The One That Got Away

So here is the latest short fiction piece I wrote for the weekly contest I enter.  The prompt was titled “Get Schooled.”  The story simply had to be set at one of the schools they listed. The options were things like Clown College, College of Renewable Energy, and College of Funeral Services.  I chose funeral services.  I found out yesterday that my story didn’t win so I can now post it here.  Enjoy.  I always love constructive criticism.  Feel free to leave in the comments section.

 

The One That Got Away

Just stick to the rules.  That’s what I told myself when I first got into this business.  Set rules to mitigate the obvious risks and then stick to them. That’s how you survive and don’t get caught.  Rule One: Don’t know too much. With what I did, the less I know, the better. Knowing too much is what gets people caught or killed.  

As a professor of mortuary affairs at the College of Funeral Services, I was in the unique position of having a legitimate means of disposing of human remains.  I taught the Embalming I class and clinical lab to accompany it. Included in this course was cremation services. The school had an older but still effective crematorium that we used as a teaching tool.  We worked with some of the local funeral homes to get deceased bodies to show the students how the process worked. It was my unique position of having these means of disposal that attracted the Russian mob to me in the first place.

Well, to be honest, it was my dumb cousin Ronnie that really attracted them to me.  If he hadn’t come up with the brilliant idea of using me to dispose of the bodies, they would still be burying them or dumping them in lakes or whatever they did before me.  Either way, it was what it was and I now knew more Ivans, Anatolys, Vladimirs, and Pavels then I knew what to do with.

Rule Two: No live ones.  I had made that one absolutely clear at the very beginning.  I was not a killer. I was not an interrogator. I was a disposer, nothing more.  My crematorium was not a threat and not a weapon, it was tool. My job within their organization was very clear and defined and I wanted nothing to do with anything outside of it.  

Ronnie?  Ronnie was just a delivery boy.  But he was a delivery boy that violated Rule One.  His job should have been just as clearly defined as mine.  Pick up a package at Point A and take it to Point B. Leave said package at Point B while retrieving an already agreed upon payment for said package.

However, as I may have mentioned, Ronnie is an idiot.  He was forever trying to meddle in the affairs of the Russians and learn everything there was to know.  As if he had a chance to move up the hierarchy. We shared the last name of Müller which made us about as Russian as sauerkraut.  Odd that after seventeen years of running deliveries for the Russian Mob, Ronald Müller hadn’t climbed the ladder to become a boss.  I had tried to talk to him several times about it and he was somehow still convinced that there was a future in it for him.

I, on the other hand, kept doing what I was doing for the simple fact that I knew the future for me if I ever decided not to.  My motivation was not so much hoping for a positive consequence as it was avoiding a decidedly negative one.

“So why did you get into funeral services?”

The voices of the first year students in my lab shook me back into reality.  We were in the Embalming I Clinical lab and the students chatted aimlessly as they went about their work.  

“Well, I figured it was a solid career choice.  I mean it’s a business everyone is dying to get into.”

I cringed.  There were bad jokes and then there were bad jokes about funeral services.  A whole different level.

“Yeah. I don’t think that the profession is going under anytime soon.”

It just kept getting worse.  I looked at the clock. Fifteen minutes to go.  My cell phone buzzing on my desk next to me was a welcome distraction.  It was a text from Ronnie. “One coming in tonight. Crazy story. Tell you all about it when I get there.”  I replied with a simple. “Rule One. I’ll see you when you get here.”

Ronnie knew my rules but sometimes was so excited about the backstory that he felt he had to tell me.  Most of the time, I put headphones in and worked while he prattled on, not caring that I wasn’t hearing a single word he said.

My phone buzzed again. “No, this is different. You’ll want to hear this.”  His next text included a link to a news article. I went against my better judgement and opened the article. The opening headline read, “Daughter of Russian Diplomat Goes Missing.”  I didn’t read the rest of the article. Better not to know.

Class ended and the students filed quickly out.  They had much better things to do on a Friday than hang about an embalming lab.  It was 6:30 and Ronnie wouldn’t be at the school until after 9. We used a maintenance road and back entrance to get the bodies into the crematorium.  When the buildings on campus had undergone a maintenance and security upgrade back at the turn of the millenium, the cameras that had been planned for the back of the building and entrance had been cut due to budget constraints.  It was convenient but we still had to wait until dark. I decided to head to the Panera right down the road to get dinner while I waited for Ronnie.

As I sat down to my bread bowl with black bean soup, I looked at my phone and, against my better judgement again, reopened the link to the news article.  Irina Stepanov, the 27 year old daughter of Marat Stepanov had been in the States visiting her father when she had gone missing yesterday evening. The news article included a photograph and, I had to say, she was not a woman who was difficult to look at.  She had wavy dark hair and strikingly dark eyes to match. Her features were defined without going so far as being sharp or pointed. In the photo she had a slight smile that hinted of humor and her eyes belied intelligence.

Without thinking, I Googled her name and clicked on her wikipedia bio.  My intuition about her eyes had been correct. She had begun attending St. Petersburg State Polytechnic University at 14 years old.  She had received her undergraduate degree in applied mathematics and then completed a double master’s degree program in informatics and computer science by the time she had turned 20.  Very impressive.

The events and circumstances surrounding her disappearance were both mysterious and questionable according to the newspaper.  She had been seen stumbling toward the bathroom in a restaurant but hadn’t been seen since then. According to Ronnie, I’m sure the events and circumstances were much less mysterious and questionable.  

I looked down at my phone and saw that I had spent nearly an hour and a half reading.  I cleared my tray and headed to my car to go back to the school.

