Thursday, March 5, 2009

Out of the Darkness Overnight

A few weeks ago, I heard a commercial on the radio for an overnight walk to raise awareness for suicide prevention. I thought about it for about half a second and knew that I had to be a part of this.

You see, every member of my family is a survivor of suicide. Over twenty years ago, my cousin Joey died by suicide, and my cousin Christopher died only a few months ago, in November. I think of my Aunt Tess and my Aunt Dorothy and think that whatever I can do to prevent another mother from living their pain is still too little.

So you know me; I decided to do the walk. It's what I do -- put myself through a grueling couple of days in order to help when I feel helpless.

The Out of the Darkness Overnight Experience is a 20-mile walk over the course of one night. Net proceeds benefit the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, funding research, education, and awareness programs – both to prevent suicide and to assist those affected by suicide.

I'm pledged to raise at least $1000, so any amount that you're willing to give will be a big help. The website makes it easy to donate. By supporting this foundation, you're supporting research that helps us understand suicide and helps with prevention. You're paying for education for professionals so they know better how to spot warning signs. You're paying for publicity for a cause so that people don't need to be ashamed to seek help for depression. You're paying for survivor counseling, because suicide never claims only one victim. It claims a whole family.

You can visit my donor page by visiting the link below:

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Bad Dog

Not too long ago, God rewarded me with a dog. You scoff? Of course he came from God. It's no mistake that when you spell God backwards, it's dog.

What I find most hilarious about this turn of events is not only did I get a dog, I got a very bad dog. Seriously. Here. There he is. Just look at him. I had to put a bandana on him because he's such a badass. I've got him as my background on my computer at school and the kids tell me I've got a gangsta dog. Whut up, Atticus-G?

Seriously. He's such a hustla. Every time I turn around, he's stolen something from the garbage can. Next thing you know, I'm going to find him selling my socks at a traffic light. He'll have a good story to tell the cops, too. The fell off the truck, you see, and he only noticed it because he absolutely wasn't chasing squirrels.

Not long after I first got him, I bought a dog-training book because every time I left the house for work, I came home to find he'd chewed up something new. I gated him into my dining room. He broke down the gate. I bought a taller stronger gate. He jumped over it. I installed a fancy gate. He broke into the bathroom and ate the contents of the garbage. I was coming home from lunch every day just to walk him and still he was eating things. When he broke into my bedroom and ate the power cable for my laptop, I knew he had to be stopped.

So I bought the Dog Whisperer book because I have a secret crush on Cesar Milan. He's such an alpha dog, that Cesar. Anyway, I stayed up half the night reading the book and left it sitting on the coffee table. You guessed it -- he ate my dog training book.

Next time I have to teach my students irony, I know what example I'm going to use.

Of course, as an English teacher I had to name him after my favorite character in literature, so I call him Atticus, although everyone I know seems to misunderstand the name. People who think they're hilarious call him Abacus, and one friend even pretends that he can speak binary. He points to my dog, shouts "1!" and Atticus sits down. (Traitor.) My father watched him for me the other day and called him asparagus. Nobody wants to call my dog by his actual name. Even my niece Vicky, who is still learning how to speak, calls him Patticus. This make sense to her I think because what else do you do but pat a dog? He doesn't care. All he wants is the treats that she doles out liberally.

I'm gushing about my dog for two reasons: one, I can't help myself, and two, I can't help myself. The minute someone comes up to me and says, tell me about your dog, I can't stop myself from beginning ten minutes of dog stories. It's bad. I'm like people with children except I have no children. I have a dog. A very very bad dog.

Sunday, January 18, 2009

Liars' Club

"Hey Cecilia," said Paul, a guy who's in my class in principal school. (Yes, I know.)

I like Paul. He's sweet and a little goofy over the baby his wife just had. He talks about staying up half the night with the baby and that makes me grin.

"Do you know a girl named ... " he mangled the name so badly that at first I said no. But then, it occurred to me: he meant Elizabeth. She never goes by her full name because it's too long, and the last names matched.

"Cute little thing?" he said. "Short, with curly hair?"

Yes. That's exactly her. Elizabeth is one of my favorite students. She's a tough girl from a tough neighborhood but works her ass off and is near the top of her class.

She wants to be an architect.

"Well," said Paul, "She's dating one of my boys, and he told me yesterday that she's two months pregnant. Showed me her picture and everything."

Oh, god no. I didn't even know she had a serious boyfriend. I had to sit down. Please tell me you're joking.

"Why would I make that up?"

Why, indeed. At least tell me that the boy is a nice kid.

Paul's mouth twisted. "Smart kid, but a definite gangbanger. And he's got a haircut that I just don't understand. Short on the sides and long in the back."

