Enjoy one of your favorite posts from the past until I return to entertain you!
And thank you for your loyal following.
I don’t ask for much from my substitute teacher.
You can ask any of my students: Stroosma’s job is cake.
Silent Reading for 30 to 40 minutes… followed by a nice “book to movie” dvd and his day is done.
So when I left for four weeks in the early spring of 2008 for a Writer’s fellowship in Vermont, I assumed, stupidly, that I could somehow trust that my classroom would run smoothly for the entire time I was gone… as long as I had Stroosma at the helm of the ship.
Stroosma is definitely one of the “beloved.”
A small group of teachers, substitutes, and staff members at Millikan High School that students actually really do enjoy being with…
The kids would be super stoked to have him as their substitute teacher for four weeks.
He’s good looking…
A very talented musician (former fantabulous bass player for the Sea Monsters) and…
My Facebook husband; which earns him TOTAL cool points in my book.
Girls have crushes on him… (and boys too)
Boys want to be like him… (and girls too)
He is “Thee” substitute and the kids know, when walking into the classroom, that “YES! STROOSMA’S HERE TODAY!” and that they are going to have a lovely day of respite from their regularly scheduled teacher.
Now, I’m sure you have already duly noted that I did not mention academics in the above description and this is why…
Don’t get me wrong… academics are important and Stroosma can teach…
But when you’re going to be 1,500 miles away from your students for four weeks… academics runs a FAR distant second to CLASS CONTROL.
You don’t want the Principal rolling around to your classroom every day, amped up because your substitute teacher can’t keep 180 high school students entertained for a 90 minute period… SERIOUSLY… you just don’t.
You need a “show” man…
You need A HEADLINER…
You need a man with a plan that can handle your clan.
And that’s Stroosma.
Sinatra would have wanted him in the “Rat Pack” every day of the week.
So… I spoke to him WAY in advance… because a substitute like Stroosma is always in high demand… and said:
“I’m going to be gone four weeks, and I need you to take my class. All I ask… (and I paused here for emphasis) is that you and the kids don’t burn the room down while I’m gone. Okay?”
Stroosma smiled his little Stroosma smile…
Winked his little Stroosma wink…
And gave me the thumbs up.
“No problem,” he said.
And like a FOOL… I believed him.
Two weeks later I was in Vermont… sitting in a beautiful Victorian house, content in my warm room, looking out the large bay window at the snow falling gently all around me, as I typed out the first full draft of my novel.
The view… serene…
The icy river… crystal crisp.
The rolling snowy hills… the water wheel of the old red mill.
I couldn’t ask for more of a picture postcard moment if I had planned it with God himself when suddenly… it was like a text bomb went off on my phone.
There must have been 30 alerts within 10 seconds and I am not exaggerating.
My students were bombarding me with messages all of which read: STROOSMA JUST ALMOST BURNED OUR ROOM DOWN. COME BACK.
Oh funny… I thought… look how much they miss me… I smiled to myself… they just love to tease me… such a funny game… Aren’t they silly children…. like I can just magically get back to Long Beach in a blink of an eye…. aren’t they just so cute…
I was sure Stroosma must have put them up to this and I’m telling you, I thought that right up until message number 31 which was from Stroosma himself and that’s when my little warm and fuzzy moment fled my little writer’s room and my brain almost exploded from my head:
HEY D, THE ROOM WAS ON FIRE BUT EVERYTHING IS OKAY.
Now… “WTF” was not even being used in text vocabulary at this time… but if I had been in my right mind at that moment… I would have made it up on the spot and typed it to him.
I called immediately.
I started to panic and dialed again.
I dialed again.
My mind was racing…
I could imagine my students, scared to death after their classroom burned down, all lined up next to the chain link fence… out on the field in a School Wide Fire Drill all because I had left to go to the Writer’s Colony in Vermont.
I was a bad teacher.
I had abandoned my flock.
I dialed again.
