apogee

In light of all the sadness happening lately, I thought I would offer a cheering anecdote from my childhood. This is only tangentially about teaching and likewise only tangentially about Character and Endurance, and much more about the utterly bonkers things you convince yourself are necessary to do in junior high.

This is the story better known as That Time Alex Fell Down a Mountain.

It was sixth grade and I was kind of an idiot. I mean, I’ve already given it away: I fall down a mountain in this one.

Climbing Mt. Monadnock was a tradition. Some schools went to battlegrounds; we climbed this giant peak in New Hampshire. All the sixth grade classes before us did it and I imagine that if no one’s stopped them by now all the sixth graders after us will do it as well. The mountain’s actually not that giant, you can make a day trip out of it, and that was exactly what we did, all 64 sixth-graders and handful of homeroom teacher chaperones.

This number included my homeroom teacher, who taught French and was amazing, the art teacher (who was decidedly less amazing, for reasons not worth exploring in this story), several others who were just fine, and the drama teacher.

In the Austenian tradition of tastefully obscuring the identities of people one tells certain anecdotes about, I’ll call him Mr. B—. I will do my utmost to pass no judgement, to merely present the facts and invite the reader to draw their own conclusions.

Mr. B— and I had a somewhat turbulent student-teacher relationship. In his defense, sixth grade was not one of my most friendly and effervescent incarnations. I’d just transferred into a new school (my fifth), accidentally messed up some cliques (oops), and mostly lived in the school library during lunch and recess teaching myself how to draw (which honestly felt like a very positive arrangement at the time). That is, however, all the defense he’ll have.

In our first drama production, my character was a seasick delinquent aboard a cruise ship. (It was a student-written play.) The day of our performance, I’d clamped a hand over my dog tags so they wouldn’t clink and make too much noise as I, in full punk costume, got into position behind the curtain. I secretly did want to be a good actor, as any good consulting detective worth their salt could act, and my dream was to either become Sherlock Holmes or marry him.

Imagine my surprise when I slipped behind the curtain to await my cue and found Mr. B—  talking to a few of my classmates about me. Now that I’ve become a teacher, I’m still unclear on the finer points of why you would talk about another student’s failings to their classmates but since he, in this story, still has more years of teaching experience than I do as of the writing, I’ll allow him the benefit of the doubt of seniority.

The facts are these: Mr. B— told my classmates I was antisocial, he did not realize that I was standing there listening, and I lit into him just before my cue to go on stage.

I forget exactly what words were exchanged (my wit had certainly not peaked in sixth grade, so I probably just repeated “antisocial?” back at him like some demented adolescent parrot dressed in a much-beloved albeit very holey Commander Salamander black tee and sporting a fake nose ring) but I do know that I still had to perform afterward– we had a live audience waiting, after all. I angrily fake-vomited over the edge of the pretend ship that night with special aplomb.

All this is to say that by the time we got to the Monadnock trip, tensions were high and certain lines had been drawn. Mr. B— and I were in different groups, this was amenable to all, and I was prepared to have a great time chatting French and hanging out with Mme S— as we trekked up the mountain and reflected on nature.

The hike up was uneventful, and three hours later we ate our lunches at the peak. Mum had even drawn me a great picture on my lunch bag. My family, like most people in New England during that time (and likely even more now), were very into saving the environment so while we did have reuseable lunch coolers and used them often, I’d specifically requested a brown paper bag because I loved seeing my mom’s drawings on it.

The teachers talked about appreciating nature’s majesty and told us to be careful on the way down. Mr. B—, who I guess had had just enough of his students leaping around on the ascent, said that we all better be careful climbing back because he was definitely not carrying any of us down the mountain if we fell. I sniffed, finished my lunch, and folded up my delightful lunch bag for safekeeping.

As mentioned earlier, I had an obsession with becoming Sherlock Holmes. I trained myself in mirrors so my everyday movements would be more graceful and rewound Jeremy Brett on tape or on DVD doing the same, subtle wrist flick over and over until I could mimic it proficiently. Like all things I loved, grace became an object of study.

And oddly enough, there were a lot of avenues for practice. People are always in motion, and learning to carry weight in different parts of your body is a skill–anyone who’s attempted to pass as different genders on different occasions can tell you there’s a quiet change in the way you walk, how you hold yourself. This also factored nearly into my thirst for being the Best at Disguises, one of many necessary subgoals for becoming Sherlock Holmes.

So, I was doing pretty well, leaping gazelle-like from rock to rock, practicing for when I would escape my own Reichenbach Falls, when–not half an hour out from Mr. B—‘s lunchtime comments–I made a crucial miscalculation.

