Monday, October 26, 2015

Temporarily derailed or a side trip

The trip got pushed back.  The Tewksbury/Anne road trip will not take place until April, Anne Sullivan’s birthday month.  It seems she likes to keep me active around her birthday.

I do have more Anne stories, but first I will take a side trip.

In the beginning, long ago at the start of my teaching life is when this story takes place.

The time is 1975.  I am a green, fresh out of college, idealistic, a city kid, jumping at the first job offer teacher.

The setting is at The Mount Pleasant Regional Center in the center of the Michigan mitten.  Before it was a state hospital for “retarded” children it was the Mount Pleasant Indian Industrial Boarding School established in 1892. (Wiki)  Native American Children were taken from their families to be trained or better said to be “untrained” from their heritage.

The time is my fresh out of college, Polly Anna, I got my first job chapter.

There is much back-story here.  It could read like a Little House on the Prairie when Laura becomes a teacher story, only this was 1975.  I could tell you how I lived in a woman’s residence with a moose head on the porch, in a town that had a Maple Syrup Festival.  It could tell how I went from being a city mouse to a country mouse and how altering that was.

But it is the story of my “emergent/idealist teacher” that is of interests here.  The cast of characters are the heart of the story.   It features two ingĂ©nue teachers, my self and my friend Claudia.  We seem center to the narrative, perhaps not.

The truth is like Dorothy in the Wizard of Oz, our fellow travelers on the road, the cast, the Lion, Tim Man and Scarecrow etc. are critical to the journey.

By some random event, (pulling a class list from a coffee can), I was assigned the highest functioning students at the regional center.  Most of these children, my students, had malingered there for years.  It was life how they knew it, the,  “it is what it is” of the times.

Home to them a cinder block world, with bars on the windows, where the once lush pond had been drained dry, a pond in reference named after a run away girl, who they feared had drowned at the bottom.

She was found.  She became one of my students, a dark eyed fey thing looking like the Roma people, tethered forever to perception and her own sordid narrative.

Yes the casts of characters were these young folks who were “my student’s”, as important to my Dorothy as her traveling colleagues.

Lonnie, David, Stevie, Charlotte, Leon, Richard, Mary, Mary K, Jon, Becky, David, Gene, Roy J…etc.  Heart grabbing kids, heart stirring stories.

We were hired just after the pl 94-142 mandate, requiring that “all” children have a right to an education. (Rights and dreams are not equal…just saying.)

So right there on the grounds of the American Horror Story setting of the state hospital, in what was once upon a time the chapel, to the incarcerated Native American children was our classroom.

So how is it going to be that that in that rat bastard hell hole of a building that groaned with ghosts and age, with leaded pealing paint, dusting about, well how I am there teacher going to get them to dream themselves out of the snake pit life.

The law might mandate, but these are the caged birds that had forgotten their songs.

Claudia and I were like-minded, idealists from ethnic Catholic back grounds, who had come of age during the Age of Aquarius. Both of us had marched for causes, sang the soundtrack to the Man of La Mancha and believed Camelot to be truth not legend.

Working at the state hospital and the inequities of these children’s lives (residents as they were called) agitated the angst of our youth and or ardor for justice.

We had met at The Bird, for happy hour. We were not happy, the libation freeing my rant to righteousness.

 I pontificate, “ The paint is dusting down, peeling from the ceiling.  The classroom hasn’t been painted since forever.  I think it was once upon a time white but now it is just Jaundice yellow from age. The intermediate won’t paint the school as it is leasing the building, the sate wont paint the building as it is being leased to intermediate. I offered to pay for the paint. Alas it has to be painted by the unionized workers, and you have to use “state paint.” (This was my youthful introduction to the hoops, the quagmire of educational bureaucracy.  Got to say in my forty years of teaching they never lowered the hoops.  I tried my best to adjust my jump but the hoops seemed to get raised higher all the time.)

Claudia egged me on!  She had after all been a maiden in her high school production of Camelot, might makes right and all that.  (It is also true that her glasses were literally rose tinted.)
It was not the liqueur that gave us Dutch courage… but it did perhaps factor into out inability to see the big picture.

We had keys, very serious looking keys with engraved numbers state issued keys to the school.  We had closets full of primary color paint stored in the cabinet at school.  We decided to let ourselves in and paint a rainbow on the wall, awaken dreams… ‘‘There’s a land that I’ve dreamed of once in a lullaby.”