Stroosma picked up the phone and I heard all of my students shouting and frolicking in the background… their voices not full of terror and pain but ringing with complete and total joy and ecstasy that they had just had a memorable “event” in their English classroom…
“What the hell?” I shouted at Stroosma. “It was the one thing… the ONE thing I told you not to let happen! Shit… Stroosma!”
My students were suddenly silent… my voice can cut through a classroom even when I’m on a cell phone across the Great Divide and though they couldn’t hear the words… they most definitely heard the tone… and like the well-trained students they are… they knew that when Ms. Wood was going “insane” you better shut the fuck up.
Stroosma was silent as well.
“Well?” I snapped. “What the hell happened?”
“We put a pad thai box in the microwave and then forgot about it.”
I waited… unwilling to give him one inch without more description.
“It caught on fire and the smoke started to billow throughout the classroom,” he tried not to stumble on his words.
“IT WAS TURNING AND BURNING” I heard a wise-heimer shout with glee somewhere in the background, followed by a long barrage of slap sounds and shhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhs… vigilantly justice being handed down by the “citizens” while the Sheriff was out of town.
“Nothing happened,” Stroosma said. “Not even the fire alarm.”
I let out a huge sigh of relief knowing that my students were safe, my room was still standing, and my Principal would not be signing my pink slip out of Millikan when I returned to Long Beach.
“Miriam was the one who told me,” Stroosma said.
Miriam… my German foreign exchange student… who could barely hold a basic conversation in English had raised her sweet little hand, pointed her militant little German finger at the microwave, and in heavily accented broken English said… Summ theeeeng ES burn ING!”
I could have had a God damn international incident on my hands because of him.
“You having fun?” He asked.
“Oh yeah…” I said sarcastically. “Great time… getting a lot of good writing done.”
“Okay then,” he said. “Talk to you later.”
I hung up the phone and spent about another 45 minutes retrieving text messages from students who wanted me to know that they loved me, missed me, and thought everything that had just happened was super funny…
I sat back in my chair and watched the clock… as I pictured my classroom back home… sad that I was minutes away from the actual Vermont Ben and Jerry’s factory… and I had none of the children I loved with me….or Stroosma… to go eat some ice cream with and enjoy a good laugh over the day’s event.
Dylan believes that Joe and I bordered on the edge of abusive while raising him.
Not physically… but mentally.
He seems to think games like “Goat Man” and “Sanctuary” and “Mean Mommy” and “I’m Blind” were meant to torment him, but we try to explain that they were just good fun or in some cases… meant to protect and educate.
Dylan was prone to taking off his clothes and running away when he was a baby so Joe, my X, invented “Goat Man” basically, “The Boogie Man” so that whenever Dylan ran away he could shout, “Goat Man! Goat Man!” and Dylan would scurry to the safety of the house. You don’t want your child running around the neighborhood naked. It may have been good fun back in the day, but now…. that’s a big no.
We didn’t think about the lasting effects of “Goat Man” … a monster that would now live forever in our child’s imagination. We just thought “Goat Man” would live until Dylan was old enough to understand that we created G.M. just to protect him. No… we were wrong. Dylan is now 22 years old and if I stood outside in the dark and yelled “Goat Man! Goat Man! Goat Man!” Dylan would still scream and scurry for the safety of the house afraid that a little hoof footed evil man was about to nab him in a matter of seconds.
“Mean Mommy” was one of my games and it was my way of letting Dylan know what was in store for him if he should so happen to cross the line and break Mommy’s rules. Any time he would do something terribly naughty, I would make crazy eyes at him, switch my voice into a high pitched tone and say, “Mean mommy” and Dylan would freak out and beg me to stop afraid that I had gone crazy and might kill him.
I was 26 when I invented this game, not much more of a baby myself… but I would still invent it again right now if it meant Dylan would turn into the great person that I believe him to be today.
