I've had my share of culture shock as I traipsed through Europe, the Americas and the Middle East, but nothing could have prepared me for my first encounter with a burqua-clad woman on a flight from Rome to Beirut. Not pictures, not books, not stories--nothing could have prepared me for the searing image of the ghostly apparition.
A fastidiously groomed man in a Savile Row Suit, Gucci loafers and a Rolex guided the ethereal shroud to its seat. Swathed head to ankle in a voluminous black cover replete with a  plastic  Darth Vader-like screen masking its face, it seemed like a character in Night of the Living Dead.
When the meal was served, her gloved hands flipped part of her veil forward creating a mini-tent under which she ate. Except for her feet, you would never have known it was a person--no arms nor legs, no skin, no voice.
I was simultaneously fascinated and repulsed; though I'm not sure which part of the scene prompted my visceral reaction.  After all, growing up with nuns exposed me to some very unusual attire, and the religion I was steeped in routinely vilified women as "occasions of sin" so it wasn't as though misogyny was exactly foreign to me.
Maybe it was the proud, pristine peacock steering the faceless, formless figure down the aisle. Maybe it was the beautiful faces of their children who accept that, at puberty, boys become men and girls disappear. Maybe it was the realization that a change in geography could make any woman, myself included, an erasable nonentity. Maybe it was the neon-bright jelly slippers that flashed from beneath the capacious black robe. Whatever it was, it overwhelmed my heart.
In Beirut, I shared the encounter with my Egyptian friend, Mohsen. "Ah, yes," he explained, "Our culture respects virtuous women, that is why we require the burqua."
Oh. My. God.
Years later, my daughter told me about helping to plan a Take Back the Night rally on campus.
"Hundreds of students," she explained, "will protest violence against women. We're going to chant 'Yes means yes, and no means no! However we dress, wherever we go!'   It's about victimization," she declared, "about empowerment, too. But really, Mom, I think it's about respect, don't you?"
"Yes, Lia, it is about respect," I replied, flashing back to the image tattooed to my soul so long ago. "We Americans don’t always get it right, but we do keep trying."


Fueled by the renewed energy of my summer hiatus, I again entered the revolving door of Teacher Personnel.   Somewhere in the Windy City, I was certain a school existed where students were not hostages and the principal knew his teachers by name.   From a map studded with pins, each of which indicated a teacher vacancy, I spotted a prime location.  
The beckoning pin was almost floating on Lake Michigan, just a hop from Chicago's Gold Coast where privileged kids enjoyed advantages that dwarfed their skyscraper abodes.  The Magnificent Mile shopping Mecca beckoned from the east, Rush Street, haunt of hipsters, was a mile south and Lincoln Park, a miniature of New York's Central Park, was a stone's throw north.
"Excellent choice," the personnel advisor said, as I handed her the marker of my promising future.  "It's an Educational Vocational Guidance Center.  Sign this form; assignments are irrevocable.  Good luck!" 
A week later I reported for duty at the oldest school in Chicago, a weathered landmark which lent a bit of architectural romance to my vision, and reinforced my belief that I stumbled on a gem of a job.  The center of the stone stairs was worn by the pounding of thousands of Buster Browns, and the dings and dents in the vintage hardwood floors added to the charm.  The main office had old-time, school-house pendant light fixtures suspended over a shiny mahogany counter where employees signed in; a note next to the sign-in sheet announced that there were coffee and rolls in the teachers' lounge and a staff meeting was scheduled at ten.
Over a donut I met my fellow provisional teachers, both men new to the system.   The first had graduated  Princeton, and looked the part right down to his penny loafers.   The other had just completed his doctorate at the Chicago Theological Seminary, and was awaiting ordination. 
"The woman in Personnel gave this place a rave review," said the Doctor.
"Yeah, she said it was a great choice," said the Princetonian, dusting powdered sugar off his silk, Ivy-league tie, "but I noticed a lot of vacancies."
