A Metal Pole And The First Day of School

On the first day of kindergarten, I walked into a metal pole. This is completely understandable, given the fact I was gawking at the big kids streaming into the building. There I was, watching the big kids, when all of a sudden: SMACK. My five year old blond head rammed into one of the poles that supported the school entrance’s overhang.

I stumbled backwards, dropping my lunchbox. Whether it was from the pain of the welt forming on my forehead or the sheer humiliation, I began to cry. This was also completely understandable. I still cry easily. Frantically, I looked around for my older brother who had received strict instructions from my mom to keep an eye on me.

When Vincent heard my wailing I am certain he groaned. (Remember, I cried easily.) Through watery eyes I saw him leave his group of cool third grade friends and make his way to where I was standing. I don’t remember what he said, but I do remember his sheer embarrassment. Couldn’t I even walk into the entrance without incident?

Vincent led me to the nurse – walking ahead in hopes that no one would realize I was his little sister. Cool Vinnie couldn’t possibly have a whiny, blubbering little sister who walks into poles? Well, let me tell you – he did.

Upon arriving to the nurses’ office, Vincent turned and fled, leaving me alone with the school nurse who seemed large and old. And grumpy. She handed me an ice pack and told me to sit on the brown vinyl chair next to her desk. I heard morning announcements on the PA system. I watched stronger, braver kids who didn’t walk into metal poles pass by the office.

I wanted the nurse to call my mom so I could go home. I needed my mom to kiss my forehead and make this all better. The ice pack wasn’t doing anything, except freezing my skin so it felt like it was being pinched. Where was my mom? She was supposed to rescue me from these situations.

Eventually the school nurse remembered I was there, removed the ice pack and sent me to my kindergarten classroom. Miraculously I remembered the way my brother had led me, and I retraced my steps to the school’s entrance. At the end of the hall I could see my kindergarten classroom – the door open – waiting. I hurried to the class, my Smurf lunchbox thumping against my leg.

I burst through the door to find children sitting primly at their desks.

“You’re late,” my teacher said.

It was then I realized my mom couldn’t rescue me from all situations. I was going to have to handle these life events on my own. I found my desk, sat down, and turned my eyes to the teacher. But only after I started crying first.

I Want To Go Home

Her name was Mary and she was dying. I was the social work intern, fumbling my way through situations I had mistakenly assumed I could handle.

“I want to go home,” Mary told me during our first visit.

She resembled an Auschwitz victim. The cancer had ravaged her body, leaving her nothing more than soft skin hanging from delicate bones. She looked small and vulnerable in the hospital bed. Her frame barely made a dent in the mattress.

I knew Mary could never go home. She wasn’t strong enough to stand unassisted, let alone walk. Plus, there was no one to care for her even if she could return home. The only family she had was a son who lived in the mid-west. She would have to remain in the hospital until the end.

“Tell me about your home,” I said.

Briefly, Mary’s eyes brightened. She spoke of the small brick cape she had worked so hard to save for and buy. In that house she raised her son, alone. Her husband left her early in their marriage for someone else.

“I was a single mom,” she said, the expression on her face pained from the memory of her husband’s betrayal and not the cancer, “It was so hard.”

Her lips twitched into a smile, “But Robert went to medical school. He’s a surgeon now.” Her smile reflected a mother’s pride.

Later that afternoon I attempted to reach Mary’s son. I left messages with the receptionist at his office, and then tried his nurse. When he never returned my calls, I phoned his house. Robert’s wife answered.

“We’re so sad about Mary,” she said.

“Robert needs to see her … soon. She is failing.” I explained.

“But he can’t,” she said, “He is too busy.” She paused briefly before continuing, “And he doesn’t want to see her like that.”

I knew this was a social worker’s golden opportunity. This was my chance to use the questions and tactics I had learned to explore Robert’s fear of seeing his dying mother. I had read countless of pages on avoidant behavior. I should have known exactly how to respond.

But words escaped me. Instead, I grieved for Mary – lying alone in her hospital bed with only the hospital staff and Hospice workers to bring her comfort.

“He may never see her again alive,” I said bluntly.

Robert’s wife promised to relay my message.

The following day a friend of mine and I were walking to class. I spotted an array of colorful autumn leaves covering the ground. I remembered Mary saying she loved the fall and missed the foliage it brought. Her window in the hospital looked out at the concrete of a neighboring building.

Frantically, I started gathering leaves. My friend paused.

“What are you doing?” she asked.

“My patient,” I said, “She misses the color of fall.”

“That’s the saddest thing I have ever heard.” My friend began to pick up leaves. “Here. Here is a yellow one. And red. She has to have a red leaf.”

The next morning I brought my armful of leaves to Mary. Her lids were closed and when I whispered her name, she struggled to lift them.

“Mary, look,” I whispered, holding the leaves up, “I brought Autumn to you.”

Slowly, Mary smiled and I took her hand in mine. Together we sat in silence, and looked at the colors of fall.

A Salutation To Strangers

To all the strangers I observed throughout the day.

Dear …

Person Driving The Car With The Columbia University Window Decal: Thank you for letting me know you were smart enough to get into an Ivy League school … and I was not. That felt great.

Creepy Guy Checking Out Girls From The Corner Of His Eye: You look like a deranged Ron Howard. You may think you’re discreet but you’re not. Us gals all know you’re watching us and it’s freaking us out.

Middle-Aged Man Zipping Around In The Audi Convertible: Driving an expensive German car does not change the fact that you’re middle aged and bald. Please drive responsibly.

