80: Getting Away from School

80: Getting Away from School

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: Teacher Tales

Getting Away from School

I feel like a fugitive from the law of averages.

~William H. Mauldin

My California town is a tiny burg of a place. It’s mostly a Latino, worker-breeder-feeder for the wealthier communities nearby. And the elementary school I teach in is well… as we say in the lexicon, “challenged.” Challenged is a polite, politically correct way of saying hosed, and we can’t talk about specifics. That “challenged” appellation is why my fellow teacher, Mr. Frost, and I skedaddle ASAP during lunches.

When the clock’s hands hit lunch time we shoot out like a sniper’s 50-caliber shot straight to target. There isn’t much that can slow us down. We have learned over the years that if we stay at school things will find us. Things like problematic parents, crazy kids, saddened secretaries, testy teachers, prickly principals, and saturated superintendents, or a combination of any of them with any variety of the descriptor before the noun. Translation: we boogie. Not that we go far, just across the street, behind the Super Max store.

On one of our getaway days, Mr. Frost drove, as he usually did. He parked in front of Subway while I ran in and ordered one of my three favorite choices, a foot-long, five-dollar: tuna, meatball, or Italian sandwich. I B.S.’ed with the former students working there and Mr. Frost stayed in the car and gnawed halfway through his own homemade sandwich before I rushed back. He drove us the few remaining feet to our lunch spot. This we have done for many years, like clockwork, and we park under a stand of sky-grabbing, peeling eucalyptus trees.

That day, we dug into our sandwiches and bitched about the kids, their parents or, more likely, current guardians, and all the inputs of poverty which make our school “challenged.” We always sit beneath our trees parallel to the highway and try to have a brief respite to detox, to breathe kid-free fresh air, to indulge in a few minutes of relative quiet without the pressing immediate needs of students.

No respite exists even in our shady refuge. Many days we have company, other parked vehicles, containing Latinos on their lunch break. They eye us, assume we are undercover cops, or with Immigration, and most leave with their worried eyes focused in their rearview mirrors. We are rarely alone. A homeless encampment supports the even more desperate. We usually eat and keep our eyes on them, and they on us, as they walk near the car. Rarely do we acknowledge each other. A mutual unspoken treaty of indifference reigns.

Mr. Frost and I started complaining that day. “Man… oh man!” I said. “Never thought I could say I’d have a worse class than last year. But these guys. Jesus H.”

Mr. Frost laughed, “Hey, I warned you. I suffered with those kids all last year. Now they’re yours.” Mr. Frost stopped chewing. “There’s a first.” He pointed at the homeless encampment. “Anglo female down there. She’s coming our way, too.”

“Holy, Holy Cow!” I said as I rolled down my window.

“What are you doing?” Mr. Frost looked worried.

The young woman smiled and stopped two feet from me.

“Mr. Karrer?”

“Chelsey? Chelsey Morgan?”

She smiled, then looked down at the encampment, waved and yelled, “John! Come here!”

“Who’s John?” I asked.

“My hubby.” She yelled again, “John! Come here. Bring the cat. It’s my fifth-grade teacher.”

“Chelsey, this is Mr. Frost.” I pointed at him. “He teaches fourth grade at your old school.” She bent at the knees to look in and waved at him.

Mr. Frost’s eyes got bigger right in front of me. We were getting way out of his comfort zone.

Her hubby John showed up, cradling a gorgeous black cat in his arms. Chelsey explained, “Our friend Roberto got thrown in jail. Nobody’s watching his cat so we’re here on a rescue mission. John came up to the window. Chelsey chuckled. “So what do you think of my husband? Not too many teeth, but he’s still pretty good looking. Lot older than me, but I’ll keep him.”

John protested, “Hey, forty-one isn’t so old.”

They both laughed.

“Chelsey, how old are you now?”

“Twenty-four.”

“Wow. That means I had you fourteen years ago. Hey, do you still have nine brothers and sisters?”

“Nope.” She flashed the inner side of her right forearm. A blue tattoo with the name “Sarah” covered most of it. “You remember Sarah. Her husband killed her about four years ago. Only nine of us now.”

I didn’t dare look at Mr. Frost. We had just oozed way out of my comfort zone too. “Oh… Mr. Karrer. Remember Sun Kim in our class?”

“Sure do. What’s he up to?”

“We were in the hospital last year. Somebody shot Roberto and Sun was there trying to get drugs. He changed since you had him. Well, we have to go feed the cats. Great to see you, Mr. Karrer.”

“Thanks Chelsey,” I said. “Nice to meet you, John.”

The two of them turned and walked down the embankment. I hit the switch to roll up my window.

Mr. Frost and I just looked at each other. “You want the rest of it?” I asked.

“More? There’s more? I can’t process what I just heard. How can there be more?” Mr. Frost shook his head in disbelief.

“The kid she talked about, Sun Kim. His family came from Korea that year. The school put him in my class because of the basic Korean my wife taught me. His mom and my wife became friends. One Thanksgiving Day his family went to Big Sur and Sun saw his mom and dad get swept out to sea by a rogue wave. His mom died. His dad lost everything including his mind. Sun’s been on his own ever since. Poor kid.”

We drove back to school in silence. Sometimes it is hard to get away from school even under our eucalyptus trees.

~Paul Karrer

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