A man eavesdropping commented, "I don't suppose one of you brain surgeons thought to ask why there were so many empty slots?  Trust me; you won't make it through the year."
"How long have you been here?" asked the minister.
"Fifteen years, but there aren't too many job openings for alcoholics.  Don't ever light a match near me."  His buddy guffawed.  "Like you could pass a breathalyzer," Mr. Doomsday snapped, but he was cut short by the arrival of a man who asked that new teachers come to his office.
 "My name is Mr. Sharp. Elijah Sharp.  I'm the assistant principal.  So what do you want to teach?  You're on provisional certificates with no teaching credentials so you can teach anything."
"A college degree with no teacher training qualifies one to teach in all subject areas?" Dr. Divinity asked. 
"Yep, pick whatever you want, we need everything.  One of you guys want Math?  I know women are no good at numbers."
"I'll teach Math," Princeton volunteered.
"Good. Room 204."  He turned to Divinity, "You look like a scientist.  Room 208.  And you, Baby, Language Arts, 301.  Now for policy.  I'm in charge of discipline.  If a kid is causing big trouble, send him down with a note; our intercom is busted.  Don't send somebody down for petty nonsense, I'll send him right back."
"What's considered petty nonsense?" Divinity asked.
"Cursing, fighting, threats, pranks, refusing to work--you get paid to be in charge of your classroom."
"What constitutes a serious issue?" asked Princeton.
"Weapons.  And only if you see one.  If they say something like, 'I'm gonna blow your head off,' ignore it.  They talk tough.  But if you actually see a knife or gun, send down a note," he said.  "And no smoking, but again make sure you actually see the kid with reefer.  Sometimes the smell comes from 311 where the street people hang.  Keep classroom windows locked.   We had a kid who was pushed or fell depending on whose story you buy, from the second story last year.  He lived, but he's pretty messed up.  Any questions?  If not, staff meeting at 10."
An attractive, forty-something woman sat down next to us as we waited for the staff meeting to begin.  "Hi, I'm Renee Cross, the librarian," she said.   "You must be the new teachers."  I didn't know what signaled that we were newbies--Princeton's eye twitch, Divinity's knuckle-cracking or my hair-twirling. 
At 10, there were only six of us in the lounge, and two were custodians scarfing down the last of the coffee cake.
The principal entered and launched into a Welcome to the Family speech.    "Yeah, the Addams Family," a late arrival shouted as he headed to the buffet.  "Hey, who ate all the eclairs?"
"Probably fat ass Fred.  Pat him down," Doomsday ordered.  Two men lifted one of the custodians out of his chair, and began rifling his pants pockets.
"Hey, I found a Long John," yelled a poster child for decaf.  "Oops, this isn't a sweet roll, but I'll bet his girlfriend thinks it's one."
The Principal droned on to the finale.  "And, in the words of Dr. Seuss, 'Unless someone like you cares a lot, nothing will get better.'  Now go get 'em."
 Princeton's blinking was now a full-fledged tic.  Dr. Divinity's clenched jaw suggested he needed to find a parsonage ASAP.
"Don't let those antics bother you," Renee said.  "Some teachers behave worse than the students.  We'll  go to the Bowl & Roll for lunch, and I'll give you the scoop."
"Nice perk, being surrounded by good restaurants."
"Not  exactly surrounded, Cabrini-Green is two blocks thataway," she pointed.
"The housing projects?"
"There's only one Cabrini-Green, the greatest failed social experiment in history, and we get the student casualties from the project's schools--fourteen year-olds reading below third grade," she said.  "But things get tricky because Chicago principals get paid by the head; they don't want their numbers to go down so they transfer kids to us only when their behavior is totally off the wall."   
Just then the Dr. Seuss enthusiast bellowed from his office, "Move it, folks, I expect appropriate bulletin boards by 3 o'clock!"
"Renee, what's with appropriate?"
"Last year the Shop teachers jig-sawed a life-sized nude and painted WELCOME BACK on a fig leaf."
