Friday, April 10, 2009

An "Incremental" Education

Here in central Illinois, my 14-year-old daughter attends what's called a "middle school," as opposed to what I attended back in the seventies in suburban Chicago -- a junior high. I'm still not quite sure of the difference, but I've been told that a middle school takes a more "cumulative" approach than a junior high, gently reminding students over the course of two years of all they've learned in grade school, providing them with a warm and pleasant transition into the big, tough world of high school. Whatever the difference, I do know that the separation of students into "teams" is still there -- Orange team and Red team, in my daughter's case, while we had Alpha, Beta, Gamma, and Delta. And as much as both types of school will claim that these teams have been randomly assigned, I know that every single kid in each seems to understand which team has the "smart kids" and which the "dumb."

I also know that, in contrast to my own junior high way back when, my daughter's school does not provide instruction in foreign languages or, to my ongoing dismay, a final grand field trip like the one to Washington, D.C., that my sister and I had the honor and privilege of experiencing in our own sophisticated and history-conscious 8th grade.

Unfortunately, the main things that I remember from that glorious trip are that my sister threw up and had to go home early; my best friend, Judy, and I almost missed the bus as we frantically ran down the million steps of the Washington Monument; we met a cute Englishman who used the word "pricey" instead of "expensive"; and ... I peed in my pants.

I seem to have come late in life to everything -- intercourse, marriage, child-bearing, divorce -- and peeing in my pants was no exception. When we got off the plane in D.C. and boarded the bus that was bound for our hotel, I sort of had to "go," but only a little bit, so, when the last invitation was made to anyone who had to use the bathroom before the bus's folding door clapped shut, I got cozy in my then-dry seat and said nothing, confident I could hold it for the short trip to the hotel. Little did I know that the "short trip" (a figment of my naive imagination) would turn into an hour or more and I would soon be trapped on the Ride from Bladder Hell.

I don't know exactly when it happened -- my own less-than-pleasant (but literally warm) transition from relative comfort (gazing out the window at the passing lights of Washington) to intense, excruciating pain. Before I knew it, my bladder had filled with an ocean and instead of pondering museums and monuments, I was using monumental control to relieve my pain little by little, in the smallest installments possible without dampening too far my red-corduroy bell-bottom pants (hey, this was the seventies) or being detected by anyone else on the bus, namely Judy, who was sitting right next to me. I don't think Judy and I conversed, my job of releasing tiny pee-increments taking the whole of my concentration, leaving me, probably, with just a far-away stare. Needless to say, my "plan" failed. By the time we arrived at the hotel, my seat was slightly pooled, my pants were soaked and stuck to my legs, and there was the very real possibility that Judy herself was moist. Thank god it was November and I was wearing a faux-suede coat long enough to cover at least part of my "relief."

I don't really remember what happened after that -- in what fashion I maneuvered myself off the bus and walked with my drier classmates to the hotel lobby, what excuse I must have made to my roommates for suddenly needing to change clothes, what exactly I did with my shamed corduroy pants. I'm not sure either if Judy, so precariously close to my disaster, even knew what had happened, as she never said a word about it during the whole trip and still has never mentioned it once in thirty-seven years.

I'm looking right now at the landscape photo of all of us (minus sis) gathered before the capitol building on the final day of that trip back in November 1972. All the girls with their long hair parted in the middle; all the boys with their bangs and nerdy glasses. There's Sue Heller and David Malter. Jerry Levy and Linda Wexler. Todd Cohen and Ruth Fink. There's my namesake, Elise Stern. And there I am too -- in that faux-suede coat, my savior, not looking at the camera but staring strangely off, in a somewhat suspicious way, toward the other side of the group. Perhaps I'm looking at Judy, standing for some reason far away from me at the other end, a big smile on her face.

Thursday, April 9, 2009

The Strange Case of the Missing Scarf

When I picture a Lost and Found, it looks like this: a space in a school gymnasium or at the back of Wal-Mart, a rummagable tub of stray umbrellas, knit caps, and single mittens.

But attending a conference in Chicago recently with my partner, Ray, I got a whole new picture. At the Chicago Hilton, where furs and jewels pass continuously through the lobby, the Lost and Found is a secret locked room located deep in the Security Office (a simplified version of Headquarters in "Get Smart"), where you press the buzzer and a uniformed security officer lets you in, where you file a report of your lost item and wait.

And wait we did when, after a painstaking search of our double-bathroom, 12th-floor room, we reported that Ray's winter scarf, a present from me last Christmas, was missing.

When it was time to leave the next day, we still hadn't heard any news of the scarf. So, while Ray waited for his truck to be retrieved from valet parking (the attendants, I swear, were dressed exactly like the witch's guards in The Wizard of Oz), I ran back to Security for one last try.

I rang the secret buzzer, and when the security officer let me in, I recapped the story of the missing scarf. At his desk far behind the impassable counter, he flipped through his official log, then said, "Were you at Kitty O'Shea's at all? A scarf was found at Kitty O'Shea's."

Kitty O'Shea's was the hotel bar where we'd eaten lunch the day before. "Why, yes," I said as it dawned on me, "we were." And as well-meaning as Gomer repaying Andy for saving his life, vacuuming for him at two in the morning, I offered to go get the scarf myself, when.... The security officer told me to stay put. He got on his walkie-talkie, and a second security officer was dispatched to Kitty O'Shea's.