Woman in Grocery Store: Thank you for offering to help me with my awkward grocery bags. It’s wonderful to know sweet people like you still exist.

Person Who Left The Plastic Shopping Basket In The Parking Lot: I know people tend to leave shopping carts in the parking lot, but baskets? You have taken laziness to a whole new level.

Person In Corvette: Your car may be fast and cost an impressive $60,000, but whenever I see Corvettes I will forever think “Barbie Car.” Blame Mattel.

3 People Standing Under Their Beach Umbrella: Is there a standing contest I am unaware of? In all my years of going to the beach I have never seen people stand under their umbrella and not sit. So far it’s been almost an hour. I wish you would sit, because now I can’t stop watching you. I should be enjoying the beautiful view of the ocean, but instead I keep waiting for you to sit down.

Woman In Bikini With Twin Baby Girls: You had a tummy tuck, didn’t you? C’mon. Admit it.  

Man Talking Loudly on Cellphone: Your white blood cell count is low? And the specialist you need to see has no appointments for three weeks?  You’re also planning a surprise party for your wife? Yet your boss won’t let you leave early that day? You bet he’s a jerk!  But listen, could you please lower your voice so I don’t hear about your bowel issues, or whatever you’re going to talk about next?

Man Hitchhiking Outside of The Department Of Mental Health Building: Dude, if you have any hope of getting a ride, you might want to scooch down a few feet so you’re standing in front of a different building .

Thank you for making my day a little more interesting.

Sincerely,

The Underground Writer

The Cold, Hard Truth About Kindergarten

You can imagine my surprise and delight when Little Learners Preschool asked that I give the commencement speech at their graduation. (Granted, I wasn’t their first choice. Raffi was performing a concert elsewhere, and the clown from The Big Comfy Couch had a previous engagement.) I did not take this responsibility lightly. Having been a preschooler myself many years ago, I knew what awaited these children and I wanted to do everything I could to prepare them for the road ahead.

The graduation fell on an unseasonably cold, rainy day. Thankfully the ceremony was held indoors in a classroom that smelled of crayons and Play-Doh. After a lovely reception of apple juice and graham crackers, one of the teachers clapped her hands and asked that all students sit on the classroom rug.

“Criss cross applesauce!” she hollered. Eleven children scrambled to their spots and sat Indian-style. After Joey and Olivia stopped bickering over who got to sit where, I took my place on the child-sized chair a teacher had placed in front of the rug. With my knees hitting my chin, I cleared my throat. The audience was rapt. Aside for Theodore (who stuck his hand down the back of his pants), no one moved.

I began my speech Al Gore style:

“My fellow preschoolers. We are gathered here today to recognize a momentous occasion. These past ten months, you have faced many challenges and have gloriously overcome them. You share better. You now color in-between the lines. You deftly constructed Christmas ornaments out of pipe cleaners and Popsicle sticks. Some of you had pink-eye, strep throat or colds, yet you returned once you were symptom free for twenty-four hours.”

I paused to let Liliana – who was suddenly struck with an allergy attack -stop sneezing before I proceeded.

“You have learned the letters of the alphabet and how to tie shoelaces. You know the days of the week, and the seasons of the month. You should be commended for your efforts and accomplishments.”

There was noise. I looked up from my speech to find Matthew whispering to Peter, “What is she talking about?” Matthew looked over at me and I raised my eyebrows. He clamped his mouth shut and I continued.

“Yet, you have only just begun. Kindergarten, my little friends, is no joke. It is there you will be expected to learn how to read. You will even have tests. What are tests? They are a set of questions where you are supposed to know the answer. If you don’t know the answer you receive a bad grade, which is like a punishment.”

Now I had their attention. “Punishment?” Peter said, clearly worried. (“Shhhh!” Liliana shushed.)

“You will be expected to write your name – and not in all caps.”

I wasn’t exactly sure about that, but I still forged ahead.

“Do not be deluded. Kindergarten is the start of real life! Just as life isn’t fair – neither is the big K. The kid you sit next to may not invite you to their birthday party, but they invite everyone else. Your mom might pack you gross snacks like raisins while your friend has yummy snacks like popcorn or brownies – but your friend refuses to share these delectable snacks with you. You may lose your blue crayon, only to discover that the kid behind you stole it. Girls, you may have to sit next to a boy with cooties. Boys, you may have to sit next to a girl who never stops talking. Then she claims you never listen to her.”

Pausing briefly, I glanced at the graduates. They sat wide-eyed and open mouthed. (Except for Nina who was now sucking her thumb – her index finger curled protectively over her nose.)

“I have faith in your ability to handle these challenges! You know the names of colors and have braved an apple picking field trip. These are vital life skills that will help you walk into that kindergarten classroom. So go forth, my graduates, and seize the day! (Just, whatever you do, DON’T eat the spaghetti and meatballs in the cafeteria. School meatballs taste like cat food.)”

Silence. I looked at the teachers who were both frowning. Jacob began to cry. Olivia slowly raised her hand and asked if she could use the bathroom.

“Of course, Olivia. Go ahead,” The teacher turned to me, “Um…thank you Underground Writer. That was … interesting.”

I was presented with a honorary preschool graduation diploma that was framed in dried ziti noodles and fruit loops. The teachers thanked me for visiting and escorted me to the door. When I turned to ask if I could return and give the Little Learners Commencement Speech of 2014, I found they had locked the door behind me.