The kind you’re born with, the kind you choose, the kind that teach Catholic school
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Despite my lack of experience, I’d been hired to teach a combined second-and-third-grade bilingual class in a poor immigrant neighborhood in East LA. I was unbearably nervous on my first day.
The morning got off to a bad start: When I got to work, the gates to the employee parking garage were locked. (Quarter to six was a bit early, I suppose.) I panicked. The custodian found me frantically examining the lock and, laughing, he opened it so I could drive in.
I carried my heavy bags of supplies up the steps to my classroom, opened the door (the key worked!), and noted thankfully that there were desks and a chalkboard. There wasn’t much else in the room, however: a handwritten list of vocabulary words on the wall, a few worn-looking textbooks in each desk, and a folder with our room number on it and instructions on what to do in case of an earthquake. I dropped my bags and sat down in a mild state of shock: how could I possibly have thought I was prepared for this? I had at least an hour and a half before my students arrived, and all I could do was sit there feeling paralyzed.
At 7:30, I heard students’ voices in the rooms around mine. It sounded as if classes had already begun, yet no one had come to my classroom. I thought maybe I had the wrong room. Then the teacher from next door peeked her head in to borrow some chalk — which, of course, I didn’t have — and said, looking perturbed, “You haven’t picked up your kids yet?”
No one had told me I needed to go down and get them from the playground, where they lined up. I grabbed my keys and ran out the door. A scraggly, single-file line of children were standing all alone on the blacktop: my class.
The rest of the day is mostly a blur. I recall the teaching assistant had to run down to the office to get the attendance sheet, which I was supposed to pick up first thing in the morning. (No one had told me that, either.) But what I remember most are the physical sensations: my feet ached from standing so much; my new pants chafed my legs; and my stomach churned from the fear that someone would figure out I had no idea what I was doing.
After the students left that afternoon, I sat down at my desk, as I had in the morning, feeling relieved that the day was over and chagrined that I’d ever thought I could be a good teacher. I must have sat there for a long time, because when I went down to the garage, the door was locked again. I knocked loudly at the main office, but no one answered. I ran back down to the garage and yanked on the doorknob, to no avail. Then I began to cry.
The head secretary — who, thankfully, had also stayed late — heard me and, with her enormous ring of keys, let me into the garage.
That was in September. I didn’t have a good day teaching until March.
New York, New York
I had been secretly drinking again for almost a year. Each of my kids had accidentally taken a sip of my “ginger ale” several times, but they never said anything, not even when I drove into the bushes at the McDonald’s, or when I passed out on the floor of my bedroom at 5 P.M., or when my hair caught on fire because I fell asleep over the wood stove. Despite it all, I struggled to maintain some semblance of normalcy.
One summer morning, I awoke hung over with the sun blazing through my bedroom window and decided to cut the grass; it hadn’t been mowed for at least five months and was almost a foot tall. But first I went to the twelve-pack I kept hidden under my bathroom sink in case of emergency. (Coffee didn’t sit well in my stomach anymore, but beer cleared my brain and made my hands stop shaking.) Having calmed my nerves and equipped myself with clipping shears and a pathetic weed eater that looked like a toy, I confronted my overgrown mess of a yard.
After three hours, I’d had enough. I’d cleared only a small patch and downed six beers. (I felt I deserved one every half-hour or so, considering I was doing all this work by myself.) While I could still see one of everything instead of two, I looked in the paper for someone I could pay to do the work for me.
The man who showed up looked very familiar, which horrified me in my lame, hung-over state. Trying to figure out how I knew him, I asked if he had any children. (The only other people I saw — aside from coworkers — were other parents at my kids’ school.) He said no. I asked him if he had another job. No. Finally, I had to ask the question that I’d been avoiding: “Are you a friend of Bill W.’s?”
Anyone in a twelve-step program knows the meaning of this question. It’s a roundabout way of saying, “Are you a recovering wino, stoner, junkie?”
Of course, he answered yes.
When I’d first moved there, I had been sober for quite a while. I had gone to a few local AA meetings but decided that the people were too small-town-minded for me to gain anything from them. I must have seen this man at one of those meetings.
He asked me how long I had been sober, and something made me admit, “I’m not.” The minute I said this, I regretted it. This man knew my phone number and where I lived.
Sure enough, he called me that night and asked if I wanted to go to a meeting with him. I told him no, trying not to slur my words as I sipped beer from a coffee cup.