During a ten-minute wait (while the scarf, I supposed, was being dusted for fingerprints), I thought about Ray out there, wondering how his broken toe was doing, but mostly if he'd tipped the valet parking attendant. Then SO2 returned, carrying a white bag. Still in Gomer mode, I smiled at him broadly, holding out my hand. But instead of giving me the bag, SO2 went around me and behind the counter, officially handing it to SO1.

Then SO1, looking down into the bag, said to me, "Can you describe it?"

Suddenly, I was a baffled freshman in one of my own composition classes. Suddenly, I wasn't sure that I wasn't a pathological scarf-snatcher, a secret agent about to steal the scarf-concealed microfilm. "Uh ... it's gray," I stammered suspiciously. "Gray plaid ... I think."

Obviously, I couldn't be trusted. And so, when SO1 pulled out Ray's scarf, which was actually mostly brown, and I chirped "That's it!" and he simply handed it to me, I was a little disappointed in the whole official process. (Like being handed a bag of gold that you've just described as silver.)

Still, I had the scarf back! I was giddy with mission-accomplished satisfaction, and I turned to go when....

(Not so fast there, ma'am) SO1 reached into his desk and pulled out ... THE RELEASE FORM. Not only did they need yet a third description of alleged lost item (I recklessly wrote "Gray plaid scarf") but also the day, time and place it was lost (gee, if I'd known that ...), my address and driver's license number, and my official signature.

Finally, after I thanked SO1 for his time and trouble (he dropped the Jack Webb routine for a moment and smiled), with the white bag in my clutches, I made my escape past the concierge and the bell captain, through the chandeliered lobby, back to Ray and Charleston, where the next time we lose something, we'll only have to rummage.

published in the Hometown Herald Winter 2004

Wednesday, April 8, 2009

Dialing Childhood

When I was twelve, the year some kids started "making out" and sneaking cigarettes, I walked to the drugstore alone and made a secret purchase, nervously doling to the cashier the money I'd saved up, then racing home with my heart pounding, clutching the brown paper bag as I bounded up the stairs to my bedroom, making sure the door was locked before I crinkled open the now-sweaty bag and pulled out ... my new toy telephone.

I don't know what I was thinking, except that I'd never had one before, and ... my family must never find out. My new phone was plastic, of course, thin and cheap, a lemony, too-yellow yellow no real phone would ever come in. The receiver, attached by a fake curly cord like a pig's tail, was hollow, both ends dotted with phony "holes," and under the clear dial that jingled flimsily as it spun (an anemic tricycle bell), the numbers were only stickers. No way to plug it in, smooth and solid in the back, my phone was an imposter, connected to nothing but itself.

But in its capabilities, my toy phone far surpassed the real phone downstairs. After school each day, the facts of the teacher's voice and multiplication far behind me, I'd sit on the central of my bed, dialing and dialing the endless numbers of my imagination, "talking" to far-away people in any country I chose, "listening" and nodding as they spoke back to me. As swiftly as spinning the globe, my finger spun the dial, and though I might have used the few words of French I'd learned in school, no language barriers existed. Before it became Sri Lanka, I must have called Ceylon (a fifty-digit number?), reaching in an instant over the ocean, transported out of my ordinary neighborhood to a lush, exotic place as fascinating as its name.

Not only could my phone "take me" to any place I wanted to go but it was also a miniature time machine, enabling me to cross on a whim from the present to the past and back, to converse one moment with an ancient king perhaps, chat with my favorite rock star the next. Not tethered to the adult world or the wall, my phone was immune to any physical laws. And there was never any bill; it was all free. I don't know if I ever dialed outside the Earth's atmosphere, asked some creature from Pluto how his distant day was going, but I certainly could have if I'd desired.

When it was time to "hang up," when the real voice of my mother called "time for supper" up the stairs, I'd slip the phone into my dresser drawer, frantically smothering its jingle beneath my socks and underwear, smoothing everything over the bulge until tomorrow.

Like my daughter now, I would usually come home cranky from school, exhausted by the long day of blackboards and grades, trapped in my scratchy dress. Lugging my books, I'd trudge through the back door sourly, grunting to my mother's inquiries, not wanting to talk. But something was different about talking on my phone, and during that secret time -- a week? a month? -- I'd rush from the school bus to my room, thrilling as I eased my phone from the drawer like a thief, inserted my finger in the steering wheel of the dial. On my phone, no one ever nagged or reminded me, and the dull minutia of life was filtered out. On my phone, I always said the right thing, smart and funny and interesting. On my phone, I could tell my fears, my crimes without judgment; I was always believed, understood, and heard. After eight hours of following someone else's rules, the phone belonged entirely to me, and I was soothed by the pacifier of its cheerful jingle, the smooth, cool dial. Plus, time was running out. There on my bed, while my sister was out with friends, I made my "calls" with a certain urgency, anxious that she might walk in, of course, but also as though I knew....

At what moment does each of us finally "disconnect"? When was it -- when I woke one morning? -- that I preferred the heavy blue Princess phone my parents had bought for me and my sister, to chat with my real friends about boys and clothes? Lately, I've been struggling to figure out my own 12-year-old daughter's "moment," exactly when it was her connection went dead, when the voices of her stuffed animals faded out of range, replaced by those of her girlfriends in cell-phone texts and instant messaging. It has me stumped.

My mother has been gone for years now, but I'd like to know, too, her reaction that day she was putting away laundry and finally found my secret I'd carelessly forgotten -- not a love note or a boy's number or a pack of cigarettes, but a yellow toy phone. If I had that phone back, I'd ask her.