Rachel Cann, 7/1/2013

Current Occupation: Unstated
Former Occupation: I have been a waitress, a teacher, an eldercare provider, a taxi driver, a real estate salesperson, director of a battered woman's shelter, and manager of a  Florida motel where I made beds and cleaned toilets. When the interest rates went to 18% I was lucky to get a job selling timesharing.
Contact Information: My writing was first inspired by  Walter Farley's Black Stallion series. I went to college at the University of Massachusetts in Amherst, followed by Boston State Teacher's College for a Master's. Emerson College granted me an MFA in 1989.  Presently I am writing a feature film script called Abuse of Power.  I'm a feminist and a grandmother.

 

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Job

The pressure was on. I needed to make money to save the leaky house from foreclosure. Paul was tapped out, he said, but he found me a rent-controlled apartment that needed total renovation, which he would pay for, before we could move. I didn’t have a plugged nickel.  Forwarding Sean’s school records would take time, anyway, so we jungled up, making the best of cramped quarters. The suitcases went in and out of Paul’s closet for changes of wardrobe and I was careful not to mess up the orderly row of his archaic Italian-made shoes. He was unused to having us on a daily basis, not accustomed to having us as his responsibility. A cleaning guy that did Buster’s Tudor mansion in Brookline kept everything status quo, so I didn’t have to do much in the domestic department, but keep out of Paul’s way.

The term ‘low maintenance’ hadn’t been invented yet, but I knew that was one of the reasons Paul, my significant other, loved me; I always paid my own bills.  I found a temporary gym teaching job in an advertisement in the newspaper.  It was cold and rainy the day I went for the interview and I wore my peach velour jogging suit, zippered to my Adam’s apple. My tennies were canvas Converse, the only ones I will wear. Leather makes my feet sweat. The owner of the agency who was interviewing also ran a dance and exercise studio for toddlers. I handed him my resume and he gave me a clipboard with the application on which I checked off on a list of all the things I felt competent to teach: softball, basketball, tumbling etc.  

“How is it you know all these things, if you weren’t a P.E. major?”  He was a big man, in his late fifties, wearing a gray suit, which seemed to give his complexion the pallor of a smoker. His ear lobes were so elephantine, they nearly brushed his shoulders. .

“I was very athletic in high school.  Somewhat of a tomboy.”  Just to make him feel better, I asked for the list back and scratched out square dancing, explaining:  “I’m a little bit rough on my doesy-does. But as for the rest, soccer, for example… I was a referee and team mother for my son.”  

“Oh,” he said, thoughtfully, looking at the list again through the half-moon in his spectacles.  “Have you ever been arrested?”  My heart caught in my throat, wondering if he was picking up on the guilty look on my face.  I completely forgot that a criminal check was de rigueur. I had done my share of civil disobedience, and my one brush with the law in a moment of temporary insanity had been forgiven, so unless 7 ‘dog at loose’ charges counted, I could relax.  Kind of. There was a time when just the sight of a mahogany desk could cause me to hyperventilate, but now I would just be going through the motions.

“No, I guess not, or you wouldn’t be applying for a job,” he said, answering his own question. “We have a lot of applicants.  I don’t want anyone making waves.  You have to mingle with the other teachers and keep your opinions to yourself.”  I wasn’t good at mingling, but I’d give it my best. In truth, around strangers I’d always been shy to the point of painfulness, but teachers….no problem. My mother had been a high school chemistry teacher.

If he had other applicants, he wouldn’t have offered to rent me a car when I told him over the phone I didn’t own one. I think he would have hired anyone that breathed. “I learned about keeping opinions to myself on my first teaching job,” I said. “But I still wonder what happened to Danny Benson.”

Not a day goes by that I don’t think of Danny, the only one who could answer oral questions in my combined 3rd/ 4th grade in a 3 room schoolhouse way up in the boonies of New Hampshire. It was a former mill town with lots of inbreeding, I’d been told, and they had him listed along with two others in my class as retarded. All you had to do was look in his eyes and see the sparkle of promise, of who he was and who he was not. When I would ask, for example: “What is the capitol of Texas?” Or: “Can anyone tell me what a pistal is on a flower?” Up would come his ten-year-old hand, even though he couldn’t write his own name, or even print it.  

“I went to the superintendent about a special needs child.  Danny had been dyslexic, I’m almost positive, but they didn’t have a name for it back then.  I should have made bigger waves than I did.  But I was young and afraid for my job.  Danny’s probably pumping gas somewhere.”  