I found Ronnie already waiting for me at the back entrance to the building, a stupid grin spreading across his face.  “This is my shot man. I’m telling you. This is my shot and I killed it. This is big for me. This is my shot.” He had this annoying way of repeating himself when he was excited, which he clearly was.  I just wanted to get out of there and settled onto my couch with a glass of Moscato to binge watch The Office for the third time. I heard him talk without really listening. However, as much as I didn’t want to, I caught parts of how he had been the perfect candidate for the job because he was American and used to be a waiter.  Apparently he had dropped something in her drink. She had gone to the bathroom and the rest was history.

“I’m telling you man, this is”

“Your shot Ronnie.  I know. I heard.”

Really I just wanted him to leave.

“You know, why don’t you just head home.  I’ll finish up here. Go celebrate buddy.”

I didn’t need to repeat myself there.  He was gone quicker than a shot of cheap vodka leaving me with the body of Irina Stepanov; billionaire genius.  

I stepped toward the body to begin the process of moving into the crematorium when I thought for a second I thought I saw the chest move ever so slightly.  My heart stopped. I paused and watched intently. Nothing. Then again, almost undetectably, the chest rose and fell in the faintest hint of a breath.

“Shit.”  Ronnie had now violated rules number one and two in the same day.  I had no idea how to proceed. In over ten years of disposing of bodies for the mob, this had never happened before.  

In a split second I made my decision.  There was no way I could do it. I was simply a disposer, not a killer.  It took me about five minutes to head to the parking lot, pull my car around through the maintenance road to the back entrance, and get back into the lab outside the crematorium.  

By the time I got back inside, Irina’s chest was rising and falling faintly but steadily with an undeniable rhythm that showed she was in fact alive.  Ronnie was even stupider than I thought. Whatever he had used to drug and then kill her was obviously not as effective as he thought or had been administered in a faulty manner.  My instinct told me it was the latter.

I was now faced with the difficulty of how to get her back to my house.  Now that I knew she was alive, I didn’t feel right putting her in the trunk.  I was about to go Weekend at Bernie’s with her either though. However, if I laid her down in the backseat and for some reason was stopped by the police, it would be a hard thing to explain.  However, I decided that was my best option and placed her gently on her side in the fetal position.

The drive was mercifully uneventful.  She stirred slightly once or twice but didn’t wake.  My house has an attached garage so transporting Irina from the car to the house was equally uneventful.  

The next two days were spent caring for her as she drifted in an out of consciousness.  It was not nearly as awkward as I might have thought it to be. There was no screaming and trying to escape as she’d lost most of her motor control.  She seemed to be in much of a dreamlike state. Each time she awoke I spoke calmly and plainly, letting her know who I was, where she was, and what had happened.  I found that as soon as she heard me speak in English, she only communicated that way and did so very well. She had no noticeable accent and was as well spoken as someone who had been drugged mostly to death could be.

By Sunday afternoon, she was fully conscious and beginning to regain control of her nervous system and major muscle groups.  She knew exactly who she was and could recall all of the events leading up to her abduction. This surprised me. I don’t know if I had been watching too many movies and was expecting temporary amnesia or something, but it did.  

I found talking to her easier than with any human I had ever encountered before in my life.  In the space of 5 hours I had told her everything about me. I had told her about how I hadn’t every really had a serious relationship.  I told her how I hated working for the mob. How when my baby teeth had started falling out we had found out that I had something called anodontia, a condition in which the permanent teeth never grow back.  When Monday came around, I was legitimately disappointed to leave my usual lonely domicile and head back to work. When I returned home and found Irina still there, I was ecstatic. Now we simply had to answer the question of what to do now.

“Well they can’t know that I’m alive.” she said. “Then they’ll have me to hold over Papa’s head again.”

“But can he know you’re alive?” I asked.  Her reply took a long time.

“No.” she said sadly. “He can’t. If anyone but you finds out that I didn’t die, we’re both as good as dead.”

“Right.” I said.  “So what do we do?”

“Well that depends.” she said. “Can you live the rest of your life and keep this a secret? Also, what if something somehow does happen and the mob finds out that I’m still alive?  You’d be dead before you realized what was happening.”

“So you’re saying I need to get out too?” I asked.

“Absolutely.” She answered.

“Impossible.  There’s only one way out, and it’s through my crematorium.”

“Well then that’s how we’ll do it.  A crematorium.”

The “crematorium” she had in mind was actually my car.  It was a fairly simple operation. Crash my car hard enough into a pole to make it believable that it would catch fire somehow and then light it on fire.  My anodontia further simplified the matter. The fire from the car would ruin any DNA so the only way to identify a body would be through dental records. After the fifth grade, I had no dental records to speak of.  Just a set of false teeth that would also be destroyed in the fire. As for who we would be after I died, having someone with a master’s degree in informatics and computer technology helped us obtain complete new identities.  I was to become Joshua Thompson and was pleasantly surprised to find that she had given herself the same last name, Nadia Thompson.

After that, it was simply a matter of waiting until Ronnie produced another body that was the same height and relative build that I was.  Luckily, the world is not in short supply of 5’10” males and he texted me two weeks later that he had another delivery.

As Irina and I stood there watching my car and my entire past life burn, she turned to me and asked if I thought I would miss it.

I was truly ashamed of my reply. “Well, teaching at the College of Funeral Services was a great way to urn a living, but I’m ready to move on.”

Her laugh was genuine as she retorted with, “Well then, I think that this will be a very fine undertaking for you then.”

Pure gold.

