I like this photograph of my sister and me, taken by Bret Lott at a writers’ conference in Vancouver years ago. She and Bret worked together at the College of Charleston for a while, and by the time of this picture he’d moved to Louisiana to take over the Southern Review, and she and her husband (also a poet) edited Crazyhorse. We’d all been out to dinner, along with a bunch of students and Carol Ann and Garrett’s young son, Willem. Willem is now fourteen, and when I look at this picture I think of all of the changes we’ve been through.
Carol Ann, her husband Garrett Doherty–founding editor of Sixfold–and their two young children moved from Charleston to Connecticut in the summer of 2012; she was taking a teaching position at Fairfield University. Although it was a bit of a hike for my sister, the family searched for a town to raise the boys in, a town they felt they could stay in. Of course, the main factor was schools. They searched for the right school for Willem and Luke, then nine and five. And they found it. In Sandy Hook.
Happy to get out of Charleston and back to the northeast where Garrett was raised and they both went to college, then graduate school, it was an exciting time and my sister and I talked frequently. We’re close. She spoke of the fabulous character of the town, the landscape; the beauty of the school the boys would attend. The town reminded her, a bit, of the New Smyrna Beach of our childhood; it had that safe, small-town feel. Everyone, even little Luke, felt they’d found home.
When the massacre occurred in early December of that year, I was on the road with my husband and our oldest son between Gainesville and Orlando, driving to the airport. My cell phone rang, and Carol Ann said, “They’re alright. I want you to know the boys are alright.” She had to tell me why. We didn’t have the radio on and hadn’t seen the news.
Through a trick in zoning–what many in our extended family think of as a miracle–my nephews were bussed from their rental home to Hawley School, actually further away than Sandy Hook Elementary, while all of their neighbors attended Sandy Hook. The boys were alright. Nearly every friend my sister has lost a child.
Ever since the tragedy, my sister and her husband have consciously worked to do the right thing for their children. As all good parents would do. After, they asked Willem if he wanted to move. He told them no, this was home. And besides, wasn’t he safer here, now, than he would be at any other school in the country?
I take my cues from my sister when it comes to guns, and schools. I pay attention to what she tells me. And this is one hard lesson I’ve learned, through her: It is okay to tell the kids things are not okay.
After the church shooting in Sutherland Springs last week, I waited a day to see if the school district or the administration of the school I teach at would issue instructions for faculty in addressing this latest shooting in our nation. When I didn’t hear anything, I took matters into my own hands. I teach senior English, and I teach in a portable. I took about a minute at the beginning of each class period on Tuesday to go over some recent changes I’ve made to the portable with the students. I told them this: “Although you are all polite, I want, from now on, for you to always let me be the one to answer the door. You know I keep both doors locked. Well, if somebody knocks, even if it is just somebody late to class or coming back from the restroom, I want to be the one to answer. Always. You know that we do everything we can to keep you all safe–you’re part of drills all the time. What you may not know is this: taking those drills seriously is statistically one of the best ways to save your own life in a school shooting. Practice until it becomes reflex, knowing what to do. And remember, I am here for you. You might be bigger than me, or stronger. But it is my job to keep you just as safe as I can. And there are things which are constantly going on behind the scenes with the faculty and administration to improve safety. We are here for you. Safety comes even before learning in this classroom. Making it reflex to do what we tell you could make the difference between life and death in the event of a shooting. We cannot guarantee your safety. But I can promise you that if somebody tries to come through that door with a gun, they will have to go through me to get to you.”
The relief on the face of every student I spoke to, over one hundred and thirty of them, was uniform. It was both stunning, and sobering. These students think about this all the time. All the time. And they need to know these shootings are not normal, not okay. And, that we are thinking about them, too. It is critical that we let the students know our priorities and our perspective on the terrible massacres occurring with horrifying regularity.
After every shooting, I feel a very real need to call my sister and apologize for not voting in people who will take an aggressive stance against automatic and semiautomatic weapons, and for rigorous gun laws. I talk to her all the time about what Sandy Hook is doing for its children. I called her on that Sunday.
The following Thursday, I had a student in one of my classes get up to answer the door when somebody knocked, I said, (not his real name) “Joey, sit down. From now on, I always answer the door.” Other students quickly and quietly backed me up when he continued toward the door. He’d been absent Tuesday and hadn’t heard my talk, so I repeated it. He still had trouble understanding, was puzzled. Another boy put it bluntly for him: “If somebody with a gun comes to the door, she wants to answer it. She wants to take a bullet for you, if it comes to that.” Joey sat back down.
Parents, talk to your children about the routines of safety. Teachers, do that, too. And make sure they know that this is not alright, what is going on in our country.
Here is a link to an award-winning essay Carol Ann wrote about her experience with the Sandy Hook tragedy, read it and drop her a line at Fairfield, if you’d like:
Sorry for the pixilated nature of this draft of the front cover! The text on the right is a foldover for the front cover-imagine it just inside the book.
I’m excited to announce that my novel, Ana, will be out from Silent e Publishing in November! Ana is a fifty-eight-year-old widow living in coastal Central Florida, a transplant from New Jersey. Ana has secrets, and she wants to keep them that way-secret. Widowhood provides the perfect cover.
The format I chose for Ana allows the reader to chose how to read the book; as a light, ladies’ novel, or as a difficult comment on that most difficult aspect of the human condition-relationships. How I did this is, I added an appendix to the book which lets readers get to know characters with a sketch of each one. The story holds together, either way. You pick what you want to know about people, just as you do in real life.
Usually when Ana got to the hospital for her Friday night shift on the ER desk, she was in sneakers and work out pants, and took a quick shower before she changed into her Pink Lady smock and slacks. She hoped nobody would notice her black dress and ballet flats, touch of lipstick; but the nurses, and Charley the security guard, knew her on sight. Since none of the other volunteers worked weekends, somebody would remark on her attire. Sure enough, even though she had a tearful ten-year-old with an ice pack on his wrist and a pair of anxious parents in the triage room, Judee the R.N. on duty called—as Ana scanned her keycard for the door marked EMPLOYEES ONLY—“Looking good tonight, Ana! Out on the town?”
“Just the annual library appreciation dinner.”
“Ana, I swear, you’re the busiest person in town. They ought to give you a key to the city. Not too bad in here tonight. Pretty slow for a Friday.”
Judee turned back to the little boy, Billy Preston. Ana knew him from church. He was the waterboy for the J.V. football team; somebody must have fumbled right into him. Ana let the door close behind her and headed for the locker room. She passed local Art Guild paintings and photographs in the wide hallway. Her favorite was John Clinton’s panoramic photograph of the Confederate oak at Old Fort Park, across from the city marina. A wonder it never sold; she’d been here going on four years and that picture greeted her, day and night, on her way to change.
The locker room was in the old part of the hospital, along with the morgue and the laundry; its door required an old-fashioned key. Ana kept one on her ring and fished it out of her one and only black pocket book; a leather hobo bag Frank brought back from Quebec. She usually left the purse rolled in a towel on the top shelf of her locker. Ana almost never dressed up, and customarily carried a backpack. Before she rewrapped the bag in the towel, Ana took her sneakers, sweat pants, and t-shirt out of it. She put the sneakers on the floor, tossed the clothes in the uniform hamper. Saturdays she washed and ironed all the volunteer smocks anyway, and nobody else was going to be in before she did that. Never hurt to add a few of her own things to a load. The budget committee was glad to spring for the washer, dryer, iron, and ironing board when Ana proposed she do all the uniforms for the week after her Friday shift.
She sat down on the bed, surplus from when the hospital upgraded, to remove her stockings and flats. The flats fit neatly next to her leather bag; the stockings she stashed in the delicates bag hanging from the locker’s cross bar. Her own uniform smock and slacks hung on a wire hanger and she took them with her into the bathroom to change, even though nobody else was coming in. She preferred to change in private, not take a chance of an embarrassing moment. Above all things, Ana valued privacy.
Ana liked working the weekend third shift, and the staff appreciated it because most volunteers worked days or early evenings, so the paid staff had to screen incomers to the ER themselves at night. Billy had been taken back by the time Ana sat down behind the reception desk. The security guard sat alone in the waiting room, watching Fox News. Ana would probably work until about two in the morning, unless things got very busy. Generally on the weekends there were a few walk-ins, but the more serious cases came in by ambulance, bypassing Ana completely.
There were forms to sort from the morning shift—Peggy Phillips and Roger Ahern had worked together; they always left paperwork on the reception desk. Ana gathered the intake forms, scanned her security card for the double doors to the hallway, and slipped them into the inbox for the insurance department to handle Monday morning. She returned to the waiting room to find a bleeding man in the chair, patiently waiting, next to her desk.
“Hello, I’m Ana. I’m sorry I wasn’t here when you came in. What’s your name?”
“Andy McNamara,” replied the man. He had a dirty white t-shirt pressed to his forehead above his right eye, visible scrapes on both elbows. He looked about sixty: he was deeply tanned, with a white beard and moustache, and the yellowed eyes of an alcoholic.
“Well, Mr. McNamara, if you don’t mind I will just fill out your intake form for you since your hands are full, and you can sign once we get you cleaned up, how’s that?”
Something snapped to attention, a sort of puzzlement crossed his face, when Ana said Mr. He straightened his spine and pushed back into the chair. “Alright,” he said softly.
“Okay, so why don’t we start with what happened.”
“Well, I fell off of my bicycle. I saw the sign for the hospital, I was right down on Dixie Freeway, and walked my bike here to see if I could get fixed up.”
“We’ll get a nurse to take a look at you soon.” Out of the corner of her eye Ana saw Judee studiously ignoring them. She was great with locals—and tourists with insurance—but not so good with drunks and the homeless. Ana, on the other hand, had a talent with downtrodden patients. “What is your age?”
“Well, ma’am, I’m traveling. I’m just sort of…passing through. I’m originally from Teaneck, New Jersey.”
“We get a lot of visitors here from New York and New Jersey. Particularly this time of year and also in winter, when they like to get away from the cold weather. And do you have any insurance?”
“Well,” his gaze dropped, “I haven’t gotten round to applying down here.”
The security guard gave a loud snort, not taking his eyes from the television, beer-belly bouncing beneath crossed forearms.