Sounded like a soccer player. Elizabeth loves soccer. She told me so. Crap.

I resolved to speak with her immediately.

Of course, god and the weather conspired against me -- we had a snowstorm that was so bad that we let the kids go home early the next day and the day after that school was cancelled altogether. Normally, I'd be overjoyed over this, but.

No, if I'm being honest, and I am being honest, I have to admit that I was overjoyed over the midweek break. It's been a grueling winter.

So I didn't see Elizabeth until Friday. She came to me before school because she knew exactly what I wanted to ask her about. I barely got a chance to get my question out before she interrupted me.

"It's because that gangbanger said I was pregnant, right?" She knew all about it. Apparently, she knew him but wasn't dating him at all. "You know I'm smarter than that,"she scolded.

So you're not pregnant?

"No. He was just messing with his teacher. Wanted to see if his teacher would believe him if he said he got a girl pregnant. He only said it was me because I went to a different school and he had my picture."

And it only got to me because nobody gossips more than teachers. And in the end, Chicago is a very small town. I can tell you what's going on at the grammar school down the street because I've probably sat next to somebody at some seminar who couldn't keep their mouth shut.

I told Elizabeth she ought to kick that boy's butt for spreading rumors about her.

She smiled. "I've got it taken care of."

She probably does, too. Last year, when a boy said something she didn't like, she slapped him across the face right in the middle of class. Got herself suspended over it, too. Nobody messes with Elizabeth.

Of course the minute I got to lunch I had to tell the story. Jimmie, a math teacher, just shook his head. "That's nothing," he said. "I once told a teacher I had a kid so I could skip her class on Fridays."


"I had a girlfriend in Champaign and only one class on Fridays. I said I had my kid some weekends and to prove my story, I borrowed a three-year-old from one of the athletic boosters and brought him with me to plays and stuff. It was a theatre class."

Did the kid look like you?

"Nope. Looked like his mom, and that's exactly what I said when I was asked. He looks like his mom. Luckily, he was Italian, so it didn't look too farfetched."

I could hardly contain myself, I was laughing so hard. Did the kid's mother know why you were borrowing him all the time?

"Nope. She just thought I was being really nice and babysitting for her. She was glad to hand him over."

Ray, one of our juniors, poked his head in the teacher's lunchroom.

"Get outa here," Jimmie called. They never leave us alone, the kids. Can't even eat lunch in peace.

The conversation moved on to other topics, and somehow we got to what high school we'd gone to. Jimmie wouldn't say where he'd gone. "I will tell you that I was the only kid who stayed at home. My sister went to the Math and Science academy. My brother, too."

I didn't know you had a brother. At your wedding, I only met your sister. You have a brother, too?

"Not anymore. He's dead."

Oh. I didn't know what to say. A long time ago?

"Yep. I was just a little kid. I don't even remember him. His name was Tony." Ray poked his head in again, but Jimmie waved him out.

How old was he?

"Eight. He died of leukemia. I don't even remember the funeral. I was too little. My sister remembers better -- she says she has better memories of him than of me."

It's amazing that your parents stayed together after that.

"Oh, my dad volunteered at leukemia foundation things for a long time," he said.

I looked at the clock -- two minutes to the bell. There's a leukemia race coming up soon, I said as I walked out the door. I'll pass along the information if you're interested.

"Sure," he said.

The rest of the school day was busy -- I teach the last two periods, which is two and a half hours with no break, so when the day ended and the snow was falling again, I decided to leave and get my grading done at home. (This plan, by the way, rarely works. I usually end up with twice as much grading the next day.)

I was on the road for about forty minutes when my phone rang. It was Jimmie.

"How many people did you tell about my brother?" he asked.

Nobody. Why?

"Damn. You were supposed to tell people."

This I didn't understand. When somebody pours their guts out to you, you don't run and tell the next person you see.

"It's not true."

Not true?

"I made the whole thing up."

Stunned isn't the word for my reaction. Whatever for?

"You know how Ray kept poking his head in when I was telling you about my brother?"


"He's been making up stories lately about dead family members and telling them to teachers."

And nobody's dead?

"Nobody's dead."

And you told me the story because ...?

"Because I wanted to prove to Ray that when it comes to death, adults believe you. That's why he kept checking on us. To see if you believed me."


"And I was watching the news right now and they were talking about a guy named Tony and I realized that I hadn't told you I was lying. You were supposed to tell people, though."

Sorry, Jimmie. I'll tell people on Tuesday if you want me to.