Secrets Secrets – The Home Life

Sometimes kids tattle on their parents without really understanding what they’re doing.  There are times when students disclose to us serious things that happen in the home but other times it is much more lighthearted and funny.  The best of these stories come when the student has absolutely no idea what they’re actually telling us.  Other times they know what they’re saying and just don’t realize how much their parent doesn’t want us to hear it.  For example…

The Crying Baby

I was doing a reward lunch with a group of students.  These are always great because students just talk.  When they’re allowed to just talk, really funny things come out of their mouth.  This one student was talking about his siblings.  “Mr. Steidl, my little brother cries a lot.  Yesterday, my mom and her boyfriend went in to her bedroom because they had to find something in her closet.  They were in there for a long time looking and I had to watch my baby brother the whole time.  He was just crying and crying.” I didn’t ask if they found what they were looking for.

Those Red Lights Are the Worst

This time was right around Marin Luther King Jr. day.  We were talking about the impact that he had on our nation and how he was instrumental in changing some very unfair laws.  I was trying to explain to a group of first graders what the Jim Crow laws were.  One little girl raised her hand and just started talking.  “Mr. Steidl I know we have laws that are really really bad.  Like red lights.”  “Red lights?”  “Yeah you know like on the roads.”  “Yes.  I know what red lights are.  Why are they so bad?”  “Well my mom always says that the red lights make her late for work.”  “Yep.  Red lights are the worst for that aren’t they.”

Palabras Malas

We’ve had a few students this year that moved here from Puerto Rico after the hurricane.  These students obviously bring a whole set of new challenges with the language barrier and other factors.  It’s fascinating to watch them acclimate socially and begin to learn the language.  It’s funny to see which words they learn first from their peers.  One of the boys simply hardly talks at all even to me in Spanish.  So his teacher was very surprised when she heard him not only speak but say “Holy shit.”  So, we found ourselves having a discussion about language that is appropriate for school.  We usually get some kids say things like, “But my mom says that all the time.”  One time I remember a girl even looking at us and saying, “Um, have you met my step dad Jose?”  Well this particular time, when we were talking about swearing, one student raised her hand and said, “Mr. Steidl, my mom cusses about you all the time.”  “Really?” I replied.  “Yeah, she doesn’t like you very much.  She always calls you the B word and the F word.  She sometimes says the S word too when she talks about you.”  Well thank you.  That is very encouraging.   I’m sure she wants you to let me know.

 

Minor Indiscretions

So I started writing for this weekly short fiction contest.  They email me five prompts on Friday and I have until midnight the following Friday to respond to one of them.  Well, long story short (pun intended), I missed the deadline this week so I am allowed to just post my story on my blog.  So, I guess my lack of responsibility is your gain.

The prompt I chose was to write a story based on a meme.  I chose a meme of Kevin Hart that says “That awkward moment when you’ve already said “What?” three times and still didn’t hear, so you just agree.”  I don’t know why I chose to write my story from the perspective of a 35 year old woman but I did.  You guys can psychoanalyze that all you want lol.  So here is my story. “Minor Indiscretions.”

 

 

“You know. They always say that if you couldn’t go to jail for it, it’s probably not worth doing.”

I looked up from my drink. “No, no one says that.” I replied.  “You’ve been saying that for fifteen years and I’ve never heard anyone say it but you.”

“Maybe so.  But just because I’m the only one who says it doesn’t mean it isn’t true.”  Olivia flashed her winning smile, giggled, and took a sip of her drink.

Whether or not she was the only one who said it, it was the way that Olivia lived her life.  Ever since she waltzed into my world in the seventh grade, she’d lived life on the edge. Olivia had been a rock star from day one.  As the daughter of a Jamaican father and Irish mother, she had been the only black girl in our little suburban school in northeast Ohio.  When she had transferred into the school in the middle of seventh grade, everyone had been in awe. Not only did her skin tone set her apart, but her personality was positively radiant.  Olivia had the ability to talk to someone for five minutes and make them feel like they had been best friends since birth. She was talented in almost every sense of the word; artistically, musically, athletically.  She absolutely excelled in anything that she tried. Me? Well, I was kind of just there.

Which is why it absolutely blew my mind when she had come up to me on the last day of eighth grade and said, “Listen, I need to know right now are you in or out?  Sisters’ pact.” It had caught me off guard so much that I had replied “in” without having even the slightest notion of what I was committing to. We made a pinky promise, our “sisters’ pact” right then and there.  And that’s how I found myself on a flight to Montego Bay to spend two weeks in the mountains of Jamaica.

I still haven’t the slightest idea why she chose me to be her best friend.  Like I said, I’m just kind of there. I’m not extremely intelligent, not gifted in music or art, definitely not athletically talented, and not really even funny either.  My looks are pretty unremarkable. I’m just kind of your average white girl. I’m a brown hair, brown eyes, some freckles, 5’4” B cup average type deal. If I was a car, I’d be a Honda Civic, the sedan, not even the cute hatchback style.  No one sees a Civic on the road and really thinks it’s an amazing looking car or an ugly car. No one really sees it at all. It’s just kind of there and part of the scenery.

However, whatever reasons she had or didn’t have, we were best friends.  We did everything together. My high school and college years were filled with her calling or texting me, “Tell me now, are you in or out? Sisters’ pact.”  Our sisters’ pacts almost always ended up with me sitting at my kitchen table explaining to my parents “And that’s how I ended up falling into the river.” or “And that’s how I ended up getting caught stealing from Wal-Mart to feed homeless people.”  or something like that.