The following Saturday, my new friend showed up at my house in the middle of the afternoon. I was drunk, as usual, but I talked to him for about three hours, and the next morning, when I woke up, I didn’t take a drink. I even threw away my stash, emptying the bottles from my bathroom cabinets, closets, kitchen cabinets, and some other hiding places my kids showed me. And I let him take me to a meeting of those people whose small-town minds now seemed filled with a wisdom that I’d never thought I would hear again.
Nevada City, California
My first day in prison, I wasn’t sure what to expect. All I knew was what I’d seen in the movies. I was sent to Vacaville, the Northern California Reception Center, along with twenty other newly convicted felons. We were strip-searched, then given socks, boxer shorts, and shoes. Waiting in line to be “processed,” I felt an urge to pee. When I got to the urinal, though, I couldn’t find the opening in my boxer shorts. I had put them on backwards. I looked around, at once embarrassed and defiant, but nobody seemed to have noticed. I quickly took my shorts off and put them on right.
After being processed, we were given a bedroll and a “fish kit,” which contained toiletries, a double-edged razor, extra blades, and a pouch of state tobacco. (These days, they wouldn’t dream of giving you razor blades or tobacco.) Then they marched us down to our housing wings. I expected it to be like in the movies, with everyone spitting at us and catcalling. As I went through the doors, I steeled myself and tried to look as if I were ready to fight. I was shocked to discover that nobody even looked our way. The other inmates couldn’t have cared less.
Years later, I was on a bus bound for the San Quentin Reception Center. The kid sitting next to me was obviously worried. He had never been to prison before. We talked, and I eased some of his concerns about prison life.
As we pulled up to the gates of the prison, I could see the tension building inside him again. In a quiet voice, I said, “You know, when you get inside, they’ll throw down a pair of panties and a knife at your feet. You’ll have to pick up one or the other.”
He looked at me with a determined expression. “I’ll pick up the knife,” he said.
I gazed down at the waist chains in my lap. “I think I’ll pick up the panties this time,” I said. “I’m getting too old to be fighting all the time.”
From the corner of my eye, I saw him give me a dubious look. Unable to keep a straight face any longer, I broke out laughing.
When I started graduate school, I moved from a large, well-furnished townhouse to a tiny, run-down duplex in a poor section of town. I did this partly to cut my expenses, but also because I wanted to live among the sort of people I would be helping after I’d completed my master’s degree and become a social worker.
I saw several drug deals in that neighborhood, and more than once I answered a knock at my door to find a man trying to sell me a TV or a car stereo. But I was never rude to my neighbors, and they treated me with respect.
The neighborhood streets were often filled with children playing with under-inflated basketballs and broken-down bicycles while the adults sat on front porches talking and watching them play. I was a competitive cyclist at the time, and they all saw me coming and going on my daily training rides.
I hadn’t lived there long when, one afternoon, I heard a soft knock at my door. Opening it, I recognized one of the smaller boys on my street.
“Mr. Bicycle Man,” he said, “would you fix my bike for me?”
He had a flat tire, so naturally I grabbed my pump and inflated it for him. He quietly thanked me and rode away.
After that, more and more kids came to my door looking for bike repairs. At first, they were timid and wary, but as time passed, their trust in me grew — and so did the number of repairs. I often spent valuable study time, and even money out of my own pocket, working to keep their bikes running.
One morning, just as I was about to leave for the first day of a class, I heard that familiar knock at my door. The little girl’s bike was a mess. The chain was broken, and the wheels were bent. It would take hours to make the bike ridable, and I could not afford to miss the first class: my master’s program had a strict attendance policy. But when the girl looked up at me with hope in her eyes and asked me to make her bike “all better,” I couldn’t say no.
Unlike the other children, this girl was quite talkative, and as I worked on her bike, she told me her name was Maggie and that she was seven years old. She had three older brothers, two of whom were in jail. Her mother worked two jobs, and she hadn’t seen her father in a long time.
Finishing up, I handed Maggie the bike, and she smiled with tears in her eyes. As she rode off, I realized that, in those two hours it had taken me to repair Maggie’s bike, I’d learned more about healing a wounded soul than I ever could in a classroom.
