Sneak Peek at THE GYM SHOW

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I came up with this crazy idea to provide my blog followers a snippet from Chapter XIII of ‘The Gym Show’.  If you haven’t yet read The Gym Show’, give it a go!  According to the hundreds who have already read it, you won’t be disappointed! 

XIII

January 1970, Mercyville, Pennsylvania

The Fifth Dimension’s “The Age of Aquarius” blasted from the record player’s speakers until Peggy Huffington heard JoAnn Donaldson’s shriek for her to turn it off.  Not wanting listen to JoAnn’s bitching any longer than she had to, Peggy hastily lifted the needle off the album.

“God, stop!  That was awful!  Beth, you gotta’ turn when the other girls turn, and Debbie, that last part when you do the jazz square then plant your feet apart?  Your feet are supposed to be apart, not crossed.  Man.  That was bad.  Again.”

Forty girls were crammed onto the stage, some sitting cross-legged on the wooden floor, some standing with arms folded in front of their leotard-clad bodies looking bored and wondering why Mrs. A. was forcing them to be there; only five of the forty were busy learning a dance that was supposed to be performed during the Gym Show between equipment changes.  While it was true that this first week back after Christmas was the first solid week of preparations for the Gym Show, things were not boding well for JoAnn Donaldson and her troupe of amateur dancers.

JoAnn had talked Mrs. A. into letting her take charge of the dancers in this year’s Gym Show.  She had been taking dance lessons from the venerable and demanding Miss Arita Lee Blair since she was seven, and thus considered herself far above anyone else in the dance milieu at Mercyville including Mrs. A.  Since a dance milieu didn’t exist at Mercyville, Carol was more than happy to let JoAnn (who displayed a rather poor showing during last year’s floor exercise portion of the Gym Show) take over the dance part.  Maybe then, Carol hoped, she wouldn’t throw a tantrum when Carol broke the news to her that, no, JoAnn would not be performing a floor exercise this year.  Carol didn’t care if JoAnn was a senior—JoAnn, with her awkward un-pointed toes and bent knees—her tumbling was simply awful.  She and her jazz hands could dance instead.

Once again, this year Carol was competing with the basketball coach Ken Montgomery for time in the gym.  As far as Ken was concerned, Carol’s little project ranked far, far below his quest for a Lake County championship in basketball (this could be the year) and so he had no problem telling Carol (and he didn’t give a shit who she slept with every night) that during his practices, she and her girls could be on the stage with the curtains closed, as long as they kept the music down.  As if anything would have drowned out Ken Montgomery’s particular brand of coaching vernacular, liberally laced with various four letter words designed to inspire his players to greatness.

Carol, for her part, would play her accompanying music as loud as she wished, and Ken Montgomery could stick it up his fat ass; in fact, she would tell him that very thing as soon as he was finished insulting Danny Teague’s parentage and questioning the more personal details of the poor boy’s anatomy.  If he could scream like a lunatic and swear like a longshoreman, then she would play that damn record player as loud as the dial would take it, and if he didn’t like it, here it is, mister, you can kiss my sweet little tushie.  That would shut him up for a little while at least.  Carol sighed.  “Count to ten, Carol,” she whispered to herself.  She reminded herself that she   must be careful to avoid using her position as the boss’ wife to leverage things in her favor—even she knew how devastatingly dangerous that could prove to be for both she and Jim—but every now and then, some folks needed reminding of their place in this school, and Ken was one of those people.

Pulling back the black velvet curtains and revealing herself to the entire basketball team, the coach, and the assistant coach resulted in a sudden halt to the verbal assault on poor, skinny Danny Teague (so pale and freckly, that one).

“Coach,” Carol began, “we can hear you swearing all the way up here on the stage, and I just wanted to remind you that the young ladies who are so hard at work preparing for this year’s Gym Show really have no need to know the exact length of Danny’s penis.”

Luckily for most of the team members, they happened to be, at that moment, situated out of Coach Montgomery’s range of sight, so Ken wasn’t able to see the thumbs and forefingers estimating, in centimeters no less, just how small they knew Danny’s little willy to be, and if Ken or Dan Baxter, the assistant coach, heard the teams’ bubbling snickers, they chose to ignore them.  Ken fumed at Carol.

“Mrs. Adamson, I’m surprised you can hear anything at all with all that goddamn hippie music playing.  Now why don’t you just go on back there, conduct your little practice, and let us finish ours.  We play Iroquois Lake this Friday, and I would like for us to at least look like we’ve shown up.”

