I'd held a baby only once before when I begged my mother to let me hold my brand new cousin.  "First wash your hands, then sit on the sofa," she ordered.  She put Laura in my arms and knelt in front of us.  "Hold your thighs together so you make a lap.   Support her neck, prop up her head, keep your arm under her body, don't breathe in her face.  Careful when you kiss her, watch out for her soft spot." 
"What's a soft spot?" I asked.
"It's the part of her head that covers her brain.  Now lower your voice or you'll startle her."
Laura started to wail.  "Here, take her back, babies have too many rules.”
I steered clear of babies after that and then it happened again.
"Here, my phone is ringing, hold her for a second," my neighbor Lucy said as she thrust her baby, Kiki, into my arms. I was only five years old, a tiny kid myself, sitting on the stoop and munching on a Snicker's.   
I pressed my thighs together to make a lap like I remembered from Laura and, poof, just like that, Kiki flipped out of my arms.  I gripped her ankle; her pink rubber pants flashed the whole neighborhood.  Clutching her leg, I hoisted her up to eye level.  Lucky thing her brain didn't fall out of the soft spot.  When I flipped her right-side up, she looked okay.  Her face was as bright red as a flaming-hot jawbreaker, but her bonnet was still stuck on her head, and she wasn’t bleeding.  
"Kiki," I scolded, "you can't just do a somersault whenever you feel like it."  Kiki was screaming and not paying attention.
"I don't know why she's crying, maybe she missed you," I lied to Lucy, who hadn't seen her baby bungee-jump from my arms.  I was glad Kiki couldn't tell her mother that she was twirling around upside down and almost bounced on the sidewalk.
Over the years, worrying about Kiki's brain caused me many sleepless nights.  My brother's friend, Stevie, went to the hospital after he jumped off his garage roof while playing Superman. My brother, who was very smart, said Stevie had a concussion which meant his brain got jiggled in his skull.  Even though Kiki hadn't  hit the ground, I knew her brain had a good jiggle.  Would she grow up to be normal? 
"Whatever happened to Stevie after his concussion?" I asked. 
"He got in trouble for playing on the roof, and his dad punished him."
"I mean what happened to his brain.  Did he like start acting weird?"
"You're weird," my brother sneered, as he rode off on his Schwinn.  "Something's wrong with your brain."
So all I could do was spy on Kiki to see if her brain was working right.  Every time I'd see Lucy with her in the buggy outside, I'd push the mosquito netting aside and peer at her little bald head.
"How is she today, Lucy?  Has she started to talk yet?"
"Oh, Sweetie, she won't be talking for a while. She's still too little."
I wanted to tell Lucy that, thanks to me, Kiki might never talk.   I worried that she might get stuck in kindergarten for a couple of years because she had trouble learning then she'd end up like Butchie, down the street.  My brother said Butchie was slow because he'd been dropped on his head when he was a baby.  Butchie had to repeat second grade twice.
Being on the alert for signs of brain-damage was complicated by the fact that Kiki's family was strange to begin with--I mean, her brother's name was Jujube.  Jujube!  All the boys in our neighborhood had names like Joey or Junior--no one was named after candy that you bought when you went to the movies.  On top of that, Jujube's ears were lopsided, and he kind of looked like he might not make it past fifth grade. To further complicate matters, Kiki and Jujube had different fathers because my brother said Lucy was divorced which meant she traded in her old husband for a new one.   So it was going to be hard to know if Kiki was goofed up because of me or her loony tribe.  I worried that I was going to have to take the whole blame if Kiki didn't turn out right, if she couldn't spell or add or subtract.
When I was seven, my Nana died and we moved into her old flat six blocks away.  Though I didn't change schools, I did lose track of Kiki.   I always prayed, though, that she turned out to be normal and that someday I could tell her it was an accident and please forgive me.  I dreamed of explaining to Kiki that if she had brain problems it was partly her fault for acting like a kangaroo.
Kiki's caper set me up for a life of chronic worry, but, in fairness to her, I did go to Catholic schools where hijacking cerebellums and embedding neurons of fear was an art form. 
At the age of seven, my First Confession, the day before my First Holy Communion, kicked off a deluge of anxiety when I toddled into the black hole of a confessional. A weekly Examination of Conscience required searching out every sin committed in thought, word and/or deed, by acts of commission or omission, intentionally or accidentally, either consciously or unconsciously, in rain, sleet or snow, in sickness or health, pre-conception or postmortem. 
"Bless me, Father, for I have sinned..." was my Saturday afternoon mantra, a ritual that was supposed to "...stop God from crying over all the bad things you did during the week," said Sister Perpetua.  I thought God must be nuts to cry because I'd rolled my eyeballs at my mother when she told me to dry the dishes.  But just after I thought about the possibility of God being cuckoo, I realized the thought was sacrilegious so I'd wait in church all afternoon until the priests changed shifts and the refugee Croation priest, who spoke almost no English, came on duty.  No matter what you confessed, he'd say, "Okay, tree r fodders, tree Hey, Marys. Go."
That I accomplished anything in school was astounding seeing that I was so busy dissecting, analyzing and seeking second opinions from my girlfriends on the gravity of my sins.
"Josephine, I know snitching is a sin, but what if I snitched on my brother because I heard him use a swear word?  I don't think it's a sin because it did stop him from saying hell."
"Well, you just committed a sin yourself because you said the "H" word," said the pint-sized Elmer Gantry.  "Plus snitching is a sin no matter what your brother did."
"Another sin just because I said the "H" word?"
"Yes, but it’s just a Venial--you only go to "H" for Mortals," she said. 
I ran to Confession, and was relieved when I smelled beer through the little screen which meant Father Alky was on the other side.  He probably didn't know what rolling eyeballs were since he too had language limitations.  But then I worried that if he didn't understand me, his forgiveness wouldn't count so I added yet another sin by lying that I'd left my prayer book in the pew and fled.
I ran across the vestibule, and got in Father Steve's line.  He had escaped the Communists too and his English was not the best, however, he was up on the latest sins.  Sometimes you'd be waiting your turn and you'd hear him bellow, "YOU DEED WHAT?"  Within minutes you'd see a blubbering eight-year old exit, and run down the aisle with his jacket pulled over his head hoping not to be identified.  One time Peter Manzino crashed right into the baptismal font as he tried to make a break for it.  Sister Praxeda caught him and dragged him back to the box.  Pushing Peter to the front of the line, she made him go in and confess that he'd broken the baptismal watering hole.  This time Father Steve's "YOU DEED WHAT?" shook the choir loft.  I went in right after Peter, and the kneeler was all wet.  I pretended it was holy water. 
Over the next few years, my repertoire of sins expanded.  Envy, wrath and eavesdropping reared their heads when my brother turned sixteen and got his first part-time job and a paycheck.  His tales about the shoplifters, quick-change artists and crazy customers caused me to covet his exciting life.
Then came the day I had long prayed for:  a Kiki update.  Her mother popped up at my brother's store.
"Ma, remember Lucy, our old neighbor--Jujube's mom?  She came shopping today."
My Dumbo ears flapped at the mention of Lucy's name. 
"Oh, I haven't seen her in ages.  How is she?” my Mom asked.
“She’s fine; she has a new husband and another baby.”
“How’s Kiki?” I blurted.  "Is she alive?"
"Well, yeah," he said with a 'you are such a knucklehead'  look.  "Most people are still alive in fourth grade." 
"I meant to say is she normal?"
"Yeah, I guess so," he said, "but they don’t call her Kiki anymore—she’s Katherine, and Jujube only answers to Jerome.  He’s studying to be a detective.”
“Good for him,” my mother said.
“Yeah, it is, but Lucy’s really braggy.  She said detective like it was a big deal.”
“It is a big deal,” I chimed in.  “She probably thought that with his uneven ears he’d never make it through school.  But what did she say about Kiki?”
“Katherine,” he corrected me, and turned back to Mom.  “Mom, do you ever brag about me?”
“No,” she said as she greased a pie pan.  "Your father and I don’t believe in it.  We expect you to do well, and we don't need to advertise."
“I get it, but I’d appreciate a little bragging once in a while.”
I agreed.  “You could at least say something like my daughter is very intelligent.”
“Ma can't say that because she doesn't want to lie,” he smirked.  And then he dropped a bit of gossip that was intended to make me jealous, but instead took a ton of weight off my heart.  “Lucy said Katherine got to be May Crowning Queen because she got straight A’s.”
“Straight A’s?” I screamed, "You're kidding! Kiki, straight A’S—May Crowning Queen--wooohoo!"  Bubbles of shock, disbelief, gratitude and relief fizzed in my head.  "That’s the best!  I can't believe it!  Go, Kiki, go!"
“Mom, she is psycho,” he said, his mouth twisted like he was sucking on a dirty sock.  "I'm positive that one day when you weren't looking, someone dropped her on her head."