I remember the tight feeling in my chest as we pulled up to the ivy-covered brick building. My stepfather, Hank, parked his charcoal gray Mercedes and, after a brief exchange with my mother, walked me silently and slowly to the front door. The unfamiliar fiber of my gray flannel pants made my legs itch, and my feet hurt from my new, tight-fitting dress shoes. A stern-faced, white-haired man with glasses watched through a window in the door as we approached. When Hank opened the door, the smell of men’s cologne and freshly varnished wood floors washed over me.
“Come in, come in,” the man said. “I’m Mr. Reinke.”
They shook hands at my eye level, right in front of my face. I looked around at the photos of groups of young boys wearing neckties. Through a set of open doors, I could see a large classroom lined with rows of old wooden desks bolted to the floor and, on the wall above the teacher’s desk, a giant stuffed moose head. Next to the desk were two poster-size plaques, one titled SCHOOL CODE, and the other SCHOOL OATH.
After the two men had exchanged pleasantries, Hank excused himself: “We have a reservation for lunch at the Red Coach Grill,” he said, “and we’d still like to beat the late-afternoon traffic back to Connecticut.”
“I understand,” said Mr. Reinke, and he directed his attention to me, his face contorted in a forced smile. I could see several shiny black hairs protruding from his nostrils. “You must be John,” he said through tightly clenched teeth, his jaw muscles flexing and quivering involuntarily.
Twenty minutes later, after I was unpacked and “settled,” as Hank put it, he and my mother left for the Red Coach Grill. I stood on my toes to look out the window in the door as they drove away. My mother appeared to turn and glance over her shoulder as if to say, one more time, “Goodbye. I love you.” I think she did.
It is a clear, sunny day as our twelve-year-old son boards the bus for one week at an overnight camp for children with autism. This will be the first of seven days at our home during which there will be no soiled pants, no head banging, no biting, no kicking, no destruction, and no feelings of despair. By the middle of the week, I should be able to wear sleeveless clothes without concern that the bite marks and bruises that my son so often leaves on my arms will raise eyebrows.
I spend this first day reflecting on how my son’s disability has affected me. My love for him is overwhelming, though I have absolutely no expectation of receiving any in return. He reminds me daily how vulnerable we all are and how grateful I am for all the goodness in my life. He has also taught me what it means to live with endless sorrow.
When my son returns home, I will once again have no time for such reflection. And I will be glad.
The day Pam and I arrived at the Alaskan Inuit village, it was raining. We landed at the airstrip and stepped out of the plane into a downpour. In the distance, sodden, mud-caked figures struggled to free a trapped plane from the end of the short, humpbacked runway.
As new teachers here to work in the village school, we were a novelty and drew many curiosity seekers. Pam was offered a ride into the village. I stayed with our boxes and suitcases, waiting for our new landlord, George, to show up with the promised trailer. The airport shelter offered little cover, and I got soaked, along with our belongings. Tape loosened; cardboard sagged; inked addresses began to bleed and run. Rainwater invaded my new boots and ran down my neck.
Finally, George appeared. We loaded the trailer and drove off. From a distance, the village was beautiful: trees — a rarity in that part of Alaska — a river, houses, and the red schoolhouse. A closer look, though, revealed mud, abandoned buildings, outhouses, junked vehicles, and, alarmingly, our new home: a two-room shack sitting up on blocks and listing perceptibly to one side.
We pulled up to the front door. By now the rain had stopped, and a small, silent crowd of Inuits had gathered to stare at us. In time, those people would teach me more than I could ever imagine. Right then, however, all I could think was that my new home smelled like fish.
In the midfifties, I was hired straight out of Columbia Law School by a large and distinguished Wall Street firm. I had grown up in the Bronx, the son of immigrant parents, so I was particularly thrilled and proud. The firm had many traditions, one of which was that, on your first day, a senior partner and several other partners took you to lunch at an exclusive private club.
As we walked into the club, I excused myself to go to the men’s room. It was a large, white-marbled space with piles of fresh towels and men’s toiletries on the counters. When I went to a sink to wash my hands, I turned the tap too far, and the water splashed up out of the sink and soaked the top of my pants. I quickly grabbed some towels and tried to dry myself, but a dark water stain covered my entire crotch. My first day on the job, and I looked as if I’d pissed in my pants.
Glancing around in a panic, I saw a row of hot-air hand dryers on the far wall. Fortunately, I was alone. I ran to the nearest one, aimed the nozzle downward, hoisted myself up on my tiptoes, pressed my crotch to the nozzle, and pushed the button. Within a few minutes, the stain was gone. I quickly walked out, feeling as if I had dodged a bullet.