“I, too, Coach Montgomery, want to do win this Friday.  My cheerleaders, who also have had no time in the gym, have been practicing out in the cold lobby every night after school, and they’ve worked very hard to support your boys.  I certainly do not want their hard work to have been in vain.  Now, I will excuse myself and return to our Gym Show preparations, but please know,” Carol glanced at the caged-in clock that hung on one wall of the gym, “that you have exactly eight more minutes left in which to practice in this gym.  In eight minutes all forty or so of my girls will descend upon this floor and begin erecting the equipment necessary for them to, once again, draw a standing room only crowd come Friday, May 8, 1970.  Oops,” she said, looking down at her petite silver watch, “looks like you have seven minutes now.”

Montgomery looked at Carol with pure hatred in his eyes, blew his whistle, and yelled at his players (who were painfully stifling themselves over Mrs. A. saying ‘erecting’) to the east end of the gym to begin running pro sprints.  Carol turned and flung the velvet curtain aside with a dramatic flourish and returned to her girls.

Oh, that man.  As if my girls, who don’t have a basketball team to play on, deserve to be treated as second-class citizens simply because they’re girls!  This is precisely why Vinnie Tagliaburro and his asinine idea of putting boys in the Gym Show is about as fair as the way his wife gets to traipse all around this school dressed like a hooker even on days when she isn’t substituting!

Much to Carol’s continued distress (and her beleaguered husband’s list of shit he had better take care of before his wife makes his life even more miserable), Vinnie Tagliaburro had been persistent in his quest for a male presence in this year’s Gym Show.  At the staff Christmas party, hosted every year by Carol and Jim, with their three children spying wide-eyed and curious at the outrageous nighttime behavior of the usually staid and conservative faculty, Vinnie had made his move.  Loosened up after several shots of Black Velvet, and feeling as if no woman present would be able to resist his charms, Vinnie had cornered Carol as she was digging through the garage freezer for more ice.

“Carol, come on, hun.  What could you possibly have against having some ah…the more, you know, talented and athletic boys doin’ a little something-something during the Gym Show?  What, are all they’re good for is moving mats and breaking down equipment, uh?  Building that throne a yours for the May Queen?  Come on.  We could even think of some things they could do together—like build pyramids or something.  Hey, my Dreama’s got some really cool ideas—‘member she was on some dance squad or something like ‘at back at Slippery Rock.  She’s got some good ideas for getting the boys involved, an’ ‘at.  Whaddya say, uh?  Come on, Cupcake, do me a favor—do all of us a favor–and just think about it, uh?”

What made it even worse, and what had nearly ruined Jim and Carol’s much looked forward to and well-deserved two week Christmas vacation, was that while Carol brought up the subject nearly every day, Jim brushed her off.  Whether he was buying time or whether he was just hoping that Carol would move on to another crusade or campaign, he didn’t really know.  He was more bothered by the whole stage incident, the board’s reaction to it, and his moral obligation to protect the students at Mercyville High School.  Vinnie and Dreama Tagliaburro were way down on his list of priorities.

Maybe we should lower our standards?

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Just last week, lawmakers in my adopted state of Indiana decided that there were enough educated, trained, and experienced teachers out there, so they went ahead and opened the gates of teacher-dom to anyone with a college degree and a ‘B’ average.

I’ll get to the comparative analogies in a minute.

So, what does this new law say about the majority of teachers who matriculated through teacher training programs at accredited universities, spent countless hours observing and participating in the teaching process in classrooms with veteran teachers guiding them through their nascent lessons and interactions with children?  What does it say about the future teachers who spent upwards of two semesters student teaching at different grade levels in order to experience as much of life as an educator as possible before Pomping and Circumstancing their way across the graduation stage?  And what does it say about those who braved the interview processes at several school districts only to finally land their dream job–as a teacher’s assistant or a substitute teacher with the hopes of someday being called up to the big leagues?

And what does it say about established teachers who, on their own dime, sought out advanced degrees and certifications so that they would be not only more marketable within their school district, but more importantly, become better at their craft?  What about those who went back to graduate school to earn a special education or gifted education endorsement, a middle school or high school certification, a Master’s Degree, or a principal’s license?

I’ve done everything listed in the last two paragraphs, all while giving 25 years of my life to the State of Indiana as a teacher, both at the elementary and middle school levels, both in the rough and tumble inner-city of Indianapolis and the once tony suburb of Lawrence Township.  Most of those years were amazing; some of those years were downright awful, but in retrospect, I wouldn’t have changed a thing.  That I am no longer a minion of the State of Indiana is irrelevant–what is relevant is the State of Indiana’s latest bone-headed move to lower the standards of teacher certification.

So, Indiana, while you’re at it, here’s something to chew on:  Once I had dreams of becoming an R.N.  I even applied to and was accepted into the School of Nursing at a small institution in Ohio.  However, once my father wisely reminded me that the sight of copious amounts of blood made me pass out cold, I reconsidered my options and chose to remain a teacher.  But since then, I think I’ve licked that blood thing (the passing out thing, you weirdo), and now …

I want to be a nurse.