"Israel, I've repeated that word at least six times," I said. "You're making me crazy."
For five weeks, I had tried to teach him to read and he'd made no progress.
"Makin' you crazy? How 'bout me? At least you're gettin' paid to do this shit."
"That's true, but I'm not getting paid to bang my head against a wall. Come to think of it, maybe I am."
We both laughed. He was laughing, I'm sure, at the thought of me smashing my head--I laughed because crying was not an option.
Israel was just one of the many students stockpiled in warehouses called Educational Vocational Guidance Centers where I was assigned. If teens hadn't learned to read after a decade in the Chicago school system, and didn't have the courtesy to join the high-school dropout brigade of their own volition, they passed to the Educational Vocational Guidance Center where they got a lethal dose of shame and boredom and finally pulled the plug on themselves. For some reason, Israel refused to jump ship.
Day after day, this Mexican man-child, his legs bouncing like jackhammers, sat beside my desk as we slogged through an out-dated pre-primer designed to teach kindergartners. Who cared that black and brown teen-agers had little in common with Dick and Jane though, in this case, the lack of age-appropriate materials didn't explain, but only complicated, Israel's problems.
Long before Attention Deficit Disorder became the go to diagnosis for kids whose short attention spans and frenetic energy drove teachers crazy, Israel swaggered around the classroom, a roving ambassador of diplomacy, flirting, wisecracking and entertaining those easily amused. As the lone Hispanic in the cadre of black students, he fine-tuned his people skills and charmed even the most hostile competition. He hung out with the "baddest" of the gangbangers, but showed no allegiance to a particular gang, an astounding accomplishment.
Israel threw his lot in with any antisocial scheme which came his way, often cutting classes to head to the near-by Gold Coast to knock hipsters off their $2,000. Colnago bikes. He and Curtiss, his black amigo, would return to class, revved up and sweaty, spouting some cockamamie story about running to Curtiss' crib in the Projects to retrieve a forgotten math book, but the sleek Italian racer, parked in the gym for safe-keeping, announced another mission accomplished.
When cops showed up, Israel was never a suspect because the victim, too shaken to be precise, invariably told the cops he was robbed by a bunch of black kids. Since light brown-skinned Israel flew under the radar, he became the hood's Clarence Darrow, launching preemptive strikes to protect his posse.
"These guys didn't do nothin'. Leave 'em alone. We was all in gym class shootin' hoops."
The gym teacher, who never bothered taking roll-call, dittoed the explanation. Flimsy as it was, the alibi worked--the cops avoided reams of paperwork and the flash mob avoided the lock-up. Everybody was happy except for the injured party, but Israel said that the victim should've been happy too, happy that he didn't get killed.
Though he had just begun to sprout peach fuzz, Israel was a seasoned con man. He could sell you the Brooklyn Bridge and demand a tariff for the privilege of jumping off.
"You read good, Miss S, fast, like you got the words memorized," he'd say, "You're the smartest girl I know."
"Thanks, Israel. Now let's finish this chapter."
"I ain't doin' no more today. My brain's tired."
"Your brain would be fine if you'd use it. Let's finish this page."
"I use it, just not in school. Vowels? Come on, ya gotta be kiddin' me. Who gives a fuck?"
"You're right, Israel, this is a stone joke. I have a job to do, and I can't do it without your cooperation. We're wasting our time," I said, closing the book. "I'm done. You don't want to learn to read."
In a flash, his too-beautiful-to-be-wasted-on-a-boy eyelashes fluttered from a breeze of anger, but then, fast as Michael Jordan when he snatched a rebound, he reclaimed his bravado.
"You know, Miss S, you're smart, but you don't know everything. You don't have no clue about not bein' able to read. If you knew, you'd never say I don't wanna learn how to read."
"Well, what am I supposed to say? You come in here and clown around, you goof off, you entertain the class with your ridiculous behavior, and I'm supposed to think you care?"
"That's because I don't want nobody to think I care," he stage-whispered, the breeze of anger whirling into a tornado. "I don't want nobody to think I can't learn. Let 'em think I don't give a fuck. But you're smart, Miss S, you should know that's bullshit, you gotta' know not bein' able to read is a bitch."
"I can't imagine it," I said. "It's got to be a nightmare."
"A nightmare? Nightmare?  Really, ya think?" he sneered. 

