Saturday, May 3, 2014

If It's a Paper Moon, I'm Going to Strangle Myself

It's scary story time at The Crooked Clothesline. Curl up with your laptop and a bowl of popcorn to enjoy this frightening work of fiction. I do hope you're not afraid of the dark. Oh, no, not THAT kind of dark. I'm referring to the dark landscape of the human mind...

I’m writing this using the voice-to-text feature on a borrowed Mac. They don’t let you have a pencil in a place like this. Apparently, they think you might try to jab yourself to death with it. Or maybe they’re worried you’ll go for one of them. Poke a pin-sized hole in an nurse’s jugular or something.  Well, that’s fine with me. I’m done with the paper-pencil method of writing. But to be honest, it’s not the pencil that scares me. No, the thing that sends a tremor through my heart is the paper.

I used to love paper. It was fresh, crisp and inviting. Beautiful. Seriously, I would stand in the stationary section of a store and admire all the paper products. Mouthwatering reams of the stuff. Packages of college ruled loose leaf with empty lines in neat, straight rows, like a freshly furrowed garden waiting to be planted with words. Sketch pads with wide empty spaces of white sky longing for someone to coax a world into existence at the end of charcoal pencil. Notebooks were like treasure boxes eager to be filled with one of my most valuable imagination.

But now the very sight of it...a neat stack spring-clipped together, a pad of construction paper, composition notebooks...the very sight of it leaves me short of breath, like I'm standing shoulder-deep in the Pacific and the entire ocean is slowly pressing the air out of my lungs.

I know now that it really started twenty years ago, when I thought I should make a sensible career choice, although, understandably, my coworkers think it started last fall.  It was the first day of the new school year.  All of us teachers were gathering in the library, filling plastic plates with fresh fruit and bagels provided by the PTO and settling in for a day-long meeting. Our principal was opening the meeting with a warm welcome. She soon instructed us to open our calendars. I flipped mine open, a little sad that all those clean, white spaces had to be marred with numbers - bossy, rigid dates and times. We all proceeded to cram pack those calendars full of deadlines and due dates and demands, mandatory events, and life-sucking expectations.

It seemed to me that this was how the school year always started. It was like the principal held up the starting pistol and discharged it with a startling bang. Then everyone was off! Running and running and we couldn’t stop for breath. But I had to. And I did often.
For example, one Wednesday night, early in the first quarter, I arrived home later than usual after returning a few parent phone calls. I came in the front door, walked past a partially covered sketch pad on my easel in the corner and set a small stack of math tests on the kitchen table, intending to grade them before the evening was over. By the time I had finished supper dishes and written a social studies quiz for the next day, it was eight o’clock. I leaned against the kitchen counter, looking back and forth between the stack of tests and the sketch pad in the corner. It didn’t seem healthy to spend every waking moment on my job. I slid a chair over to the easel.

The next day, I came home with the math tests and the social studies quizzes but there was no time to grade them. I had to run back to school because it was my turn to represent fourth grade at the PTO meeting. Mandatory. By Friday, the tiny stack had grown to include reading, spelling and grammar tests as well as various homework assignments.  I stuffed the messy pile into a canvas book bag to keep it contained on the way home. It was going to be a busy weekend of grading.  I was on my way out the door with the heavy bag cramping my shoulder when Brenda, one of my teammates, hollered at me.

“See you tomorrow morning!”

“What?  What are you talking about?”

“District training all day. From 8am to 3, remember?”

“Are you kidding me?”

“You know," she explained,"about the new standards.  Laura, didn’t you write it in your calendar?”

I dropped the twenty pound bag on the floor and dug through it for my calendar.

“Oh.  I guess I didn’t.  Looks like I doodled a cute mermaid, instead.”

After attending class all day Saturday, I managed to grade only a couple of assignments on Sunday, in between church, the grocery store and working on next week’s lesson plans. So night after night the following week, I could only glance longingly at the half-finished drawing in the corner as I lugged into my kitchen a plastic crate on wheels, overloaded with a teetering pile of homework and tests. Throughout the semester, it continued - festivals, committee meetings, parent-teacher conferences, staff training, all at dizzying speed.

“Ms. Jameson,” a child's voice asked, “are you okay?”

I turned from the whiteboard, dry erase marker in hand, to stare blankly at the girl seated in the front row.

“What do you mean, Kylie?”

“You stopped explaining how to find an equivalent fraction about five minutes ago and started doing...well, that.”

I turned back to the board and was shocked to see a detailed rendering of a life-size horse. It was pretty good. Still, I started to wonder what kind of counseling services my insurance might cover. I never got around to checking into that, though, because by the week before Christmas break, I was carting around three large packing boxes in the backseat of my car, each one hiding a shameful hoard of ungraded work. I was starting to panic because report cards were due again. What was really disconcerting, though, was the mysterious email I received from the producers of a TLC program that featured crafts made from found objects.  

Dear Ms. Jameson,

We thank you for your email inquiry outlining your proposal to host a weekly show demonstrating how to create wreaths, decoupage end tables and construct museum worthy mobiles all from ungraded school work. Unfortunately, this type of programming would not appeal to our current demographic.

Best wishes,

Finders Reapers

A fluttering, dark cloud of moths rose in my stomach. I had no memory of sending any such email. I began rifling through my purse for my insurance card, hoping to make an immediate appointment with a psychologist, when I was called to the office. Tommy Sheffield's parents had come to see the principal because they were irate with me. Based on the few assignments I had managed to grade, Tommy had F's in two subjects. The kid deserved both but I didn't have the cold, hard evidence to back those grades up. It was somewhere in the paper burial mound that was suffocating my soul, that growing pile of ungraded assignments that I was now dragging around behind my car in a rented U-Haul trailer.

“Ms. Jameson,” the principal said, “it is imperative that you provide the students and their parents with timely feedback.”

“Yes, of course,” I said, looking sheepishly across the table at my principal and Tommy’s glowering parents, “but I just...I just can’t do it.”

“Ms. Jameson, of course, you can do it.  Clearly, you just need to manage your time better.”

“No. I can’t do it.  I can’t do this.  It’s too much.  It’s all too much and I...I suspect I might be having a nervous breakdown.”  I stood up from my chair, trying to remain my polite self. “If I am having a nervous breakdown, I’ll be sure to let you know as soon as possible but for now, you can all blow it out your whazoos.  Oh! Yep! I'm so sorry about that! This is definitely a nervous breakdown!”

Late that night, the fire department received several 911 calls concerning a large bonfire on the school playground. I was found dancing naked around the blazing mountain of school papers. I actually don't remember the incident so when reporters questioned me in the hospital, I didn't have anything of interest to say. They thought they could jog my memory by showing me the photo of myself being arrested but when they handed me the newspaper, I tried to escape by way of the indoor plumbing and had to be sedated.

Now I spend my time making crooked clay ashtrays and yarn dolls. But paper...I signed my consent to be committed on an Etch-a-Sketch.


  1. It's my total favorite. Be careful. You could be encouraging other teachers to take a second look at their career choice. You might tick off the wrong people. Camille might come looking for you. Honestly, Sissy, I worry. But when I read your stuff, I find it so remarkably clever, so exceptionally good that this pragmatist turns ever so briefly into a dreamer.

  2. First of all, congratulations on figuring out how to leave a comment, Mom. :) Secondly, it's all about the fictional character's inability to do what normal teachers manage to do.

  3. Thank you, MikePett. That actually means a lot coming from you. <3


Do be nice to everyone.