During lunch, I tried to act as if I were accustomed to dining in such elegant surroundings. As I sipped my first-ever martini, I saw two policemen walk in and speak to the headwaiter, who pointed to a distinguished-looking older gentleman seated at a nearby table. The policemen spoke to this man briefly, and he proceeded to point in our direction. Then, to my amazement, the policemen came and took up positions on either side of me. One of them placed his hand on my shoulder and asked me to step outside.
By now, everyone in the room was looking at us. The senior partner in our group demanded to know what was the problem. The policeman leaned over our table and, in a low voice, said that he wanted to question me about a report that I had engaged in lewd and lascivious activity in the men’s room. Apparently, I had not been alone after all; the club’s president — the man at the nearby table — had observed me as he walked in.
I hurriedly stammered out an explanation. The policemen looked at me quizzically, then walked over to my accuser, spoke with him briefly, and left. The club president hurried over to our table and apologized profusely. He told the waiter to put our lunch bill on his tab and, as he left, complimented me on my resourcefulness. Unable to restrain themselves any longer, my companions burst out laughing.
I got married while a junior in college and, following graduation, had baby after baby until there were seven. I was never really in the job market, but I volunteered all over town, especially if baby-sitting was provided.
One afternoon, while I was scrubbing the living-room woodwork with a toothbrush (yes, I did things like that), something clicked. It was 1975, and the women’s movement had finally reached me.
That day, I answered a newspaper ad for the position of job counselor. True, I hadn’t had a job myself in twenty-six years, but I sent a résumé anyway, and was called in for an interview.
The organization was a nonprofit that helped welfare recipients, parolees, high-school dropouts, and others find jobs. The interview went well, and when the director heard that I’d had two years of college accounting, the job was mine. She figured she’d be gaining two employees in one.
The day after Labor Day, I started my new career. There I was, a suburban housewife facing her first three clients, all of whom happened to be parolees. I anxiously went over the list of questions I had prepared, careful not to ask why they had been in jail. Thankfully, my clients accepted me, as did the other staff members. I’m grateful to both groups for giving me a chance.
Two years later, on my last day at that job, I went to lunch with Peter, a job developer who had become my friend. After a drink or two, he told me about how, on my first day, the staff had placed bets on how long I would last. The longest bet had been two hours.
Daisy A. Horn
Bound Brook, New Jersey
I was a spoiled twenty-one-year-old whose hands had never known a callus, facing my first day washing dishes in a restaurant. A more experienced employee showed me the ins and outs of the job. “You’ll love it,” he said. Like an idiot, I grinned.
I was completely overwhelmed by the volume of work. Near closing time, there were still tubs full of dishes stacked by the sink. I’d already broken a tray of glassware, and the other employees were casting sidelong glances at me and murmuring as they left. The owner stayed behind while I finished up. “You didn’t do too bad,” he said, even though we both knew I had done horribly. He insisted on wrapping up some leftovers for me and driving me home — a savvy move, meant to make me feel appreciated. Dishwasher is a position a restaurant owner dreads having to fill. Even ex-cons turn their noses up at it.
Since then, I’ve had many first days on soul-killing, backbreaking, minimum-wage jobs. It’s always the same: Answering, “It’s all right,” when the tenth person asks, “How do you like it so far?” Figuring out who’s cool enough to drink half a pint with you out by the dumpster and who’s a backstabber — or, worse, an employee who lives for the job. Hearing the manager say, “We kid around, but when it’s time to pull together, there’s no nonsense.” Knowing the last day isn’t far down the road.
The love of my life had a great writing talent and a small drinking problem — or maybe it was vice versa; we broke up before I discovered which. We met in the stacks of the university library, somewhere between Faulkner and Hemingway. I was naive and responsible to a fault, but thought myself avant-garde because I wore jeans with a hole in the knee. He was brazen, self-indulgent, and witty — everything I was too afraid to be. Our future seemed clear: He was going to be the Updike of the Southwest and spend his days clacking away on an old Underwood typewriter. And I was going to wear gauzy thrift-shop dresses, bake grainy breads, and lobby for social causes.
Alas, the reality of our relationship never quite measured up to my imagination. My idealism was no match for his love of drinking, motorcycles, and, occasionally, other women. After college, my true love moved to Dallas, while I remained close to home and eventually met my husband.
