Tuesday, September 22, 2009
Vampire stories are in these days…
While youth is the time of many joyous and free-roaming adventures, it is also a period marked by great stupidity. Let’s face it, though we still are brainless well into adulthood, most of us stumbled through some of our biggest foul-ups, oh, somewhere between the ages of eight to eighteen, with room for give and take on each side. As kids, we did stupid stuff for a range of reasons and feelings that we may not have completely understood. Often, it was to call attention to ourselves, sometimes to impress others—for me, it was frequently about a girl as I got into my teens. Maybe our stupidity was driven by a subconscious attempt to find ourselves, and define who we were and what we fancied we wanted to be when we “grew up”. Collectively, our stupidity flowed from a combination of all those things and many, many more. Mostly though, we did stupid stuff just because we were stupid kids, and stupid kids do stupid stuff.
Personally, I have a rather long list of stupid things I did growing up. However, my first caper…as remember it…the one that launched me on my path to stupidity stardom, was when I escaped from the baby sitter at the ripe age of four. Thankfully, I was too young to know how stupid my escape really was, but I learned quickly. The sitter called my mom and then the police, who issued an APB. In the end, it would have been much better for the coppers to find me first. When she got her hands on me, my mom, the queen lioness, made the police look like pussycats. She wore my young tail out that day.
Then, there was the time Mike C. and I, while playing with matches, lit a garbage dump on fire in Frackville. We didn’t know much about Smokey the Bear at that time.
Mike and I were both around seven or eight and just learning how much fun it was to play with fire. However, while we quickly became steeped in the art of burning stuff, we really didn’t have much practice with how to extinguish burning stuff. Engrossed in the hypnotic enchantment of neophyte pyromania, we were grossly unaware we had set the dump on fire until I felt some heat at my back and turned around. What I saw started one of those conversations in your life that you never forget, even if you were only seven.
“Jeeze, Mike! That’s a big fire! What should we do? What should we do? Oh man!” I looked frantically at Mike. Without hesitation, he blurted his answer...
“Throw garbage on it! Throw garbage on it! Cover the flames!”
“OK!” It sounded good at the time, so I went with it. What the hell? I was seven.
We franticly tossed and kicked more garbage onto the garbage already on fire. Strangely, the flames and the heat grew. Always the Socratic type, even back then, I asked Mike more questions.
“Mikey, what should we do now? It’s getting bigger! The fire is getting bigger! What should we do?” The heat was more intense now, and the silence filled with pops and crackles of burning trash.
Again, Mike blurted an answer instantly. He was quick like that.
“Run!” he hollered, and he took off.
It sounded good to me at the time, so I lit out after him.
We were at the top of town, and the dump was in the woods behind the little league field at the north end of town, about thirty or forty yards down the hill on the side of Broad Mountain. We scrambled up the bank, a thick plume of black smoke rising behind us. As we dashed across the field, we could see and hear the neighbors on High St., the last street in town, out on their porches, yelling, gesturing; sounds crashed together, and amid the din, I heard the wail of sirens in the distance. I remember thinking, “maybe no one will recognize us” even though we pretty much knew every family in a three-block radius. We reached High Street, cut down the alley, and then split into our back yards, both heading into our respective houses to hide. Just before ducking in the door, I glanced back over my shoulder to see smoke floating hundreds of feet in the sky. Folks for miles around could easily see that a fire was burning on the side of the mountain up in Frackville. After the cops visited the house, no doubt pointed my way by dozens of ticked-off neighbors, my mom and stepdad lit a fire in my tail. I only thought I’d gotten the beating of my life out of the way when I was four. If I remember correctly, Mickey didn’t fare much better with his folks. I was standing on the front porch after my beating, and I could hear him wailing from across the alley while his lickin’ was delivered.
Later, as I moved through adolescent years, my faux pas continued. The short list, let’s see…I ran away from home, got caught egging on Mischief Night, and stole a motorcycle, then a car. I also was caught crawling into a girl’s second story window, hauled home for hitting cars with snowballs, and the occasional fight down in the empty lot. Then there was the time I gave the Stork twenty bucks on a New York City street because he swore he was “positive” he knew where the pea was in the shell game that a dude was running on the corner (he didn’t know). In addition, I teetered at the brink of expulsion twice in high school. Once, because I got my ear pierced at a Saturday night party with the intent to take out the earring the next day; however, since all the girls were diggin’ the look, and I was diggin’ it that they were digging it, I decided to leave it in. However, my fashion sense clashed with the 1981 dress code for Catholic schools. Once word of my “bodily mutilation” reached the ears of the pious administration on Monday morning, I had to stand tall before the man.