"How'd you like to go out on a date and have to say I'll have whatever she's havin' cause you can't read the menu?  Do you have any idea what I do when I wanna'  take a girl to the movies and I don't know what's playin' cause I can't read the sign over the Rialto?
Well, Teach, let me tell you how I do it. I buy a newspaper and I fold it open to the movie part and I go home and I hope that my brother, Hector, is there so I can throw the paper in his lap. 'Find me a good movie,' I say, as I head to the bathroom.
'Find it yourself, asshole.'
'Come on, bro,' I yell from the bathroom. 'I'm in a hurry, I gotta take a shower. Just tell me what's playin'.'"
"Hector doesn't know you can't read?" I asked in amazement.
"Nobody knows," he seethed. "Nobody except you. Don't you get it?  I'm ashamed. Besides, it's nobody's fuckin' business."
"I had no idea. I'm sorry."
"Sorry? What are you sorry for? It ain't your fault," he said, settling down, as though coughing up his secret had halted the cement mixer in his gut. "You don't have nothin' to be sorry for."
Nothing to be sorry for, I wanted to scream, you've got to be kidding, but instead I said, "Israel, I promise we are going to learn to read if it's the last thing we do." 
"We're going to learn?" he said, flipping back to his cocky persona. "Miss S," he laughed, "you already know how to read. Just teach me, okay?"
"Deal. Tonight I'm going to write a story about this and tomorrow you're going to read it. We'll make a book about you, your stories."
"Cool. We'll call it Israel and Miss S--forget Dick and Jane. Dick. Can you believe that? Dick. I mean, what kind of fuckin' name is Dick?"
"I'm not going there, Israel. Here's a pass for Social Studies. You're late."
"I ain't goin' to Social. I'm meetin' Curtiss."
"Go to Social. Mr. A. will be mad if you ditch."
"Get real. Mr. A don't even know who's in his class plus he hates me. He says Israel is not a person's name--it's the name of a country. 'From now on, I'll call you Jew,' he said. I told him 'Hey, no problema, man, I'll call you Fuckin' Idiot.'"
Over the next couple of months we turned dozens of conversations into stories. We wrote and read about his family--his brother Hector's new car, his sister Rosita's son, getting busted, his father's accident, Lupe's brutal husband and the first time he read a menu. He wrote a poem about his brother Oscar and a song for his girlfriend. We wrote and he read, stumbling and stuttering, but he was reading. "Hey, Miss S," he crowed one day, "do you believe I just read that story about my ma's cooking, and I didn't fuck up one word?"
There was no stopping him now.
When we finished our Israel and Miss S spiral notebook, Israel announced he was going to write his life story. "I'm starting it with the day I was born even though I don't remember that much. I'll get my Ma to help with the details."
Mark Twain said when angry, count to four, when very angry, swear. That Wednesday morning, I was in swear mode. I discovered that some brainiac used a ballpoint pen to draw Gilligan's Island on the long-awaited globe that'd been delivered only two days earlier. I stood there disgusted over the fucked up world I was holding when Curtiss and Leotis charged through the door.
"Miss S, Miss S, Israel shot in the back las' night. He dead."
"Dead? Who? What are you talking about?"
"Israel, Israel Hernandez, he dead. He gone."
"They be washin' his blood right now by the alley on Division Street," Leotis added
I don't remember much more about the day--clusters of kids in the halls, girls crying, boys talking revenge, teachers saying "...what could you expect...it was only a matter of time..."
The following day, a note was scotch-taped next to the teachers' sign-in sheet.
Mr. A was signing in too.
"Are you going to the wake?" I asked.
"What the hell for?'" He went over to check his mailbox.
Curtiss was in a reflective mood as we walked over to Israel's house after school.
"Where you think he be now, Miss S?"
"Some place good, I hope. Maybe with his father."
"I'm thinkin' he be in heaven. I'm thinkin' God be sayin', "What the fuck you doin' up here, Lil' Man? Who tol' you you could come here?"
"Yeah, and he probably told God 'You can't tell me where to go,'" I said remembering his arrogant, defiant side.
"Yeah, I bet Jesus jus' be crackin' up."
The smell of flowers and the food heaped on the kitchen table lent a combination funeral parlor/restaurant air to the space. The hushed quiet of the packed basement apartment was interrupted by sobs as friends joined the crowd. All eyes darted to the entryway, the arrival of a white woman and a black teen-ager stirred whispers. I spotted Hector, an Israel clone right down to the thick eyelashes that had always reminded me of awnings.
"I am so sorry, Hector," I said. "This should never have happened."
For once, Curtiss put his swaggering self on hold as he extended his hand. "Israel be my frien'," he said.
Suddenly, from another room, I heard shrieks of La maestra! La maestra! and a little rotund woman, straight out of a Botero painting, shuffled toward me. "La maestra," she kept wailing, as though she was seeing an apparition.
Alternating between sobs and smiles, we spoke through Hector.
"My mother cannot believe a teacher would come to our house," he translated. "She is honored that you come here. She says that Israel told her you were the smartest woman he ever met."
I stood there, unable to cope with the attention and awe, fixated on the drain tile at her feet. "Tell your Mother Israel was a very smart and beautiful boy."
"Si, si," she sobbed. "Muy bonito."
"Tell her he wrote a story about what a good mother she is and he says she's the best cook in the world."
She took my hand and guided me to the wooden coffin which rested on the dining room table and contained the youngest of her children. Standing guard over their baby brother were Lupe, Raul, Juan, Rosita, Oscar, Sergio and Rico. We had written about them all.
Israel lay there, in a sort of mariachi suit--a dark jacket with huge lapels, a narrow string of black leather tied around the collar of a white ruffled-neck shirt, a red satin cummerbund and black pants. Someone had painted a little mustache on his upper lip with eyebrow pencil. His chalky hands held a rosary and his First Communion prayer book. I remembered the story about his First Confession when he'd asked the priest, "So why do I gotta' tell you all this shit?" He was seven years old.
"Let's go, Miss S, come on," I heard Curtiss mumble. "You can't make him come back to school wit us."
I handed Hector an envelope as we exchanged good-bye handshakes. "You know, Miss S, Israel had stopped throwing newspapers at me," he said, the tears slipping past the awnings.
"Dang, Miss S," Curtiss said as we walked back to school, "Israel be pissed off if he see that Maybelline thing they drawed on his face. He be too cool to look the fool. Why they do that?"
"I guess they wanted him to look like a man--maybe it's easier for them to pretend that he wasn't just a kid."
"Well, he be ashamed if he saw hisself."
"I don't think so, Curtiss," I said, "I know only one thing that Israel was ashamed of, and we were working on that."