Years passed, and although happily married, I still longed for my college days and the literary life I had pictured for myself. I regretted that I had not pierced my nose, that I’d traded my run-down bohemian haven for a new house on a cul-de-sac, and that most of my clothes now came from the Gap.
In addition to my regrets, I had to deal with tragedy: For the first seven years of my marriage, my mother battled ovarian cancer. The last six months was especially difficult. As she became weaker and eventually bedridden, we all rearranged our work schedules so that someone could be with her every minute of the day.
One afternoon, a few weeks before she died, I went over to her house to relieve my husband, who had been with her since early morning. I found him sitting next to her hospital bed, reading the newspaper to her. He had already changed her bedding and clothing, spoon-fed her chicken broth, and helped her to and from the portable toilet several times. Too groggy to speak, my mother smiled and opened her fist to show me a little velvet bluebird my husband had tucked into the palm of her hand. That was the first day I knew that I had, in fact, married the love of my life.
Karen E. Navarro
When I was six, I wanted a bicycle. My father said he would buy me one if I sang a solo at church. I didn’t want to sing, but my desire for a bike overcame my abject shyness, and, one Sunday, I stood in front of the congregation and sang “Living for Jesus.” Sure enough, a few days later, there was a shiny turquoise-and-white Belknap bicycle parked in the garage.
But it was huge! I wanted a little bike — one more my size. When my dad held me on the seat, my feet could barely reach the pedals. “You’ll grow into it, honey,” he said.
I was afraid to even think about riding the bike without training wheels. Our driveway was gravel; if I fell, I would get all skinned up. But the very suggestion of training wheels made my father mad. “They’re a waste of money!” he said. “Anybody can learn to ride a bike. It’s easy: if you feel yourself start to fall, turn the handlebars in the direction you’re falling, and you’ll keep your balance.”
Thinking he was just too cheap to buy me training wheels, I stubbornly let the bike sit in the garage. Then winter came, and it was too snowy and icy to ride a bike anyway.
One Friday afternoon the following spring, Dad came home from work, took off his jacket and tie, and said, “Let’s go get your bike. I’ll run alongside and hold you up — just down to the railroad tracks and back. How about it?” Then he looked me right in the eye and said, “Don’t worry, honey. I won’t let go.”
And at first he did run alongside the bike as I bumped down the dirt road in front of our house. But then suddenly I heard him yell from far behind me, “You’re on your own!”
Of course I was mad — he’d promised! — and terrified of falling off this wobbly contraption. But I remembered to turn the wheel if I started to fall, and found that, if I pedaled fast, I didn’t wobble as much. That was all I needed. I was riding a bike!
Then I hit the railroad tracks. The front wheel bumped up and came down hard at an awkward angle. I landed in a tangle of metal and skidded sideways across the road, scraping my elbow and knee. To top it all off, the handlebar hit me in the nose, and blood gushed down the front of my white blouse. I ran back to the house, bloody and wailing.
Dad must have retrieved the bike, because later, after Mom had fixed me up, I went out to the garage and saw it sitting there in the same spot it had occupied all winter.
The next day, I rode my bike by myself down the driveway, along the dirt road, over the railroad tracks, and through the woods to the clearing beyond.
The hospital released me just twenty hours after my son’s birth. The delicate dream of the previous nine months splintered apart as my husband and I trudged to our car, burdened by the weight of Reilly in his car seat.
The next morning, we stared numbly at each other in the gray light of dawn with our new baby peacefully sleeping — for the moment — between us in bed. Wrung out, worried, and desperate not to wake Reilly, we didn’t speak, but our eyes said it all: We’ve made a terrible mistake. Can’t we go back to the way it used to be? The answer to that question was all too clear, and we cried at our hopeless predicament.
Then our little son awoke and, as the sun rose on that first day, began to fill us with bewildering faith and joy.
San Francisco, California
I had grown up in Europe, but wanted to go to college in the U.S. I picked a school that was idealistic and radical — totally unlike the stuffy European universities.
On the Greyhound bus from New York City, I watched the way black women in America moved and strutted; I wanted to move as proudly as they did. I also enjoyed dressing up: ethnic, vintage, thrift-shop — sometimes all three mixed together. So, for the first day of classes, I wore an African-dashiki-style minidress, purple tights, beaded hoop earrings I’d made myself, and shoes with platform heels.