“Okay. Don’t worry about that right now. It can be taken care of, retroactively, after you’re seen. Here’s a worksheet on that; I’ll put it with your paperwork. You can complete it at the local library, because some of it needs to be done online. It just needs to be done within thirty days of being seen here. The library is right down the road, about a quarter mile south of the hospital. Here. You can sign after you get cleaned up; give the hospital copies to the staff back in the ER after that, please, and let me put this bracelet on. Which hand do you write with? Thank you. You can stay right there until the nurse can see you. As you can see, we aren’t very busy at the moment.”
Ana could see Judee and was willing to bet she wasn’t charting anything, but playing solitaire on the computer. She smiled at the patient, got up and carried his paperwork to the triage room. Yep, solitaire. Judee closed it with a deep sigh and shot Ana a conspiratorial, put-upon glance: Don’t you just hate dealing with these people? Ana kept her face carefully neutral. Judee was the professional, after all. Ana was just a volunteer.
“Andy?” Judee called from across the room, not bothering to get up, “In here, please. Let’s get your vital signs.”
At that moment, the automatic doors to the outside slid open and a pack of teens came in escorting a boy wearing dripping wet baggies and a rash guard. Night surfing, no doubt. Ana put on a careful smile and handed one of the kids a clipboard with a blank intake form. It might be an interesting night, after all.
Sample from the appendix:
Usually when Ana Ana (Therill) Mills is 58 years old. She was born in Gainesville, Florida, on October 6th, 1956. She grew up in Flagler Beach, Florida, the fourth of five children. Her mother was an avid reader, volunteer at the local library, and chair of the visitation committee at the First Baptist Church. Ana was baptized on Mother’s Day, 1964. The Therill family attended church on Sunday mornings for Sunday school and worship service, Sunday evening, and Wednesday night for prayer meeting throughout Ana’s childhood. Her father was Sunday School director and chair of the finance committee. He was from Greenwood, Mississippi, an orphan, and earned a degree in civil engineering from Georgia Tech through the Navy ROTC program. He worked for a surveying company in Jacksonville, Florida, after the Navy, where he met Ana’s mother. When Ana was four years old, he went to work for NASA. Ana didn’t know what he did for a living but she got to watch all the launches at Cape Canaveral from the VIP stands with her mother, brothers, and sisters.
Ana met Frank Mills in drama class their sophomore year in high school. He liked her long blond hair and used to sit behind her and play with it. They married right out of high school; Frank did three years in the Army, then went to work for the Florida East Coast Railroad, and later for Amtrak. He was a station manager, and transferred to New Jersey. Their daughter Ella was born five years later. Ana stayed home with the children. After Frank died, she moved to the town of Robinson, Florida, forty miles south of Flagler Beach.
Sure enough, even Judee Marquetta Golden is 36 years old. She is a single mother, never married, of two teenaged girls. She has been a nurse for five years, having worked nights as a certified nursing assistant at a nursing home to put herself through nursing school. Her fourteen year old daughter is mildly mentally handicapped, and three months pregnant by someone she met at the all-children’s playground. Judee is a Robinson native, born in the hospital she works at. She doesn’t vote or care about politics, but she is deathly afraid of men and of sharks. She doesn’t swim and she doesn’t date. Her oldest daughter is the result of a gang rape at a frat house party.
Judee turned back Billy Everett Preston 11, is an honor roll fifth grader at Ponce DeLeon Elementary in Haven Beach. He has a big brother who is on the high school basketball team. Billy has red hair and freckles and his ears stick out. His parents won’t let him wear his hair long enough to cover them, so he wears a baseball cap whenever possible. He sleeps in a baseball cap in hopes that it will move his ears closer to his head. He gets teased at school, called Billy Billy Big Ears. His hero is his big brother, who got him the job as waterboy for the football team. They let him wear a ball cap to all the games. He has a secret crush on a girl in his class named Brooklyn who wears combat boots and long skirts year-round. She is skinny and has and auditory processing deficit, so she never says anything in class and has to sit next to the teacher’s desk.
Her favorite was John (no middle name) Clinton, 68, is a retired astrophysicist from New Mexico who moved to Robinson six years ago. After the desert, Robinson seemed impossibly crowded and close. He bought a good camera and started taking pictures of things which bothered him, like SUV’s and trucks and recyclables in garbage cans. Once he began to feel a part of the town and to accept it, he started taking pictures of flora unfamiliar from his past life in New Mexico. He is particularly fond of photographing live oak trees. He lives with his life-partner in a condo in Haven Beach, a retired army colonel named Casey Lovett. They enjoy walking the beach at low-tide with a garden trowel and metal detector. The most interesting thing they had found, so far, is a World War Two era Nazi wristwatch inscribed, Hauptmann , Stumm, unter , und tödlich, Ihr Führer.
Ana kept one Frank Marcus Mills (deceased) was born in 1955 in Kenosha, Wisconsin, the middle child of Lee and Sarah (Clancy) Mills. He was raised Catholic and as the second son expected to go into the priesthood. When his parents moved to the Florida coast, Frank was fourteen. His father was part of a new real estate venture seeking to aggressively convert the small town of Flagler Beach to a wealthy retirement destination for northerners. Frank’s mother’s role was to run a wine and cheese store catering to these clients. The store was only partially successful; the Mills’ hadn’t counted on the tea-totalling nature of the local population. After their children were grown they retired to coastal Maryland, finding the Florida summers increasingly brutal.
Frank fell in love with Ana Therill the first time he saw her, walking down the beach in a brown and white cotton bikini which was too big in the butt and threatened to fall off every time she walked from the dune line to the water. He also fell in love with the ocean and collected soda bottles and mowed lawns to buy his first surfboard. Frank shared a bedroom with his brother, and one evening as they were falling asleep, Montgomery described in horrible detail a sexual encounter he had with a thirteen year old boy, a runaway, in Jacksonville Beach the previous night. Frank punched his brother in the mouth, got dressed and grabbed his wallet, climbed out the bedroom window, took his surfboard from the side of the house and went down to the beach. The next morning, Frank went to a phone booth and made an anonymous call to the department of children and families, reporting what his brother had done. He camped under the boardwalk and the following Monday enlisted in the Army. He never told anyone else what his brother had done, but he also never spoke to Montgomery again.
Frank married Ana and they had two children. He was eleven years short of retirement when he got sick and lost his job with the railroad. He had recently been converted to part-time but never told his wife. His death by Huntington’s ate up all savings and assets which were in his own name.
There were some Margaret Bridgett (McNaulty) Phillips is 67 years old, and had been married at eighteen to her high school sweetheart, Roberto, in Charleston, South Carolina. She worked as an eighth grade science teacher at a private school and he was the custodian there. Both wanted children, but they were unable to have them. When they were sixty two, Roberto and Margaret retired to Robinson. Roberto spent his days fishing in a john boat on the Intracoastal Waterway. Margaret does cross stitch, watches soap operas on television, and volunteers three afternoons a week at the hospital. She fell in love and began a flirtation, what she hoped would turn into an affair, with Roger Ahern, a widower from Monterey, California.
RogerRyan Ahern 83, is a north California native who worked in the canneries from the time he dropped out of high school at fifteen until he was seventy two years old. He is six foot five, and weighs three hundred four pounds. Powerful as a young man, all his muscle had gone to fat as soon as he left the cannery. Roger is a gregarious octogenarian who likes the ladies and had twin daughters, Breck and Brock, in the Navy. They would both reach retirement in three years and his secret dread was that they would retire to Robinson. He collects postage stamps and spends his free time and his saving studying for and traveling to philatelic conventions and auctions. He is fond of Mrs. Phillips but has no intention of entering into a relationship with her outside of joking around when on duty at the hospital. He volunteers because he swore he would to his dying wife, who passed away at the Robinson hospital of a burst appendix five years ago.
“Andy McNamara,” replied Andrew Elvis MacNamara IV ,47. He served his country as an CIA agent based in Langley, Virginia, for fourteen years, joining the agency immediately after receiving his master’s in psychology from Harvard University at 23 years old. He came from a long line of patriots; both of his parents had been eastern bloc spies during the Cold War. His grandfather was a Navy flyer killed in the raid on Tokyo following the attack on Pearl Harbor. Andy had foregone family life and friendship for service to his country. In an undercover job in 2005, he failed to notice an asset slipping a powerful drug into his drink at a crucial moment; the mistake resulted in the deaths of three agents. Andy lost his job and climbed into a bottle; he eventually was evicted from his apartment and began walking toward Florida, with a vague notion of suicide in Key West as the sun sunk beneath the horizon and the revelers around him cheered. He planned to swim until he sank.
The security guard Terrell Elias Realmuto, 39, works two jobs; as a cop in Port Orange and as security guard at the hospital. He and his wife, Earline, lived with Terrell’s mother in West Robinson. They had two children in college, boys, at Florida State. Both won scholarships for baseball, one was a pitcher, the other a catcher. Terrell worked so much that he only had time for one hobby—he belonged to a hunt club where he hunted wild pigs with nothing but a bowie knife. He went on four hunts a year and bagged a hog every time. Terrell drank Miller High Life and fell asleep in front of the television on his rare days off.
At that moment Lynn Thomas Till, 17, had Asperger’s syndrome. The thing he wanted most in the world was friends, so he learned to surf. He read everything he could about surfing and surfers, and sat on the beach and watched for three years before trying it. He had perfect technique, and could not understand why the other surfers his age laughed at him or yelled at him no matter what he did or said. He had heard some boys he knew from school arguing that nobody was brave enough to night surf in these shark-infested waters, so Lynn said, “I will.” The event was scheduled for Friday night, and all the boys showed up to watch; there was a full moon. Several girls showed up too, which Lynn hadn’t expected. Two of them, the Johnston twins, Jessica and Jenna, begged him not to go out. He got nipped by something after his first ride, close to shore. Jessica and Jenna drove him to the hospital, followed by a jeep full of boys.
Author’s Note: The wonderful photograph above was taken by Kelsi Johnson. It’s of the house I was raised in, and where generations of surfers, including my own sons, stashed their surfboards. In this town, the house is something of an icon. Throughout the town–and especially in the immediate neighborhood– locals are shocked and saddened by what is happening to the house. Just recently I’ve had to deal with the deliberate destruction, from the interior out, of the home described below. The pictures I have of that are currently too heartrending for me to work into my manuscript.