I had grown wiser over the years and started asking what “it” was first.  Sometimes Olivia told me and sometimes she didn’t. The times that she didn’t were always nerve wracking but rewarding at the same time. “That’s how I ended up backstage at a Backstreet Boys reunion show.”  “That’s how I ended up as an extra in the latest Avengers movie.”

As she spoke to me now though, I couldn’t really hear what she was saying.  I don’t know if it was the drinks, the noise in the bar, or that my mind was elsewhere.  I just couldn’t make out what she was saying. I’d already said “What?” three times and could tell she was getting annoyed.  So I ended up just nodding and taking the sisters’ pact to go through with whatever scheme she had cooked up. And that’s how I ended up on a plane bound for Zimbabwe.   

After graduating from medical school, Olivia had volunteered with Doctors Without Borders and spent a lot of time travelling the world.  As happens with everyone she meets, she made friends with people from Peru to Bangladesh, Vietnam to Somalia. As we boarded the plane, she was chattering on about how this might actually work since she knew a man in Zimbabwe who trains monkeys. She also knew that the leader of the Makunde village had a pet monkey that he carried on his shoulder.  At this point in our lives, I had stopped questioning whether or not she really knew the people she said she knew or how she knew things like the fact that the Makunde village leader carried a monkey everywhere. She just did.

I still hadn’t the slightest idea of what I had signed up to do or why it involved a trained monkey.  

“So all we have to do is switch out his monkey with our trained monkey and we could really pull this off.”  

When we sat down on the plane and she pulled out our estimated travel itinerary, I started to get nervous.

Our meeting with the monkey trainer was generally uneventful.  I could tell immediately that the man, like most men, was absolutely smitten with Olivia.  He glanced at me once when we walked in and then spent the rest of the time fawning over her.  It didn’t bother me. I was used to it. When you’re a Civic driving next to a Ferrari, you don’t expect a lot of attention.  She went into the corner with him and spoke to him in hushed tones about our sordid scheme. His eyes brightened as he seemed to have just the monkey for the job.  And that’s how I ended up on a bus in Zimbabwe with a vervet monkey perched on my lap.

As strange as it may sound, the monkey was really quite pleasant and cute.  It was about a six hour ride to get from Harare International Airport to Bikita, the nearest large city to the Makunde village.  However, Olivia spent the time solidifying the details of our plan. “I know it’s risky, but the payoff is totally worth it.” I totally disagreed but what could I do?  I had made the sisters’ pact.

We got to Bikita and walked from the bus depot to a friend’s house.  She lived only a five minute walk away and as we strolled through the streets, I was once again amazed by the ease with which Olivia both stood out and blended in to her surroundings.  She was obviously not a native Zimbabwean but anyone watching her walk carelessly through the street with such confidence would have thought that she had lived there most of her life. She was as natural in Bikita as a polar bear in the arctic.  

However, when we got to her friend’s house, no one was home.  “Dammit! She said that she would be back by now!” Olivia said as we sat in front of the house.  Night was falling and I was starting to get a little more than uncomfortable. We knocked a few more times then gave up.  I figured that we would try to somehow find a hotel somewhere but Olivia had different plans. “You know. They always say that if you couldn’t go to jail for it, it’s probably not worth doing.”  “Still not true.” I thought. However, that’s how I ended up breaking into a stranger’s home at 11:00 at night in Bikita, Zimbabwe.

Olivia’s friend returned the next morning.  She had stayed late at work and slept at her desk she said.  She came in, showered, and headed back to her place of employment while Olivia and I stayed to finalize our plan.  We needed to hike out to the village under the cover of night to switch the two monkeys. No witnesses to see us come and go and the monkey wasn’t going to say anything.  

We left around midnight to begin our trek to the village.  The going was pretty easy. We followed the road the whole way.  Although I wouldn’t have wanted to drive my Civic from home on it (yes I even drove a Civic), walking along it was not difficult.  The moon was out in a cloudless sky and as we walked, I had a strange calm about what we were about to do. Depending on how they prosecuted us, the penalty could be fairly steep.  The sounds of Zimbabwe were soothing and the lack of traffic along the road was refreshing.

We got to the village leader’s hut and I began looking around for some sort of cage.  “Where does he keep it do you think?” I whispered. “Don’t be silly,” Olivia whispered back. “He sleeps with it.”  And that’s how I ended up breaking into a village leader’s hut and abducting his pet monkey.

If that was the least of our indiscretions that week I would have been fine.  It would have been a nice adventure to play a harmless prank on someone. However, Olivia had something much more devious in mind.  As the sun rose, we had taken up a surveillance post in the wildlife reserve about three miles outside the village. We were close enough to view what was happening with some high resolution binoculars but far enough away that we were out of range of the secret service agents that arrived about six hours before the motorcade.

“What do you think we’re looking at if we get caught?” Olivia asked.  “Lock us up and throw away the key? Ten to fifteen years? Slap on the wrist?”

“When,”  I replied “It’s when we get caught.  There’s no way we get away with this. It all depends though… I honestly don’t know the total illegality of it.”

Our conversation stopped as soon as the motorcade pulled in.  It wasn’t actually any kind of real diplomatic mission. It was really just an overblown publicity stunt.  The president was meeting with the village chief to announce a new initiative of U.S. humanitarian aid. It hadn’t even been officially announced hence the lighter than usual security.  There was just enough press to get a few photos and minutes of footage to air on the evening news that night. Not enough to warrant a live press conference.