 A woman, with what looked to be an active blonde beehive, was unlocking 304.  "Hi," I said, "I'm the new Language Arts teacher."
"I'm the music teacher.  Good to have company up here, half the rooms are empty, and no one except the kids and derelicts ever come up to the third floor."
"Addicts, gangbangers--they hang out in 311. The room can't be locked because of the fire escape so all of the dregs in the neighborhood congregate there.  Steer clear," she warned.  "Can't talk now.  I have to see if I got any of the instruments I ordered.  There aren't many musical arrangements for kazoos."
"Yes, our trumpets were stolen, the piano has no pedals, the guitar has no strings.  Mostly we watch videos--Sound of Music, My Fair Lady."
I decided to check out the 311 halfway house before the squatters commandeered the area.
"You haven't been assigned to 311, have you?" a man, in a Mr. Rogers' cardigan, inquired as I exited the room.
"Oh, no, just checking things out." 
"Well, take a peek, then skedaddle.  The room gets packed when it's cold out; you can get high just walking down the hall.  By the way, I'm Louis Picaro, the art teacher.  Everyone calls me Picasso.  If you need anything, I'm in room 309."
"As a matter of fact, I do need bulletin board materials." 
"Well, someone ripped off my art supplies, but I'll share what's left.  Use newspaper for  background and it'll be good through Christmas.  Staple up paper plates, and tomorrow they'll draw their faces and print their names underneath, that way they get to know each other.  In October, have them draw their faces on jack-o-lanterns..."
"You're kidding?  Pumpkins?"
"Pumpkins, and in November, a giant turkey--they write what they're thankful for on the tail feathers."
The turkey-feather gratitude list was the last straw.  I backed away to find Renee.
"I met Picasso and Beehive," I said.  "Beehive told me about thieves and addicts and kazoos and squatters.  Picasso gave me bizarre bulletin board tips." 
 As we walked to the restaurant, I asked her why she was teaching at the Center. 
"Without getting too kumbaya on you, let's just say I believe in giving back." 
"I understand trying to make a difference, Renee, but swim in a toxic pool, and you gulp poison."
"Sure, some teachers get warped, but there are good ones too, and a lot of nice kids. Chicken or egg?  Politics, incompetence, social conditions, it's all in the water, but we can't just give up."
I liked Renee; she'd been around the block, but she didn't seem jaded. 
"Okay, I'll try to swim with a snorkel," I said, "but I need the Cliff Notes on how this place operates."
By the time we left the Bowl & Roll, I was cycling between concern and curiosity, and running into Mr. Sharp upon our return magnified both. 
"Hey, Baby, forgot to mention, no one enters the building before 8:30--safety issues, and staff vacates at 3:15 sharp; NEVER linger after school."
"But what if a student needs extra help or I have to hold a parent conference?"
He looked at me as though I'd said but what if I have to convene a NATO Summit?
"Girl, kick off those red slippers, and buy you some combat boots.  You're on a different planet now."      



In our house, a girl, no matter how old, left her parents' home either wed or dead. Since I was neither, my father created a third category, running away, defined as a daughter's act of shameful rebellion, betrayal, ancestral treason.
My father often referenced "...the time she ran away."  Those unfamiliar with the saga would raise their eyebrows in puzzlement; others, accustomed to his histrionics, would sigh. 
After college graduation, I lived at home while I taught and saved to fund a dream trip, a summer in Europe. After my travels, I intended to get an apartment, though I had no idea how I'd make my escape. While going out on my own was as much a part of my here I come, world plan as my European tour, I knew the subject would be inflammatory; it took little to ignite conflagration.
With dorm living, a college degree, travel and a good job under my belt, I felt equipped to leave the nest despite my father's opposition.