The two ten year old girls raced in, an hour late for school. Wendy, the brains of the outfit, signaled she was going to launch into the latest episode of "How the World Turns in the Projects." Janell, from her perfect little rosebud lips to her parakeet ankles, exuded a don't mess with me attitude.

"Miss S, don't expect me and Janell to do no work today. We was trick-or-treating 'til twelve o'clock last night."
"Twelve o'clock? You were out 'til midnight trick-or-treating?"

"Uh-huh, we was out from after school and was jus' finishin' up when some Kings ripped us off. Tell her, Janell. Our pillowcases was filled to the top and they just grabbed 'em and took off."

"Wendy ain't lyin', Miss S, them bastards got it all 'cept the fuckin' Skittles we was eatin' an' it was pass ten o'clock," Janell testified.

"So you went home without candy?"

"No candy?" Wendy flashed the same you-are-so-stupid look she'd bestowed on me when I told her that third-graders shouldn't wear lipstick. "We got us some garbage bags, Miss S, and started all over again."

"Go to your seats, we're on page forty-seven."

Go-to-your-seats? Two ten-year old girls had been out on the street past midnight, and I was beyond shock.

To a kid from Catholic school, public schools sounded like mysterious gulags. The nuns' favorite threat, "If you don't behave, you'll be sent to public school..." made an impression that went unchallenged until I went off to the University of Illinois and saw firsthand that the parochial system didn't have the corner on education. So when I heard of a special Chicago Board of Education program designed to address a desperate teacher shortage, I applied. While contemplating what to do with my life, I figured I could try to provide kids with a trampoline to a better future.

I agreed to take twelve hours of education classes in night school and, on the spot, received a provisional teaching certificate. Few "provisionals" were there because it was their dream job. The men wanted the Viet Nam draft exemption; the females had visions of LBJ's Great Society and summers off. I joined the ranks because my father had declared that I'd storm Broadway with my Theatre degree over his dead body, and I needed time to determine how I was going to maneuver around the corpse.

We were an odd lot from big cities and small towns—twenty-somethings who hadn’t a clue that we were the "ye" Dante meant when he wrote Abandon all hope, ye who enter here.

A week long in-service, paid for by Great Society dollars, qualified us to teach. We got the CliffsNotes version of The Psychology of the Inner-City Child, role-played parent-teacher conferences, signed mountains of forms, and had a "you've got a pulse/blood pressure normal" physical.

The last afternoon we were given sensitivity training by a dashiki-clad Reverend who raged about nobody wanting goddamned stupid honkies teaching Black kids. "The best White teacher," he declared, "will never compare to the worst Black Teacher!" Some of us were a bit taken aback by his diatribe, but many of the Ivory recruits admired "...his honesty for telling it like it is." I thought the Brother had it partly right, without a doubt, many honkies were stupid.

The Reverend needn't have worried about me invading his no-fly zone. In Chicago, zip codes pretty much determine race, and my assignment's zip was smack in the middle of Latin King turf with a few residents tossed into the mix who’d have belonged to the Klan if they hadn’t left Dixie.

In the gangbangers' stomping grounds, I learned what made for a successful provisional teacher. Showing up for work qualified dead men walking as SATISFACTORY. Those who prevented the children from killing each other were labeled GOOD and those who did both were deemed EXCELLENT. If you were a male gym teacher, you were EXCELLENT PLUS.

NO GYM CLASSES TODAY scribbled on the teachers' sign-in sheet was all it took to put Coach in charge of the building while the principal ran off to a Cubs game. Bonding over sports and tales of frat escapades, plus the on-the-job training, guaranteed a man, whose IQ was equal to the final score of a Bears game, a slot on the executive roster. It was no wonder that administrators, who evaluated struggling teachers, were often more incompetent than their quarry. Long before William Bennett, then Secretary of Education, labeled the CPS “…the worst school system in the country,” pathetic administrators and pitiful teachers were diligently laboring to earn the title.

