Thursday, October 12, 2006

"Dead Reckoning," The Conclusion

By Barbara Easton


Once again I toted my backpack, sewing machine, and assorted plastic bags filled with fabric through the city’s grimy, gray, winter streets. It was another long walk during which I could rue my decision to volunteer at an inner city school rather than a cushy, clean, suburban one. Instead of using visitor’s parking close to the front door of a school with an abundance of books, supplies, and well-heated rooms, I spent a harried half-hour searching for a spot where I wouldn’t have to parallel park. It had been almost thirty years since I parked on these city streets on a regular basis. The confident ability to whip into a tight parking space had long since faded away.

Other things had changed about me in that time, too. I had replaced my cynical distrust of the well-to-do with one for city people—the very people from whom I had come. When I first began volunteering at the school a few afternoons a week, I was nervous around these city people. I would glance around to make sure someone I viewed as normal-looking was nearby before getting out of the car. I always turned my engagement ring around so the diamond would be hidden while walking through the streets.

But, from the beginning, the city dwellers had offered to help me carry my bags and guided me into parking spots. I had gone from exchanging quick nervous nods with the guys hanging out on the corners to sharing weather forecasts.

Picking my way down the narrow sidewalks lined with an almost equal number of neat row houses and boarded up wrecks, I stepped around the piles of dented metal garbage cans, jarring blue recycling containers, and the discarded remnants of household furniture and appliances. Was it my imagination or was every day garbage day in this city? Maybe it was because the garbage collectors seemed to drop as much trash as they picked up. That trash, combined with the usual scabs of litter, contributed to a sense of pessimism in the neighborhood.

The school had managed to survive for years in the midst of this. It held an odd mix of children. Most were from the low-income families in the neighborhood. Some were the offspring of counter-culture nonconformists who chose to live in the heart of the city. Almost all had been gifted with carefully chosen, unusual names that were a real challenge to remember. Common names like James and Rita were the exception. Names like Ximen, LaQui’a, Cheche, and Mashaquila were more the norm. The school took in a large number of kids with emotional and behavioral disorders who hadn’t been able to get along in other schools.

This volunteer experience had posed a more difficult adjustment for me than I had expected. When I had applied to the school, I thought I would probably work as a teacher’s aide. That hadn’t even been a possibility. There were no classes, really. Volunteers were expected to be available, to follow students’ interests, to work one-on-one, or just to do what the kids enjoyed. The director of the school suggested I try the latter. “We had an artist who just came in and started drawing portraits. The kids flocked around her. Just do what you like, and they’ll join you.”

Fortunately or unfortunately—I still haven’t decided which—I chose to sew. It would provide a practical skill with opportunities for creativity, and the patterns would encourage reading and math skills. I lugged in my ancient sewing machine and started sewing. I was almost too successful.

“Did you bring your sewing machine?”

“Did you bring more fabric?”

“Can I make a hat?”

“Can I finish my bag?”

Just about every child from kindergarten on up wanted to use that machine. It proved to be an expensive decision, too. My personal fabric and thread supply quickly dwindled. Neither the children nor the school had the money needed to keep me in fabric and patterns.

I had certainly captured their attention, and some of them, like Maureen, had captured mine. She loved to sew. If the sewing machine was out, Maureen was never far away. She turned down swim time at the Y and museum trips to wait impatiently for her chance at the machine. She could be charming, attentive, confident, and amusing.

Yet, any perceived slight brought a loud, angry flood of verbal abuse interspersed with some amazingly vulgar language. At the slightest provocation, she would let out painfully piercing screams of excitement or rage. I could see why she hadn’t been successful at other schools. She even had trouble with this exceptionally laid-back environment.

Maureen’s clothes were always worn and tight. A puffy line of lingering pale baby fat invariably peeked out between shirt and pants. A winter’s-worth of gray-black grime streaked her pastel blue parka. Her dark curls were dull and seldom looked combed.

At eight, she still wet her pants. She would always refuse to acknowledge taht they were wet. It was as though she thought that by ignoring the problem, it didn’t exist. When other kids subtly mentioned that big dark stain on her butt or the smell in the room, she resolutely continued playing as though oblivious to their comments.

Those were the only occasions Maureen refused attention. Any other time, she was desperately trying to be center stage by disrupting activities with clowning, teasing, or bickering.

Lately I had taken to sending Maureen off with Raynell and Imagine, two of the sixth grade girls, with a promise to get her as soon as it was her turn to use the sewing machine. The older girls had decided they were witches. They spent hours in their witch-appropriate outfits conducting Ouija board sessions and casting spells.

By the time I lumbered into the school, my overloaded arms were painfully frozen. Raynell, bounding at her usual hyper speed, collided with me at the door of the science room. Rushing on without stopping, she yelled back to me, “We contacted Maureen’s baby sister that died!”

It is amazing how one piece of information carelessly tossed out by someone can generate a flood of interconnecting thoughts.

I thought of other dead babies and the siblings left behind to cope with the loss. Margie and Shirley had come through their losses bowed but not broken. Marie, however, never stopped blurring the lines between fantasy and reality.

She was a compulsive liar who could not hold a job or relationship.

Now here was Maureen. She wavered between rage and fantasy in dealing with life. Crawling under the table to plug in the ancient Kenmore sewing machine, I tried to close out thoughts of Maureen.

It was overwhelming. She was too needy. Someone else would have to deal with it, someone with more training than me. But here she was shooting words at me as though they were bullets. Again.

“Can I sew first? I get to go first. It’s my turn. You promised. I want to make a baby hat.”

“A baby hat, huh? Okay, then. Let’s talk about it.”

Someone else might have been able to do it better, but I was the one there.

Barbara Easton, a writer in Albany, New York, will graduate from the University at Albany, SUNY in May, 2007. She intends to pursue a master's degree in literacy education. Parts One and Two of "Dead Reckoning" appeared in MyStoryLives on September 30th and October 3rd.

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