I use to love going to work when I was a teacher. I loved going to work. . . . except for the last few years. A lot of things changed and not all of the change was good. In fact, most of it was bad. My wife of thirty-one years left me and later died of brain cancer. My dad died a few months before, and I developed a bad sinus infection which ended up turning into tinnitus. The tinnitus caused me to lose lots and lots of sleep which in turn deepened the depression that I developed after my wife left.
Still, I was coping. And that was a good thing because it helped me to look at a lot of things inside myself that I had studiously avoided looking at for most of my life. I remember as a kid being in the Corcoran Theater watching a horror movie when an ersatz Mummy and Frankenstein were paid to walk down the aisles of the darkened theater. My brother and his friend tried to hide beneath their seats, but I sat resolutely upright determined to be brave, but I kept my eyes closed the whole time. That is the overriding metaphor for my life.
The notion of epiphanies is very suspect to most people. As a result, I've always downplayed the meaning of the three great epiphanies that I had which changed my life. These events really happened. I didn't imagine them. I felt those intense feelings and thoughts and viewed the world a bit differently because of them.
The last one, I have been using to drive my search for meaning during the last four years. It felt like the Universe gave me a sudden shove while I was driving North in the middle of a highway, and I ended up turned around in a lane heading south looking at the world a little to the side of normal; it was a place where I could see a little of what's hidden behind the billboards, the facades and the props that are being used to create the scenes in the greatest theatrical presentation of all.
The place where this new perspective caused me the most problems was in my job. I was no longer content to teach what other people said I should teach because I could see that it was wrong. I could see that it was shit and could smell the stench of it before I entered the gates.
I wanted to teach my students how to see things from different perspectives, to be able to understand the motives of those who pass lies off as truth, and to see the hidden often transcendent beauty in small things such as faucets, doorways and window glass.
Needless to say, when you are being paid to read from a script, and, instead, you are often found praising the view from behind billboards, some good people (I used the term loosely because the bar is set so ridiculously low) are going to look at you rather strangely.
It was at staff meetings where my frustrations took full possession of me. I would sit there with my compatriots bored out of my mind, listening to speaker after speaker sound like they were gargling with oatmeal. I spent most of my time trying to figure out why they had all decided to eat oatmeal at those most unfortunate of times.
Then it dawned on me; they were trying to get us to do something which involved swallowing large amounts of oatmeal without masticating. From there, I could only surmise, that someone wanted us to teach this skill to our students. Why? I don't know; I still haven't figured out the why.
I had held the belief that the great poet Dante Alighieri had been somewhat silent on the issue of education when he wrote the Divine Comedy, but then I realized that he left a lot of clues that there was a hidden pit located between the sheer rock walls of 8th Circle as he and Virgil descended into the 9th Circle, and it was a pit where those unrepentant adults who had greatly misled children in their lives were embedded into the walls and forced to always live in the closest of proximity to the children who they had misled, stunted children with childishly cruel faces and the bodies of adults who never became who they were meant to be and who rent the infernal darkness with their tormented screams and curses.
I came to this new belief after being influenced by a powerful dream I had in the early hours of a morning where I was not locked into a deep sleep pattern but was left floating half awake in a dimly lit and somewhat smokey state of being between this world and the other when a dark apparition wearing a grimy gray toga, a black hooded robe, and carrying a gnarled wooden staff suddenly walked through my bedroom door and bade me rise.
I tried to argue that I was still half asleep. But the figure, whose breath reeked of Olde English 800 and cigarettes, spat out angrily, "Get your lazy ass out of bed, motherfucker! I ain't got no time for this shit!" At first, he said it in Latin but grew frustrated at my lack of understanding. When he shook his staff at me and translated it into modern slang. His hood slipped a little, and I saw he looked a lot like Steve Buscemi, but not as Buscemi looked in Reservoir Dogs, but more like he did in that bad dream sequence that Tony Soprano had after killing his character off.
The image of Steve Buscemi wearing a dirty toga and shaking a gnarled staff at me got me out of bed. I bent over to put on my shoes, but the Buscemi thingy motioned me to stop. "Here put this on," he picked up the wife-beater I had worn the night before from off of the floor and tossed it my way. "You won't be needing shoes; you'll need to feel the floor."