My mother passed away in March, leaving the house to one of my siblings. Her choice, which I didn’t agree with, but, her choice. I don’t think she–in fact I don’t think anyone involved, including her heirs of which I am one–could have imagined the current situation. I am certain my father, who although he lived there less time than she did, having died in 2001, couldn’t when he left it to her. He, after all, paid for the house. It was in our family fifty-one years.
I know it is “just a house.” I share this excerpt from my forthcoming memoir to give a glimpse of what it means to me. Two family members, including myself, made offers on it and were turned down. Mine was a desperate attempt–using my generous husband’s recent offer of his inheritance–to save the house from destruction. The best he and I can do, in the current situation, is to try to continue what we have been doing for the past 22 years: like my parents did for me, give our own children some roots. And, learn from the present. We have a renewed commitment to keeping our own humble digs in the family for future generations.
The chapter about this current situation is yet to be written, as a memoir by definition is reflective. It’s too soon. I process by writing. The vast majority of what I write is never read or heard by another, and most of that I don’t even revisit. This memoir is deliberate. I am grateful to my father, who taught me to navigate the world. That’s what I am doing, here.
Several chapters from the memoir, due out in 2018, have appeared, or will, in peer-reviewed journals. I’m proud of that.
Ded reckoning has nothing to do with mortality—the ded comes from deduced, what you think you know based on history: the history of the boat you’re sailing in…where she was when you last knew for sure. How fast she has been moving since, and in what direction. You draw a line along your projected path: five hours, say, at 6 knots equals 30 nautical miles of distance along that course line from your last known position. You don’t know yet what the tidal set and the currents have done to her. Or leeway—her tendency to slide a little sideways as she moves forward. As we all do.
When I was a small girl I’d lay wide awake, worrying the day over in my mind, and sometimes my father would hear me stirring and remind me to settle my mind. He’d tuck me in and sit at my feet, softly singing hymns that were my lullabies, replacing chaotic visions with the poetry of God’s sweet promises. It is these songs I will murmur to him as he lies dying, dumb and acutely aware; it is his combination of stubbornness and blind faith which will save lives on the morning of his funeral.
It is unusual to find time alone with my father. This had to be carefully and assertively planned. The house is generally filled with people; my brothers and their families or those needing help, as my parents comprise the benevolence committee of our church. For five nights Mother has agreed to answer the phone and to keep everyone away. It is hard for me to believe, and I’m ashamed—but since moving to New Smyrna Beach from Huntsville, Alabama, where I was born, I’ve never sat down with Dad alone to concentrate on his stories. And I should’ve. I’m thirty-five: old enough to have taken the time. But, when I was growing up things were hectic. He was madly in love with his work, very busy at NASA, and our house was chaotic.
We Davis children basically inhabited three households; Mother’s unpredictable domain; the happy mess when my father was home; and the secure child’s world we created for each other, in an almost surreally beautiful landscape between ocean and river. The rhythms of our lives moved as naturally as the sea, by turns stormy and calm, unpredictable but constant. In those days of roaming over the cracked pavement and sandy shore on calloused bare feet, a bond formed between my self and this island that would make it impossible for me to ever feel fully at home inland, anywhere far from the sea.
We moved from Huntsville in June, 1966.When we pulled up one sweltering evening in our Chevy station wagon, I climbed out the back window and ran up the street, past the weedy vacant lot next door, to a big square iron storm drain set in the sand. My feet were still bare and sore from sandspurs everyone plucked out after I crossed the grassy strip in front of the boat basin in town. The sandy dirt was rough with broken shells, but the black pavement hot and smooth and it felt good on my bruised feet. I stood on the grate, the warm iron and rising air soothing, leaned over to put my palms on the grating, and looked down into a pool of black water four feet below. I could see my short white hair and bangs next to my round face and tilted green eyes, crosshatched with bars of light and shadow, and picked up a piece of shell and dropped it in to watch the ripples roll through my reflection. Then I looked back between my chubby legs and that is the first view I remember of our new house and of Robinson Road, upside down.
Past the narrow overgrown lot the roof on the house was not shingled like roofs in Alabama, but covered with uneven pebbles the colors of clouds. And it was nearly flat, with just a slight pitch in the middle. The yard started almost at the door, with a narrow porch of poured concrete not even a full step up, shallow block boxes filled with geraniums along the front. It merged indistinctly with sandy dirt which crept up on the road, over it in places. The road tilted away from me, a slight rise all the way to tall dunes covered in sea oats bent in the breeze and wagging their seedy tops hello. I couldn’t see but could hear the ocean, a rising and receding stretch of continuous sound, like low voices in another room murmuring into the night, indistinct yet melding into something new.
New Smyrna Beach became our home because Mother spent summers there as a child. All she said was, “We took vacations, here.” We knew better than to ask for more, so we speculated, trying to imagine her as a small girl, privileged with summers at the shore. Remnants of that childhood filtered in strange ways into ours—her elegance, and her acerbic, aristocratic turn of phrase; I tried smart and I tried nice and Ifound nice was better, consider the source; her insistence that we wear linen which she sent out to be starched and ironed. In Alabama, we had a maid to do the ironing. By process of elimination we knew those vacation would have taken place before 1942. When Mother turned ten, her three-year-old sister was diagnosed with bone cancer. My grandparents sold the verandahed house in Decatur, Georgia to pay for Billie’s radiation treatments at Emory. Mother and her other sisters were sent to live with various relatives. There were families with vacation houses on our street who’d known Mother in Atlanta, people who greeted her in the same sweet drawl she used.
I’m sure Mother’s love of the town factored into my father’s decision to rent the house at 219 Robinson Road. When Dad saw the white concrete block house trimmed in black, five houses from the ocean and six from the Indian River, he rented it for $127.00 a month. It was a month-to-month rental, and he moved us in with the intention of letting Mother choose a house to buy.
The house itself was surprisingly large for its plain exterior, the front door opening into a huge living room running the width of the house from jalousie windows on the right, western wall, to more windows into what must’ve been a garage but had been enclosed to make a long Florida room on the eastern side of the house. This is where all five of us children would sleep sometimes, to catch breezes off the ocean.
The kitchen served as a pass through to the Florida room and the hallway from it to the boys’ bedroom in the back corner of the house. Along that hall was the beach bathroom. It has a terrific big poured concrete shower stall in one corner. And holding back the dark wooden door with black enameled steel handle was the biggest conch shell I’ve ever seen. Enormous, white with a black organic fuzz mottling it, unpolished and dirty, ribbed with curving ridges as delicate and lovely as the wrinkles and veins of my grandmothers hands. Inside, the eternal sound of the sea. Every time I hefted that shell in order to close the bathroom door I imagined it filled with a great mollusk, creeping slowly over the ocean floor, stirring up a fog of sandy dust.
Whenever we returned from the beach, we were required by Mother to rinse our feet with the hose, then walk around to the east side of the house, enter through the Florida room and go directly to this bathroom to shower, coming out fully dressed. No one was allowed to walk around in the house wet, sandy, or in a bathing suit. Wet terrazzo floors are slick and dangerous, hard as poured concrete but smoother.
Directly across the living room and dining room from the front door was a short hallway which ended at another door. This was the linen closet, between mine and my parents’ room, with three wide solid wooden shelves I would climb onto and hide in. I loved to pile blankets over myself, curl up and sleep on those shelves.
The house echoed with sounds of the ocean and rain during storms and always with the voices of children. After a year of renting, my parents bought it for $16,000. Largely unchanged, it could easily bring twenty times that today, perhaps the only wise monetary investment they ever made. Mother lives there still.
That first summer my father took a good deal of time off work, and we spent long afternoons and evenings at the beach. I loved swimming at sunset best, the water bathwater warm, and walking along the wide beach at low tide, wading through tide pools. The pools on the windward side of the inlet were especially deep at low tide, often as big as full sized swimming pools. Sometimes sharks or sea turtles got trapped in them, the sharks swimming around frantically as the pool shrunk, sea turtles gliding peacefully to the surface occasionally, seemingly philosophical, checking to see if the tide had come back up to set them free.
John, fourteen months older and my closest companion, used to tell me how important sandbars are, how they protect beaches, make waves, and even become islands. I’d listen and try to imagine what he told me as true: our own beautiful and delicate island was once a sandbar, appearing and disappearing beneath the sea, sometimes nothing more than a tonal shift in color of green of the water, a flattening beyond the beach.
When one is small, one is closer to the water, to the land, not just in physical orientation but through all of the senses. Moving through tide pools I charted them with my body, and their characteristics became as familiar as the changing textures of my own flesh beneath my palms. Just as my shoulders reddened and grew tender by afternoon beneath a gentler sun than we know now, the margins of evening tide pools warmed and softened to host colonies of magical creatures. Silver minnows; blind tunneling crabs we called sandfleas; harmless clear round jellyfish, heavy and cool in the hand; sizzling invisible skates. In the shallow flats at the inlet, warrens of stingrays, easily dealt with by sliding the soles of the feet along, toes up in a flicking motion at the end of each step, sending them into fluid flight.
One of our favorite things to do as our parents strolled hand in hand on the dark sand rippled with ghost-prints of receded waves, absorbed in each other, was to approach a long string of pools strung like imperfect pearls above the shore break, at a run. Feel the heavy pull of water against our ankles twinned with the buoyancy of salt water and move as quickly as we could, laughing, until a dip in the bottom threw us face forward into the water. Then we’d pull ourselves along on our hands, exploring with all of our senses at the same time as only children do, allowing ourselves to be taken by the water, by the sand under our trusting fingers and things that bumped against us; tasting, smelling, to the point of sucking and choking that primordial fluid up from our throats and out our noses, letting our ears fill and testing the differences between sounds traveling through air and through water, always unafraid, always ready for what that magnificent sea had to offer.
When I was small the beach was fairly steep and at the mercy of the sometimes violent tides, but the Army Corp of Engineers constructed jetties on both the Daytona and our side of the inlet to build up and protect the beaches when I was eight years old, building them up and evening out the topography of the ocean floor so rip tides were less frequent, waves smaller close to shore, and the big tide pools which trapped the larger sea creatures disappeared.