As I explored campus, I noticed that I was the only woman not wearing jeans and a T-shirt. This didn’t bother me much until a woman I didn’t know came up to me and said, “Do you know what we call those shoes you’re wearing?”
I shook my head.
“They’re called ‘CFMPS,’ ” she said. “That stands for ‘come-fuck-me pumps,’ and that’s the message you’re sending out.”
That encounter was a warning of what was to come. Though I made a few friends, I was surrounded by Mercedes Marxists — wealthy kids whose parents were paying a fortune so they could rebel in comfort. I quickly found out that the radical left and the radical right have an equally low tolerance for difference. For example, there was the time another student called my roommate a JAP. Confused, I replied, “She’s not Japanese.” When I found out what it meant, I couldn’t understand how someone could have compassion for people in Central America, but not for my Jewish roommate.
After a year of not fitting in, I transferred to a state university. My first day of classes there — to which I wore jeans and a T-shirt — I met a woman who would become one of my closest friends. Cristina was from southern Italy and wore a short skirt, bright red lipstick, and the greatest pair of CFMPS I had ever seen.
Sarah Lincoln Pattee
I was seventeen; my home life was hell, my grades were falling, and my father was having too many problems of his own to set me straight. So I joined the navy.
I took a Greyhound bus to Los Angeles for the physical. The government put us recruits up in a fleabag hotel in a sleazy part of LA and gave us food vouchers. We wandered around the city all night. That was my first encounter with Salisbury steak, which turned out not to be steak at all, but gray hamburger with some kind of gravy on it. That was also the first time I got beaten up by somebody other than my father.
The next day, after our physicals, we were told to ship all our clothes back home because we would be issued uniforms when we got to boot camp. Then they loaded us on buses and drove us to San Diego, where they shaved our heads, took away anything else we’d brought with us, and began marching and abusing us endlessly.
We soon found out there weren’t any uniforms; we had to live in what we were wearing for the next two weeks. We marched all day with our city shoes cutting into our feet and our bare heads blistering in the sun. Our heads and feet started bleeding; still the abuse went on. Someone was made to do jumping jacks with gum up his butt and then chew it; someone else was made to eat a pack of cigarettes; a third boy was harassed until he broke down, and they took him away, never to be seen again.
They made men out of us, but what kind of men? I’d already experienced humiliation before I got there; boot camp was all I needed to send me the rest of the way down the drain. It was another twenty-five years before I began to discover what being a man is all about.
When I was nineteen years old, I studied in the Netherlands for a year. On my first day back in the U.S., I stared in amazement at the size of a drink at McDonald’s and marveled at the amount of space given over to parking lots and automobiles.
When I was twenty-two, I taught English in Mexico for seven months. This time, it was the sparkling newness of the airport, roads, and shopping centers that amazed me upon my return. Evidence of our country’s wealth was everywhere: the selection of goods in stores; the efficient waste-collection service; the fat, healthy pets; the computerized gas pumps.
At twenty-four, I traveled with a friend to Honduras by bus. Our family members were concerned for our safety: two young women traveling by ourselves in an area of the world known for machismo and drug trafficking. We stayed in Central America for four months without incident. On my first day back from that trip, I sat in my brother’s brand-new suburban house and watched aerial views of the massacre at Columbine High School on his large-screen TV.
Chapel Hill, North Carolina
I insist to all of my friends that I’m not in an abusive relationship. My husband’s never cheated on me, never laid a finger on me, never even called me names. We just have cultural differences, I say; he’s Iranian, and I’m American. But when my husband had to leave the country recently to attend to some personal affairs, I found myself eagerly counting the days until his departure.
On my first day of newfound freedom, I picked up my girls, ages three and four, from day care, brought them home, and for once didn’t make them change from their good clothes into their house clothes. I gave them what they requested for dinner — waffles with blueberry syrup — and let them eat in the living room in front of the TV. Their 7:30 bedtime slipped by, and we cranked up the stereo and danced. We even left the curtains open, not caring if our neighbors saw us “making spectacles” of ourselves.
Later, I gave the girls a bath and let them splash and play, then kissed them good night and tucked them both into my bed. Once they were settled, I called a girlfriend and talked “about nothing,” as my husband says, for two full hours. Then I went to bed with the window open, the cool night breeze curling in around me. I had not felt such a sense of wild abandon in all the five years of our marriage.
Now I am gathering the courage to leave this man, whose many rules exhaust me. I am looking forward to my first day of permanent freedom.