I grabbed the shirt and pulled it on quickly. "Why don't I need shoes?"
He looked at like me like I was the stupidest son of a bitch in the whole world and held that expression for a minute and half before replying, "Are you going to ask a question every time I make a statement?"
His eyes warned me that the question was rhetorical, so I just shook my head no.
"Good." He motioned for me to follow and stepped into my opened closet door. Before I followed, I looked down at my lamp table and grabbed a silver Pentel pen with black ink and a yellow Hi-Liter. Don't ask me why. I was a teacher remember. There might be something on this journey that needed underlined and highlighted.
I was surprised when I stepped through the closet door; instead of seeing a bunch of oversized dress shirts, a random pile of shoes, and a stack of black Dockers, I found myself on a narrow path that ran along a dirty beige colored mountain wall. Leaning over a bit, but not too much, as I was afraid of falling, I could see a huge river of red molten lava. I could smell the odor of sulphur and rotten eggs and feces. Alright, I'll take credit for the feces as the suddenness of the moment had caused me to break wind. It was a nervous condition type of thing. Even in my dreamlike condition, the fart smell was eye watering.
The Buscemi guy was about ten yards down the trail beckoning me to follow him. This should have been another red flag as I had been in this closet over ten thousand times and knew it was only 3 1/2 feet deep, eight feet wide and ten feet high. Yet I could feel the warmth and grittiness of the path beneath my feet, and the sulfurous smoke rising from lava below was stinging my eyes.
I didn't move until I asked him a question, "Who the hell are you?" I also wanted to ask why we were doing this but didn't want to risk it.
"My name is Virgil, you know the Aeneid guy. I know you read a lot, so I didn't bother to introduce myself. You can call me Virg."
"Sorry, I didn't look on the back cover because they didn't have any fucking author photos back in those days." I was tempted to add a "Duh!" in there, but he started shaking the staff again, so I bit my tongue.
He gave me a look that clearly stated, "If you don't zip it, I'm gonna push your ignorant ass off this path, and then you'll see if you land on a pile of your sneakers or in that great molten river of lava that you can plainly see!" He pointed with his staff at the lava and made a big issue of showing that the staff was going back and forth much deeper than would have been possible if the floor, my floor, had been in place. So, I shrugged and followed.
I clung to the wall as I walked slowly downward. The wall was concrete and painted beige with blue trim. It was also filthy and begrimed with caked-on mud. The gum strewn pathway had a yellow line right down the middle, and periodically we passed a series of blue doors with narrow inset windows so dirty and covered with small finger prints that you couldn't see into the rooms they accessed at all. Several times I stubbed my toe on small brass doorstops and cursed loudly. Virg would chuckle every time I strung the word motherfucker into a near endless string of cursing. He would also mumble the words"dumbass" under his breath.
We had walked for a long while, and my legs were getting very tired, not to mention the fact, I think that both of my big toes were broken. Virg finally stopped next to a dirty blue door and pulled out a large brass key, undid the lock and pulled the creaking door open. He stopped for second and typed in the alarm code. I could see he typed in the numerals 696969, and instantly knew we were at a junior high. I was mad at myself as the stench of sulphur alone should have alerted me to that fact.
He snapped on the light, a forty watt no less, and in the dimness I could see I was in some sort of a hellish looking room, and then, noticing all the moldy, spider-webbed covered books, I could see we were in a middle school library, I was fairly certain it was a middle school library because I saw the words "FOOK U" carved into the door as I entered.
When my eyes finally became more accustomed to the light, I could see that every person I had ever worked with in my entire teaching career was sitting at the tables in the room, in tiny little chairs made for small children. The teachers didn't look the least bit comfortable and most of them were grumbling and cursing under their breaths.
They looked, however, like they had no material substance. So, I naturally intuited that these were the souls of the teachers who toiled in the world above and who labored for the administrators who were members of a secret arm of the Flat Earth Society who had been driven underground by the efforts of Galileo and his friends.
It was a well known fact that Galileo harbored great resentment over his treatment at hands of Cardinal Bellarmine and had spent the rest of life sneaking into Mass, hiding in the rafters, and waiting until the priest was spreading incense all around before shouting "But it moves! But it moves!"