New Smyrna is a long narrow barrier island with white sand beaches, and there was not a single building taller than two stories when we moved there. The north end of the beach—it was two miles from the house to Ponce Inlet, famous for treacherous currents and shifting sandbars, the dangerous inlet of Stephen Crane’s The Open Boat—was sparsely covered with low houses and tracts of vacant land covered with sea oats, palmetto scrub and laurel oak. We lived at the narrowest part of the island, what I think of as the waist because it curves in gracefully like the waist of a woman, but it widened and lengthened to the south, twelve miles to its terminus where ocean meets swamp above Cape Canaveral. This is the wildest part of Mosquito Lagoon, a dangerous maze of mangrove islands and sandbars, full of trout, mangrove snapper, redfish; diamondbacks and cottonmouths and copperheads; sharks and alligators and a rich array of seabirds— snowy cranes, majestic great blue herons, sharp-eyed osprey, gulls and terns and pelicans.
The Spanish explorer Ponce de Leon landed at Turtle Mound, a refuse heap of oyster shells left by Timicuan and Calusa Indians, six miles from the southern tip, the highest point on the island. The conquistadors couldn’t handle the swarming mosquitoes, went back to their boats and settled at St. Augustine, ninety miles north, the oldest city in North America. The Indians used to cover themselves with mud to thwart the stinging insects, a method we kids often used. It was an informal right of passage for girls and boys alike to take machetes and hack their way up Turtle Mound to stand on the small bald top and imagine Indians there, watching breakers roll in timelessly below, and birds dive for fish in the river on the other side. I climbed it for the first time at seven years old with John.
Toting a machete into play was a badge of honor, the older and nastier the implement the better, but a necessary tool for hacking at the thick brush covering Turtle Mound. We learned young to make lots of noise tramping through overgrowth—our doctor used to tell us that the only thing keeping the rat population under control on the island was snakes, and snakes slide off at the noise of something large crashing through. We moved in a kind of shuffling, bent over gait, watching both the ground at our feet and the spaces between branches overhead. It was slow going—banana spiders made huge, magnificent webs between the scrub oaks, hand-sized black and yellow striped spiders with vicious bites. When we made our way to the top, sixty feet above sea level, filthy and sweating in our t-shirts, we felt we’d earned that view. And it wasn’t hard to imagine the prehistoric people who’d been here before us, earning a moment’s breeze up here, sipping from animal bladders just as we drank tepid water from our dented scout canteens.
That part of the island seemed so remote then, so wild—there was one short main street ten blocks from our house on the civilized end of the island. A1A, called Atlantic Avenue in New Smyrna, was the eastern boundary for our travels, running perpendicular to our street at the dune line and ending as an overgrown dirt track past Turtle Mound—the beach was steeper, there, the waves big and scary, and the nearest building visible was the Vehicle Assembly Building (VAB) at Cape Canaveral, twenty miles distant.
Our western boundary was Peninsula Drive, which we were not allowed to cross to go down to the river. John and I looked exactly alike, and could not have been more different. He was born cautious. I am reckless. He is sly and quiet and witty, and I am a master of the obvious and plunge in, think later. This was hardest for him when we were small. Mother tells how she lost me the first time when I was two. She used to put John in the front yard with a circle of rocks around him, and he’d sit there and play. The first time she left me there I was off, and she found me in the next block, naked. I couldn’t stand clothes when I was small and used to meet my brothers at the school bus naked as a jaybird. I adored John, and tried to do what he wanted me to. The first time we went to the beach, he grabbed my hand when I ran for the water, walked solemnly down to the edge of the sea, and stepped in front of me. Only after the waves crashed over his own feet did he let go and allow me to plunge in. I’m not sure I’d have survived my childhood without him. That isn’t to say he didn’t get mad at me—he did. That summer Mother got into the habit of taking us to the beach in the mornings, unfolding a lawn chair close to the lifeguard tower, and pulling out a novel. We usually dug in the sand, but sometimes she rented a yellow and blue rubber and canvas raft from the concession stand two blocks down the beach in front of the Crawford Road approach.
One morning I must’ve annoyed Johnny, because, as Mother dozed in her chair, he towed me through a slough, over the sandbar, and gave me a shove. How peaceful he looked, sitting on the beach building a drizzle castle next to the tall red wooden lifeguard tower. I couldn’t swim yet so I just held onto the ropes that surrounded the raft, bobbing backward over swells until the lifeguard swam out and pulled me in.
My father was an excellent swimmer, and in the evenings taught us to body surf in the shore break. That fall my oldest brother Rusty bought a surfboard, and every morning before school went down to the ocean and taught himself to surf. Rusty, too, was shy and quiet, thirteen when we moved to New Smyrna, and he wouldn’t let anyone watch him surf until he mastered it. But sometimes John and I snuck down to the dune line to watch, lying on our bellies on sand damp with dew, peeking through the sea oats at Rusty. He was tall and thin and took naturally to the sport, and we loved to watch him paddle out and over the breakers, disappearing only to catch the next big wave, popping up, arms out for balance and knees carefully bent. He looked like he was flying.
In October the big waves rolled in, and by then Rick and Bill were surfing too, and Rusty was confident. There was a small shell parking lot south of the end of the street with a tall seawall and ten concrete steps down to the beach. During big swells, Dad would stand there for hours while John and I played along the wall, watching his boys out on the water. We all knew he’d come here for us, and we him for loved it.
Visions of my brothers on the autumn swells still visit my dreams. They each rode differently, their characters expressed in movement as if some master painted them on a broad blue canvas. October waves are my favorite—each season, each day, really, held different types of waves—voluptuous swells, rich with gleaming treasure. From our vantage on the seawall, thick salty mist coating our faces then gusty northwesterly wind rubbing it away, we could see down into waves. The quick silvery mullet and flashing bottom feeders; flowing almost-human, but so much more beautiful, play of dolphin; dark sinuous shadows that were sharks.
Rusty, the oldest, was the most graceful, the most natural of the three. He was a wonderful dancer, and this translated well to movement on water. The boards were long and heavy, ten feet at least, and controlled by a rider’s ability to work with, not against, the natural movement of a wave—not just forward, but up and curling through air, growing in the inevitable rush to shore.
In fall the boys still wore only baggies in the water, thick canvas shorts that rode low on their hips and tied closed with a shoestring, and sometimes a t-shirt stretched out and tied into a tight knot like a tail in back. They walked down the beach slowly then stood assessing the water, boards balanced end-up next to them: tall, skinny Rusty, broader Bill, pre-adolescent Rick, also tall but with a hint of breadth to his shoulders. All of them bleached blond, Bill and Rusty tanned, Rick perpetually sun burnt. They studied the ocean then, with just a glance exchanged between them, tucked the boards under their arms and race into the water. Thigh-deep, they threw the boards into swirling foamy water and hopped on, Rick and Bill on their bellies with their feet in the air; Rusty crouched on his knees, and paddled out. This was tricky, especially in big surf, when it was a matter of pride to “make it to the outside”, past the long roll of breakers crashing in deep water before the sandbar. They paddled strong and steady in the trough then up the face of a wave as if about to launch into the air and disappeared over. Sometimes, if a wave was going to break while a surfer was still near the base, he’d wrap his arms around the surfboard and flip over in a “turtle roll”, hugging it tightly to him and hopefully pulling the board through the wave with him, sometimes losing it and having to swim in, the wave pushing and rolling it toward shore. As we grew older John and I would stand in the shore break to stop careening boards for grateful surfers.
I’ve seen it take a persistent surfer an hour to get to the outer break. Once there, they sat with their feet dangling in the water, the noses of the boards tilting up under their weight. Rusty often just sat back on his feet, or lay on the board with his chin propped in his hands, and watched for the great rolling sets. There was usually a span of minutes between them, sometimes half an hour. From our perch on the wall we could see them on the horizon and gauge the size of the waves from the color of the water. Smaller waves retained the color of flat sea, which changed from blue-gray to bottle green to deep cerulean depending on the sky, the depth of the water, and the position of the sun; large waves acted as prisms on the horizon, sparkling and winking spectrums of blues and greens.
Bill was almost always the first one up on a wave. If he saw another surfer paddling he gave the wave up, the cardinal rule of surfing, but he was the strongest and most eager of the three. Muscular, quick and stubborn, Bill also has a natural affinity for water which helped him read waves and get the longest rides. Watching him was watching economy, efficiency in motion.
Rick surfed with his heart, every emotion readable from his movements and actions. He caught the most waves and didn’t seem to discriminate between them—he rode with boyish eagerness and energy. If Rick wiped out, he surfaced quickly and jumped back on his board. If he missed a wave, he’d pound the water next to him in frustration.
It was Rusty we loved to watch. Out on the water he seemed separate—
from us, from the world. It was as if he became a part of the ocean itself. He often just sat on his surfboard, watching the sea around him, noodling around on the water with lazy hands. He was gangly and skinny, and he’d slump forward a little with his head tilted back, completely relaxed. He never seemed to hurry after that initial run into the shore break, but moved with a slow steady grace similar to the rhythm of the sea itself. And he waited. He waited on a wave with the right shape, the right feel, the right weight to carry him. I’d find myself watching a huge swell rolling in, murmuring, “Take it, Rusty…take it…”, but he’d just lie down, slowly dip his arms in and rise up and over, never taking his eyes from the horizon. Sometimes it seemed like we waited for hours for him to choose a wave. Oh, but when he did…
The big breaker building, building, closer, fifty yards, thirty, twenty and the nose of his board would swing slowly around, “He’s taking it! He’s taking it!” I don’t think I ever saw him miss a wave. He waited in perfect position, lined up not toward the beach but at the precise angle of the building wave, canted just so, paddling slow or quick depending on its speed, angling impossibly down the face, sliding now, the board falling forward for a moment as he placed his palms flat and sprang into a crouch, big gangly feet just over the sweet spot, perfectly balanced, feeling it, reading what the wave wants to do, swiveling his hips just enough to feed a turn down to his feet, carving deeper into the curl, and on those great big ones disappearing completely inside, the white curtain of foam like a great sheet of something alive curving over him, frothing up below the tail of the board, the skeg carving its own sinuous little whitewater trail, then gone completely until just his hand is visible at the front of the tube, making a motion like a small boy mimicking flight, complete with the sound of the ocean moving which is that same whirr of childhood imagination…shhhhhhhh…and his hand riding currents of air inside rushing water, arm and body following in perfect cadence like a flock of seabirds riding thermals. He moves, moves with the water, the board a vehicle for flight, a facilitator, an obedient thing working doggedly at his feet. And sometimes, if the wave told him to, he’d walk right out onto the nose and slouch there, easy as that, toes holding prehensile to the rails at the nose of the surfboard, arms and hands hanging down, loose, head just cocked a little with this goofy satisfied grin, Oh yeah…
Mother didn’t swim—she said that she could but we never saw her in the water, it scared her—and she was insistent that we learn very young. When she was a teenager growing up in Atlanta she saw a boy she knew drown in the public pool. She was sitting on the bleachers, watching the people in the pool, when she saw this pair of hands clawing at the lip of the pool, the person struggling to pull himself up from under the water, fingers scratching, bloody, on the concrete—and she said it felt for the longest moment that she was the only one to see, although that wasn’t, couldn’t be, true—and the boy just drowned. And that was why Mother said she wouldn’t go in the water. It was a scary story, told in part I think to keep us careful in the water. Every so often someone would drown in the ocean or, somehow worse, get sucked out the inlet from the river and die, and she would just shake her head sadly as if to say, see? I told you so.
