Monday, June 05, 2006


(Roosevelt Revisited)

The heat of the summer is easing onto the Cumberland Plateau, public swimming pools open Monday, there have only been three newspaper reports involving my students, most of the hail damage from two months ago has been repaired at my house, and I have managed not to drive by my high school. During the summer break I make it a point to take alternate routes when I leave my house to avoid driving by the government school where I teach. This is difficult to do when you live less than sixty seconds away. Another difficult task to accomplish is avoiding current and former students. By my last count there are forty-one students living within a two-mile radius of my house. However, except for a few incidents I seldom encounter them during the summer break. Then there is Washington.

My personal joke has long been that Washington is the son I never wanted. He was a three-year freshman until he turned eighteen. Then, as his mother expected, he dropped out over a year ago. It had not mattered that his girlfriend was going to have a baby, that he did not have a job, he was jailed at the time, and was turning eighteen going on ten-years-old mentally. All of this aside I like Washington.

I despise mowing grass. This must be a holdover from my childhood, but I have not bothered to analyze it to deeply. Weed-eating, on the other hand, brings me a degree of pleasure. I suppose the violence of the whirling plastic string impresses me, so about once a week I beat back the invading weeds in the yard. There may even be a correlation between weed-eating and teaching, but I don’t want to get to psychologically involved and spoil the weed-eating.

Through my safety goggles I watched the dandelions sacrifice themselves to the spinning machine. I felt the stick strike my side and turned to see Washington standing in my driveway. He was not alone. In his arms he held his eight-month-old daughter. This was not the first time I had met Mia. Washington, his unmarried “wanna-be” bride, and Mia had visited their former high school several times. This was however the first time he and the baby had come visiting at my home.

“What’s happening dude,” he ask while shifting Mia to his other arm?

“Just baking a tuna fish casserole.” This was not the first time he had heard me say that, but it always caused him to laugh. This time was no different. “What you doing Washington?”

“Me and Mia are just out cruising.”

“Where’s her mother?”

“She had a doctor’s appointment.”

“Shouldn’t you be with her?”

“No man. She told me to take Mia, that she would be fine.”

“Huh uh…… you always believe what she says?” I didn’t feel like explaining some things today. How it would have been appropriate for Washington and Mia to wait at the doctor’s office and that maybe he should shade the baby when they’re out in the bright sunshine. “Let’s rest over here,” I said moving toward the shade of a tree.

We sat down at an old picnic table and he eased Mia down to the surrounding grass. I watched her hesitate to crawl and instead she stared at the blades of grass as only an infant can stare. Washington pulled a cigarette out of a crumpled package and flicked his BIC lighter. He was unaware of anything Mia was doing at his feet.

One thing I found useful when dealing with former or current students, on a personal level, was knowing the answer to questions before I asked, “How come you’re not at work?”

Mia and her mother lived with her mother and grandmother while Washington resided at his mother’s house. The two houses were only a block apart, but could have been light years away from each other. “I had to take-off while Christy went to the doctor’s.”

Washington was not above telling me an untruth. He had not been employed for three weeks. He and a group of friends, all but him under the age of eighteen, were involved in a fight at a local Wal-Mart parking lot. Washington was arrested after hitting one of the kids a glancing blow with a hammer. He was incarcerated in the “big people’s jail” while the other participants all went to juvenile detention. He was unable to find anyone to “go bail” until his mother convinced her live-in friend, Julie, that she had to do something for her granddaughter’s welfare and father. His court date was still three weeks away. Because he was locked up for three weeks the local faux Pottery Barn had filled his position with another of my former students.

“How are Christy’s GED studies going?” About a year ago she decided it would be better if she worked on getting a GED diploma instead of getting up so early and being confined to a government school all day. If I had a dollar for every former student that decided a GED was the route to go and failed to achieve the goal my retirement fund would be very bloated.

“She’s going to get back to it when Mia gets a little older.”

“Are you still living at your mom’s house?”

“Yeah, just until I get my own place.” He knew as well as I did that he would live with her until she or her friend couldn’t stand having him around any longer. Mom’s friend Julie was the catalyst for him being evicted earlier. She did not like having others in the house. Before Julie moved in she often said Washington was a “wonderful boy” and how much she wanted him around. Afterwards he became a pest and was forced out within three weeks. (Love is a many splendored thing!)

We chatted about former students and friends, what he wanted for the future, where he expected to be in five years, the odds he and Christy would ever marry, how much fun Mia is, how Christy’s mother still didn’t like him, but adored Mia, and how his maturity is delayed in coming. The one subject that was long in coming was the real reason he had come to visit me.

My gas weed-eater was cooling down and would need to be re-primed before starting. The weeds were getting a reprieve while we talked. The host of a local PBS garden show frequently says that a weed is anything that grows where you don’t want it to grow. By that definition a rose could be a weed, thistle could be a weed, and Washington could be a weed in his mother’s house and in Christy’s house. At times I sensed he felt lost in life. Like many teenagers he was searching for a direction, a purpose, and perhaps even guidance from others. All of these are especially difficult for Washington to attain. His mother should be a source of guidance, now more then ever, but her life was slipping by and perhaps she felt the need to choose between her needs and his?

“I was wondering if I could float a loan from you. I need some gas so I can get back to the doctor’s office.” I chose not to mention if he had stayed at the office then he wouldn’t need gas money to return. I understood that he just needed to come by and talk. He did not need criticism or a lecture.

“Let me see what I got.” I left him with Mia and went into the house. My billfold was on the table next to the window looking out onto the backyard. While I counted out some dollars I watched him pickup Mia. He held her, said something, and kissed her on each cheek. Perhaps there was hope for him yet? Somehow he had a capacity for love that frequently he hid from the world.

Outside I passed him the money. He didn’t count the bills. I held Mia while he crumpled them into his shirt pocket. Mia is a beautiful child with long, dark, curly hair and infectious smile. Much like her father’s smile. He assured me that he would see me soon before he drove away in the rattle-trap old Thunderbird.

I returned to my weed-eating knowing all I can do is delay the growth of the dandelions. Hopefully, Washington is only delayed in his growth.