Shortly after word got around school (it only took until the end of 1st period), I was called to the office for a sit down with the principal. The whole matter didn’t take very long. I was given two choices, take the earring out and remain at CBHS, or keep it in, get expelled, and go to North Schuylkill H.S, the local public school. I pretended to think about it for a moment, but I knew that among other consequences, my mom would murder me, so I quickly caved and took the earring out. That, plus I knew I needed my classical Catholic education to survive in the heathen world.
In the other instance, a few of us were cutting up badly during the school-wide Christmas celebration Mass. We were wiggly, giggly, giddy, and ready to bust out for the holiday break, which began promptly after the service. However, at the end of the Mass, just before the final blessing, we had a come to Jesus moment. Fr. Ward, one of my least favorite men of the cloth, called us out in front of the student body, faculty and parents present for the Mass. He announced, in a voice hovering at the edge of restraint, name by name, that we remain after the building had been vacated. Afterwards, with the field house empty, the four of us sitting in the front row, he brought down a spewing rant of contempt for our sacrilegious behavior. He was so mad that he was shaking violently and his face had turned blood red. I thought he was going to have a heart attack.
Due to the heinous nature of our crime, our punishment was, over our Christmas break, answer spiritual questions like “What is the true nature of Jesus Christ?” and “Why should God not let us burn in hell for disrespecting the Mass.” And so on. Each of the answers would be no less than five hundred hand-written words. There were about eight other questions of similar nature. Failure to complete this task would, as we were sternly warned by one pissed off priest, result in expulsion and excommunication. We talked briefly of mutiny among ourselves, but it was senior year. We figured it would not be the time to buck the system.
I realize that some of these tales paint the picture of a budding thug, but really, it was all innocent fun. No one was ever hurt, and I was never malicious. I will also say, because the guilty love company, I was not alone in most of my transgressions. The common denominators of all my actions was the innate stupidity of youth; that need for attention, approval, and validation from friends and females, or just the iron-willed attempt to assert my independence as I moved through adolescence into young-adulthood.
Along with the high pay and three months off in the summer, one of the things I enjoyed as a classroom teacher was the opportunity to observe the constant stream of stupid stuff that high school students undertook in their own adolescent struggles. I have to admit, it was nice to be on the outside looking in, especially after all my foibles. A while back, during my last year in the classroom, I had an opportunity to witness one of the most imaginative and creative undertakings in an attempt to get attention. This, dear readers, was one for the books. Yet, it was an event that harkened me back to my days of teen stupidity.
Now, if you look up “stupid” in the dictionary, there is probably a picture of a 10th grader next to it saying “see sophomore.” Sophomores are sweet, wonderful, loving, and good-natured students, and I always enjoyed working with them. They are at an interesting age where hormones and pheromones, adolescence, society, culture, meta-cognition, and the distraction of the opposite sex are all spinning at high speed though the adolescent atom-smasher of life. However, God bless’em, they are inherently brainless. They just can’t help it. I spent about eighteen years teaching sophomores, so I knew the beast well.
On the first day of school that year, the usual cast of characters gathered in my room for lunch. It was a central location, and we had a “He–Man, Woman-Haters Club” among the “boys”. Lunch was always a male, invitation only, closed-door event. Lunch was thirty sacred minutes of man time. It was a time for the boys to rant and rave, bitch and moan, laugh and cry, compare notes, and bust each other’s chops. There was chatter in the room as it filled up.
“So, how’s your classes looking?”
“Good, how’s yours?”
“Full. I need more desks. Does anyone have any extra desks? Hey, do you have Jasmine Jones? …
My friend and teaching partner, Jay, entered the “manctuary” and plopped down next to me. We shared a group of about forty students in an interdisciplinary English and History program split into two classes. By lunch, we’d both had a chance to see the entire group.
“So, what do you think?” I asked him, as I bit into my sandwich. He reached into his lunch bag and began to dig in.
“It looks like a good group; we had a nice discussion about current events in both classes. But…” He began chuckling as he poured dressing over his salad.
“Well, did you see the kid with the fangs?”
Hill, sitting in another part of the room, quickly piped in.
“You have a guy with fangs?” About that time, Cally walked in.
“Hey Jay and Bob have a guy with fangs?” Cally raised his eyebrows
“Fangs, what kind of fangs?” I was curious now too.
“Yeah, what kind of fangs, Jay?” He was ready to eat and getting a little irritable.
“What do you mean, ‘What kind of fangs?’ how many freakin’ kind of fangs are there? He’s got fang-fangs…you know, like Dracula fangs.” Laughter filled the room.
Personally, I didn’t see fangs in either class. I don’t know how I could have missed that. I thought I got a good look at everyone, but again, I didn’t do a tooth check. I needed answers.