So…. the day I invented “Sanctuary” I never thought anything would go terribly wrong…. I just thought it would be fun to beat Dylan with a yellow plastic stick ball bat while shouting “Sanctuary!” dragging my right leg behind me as I pretended to be the Hunchback of Notre Dame while Dylan scurried along the floor screaming “No Quasimodo! NO!”
We were half way through the living room, then rounding the corner of the hallway with Dylan crawling on his hands and knees, while I smacked his butt with the yellow plastic bat as he squealed and giggled with delight and tried to escape me.
At that time, we still had carpet in our home but it was old and worn and in some of the door frames, sharp carpet nails had become exposed due to the many years of heavy foot traffic.
Dylan rounded a corner to hide in a bedroom when the top of his fat, soft, pink baby Fred Flintstone foot, caught on one of the large sharp rusty nails which ripped his foot wide open.
He flipped over, covered his foot in shock and terror, little arms shaking in pain and anger before he looked up at me and screamed, “LOOK WHAT YOU’VE DONE TO ME!”
His face was that of ultimate betrayal.
I thought he was being overly dramatic until he removed his hand and I saw the damage: exposed meat and a fat gaping mouth of a wound.
Joe had come running when he heard the commotion and after seeing the injury, and then giving me a look that could have frozen hell, placed a clean towel over Dylan’s foot, carried him to the car and we rushed him to the emergency room.
They took us straight in and in a matter of minutes, Dylan was sitting on a hospital bed as they took our information and a nurse went to get the doctor.
When the doctor arrived, he asked that Joe and I take a seat in the chairs against the wall and wait while he spoke to Dylan privately. I did not know that this was normal practice, that doctors often speak to children alone to check for child abuse. A police officer from child protective services was also called in to listen. I’m not sure if they just hang out at the hospital waiting for these types of cases or if they called him in specially.
I could see Dylan’s little rounded back… he was still sniffling as children do after a hard cry and his shoulders would pulse up and down every few moments as he tried to catch his breath.
The doctor pulled up a chair and sat down facing Dylan. Because of our location, we could view the doctor’s face, the officer’s face… but nothing of Dylan’s expression.
The doctor said very calmly, “Dylan. Tell us exactly what happened.”
And Dylan replied in broken sobs, “My mom… was BEATING ME… with a Baaaaaattttt.”
You can’t even imagine the look on the doctor’s face… I don’t know if I can even describe it… he looked at me like I was the biggest moron in the world. I swear… it wasn’t a “You are obviously a child abuser” look it was a “How the hell did you come up with such a stupid game like Sanctuary Quasimodo you idiot?”
The child protective officer looked at Joe like he was the devil and I could feel shame radiate from Joe’s entire being before he looked at me and whispered, “We’re so going to jail.”
But we didn’t go to jail. We never went to jail for raising Dylan. They stitched up his foot and sent him home with the crazy woman and the devil after Dylan through broken sobs explained while having his foot stitched up that it was just a game… and that he loved his mom and dad very much.
I’m sure if Dylan is reading this now… he wishes he could go back in time and give us a taste of our own medicine. Maybe a game called, “Send Mommy and Daddy to Jail”
Sound good Dylan?
It wasn’t like I planned to break the law.
I’m a Nationally Certified public educator for Christ’s sake but… sometimes, my inner “I Love Lucy” mixes with my former “Punk Rock Persona” and creates some type of alter-ego that I imagine has a name like, Frankie Smith, who sports wild red hair, drives a 1969 Fastback Chevelle, and has a tattoo of a large sacred heart branded across her chest with the slogan, “Jesus loves you but he’s still working on loving me.”
It was a school night, probably what is referred to as Indian Summer on the East Coast and “Santa Ana Wind” weather on the West. Amy and I were walking in the park after hours. This is something that people are allowed to do but, the Nature Center, a sort of wild life preserve within the park, home to coyotes, opossums, bunnies, snakes, and a slew of water turtles, is gated and locked and off limits after five pm every evening.