“Sometimes it’s hard to keep quiet,” he said, hardly registering any empathy with my sad story. “But that’s exactly what I want you to do.  And another thing, you must keep covered up at all times.  These are parochial schools you’ll be going to and I don’t want any of the boys whistling.  You’re not on the stage, you know.”  

I promised to wear no make-up and pull my brown hair back into a bun. Just past 40, I was young enough to get away with just a slash of lipstick.  He handed me a whistle and looked apprehensively at my resume. My job history resembled a patchwork quilt you might find in your grandmother’s attic. Full time mothering took up some years and I had been unemployed for the past 3. I’d needed to recuperate from a bad case of “nervousness” during which I wrote my heart out: sturm and drang, pathos, ethos and eros. When I couldn’t afford to rent an IBM typewriter, I maniacally got down on the hardwood floor, amidst the dog hairs, and wrote end to end on a huge roll of computer paper.  These gaps were enough to cause a prospective employer to be suspicious.

“Are you sure this is your resume?  Why would you be wanting to teach gym?”  

“I’ve just relocated from Florida and I love kids, the meaner the better.  I have no trouble keeping a class under control.”  I think I’ve developed a talent for giving the “evil eye,” passed down from generation to generation in my family. Somehow, my penchant for loving “bad boys” has always worked in the classroom. The ones that need the attention the most usually stand out. Resentment, anger, or misery in their eyes, maybe, or a defiant swagger to show how tough they are. Haircuts that might need a trim.  I like to pat hands in passing their desks, sometimes chuck them under the chin and make them smile. Give them passes for the bathroom, when I know they don’t need to go, along with semi-serious warnings about what would happen if they weren’t quick about it. “I will send out the bloodhounds and the FBI…” I would threaten, my chin and lips set as if in stone. And they always came back, loving me as I loved them. I had been a troubled child in elementary school and when I was chosen to clap the erasers against the brick walls, I remember the pleasure at being given a break, the secret pride of feeling special.

“And what about the little ones?”  

“I can tolerate them,” I answered, trusting he had a sense of humor.  “You don’t have to worry about my strangling any.”  I could take anything for the few short weeks until summer vacation, looking forward to being outdoors in nature, scrub grass and dandelions, burning up some calories. Building that house in Florida, in 100 degree heat, and drinking Cokes to keep hydrated, had broadened more than my horizons.  I should never have fired the builder. People like me, with a temper, have to learn the hard way. “I raised my own to the age of fifteen and he’s still alive.”  

“I’m going to take a chance with you,” he said, at last, never even cracking a smile.  “But don’t do anything to embarrass me.  For a woman, you exude an air of confidence.  Most of the women I hire have trouble with discipline.  They generally quit after a few days.”  

I noticed that the back of his suit jacket hung unevenly, that he walked like a man defeated. He put on a tan topcoat to go out into the rain since he’d promised to give me a ride back to the bus station.  In the background, behind ceiling-to-floor separating curtains, tiny tap dancers could be heard.  Tulle and satin and stage props were piled in a corner like there’d been some kind of train disaster.  Over the scratchy sound of a phonograph record, a baby cried.  The man hunched himself into the wind, opening the door for me as we walked to the parking lot.  The rain had turned to sleet.  

That night, Paul took me out to dinner to celebrate and the next day I was blowing my whistle as if I’d been doing it all my life.   After I locked up the equipment, the basketballs and the hula-hoops, I discovered the little darlings had taken the keys to my rental car.  There went fifty bucks for a locksmith.  On the second day, my rental car was vandalized.  Not only had they pushed the car out of its space, the radiator cap was missing so that on the way home I was broken down for hours on the highway, until Paul came to collect me, grumbling about leaving whatever  crooked business he’d been up to at the Lancaster Street Garage.  And the rental car company retained my security deposit for damages.  The second week, ringworm was diagnosed on my midriff.  On the third, I got hit in the face with a soccer ball, breaking one of my teeth.  Much of my paychecks were spent on a root canal, but the bulk went towards my mortgage.  

The nuns at some of the schools I was sent to were wonderful.  They smiled at me a lot and sent hot coffee out to the schoolyard or ice water, depending on the weather.  .  The last school, however, was run by a woman, a few years my junior. She was thin with a pointy nose and a somewhat overlong neck, with sharp, needing- to- peck eyes, like a chicken.  Even with make-up she was not very pretty, though that in itself did not raise the memoric hackles of my mind. I’d had principals far more formidable, more ogreish: hair-on- the- chin matrons and men dressed in Robert Hall suits. I assumed they had all been formerly oppressed schoolteachers since they seemed so out- for- blood, intent on humiliating the least equipped, the vulnerable, the eager-to-please beginner that I had been. I was always in trouble for something. Wearing boots was rumored to give headaches even if the snow was up to your haunches, sitting on a desk, a cause for concern; (kids could peek). And the worst faux pas of all— sending a teenager home to ask his mother what the word ‘prostitute’ meant when the word came up in an exercise we’d been doing.

