The Cane (A History of Jacke in 100 Objects #32)

cane

He was of average height and build, with blond hair and a disconcerting smile: his mouth expanded, his teeth flashed white, but his eyes expressed no joy or excitement. At best they looked nervous and slightly desperate, like those of an animal caught in a trap. At worst they looked dulled over, like the animal resigned to its fate, seconds from death.

With magnanimity I confessed that I hadn’t yet learned his name.

“It’s Kyle,” he said.

I probed for the last name in the time-honored way. “Kyle…?”

Kyle,” he repeated. His dead-eyed smile sprawled across his face.

“Okay. And you’re the one with the roommate who…?”

“I’m sorry about that, Mr. Wilson. I won’t be late again. My dad was angry, but I told my mom what you said about plugging in my alarm clock even though it has batteries and she said you were completely right. I just didn’t know.”

He looked so crestfallen I apologized for not having cared more, though frankly my heart wasn’t really in it.

“…and I’m sorry your father was angry at you,” I concluded.

“He wasn’t angry at me, Mr. Wilson.”

“Okay, then. Well, what can I–”

“He was angry at you.”

I tried to hide my irritation. Angry at me? Because his kid hadn’t managed to come to class on time? Would excusing the tardiness have been fair to the students who had gotten up when they should have, and who had spent twenty-five minutes in an active discussion that Kyle had missed?

Already I wanted Kyle to leave my office. “What brings you here, Kyle?”

He smiled nervously and said that he would be presenting on Friday. Since he was the first one to present, he wondered if I could tell him what the grade would be based on.

“Effectiveness,” I said grandly. “You have to be able to identify the important points and convey them to your fellow classmates. But don’t worry. I’ll be there to make sure things stay on track.”

“Are we graded on creativity? You said we should be creative.”

“Absolutely!” I said. “The best presentations are the ones with energy. Teaching’s not as easy as it looks, you know, especially on a Friday morning on a campus where the parties begin on Thursday nights. Not all students have learned the trick of plugging in their alarm clock.”

This was meant as an olive branch, but he only nodded seriously. I sensed that he was a little dull, and that he knew that this was one of his weaknesses. Something he would have to overcome.

“Have fun with this,” I said. “Surprise me.”

#

On Friday I launched into some preliminaries to warm up the class. I previewed the Michael Pollan essay we would be discussing on Monday. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw Kyle. I didn’t want to stare at him, but he didn’t look too good. He looked gray.

Oh, great. A kid with stage fright for the very first one. Well, this will be good for him. He’ll need to be able to speak in public to advance in this life.

I wrapped up my introductory remarks and turned the floor over to Kyle.

“Kyle’s not here,” a creaky voice said.

I blinked and stared. Kyle had spoken, but it did not sound like him.

“Kyle…?” I said carefully. “Kyle, it’s time for you to…”

As my words trailed off, Kyle finally rose from his desk. He was wearing a robe and holding a plastic pipe. He had some kind of powder in his hair. He shuffled to the front of the room, using a cane for support.

I thought he might have lost his mind.

“Um…okay, everyone, Kyle’s presenting today—the topic is semi-colons, I think.”

“Kyle’s not here!” Kyle said sharply. He had adopted a high-pitched, quavering, old-man’s voice. Air whistled through his teeth as he feigned anger. Continue reading

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Back to School Day 3 – The Real World, The Real World, and The Real World

Here’s where we are in Back to School Week:

Today’s post is a tribute to all those summer jobs. The ones you have to put behind you to get back to the business of school. It’s a story of being pulled in two directions…the “real world,” and the “real world,” and the “real world.”

What does that mean?

Well, the “real world” is the one you work at your summer job. I worked for a farmer picking rocks out of a field, hurling them onto a giant flat-bed trailer, and driving to the edge of the field, where we hurled them all into the grass. I hauled typewriters. Sold Cokes at concerts. Painted houses. Washed clothes. What could be more “real world” than those jobs?