I started for the door, but Virg barred the way out with his staff and bade me to find a seat and get uncomfortable. When I sat down, my knees poked me in my chest, but I remained silent. Then the room got a little brighter at the front where a podium was placed before a screen, and a guy came strolling in wearing a neon yellow suit and a bright purple bowtie. The guy looked a lot like Principal Skinner from the Simpsons, so I naturally assumed he was the principal.
My assumption was validated when a big toothy blonde to his left, wearing a skimpy silver lame outfit and two large Marilyn Monroe breasts stood up and said, "Please rise and give it up to the great, the magnificent, the all-seeing Principal Seymore O'Nuttin." She then pushed a key on her laptop and the scratchy sound of people applauding roared through the overhead speakers. She fumbled with the volume, finally got it down to a manageable level, let it continue for a few seconds before shutting it off and sitting back down.
The only people who paid attention to this entrance were sitting at the three front tables. Their hands had been in a raised position for years before I had entered the room, and they were chattering like a bunch of demented chipmunks. They had the evil looking smiles of Hitler Youth, shiny foreheads, and eyes that were covered with the glaze that bakers use to dip doughnuts.
The people in the back were either on-line shopping for things like fluorescent lingerie, digital toenail clippers, and vegan dog food, or else they were playing the Sisyphus version of Candy Crush. The weirdest thing was they all had their earbuds in to block out the sound of the meeting.
Principal O'Nuttin took a bit bite of oatmeal and started gargling. It took a few minutes but the oatmeal went down, and I could then make out what he was saying. His conversation went something like, "Gobbly Gook, Gobbly Gook, Gobbly Gook, Test Scores! Gobbly Gook! Gobbly Gook! Test Scores! Gobbly Gook, Very Good."
I mean he was actually saying the words Gobbly Gook! You thought I was using that for alliterative effect, but I'm not, and when he said the words Very Good, he applauded, and the lady with the Marilyn Monroe breasts stopped filing her fingernails and applauded too.
The raised hands people in the front started jumping up and down and vying for his attention. O'Nuttin gestured for them to put their hands down, and they did but only half way down and only for a second. He started speaking again, this time without the oatmeal. "If we are going to get out of here in three hours, I'm going to have to be the only one who speaks. Capiche?" He looked over at his assistants who were wearing burlap robes and wore their hair in the tonsures of the Medieval church. They were pounding rolling pins into the palms of their hands and snarling like chained dogs often do.
He started speaking again. "Gobbly Gook, Gobbly Gook, Gobbly Gook, Data. Gobbly Gook, Gobbly Gook, Gobbly Gook, Curriculum." And when he said the word curriculum, he pointed at a heaping pile of shit on the table in front of him. There was white folded piece of construction paper in front of it with the word CURRICULUM printed on it and a happy face. Then he and the lady applauded again, and he finished by giving everybody in the room two big thumbs up, and I mean big because he was wearing two of big foam rubber things like the true fans wear at ball games.
After he motioned for the chipmunks in front to settle down. The room grew still for a second. I had had enough and started talking, "Hey Principal O'Nuttin that isn't real testing data. It's the back of a damn Cheerios box."
At first he was stunned. He looked over at his Vice Principals and shrugged and his lips silently mouthed the words, "What the F?" Finally, looked directly at me and said, "I can assure you that this top notch data."
I rose my feet, "Cheerio boxes are certainly very truthful; I don't dispute that. What I tried to point out is it is not actually testing data."
He immediately spat out his reply, "It is too. I was assured that it is 100% certified by the state and is accepted as such in the halls of Academia throughout the land."
The people in the front rows turned to face me, jumping up and down and trying to get my attention. I ignored them. I saw some of the others in the rear taking their earbuds out.
"But that's a lie. I will admit the Cheerios box is probably just as valid as the actual test scores, but it is not actual test data!"
He jumped into the fray with both feet. If he had been wearing a rising sun bandana, he would have looked exactly, well maybe a little bit like the Karate Kid, and I mean the Ralph Macchio version. " You admitted that it works as well, so it's a moot point. But tell me, how could a bumbler like yourself, so easily discern the difference?"
