical unit.

But sitting there alone that November day, I was anything but optimistic.  I was flat out scared.   I was the youngest person by far sitting here in the waiting room; every other person was at least twenty years older than me or more.  I didn’t know how to process the situation; I couldn’t marry the optimism of my elders with the facts of the situation.

I knew the odds were incredibly high that my mother would develop cancer at some point; she was a three pack a day smoker.  Every photo I had of her shows her with a cigarette in her hand.  She smoked all day at work, even though there was now a law saying she had to go outside to do it; everyone on the floor looked the other way and the smokers simply came to her office instead of going down 19 floors to the out of doors. She smoked so much that when she was pregnant with my sister that her doctor actually told her quitting smoking would be more stressful and harmful to the baby than the smoking.  At that point, she had been cutting  her cigarettes into pieces and smoking one fourth of a cigarette every fifteen minutes using tweezers.  My mother was a nicotine addict, and had been for a very long time.  Why was I the only person freaking out here?

“Hey.”  I looked up to see my friend Karen come into the surgical waiting room.  I was so relieved she was here.  While everyone else was willing to believe the doctors and their “no big deal” assessment, Karen didn’t like the idea of me sitting in that room all alone, imagining the worst case scenario for two hours.

“Hey, Karen.  Thanks for coming.”    Karen gave me a sympathetic smile.  We made small talk, she talking about her job at the local vet clinic.   Karen had decided to get a two year degree as a veterinary technician when we returned from college after our freshman year.  She wasn’t sure she wanted to be a full fledged vet, but she wasn’t sure yet what really else she wanted to do either.  The two year degree allowed her to get a job and earn money with the animals while she figured out her path.   I talked to her about where I’d been placed for winter term for student teaching; in a stroke of luck, I’d been put into an elementary school two miles from where I lived, in my own school district.  It was going take me longer to take Zach to daycare every morning than it would take me to drive to work.  I was very excited about this; your student teaching assignment often gave you a leg up in the school district for jobs the following year.  This meant that I might be lucky enough to get a job where I lived next fall.

The chit chat kept me distracted, and before I knew it, the surgeon appeared in front of us to give me the news.

“You’re mother is fine,” he smiled.  “She came through the surgery beautifully.  We didn’t find anything.”

I blinked in disbelief.  Nothing?  How was that even possible?  “Really?  I am sorry, I don’t understand.  How could there be something on the x ray that isn’t actually there?”

“Well,” the doctor began, “Sometimes there are malformations in our systems that are completely normal and don’t interfere with function.  We think this is the case with your mother.  We saw an abnormality, and with your mother’s history, we had to do our due diligence and investigate it further.  But we saw nothing.  That being said, your mother is at very, very high risk for developing cancer .  She absolutely has to quit smoking.”

“Oh, I completely agree,” I answered.  “I’ve been after her for years.”

“A nurse will come get you in a few minutes when your mother comes out of the anesthesia, and then you’ll be able to take her home.”

“Thank you, doctor.” I said, and watched him breeze out of the surgical waiting room.

“Wow,” said Karen.  “Looks like your mom dodged a bullet.”

“I can’t believe it,” I answered .  “I can’t.  But hopefully this will be her wake up call.”

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