We watched as the president stepped out of the black SUV that had made the trek down the road to the Makunde village and approached the hut with the elder standing in front.  Our monkey sat perched on his shoulder. We waited with bated breath as the two men talked. When they reached in to shake hands and the monkey jumped from one shoulder to the next, our breath stopped completely.  

At this point, the secret service personnel were met with a moment of indecision.  They had to take in several factors and answer several questions. First, what real threat did a vervet monkey pose?  Second, if the decision was that it posed a legitimate threat, what is the correct course of action? Do you shoot a monkey just for jumping on the President’s shoulder?  After what seemed like the longest five seconds of my life, one of the security personnel moved in to remove the monkey from the president’s shoulder. The monkey made its move and latched its little fingers onto the presidential scalp.  

And that’s how I ended up running through the jungle in Zimbabwe with Donald Trump’s stolen hairpeace stuffed in my backpack.

Comparatives and Superlatives are the Most Worstest to Teach and Complicateder Than You Think.

So this blog post is where I nerd out and rant on the topic of comparatives and superlatives in the English language.  They’re just so much more complicated then other languages.  For those of you who aren’t as grammar-nerdy as me, comparatives and superlatives are when two or more nouns are compared based solely on their adherence to a single adjective.  For example, comparing to shoes based on their adherence to the adjective “small.”  You could compare two shoes by saying that one shoe is “smaller” than the other.  Or you could compare three or more shoes by saying that one shoe is “the smallest.”  So, smaller and smallest are the comparative and superlative forms of the adjective small.

Now, the simplest form of the rule for comparatives and superlatives for English is that you add -er to the end of the adjective for a comparative and -est to the end for the superlative form.  However, it’s not nearly as simple as all that.  Let me just take you through the journey that I’ve gone on with my students this year.

Day #1 – Adjectives

The first step in teaching comparatives and superlatives was learning what an adjective is.  Simple definition is that adjectives describe nouns.  They tell you something more about a noun.  Back to the shoe example.  What kind of shoe is it?  It is a small shoe.  The adjective simply tells you more about the noun.  Even this step is not as simple as it seems.  If the students coming in don’t have mastery of the concept of what a noun is, well then the whole lesson is shot.

Day #10ish – Intro to Comparatives and Superlatives

After about two weeks (10 school days) of rehashing nouns and then masteringish adjectives, we moved on to introducing comparatives.  Of course, the rule I taught was that you simply add -er or -est to the end of the adjective to make it comparative or superlative.  Pretty easy to check that box.  I put three pictures of trees on the board.  I tell them our adjective is “tall.”  So, the first tree is taller, the second tree is..pause waiting for student to answer..taller.  Exactly.  We simply add -er.  And the third tree is the..pause again..tallest.  Fantastic.  Simply throw a good old -est on it and here we go.

We repeated this exercise with different vehicles and the adjective “fast.”  Again, simple.  Simply add -er or -est.

Day #11ish – Words to double the final consonant

The next day, for our opener, I decided I would go off script a bit and let the students pick their own adjectives for the warm-up practice on comparatives and superlatives.  I gave them a pretty broad theme.  They had to choose three animals and compare them using the same adjectives.  Student A chose an elephant, a lion, and a bear.  He was using the adjective big.  So he wrote. “A lion is big.  A bear is biger.  The elephant is the bigest.”…pause.  Things just got a little complicated.  So we stopped and explained that sometimes, you have to double the last letter in the adjective before adding -er or -est.  The next few days were spent covering adjectives like big, wet, fit, flat, fat, thin, etc where you have to double the final consonant.  I was impressed.  Our students tried to analyze when to or not to double the final consonant.  They came up with words that end with t, n, and g.  I was ok with that until….

Day #14ish – Words that don’t double the final consonant

So on day 14, we were talking about animals again.  We decided to compare animals based on speed.  Student B wrote, “A deer is fast, a bear is fastter, but a cheetah is the fasttest.”….pause.  Things just got more complicated.  Now we have to spend a half hour talking about how if there are two consonants at the end of the word than you don’t double the last consonant anymore even if it’s g or t.  So long doesn’t turn into longger, fast into fastest, etc.  Also, if the final consonant is preceded by two consecutive vowels, you also do not double the last consonant…even if it is a g or t.  So sweet does not turn to sweetter nor does clean become cleannest.  So now, students not only have to look at the last letter of the word to determine whether or not to double the consonant but also have to look at the previous two letters.

Day #? – Words that end in vowels

Up until this point, we’ve only really dealt with adjectives that end in consonants.  So now, what do we do with words that end in vowels.  My students were comparing puppies and kittens and saying that they were cuteer and the cuteest. (Adding -er and -est to the end of words).  Ok. So the rule we had to teach next was that if an adjective already ended in an e, don’t add another e.  We’re good.

Day #LordHelpMe – Words that End in -y…mostly

So then there’s the letter y that is special in that it is sometimes a consonant and sometimes and vowel.  Well the next rule we had to teach was that if a letter ends in a y, you change the y to an i and then add -er or -est….except sometimes.  Like the word shy.  If you wanted to say one boy was more shy than the other you would still write that he was shyer.

So, just to count, we’re now on 5 different possible ways to change an adjective into a comparative or superlative.

Day #pleasemakeitstop – Syllable Counting

At this point I’m just about done with this.  However, now we get into longer adjectives.  As in adjectives that have more syllables.  Usually, if an adjective has either one or two syllables, you follow the above rules and add -er or -est in whatever form is required.  Then, usually, if it has more than two syllables, you simply add the words “more” or “the most” in front of the adjective.  So, if you wanted to to compare how complicated two situations were, you wouldn’t say one was complicateder than the other, you would say it was more complicated.  However, this is not a hard and fast rule.  Some adjectives follow the long adjective rule and some do not.  For example, the correct comparative form of the word sincere is sincerer.  On the other hand, the correct comparative of the word anxious is more anxious….And students are simply expected to know the difference because there is no way that we have time to learn every occurrence of each way.