We were on the road that meanders next to it… the wind blowing warm… the street lights every hundred yards or so punctuating the silhouettes of the big beautiful trees as they swayed wildly in the wind.
Amy and I were prattling on about something when one of us… I’m not sure who but I would bet money Amy would say, “It was you dork.” Thought it would be a good idea to climb the six-foot chain link fence, break into the Nature Center, and walk the trails through the forested area at night, alone, believing that it would be lovely to have the paths all to ourselves.
Actually, now that I’m writing this… I can say with 100 percent surety that I was the one that came up with this idiotic plan.
But we have been friends for many years and Amy knows how persuasive I can actually be…. and our antics do always end up as really great stories later, so… there’s my justification.
We wandered off the road and walked into the brush by the fence that borders the flood canal. We started to climb the chain link several times but stopped each time we heard a small group of bicyclists passing by us.
Maybe we were paranoid.
Maybe we were having second thoughts.
But by the fourth time of jumping down and squatting in a bush I finally shouted, “Fuck it,” and hustled my ass over the fence and landed cleanly on the other side.
Amy’s face registered a mix of admiration at my clean climb and complete despair when she realized we were actually really going through with this. I stood and waited for her to climb up and over all the while feeling a childlike sense of glee. I had ALWAYS wanted to break into the Nature Center since I was about thirteen-years-old. So many of my friends had already done it in junior high or high school. Some… to make out… some to get high… and some to actually fish the ponds. I felt as Stephen Chbosky once wrote “Infinite” not taking into consideration that I was NOT 13 and “Infinite” but 40 and “finite.”
As soon as Amy jumped safely to my side of the fence, we ran through the brush to the trail and giggled like idiots at our stealth sneakiness. We were criminals. We were law breakers. We were suburban commandos. Seriously? We were idiots. Who the hell does shit like this in their 40’s?
We walked the back path, the one that takes you by what we call “the lake” but actually is about the size of a large pond and watched as the sun began to set right before we came up to the area we called: the pine forest.
Now, the pine forest area is actually quite creepy even during the day time. There is something about it that is reminiscent of the 70’s slasher movies where young “stupids” are often ambushed while walking, or skipping, or chattering lamely through the brush.
Amy and I were no different than these characters. Actually, I think we even commented on how we “felt” like characters in Friday the 13th as we passed the lake and headed to the forest.
We were just turning the bend in the path, that would lead us right next to the woods, when we saw something that will forever stick in my memory as the moment when I thought I would actually die of a heart attack just from viewing something. A large man, dressed entirely in black with a ski mask on, stepped out of the woods, stood firmly on the path, and stared us down before… without a word… he took one step back into the treeline and disappeared.
I’m surprised Amy and I didn’t just simultaneously shit our pants and then pass out.
My mind instantly calculated how fast we could get to the front gate and the security phone and would we be fast enough to defeat our attacker.
I mean come on…. no one survives in the slasher movies. They believe all the way up until the bitter end, even gloat about it, which we all know is the kiss of death, that they got away and then next thing you know Kevin Bacon’s throat has an arrow sticking through it.
It took me barely a split second to look at Amy and scream, “RUN!”
We booked it down the service path, cut across by the bramble bush tunnel, ran past the meadow, over the two bridges to the front gate in what seemed like a moment. Our breathing was rough and raspy, our hearts pounding, unable to keep up with our bodies. Even when we arrived at the well lit, neatly trimmed area by the front office, we still couldn’t stop from turning around and watching our backs sure that we would look across the front pond and see… well… the iconic photo of Jason emerging out of the woods of course.
Now, we knew once we picked up the security phone, the rangers would be there in a matter of seconds, their office we could view across the street but… I didn’t want to call. I could just see the local newspaper headline the next day, “Popular high school teacher arrested for breaking into the Nature Center. Is this the type of Public Servant we want shaping the minds of our children?”
