SUBJECT: CLASSROOM INCIDENT NOV. 30, 4:32 PM
I wish I could say I was up at the whiteboard this morning, on my feet, differentiating clauses and verb choices for students, making their sentences pop with a medley of dry-erase colors. Instead I’m bunkered into the corner of my classroom typing a defense of my lesson. A hindrance on my time and yours, I’m sure, but such is the case when the whole of your reputation’s suddenly at stake.
The issue: a set of beliefs that are, how should I say, unique among thirteen-year-olds. Imagine my shock learning that I have a believer in my 7th grade classroom, the first one in a decade teaching. Such details should be declared on a child’s health form. My slideshow yesterday, “What I Did over Thanksgiving Break,” upset this particular student so badly that she went home in tears, I’m told. The parents are furious with me, and have since taken to social media to disparage my good name. Never mind contacting me directly. They let the middle school community at large judge and shame me on Facebook, without rebuttal, piling vitriol the likes of which have not been witnessed since Judas kissed Jesus at Gethsemane.
‘Tis the season, though, right? It’s almost December, and we’re all in the holiday spirit. My student teacher, Ms. Clark, who has replaced me at the whiteboard until I’m finished settling the matter, is wearing her snowflake Shih Tzu sweater, complete with sleigh bells that jingle when she leans over. She’s made of moxie, this one, and has been chomping at the bit to head a lesson. And the first-period students are working well for her so far, bless their hearts, though I suspect they sense that their teacher back here in the corner is in a bit of hot water.
Here’s what happened. At the start of class yesterday, I prompted students to take out a pencil and write what they did over the five-day Thanksgiving Break. Standard, straight-forward, easy peasy. All pencils were down in five minutes. So I fired up the overhead projector and launched into the response I’d prepared: a slideshow—attached below—detailing my family’s trip to the B&O Railroad Museum in Baltimore. The students, Ms. Clark among them, were surprised, I think, to see that I resembled a normal adult human, no tie or jacket, walking from the parking lot with my wife and son. You can see for yourself in the pictures. There’s Connor, six years old, wearing a robe over plaid pajamas, cute as Kevin McCallister. Notice him traipsing about the St. Elizabeth No. 4, chattering with other children, in line to board the antique car. Bright-eyed. Golden ticket in hand. He believes he’s boarding the real Polar Express, en route to the North Pole. Tickets for this event were pricier than what I’d typically dole out for a weekend excursion, especially this close to Christmas, but my wife, Corinne, took care of pointing out that the museum curators had done an admirable job dressing up the platform and interiors with apt Zemeckisian details: the nippers that punch a letter into your ticket, the night-sky drapes covering the windows, the choreographed steps and adorning chef’s hats of the women who served us hot chocolate. Look at Corinne in that last slide: a photo of all three of us together with Santa in “The North Pole,” a.k.a. The Roundhouse. That’s my wife in her glory, mission accomplished, radiating more Christmas mojo than any child in that building.
Then there’s me, beside her, palming the book’s iconic sleigh bell. Symbol of the true believers. Connor didn’t feel like holding it, so I bore it for him, unironically. By then I was intellectually drained. For nearly two-and-a-half hours he had constantly inquired about the logistics of our magical journey: Daddy. How do you know that this is the real Polar Express? Daddy. Where are the blinds down? DADDY. Shouldn’t there be snow in the North Pole? Getting desperate, I discreetly asked Corinne if we should tell him that this was only just pretend, but she said no, who was I to spoil the magic?
Relating all this to students yesterday, I actually admitted, in one of those lucid, light-switch moments that tend to spark upon reflection, that it’s exhausting, frankly, maintaining this Santa fantasy. Especially at Connor’s age. I mean, you’d hate to snuff his belief in an omnipresent old man—the leverage he wields in December is a lifeline in itself—but how detrimental do you think it is, cognitively, to defer to magic wherever reasoning falls short? Good point, Connor. The train only took us one way. That’s why Santa had to snap us back to Baltimore. So that we could find our car and get home before the Ravens game. Seriously. At what point does a formative mind adapt to general deference? When should we stop oversimplifying a complex world for children? I posed these questions in earnest to the students, and though not a single hand went up, other than maybe to use the bathroom, I did not consider it a loss. Such relief had come to me, telling the story, that I managed to save myself a twenty-dollar copay at my therapist’s office this week.