 After way too many dinner table wars, the lines were drawn--it's my life versus over my dead body. The rhetoric was hot, mine trumpeted independence, his loaded with dire predictions. You'll be mixing with strangers, you're putting yourself in harm's way, there are drug addicts out there, you could get mugged and robbed, he prophesied. Men will hit on you, he said. That particular caveat I hoped went from his mouth straight to God's ear, but the other warnings I packed away in the if you cross your eyes, they will stay that way category.
My brother got wind of the escalating hostility, and suggested an unusual strategy. 
"Pack your bags and go. He's never going to give you permission, if that's what you're waiting for, so just do it. You're not a hostage."
I could not have been more astonished had he suggested I hook up with a Satanic cult.  Perhaps because of his gender, my brother never internalized the fact that females in our house were subject to different rules, some made up on the spot. True, I wasn't physically captive, but just walking out, the notion that I could just do it, was unfathomable. My college girlfriends went out on their own, but that was because, according to my father's script, their families didn't care, didn't value their reputations, were shameless and amoral.  After awhile longer under my father's thumb, some of those attributes sounded somewhat appealing, and the seduction of independence trumped fear.
I ran away.
Impervious to the warnings that I was risking my life, asking for trouble and tempting fate, sharing a flat with Beth, a college acquaintance, whose paramour had walked out of her heart and out on their lease, seemed perfect. I needed to bring nothing more to the furnished apartment than my suitcase, two boxes and three garbage bags of earthly possessions. Soon though, I discovered, that part of Beth's emotional healing involved bringing home strangers she met in bars. Mornings, I was afraid to walk out of my bedroom not knowing if she'd run off to work leaving her man of the hour eating breakfast at our table. Facing a potential Mr. Goodbar was terrifying, particularly after I overheard a colleague say that she'd awakened one morning to find that her one-night stand had absconded with all of her jewelry. Accused by Beth of not understanding how one recovers from a shattered  romance, I took to locking my bedroom door at all times, and being alert for strangers in our shower. I slept over at a friend's apartment on nights when the prospect of Beth mending her broken heart seemed likely.
Thrilled when the lease expired, I signed on with Carri, a dorm friend, whom I knew to be neither desperate, needy, nor prone to falling in love with strangers after two drinks. The only problematic part of our living together was the fact that we were both very messy, our preferred description--not dirty messy, not disgusting messy,  just sloppy spirits who thought housekeeping  a waste of time,  slackers who used chairs as closets,  and figured college diplomas immunized against household drudgery. Reading won hands-down when the alternative was vacuuming, and we didn't own anything worth polishing so we, like Thing One and Thing Two, were comfortable in our little pigpen littered with newspapers, running shoes and lesson plans.  
One day I returned from teaching unable to unlock the front door. After ten minutes of fiddling with the key, I called our building janitor, who showed up an hour later with his nine-year old clone, disgruntled that I'd interrupted his happy hour.
I tell you, Helmet, womens stupid, always trouble, I heard him grumbling to his son as they climbed the stairs to find me sitting on the floor outside my apartment.
"Mr. Hormet, my key's not working," I said. "The door won't open."
He jerked my key ring from my hands, and proceeded to lecture me on the art of unlocking a door.  He had no luck either.
"Door bar," he barked.
"Can't be, I was the last one out this morning, and I locked the door."
"Door bar, maybe burglar home," he guffawed. "Helmet, go back door!"
Within minutes, Helmet appeared in the doorway crowing, "The back door was wide open! Your house is wrecked!"
"See," Mr. Hormet triumphed, "I tol' you robbed!"
"Oh, God," I shrieked, "What happened? What the hell happened?"
"You been robbed," Helmet screeched, delighted to be a player in the drama. "I discovered the crime. I'm like a detective--you have to tip me!" His father concurred, "Yeah, big tip!" The notion flashed through my mind that Mr. Hormet might be the culprit, but just as quickly I realized that he could never stay on task long enough to cause such destruction. 
I surveyed the wreckage. The apartment was a catastrophe--drawers dumped,  closet contents strewn about, furniture upended, pictures ripped off walls, potted plants smashed-- ruined, destroyed, trashed. Couldn't someone tell from our thrift-store decor that this was not a Gold Coast apartment, that we had nothing of value?