“Which kid? ”
Jay started in on a hard-boiled egg and answered between bites.
“Bram something…boy… my first period class, your second period class.” I thought for a moment, mentally running through faces I’d just seen for the first time a hour ago. One came to mind.
“Was he the dude with the long hair parted in the middle, dressed all in black?”
“Yeah, that’s him.”
Teachers are very much like cops and fire fighters. They’re public servants doing trench work, and it is a tough job. Seriously, in some cases, in the toughest schools, teachers deserve hazardous duty pay; they really do put their lives on the line. The good ones band together, and they are a very tight and private bunch. They watch each other’s backs, but they are also known for high jinks and the ones I worked with were renowned and unmerciful ball-busters. Jay and I would not hear the last of this Fang issue.
Well, the semester kicked into high gear and school time, which has a life of its own, began to monopolize everyone’s time. True to form, it only took about a week for the practical jokes to start. Fang updates had been a topic of our lunch since the revelation on day one, and it was only a matter of time with my crew.
I had Fang second period, and shortly after class began one day, there was a knock on the door. I was at my desk on the other side of the room, and so I asked the girl in the front row by the door to open it for me. In walked a skinny little student, probably a freshman. In his hand, was a large wooden stake, with just a little red paint, similar to blood, at the tip.
“Uhhh, you’re Mr. Alexander, right? Mr. Callahan asked me to deliver this to you.” He held the stake out, and a few kids began snickering.
I was unflappable back in my day, but I just barely kept it together as I quickly walked towards the student. I grabbed the stake, shuffled the lad out of my room, and sent him on his way. Once in the hall, I could hear laughter coming from the principal’s office a few feet from my room. I knew they were in there, watching me on the security camera, laughing their assess off. I gave the finger to the camera, stuffed the steak into an empty locker outside my classroom and walked back in. I could hear them roaring as I slammed the door.
And so it went, at least twice a week for the first few weeks of school. The stake was only the first in a long parade of items delivered to my classroom during second period, Fang’s period. Later came a clove of garlic from Hill, then a crucifix from Wallenstein, then “holy water” from Flinch, then the autographed picture of Grandpa Munster from Kirkland. I have to admit, it was all pretty funny, but more and more students were catching on. Apparently, everyone knew about the fangs, and everyone had seen the fangs…except for me. When I did see them, it was an unforgettable, Scoobie Doo kind of moment.
The class was taking the weekly vocab quiz, and I was monitoring them as they worked on their answers. While the rest of the students frantically scribbled trying to finish the timed quiz, Fang, in black t-shirt, pants, socks and shoes, sat there with an empty paper, arms folded, looking at me. It wasn’t an evil look, but rather a look of bemusement at the mere mortal that stood before him. I’d been trying to avoid looking him in the eyes during these awkward moments, but I couldn’t hold back, and we locked sights. Then, with slow, creepy, phantasmagoric deliberation, he drew his face into a bone-chilling smile, revealing two small, perfect fangs, framed by thin red lips.
I said I was unflappable, but I have a confession…I flapped, I mean I really flapped. At that moment, in my mind, and probably his, he was the dark lord, and I was about to be vampire juicy-juice. Goose bumps exploded up and down every inch of my body; I got the willies, the heebie jeebies, and creeps all at once, and I think I may have swooned for a moment. I was under the spell of the Count. The recounting of the story at lunch that day drew raucous laughter. Wallenstien took a red Sharpie and put two fang marks on my neck. Like I said earlier, these guys were relentless.
Fang’s actions indicated that a Count was not worthy of sophomoric work, and so he continued to do nothing. I tried to give most stubborn students a few weeks to come around, and maybe start producing and catching up before it was too late. Fang was no exception. I was sure I could jump-start him; I prided myself on motivating students. We talked, or at least I tried to talk to him. It ended being me talking at him, and him having nothing to say to me. I was tempted to bring up the fangs, but I figured he was looking for attention, and I wasn’t going to give him the satisfaction. Finally, with the halfway point in the quarter drawing near, it was starting to get critical for Fang to kick his academic performance into gear. I moved to the next level and decided I would give Fang’s folks a jingle and see if we couldn’t all work on this problem together.
Kicked back in my office at home that evening, I dialed the “home” phone number on Fang’s info sheet. I had a gut feeling this was going to be an interesting conversation. Fang’s father picked up after three rings.
“Hello, this is Bob Alexander from Rose High. I’m Bram’s English teacher. Is this Mr. Stoker?”
“Uhh, yes it is. His voice dropped a bit. “How can I help you?”
“Well, Mr. Stoker…” I started in on a narrative that I knew by heart.