So now we’re at six and kind of seven rules.

Day #I’mEndingThis

Finally, we got to the irregulars.  Adjectives that follow no rules when used as a comparative or superlative.  Luckily, at least half of the students in my class know these intuitively.  For example the adjective many.  It does not turn into manyer, or manier.  You wouldn’t say, “I made many writing errors but she made manier.” You would say “She made more and he made the most.”  Like I said, by the time students have made it to me, they usually know most of these implicitly…..  However, there are some, like me, that are badder than others at it and really struggle to get gooder at it even in adulthood. Happy grammaring everyone.

What if No One Told the Ostrich

So I was cleaning last night and, as is often want to happen, a poem started formulating in my head while I vacuumed.  So, I wrote it down and here it is.  I think it kinda speaks for itself.

 

What if no one ever told the ostrich that she couldn’t fly?

Would she spread her wings and take off in the bright blue African sky?

And what if no one told the lion that he didn’t like to swim?

Would he still stand by the water’s edge? Or would he dive right in?  

And what if no one told the tree he had to stand in place?  

Would he dare to try and unearth his roots and travel far away?

If we never told those little kids they’d never leave the hood,

That basketball’s the only way and son you’re not that good? 

And what if no one told little boys it was football over art?

That cooking wasn’t manly and it’s weak to share your heart.

When we see a young boy crying what if we didn’t point and snicker?

Would he be as quick to buy a gun, take aim, and pull the trigger?

What if no one ever taught me

Here’s how real men drink their coffee?

Would I still feel insecure to try a soy vanilla latte?  

If we didn’t tell the women beauty only looks one way?

Would teenage girls still starve themselves cuz they think they’re overweight?  

And if we never told them it was beauty over brains?

Would we have a cure for cancer instead of more mascara stains?

And what if Barack had listened when they told him “Learn your place.”

“Only white men can be president. Boy don’t you know your race?”

And what if no one told the children different should be hated?

What if we said diversity was to be celebrated?

Our world could look much different if we didn’t say this stuff.

If we said that being kind meant so much more than being tough.

If we didn’t step in line to just regurgitate the lie

There might come a day when we would finally see an ostrich fly.

The Rose That Grew from Concrete

Did you hear about the rose that grew
from a crack in the concrete?
Proving nature’s law is wrong it
learned to walk with out having feet.
Funny it seems, but by keeping its dreams,
it learned to breathe fresh air.
Long live the rose that grew from concrete
when no one else ever cared.

   – Tupac Shakur –

For those of you who don’t know me, Tupac is one of my favorite artists of all time.  I find him to be not only one of the best lyricists and performers of all time but a simply fascinating human being.  Some of his music seems shallow.  It talks about the same stuff that much of the rap music of the time talked about; sex, drugs, women, guns, more women, more sex, liqour, punk police, etc.  But then there are songs like “Dear Mama,” a ballad to his mother, thanking her for all she did for him and telling her that now he can see how hard life was on her, especially because of him.  Songs like “Keep ya Head Up,” and “Changes,” that are honest social commentary of the day.  There are deeply passionate songs like “Life Goes On,” to fallen comrades.  If you explore the person that was and is Tupac Amaru Shakur, you’ll find that even his “thug life” phrase meant much more to him than what it seemed on the outside.

And then on a whole different level, is his book of poetry, The Rose That Grew from Concrete.  The poems in it are deeply introspective and full of raw emotion set to word.  As I read through it, each of the poems hits me on an emotional level because when I hear them, I picture my own students.  Their upbringings and home lives are so incredibly different from my own.  I could not possibly describe myself as a rose that grew from concrete but rather a rose that grew from a well fertilized and up-kept garden.

When I read the poem at the top of the page, I feel two different emotions mostly.  First, I feel hope.  I hope that, like that rose, my students all  prove nature’s laws wrong and learn to walk with no feet and breathe fresh air.  I hope that they blossom and escape lives of poverty.  I would like to think that what I am doing here is helping give them a chance to do that.  However, when I read the poem, I also feel a profound sadness knowing that this will not be the case with all of them.  I know that the rose that blossoms from a crack in the concrete is a rarity.  Statistics show that the majority of my students are being dealt a loaded hand.  The odds are not in their favor.

Now, I’ve been teaching long enough that I’ve had enough success stories to keep me going.  Students have come back to me to tell me about some of the things they’re accomplishing.  But I’ve also been teaching long enough to see the opposite as well.  Last year, I went to two students’ parents’ funeral.  It was a homicide/suicide.  Stuff like that tears me apart.  If I’m being honest, I’m much more of an empath than is healthy.  I try to push it aside and keep on, but it sticks with me.  I spend hours at night worrying about them (I haven’t seen either one since the funeral) and where they are now or will be in two years.  And I think how my first class of fifth grade students are soon to be juniors in high school and wonder how many are still in school and how many dropped out.  And then I worry about what their futures hold.