I knocked a large metal trash can over and up-ended it. I shoved it next to the fence and told Amy to hold it while I climbed. Now, to this day, I’m not sure if Amy just didn’t “hear” me say, “Hold the trash can while I climb” or if Amy was feeling a bit passive-aggressive after I convinced her to break into the Nature Center, and then forced her to run from Jason, and now, I was making her wait to be the last person out, expecting her to hold the trash can for me when really… the heroic thing to do on my part was to let Amy climb first, but either way… as I threw my right leg over the fence, Amy did not hold the trash can and the weight of my body pushing up and over, knocked the large green can sideways and sent me tumbling down with it. I was fine until my right ankle, bashed against the rounded rim of the can and then rolled the rest of the way across it as my weight bared down upon it.
I knew immediately that it was broken. It wasn’t broken in the “your ankle is hanging off your foot,” or even “your bone is sticking out of your skin” type of way… but it was definitely inoperable.
I don’t remember if I yelled at Amy… but I probably did…. I was pissed. Mainly at myself but ready to take it out on anyone for that matter… In fact… if I could have walked then… I’m sure I would of picked up a LARGE stick and hobbled back to beat the holy hell out of that guy who scared the shit out of us in the first place.
I had a feeling it was most likely, one of my own high school students anyway, playing paint ball or smoking pot… or forest tag with his friends… and I imagine when he stepped out of the forest, trying to terrify what he assumed to be one of his own cronies and came face-to-face with MY GOD… Ms. Wood my Period Three English teacher… actually shit himself, passed out, and upon awakening ran to the back fence where due to his young age, was able to leap it clean without the help of a trashcan and was probably sitting in the 24-hour Jack in the Box, eating 99 cent tacos and bragging to all of his friends how he got away from “The Man.”
My imagination running wild was actually causing me to become infuriated.
I got up, no help from Amy, (who I shall note one time ALSO let me fall off one of the exercise apparatus at the park stating, “It was too funny not to. You looked just like one of the guys in the Matrix… falling all slow motion and shit”) and rolled the trash can to another gate which had a wide gap at the top and was used as a service truck entrance.
I knew if we could climb up the trash can to the gap, all we would have to do would be to slide through and then use the chain that connected the lock as a foothold on the other side to get down. It worked beautifully and soon we were back in the warmth of the mini-van.
I drove directly to Stephen’s house, my new man at that time, who looked at the state of our clothing, our worn faces, and my ankle which was now twice it’s normal size, completely black and blue and said, “What the hell were you thinking?”
How do you respond to a question like that?
Hey Stephen, well… I was thinking with my 13-year-old brain that breaking into the Nature Center was a GREAT idea!
Or… I was thinking I’m 40 if I don’t do it now… when will I ever do it?
Or maybe.. I was thinking, what a great way to fuck up my friend and my ankle all at once. Hooray for me!
Everything I thought about saying sounded absolutely stupid as I sat on the couch with even his dog looking at me like I was a complete moron before I finally mumbled, “I don’t know.”
Stephen went off to the kitchen to get me an ice bag and Amy started laughing uncontrollably, in that way you do when you know you aren’t supposed to laugh and so you try to hold it in but it just keeps coming out in silent bursts of nervous energy.
I had to go to the doctor the next day of course and yes… I did have a hairline fracture in my ankle which took over two months to heal and about a year and half before it even stopped hurting.
I’m now 46 and yes I still walk in the Nature Center almost daily… and once in awhile as I pass the forest I think of that night where I let myself be deviant and failed.
I can’t lie, it has become a good story… and I feel sorta “outlaw” when I think about it. And I’m glad that Amy was not injured due to my stupidity. But there is something in me that still wishes I hadn’t run… think if I had just convinced Amy to start acting completely insane, and we ran wildly through the forest, middle-aged “Ophelias” gone insane and Mr. Ski-mask could have been the one screaming and running… the idiot falling off the green trash can, in the bright light of the front gate.
It could have been brilliant.