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!

 

Back To School Day 2 – Coaching the Only Girl

To catch you up:

And today, we feature Object # 17 – The Shirts and Skins. The story is about what happens when a single girl plays in an all boys’ league – one that routinely divides up and goes shirts-and-skins. I was her coach; what she told me was a total surprise. But there are many layers of shame going on before we even get to that:  Continue reading

Back to School! Causing a Metaphysical Riot Somewhere Between Michael Jackson’s Thriller and Nirvana’s Nevermind

We start with a quote:

I was starting to believe in the power of this thing, not as a talisman but as a phenomenon. It had to mean something that it – and I – had generated so much consternation. I represented something. To some I was a testament to discipline, to conviction, to inner strength. To others I was a fool who needed to be saved. To many I was both. And to a few I became a symbol of something horrible, something wrong with the world, or humanity; I needed to be exposed as a fraud. Whatever I represented, the principle on which I stood, needed to be expunged.

I started receiving threats. Violence seemed real. Would I die for this?  Object #18 – The Monopoly Game Piece

That’s right! It’s another back-to-school week! Last week we celebrated teachers (when we weren’t celebrating awesome princess ninjas or writers laughing or, um, ourselves. This week I’m running a special celebration of what it means to be a student. Or what it meant for me.

Today’s story: the ever popular story about the Monopoly Game Piece.In which a simple refusal (hello, Bartleby!) splits a high school down the middle. Into the world of believers and unbelievers. And finally, to an encounter with an actual religion, and the way it all circled back on me.

So put on your jeans-and-sweatshirt, pop in some Van Halen, and tape a few Sports Illustrated pictures to the inside of your locker door (if you haven’t forgotten the combo – d’oh!). And here…we…go…!

A History of Jacke in 100 Objects #18 – The Monopoly Game Piece

100 Objects Special: Back to School Week!

Summer’s almost over! Back to school time! This year I thought I’d celebrate the week with a tribute to all hardworking teachers and their achingly confused students…

Jacke Wilson’s Top 5 Stories Celebrating Teachers

Object #7 – The Keyboard*

I started on “Three Blind Mice.” I stopped halfway through. For some reason it sounded terrible.

“There must be something wrong with the piano,” I said.

Miss Steiner reached forward and for a second I thought she might choke me. Instead she seized her clipboard and flung it halfway across the room. It bounced off the top of a kettle drum.

“THERE’S NOTHING WRONG WITH THE PIANO,” she shouted. “IT’S YOU—YOU CAN’T PLAY!”  Read the whole story

Object #10 – The Spitwad

In other classes, the teachers released this energy with a few little quips now and then, letting the students laugh and tease and push back, so the air would clear and the business of learning could begin. It was like the quick open-and-shut of a pressure valve.

Not in Mr. Ward’s class. In Mr. Ward’s class it was all pressure, no valve. For months. Something had to give.

Which brings me to the glorious day when Mr. Ward told a joke. Well, sort of a joke… Read the whole story

Object #14 – The Bass Guitar

I was in a band with my son. A real band. A rock band. Who knew where this would lead? His younger brother liked to bang on things and claimed his favorite instrument was the drum. His mother had a beautiful voice. We wouldn’t be Van Halen or anything, of course. But maybe a few local gigs…? Not now, but maybe in a few years…? Read the whole story

Object #15 – The Coffepot

I had not realized how much courage this was going to require. Ms. Laporte, who was sitting in a student desk at the center of the room, reading words one at a time out of a notebook she kept locked in her desk, was an imposing figure in normal times. When running a bee, she took her intensity to a new level. Her straight black hair was pulled off her forehead and secured in a tight bun, exposing her forehead, which was lined with the permanent anger she kept just below the surface at all times. Read the whole story

Object #23 – The Passage

It was left to the wise professor to provide the comment that took me into a whole new world of literary possibility. Not, in other words, literature as what-have-you-read-I’ve read-that-too. Not lists and check boxes. Something else. Read the whole story

*The Keyboard comes with a special followup, in which I hear from an old friend whose artistic father memorialized the music teacher in a fantastic painting.

Onward and upward, everyone!