In fairness, though, they did not destroy public education on their own.

In the 50's, Chicago had the largest parochial school system in the country supported by the city's huge Catholic population which formed a monolithic voting bloc. Since these voters neither used nor cared about the public schools, the Chicago machine decided that the system, a huge drain on the city's coffers, was expendable. The politicians did not intend to eliminate public education, they just didn't want to fund it. There was no grand exit strategy, the powers that be just walked away. And no one blinked. Decades before George Bush's No Child Left Behind Act became law, Chicago implemented the Throw Public School Kids Under the Bus Initiative.

The system never recovered.

Now we provisional teachers, unqualified, untrained and unprepared, were being foisted on an operation that had long been tottering on the edge of a cliff.

The assistant principal assigned classrooms—girls to the lower grades, men to the Upper Grade Center. I was given a "kindofa third/fourth grade class," by Mr. Second-in-Command who, no doubt, yearned for the day when he could play dead in the principal's chair. But he'd have a tough act to follow.

The day after Martin Luther King was killed, Chicago’s Westside went up in flames. No teacher was to leave early, the principal dictated, but with the action less than three miles away, tension was high. After lunch, when the melee was revving up to a full-blown disaster, but before Mayor Daley's infamous "shoot to kill" order, Captain Courageous chose to jump ship and had Coach drive him home. Unfortunately, Coach drove his convertible straight into the conflagration, where the angry mob tore into the canvas top. Coach was unable to shield our fearless leader from the unruly crowd. The following day word of the incident provided the silver lining in the catastrophic cloud.

But on my first day, I was not privy to the history of dysfunction. I had to hit the ground running which meant inhaling the Chicago Public Schools’ curriculum du jour known as Continuous Progress. I was baffled by the concept; in a school setting I assumed continuous progress was a given. I wondered if Stalled Progress and Intermittent Progress had been tried and found wanting.

Continuous Progress was based on a “spiral concept.” If a child failed to grasp short vowels, for instance, the teacher proceeded to the next concept. The unlearned material would be repeated somewhere up the spiral as the spiral continued spiraling. I'd yet to take a methods course, but the idea sounded like teaching a student to merge in traffic when he couldn’t get the hang of starting the car.

The primary grades were organized in divisions of P1, P2, P3 and PZ. PZ stood for Primary Zero, code for third-graders who could not function in fourth. To protect their self-esteem, PZ was invented.

"So you're the new PZ rookie," the man said when I answered his knock. “Good luck with those morons tomorrow.”


"Yeah, I taught your kids last year. Well, I didn't actually teach them because they're incapable of learning. I tried for months to get them to add, and then finally I thought screw it and moved on to borrowing.”

"How did you teach borrowing if they couldn't add?"

"Well, I didn't teach borrowing because they couldn't get the hang of that either. They were hung up on place value so I just dropped math and concentrated on science."

"You just ignored math?" I asked, thinking he was pulling the newbie's leg.

"Yeah, Continuous Progress is great. If you get sick of teaching the idiots the same thing day after day, you just move on to something else. The fucking curriculum spirals."

"John Dewey would've put a gun to his head if he'd ever heard of Continuous Spiraling," I said.

"Speaking of guns, did I tell you I was a cop?"

"A cop? I thought you taught my kids last year."

"Well, I'm a cop too. During the day I teach, and at night I'm a Chicago cop."

"You cannot be serious."

"No, for real. I work the night shift for the CPD."

“You must be exhausted, teaching and holding down a second full-time job with so much stress."

“Nah, I just hide my squad under a viaduct and catch some z’s and, when I teach, I mostly sit. Gets a little tricky during tax season 'cause I do taxes too."

"You're quite the Renaissance man," I marveled. "How do you handle discipline? Pull out your gun when the kids act up?"

"Believe me, I felt like it sometime. These kids are wackos," he said. "I’ll give you a tip. If a boy acts up just make him wear a babushka, and stand in front of the class the rest of the day. Works like a charm. A little embarrassment, and they shape up,” he bragged. “Except for one kid, Ricardo—he really loves babushkas. He wants to wear lipstick too. I think he’s a fag—watch out for him. I called his mother in for a conference once, and she said he was the only one of her ten kids born with a veil over his head, and that's good luck. Tip number two--do not call parents--they're crazier than their fucking kids."

While the teacher/cop/tax man blabbered on, I fixated on a Thomas Jefferson quote on the wall behind him that said something like education is the antidote to the disease of ignorance. I wondered if the Renaissance man had come into teaching with a pre-existing condition or if he'd gotten infected on the job.

"Call me if you need anything," he said, "I'm the go-to guy around here when Coach and the principal run to Sportsman's to play the ponies."

"I'll count on you," I lied, closing the door. "Hey, by the way, what was your college major?"

"Phys Ed," he said, "I wanted to work for the Park District but teaching paid better."

I returned to reading the cumulative cards of my PZ students--thirty boys and eight girls, between the ages of nine and twelve. I expected to find scribbled notes about Eduardo's allergy to strawberries or Brenda Jean's routine tardiness, but the anecdotal comments, left by previous teachers, noted truancy, multiple school transfers, juvenile detention and incarcerated parents, trifling issues that indicated I just might be in over my head. That flash of insight was replaced by the scarier thought of the imminent influx of my PZ'ers. From the get-go, they needed to know that our classroom was open for business, they needed to think that I knew what I was doing.

I went to the Resource Room to find desks, textbooks, a blackboard and chalk.

“Materials?” asked the assistant principal. “Like what? Like what kind of materials?” He acted as if I’d requested chainsaws.
"Textbooks would be great," I said.