I was all about setting a kid up. I lie to kids all the time, tell them fantastic stories just to see if they believe them. Once, a colleague and I convinced a kid that before I was a teacher, I was a window washer of high rise buildings downtown. It's one of the fringe benefits of the job, just because it's so funny.

"Let me think about it. This might be enough to get the point across. Thanks."

I hung up the phone and drove on for a little while when it lit up again with a text message. It was from Jimmie: "The story about the kid was absolutely true."

Ha. Thank god for that. I would have been extremely disappointed if it hadn't.

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Down Goes the Teenaged Hoodlum

Five kids were shot at a basketball game at Dunbar High School last Friday. It was a big enough incident that it made the news all across the country -- people called and emailed me to make sure I was okay, and that it hadn't happened at my school.

No, it didn't.

After the first phone call, I spent about a half hour frantically searching the internet to find out first where the shooting had been (AP News is always first, but it's short on important details when your heart is in your throat) and then who Dunbar had been playing in basketball that night (John Hope). I finally found the information I needed by accessing the basketball schedule through the Chicago Public Schools website. We had a basketball game that night, but we weren't playing Dunbar.

No. Not my school, not my kids, but. It could have been.

Earlier last week, I was eating lunch with the Spanish teacher. She's been having a ton of problems with a kid who is one of my particular favorites, a kid who barely ekes by with his grades but he does it with such a sense of good humor that you can't help but love him. Last year we built origami cranes in conjunction with a Japanese book. Every single step was impossible for John to understand and he'd raise his hand for help. Seriously. With the amount of mistakes he made, you'd think he was folding the crane with his feet. But finally he got to the last fold and gave his little paper crane a head. Holding it up, he showed it to me with such pride that you'd think he'd built the Taj Mahal with his bare hands.

He's that kind of kid. He's also the kind of kid who threatens his teachers.

Hey, I said to him a month or so ago. How come your Spanish teacher is telling me stories about you in class?

"What?" John did his best to look shocked. "You know I'm not like that."

I know you're not, but she's telling me you cursed at her over a test.

"That's because she said I was cheating, and I'm not."

John, your answers exactly matched Jose's answers. I hear that you always sit next to the Mexican kids and copy off their papers.

He spread his hands wide. "I wouldn't do that, Miss B. You know that."

I studied him. Perhaps you'd like to have a conversation with your teacher and straighten this out with her, I said.

He grinned. "Sure I will. I promise."

Of course I didn't believe him, but I bugged him so much that he actually did have a half-conversation with her. Of course he ruined it all by copying his next quiz too, and then threatening to hit her with it when she caught him. John is not her favorite student.

So it wasn't that I disbelieved her when she told me at lunch on Monday that John had been shot over the weekend; it was just that I didn't want to believe her.

He wasn't at the Dunbar game, was he?

"Nope," she said. "He was at a party and got shot in the leg. Here's the funny part: he's failing almost all his classes, so his mom made him come to school anyway."

He's at school? I was aghast.

"Yep. You oughta see him, limping up and down the hallway. She wasn't going to let him miss another day of class, not even for a shooting."

I could believe it. John's mom is a force. I'm even a little afraid of her. But good god, if a kid should have an absolute excuse for missing school, getting shot should be it.

I saw him in the hallway a little later in the day and stopped him. Sure enough, he was limping.

I heard about that limp, I said. Please tell me the rumors aren't true.

"What?" he said. "That I got shot? They're true. It wasn't anything, though."

What do you mean it wasn't anything? It was a bullet, wasn't it?

"Yeah, but it went in and right back out again. It doesn't hardly hurt at all." The kid was smiling at me like he always does, as if he hadn't had a bullet in his leg just a few days ago.

I wanted details, of course. Turns out he'd been leaving a party and some guys pulled up and just started shooting. John got caught in the leg. I hadn't heard anything about it in the news. I'm not even sure it made the newspaper. I told him to stay away from these parties, because the next time I heard a bullet caught him, I'd personally kill him. He thought that was hilarious and gave me a big old hug before loping off down the hallway.

I was getting coffee this morning when he came in the school, a woman just behind him. For a second I thought it might be his mother, but no, the face was all wrong. And I remembered his mother taller. Definitely not his mother. He headed off to the cafeteria and I said hello to the newcomer.

"I'm here to get an application for my son," she said.

This wasn't unusual. Tons of eighth graders were applying every day. What was unusual was that her son was already in high school and she wanted an application so she could see if she could transfer him in. "He's a freshman," she said.

Where does he go?

"Dunbar," she sighed. "I've got to get him out of there."

He wasn't at that game ...?

"No. I've just... I've got to get him out of there."

I wished her luck and headed back to my classroom. No, not my kids, but they could have been.