Possibly this was because I was still too smug about all those idiots who fell down mountains, possibly it was because I wasn’t paying attention and accurate depth-perception was hard, or possibly it was just because I was twelve and no longer completely in control of what my body did anymore.

I fell.

It wasn’t a big fall, maybe only eight feet. While I was ambitious as a detective gazelle, I was not stupid. I made the first rock but misjudged the second and landed on my ankle at a bad angle.

I cursed myself because I knew I looked stupid picking myself up off the ground, and I gamely walked on like normal. It didn’t bother me much at first.

One thing that is very useful to remember right about now is that it took us roughly half the day to reach the top of the mountain. We started around nine, summited and ate at around noon, and so would need about three hours to reach the buses waiting for us at the base.

An hour after I twisted my ankle, I began to realize that the pain was not just background noise. I ignored it and pushed on for another half hour, going through brush and rock trails. Actually telling a teacher that I had done the stupid thing and fallen down the mountain was unthinkable.

I had to hide it.

However, there is only so long you can do this with non-minor injuries before you have to make a decision: you either keep up the stiff upper lip and risk seriously hurting yourself further because you are too stubborn to admit you did wrong, or you alter your behavior and risk discovery in order to stop exacerbating the problem.

I opted for the second. Sure, I was dead stubborn, but the biggest goal was to make it down the mountain under my own power, and I knew if I hurt myself more I really wouldn’t be able to do that. So, with halfway left to the base, I let myself limp. Most kids did not notice– I think if you’re quiet enough about it, sometimes people in junior high are more inclined to play an injury off as a ploy for attention or you faking it for sympathy, and their best strategy is not to pay you any attention so you understand that what you’re doing is both not cool and not working. This worked well enough for my purposes.

Mme S— asked if I was okay, because she noticed and knew I would not keep this up for an hour without a great reason, but I said I was fine and not to worry.

But, then maybe half an hour from the promised land of humid leather bus seats and my ankle spending some quality time with my lunch’s cold pack, the terrain became rocky. My ankle wasn’t as taxed as it had been thanks to the limping, but after trying to maneuver over the rocks and nearly falling again, I was at an impasse. I could not get down the rocks as I was.

Mme S— had quietly alerted the other teachers that one of her students had had an accident on the mountain and was limping, but didn’t feel comfortable asking a teacher for help directly. And probably all the other teachers had discussed among themselves who would be the best suited to carry me, which logic dictated would have to be the youngest and spriest of the guy teachers. But being able able to figure all this out on the fly did not provide much comfort.

Because in true climactic fashion, Mr. B— came racing down the trail from above, calling out not to move, that it would all be fine and he was going to carry me.

And truly, in that moment, I understood what Candide had felt like when he wondered if he really was living in the worst of all possible worlds.

I was faced with an impossible decision: be the cautionary tale of the idiot who fell down the mountain, the idiot who had to be carried and would never live it down, or hurt myself proving a point, which would be equally stupid.

As Mr. B— rushed to my aid, I chose the third option.

Reader, I crab-walked away from him.

As it happens, crab-walking is a fairly effective means of traversing rocky terrain, especially when you don’t have full use of all your limbs. My hands got a little torn up and while it may not have been the most elegant mode of egress, one thing I will say was that it was quick. I crab-walked right on out of there.

Mr. B— did catch up with me, because it is unfortunately not hard to outpace a twelve-year-old doing the three-legged crab down a mountain, but I held my own. No, I said as I crab-grappled a rock, I did not want or require his help. This anti-social kid was doing just fine.

And that’s it. I crab-walked and limped the rest of the way down Mt. Monadnock. I think my parents kept me home a day after because, surprise! I’d sprained my ankle and no one wanted me walking on it for a while. Emails were exchanged, but that is another story entirely.

Was this dumb? I mean, probably. The third option was not that much better than the original two. And yes, as an adult, it’s easy to say, “well I would’ve just asked for help because there’s no shame in that.” And that’s true, there’s not. But coming at it as a kid who was already having a hard time at school and just wanted to make it out of this with her dignity intact? I can’t say I would have done much different besides, you know, not fall down the mountain in the first place.

But even that was okay, because my twelve-year-old self clued me into a valuable lesson: when faced with two unacceptable situations, it is sometimes completely within your power to crabwalk the fuck out.

You just have to be creative about it.

And as far as sixth grade stories go, the ones where you end up looking like an idiot no matter what, I’m pretty okay with this one.

 

scion

As Father’s Day winds down, I keep coming back to one of my favorite stories about my dad.