Anne Davis, living room of 219 Robinson Road, NSB, date unknown
The author with her son, Jacob, 219 Robinson Road, NSB 1998
Sometimes it seems to me that we as a society have lost track of what education actually is. As an educator, that frightens me. On the one hand, as a teacher of Senior English using a dictated curriculum map and standards, I am heartened. Truly, the actual educators who designed the curriculum I currently teach have handed me an amazing set of literary works with which to guide students to be fabulous communicators. These are also works which I witnessed, last year, actually inspire nonreaders to become readers! Incredible. So, progress.
Now for the other hand. The frightening side. With the push to meet the increasingly muddled governing expectations of the state–graduation rates, school grades–and those of a lay population largely ignorant concerning the behind-the-scenes world of professional education, public school students are paying a dear, dear price. Most professions govern themselves, create themselves, design not only their own rules but do the work of building on the past to create the future. Not education. In education, while educators do the research and all of the work, politicians and voters make the critical decisions which end up as the day-to-day realities in classrooms across the nation.
What do I mean by all that? Well, specific examples are always helpful, right? When I was a junior at New Smyrna Beach Senior High School, an English teacher proposed to the administration a double-block of English, senior year, specifically for twelve students she felt had both a talent and a taste for poetry. This replaced my senior English class. As a result, when I was in grad school for poetry, my department chair said to me, “I am excusing you from Forms of Poetry due to the education you received at New Smyrna twenty years ago. I looked into the curriculum and that was better, as to forms, than what we offer here.” There’s no room for that sort of creativity in this other-driven profession, anymore. A shame.
A more current example is a conversation I had with a colleague last school year. We were working together with mutual students, and butting heads. We had to narrow it down and find out what the problem was, between us, and it turned out to be quite simple. My goal was to teach the students that fabulous curriculum I cited above. My colleague’s was to see the students cross that graduation stage, this year, no matter what. I saw this person’s point, just as they saw mine: we are squeezed between the boulders of actually educating students and spitting them out into the stream of graduates in a rapid enough fashion not to negatively effect such vital statistics as state, district, and school graduation rates. It matters. It matters to students; loss of funds due to retention is a real threat. But, so is ignorance.
At the school I teach at, we work together to meet all those expectations. I happen to be a big fan of the new push to make sure students pass each standard, each assessment. Because, where I work, it isn’t pencil-whipping. We actually do work to make sure they pass–they get the concepts, they demonstrate the skills, they master the curriculum. Then they move on. It’s an astonishingly team effort; students and educators. Parents, too, play a role, but at this age, frankly not really. Some students don’t have parents. Some students have parents they, the students, support and care for. Some parents are very supportive of students. But, I only have to pick up a newspaper or turn on the computer to see that this is increasingly rare, the teaming and the focus: many schools, many parents, and many legislatures are merely focused on getting kids out of school as quickly as possible.
Wouldn’t it be great if we could consider all of the factors which make up education, and allow those students who need to to slow down? I remember a story my father used to tell. He was a lead designer for NASA from the early sixties in Huntsville until he retired from Cape Kennedy in 1989. A truly wise individual, and a true pioneer. One of his stories haunts me in these days of rush, rush, rush K-12 (and even college) education. He was in an interview for the job of city engineer for the town of Bessemer, Alabama. The interviewer asked my father about a class he’d failed–I believe it was in surveying–twice at Georgia Tech before passing it the third time.
“Well,” answered my father, “I did take that class three times. I really know surveying.”
He got the job.
Part of the truly endangered value of education is failure. Learning from it. Remember kindergarten, where if you goofed, or didn’t get it, you tried again until you did? Can you picture that perspective being the case in March with a core class, senior year? Let’s just slow down and do this over until we’ve got it? Imagine the pressure which would be relieved. Imagine the shift in perspective. Imagine the confidence-building that simple rocket scientist’s perspective could inspire. Imagine the future with thinkers like that.
So, failure. It’s part of school. It’s part of learning, part of life. What if we took a new perspective on it, all the way up?
For students with Individualized Education Plans, or IEPs, there is a federal law (of course currently endangered) which mandates allowing them until their twenty-second birthday to complete high school, if need be. It’s a good rule, seldom used for students in the Learning Disabled category, usually used for students who need intensive, wrap-around services due to severe disabilities. But. What if teams took the perspective of creative scheduling, and worked together to ensure success for these students–including shortened school days, a longer high-school career, and dual-enrollment classes at the local college? If that were the case, these students could get a completely-district-paid-for college degree (or two!) through dual-enrollement! The rationale in many cases would be very sound: students with auditory and visual processing issues, for example, do benefit from shortened school days, a slower academic pace, and tiered supports for acquisition. And by definition, students with learning disabilities have a normal, or higher than normal, I.Q. Imagine the levels of success these special students could experience with this plan. Now imagine the reaction of the district and state, particularly as regards cost. Ouch.
This article started as an early-morning musing on a conversation I recently had with a parent on mentoring students. Mentoring is a slippery slope. How do you vet mentors, I asked her. She didn’t understand. “Well,” I explained, “what do you really want students to learn from their mentors? How to succeed? If that is the case, then shouldn’t all the mentors have at the very least a terminal degree in their chosen field? Do you want these as you call them “at risk” students to stay away from drugs and alcohol? Will you vet the mentors to make sure they don’t smoke or drink?”
I don’t think she ever saw my point. I’m an English teacher. My job is not to guide students to moral high ground. That’s the job of their parents, their faith leaders, and if need be the professional guidance counselors at the school. It certainly isn’t the job of volunteers! If we are to get education back to truly being the foundation for success which it must be in this nation, we need to get the focus back on who needs to be in charge of education. Educators.
This month, with two others I led a workshop for teachers and administrators in how to best serve homeless and unaccompanied high school students within our classrooms. We here at CEG have decided to make this issue—teen homelessness in Volusia County—our singular focus until we have strong impact on the problem.
The most powerful educating at this workshop, and it was an excellent one with all participants working together, took place while we listened to and asked questions of one of my copresenters. She is a Daytona State College education student, and was a VCS unaccompanied student. Because of the response of the group, we are forming a district-wide cadre to share ideas and problem solve. If you would like to participate, you first need to come to the training, which will be repeated toward the end of summer. Please contact me to add your name to the list; we can do this. Please read my previous blog post on this website to read more about this remarkable young woman’s story, and to read tips from the INSIDE of homelessness for educators.
The picture below is of one of my sons, used with his permission. But, keep in mind, there are over 2,000 identified homeless students attending Volusia schools. How many are unidentified? My guess is, at least twice that number. And many of them look just like Jimmy, your typical NSB teenager. Homelessness is often completely invisible, especially in our classrooms. On purpose.
This week, along with a colleague and a Daytona State College student majoring in education, I facilitated a workshop for teachers and administrators. It was truly a workshop: we rolled up our sleeves and worked together to not only come up with ideas and solutions, but to begin to form a cadre to continue our efforts. And I learned much.
The topic was Unaccompanied, Unidentified: Helping homeless and unaccompanied students in our high school classrooms. One of the critical–and difficult–aspects of the workshop was the second word. Pam Woods and her staff are excellent at guiding schools in identifying, and serving, homeless and unaccompanied students. There’s no doubt Ms. Woods does her job of meeting the needs of these students in our schools, and in the communities. But. But. What about the unidentified students? If students are homeless and wish to stay hidden about that, how can we help them? What tools can we use, what measures put in place, to serve them without ferreting them out?
One activity, and frankly the difficult one for yours truly, was when we broke up into groups. The groups each got a case study I had written up, and brainstormed solutions and ideas for that student. Each one was a homeless student I’d known, a homeless VCS student (I had permission from each of them and changed their names and minor details of their situations.) What got to me was this: when I sat down to write the studies and had to pick from the dozens of homeless students I have known, personally, right here in VCS over the years.
A few of the quick facts we shared (courtesy of the District’s hard work), shocked many of the workshop participants. For example: Four percent–over 2,000–current VCS students are homeless or “unaccompanied” (which means, in lay terms, couch surfing without parents or guardians). That is a huge amount of IDENTIFIED students! Reason would dictate there are at least that many who don’t disclose. Another shocker was how misrepresentative the term “free and reduced lunch” is as an indicator of socio-economic status (SES). Although it is a professionally acceptable marker, it is very misleading unless disaggregated, which it really never is for training or information purposes. Here’s why I say that. Students can get reduced lunch if their family annual household income is well above the Federal Poverty Level (FPL). For example, FPL for a family of four for 2017 is $24,600 or below. A family can have an annual income of up to $44,954 and the children receive reduced lunch. See what I mean about misrepresentative as an SES indicator? One final, and very crucial, point I heard Pam Woods, herself, make in a workshop. It’s one we spent some time exploring this week: the biggest barrier to students being identified and served is the prejudices of school personnel.
That last point was poignantly, explicitly, and beautifully explored by my cofacilitator, the DSC student. She took us through her personal story as an unaccompaned youth at a local high school. She was open about sharing, and frank when answering questions. One of the most illuminating points happened organically. A former teacher of this student who was a workshop participant–in fact she taught the student for three of her four years of high school—seemed to feel she had failed this student in some way by not knowing of her situation. In fact, this was one of the student’s best teachers, ever. She didn’t know because the student didn’t want her to. And we owe it to these students to try to understand why that might be. All of the workshop participants, including me, came to understand exactly why this student made the choices she did, and her presentation sparked a thorough and thoughtful exploration for creative solutions. We have a lot more work to do. Some of the student’s points (and remember, this is one student’s perspective, but good advice for stakeholders to think about):
Parents may be abusive. They may be drug addicts. They may be bad parents. Don’t try to influence or impact the student’s desire to maintain a relationship, to love, their parents. Don’t judge, even if the child has been removed from the home or left on their own.
