Malice

We never forgave Paul for pissing on Billy’s head.

He took advantage of Billy’s one blind eye by climbing the log pile as Billy huddled in its shadow while avoiding capture during a match of hide-and-seek. It wasn’t a singular act of cruelty. Paul would groom us away from our preternatural fear of him by being unavoidably charming. Once he acquired our trust and could get close to us, he’d grab a testicle and squeeze mercilessly, paralyzing us in agony and betrayal. He’d join us in the hunt for toads in the swamp and throw his catch against fallen logs, laughing at the burping sound they made upon impact.

Paul was brother to our friends, Scotty and Mark Lefevre . The Lefevre boys were a benignly neglected trio with as much weekend free time as my brothers and I enjoyed along the north shore of Lake Erie. And enjoy it we did, with a great lake in front of us, open fields and pockets of dense swamps behind us. Reckless games of baseball in the empty lots led to jumps in the lake, which led to euchre matches on the picnic table, which led to an overstuffed rowboat drifting beyond the sand bar for twilight fishing, which led to backyard horseshoes under the porch light. Winters were packed with hockey until the lake ice went bad, then pond hockey until the first snow storms spoiled our rink, and hiking adventures over and through the ice mounds growing like glacial tectonic plates out on the windswept, frozen lake. We’d migrate inside to warm up, watch hockey on CBC, and resume old euchre quarrels.

The five of us stuck together, a pack of hobo playmates . Only Paul remained in the periphery, roaming in and out of our cabal as he needed targets for his dark hobbies. His foil was always our cousin Billy, who’d come up from Fort Wayne every summer for a few weeks and who had acquired few of the antibodies to resist Paul’s goading. Billy wasn’t just one-eyed, he was also short-fused. He’d come to the cottage that summer with a chip on his shoulder already, the memory of Paul twisting our balls still fresh on his mind.

Mostly, Paul avoided the gang during Billy’s first few days at the cottage. He came by the beach once to give us the finger from shore as we trolled for pickerel from the dinghy earlier in the week. And the day before, he muttered, “Yankee go home,” as he passed by the screen door while we ate dinner. Other than that, he kept his troubles away from us. But the evening-long hide-and-seek game that spread the bunch of us throughout the string of maples and beach cottages along the lake was too much for Paul to avoid. It was the perfect test of his carefully-crafted malice. He crept above Billy and emptied his bladder upon him with a grin. Paul leapt off the wood pile as Billy cast his one eye wildly about in an attempt to get a bead on the bastard of his summers. It was the noise from Paul’s hasty departure off the wood pile, onto the gravel road below that gave Paul a direction in which to aim his rage. He shot toward the road, gaining on Paul and huffing like a mad bull. Paul twisted through the maple trees lining the road, cut through Mr. Langlois’ garden, and dashed toward his home a hundred yards away. Billy was at Paul’s heels as they sprinted through the Bouchard’s backyard when Paul grabbed Mary Bouchard’s gymnast rings hanging from the oak like a pair of earrings. He swung himself upside down, and half-blind Billy charged beneath him, his prey disappearing before his eye.

Billy spun in circles looking for his kill, who was already past the property line and headed for the screen door of his home. Mr. Lefevre didn’t hear his semi-tractor hit his son as he backed the rig into the muddy driveway. We didn’t either, only the screams of the father as he pulled his son’s crushed body from under the truck.

Billy cut around the corner of the Lefevre home and skidded to a halt, nearly running over Mr. Lefevre as he cradled the bloody remains of his middle son. Billy collapsed to his knees. We gathered behind him, standing in stunned vigil.

Rustling leaves and the shrill harmony of crickets provided a lakeside dirge for our fallen adversary.

Billy wept.

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A Chat With An Old Teacher

A student teacher sat down with an old teacher and asked a few  questions:

1. What originally got you interested in teaching?

While living in the Dominican Republic as a Peace Corps volunteer, I was asked to teach English in the village school. I was immediately drawn to the challenge (and sometimes futility) of teaching. The experience ran counter to the common assumptions I had always heard about teaching. I left Peace Corps service and entered a fellowship program at the University of Michigan that placed returned volunteers in Detroit Public Schools classrooms. That experience revealed the similarities between the challenges in Third World classrooms and those in our impoverished U.S. schools.

2. What have been some of your hardest challenges during your teaching career?

Compliance and money. The public school system is a labyrinth of policy upon well-intentioned policy, creating a quagmire for students and teachers to navigate. From common assessments, to textbook contracts, the classroom is subject to an onslaught of non-instructional distractions. Coupled with dwindling resources, the public school teacher is working harder than ever, while receiving unprecedented scrutiny.

3. What do you tell people when they ask why you are a teacher? Or why you do something that does not have a large salary?

Public service. I explain that I’ve always been drawn to the honor of public service, be it law enforcement, healthcare, or education. It can be a wonderful way to (hopefully) make a living wage while contributing to the welfare of the townsquare.

4. What is the most rewarding part of your job?

Students’ academic gains (of any size) and the exquisite relationships with children and their parents that are an essential ingredient to teaching and learning.

5. How did you choose where you began teaching?

Detroit is my hometown. Also, I am a product of the Detroit Public Schools. Timing was key, too, as the Peace Corps Fellowship was centered in the Detroit Public Schools, and the district was in dire need of bilingual teaching candidates (I returned to Detroit fluent in Spanish after serving in the Dominican Republic).