Oh, the havoc I’d caused the first time, (requiring an entire school committee meeting to vote on my dismissal) when I’d said “shit,” as in “I will not take this shit.” te. Sometimes, to keep order, I would walk around the room with a long wooden blackboard pointer, swinging it this way and that so it whistled a warning before it came down hard on a miscreant’s desk, narrowly missing some fingers.

Things had changed since then, however, and not for the best to my way of thinking. (Thank you, Madelyn Murray O’Hare.) Blue-jean-wearing teachers were called by their first names, gum chewing was allowed. No ‘after school’ for punishment, or they might miss the bus. Staff and students alike bandied about the “F” word. Security guards with walkie-talkies roamed the halls as if the school were a prison. Metal detectors regularly appropriated Bowie knives and other weapons of destruction.

This principal bustled about the halls with an air of importance and I had noticed the other women teachers giving her a wide berth.  Beneath her superior calm was a tension so constraining that she seemed totally devoid of humor. It seemed as if her brow had become permanently furrowed and her heart hardened.  There was talk in the teacher’s room of budget cuts and the insecurity of having no jobs in September.  On my last day, I was summoned into her inner sanctum, an office within the office, neat and tidy.  I had a premonition I wasn’t there to be congratulated.

“I understand you were giving out money?”  The hollows under her eyes were deeper than they had been the day before.  

“A quarter here, a nickel there, to anyone who made a goal.”  

“Not allowed,” said the stern-faced principal. “I’ve already spoken to your supervisor.”  

“How about candy?” I asked, showing her the bag of nonpareils I’d bought just that morning. On the day before summer vacation, the kids go absolutely wild. It doesn’t matter what class I’m in. It’s always the same.  “Some of the girls, especially, need a little incentive.” Some things never change. Mass menstruation spreads through gym classes like a plague whenever there’s a substitute.  The boys complain of sprained ankles and stomach cramps.  Substituting is one of the hardest jobs for people with little patience. The kids all talk about their “rights” and they do everything they can to get you riled. Scream above the cacophony and you’re accused of losing control. The rudeness of power at the administrative level makes what the kids do palatable.

“Not allowed,” she repeated, clucking with her tongue between her teeth a predictable “tisk tisk.”

“I’m sorry,” I lied, acting dutifully ashamed, hanging my head so low I could practically see my face in the  desk’s veneer. Wouldn’t a simple, ‘our parents don’t want us to give the kids candy’ been enough? Did she have to rat me out to my boss? Look, lady, I wanted to say. I am not the problem here, but, of course, I didn’t.

Respecting authority figures had been rule number one in the world I grew up in. My favorite teacher in 9th grade would rip up our papers if we had a comma off on a poem we’d memorized and make us do redo it.  I still have problems with commas even though the spirit those poems were written in has had a sustaining influence. But I had failed to grow along with the times, always that nice little girl one might want to take a hammer to. And here I was an adult. Shame on me. I should have known sugar was bad.  On the way out, in the hall, I gave a wink to the statue of the Blessed Mother, a sacrilege to some.  I knew I wasn’t coming back. Not on your life. There had to be a job out there that didn’t require Step and Fetchit routines, where respect was given for a job well done. Ultimately, I would end up driving taxi at night in a profession where few women dared because of the danger. There, blending into the shadows, where I could maintain a modicum of dignity, I would learn to have the patience of Job.

 

2 comments on “Rachel Cann, 7/1/2013
  1. Jan Priddy says:

    “Substituting is one of the hardest jobs for people with little patience. The kids all talk about their ‘rights’ and they do everything they can to get you riled.”

    I was a sub over an eleven year period just before and long after my boys were born until I could get a regular teaching job. I subbed in every classroom, K-12, in my district, including Band, though I played no instrument, Spanish, though I couldn’t past seven, and PE, though the equipment was stored in the boys locker room. Subbing was an essential step in my development as a teacher. I mimicked the persona of the teacher I was teaching for, and I learned a lot about myself along the way.

  2. This is one of Rachel Cann’s finest stories. The narration is credible, true and funny, yet stunning in its eloquent simplicity. A wise and witty read. Bravo!

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