Gatekeepers of access to services should park their personal opinions and leave it to the professionals, the district Homeless Liaison and her staff, to handle the intake and follow-through with the student. It is hard enough to come forth–keep your remarks, eye-rolls, sighs, to yourself.
Don’t pump students for personal information. It is great to let students know you are there, that you will listen, and that you can get them help if they need it. But, just do that. Listen. Don’t advise. Teachers are masters of their subject area, not social workers or guidance counselors. Teachers are also safe adults, and adults students can disclose to. Listening is the key. And, again, parking your own opinions, questions, and judgments.
Let ALL students know what services are available through the district and through your particular school at the beginning of the year, and don’t single students out. Letting all students know lets unidentified students know along with everyone else. Take the time to do this in every classroom.
I learned so much from this young woman who made the brave and difficult decision to speak for an hour and answer questions about her past, her present, and her future. One remark she made (and I’ve known her since she was sixteen, she’s nineteen now) punched me in the gut. In part of her remarks she shared that one of the reasons she had to leave home was that her parent left her alone at night a lot, and sometimes in the daytime, too: sometimes, for a week or more. She had no way to get to the store, to school. I had known about that when I helped her navigate the identification process at her high school. What I didn’t know was what she replied when a teacher in the workshop asked in the Q & A, “When you talked about your parent leaving you alone, off and on, before you became unaccompanied, how long did that go on?”
She quietly replied, “Since I was twelve.”
This was her normal. She didn’t know this was not normal until she left home at seventeen. Think about that. Wrap your mind around that. And roll up your sleeves in your school, your community.
For a very long time–most of my career–I worked in an everyday world peopled by individuals with mostly-invisible disabilities. Conditions like deafness, blindness, mental handicap, autism, attention deficit, auditory processing disorder, just to name a few. Some disabilities, such as M. S., Down’s Syndrome, or paraplegia, were visible. Most teachers, and sadly most students, knew there were always some children (particularly at certain developmental stages) who made fun of special needs children. Imitating a gait, a voice, using a gesture like that of Donald Trump when he made fun of a journalist. Most of us, adults, and most other children are repelled by such things, and in good schools they are of course dealt with. Parents, too, good ones, teach children about individual difference and honoring individuality. We all have seen examples of what I’m talking about, and most everybody reading this would never dream of condoning or engaging in such behavior. Yet, there’s one area, one really specific area, where many people (scores) that I know well engage in EXACTLY the same sort of judgmental, discriminatory, abhorrent behavior without even knowing it. Intelligent, even brilliant, people. That area is judging adults with Autism Spectrum Disorder for behavior due to their Autism Spectrum Disorder, and ostracizing them for it.
Most of us would never dream of saying to a blind family member, “Go out and get a job! The city was advertising a need for a couple of dozen bus drivers. Why are you sitting home? Go get your licence and apply for one of those jobs!” The idea of doing such a thing would be ridiculous, right? How could you expect someone to willfully overcome a physical disability in order to engage in behavior which is natural and accessible to a nondisabled peer? Yet, all too frequently I hear this sort of thing in relationship to another invisible, physical disability: Autism.
My husband is on the Spectrum. He prefers the terminology, “My husband is autistic.” This is harder for me, because I’m neurotypical, but he feels his autism is such a HUGE part of who he is, it takes front-seat in his self-image. That’s important. It matters. ASD is pervasive. It involves the body, the mind, the soul. I am so proud of my husband, he’s the bravest person I’ve ever met. Every day, he goes out into a terrifying world. He chooses that. It would be much easier to stay behind closed doors. He gets made fun of. For his weight, the way he dresses, the way he speaks, his grooming, his shoes, his interests, etc. etc. etc. To think that he doesn’t know this or that each incident is not painful is to choose not to think. When he was very fat, people (right in our own family) felt free to discuss his weight, right in front of him. Some would even mutter, “Mike needs to push back from the table,” behind his back, never thinking hard enough to recognize that this physical issue might have something to do with ASD. Others openly discuss Mike’s “job situation” at social events, wondering aloud why he wasn’t working full time while in college. The fact that he was able to complete an AS, a BS, an MS, and is working on a PhD didn’t matter: he’s a grown man. He should be working, too. Yet, these same people would never DREAM of walking into the local elementary school and expecting students with autism to participate in THEIR work-a-day world just like nondisabled peers. Of proclaiming, “Johnny! Get up in front of the class and read. Susie, you don’t need that laptop! Pick up your pencil and get to work!”
About a year before she passed away, I had a frank discussion with my mother about this. We’d talked about ASD a bit over the years, as Mikel and I have a twenty-four year old son, Jacob, with ASD, too. Mikel was diagnosed after our son, about twenty years ago. Mother was saying that, at family gatherings, people sometimes ask her why Mikel isn’t working (at that time, he was in graduate school full time), and she didn’t know what to say. Here’s what I told her.
“Tell them that he is taking the time after three years in the Army, a career saving lives as a professional firefighter and paramedic, a dozen years working full-time from home on the stock market so he could be there for our growing family, he is taking the time to pursue an education. Tell them he is amazing. Tell them he has autism, and that he is the bravest person you’ve ever known.” She got it.
Mikel is a fabulous cook. He’s a smart guy, smart enough to know that his autism is the reason family members don’t visit our home. It saddens him for me, and for our children. But, he has friends, and so do I. That’s huge. Good friends. There ARE people–and some pretty incredible family members, too—who see exactly what I cite, above. Mikel’s bravery. His heart. And they couldn’t give a fig that he wears the same thing every day, or gets loud when he talks about music (which he loves) or surfing, or that he’s a great cook but a messy housekeeper.
I stumble sometimes, too, with my expectations. I remember a remarkable moment, when our oldest son taught me just what kind of person we had raised. We were all getting ready for Mikel Jr.’s wedding, and I was arguing with my husband that he must wear dress shoes with his suit. Our son came out of the bathroom, where he’d been putting on his tie in front of the mirror, and said to me, “Mom! Dad’s wearing his flip flops to my wedding! Dad wouldn’t be himself without them, and I want MY DAD at MY WEDDING!”
Our son, Jacob, sometimes has robotic talk (so does Mikel) when he’s disregulated. I’ve seen grownups with brilliant I.Q.s and liberal views openly mock him. It makes me sad. I think about all these things I’ve witnessed and wonder what others go through. What sorts of situations could be eradicated without that horrible, invisible monster, prejudice?
Mikel just finished a year working as a paraprofessional in the suspension room at a local high school. Today, he found out he had to let his boss know he’s not coming back next year. His graduate school program is ramping up, and he has to do some residencies out of town (his field is medicine). At the school he was working at, the administration went through nine teachers this year in AE (the suspension room). It was pretty difficult, as you can imagine, but Mikel stuck with it. Because when he took the job, he promised he’d finish the year. I am so proud of him, even as I steel myself for those remarks, those questions, those judgments. He may go back to working in the public schools after he completes his Doctorate, or he might work in a hospital or health department. Whatever he chooses, I’m grateful to be on this journey with him, to witness his heart, his mind, his work ethic. And I have a feeling he will always be the bravest person I’ve ever known.
I write this to remind us all, Autism is a life-long disability. Don’t stay open for persons with ASD when they are children only to close your hearts and minds to them when they are grown. Please.
Mike and I had agreed to publish his autobiography, which I was coauthoring with him, with George Foote of Silent e Publishing. I don’t know if that book will be completed. It may be a long time before that decision is made. But, I wanted to share a chapter from it which Mike was particularly fond of, to offer some comfort to his friends through Mike’s own words. As many of you will, I’ll miss my friend. May he rest in peace with those who have gone before.
I killed Black Beauty
It was in 1994 and my friend Robert Wolfe, who was originally from New Smyrna Beach, was the Chairman of the Board of Directors of the International Surfing Museum in Huntington Beach, which was originating the first edition of the Walk of Fame. The Walk of Fame is a section of sidewalk on the corner of Main St and Pacific Coast Highway in Huntington Beach, directly opposite the pier. Patterned after the Walk of Stars in front of Grumman’s Theater in Hollywood, there are plaques sunk in the sidewalk which commemorate legendary surfers.
So Robert said, “We’re having a big display at the museum to coincide with the Walk of Fame premiere, and we want to feature pro surfing and the ASP surfers, because the premiere is going to take place during the US Open. Can you try to get something from Tom Curren?”
After two World Titles in 1985 and ’86, Curren made a comeback and recaptured the crown in 1990, the year before I moved to California. I said, “Well, I’ll call him. I’ll try.”
I got Curren’s number and called him. I had to try several times because he’s kind of a reclusive guy. He was living back in Santa Barbara, his hometown, with his second wife after living in France for years with his first wife. After many messages, he finally called me back, which actually surprised me. But, we did have a relationship of sorts because I had been Head Judge during his first years on the Tour and his first two World Titles. I explained about the museum exhibit and asked, “Is there something you could loan to the museum? I’ll pick it up and put it in the museum and I’ll be responsible for it.”
He said, “Let me see, I might be able to dig something up.”
I was going up to Rincon to judge a contest, which is in Santa Barbara and is his home break. I said, “I’ll give you a call when I’m up there. I’m spending the weekend at this contest.”
Curren said, “Oh, okay, that’s pretty close by.”
I actually had doubts that he’d show up, because he was a kind of “Mr.Mysto” type guy. So I rode up there with the late Midget Smith, Mary Lou Drummy, and Kurt Page to judge this WSA, Western Surfing Association, Amateur contest. We drove up in Midget’s van. We were there three days for the contest. I call Curren every day and left messages, but I never heard from him, which, once again, didn’t really surprise me. I told Robert and Midget and everyone I was with, “This is really a long-shot because Curren just isn’t into this type of thing. He really doesn’t care about publicity and he hasn’t promised me anything anyway.”
My best hope was actually just to speak to him again, maybe while we were in the same town at the same time. So, I just kept leaving messages like, “Tom, I’m here until Sunday afternoon, if you get the chance to call me back.” And this was before almost anyone had a cell phone. I certainly didn’t. So it was call every evening from the hotel and just wait another day.