6. What is one piece of advice you would give to a college student studying to be a elementary teacher?

It is imperative that you get into as many K-12 classrooms as possible. Substitute, volunteer, visit, anything you can do to breathe in the reality of a classroom. Too many of us enter public education with coursework, degrees, and perceptions of the vocation without intimate experience of the hallowed ground of learning: the classroom. Get there.

Happy Birthday, Dad

This was your fourth birthday party you’ve missed, Dad. But Mom was in a huddle of kin, holding babies, laughing at her sons’ lame jokes and her daughter’s hilarious tales. She was doted upon by daughters-in-law and grandchildren. Your kid sister brought stories of the old days along with your beloved niece and nephew. Jim held Mom’s chair and Rosie hit a whiffle ball onto the neighbor’s roof. The kitchen counter was filled with tubs of pulled pork and mac & cheese (you would have doubled down on your Lipitor, for sure), and the fridge was packed with beers and lemonade. 
We miss you.
But we felt your presence in a baby’s embrace, in the thud of a bean bag on plywood, in the sweet release of laughter, in the first swig of a beer, and the last hug out the door.
Happy birthday, Dad. 

Kevin Billy Sheldon

Paco was a good rabbit. A ball of thick, black fur – he was as obedient as the family dog. He was the perfect class pet. We’d leave his cage door open and he’d come and go as he pleased. Most mornings he’d spend lounging on his belly in the hallway, next to the bust of Abraham Lincoln, waiting  for the  kids. After the first bell, he’d flop back to his cage for breakfast.

Paco was everyone’s favorite, but no one loved him as much as Kevin Billy Sheldon. Billy was one of those kids who spent his life attending to everything but what he should have been doing. I couldn’t get more than a minute or two of his attention at a time. His conversation went into wild circles, never focused, just whatever flashed across his mind. Paco became the center of his scholastic universe, though. The other kids realized this and abdicated feeding duties to him. I rationalized; I felt the added responsibilities might develop better mental habits for Billy, and after awhile I noted that he was following through with his responsibilities, although overdoing it a bit.

“Billy,” I’d say, “Paco shouldn’t eat the whole box in one  day.”

“Yea, Mr. Tim, but he gobbled  it all up. He just ate it all up.”

“Sure, Billy, but he should only have one bowl every day, not a whole box.”

“Yea, but he ate it all up, didn’t he?” – he’d say with a satisfied grin.

It was hard to reason with the boy.

One afternoon Billy’s mom came to the classroom. She wore leather pants and a halter top. I couldn’t tell her age, although she dressed young.

“I come to pick up the rabbit,” she said.

I put down the map I was showing the kids and walked toward the door.

“Pick up the rabbit? Why?”

“Billy said you’d let him take the rabbit home this weekend. I come to take him home.”

“Take him home? Um, O.K.” I was a first year teacher. I wasn’t about to challenge her.

While the kids stared at Mrs. Sheldon with mouths agape, Billy and I gathered the food, wood shavings, water bottle, cage and our beloved rabbit and set off for the car. There was more than enough room in Mrs. Sheldon’s 76’ Pontiac for Paco and all his belongings. I remember Paco driving away, his nose wiggling frantically as Billy shouted out the window – “I’ll take good care of Paco, Mr. Tim. You’ll see. Don’t worry, Mr. Tim.” He must have read my face.

***

A week went by. The kids kept at me, “When’s Paco coming back? When’s Paco coming back?”

I felt like telling  them to go ask Billy, but I was afraid of what he might say. Sure enough, during independent reading, I overheard Billy talking in an excited voice. He used the same tone of voice he’d used when relating an exciting episode of a neighborhood feud, or a real cool explosion. I heard the words “fur,” and “flying” and saw Billy’s arms waving as if demonstrating the flight of an injured bird. It caught my attention. Instinctively I did a word association: fur, flying, Paco. Paco doesn’t fly. Dang.

“Billy, come here!”

“Yes, Mr. Tim.” He came to me as if nothing was out of the norm,  processing only what was happening that very second.

“Where’s Paco, Billy?” I asked, my forehead turning red.

“Well, Mr. Tim,” he began, turning his gaze from the floor, to the wall, up to the ceiling, down to my shoes, anywhere but at me. Something was wrong. Terribly wrong.

“You know my pitbull Sammy?”

“No, I don’t know your pitbull Sammy. What about Sammy?”

“Well, I went down to feed Paco. I feed Paco, you know.

“Yea, I know. Where’s Paco, Billy?” By this time I had both hands on Billy’s shoulders.

“Well, I went downstairs, and there was fur all over the place. Sammy bit his head right off!” he said, eyes wide, as if relating something cool that happened at recess that day.

Still holding Billy, I scanned the room without moving my head, just rolled my eyes back and forth to see if anyone heard Billy. Sure enough, the same kids who didn’t pay any mind to me thrashing about and shouting when our egg incubator caught fire were frozen in place, eyes glued on Billy and me. You’d think I was a master teacher, having all those kids’ attention at the same time.

I released Billy from my grip. He casually walked over to the block area, sat down, and lost himself in play. The rest of the kids stood in place, apparently waiting to see what I’d do or say. I stood with them, thinking, “Why wasn’t there a class-pet methods class in teacher training? Yeah, with a section on violent death.’

Intuition kicked in.

“O.K., everyone, recess!”

The kids unfroze and filed out of the room into the cool hallway, past the bust of Abraham Lincoln, Billy taggin along well behind everyone.

***