“…I’m having some trouble with Bram. He doesn’t turn in any homework; he won’t complete any class assignments, and he hasn’t passed a quiz or test since school started.” I usually paused at this spot to allow for an initial reaction. Extreme diplomacy was necessary in conversations like this. You never knew how parents were going to react, and it was important to get a read on them early in the conversation.
There was silence on the other end, and then a long sigh. I was hoping his next words wouldn’t be “We don’t know what to do with him anymore.” That always was a bad sign and usually followed by “what should we do?” Mr. Stoker sighed again and spoke.
“We don’t know what to do with him; what should we do with him?” It was my turn to sigh. “He just won’t do anything, and we’ve tried everything.” He sounded exasperated, and I felt badly for him. I could tell, just by the little that Bram said and did, that he was a very bright kid. Again, I figured the fangs were his way to get attention, and maybe rattle his Dad’s cage. In hindsight, I should have ended the conversation then, but I decided to forge ahead.
“Uhh, Mr. Stoker…there’s one other thing.”
“What’s that?” He sighed again.
“Umm, well, there’s the fangs…” I let the word “fangs” somewhat softly drift out, fading at the end. I felt ridiculous even saying it. Suddenly, the conversation picked up quickly.
“What did you say? What did you say? Did you say fangs?”
“Uhh, yes sir, I said…fangs.” His voice raised an octave.
“He’s wearing the FANGS in CLASS?”
“He’s WEARING THE FANGS IN CLASS?” This was bad.
“Yes, Sir, he’s wearing the fangs in …”
“HE’S WEARING THE FANGS IN CLASS?” He was yelling at the top of his lungs now, repeating it over and over. The last exclamation was one of the saddest statements I’ve ever heard from a parent.
“HE IS WEARING THE FANGS IN CLAssssssssssss….” His voice wavered in a painful dirge, with a howl the likes of which I’ve never heard, nor ever wish to hear again. It was bone chilling, and it was sad. It was creepy. I hung the phone up. It was tough hearing a grown man wail.
Sadly, that semester, Fang fought me tooth and nail through each grading period. It was a pattern that would define our relationship for the majority of the semester. He refused to do little, if any work, though it was evident from discussion that he was uber-intelligent. He was very likable, he just didn’t do anything. Maybe he couldn’t do anything with all the sunlight around, I don’t know.
I was determined that I could reach him, save him, and turn him around. Fang was determined that he was going to do nothing, and we couldn’t ever seem to find any common ground. In over twenty years teaching, I’ve only had five students fail my class. Two of them just didn’t show up to take the final exam, so I had no choice. The other two, God bless’em, they were just plain brainless, and there was nothing anyone could do about that. Then there was Fang. He never caused any problems. He was never disrespectful, and every occasionally he would contribute to class, but for some reason, he tried as hard as he could to fail; I mean he really set his mind to it. If I could have just gotten him to do something, maybe I would feel justified in throwing him a few bones, but he just wouldn’t do anything, and in the end he failed the class.
Stones and glass houses, and all of that…as I said earlier, I’ve been guilty of doing plenty of stupid stuff, especially as a teen. So, I really could relate to Fang and his quest at that time in his life. Maybe he was in love? Maybe he really wanted to be a vampire? Maybe he wanted to rattle some cages? I don’t know. However, I also had a job to do at that point in my life. I couldn’t give grades away, and I couldn’t pass him because he really was a sweet kid.
Maybe, though, in the end, I think both of us learned a lesson. For me, it was a reminder that I was once very much a “Fang” in my own way. Whatever our reasons, and what ever the means we chose to express ourselves, we really had lots in common, especially the bond of doing stupid stuff to call attention to ourselves. Ultimately, it takes a little courage to put yourself out there…sometimes way out there. Maybe, sophomores aren’t as brainless as I thought they were. Fang was definitely more relentless than I was when it came to sticking to his guns. During the great earring incident, I gave in to what I wanted and conformed to the norm, for whatever the reasons. Fang didn’t. He was determined to be different, and he was determined to do nothing in class, for whatever the reasons. At that time, I also learned I couldn’t save everyone, especially if they didn’t want to be saved. I know for a fact that my class was the only class he ever failed. Maybe that was a wakeup call. I spoke with Fang the other day about this story; it’s been about four years since our paths crossed. During the course of our conversation, I asked him, “Was the price of the fangs and failing my class worth it?” He answered with an emphatic, “Yes.” All things considered, I think maybe Fang came out ahead. He did prove his point, and he showed just how hip and ahead of his time he really was. After all, vampire stories are in these days.
Note: No vampires were harmed during the writing of this blog.