Sorry. Most of you are far too busy to wade through another school email. I know we all face criticism at times, but it’s beyond hurtful and humiliating, honestly, to be characterised on Facebook as this malevolent teacher. My fingers tremble over the keyboard. It’s almost lunchtime now—I’m afraid I’m a very slow writer—but fortunately for us, Ms. Clark seems like a natural winging today’s lesson. She has started the students on a dramatic adaptation of A Christmas Carol, assigning everyone a book and a role and reading the stage directions with a pinch of Victorian spice. Or at least attempting to. She rather sounds like the lovechild of Ron Weasley and a Pennsytucky mudblood. But the kids are eating it up. That’s what matters. That’s why, when it comes to Santa Claus and Christmas, we grown-ups jump through hoops of logic and virtue believing that, at year’s end, a spoonful of sugar helps the Crucifixion go down.
It pains me seeing the believer. She's here now, slouched over her desk in the back row, as usual, so shy and silent that I often forget she’s even here. Bless her heart. How horrified she must’ve been yesterday when her house of cards came tumbling down. Had I known she still believed in Santa, I wouldn’t have had the same discussion. Would’ve scrapped the whole slideshow, probably. But she didn’t come to me with a label. Nor was my Mom-Mom Dotty around to foresee such an outlier. Only this morning, scrolling through Facebook, did I realize what I’d done to her.
Hand to God, I’d only meant to share something meaningful with the students, to show them that amidst the glitz and glamor of Christmas, we’re all struggling. Students, parents, teachers alike. I apologize to any family whose holiday I’ve affected.
Sorry, too, for this long email.
P.S. As the buses are pulling in for dismissal, I’d like to commend Ms. Clark, who is currently plopped in a swivel chair combing the pills off her Shih Tzu, for surviving the brunt of instruction today. Well done, young lady! Tomorrow we’ll return to business as usual :)
SUBJECT: RE: CLASSROOM INCIDENT DEC. 1, 5:42 PM
It’s Wednesday morning, class is underway, and here again my bottom’s glued to the padded cushion of my chair.
I shouldn’t have been surprised to see my principal, Mr. Marketto, feet-up on my corner desk reading a Sports Illustrated as I arrived to school. My slideshow, “What I Did over Thanksgiving Break,” has continued its whirlwind across Facebook threads, escalating last night from one parent’s timeline to the Residents of Centreville page, where hundreds have now weighed in. Phone calls have been made to the school. Mr. Marketto said that if I had simply followed protocol for addressing irate parents, this whole scandal would’ve blown over. I said, that’s funny, in my ten years teaching I’ve never heard of such protocol. He claimed it’s more of a de facto thing and wrote down a list of objectives for me to satisfy with this follow-up.
Consider this email a mulligan.
1. I should start by apologizing (again) to any parent whose child my slideshow affected. For the beliefs of the child are the province of parents and parents alone. Whether these beliefs conflict with his or her edification, that’s not my problem. I’m especially sorry that, for at least one student, I all but desecrated Santa Claus. Struck a match to the kindling beneath his boots and walked away. From the whole of my cantankerous, Grinchy heart, I’m sorry.
2. I admit that it was unprofessional of me to neglect my instructional duties to the students yesterday. From now on I promise to check my baggage at the door, as Marketto puts it, and remain on my feet from bell to bell attending students. Starting tomorrow. There’s protocol to satisfy. And really, I’d be remiss to leave you thinking that the kids’ time with Ms. Clark yesterday was a wash. She may not look a minute over twenty-one, but I dare say she’s made a breakthrough in our second day reading the Christmas Carol play. Two handmade puppets have joined her at the helm, the urchins Want and Ignorance, crafted from paper mache and potato sacks. Perfect Dickensian symbols for the week I’m having. They must’ve have taken her all evening to make, but the students love them. Especially as Ms. Clark props Ignorance up on her lap like a ventriloquist dummy and squeaks out text-dependent questions. wHAt mAkES tHaT ScRooOOge bLoKE suCh a MoOoySAH, EH? She stands up to write “miser” on the board while I’m back here splitting a seam. What a natural.
3. A final apology is in order for the unbecoming tone of my email yesterday. Namely, the veiled criticism of parents of middle school “believers.” My words apparently conveyed superiority, which, Marketto claims, create an air of hostility and resentment detrimental to developing positive relationships—the very foundation of educating children.
A word on airs and hostility, folks. When you go on Facebook and refer to me as a “defiler of childhood innocence”—language leveling me with the worst of the worst—you forgo a measured response. I’m a human being, after all. I also happened to be tenured.
Being honest, I can’t help but perseverate on the Santa issue. It’s personal, urgent, and so malignant that the mere notion of lying makes me simmer. Before they separated, many years ago, my mom would accost my dad with evidence of his indiscretions. Paid bar tabs. Motel room keys. You get it. Dad just crossed his arms and denied everything. Mucked up her mind. The gaslighting got so bad that some nights I’d find her scrunched-up on the sofa, tugging her hair.