I graduated in 1985 from Penn State University with a 3.5 GPA.  So, whaddya say, Indiana?  Can I become a nurse?  What’s that?  I have to pass a test?  No problem–I’m an excellent test taker.  Experience?  Psht!  I have three kids that came out of my body, so I think I know a little bit about being in a hospital and what it takes to be a nurse.  And the countless trips to the ER and their broken bones, stitches, and the one time my daughter Caroline drank a bottle of liquid Benedryl …yeah, I think I can handle this.  How hard can it be?  I want to be a nurse, for crying out loud, not a biomedical engineer.  Geez.

So if not a nurse, there’s another profession I’ve always thought I’d be good at:  Lawyer.  How hard can it be?  I know you have to pass a test (again–GOOD TEST TAKER HERE), and you have to be able to write well (I think I’ve got that, Scooter) and know a lot about the law and how to research laws, precedents, decisions, and stuff like that.  So, can I be a lawyer?  What, is there some exclusive club that only lawyers know about that would prevent me and may 3.5 GPA from Penn State University in Elementary and Kindergarten Education from becoming a lawyer?  Okay, so then can I go back to being a nurse?

Skills?  Special skills?  To be a nurse?  Oh, like giving shots and things.  I already know how to do that–I gave myself shots every day for the first three months I was pregnant with the Boy, so there.  There’s more?

Well, what about “on the job training”?  No?  Why not?

Okay, so maybe lawyering is a better option.  I know they read a lot.  I read a lot.  I don’t understand why I can’t be a lawyer.

“But Kelly,” you might be saying (unless you’re a teacher).  “You’re being ridiculous.  Whether you’re a nurse or a lawyer, each profession requires a particular set of skills.  Liam Neeson said so.  Really, dear, what special skills are needed to be a teacher?  Honestly, how hard can it be?”

Gee, I’d love to sit down and outline for you all of the necessary pedagogy, the extensive metacognitive skills knowledge base required, the need to have a complete understanding of P.L. 94142, the difference between an IEP and a 504, the ability to align a set of standards to instruction and an ability to document the hell out of it, the affective aspects of containing upwards of 40 children in one room at a time for an extended period and …well, I could go on and on.

How hard can it be?

Harder than you think.  Teaching requires a hell of a lot more than a 3.0 GPA and a degree in Hotel and Restaurant Management.

 

 

At 42–a Mothers’ Day Tribute

 

Note:  I wrote this piece nine years ago in 2005 when my daughters were 11 and my son was 7.  Since that time, I’ve grown quite a bit, and I am not as frightened of the future as I was then.  This piece marks the first time I laid bare my soul and put into words what I was feeling at the time–and if you are reading this, know that you are the first to have ever seen it. 

 

At 42, I am older than my mother.  Well, I’m older than my mother would have been if she were still alive.  She died in 1974 at the age of 40 when I was 11.  Nineteen seventy-four has always been, for me, the switchback in my life’s river.  Nothing that happened before that time resembled what was to happen after it.

My mother was young, vibrant, active, exciting, attractive, and gregarious.  Her death not only left a hole in the heart of our family, but in our small community.  Hundreds wept at her funeral, while my brother, sister, and I sat in a catatonic stupor, and my father did his best to demonstrate that he was fit enough to raise two teenagers and one on the cusp.  He fooled almost everyone.

My father—fifteen years my mother’s senior—raised my brother, sister, and me as best he could.  His best was stellar; his worst was downright awful.  In between bouts of alcoholism, which was, in the 1970s before Oprah and Dr. Phil, never, ever talked about, Dad was, at his best, the best we could have ever hoped for.  He was wise, articulate, and had a vast knowledge of virtually everything, and if there was something he didn’t know, he made it his mission to find out.  He was also extraordinarily funny.  With an unusually amazing sense of humor, my dad was quick-witted, sarcastic, and bigoted (at times), but mainly he was just really, really funny.

But at his worst he was mean, nasty, emotionally bereft, pitiful, unhealthy, and an embarrassment to us.  Living in a small town meant that we didn’t share our secret with anyone, and our burden was ours to bear.  We never entertained the thought of seeking help with our burden; we just thought we were unlucky.  Sad, unfortunate, and unlucky kids were we, still mourning for the mother who should have been there in his place.

Growing up without a mother is something that I don’t recommend.  My siblings were older than I, so they were quick to find outside activities– mainly sports–that would keep them away from home and the burden of keeping track of our father.  This left me at home with him, and it was my responsibility to make sure that once the bottle of whiskey was drained and he was properly anesthetized and in his bed, that he kept on breathing, snoring, and coughing, all reassuring signs that he was going to live to do this to us another day.  Having my mom there would have at least taken the responsibility off of me.  But then if she had been there, he wouldn’t have had the need to pickle himself on a daily basis, either.