And then I stopped and thought about how to change this.  Like how can I make it less of a rarity to see a rose grow from a crack in the concrete?  It’s something I’ve thought about a lot ever since I first read the poem and I think I’ve got the answer.  The answer is to make more cracks in the concrete.  I need to work harder at breaking down environmental barriers that inhibit my students’ growth.  Provide more emotional support and a stable environment for them to flourish.  Manage my own temperament to provide an example of how to appropriately react in a crisis situation.  Try to remain encouraging in their failures even when it’s the hundredth time.  Be understanding of underlying circumstances that might be causing behaviors.  Be even keeled and fair in discipline.  Be more proactive to teach appropriate social interactions. Above all show them love even in the face of disrespect and defiance.  I know that sounds cheesy as all get out.  However, it’s the only thing that makes sense to me.  If roses will grow in cracks in the concrete, and we want roses to grow, crack the concrete.  So I’ll end this post with another of Tupac’s poems titled “And 2morrow.”  I think that it does a beautiful job of expressing the pain of today along with the hope for tomorrow.

 Today is filled with anger
fueled with hidden hate
scared of being outcast
afraid of common fate

Today is built on tragedies
which no one wants 2 face
nightmares 2 humanities
and morally disgraced

Tonight is filled with rage
violence in the air
children bred with ruthlessness
because no one at home cares

Tonight I lay my head down
but the pressure never stops
knawing at my sanity
content when I am dropped

But 2morrow I c change
a chance 2 build a new
Built on spirit intent of Heart
and ideals
based on truth

and tomorrow I wake with second wind
and strong because of pride
2 know I fought with all my heart 2 keep my
dream alive

Gas Leaks

Students at the elementary level have a lot of gas…like a lot a lot.  Thinking about it, it’s probably not that much more than middle or high school age, they simply don’t have the body control or the social acumen yet to realize when the proper times and where the proper locations are for releasing it.  Gas is something that all elementary teachers deal with on a daily basis, but there are three times I can remember that really stood out to me.

All names have been changed to protect the innocent…except Mr. Peters…that’s his actual name.

Mr. Peters and the Nuclear Fallout

Our janitor at the school is named Mr. Peters.  He is an elderly African American gentleman who quietly goes about the building.  When he is interacting with the students at the school, he is almost always gentle, kind, and patient.  I have really only seen one time in an interaction with a student when this was not the case.

We had a set of twins named Rick and Rob at the school.  I worked with both of them for the year that they were at the school.  However, one time stands out.  I had a group of eight students, Rob among them, working with me in the teachers’ lounge which doubled as my reading intervention room.  Rob was always gassy but today was on a different level.  The problem is that not only is it gross but it is also a huge distraction and time waster.  So finally, I said, “Listen, if you really have to do that, you don’t even have to ask me.  Just get up and walk into the hallway and come back.  Give it ten seconds to clear out before you start walking back though.” About five minutes later, Mr. Peters was walking down the hallway and stepped into the doorway of the lounge to ask me a question.  It just so happened that at that moment, Rob felt the urge.  So he jumped up out of his chair, ran to the doorway, stood right next to Mr. Peters, and let it rip.

The look of shock and horror on Mr. Peters face is something that I will never forget as long as I live.  It was the first, and the last time for that matter, that I ever heard him raise his voice at a student.  “WHAT ARE YOU DOING?” The shock on Mr. Peters face was matched by the shock on Rob’s face at hearing Mr. Peter’s shout.  “Well Mr. Steidl told me if I had to fart again that I should go into the hallway!” “WELL YOU DIDN’T HAVE TO STAND RIGHT NEXT TO ME WHEN YOU DID IT!” To this day, whenever the issue of a gassy student comes up in Mr. Peter’s presence, he just looks at me, shakes his head, and says, “There’ll never be one as bad as the twin.”

Dynamite Comes in Small Packages

It always amazes me that so much gas can come out of such small bodies.  I remember working with this tiny little first grade girl.  She probably weighed all of about 35 pounds.  We were working on letters and letter sounds in a group of probably five students.  She at least had the decency to do what she had to do silently.  But they were powerful.  The kind of powerful that leaves your eyes watering.  Every time it happened, the kids would all look around and then pull their shirts over their noses.  Finally, one boy said, “My God who is that?!?!” To which four of the students said, “Not me!!!!” The little girl looked straight at me with a pleading look on her face and said, “I can’t even lie, it’s been me the whole time.  I just can’t keep them in! I feel like I’m gonna float into the ceiling if I do!”

Don’t Drink the Water…well Milk Actually

My first year of teaching, I was working in our second grade classroom with a teacher named Ms. Dworkin.  We were both first year teachers working on figuring this whole teaching thing out.  I got into the classroom second period and stayed for two full periods which was a total of 90 minutes.  The classroom was on the basement floor of the school and for some reason was not equipped with any kind of fan.  The lack of air movement became most apparent right around 9:15 every morning.  The room would simply fill with this horrible stench that enveloped any and all living creatures within its confines.  In the fall, we mitigated it by opening windows and doors but once the Northeast Ohio winter hit, that became impossible.  I should have bought stock in Glade air fresheners in the fall because Ms. Dworkin and I would go through the classroom with one in each hand like Rooster Cogburn in True Grit just spraying fresh linen or lavender freshness on everything.  However the stench remained.  It was the kind of pervasive smell like when people smoke weed.  Like they spray cologne or Axe or Febreeze to try to cover it up but in the end just end up smelling like whatever they sprayed…and weed.

Ms. Dworkin and I simply could not figure out who the culprit was.  Until one day a student came into class with a note.  It read, “Please do not allow student to drink the milk at lunch.  He is very lactose intolerant and it gives him indigestion and gas.”  The light went on.  The next morning at breakfast I walked in to see this student with three empty cartons of chocolate milk in front of him. I said, “Woah woah woah, you can’t drink those! You know what they’ll do to you.”  He looked up at me and said, “I know but they’re sooooooo goooooood!”