UGH. Why can’t I click send and move on with my day? For goodness’ sake. It’s already third period, and Ms. Clark’s sucking on lozenges two at a time to maintain her urchin’s brogue. The believer’s slouched in her back-row seat, as usual, too soft-spoken for anyone to hear. And my therapist is texting me insisting I come in later for an emergency appointment—he’s on Facebook, too, apparently—but at this rate I doubt I can make it to 6:30.
Get this. My Mom-Mom Dotty was a prophet and a palm reader. One summer day in 1980, quarter after one, she turned off The Young and the Restless on a hunch and foresaw, in a flash vision, President Reagan being shot outside of a hotel. Called the FBI about it and everything. Shortly after, with Dad on the prowl and Mom holed up in her new apartment, I went to live with Mom-Mom for a few months. She didn’t believe you needed a therapist or Zoloft to survive divorce. Not when you’ve got a bottle of rosé handy and a twelve-year-old to confide in. We’d stay up until 2 a.m., criss-cross applesauce on the Berber with our knees touching, eyes closed, palms up, discerning prophecy from the myriad visions that popped into my head. Later I told my friends at school what Mom-Mom had told me—that I’d been born with second sight. The looks I got, I’m sure, are the same ones a 7th grader gets venerating Santa at the lunch table.
More insidious, I realize now, was the way my Mom-Mom dismissed any peer of mine who didn’t believe what we did. The labels she gave them. Snickers. Wretches. Tards. “That tard who sits by you in Science,” she’d start, “Jeremy Whatshisnuts. He came to me in a vision. He’s a balding fixture at the penny slots over to Dover. He’s all day pulling levers and stretching his sweatpants. But go on believing that his opinion of you’s actually worth a damn.” In her house it was always us versus them. And though she managed to inflate my self-esteem—and would, with respect to Jeremy Corder at least, prove to be spot-on in her predictions—the world outside of Dotty’s Divinations became a slippery slope to navigate.
There goes the bus bell, thank God. The students are shoving off to their lockers in the hallway, leaving Ms. Clark to sit in here like a cooked turkey. She’s glaring at me from the whiteboard, bless her heart. Did she imagine my job a cake walk? Not to worry, though. I’ve satisfied protocol and then some, and tomorrow will see me resume instructional duties. Promise!
Sorry, again, for the long email.
P.S. Words cannot convey how grateful I am for the emails of support and affirmation gracing my Inbox these past twenty-four hours. Some of you really do appreciate me. Thank you. You are the glue holding me together.
SUBJECT: RE: RE: CLASSROOM INCIDENT DEC. 2, 10:14 PM
Alas, dear parents, this woeful saga continues.
Since yesterday evening, the Board of Education has received two formal complaints regarding my professional conduct. One of them, I kid you not, citing “anti-Christian rhetoric” in my emails and classroom discussions. Do you really think of me as the Devil?
I know this because our Assistant Superintendent, Dr. Leigh Garvey, stopped by the middle school this morning seeking an audience of one. Two if you count Marketto. She sat us down in the principal’s office and demanded, in no uncertain terms, that I stop this email nonsense at once and work toward the higher purpose of educating students. You know, the thing she’s paying me to do. It was the Riot Act, ubiquitous in these parts, and like a kid sent out to the hallway, I could only stare at my feet hearing it, nodding here and there.
Of course, only after she’d adjourned the meeting did the words to my defense come to mind. What I would’ve said in Marketto’s office had I not clammed up. They’re cascading through my fingertips now, which is why, with all due respect to Dr. Garvey, I’m CC’ing her in this final email.
The fact is—and it shames a teacher to admit this—that the students’ genial attitude toward me has begun to turn. I noticed it first Tuesday, when a number of them ignored my morning greeting, walked away when I said stop, couldn’t look me in the eye when I spoke to them directly. The behavior escalated yesterday. More cold shoulders. My Swingline and name plaque went missing from my desk after lunch. I spotted three or four red hats bobbing in the hallway. Maybe worst of all, my favorite poster of Poe, which I picked up years ago from 7th Street in Philadelphia, was vandalized with goat horns in permanent marker.
Santa Slayer. Child Defiler. What did you all expect slinging names like that online? Hatred’s what it is, unadulterated, and notably unopposed. It’s infecting our 7th graders like a virus. And we’ve already suffered a casualty: Ms. Clark, student teacher extraordinaire, had to call in sick today. Now in lieu of a decent instructor, I’ve had to prematurely pop on Brian Henson’s 1992 musical adaptation of A Christmas Carol. Which, if you haven’t seen it, imagines Kermit the Frog as Bob Cratchet. And Michael Caine, portraying Scrooge, as a passable singer. Hands-down my favorite holiday movie, but my second-period students have caught me teary-eyed watching the end credits. So embarrassing. I guess I’m a sucker for Muppets. And redemption tales. And wealth distribution.