So I grew adept at opening doors without a sound, taking my father’s watch from the tray on his dresser and holding it up to his gaping mouth to see if he was still alive enough to cloud its face.  I also became a master at keeping myself occupied.  I read the books that my mother had read, I watched a lot of television, I talked to myself, I ate bread and butter sandwiches, and I longed.  Sometimes I would sit on the living room sofa and look out the front window and out at our long driveway willing her blue Chevy Impala to wind its way up the drive. Longing was something I did regularly.  When I realized that longing wasn’t going to bring her back, I prayed as if she could hear me through God, Jesus, and Mary.  I prayed the Rosary—something my Godmother had taught me to do—hoping that I would receive some sign that she had heard me.

Unlike my peers, I delighted in going to Mass each week and sometimes even in the early morning hours of the weekdays before school.  Faith in God and faith in heaven was what kept me from going off the deep end in those dark times after my mother’s death and during my father’s wet episodes.  And praying was like protecting.  I had ritualistic prayers that I said each day at the same time using the same intonation that I felt sure would ward off any more sorrow destined for our family.  The praying didn’t ward off the sadness, the alcohol, or the grief, but it did set me on a path of faith that at times was both paralyzing and comforting.

Aside from the emotional pall, my mother’s death affected me in more practical ways, too.  I never had clothes that fit, where before I was always the best dressed kid in my class.  With puberty came certain needs, and often those needs were met in a haphazard manner, so that I was often running to the nurse’s office at school to take care of what I thought of as the most embarrassing and humiliating of rituals.  Having an older sister didn’t help, since she was, at that time, a creature who delighted in my misfortune, however has since become my most cherished and closest friend and confidant.

Since she could drive and shop on her own, my sister had an array of clothes and shoes that I would have to wait years to grow into, owing to her considerably longer legs and even longer feet.  My father, for his part, had no sense of what a preteen and later a teenage girl should be wearing, so he often relied upon my late mother’s friends to help him out with the ordeal of shopping with a young girl.  However, shopping with them just wasn’t the same as it would have been with my mum, and I would have died a thousand deaths before I would have asked any of them to buy me a box of Tampax.

I steadily grew into my sister’s hand-me-downs, but I’d often come back to school from Christmas vacation and stare wistfully at my friends’ new jeans, new sweaters, and shoes that actually fit, and wonder what my life would be like if my mother were still alive.  Still, there I was longing, still praying, but beginning to realize that this dark cloud which hung over me might just be the worst thing that would ever happen to me, and that I would most assuredly be protected from any more grief in my life.

My high school and college years remained unremarkable.  I was bright, somewhat athletic, and had my share of boyfriends, heartbreaks, and good times.  I eventually became a teacher, just like my mother.  I helped my sister take care of my father–though she definitely did the heavy lifting.  By this time, dad had ruined his body by various means, and was waiting to die a long, slow, miserable death.  There were good times with him during those last eight years of his life, but we mostly existed to serve him and take care of his needs.  Throughout that time, I met the man I would later marry, had a wonderful courtship, and became a wife in a 15-minute church wedding to accommodate the needs of my ailing father.  Not long after my honeymoon, I found I was pregnant.

And here’s where I received what I like to think of as my life’s reward.  Not only did I get pregnant without really even trying (I was in fact sort of surprised that I had wound up in this situation!), but on April Fool’s day, during a routine ultrasound, found that I was carrying not one but two baby girls. There were no twins in my family, there was no reason for this to have happened, but maybe, just maybe, God had a plan for me.  Maybe this was what I was longing for.  Maybe this was the answer to my prayers.  Could this be a reward for the lonely years I spent longing?  Were two babies a replacement for one mother?  One extra human being to make up for the one I lost?

My father died eighteen months after my twins were born.  He finally succumbed to the many diseases wracking his worn-out and used-up body.  I miss him, and fortunately I miss all of the good things.  I miss his humor most of all, and even now, I find myself doubled over laughing about something off-hand (or more likely off-color) that he said that was just so very, very funny.

My babies are eleven now, the same age I was when I lost my mother.  I will be happy when they turn twelve.  I still continue my litany of prayers for their comfort and safety, as well as the comfort and safety of their little brother and that of my soul mate—my husband.  I still long for my mother, and I still have conversations with her when I imagine what it would be like if she came back to life.  What would she think about the kind of mother I have become?  Would she approve of how I am raising my daughters and my son?  I know she would love my family and the sweet life my husband and I have made for us.  I still love imagining that she is here with me.  And if I’m as strong in my faith as I say I am then she is.  She’s right here.

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