There was no stealth to this mission.  We just sauntered in the back door at 7:00 pm at night, to my classroom in “the chapel”, as the building was still called in a leftover sort of way.

Upon our entrance, we found the residents/students…oh come on…. the children from Cottage 1 (more euphemisms for snake pit) watching a film in the main room of the building.  (Could it possibly have been The Wizard of Oz, my mind movie of the night wishes this so, but fear I fantasize.)

Some of the students from my class were there watching the movie.  When they caught sight of us they came to assist us in our muraling.  It became our graffiti of dreams, we were tagging, tagging love, tagging dreams.  We painted a rainbow and Jack’s beanstalk so he could climb the rainbow.  And just in case a few butterfly’s so they could soar to the sky, to dreams.

It was lovely!  Our rainbow, more lovely the next day when the students upon arrival to school oohing and awing let me know that we had succeeded in taking the taint off the fade of the building.  We had cleansed some of the narrative.  Maybe the students could begin to see themselves somewhere else…somewhere “where troubles melt like lemon drops.” 

When Lonnie arrived in his wheel chair, in his usual curled up cerebral palsy womb posture, for the first time ever I saw him lift his head, and in a voice I for once could comprehend he said, “rainbow! “

Magic mission accomplished!  Onto dreams…

Alas…I did not know if you leapt through a bureaucratic hoop you would be chastised!  Or that circumventing the hoop all together was the riskiest game of all.

“Come to my office…” Nothing in my Catholic school girlhood gave me reason to think this was a good request from the supervisor of the program.  Come to my office…
He was movie star handsome, I was schoolgirl gawky, my only other work experience had been as a domestic servant or a waitress.  I was playing with the big dogs now.

Sitting behind his desk, in his tailored suit with his piercing blue eyes looking both causal and professional he looked me over, not unkindly.  But he was after wearing a suit.  He was a suit, there to serve as the wizard and I was the girl in the gingham blue frock.

 “Bring me the broom of the witch…”  “You defaced state property and you need to wash the rainbow off the wall. Consider this a verbal reprimand.” (An apparent gift as opposed to a written one.)

And so it was to be.  My friend, my Tinman souled, once upon a time handmaiden from Camelot, Claudia…well the tint went off the rose.  She wanted to quit her job.  She could not work somewhere where the needs of children weren’t prioritized.  She was all for fighting the windmill…( reason did not prevail, but if she left who would tend these children, so she stayed.)

Me…I just went back to the land of the little people, the students.  We got buckets and rags and together washed away the rainbow.  In reflection, I suppose I drew them into the wizard’s folly.  But perhaps it was some mystical alchemy that after we scrubbed the walls that a glimmer of red, yellow, orange and green remained.  The students could still see the faint glow all dreamy like on the wall, dreams once claimed are impermeable.

And that is the story of Claudia and I in the our Somewhere Over the Rainbow, beginning of our teacher lives, change the world story…it never really ends…

But alas, there is an end in sight.  Not for me, yet, but for my Sancho Panza, Man of LaMancha Camelot fair handmaiden.

Claudia moved to Paradise Michigan.  She worked for Protection and Advocacy for Special needs children, was a resource teacher, and went on to momdom taking her boys on magical beach adventures.  She went as often as possible to a local musical event called the Blissfest.  She has been seen walking the shores of Lake Superior in sparkly garb wearing fairy wings.   The morning sunset that she went to the beach to see each day was her caffeine for the day and flits about cheerfully like a hummingbird seeking nectar.  Just days after she was hired to become Superintendent of Paradise schools

(You see she was making a redemption narrative…she would be the boss and everyone could paint those rainbows on any and every wall) she was diagnosed with a pancreatic tumor.  On the day that
U of M gave her the news a rainbow appeared in the sky.  I saw it, she saw it…it had that translucent fade like the one on our school wall all those years ago.

She leaves, to go over the rainbow…me…I remain in the afterglow…like Lonnie, eyes upward…to dream bigger for me, for the world and now that I have an soon to be angel friend, I am energized to defy gravity and leap through hoops.

And I am pretty certain that in the end our rainbow was a legacy to a better world with more hope and dreams.