My dad is an engineer. Often, this meant that when I was younger he would go on a lot of business trips for company projects, sometimes to domestic locales, but sometimes to more exotic places. And I remember a lot of trips where Mum and I (and sometimes later my little brother) would go to O’Hare to pick him up.

O’Hare is one of my favorite airports for a lot of reasons. One, I grew up in Chicago and it inevitably feels like home, an old friend that I’m always traveling back to see when I pass through. Two, it contains the Moving Walk, a place elevated to near-divinity by childhood fascination and awe that I still make every effort to take it when I can.

And three, because I was always coming back to people I missed in it.

This story is like many of my childhood airport reunion stories: we made welcome home signs with washable markers, drove to O’Hare, and waited for my dad’s flight to come in. What made it different this time was that there had been a delay–weather, perhaps– I was too young (maybe five or six) to know exactly what it was.

But apparently it was a big enough deal to bring down some reporters from Chicago’s local news stations to cover it and interview people. A reporter spoke with my mother briefly before my dad deplaned and made it over to us, and then came back for another round once we were all together.

My dad has always gotten us presents when he traveled. These days, it’s so ingrained in me that as an adult whenever I go places I wonder if I’ve bought enough gifts for my family. I collected necklaces and rings from Tel Aviv when I was older and Dad traveled farther abroad, but on this particular day I got what turned out to be my favorite gift, a grow-your-own-crystals kit.

I loved these things. I think I’d grown several sets with my parents at home already, smashed all manner of geodes, and I’d stare for ages at those fast-growing crystalline structures that balanced precariously like skyscrapers in their petri dishes. As Mum was being interviewed, Dad, right there in the middle of the concourse, unzipped his suitcase and pulled out a massive, new crystal set. I was elated.

Eventually, after talking with my mom and dad about airlines and delays, the reporter asked for my thoughts. I, ever-mindful that these, truly, were my fifteen minutes of fame, said something like, “Look at the great crystal rocks my dad got me!”

And I think it’s hard as a parent, wondering what things your child is going to immortalize, what gets through and what doesn’t. I applied to tons of universities, decided on his alma mater. He quietly hoped I’d transfer into engineering; I built race cars out of carbon fiber and became a mathematician instead. He got me and my little brother educational CD-ROMs like Treasure Mathstorm and Logical Journey of the Zoombinis; I was the kid who worked chores to afford her first GameBoy to play Pokemon Blue and then spent days on console-based JRPGs as a teen.

My dad traded in his two Porsches for two kids (happily, both children grew up to purchase fast cars of their own), he, in grad school, owned two Afghans named Sasha and Misha who required meticulous daily brushing (and later caused me no small amount of consternation as I wondered if I’d been named* after a beloved hound**), and he very nearly let the crab cakes my now-six-foot-four little brother and I shipped him as a Father’s Day gift sit out on by the front door overnight.

Once, he had a two-sided chalkboard in his parents’ house that he drew out transforms on, and when done with one side’s worth of material, he’d flip it over and lay back down on his bed to commit the fresh side to memory. He’s also one of the few people I know who has lived through the twin feelings of relief and frustration when your parents occasionally rescue you during your graduate years– relief and appreciation because thank god you have a working car and your family loves you, frustration because you’re old enough that you ought to have your life more in order and not rely on people who love you, damn it.

We chatted about the Near Crab Cake Fiasco a little before Father’s Day (the crab cakes, alas, had too much of the element of surprise going for them, but ultimately everything was fine), and one thing that came up was how much he’d been away for work when we were kids. “Sometimes I wonder if I did enough,” my PhD-having,  multiple patent-achieving, world-traveler father said. “Or was there enough.”

I am a doctoral student, preparing for exams deep into the summer, who wakes up at the crack of dawn every couple of days to write a magnificently weird coup de maître featuring magic rocks and crystals.

“You did just fine.” I said.

As a preteen, I used to get really mad that I’d used up five of my fifteen minutes of fame talking about a gift in O’Hare. In retrospect, I doubt the fifteen minutes thing is true anymore or if it is, that it even matters that much. It’s less scrambling to prolong your fame and more what you do when you’re pulled into the spotlight.

And somewhere, in the blurry 90’s archives of a local Chicago station, a starry-eyed kid clutches a deluxe Magic Rocks set to her chest, ignores all of the interviewing reporter’s questions, and just goes on and on about how excited she is that she and her parents are going to make these tonight, now that her dad’s finally home.

* Sasha is a diminutive of my given name.
** I am not actually named after Sasha, though Sasha was a very good dog.