San Mateo, California
I teach kindergarten in a community where most parents do not have the money to send their children to preschool. My classroom is not only these kids’ first experience with institutionalized education, but frequently their first experience of being away from home. To make matters worse, at least half my students enter my classroom at just four years of age.
Luis was one of the younger ones. On the first day of school, his grandmother had to drag him into school. He was crying desperately and would not loosen his grip on her arm, even when she backhanded him across the face in full view of the other parents and children. As gently as I could, I managed to pry Luis away from her. I spoke soothingly to him, stroking his arms and back, but he continued to struggle violently.
The other students looked on with a mixture of horror and fascination as Luis launched himself full tilt at the classroom door, crying and screaming. Some of them, too, began to break down. One cried silently; another started singing at the top of his lungs; a third began hitting any child who came within striking distance.
Finally, our classroom aide carried Luis out into the hall and, holding him tightly in her arms, walked him up and down like a colicky baby until he was spent. The other children recovered, and Luis eventually calmed down. Tomorrow, I told myself, would be better.
But tomorrow wasn’t better. In fact, it took more than a week before Luis was able to start his day without hysterics. Even after that, he was painfully shy and refused to talk or make eye contact or participate in most activities. His parents had no idea what was wrong; he seemed perfectly fine at home. Perhaps there was something wrong with the class. Maybe there was something wrong with me.
I consulted with other teachers, the school psychologist, and a behavior-management specialist. I explored my own soul and tapped all my developmental resources. Finally, using plenty of patience and loving support, I got Luis to let down his guard and open up.
About a month into the school year, I approached Luis while he was molding some Play-Doh, as happy and content as any other child in class, and I asked him why he’d been so upset that first day of school.
Staring shyly down at the soft green shapes he’d been making, Luis said, “My grandma said if I wasn’t good, you were going to kill me.”
El Cerrito, California
I was adopted at birth, but my new parents divorced within a year, and my relationship with my adoptive father was never satisfactory. I’d always wanted an opportunity to meet “the real thing” — my birth father.
At the age of eighteen, I found out who my birth mother was, and after we’d talked for a while, I inquired about my father. She told me his first name and said he wanted to meet me, but in his own time. I was only in town for a week, I reminded her; I needed his time to be now. So she “accidentally” slipped and mentioned his last name.
When I got home, I immediately took out the phone book. After a couple of false starts, I finally worked up the nerve to dial my birth father’s number. A gruff-voiced man answered. I asked if Ritchie was home.
“Who wants to know?” he asked.
I knew it was him, but he denied it. He said he would give Ritchie the message.
Disappointed, I phoned my birth mother and asked her advice. She suggested I call back and ask him a personal question. He had recently hurt his knee. Maybe I could ask about that. I tried her suggestion, and the fact that I knew something about his life must have gotten through to him, because Ritchie admitted he was my father. We had a somewhat awkward conversation and made plans to meet at his apartment the following night.
At the arranged time, I stood at the entrance to his building, moments away from realizing my dream. Taking a deep breath, I went in. I slowly climbed the stairs, my heart pounding a little faster with each step. I had never been so nervous. What will he think of me? I wondered. What will I think of him?
When I got to his door, I hesitated for a moment, then raised my hand and knocked. The door opened, and we looked each other up and down.
“What am I supposed to do?” he asked. “Hug you, kiss you? What? I’ve never done this before.”
“I don’t know,” I said. “Neither have I.”
Sherman Oaks, California
I was pregnant, and in those days, unmarried girls did not keep their babies. The nurses tried to prevent me from seeing my son in the hospital, but I screamed until they finally brought him to me. I held him and looked him over from head to toe and talked to him just as I had throughout my pregnancy. I told him that I was unable to care for him, that I had no one to help me, and that I was giving him up so that he could have a better life. Then they took him away.
The drive home in the hot sun with my social worker was surreal. She blabbed on and on about how I would forget about my son, how I would marry and have other children. But she was wrong. I never had any other children, and I never forgot about him.
My first day without my son, I felt as if I were missing a limb. My stomach was smaller, and my breasts ached, full of milk for my missing baby. I went into my room and got out his little blue-and-white hospital bracelet with my last name on it. It was all I had left of him. As I began to sob, blood started running from my uterus, and milk flowed from my breasts.
It took me a long time to regain some semblance of sanity. I didn’t really live again until twenty years later, when I found my baby boy.
Arroyo Grande, California