It gets to be Sunday, the last day of the contest, and we’re going to leave straight after the final and drive back to San Clemente, which is about four hours, and I haven’t heard from him. Oh, well.
But, late in the afternoon, during one of the last heats, I see this tiny little woman walking down the beach toward us, carrying this surfboard. She’s not dressed for the beach, and she can barely get her arms around this surfboard, carrying it with both hands. It’s clearly not her own board. It’sTom’s second wife Maki, from Panama, who I’ve never seen or met. Anyway ,she’s coming down the beach with the board, and I figured it out and said, “Mrs. Curren?”
“Are you Mike?”
“Tom asked me to bring this to you.”
“Wow, that’s fantastic, thanks so much! Please tell Tom thank you from me!”
So, all of us are holding it and looking at it, especially Midget Smith, who was a surfboard shaper by trade himself. It was a 6’3” Channel Islands, shaped by Al Merrick (before he dropped the Channel Islands label). I recognized it as one of Curren’s boards because it had all his sponsor logos and this thick black line all around the rails on the deck. But, at that time, I didn’t know it had a nickname, “Black Beauty.” I had seen enough boards of his to recognize it as one of them, because they all had the same two-inch black outline regardless of the size of the board. His whole quiver looked like that. If he was riding a 6’0’ or a 6’8” they all looked the same from a distance. It was only later— and to my great consternation— that I learned that this was the original one that he and Merrick had dubbed “Black Beauty.” Of course, now anyone can order a “Black Beauty” model Al Merrick, as the mystique of that surfboard has passed into the lexicon of the sport. But I get ahead of myself.
The board was in horrible condition. It was all beat up; dings on the tail and broken nose and it looked like it had probably been stored under the house or something. But, hey! My mission is accomplished! I’d just take it back to Huntington Beach and give it to Robert Wolfe to display in the museum.
Well, Midget had this van and we were already packed up to leave with all our boards on top, and we hadn’t brought any extra racks. I really hadn’t thought this was going to happen. That’s the part I really screwed up, and is the oversight that still wakes me up at night occasionally. Midget says, “No worries, I’ve got some rope we can tie it on with.”
Now, almost twenty years later, I must explain to the reader that I accept full responsibility for this disaster, even though Midget tied it on the van. Midget was my great friend and has been gone since 2008, Rest in Peace. He tied it and knotted the ropes firmly and we both tugged and wiggled it and assured ourselves that it was secure.
We take off down the freeway, southbound on the 5, trying to get back to San Clemente as early as we can on a busy Sunday afternoon, which is enough explanation to anyone who has navigated the Southern California freeway system. Whoosh, whoosh, six lanes each way, everyone averaging 70 miles an hour, trying to get as close to LA as they can before hitting the inevitable traffic jam. Apparently what happened was: we were going fast, fast, fast, and the board’s straining against the rope, but secure as long as we’re at speed. Then we hit L.A. traffic, and slow down to a crawl. That must have created loose slack in the rope. We sit and crawl for a while—4 PM Sunday weekend traffic— until we reach the south side of LA. Then, suddenly freeway-style, the traffic eases and the green flag drops and everyone accelerates back up to speed with a sigh of relief. And then Kurt yells, “Curren’s board just flew off the van!”
Oh my God, No!
Midget, to his everlasting legend, reacts instantly like an Indy car driver: brakes hard and jerks the van left into the emergency lane, with all the junk mufflers and blown tires and broken glass. Just, grrrrrr, balls to wall, and fishtails to a stop.
I’m screaming, “Oh my God, we’ve gotta get it!”
Midget throws it into reverse and starts backing up at speed against the flow of the traffic until we reach the spot where we can see the board. It’s blown over now into the middle of six lanes with a thousand cars bearing down on it. We screech to a halt. I’m just hyperventilating.
“I’ve gotta get that board!” I actually jerk open the side door of the back seat and for an instant, purely on adrenaline, I was going to try and grab it. Kurt Page lunges over and bodily grabs me with both arms, yelling, “Mike, you’re crazy, you’ll be killed, you can’t, there’s no way.”
Mary Lou and Midget are both turned around yelling, “Stop it, Mike! Sit down!” And the wind blast from six lanes of speeding cars snaps me back to my senses. Then, in only seconds, before all our eyes, we see boom, boom, boom, boom, the board being hit by car after car. Just disintegrating. Shattered into bits. Fins and pieces of foam flying and bouncing everywhere. It was mulched into small fragments right before our eyes. In retrospect we were lucky it did not cause an accident to anyone who hit it. We sat for a few minutes, now in stunned silence. The relentless stream of speeding cars made it clear that there was no way to wait and salvage anything, even if a small chunk survived.
Midget said, “We might as well get out of here.”
I see Tom Curren’s World Championship Black Beauty surfboard that he’s loaned to me, under my care, destroyed on the I-5 freeway right in front of my eyes. And I can’t save it. We drove on back to San Clemente and I was just distraught. I was speechless most of the way home. I thought about driving back up after rush hour to look for fragments, which would have been another two hours. But what would have been the point? The rest of the ride all I can think about is, How do I explain this to Tom Curren?
Mom always said, “If it’s bad news, you might as well get it over with.”
The rest of the way home I had plenty of time to agonize over what I was going to say. The only small mercy was that, just like always,he didn’t personally answer his phone. I got his voicemail and just started apologizing, “Tom, it’s Mike Martin, I can’t believe I have to tell you this, but your board flew off the van on the 5 this afternoon on the way home. I tried to get it, but I couldn’t get to it, it was shattered into pieces. I can’t apologize enough, I’m crushed about this, I don’t know what to say, I’ve never been more embarrassed in my life, etc.,etc.” Until, beeep, I filled up his message tape and it cut off. I still felt the need to apologize directly, at least voice to voice, so I keep calling back every day for a week. The whole time I can barely sleep, and I know I won’t be able to rest until I actually hear from him. Every day I call again, “Tom, please give me a call back, just so I can apologize to you voice to voice, if not face to face, because I feel so bad about this,” Finally one day about a week later I come home and the light’s blinking on the answer machine. I push the button.
“Hey Mike, it’s Tom. Listen, ha ha, don’t worry about it. I’m just glad no one got hurt. But it’s not your fault and I’m not mad at you. I don’t hold it against you.” I could not believe how kind and gracious he was, even to the point of chuckling over it.
The next time I saw Tom in person I went up to him and said, “Tom, what can I say?”
He said, “Come on, Mike, let it go. It’s not your fault. Stuff happens.”
That’s a real gentleman.
That’s the story of “Black Beauty” Tom Curren’s World Title surfboard. He loaned it to me for an exhibition in the International Surf Museum in Huntington Beach and it got destroyed while en route. But fortunately, Tom seems to have forgiven me, and we even had a laugh about it once.
Years later I saw a quote in a magazine about, Tom Curren’s famous “Black Beauty” world championship surfboard, which was destroyed on the freeway being transported to an exhibition at a museum. Thank God it didn’t mention my name.
This week, as I prepare to grade my very first class of senior English students, ever, I’ve been thinking about what works. For them, for me: for us. A few days ago, a colleague came up to me in the hallway during class change (she rushed out of her room as she saw me rushing past) said, “I love you! You’re wonderful!” And, gave me a big, warm hug.
Naturally, I had no idea what she was talking about, and said, “What’d I do?”
“Your blog! I started reading you. I love what you write.”
While it was a wonderful thing that she took the time to say this–and, I especially enjoyed the heartfelt hug–it started me thinking. I haven’t been writing much, lately. And, I thought about why. I’m busy. And, I thought about what is going on where I work.
Anybody who’s read my educational writing knows I am the first one to be blunt, to call it like I see it. I’ll tell you this: where I work, right now, is educational bliss. I can’t help it, I analyze. Why? It’s a bit of a mystery.
I teach at Spruce Creek High School in Port Orange, Florida. I’ve taught at LOTS of schools, starting with student teaching waaaaay back in the day at P. K. Yonge Laboratory school in Gainesville, Florida, in the 1980’s. From there, I came to Pierson Elementary, in Volusia County; then, Sterling Park Elementary, in Seminole County; back to Volusia and kind of up-the-ladder into administration (not my preferred m.o.); to eventually work at UCF in the medical school as an educational training specialist with the Center for Autism and Related Disabilities–I retired from there. In between, I taught high school in North Carolina, and at the University of North Carolina, too; as well as doubling up at UCF and working for the English Department. I realize all this job-hopping seems a little weird to most people, but for somebody in Exceptional Student Education, it is normal behavior. (Did I mention teaching inpatient students for VCS at the Children’s Crisis Stabilization Unit for three years?) You, as an ESE teacher, are responsible for your own sanity, and movement is necessary for that. I love ESE, I do. Right now, I teach general education. Gen Ed. I have plenty of ESE students in my classes, and am at my most fluent meeting their educational needs. But, I am in love with what I am doing, right now. And, I turn in grades tomorrow. Did I really type that?! Yes. I did. I told Dr. Sparger when he hired me that my dream is to be Kate Maroney in front of the class, eyes glowing, sitting on the stool breathlessly sharing from Jane Eyre. He got it. Immediately. I may never be able to live up to that ideal English teacher of mine, but I’m there. I truly am.
I know this is a long-winded post, but what I am really thinking of is all the things which work at this wonderful school I’m blessed to be working at. Is it perfect? By no means. Are the students, teachers, or administrators better somehow than other people? Uh, no. But, something works. It absolutely has to be deliberate. I’m (I won’t say just–I never felt more vital or valued as an educator) a teacher; I’m blissfully unsubject to the machinations of administration. But. But; the culture of respect, the culture of facilitation, the culture of meditatively, enthusiastically seeking knowledge is unparalleled in my experience.
Today, I had dozens of students thank me. Today was the last day they could turn in some rather challenging assignments. Book reviews. I taught them to write book reviews, and they all had different books. They boldly backed their opinions with specific details without revealing storyline; several openly became readers! That’s not me, folks. That’s a school that still has room for teacher design and creativity in the curriculum. How they do it is a mystery I’m happy to remain blissfully ignorant of. I’m there, people. I’m in teacher heaven. (And, that little left-over state-department-of-ed-bureaucrat in me wonders, “How do they do it? Can we bottle it? Can we share??? Shhhh, Kate. Enjoy.”)