“Scrounge some second and third grade readers—they didn’t understand the books the first time around."

“I don’t even know where to start scrounging. I’m short thirteen desks.”

“Desks you need,” he conceded. “The kids have to sit somewhere, but you don’t need thirty-eight—absenteeism is high. I’ll send a few up later; I’m swamped right now. Downtown sent only half of our book order."

“Please could you maybe send up a blackboard and some chalk?”

"Do you think this is U of C’s Lab School? You have the dogs; just make sure they don’t get out of the kennel.” Noticing my shock, he changed his tone. “Look, I’m snowed under right now, but I think I have some geography books that I could send up when I get a chance. Use them until we get some readers.”

Just then the music teacher barged in. “Someone ripped out the keys on my piano. How am I supposed to teach music?”
“Use a flute,” the boss responded.

I staggered out of the Resource Room. An ancient busybody, who’d been looking for dictionaries with no success, followed me. “You new teachers kill me. In my day you made do with what you were given. When I didn’t have history books, I taught with puppets." She headed to the teachers’ lounge for a cigarette.

No readers, or blackboard, a piano without keys, puppets, PZ, spirals—by the end of the day, I figured the conscientious objectors turned teachers would regret burning their draft cards.

The next day school started more or less at nine o'clock though many students adhered to arrive-when-you-feel-like-it. It was not hard to identify the babushka brigade, amazing that Renaissance man got by with only one headscarf. By lunchtime it was obvious that the few students who wanted to learn had come to the wrong place. For the most part, the girls were passive, the boys' speedometers were set between leave me alone and watch out.

Often I wondered why I stayed. I wasn't earmarked for Saigon so I could have hit the door.

Maybe I stayed because I knew these kids could be subjected to much worse. After all, I was literate, drug-free, emotionally stable and I didn't inflict cruel and unusual punishment.

Maybe I stayed because I'd become attached to the kids. I respected eleven-year olds who fed breakfast to their siblings because mom was sleeping off a bender, students who missed school because they had to baby-sit and wrote their own notes claiming they were absent due to amonya. I had a soft spot for eleven year olds who read at the first grade level, for kids who were ten going on thirty. I was taken by boys who replaced lost textbooks with stolen library books figuring a book is a book, and besides, who cares? My heart went out to kids who trudged to school on snowy February days wearing gym shoes without socks.

And I adored spunky little girls who trick-or-treated 'til midnight.
I stayed, but for only the year.


"I'm working an eight hour day next Thursday."

"That's good," I said, intent on reading the latest issue of Vanity Fair.

"Mom, you didn't hear what I said," my 20something persisted. "I'm not working my usual three hour shift--he scheduled me for an eight hour day."

"I heard you, Honey. Eight hours a week won't hurt you."

"Won't hurt? You think that's a good thing--being a go-fer for my Art teacher for eight hours straight? Did you ever hear of throbbing feet or varicose veins?"

"Yes, Sweetheart, I have heard of the tortuous blood vessels, but you can get saline shots, the veins collapse, and you're not disfigured."

"Not disfigured? Is that your yardstick? I can work until I'm disfigured? Don't you care that I could get scoliosis and need to have a rod put in my back?"

Count to ten, hold your tongue, 25 is the new 15, I said under my breath.

"As I understand it, Darling, scoliosis develops in early adolescence so I think you're out of the woods. And I do care about spinal curvatures and, more importantly, I care about you."

"Well, it sure doesn't sound like it. Aren't you worried that I could get a collapsed uterus from being on my legs all day and never be able to bear children? That no man will ever want to marry someone who's physically flawed--that I could die a spinster painting landscapes in a nursing home?"

Her losses were escalating so fast I feared she'd have nothing left for the final chapter of her book I Am a Prima Donna.

"Yes, Angel, I do worry. I worry that if you don't get over your aversion to an eight hour day, you'll be living at home until you're menopausal. That, my love, is a very scary thought."

"Mother, you are heartless. I can't believe you support child labor."

"Child labor? I was married at your age, for God's sake. It's time you joined the real world."

"Don't try to change the subject, Mom. This isn't about just one eight hour day. I'm also on the schedule for eight hours next Thursday."

"Eight hours next week too?" I said, lapsing into my Dolly Parton voice. "Well ain't that sad. You should just put the paramedics on alert right now in case you pass out from fatigue."

"You're being sarcastic, Mother. Go ahead mock me, laugh at me all you want, but I'm under a great deal of pressure. If I'm chained to a job, I can't have a social life. Michelangelo probably had a better social life than I do even though he was gay and had to be in the closet."

"Look, I know eight hours a week cramps your style but, and you need to sit down for this, many people work eight hours a day on a regular basis, back to back, five days a week."

"I'm well aware of that, but I don't intend to be a slave."

"Slave? What are you talking about? A forty-hour work week is not fun, but living in a cardboard box is not exactly a blast either."

"You're suggesting I'm going to be living under a bridge? Thanks for the vote of confidence. When I finish my degree, Sarah, Kirsten and I plan to share an apartment in the John Hancock Center."

The Hancock Center? I didn't want to disillusion her by mentioning that, on their combined salaries, they couldn't afford a closet in the skyscraper.

"Interesting, but first you really should graduate."

"Don't you think I know that? That's why I'm trying to concentrate on my studies, but I can't do that if I'm always working."

"Always working? Eight hours a week? Are you serious?"

"Yes, I'm serious. Eight hours in one day is challenging because I really don't like my job. I mean working in the art studio is okay, but it's not my passion."

"Passion? Well if you'd quit changing majors like that Lohan girl changes rehabs, you just might finish up and follow your bliss. One semester you're majoring in Art Design, the next in Painting, then Art & Media Management, whatever that is. You probably won't believe this, Snow White, but some kids finish college in four years."

"You should be glad I'm staying in the School of Fine Arts. My friend, Ian, switched from Electrical Engineering to Dance. He transferred from Princeton to Juilliard in his senior year and he had a full-ride at Princeton."