"How could this be," I lamented to the officer who responded to the 911 call. "Nothing here is worth stealing."
"Even a camera or a radio is a jackpot for a drug addict, Miss. It's $20.--more than he had before he picked your lock."
As I sat in tears, the detectives arrived to dust for fingerprints. Within a four square block area, we have 300 break and enters a day, one of Chicago's finest commented, as he sprinkled white powder over the crime scene. I wasn't sure if that statistic was supposed to make me feel less special, or if he was saying welcome to the big city. 
And then, almost worse than the burglary, my detested neighbor walked in the door. She had dropped by on a few occasions ostensibly for the proverbial cup of sugar, but her grilling intrusiveness suggested she was some kind of government informant on a covert operation. Just tell her we're diabetics the next time she comes looking for sugar, I had told Carri, don't let the busybody in. Now Torquemada was standing in the middle of the crime scene, her head swiveling, eyeballs spinning as though she was on an intelligence gathering mission.
"Whoa, this place is a real mess," she announced, as she sauntered around assessing the disaster. "Looks like you girls got wild and crazy in here."
"No, a junkie made a housecall," I said.
"Well, he probably wanted to surprise you with a home-cooked meal. The kitchen sink is filled with dirty pots and pans. Then again, maybe he was starving after his futile search for valuables." Unable to go for her throat due to the presence of the evidence technicians, I replied in my best Eliza Doolittle voice, "Oh, Darling, those dishes are from a dinner party we had last summer. Now, if you'll excuse me, I must ask you to leave so I can inventory our loss."
Carri came up the stairs just as I was hustling the yenta out the door.
"Don't get scared, Carri, everything is okay, but we were robbed.  My dad is now three for three." Carri surveyed the living room then dashed to her bedroom.
"Oh, no, the bastard stole my opal ring, my birthstone!" she wailed. "Oh, god, he got my add-a-pearl necklace too."
"Don't feel bad," I said, "he got my Confirmation watch and my grandmother's cameo."
"Well, ladies," the detective interrupted, "we've done about all we can do here. We got a few prints, but they're probably yours," he laughed. "Doesn't really matter though, we never catch anybody anyway. We dust just to make the victims feel better."
"Makes them think we're on top of things," the other Dick Tracy chuckled, as they beat it out the door.
It was getting late, the circus was over, even Helmet and Mr. Hormet had gotten bored and left. Carri and I cleared a space on the sofa to commiserate. 
 "He cut the cord on my Princess phone," Carri grieved. 
"He got my debate medals," I said, "Let's call it a day. We can clean this dump over the weekend."
"How can we live this way for three days?" Carri yawned.
"We've lived this way since we moved in," I said only half-exaggerating, "except for the time your mother visited. By the way, I'm sleeping on the floor in your room. My bedroom door doesn't lock."
"The floor in my room?"
"Yes, I'm sleeping on your floor in case the creep comes back tonight for something  he couldn't carry. My father said criminals often return to the scene of the crime."
"Your father's not infallible. He said guys would be hitting on you, and that hasn't happened. Are you thinking the dope fiend will come back for your class ring?"
"I'm worried he might come back for more stuff. Your add-a-pearl necklace only had seven pearls, remember?"
"I know I got it when I was born, but then my sister came along and my mother got too busy to order pearls," she said, turning out the light, as I nested on the floor in my down quilt.
"Carri," I murmured in the dark. "I'm sorry about your necklace."
"Don't worry about it," she said. "Someday we'll have diamonds that will dazzle even that bitch upstairs."
The room fell silent as I visualized my drop-dead engagement ring. Then in a soft voice, as though Miss J. Edgar Hoover might be listening, Thing One asked, "Thing Two, how did you realize that the apartment had been ransacked?"
"Well, my bike was gone," I whispered. "It was chained to the radiator in the living room, and I noticed it was missing."