Just last week I had a student remark, casually, as he left the classroom: “Thanks for including The Glass Castle as an option in the reading list. I liked the book. The author’s childhood was so much like my own.”
The student was talking about a book which captures a nearly-insurvivable childhood. Homelessness. Poverty. Abuse.
This summer, my novel Ana comes out from Silent e Publishing. Silent e does some self-published books; mine is a traditional, literary contract. That’s an important distinction for me, the author, and for many readers.
I chose to write Ana because of deepening concerns regarding attitudes towards poverty and homelessness. The book reads, deliberately, as a light novel about a wealthy fifty-something widow who moves from New Jersey to Florida following her husband’s death. It deals, boldly, with the distances we keep even from those we love, and the masks we wear for each other. Because it is a social justice novel, because the ending is a bombshell, because there will be anger, cognitive dissonance, disbelief in some readers, I have included a Why I wrote this afterword. My student’s remark is one more affirmation. Now that the book’s coming out, I’m a little nervous. But, I had to do it. Here’s a bit of why, from the afterword:
I wrote this book because I’ve become increasingly concerned regarding the attitudes of those who’ve never been hungry, never lived on the edge, toward the growing number of citizens who are teetering there or have tumbled over. Recently in nearby Daytona, citizens put together a homeless shelter where individuals can eat, sleep, and have mental health services. As if homelessness is synonymous with mental illness. As if, as a matter of course, a person wouldn’t be homeless without something being wrong with their mind. This, and particularly the public’s lack of concern with this pairing, is only one indicator of the astonishing bigotry associated with poverty in this nation. Assumptions and misconceptions abound.
Here’s another—and for me more personal—example. A friend of mine, who for the last six years lived with and assisted her mother, was recently named as a beneficiary in her mother’s will. My friend doesn’t drive or have a job. An executor is in charge of the will, and my friend’s portion is to go into an irrevocable trust. Her nieces’ shares, because they are under twenty-five, go into a separate trust. They have husbands, and jobs. She doesn’t. Because my friend is without income, the executor and other beneficiaries have gotten together, cleaned out the home my friend lives in while ordering her to sit outside, told her how she should spend her trust income, and decided it should be a “special needs” trust. When I pressed them on why “special needs” they shouted at me, because she doesn’t drive. Because she doesn’t have a job! Again, the layers of ignorance are mind-numbing.
In the coastal central Florida town I live in (which the town of Robinson is modeled after), the divide between the haves and have-nots is ever more apparent. Because it is a touristy beach town, restaurants abound. None of them offer a living wage to the workers. Not a single restaurant in town offers sick days, retirement, or health care benefits. Yet more and more tourists clog the roads, making it harder for locals to get to work. Skateboarding is illegal on our streets: falling down drunk is not. There are actually all kinds of drunken festivals throughout the year. Wine walks. Bike and bars—ride your bicycle from bar to bar. Supposedly, all of this is good for the town. The truth is, the minimum wage and below it jobs which are on the rise actually lower the per capita income.
My own situation has ranged greatly over the years—my husband and I raised four sons in a 1,200 square foot home in a working-class neighborhood. While we are fortunate enough to own our home, there have been difficult times. We both hold higher degrees, but chose as careers public service. During the housing crisis we fell victim to a predatory lender in a refinancing; the lender actually changed our paperwork after it was signed and notarized from a fixed rate of interest to an adjustable. Although we eventually won a class-action suit (this was done to hundreds of mortgage holders), instead of surrendering our home to foreclosure, we chose to continue paying the mortgage, and for years paid over $2,000 a month. We will never get that money back.
During that time my husband worked for a brokerage house out of Brooklyn, doing online customer support for our home in Florida (he’d left the fire service after discovering that, after childcare and taxes, he was bringing home twenty-nine cents an hour. So, he stayed home with the children and worked online while they were still too young for school). One year, he made trades as a day-trader as well, with some modest gains. He was good at it. However, his employer criminally reported all of his trades (and those of many other employees) as gains, leaving us with over forty thousand dollars in tax debt. The employer was caught and convicted; our tax situation was irreparable. We are still paying for those back taxes. Unfortunately, a few years earlier I’d experienced an emergency brain surgery which took place in the middle of the night on New Year’s Eve. Since I was not expected to live, financial concerns were the last thing on our minds. While I was literally under the knife (at this time my husband was still a firefighter and I was teaching) our health insurance carrier switched from a PPO to self-insured. For two years following my surgery, the two insurance companies refused to pay the bill which amounted to over $100,000. Each claimed the other was responsible to pay. Finally, they agreed to split the bill, but by that time our credit was completely ruined.
Shortly after my husband lost his position with the brokerage our own living was reduced to poverty level. Although we were both working very hard, we could barely keep food on the table. This went on for years. Because we were “poor”, relatives politely quit visiting; if family came to town, we met at a restaurant (which we usually could not afford to do.) Distances grew, and we were treated with condescension. There were times when we could only afford to pay either our power bill or our water bill; sometimes we had to take showers at the public ones at the beach and port drinking and cooking water purchased at the market. We flushed toilets and mopped the floor with rainwater. All while keeping up huge mortgage and tax payments. It was during this time that I began to make note of the razor-thin line between sheltered and homeless.
I also realized how shallow were our perceptions of others. Although I had friends in similar, or worse, financial straits, most of them pretended they were not. They seemed ashamed of and dishonest about their situations. This made me think about the deceptions we foist on each other, even on friends and family. Perhaps that was why—this culture of lies—it seemed easy for my own siblings in particular to ignore a sister and her family living below poverty level.
I was working full-time at the University of Central Florida as a Coordinator of Educational Training Programs at the Center for Autism and Related Disabilities. While I served mainly in the county I lived in, Volusia, once a week I had to drive to Orlando, 115 miles round trip, for a clinical meeting. My husband was at that particular time working on a bachelor’s degree. We had three sons living at home; two in high school and one in middle school. Both the middle school boy and the oldest had after school and weekend jobs as bus boys at a local restaurant; our middle son was attending a rigorous magnet International Baccalaureate program in a neighboring town, so he didn’t have a job. He also has the form of autism formerly known as Asperger’s, as well as arthritis. So, three of us in the home were working at that time. This was after the financial crash and after my husband lost his job at the brokerage. Of twelve remote support personnel, Mikel was the last one to be let go before the job was phased out. At that time, he decided to go back to college. His student loans and grants provided some extra income after tuition and fees.
We qualified for both reduced lunches at school for the boys and for government commodities, a very old federal program. Commodities are distributed through local churches. We chose to access the food bank at a church in nearby Port Orange, where our son’s magnet school was. Unfortunately, distributions took place on Tuesday afternoons, the same day as my clinical meetings in Orlando. My husband was in class on Tuesdays, and took the local bus as we had one vehicle. I would rush from Orlando to make it to Port Orange, then stand in line in my suit and heels. The distribution was around the back of the church, and the line was generally long. Once patrons retrieved their paperwork from one window, they took it to the next window and handed it over. The person who then checked the paperwork and called instructions to volunteers packing boxes and bags happened to be the pastor’s mother, a woman in her late sixties. Every time she spoke to me, after she’d called “Family of five!” to the volunteers, she chatted a bit and always asked, “How’s the job search going?” Every single time I told her, “I have a job” she looked puzzled.
One particularly trying afternoon I lost my patience, and although I wasn’t rude, said, “Listen, I not only work full-time, I have a terminal degree. I teach at UCF.”
“A terminal degree? What’s that?”
“If it doesn’t kill you, you’re done.”—my standard answer in trying to explain the MFA. She looked blank. “Like….a doctorate. A PhD.”
“And you still qualify for free food?”
“Yes, ma’am, check the paperwork.”
More puzzlement. “Well, there are four other people in your household. Why don’t they have jobs?”
“Actually, those who can, do. One of our sons has autism. The other two, who are 14 and 17, work when they aren’t in school. My husband is a full-time student taking an overload of courses. A lot of the people who come here work, many of us at full-time, professional jobs. Many of the people standing in line here work more than full-time in the service industry.”
The next week, the pastor’s mother smiled at me as I waited for my food. And of course she asked the inevitable, “How’s the job search going?”
I replied, “As well as can be expected in this economy.”
I made a couple of friends, Laurie (her real name) and Sally (a pseudonym), who were honest with me about their situations. That helped both them and me. To have someone to commiserate with, particularly about the relentlessly exhausting struggle to find ways to pay the bills, made that relentlessness easier to bear.
We struggle. But perhaps we are more honest about it with each other than the general run of citizens, are. Our families don’t really want to know. I have siblings with multiple properties whose savings fall easily into six digits. They are good people. They could write a $20,000 check without missing it. They don’t visit, but they do call. When they come to town, they genteelly ask to meet at a restaurant; they buy. I’m sure they feel good about that. I know they do. They’re kind people, they truly enjoy getting together, going out to eat. They would not enjoy walking through my door, into the 1200 square foot concrete block house with no heat, window units for air, and 1970’s tile floors, with six people living in limited space, along with the two dogs which help with the autism in the house. They don’t, really, want to know.
Our mother ages, and there are discussions about moving her into a facility, or into one of their comfortable homes out of state. She can no longer clean her own house completely, and she’s too friendly to hire someone to do it. I do it. On top of struggling to get by. Although my siblings do visit, and engage as much as possible, it doesn’t occur to them to scrub her toilet. That’s a job for me—the poor one. Of course. But we don’t talk about that.
And that is what is wrong, here. People don’t want to know. That’s why I wrote Ana. I’m active in the local arts community, and there’s a world-class facility close by where I’ve studied several times. I like the staff out there. They like me. But, we argue a bit on facebook when I try to make the local cool people see; this town relies on a workforce which is largely unseen. If you drive the causeways at one a.m.you will see weary food service workers making their way home, some walking eight to ten miles home. They don’t have cars and they don’t have insurance. Yet, visiting writers are shepherded to the four star restaurants, poured eclectic glasses of vino under twinkling lights while these people ruin their shoes back in the dishpit. The busboys and dishwashers take the scraps home, wondering if they’ll get sick from recooking the leftovers of a $60 steak. It’s true. And nobody talks about it.
So there you have it, a bit of a teaser on Ana, my forthcoming novel, from the afterword. Why I did it. Think about it. The line between the haves and have-nots is razor thin, and judgements, particularly regarding the homeless, abound.