"Well his parents must be brain-damaged to allow that. If you switch majors one more time, I swear your father is going to say teacher or nurse--take your pick."

"Mom, I could never be a nurse. They're on their feet eight hours a day. It's a very stressful job. I want a job where I can relax."

Was I watching a rerun of an ancient TV show where unsuspecting victims were placed in ridiculous situations while a hidden camera recorded their reactions? Surely someone was going to jump out and shout Smile, You're on Candid Camera.

"Relax? Sweetie, I have another news flash for you. One goes to a spa to relax. One goes to work so she can buy food, keep a roof over her head-- you know, the finer things in life."

"Yes, and many have heart-attacks before they're forty or they die of mesothelioma from breathing in coal dust."

"Well, you needn't worry about that. Last time I applied they weren't hiring at the coal mines."

"And that's another reason I'm in no hurry to graduate. There are no decent jobs out there. I should rush through college to work at Steak n' Shake? I don't think so. Are you aware there is a recession out there?"

"Really? You're kidding? I thought your dad lost our retirement nest egg in Las Vegas."

"Don't worry about retirement, Mom. If you fall on hard times, you can count on me to catch you. That's why I want to go to Florence to get my master's degree."

Bless her--her heart was in the right place--it was her head that was on another planet. The vision of being caught in a safety net that was one huge hole flashed before me, but it was immediately replaced by flares at the words Florence and master's degree in the same sentence.

"Florence? In Italy? You're joking, right?" Please, God, let the Candid Camera man jump out now. "Tell me you're kidding."

"No, I have to get my master's degree--a B.A. in Art is practically worthless. Do you remember when we were in Italy and I met Gianmarco? He suggested I do graduate work in Art Restoration at the Florence Academy. He said you can set your own hours. Can you imagine what it would be like to restore a Caravaggio?"

"Caravaggio?" I was setting some kind of record for responding to comments with a single word of incredulity. "Caravaggio? Did that Gian gigolo tell you how to finance this adventure?"

"Mother, you-are-putting-a-price-on-passion?" she wailed, as though I'd suggested she sell her firstborn, forgetting that she'd never bear children due to her fallen uterus. "That is soooo cynical. You follow a passion, not finance a passion!"

"You know, Cinderella, unless you find a glass slipper in your bottomless closet, you might have to put in a few eight hour days in order to follow AND finance your passion. Even Michelangelo had to make tough choices. Sculpting was his passion--he considered the Sistine Chapel project a huge distraction, but he needed to pay his bills."

"That's exactly my point," she said. "Michelangelo compromised, and he was chained to scaffolding for the next forty-years. What was he thinking?"


For the past four months, my friend Margaret and I'd been able to cobble together daily hour long walks, aided by the fact that she was in the midst of a contentious divorce and dissecting her almost-ex made the time fly. I was on a roll with these treks, and I was reluctant to jeopardize this long aspired-to accomplishment by accompanying my husband on a business trip to Scottsdale. I feared that without the almost-divorcee keeping my feet to the pavement, I'd slack off.

"I can't believe you're not interested in escaping a minus ten degree wind chill," he marveled. "People do walk in Arizona, you know."

"I know, but I'm afraid I'll be tempted to just sit by the pool and not move my butt."

"There's a resort that adjoins the desert. You can walk the Sonora trails, I'll golf."

By the end of the month we were in Scottsdale, and the morning after our arrival I was at the concierge desk.

"Did you want to walk Trail A or B?" the concierge asked.

"Which is easier?"

"Trail A varies from one to three shoes. Trail B is quite challenging," she explained. "One shoe is the least demanding, five shoes requires a lot of stamina. Don't forget to take water and a hat. It gets hot out there."

"I'm not going to be out long," I said, distracted by her spectacular turquoise jewelry. "I love your squash blossom necklace."

"Thank you, it was my grandmother's. If you're into Native American jewelry, you'll be in heaven in Arizona. Here's a map of all the jewelry shops in the Old Town area where you can do some serious shopping."

I stuck the map in my pocket. "Well right now I need to get some serious exercise."

"You came to the right place. I'm not a hiker, but our guests rave about the trails. Enjoy yourself."

"I will, and I'd better get moving if I want to check out the Navajo silversmiths this afternoon. I'm taking a pass on the five shoe route; just point me to the beginner's trail."

"Go behind the restaurant, between the tennis courts, past the gate, through the tunnel and you will emerge on Trail A. Have fun!"

Within minutes, I crossed into God's country--a landscape at once both brawny and delicate. Muted terra cotta, vibrant purples, and hazy greens stippled the scene. This was not the desert of pyramid fame, where I'd scorched my soles in the Sahara sand, but the desert of the Good, the Bad and the Ugly--the majestic stomping ground of Geronimo.

Nothing prepared a girl from the Prairie State for this vista.

I pictured Butch Cassidy galloping over the saguaro-studded hills, Wyatt Earp hunting down cattle rustlers, John Wayne lassoing varmints. This was desperado territory.

Setting forth, I almost twisted my ankle on my first step into the wild. 'Be careful in these flimsy sandals,' I reminded myself. 'This trail is not asphalt.' I noted a Visitors Center and a BE PREPARED sign, that smacked of overkill. Hikers should carry a gunnysack of paraphernalia. Some nut must have dreamed up the list while working on his Wilderness Survival Badge. For starters, he suggested a whistle, water, compass, map, knife, mirror, matches, candles and a blanket. Matches, around tumbleweed? Water, with no porta-pottys? A blanket in this furnace? Ridiculous. Besides, I was going for a walk; it wasn't as though I was Sacagawea on an expedition with Lewis and Clark.