When I answered, it was in the voice of Mr. Miyagi as I figured it would calm him down some, " It was easy. Your curriculum is actually a big pile of shit. And we all know, Sherlock, that you can't produce valid test scores out of a pile of shit. I mean unless you're like a twisted Rumpelstiltskin guy or something."
"That," he pointed, "is curriculum. I'd appreciate it very much if you called by its correct name," He spoke very calmly this time; evidently my Miyagi voice had worked.
" I could smell it when I came in," I answered matter of factly.
He immediately pointed at me and sneered, "Maybe that was the gas you passed in your closet!"
Everybody started laughing. I mean who doesn't like a good fart joke? Fortunately, I was inured to that type of laughter having been caught scenting the air around me many times before, including the one real embarrassing time at a funeral.
I quickly responded, "And the flies?"
He even had a response to that, "Those are not flies, they are...they are...uh...uh...they are BUTTERFLIES! Yeah, Butterflies!"
"Then taste it!"
He flew into a rage at the suggestion. At one time I thought that, in his anger and confusion, he was going to really dip his finger in the pile, but instead he gestured for his minions to grab me and yelled, "You can't eat it. It's curriculum. People do not eat curriculum, Stupidstoopystupidopolis!"
"It's not curriculum if you can't eat it," I yelled back. I knew it was an absolutely senseless thing to say, but I needed something to make them stop and think a while, so I could make my escape, and I was saving Hey, Your shoes untied and Look over there in case I was surrounded. I yelled back, "If I am Stupidstoopystupidopolis then you are Analretentiveananalopalis!"
Then, while they were all mulling over the efficacy of eating curriculum, I dropped down on my knees and began crawling beneath the tables toward a door I had noticed at the rear of the room. It was crowded down there with feet and purses and stuff, and I saw things that I'll never share with another human being, but, before too long I stood up in front of the door. I heard someone from the front screaming, " If you wrote it out with bacon strips, you could too eat it!"
I saw the minions just when they saw me by the door. They pointed me out to O'Nuttin, and so I yelled, "You're rendering their hopes and dreams in bacon fat!" I knew this statement also had nothing do with anything; I just liked the word render, you know the way that it can be used render unto Caesar or render it in lard equally well.
I had been waiting for years to use it in a sentence and because no one was rendering anything in lard anymore or rendering jack shit to Caesar; it seemed like the perfect opportunity. I opened the door and darted through wishing I could have found an opportunity to squeeze the word buffet into the conversation.
Virg was waiting outside, leaning against the wall under a no smoking sign and sucking on a vape pen. When he saw me, he stood up straight and started to put the vape pen in his pocket, but remembered he was wearing a toga, and reluctantly tossed it over the side of the path which was exactly like the other path except on the opposite side. "So soon? Most fools stay in there near forever. In fact, you are the only one I know of who ever came out that rear door. I'm impressed."
"I think I may also be the only one who ever noticed that the curriculum was a big pile of shit."
He started down the path but then turned over his right shoulder and said, "So, that's what they're calling it nowadays."
At that moment, the rear door slammed opened and the tonsure headed threesome came running out in pursuit. I was trapped. Virg blocked the way forward, so I waited until they were close and jumped over the side shouting, " Wisdom would rather be buffeted than not listened too!" I smiled as I saw them scratching their bald heads as I fell.
Then PLOP! I woke up on my closet floor with a hanger in my ear and black Oxford dress shoe between my thighs wedged into an area where no shoe should ever be. I sat up, breathed in deeply, and took in my surroundings.
When I finally managed to stand up, I looked over at the clock. It was 6:30 AM, the time I usually got up and showered for work. I sat down on the bed to shut the alarm off before it rang. That was when I remembered that it was Wednesday, staff meeting Wednesday. I thought about it for a moment then climbed back under the covers, pulled my pillow over my eyes and started mumbling, "Virg! Virg! Help me, Virg!"
I fell back asleep for ten minutes, or long enough for Virg to sit me down on the suitcase hidden in the right corner of the closet. He gave this advice. "You are talking to a vaper/vapor* in a bedroom closet. The universe might be trying to tell you something, Bud."
I retired from teaching the following June.
* Notice how I set that up?:)