Santa-gate. That’s the word for it. It’s waking me up at 3 a.m. To think a five-minute phone call back on Monday would’ve settled the issue, full stop. Just seeing the girl in my classroom triggers me. I know it shouldn’t. We’re into third period now, and she’s perfectly upright and aglow at her back-row desk, immersed in the movie. Her eyes are crescent moons—“smiley eyes,” as Mom-Mom Dotty used to call them—fixed to the jolly, bearded Spirit of Christmas Present. You wonder if she still believes, despite my slideshow Monday. Despite the lunch table chatter in the cafeteria. All empirical evidence to the contrary. She’s hardly the slouch I’m used to seeing, anyway. I give her that.
It’s really not her I’m upset with. None of this is her fault.
I remember when my mom had smiley eyes, too. She was a storyteller, like Mom-Mom, specializing in anecdotes and tall tales. More likely than not she’d muddle the two, to her own amusement. Then rosé came into play after the divorce, and fact and fiction became nearly impossible to distinguish. For me, anyway.
One night in her apartment—I think I was in seventh grade—she opened up in earnest about her childhood, what it was like growing up with a prophet. Worst of all, she told me, was Dotty’s daily list of toldyaso’s. At least two or three of them, hit or miss. The Young and the Restless was taped each afternoon and had to be watched after dinner. Other than that, my mom was mostly left alone. On weekends, when Dotty saw clients outside Baltimore, she’d drop Mom off at some local bookstore for an hour, say in Chestertown, or however long the reading lasted. There was a store called Bookplate that was especially quaint, Mom said, that had an entire glassed-in case of first editions to browse through. She pulled out an old leather-bound one called Divinations, its title lettered in golden filigree, thinking it would spout the same nonsense Dotty did. Turned out to be a story collection.
Mom read the first one, then the second, and the third story she read was about a boy named Dylan who obsesses over his high school crush, discreetly leaving small trinkets wrapped in butcher’s paper and twine on her doorstep every Christmas Eve. In the story, Mom said, Dylan believes that he has given so much of himself over the years that he’s owed some kind of recompense. So the next December 24, he walks up to the doorstep of the house of the young woman, whose name is Judith Ann, bearing a final gift. He knocks. He knows that the house and the acres of barren, frost-kissed cornfields surrounding it belong to her husband and that her husband isn’t home tonight and won’t be until tomorrow. She refuses to answer the door. So with the gift he brought he saws his way inside, finds his Judith hiding in the alcove, blesses her, and works to make a wreath of human limbs to hang over the fireplace.
Mom said she threw the book down and ran out of the store. Took Dotty all day to find her. Just talking about it at the foot of my bed, twenty-five years later, still made her sweat and tremble. I remember saying, Mom, I understand this girl and you have the same name, Judith Ann, but that can’t be more than mere coincidence. She said it was more than the name. Since high school, she said, little porcelain ornaments—reindeers, nutcrackers, mittens—had shown up on her doorstep every Christmas morning. At Dotty’s house for years, then Dad’s. Dotty swore it was an appreciative client of hers who loved giving and, okay, maybe had a little crush. But come on, Mom was making a mountain of a molehill. They argued about it every Christmas.
Now Mom was living on her own, apart from Dad, terrified that Christmas only a few weeks away. I told her I understood—I’d been raised to see the signs, too—but for the next couple days I could only feign concern. Maybe it was my age. Maybe her story. A switch had flipped inside my head, and suddenly I perceived this prophecy, divination, palmistry, for the elaborate hoax it was. Hearing Mom discuss it quickly irritated me. I told her I wanted to spend Christmas Eve at Dad’s house, to prove a point, expecting to see her the next day.
Jesus. This is difficult to write about. Especially hearing the clamor of chairs, chatter and lockers slamming in the hallway. The students at dismissal time, bless their hearts. I envy their innocence. To think they’ll one day shed their blinders and perceive the suffering around them. Some are almost there, I think, in the way they embrace literature and inquiry. Others, regretfully, will be as old as Ebenezer when the spirits finally visit. Let’s hope they break the wheel and act accordingly.
That does it for emails.
P.S. Those who know me may have done a double-take reading this, scratched your head once or twice—felt like your synapses were misfiring. You swear you’ve seen my mother and me together around town, on the sidelines at Connor’s soccer games, in the checkout line at Acme. For all you know, I’ve introduced you to a Judith Ann. I get it. My likeness to her is uncanny. Same eye roll. Same belly laugh. Same knack for telling stories. I mean, I certainly could say she’s alive and well, but then, who am I to spoil the magic?