I marched onto the one-shoe trail, the piece-of-cake one, where I'd planned to walk for a half-hour and then turn back, all the while keeping my eye on the Visitors Center. Every so often, I murmured good morning to a jogger or a dog-walker. "Oh, she's adorable," I gushed over a puppy who sported saddle-bags and a water bottle. I passed a few Girl Scouts laughing and a woman, on her cell phone, bleating, "Snowing again?...Well, it's absolutely gorgeous here." At every turn, I encountered desertscapes I'd only seen in movies in which cowboys fell in love with Indian maidens, and white men smoked peace pipes with the Chief. Images of gun-slingers, runaway stagecoaches and saloon hussies ran through my head.

Each time I thought to turn back, I discovered a new distraction--a giant cactus pockmarked with bird pecked holes, a mysterious rock pile, a jackrabbit zigzagging out of harm's way. Moseying from pillar to post, it occurred to me that I'd not passed a human for awhile, and the sun was bleaching out the aubergine highlights I got at the Buzz Salon just before we left Chicago. It was time to get out of Dodge, and fast.

I did a one-eighty, but when I turned around, the shiny roof of the Visitors Center was nowhere in sight.

You're a little off course. No big deal. You curved to the right when you entered, so just hang to the left. You should've worn a hat. Maybe I shouldn't have worn velour; I'm melting. The Center is just around the bend. Are these buffalo footprints? Do buffalo bite?

Then, an hour later, I knew I was in trouble.

Nothing looks familiar. Don't shed a tear, you'll dehydrate. Do they have desert rangers? Keep your wits about you. If only I could see a landmark like Sears Tower. I should have brought a knife or a mirror like the sign said, but what was I supposed to do with a mirror anyway? Too late now, you're toast.

Just as I was about to gather rocks to spell out "farewell," I spotted a metal marker with an arrow pointing to Trail 306 and another to Trail 100 in the opposite direction.

What's with the trail numbers? Where was the one-shoe trail? The U.S. Wildlife Service lures visitors into Death Valley, and can't even post an EXIT arrow? Just choose a trail--you have a fifty-fifty chance of being right. Turn to the left. You are not lost; you've just strayed a bit off the beaten path.

Before me was a two-foot high, log-shaped cactus lying on its side.

And then it clicked. You-are-lost. You are so lost. If you'd passed this heat-stroked, phallic symbol on the way in, you'd have remembered--it looks exactly like Margaret's description of her husband's erectile dysfunction.

I scanned for a human--a nomad, a migrant, a wrangler, even a gold prospector, anyone. I caught sight of a jogger.

"Stop! Stop!" I shouted, afraid he might not see me in the withering inferno. "Please help me," I begged. "I'm lost!"

"Relax. You're just turned around. Where do you want to go?"

"To my hotel--I'm a tourist."

"Really?" Just what I needed, a condescending savior, but I was in no position to call him on his attitude. "Where's your map?"

"The concierge gave me this map of the jewelry stores in Old Town, but it's of no help."

"A map of jewelry stores?" he asked with a 'there's no cure for stupid' look. "Alright, let's get you oriented. You see the sun overhead? It's a bit to our left because it's still early, so that's East. Now because it's late February it makes a bit of a wider arc as it crosses the sky to the...to the...?"

"To the other side?"

"Well, yes, but we call the other side the WEST," he said, taking a long draw on a tube connected to this CamelBak HydroFlo contraption strapped to his back.

I wanted to tell Mr. Professor that I hated Geography and Astronomy or wherever the hell you learn about the Big Dipper and the solar system, but I didn't want him to think I was direction-impaired.

"Now pay attention. This will always be East, that will always be North and this will always be South," he said, pointing to the three directions. "Where did you enter the canyon?"

"From the tunnel."

"Seventh Street or Seventh Avenue?"

"I have no idea. How many blocks is it to the Visitors Center?"

"Blocks? How many blocks?" he repeated, as though he'd caught me tossing beer cans on the trail. "Where are you from?"


"Ooookay, so, now you know North and South. Do you see that dip between those two mountains, kind of looks like a camel's back?"

This whole town is camelback crazy, Camelback Estates, Camelback Country Club, Camelback Condo...

He interrupted my thoughts. "You're not paying attention. That's how we got lost, isn't it?"

Whose 'we,' Tonto? I'm the one who's lost, and right now I could be shopping for a turquoise bracelet in Old Town.

"Stay on this trail, and keep heading toward the dip," he continued. "Pretend you're a soccer ball rolling..."

Now I cut him off. "Dude, I understand sports only slightly less than I understand the solar system."

"Never mind. Do you see that white dot way down there?"

"The trash bag on the cactus?"

"That's NOT a trash bag. It's a woman in a white robe meditating. Head towards her. Follow the curve and you'll come to the iron railing you passed on your way in. You do remember the railing, right?"

"Yes, I lied, "I remember the black railing."

"It's green," he said, with a look that telegraphed, I'd flunk your ass, if you were in my class. "Grab onto it, it leads to the tunnel. By the way, your cell phone has a GPS."

"I only know how to make calls and text." He took a deep breath as though I'd just declared I was a saturated-fat addict.

"Well, next time, let's hope you come prepared," he said with a fake smile.

"Oh, I don't think there'll be a next time," I said. "Thanks for your help, but I'm pretty sure I'm done with the desert."

I could tell he thought that wasn't a bad idea. "You'll be okay now; just don't leave the trail." He took another swallow from his CamelHydroFlo and trotted off.

"Thanks a lot," I shouted after him. "You saved my life!"

He wasn't my kind of guy, but he did save my life. I could've run into a Peyote-munching gangbanger marauding the happy hunting ground. A century from now, a Boy Scout could have stumbled on my little carcass and wondered why a fossil was wearing a tiny jogging suit.

Within minutes, I spotted the shimmery roof of the Visitors Center. I texted Margaret.


She responded within a second.


That was the straw that, and I couldn't believe I had to say it, broke the freakin' camel's back. The next time I needed a desert fix, I'd order Blazing Saddles from Netflix.