 

This is Why Teachers Drink

I know it might be hard for you to picture your old third grade teacher Mrs. Schneider kicking back after school on Friday at the local watering hole with a cold beer, but the truth of the matter is that most teachers do drink.  Don’t judge too harshly.  It’s a stressful job no matter where you teach.  I’ve spoken with teachers in the suburbs, in rural areas, and in urban areas, and most of them agree that kids sometimes drive them to the bottle.  It’s not that we don’t enjoy our jobs or love the kids that we teach.  It’s just that sometimes a bit of the sauce helps to take the edge off at the end of the week.  Or the middle of the week….Or on a Monday night.  Whichever.

I’m not going to even get into the really rough stuff that we deal with such as calling Child Protective Services.  I also won’t talk about the simple day to day like constantly having to argue with 7 year olds.  On a side note, I’ve found that even when I’m at home, I just naturally say everything three times while increasing both the volume of my voice and the articulation of hard consonants with each consecutive repetition.  Just a habit I’ve developed because I assume no one hears and/or listens the first two times I say things.  So, for the purpose of the blog, I’ll just share a few examples of the day to day life that makes us run to the bottle.

Dominoes

Over the past three weeks especially, our first grade students have had several incidents in which one person has pushed another in line and they fell down like dominoes and there are five kids crying and holding their faces.  The mop up duty after these occurrences are particularly annoying because A) there are five kids crying, B) all the kids are angry, and C) there is never a way to definitively get to the initial push.  There’s never an answer to who pushed who first that caused the domino effect…until this past week.

Our first grade teacher and I have been concentrating more heavily on the class’ transition periods in the hall.  Walking to and from PE, music, lunch, etc. is from where half the problems of the day originate.  So Ms. North, the first grade teacher, walks at the front of the line, and I walk at the back.  We had arrived safely and without major incident at our destination and were lined up against the wall waiting for their Reading Enrichment teacher to call them into the classroom.  I was patrolling back and forth and saw one little boy lean forward and whisper into the girl’s ear in front of her.  I said, “Now what could have been so important that you just had to lean forward to talk to her in the hallway?”  Immediately his face dropped and he replied, “Nothing.”

The little girl rolled her eyes, shook her head, and said, “He told me to push him again.”…I paused a moment.  I said, “You’re going to have to repeat that.  I thought you said that he asked you to push him.”  “Yeah,” she said, “He asks people to push him so he can fall into other kids and make everybody fall down.”  I fixed an icy gaze on the boy and immediately the water works started.  “But no one got hurt yet today!” He yelled through tears.  And this is why teachers drink.  These are the things that waste our time.  We have to sort through crying children to find that one kid actually asks others to push him so that he can fall into others and knock everyone down.

Cocooning

So yes, I realize that the root of this word is most commonly used as a noun, as in the pupal casing that envelops most moths and caterpillars or other insect larvae.  However, I have started using it as a verb because of our students.  Our heating system at the school is very old.  It’s a boiler system and not a forced air system so it takes a little while to warm up in the morning.  Usually, I allow my students to keep their jackets on for the first 30-45 minutes of each day.  After that, the rooms are very warm and the students have to put their jackets in their lockers.  This makes it harder for the kleptomaniacs in the room to hide whatever markers, staplers, pencils, coffee mugs, etc. that they’re trying to steal. (Yes, I’ve had students try to steal all those things.  I once found a student with 17 highlighters stuffed into the pockets of his coat. Why?…great question.  I’m glad you asked and I wish I had an answer.)

However warm the classrooms may be, student still do this thing in which they tuck their arms and hands inside their shirts.  All in all, probably not a big deal until they need to write, or turn a page, or move, or do anything other than just sit there.  It then turns into them trying to stick just their hand out of the collar of their shirt and bend down to turn the page, or write, etc and then it is a problem.  It’s also simply a safety hazard when they have to move.  Students in the primary age have not yet mastered the simple art of walking, let alone walking in a line, or walking in a line up and down stairs.  They trip and fall a lot.  If you have never worked with 25 elementary age students in a group, you probably think I’m exaggerating.  Believe me I’m not.  So, if a student is cocooning and trips and falls, rather than using his hands to break his fall, he will use his face to do so.

Getting them to stop cocooning is a constant struggle.  You might think that it’s not a big deal.  However, every year that I’ve taught, I’ve had at least three instances of a student walking with his hands inside his shirt and tripping and falling.  However, from the months of October to May, I have no memory of a day in which I have not had to tell at least three students to get their hands out of their shirts.  And it’s always an argument.  And this is why teachers drink. (On a side note, students are allowed to wear sweaters with their uniforms.  I have actually bought students sweaters that they can wear and they refuse because they don’t like them.)

Target Practice and the Poop Bandit

For some reason, the boys bathroom at the school is always a huge problem.  For about a two year stretch, there was an unknown student that we began referring to as the Poop Bandit.  Although our boys’ bathroom is equipped with five or six perfectly working toilets, this child felt it more comfortable to defecate in the sink.  At least twice a month we would find turds in the sink of the boys bathroom.  We never found out who it was either.  If any other students knew who it was, none of them told us anything.It hasn’t happened at all this year though.  But this is why teachers, and janitors, drink.

Our boys bathroom is also equipped with a drain in the middle of the floor.  And although it also has about five or six perfectly good urinals, the boys find it fun to stand around the drain and see how far away they can get and still get it in the drain.  Obviously it’s a trial and error system so by definition they are going to eventually miss…and they miss a lot.  And this is why teachers drink.