And yet…it wasn’t my real world, exactly. I was a student – if I had a full-time job, or career, or occupation, it was that. I may have worked in the “real world,” and it may have been the actual real world for my colleagues, but that wasn’t really my world. High school, college – that was my “real world.”

And then there was the other “real world” that was looming: the one I would get to after college. I had no idea what that one would be like. But somehow I knew that I would get there. That I was destined for it. Although I may be tempted to cling to the real worlds I was in, the ones I knew, something was going to chew me up and throw me out into the one I didn’t. It was exciting and a little frightening, and I wasn’t sure what it would mean for me or the relationships I had with the people in the first two “real worlds” (summer jobs and schools), who would not be there when I entered the third.

Here’s a story about that choice and how it played out.

#Object #16 – The Laundry:

Those were glorious summers. Every day was different. I would turn up at the laundry as dawn broke. Steam would already be pouring out of the small brown building. Inside, Jerry would be stuffing shirts into one of the giant machines as Inga pulled pants out of the dryer, snapped them straight, and folded them over wire hangers. I would fill the back of the truck with hundreds of work uniforms, hanging on two long bars in five-pack bundles, the hangers tightened together with a twist tie. Then I would head out to the factories and small businesses on the route to deliver a week’s worth of clothes to the lockers or work stations of the men and women who welded machine parts and processed food and manufactured cardboard and assembled airplane governors in southern Wisconsin and northern Illinois. Back in time for lunch, and the cool, quiet afternoons in the laundry before an early evening swim in the pool behind Jerry and Inga’s house, which was out in the country, or the pond they owned a mile away.

And all day long I saw an entrepreneur’s mind at work. It was intoxicating, even though I was headed for other things. When college began I alternated school years of Great Books with summers filled with trucks and nachos and cash. And when graduation came, Jerry made me an offer.

“Ever think about being the ambassador to Mexico?” he asked.

I admitted I had not.

“Okay. Second best job: why don’t you buy the laundry?”

Read the entire story at Object #16 – The Laundry.

And please note: this is NOT the same boss as the one in Object #24 – The Rope. If you’re looking for something funnier and less elegiac, I suggest you try that one. More end-of-summer longing! Bittersweet, of course. But what an outstanding preparation for life!

 

A History of Jacke in 100 Objects #24 – The Rope

rope

I didn’t like my new boss much. On my first day he had me scraping tar off the inside walls of his truck, ten hours in a hot, enclosed space breathing in noxious odors. The second day he blasted “beer farts” all the way to Skokie and back, and I had to sit next to him pretending not to be disgusted. On Wednesday I jumped in the truck and nearly passed out from the toxic chemical smell that greeted me.

“It’s heavy duty paint we got back there,” he explained. “Heavy. Duty.” He narrowed his eyes. “As in, not legal in some states. If you know what I mean.” Continue reading

A History of Jacke in 100 Objects #19: My Roommate’s Books

My roommate arrived before I did; I met his stuff before I met him.

Meeting his stuff first was fine with me, because the truth was that I was a little afraid of him. Wilfred Carter Boiteaux III. From New Orleans. Or maybe of New Orleans? I had not known anyone with a name like that before.

A month earlier we had spoken on the phone. I had expected Thurston Howell but he didn’t sound quite like that. He sounded like a decent guy who would make a good roommate. If anything he sounded as anxious and nervous as me.

And now, as I gazed at his stuff, I saw nothing to concern me. Nothing violent or bizarre; no gaudy signs of wealth. A suitcase, unopened, stood in his closet. A small black-and-white television sat on the corner of the desk, next to the folder of orientation materials we’d received in the mail. On the top of the folder was the yellow sheet with the room assignments, just like the one I had, only in the blank for roommate, his sheet would have my name instead of his own.

Jacke Wilson from Cadbridge, Wisconsin. Just how disappointed had he been to see that?

Well, what could I do about it now? Maybe I’d grow on him.

Then I looked up and noticed something else: his bookshelf. It was completely full.
Continue reading