Wednesday, February 1, 2012

First Period: November, 1971

It wasn't raining, at least not yet.

Instead of a slog through tire ruts ankle deep in cold mud, on this morning the alley behind my house was a crisp one. Where puddles of brown water would have otherwise been soaking, there were pockets of ice, dotting down the path like a thin layers of white candle wax. The route stretched five blocks, dead-ended on the same block as the High School. The last minutes of a full moon dangled pale on the horizon, as if a faded Christmas ornament, drifting alone. It was starting out to be a beautiful day.

I could hardly remember a morning- a sunny morning - when at least one gull had not straggled in from the banks of the Skagit, a couple miles south, for a morning sweep over town, and there were usually several. Motionless, they swayed in wide arcs a hundred feet high, north to south, east to west, coasting on the same cold breeze that swept the hair out of my face as I headed to school. My hair was still summer-blond, almost but not quite genuine hippy-length, it was still longer than the local male masses, most of which adhered to shorter (though equally rumpled) styles, cuts which often included lots of bangs sloping right or left, the rest maybe touching the ears but hardly ever much past the collar. Except in the case of the occasional wild mullet, which numbered under a dozen.

I was aiming himself at the vanishing point of the alley and the blue, making my way as shadows and sunlight flickering across my face to First Period. Which in my case meant Junior Art. An elective, Art was conducted in one of the half-dozen shabbier, basement classrooms at my high school, one with just two windows on two walls, both which opened to a ground-level view not up and to the sky, but to rain spouts and more walls of brick situated close enough that updward they were all you saw until eclipsing your line of vision.

Because of it's subterranean location and often shabby selection of paints and other art supplies, I had come to presume that Art had become one of the underfunded classes in my school. While this notion did not rank high on my list of daily meditations, I'd nonetheless resolved that the reason for this was due to (although I was aware I had no way of ever knowing for certain) - to one or both of two things: the general lack of esteem placed upon the subject itself by school administrators; or the timid, perhaps even quietly desperate temperament of its single instructor, Miss (Judith) Higgins.

Miss Higgins was overweight, overwrought and always appeared in a rush, such as when to discussing her latest extravagant topic or technique (Papier-mâché being one of the more exotic). While a somewhat imposing figure at nearly 6' (in heels), this was still not her most defining feature. Here was a woman so tragically self-conscious of her own hairy forearms that she appeared to shave them on a semi-daily basis, and to well above the elbows. Ironically, the end effect of this regimen was that her arms would alternately - and conspicuously - appear as either satin-smooth (an early- morning shave perhaps), or else covered with a noticeably thick, dark stubble not unlike a five-o'clock shadow. The latter, of course, being most of the time.

This situation, however pitiably, did serve to inform me how such a minor flaw as this could reduce an individual - even an adult, and a reasonably fine person as was Miss Higgins - to be regarded as pathetic, and thereby largely impotent as an authority figure of any kind. This despite her most assertive - and heartfelt - attempts at keeping her classroom under control, to not spiral down into a cacophony of wisecracks, laughter, and general anarchy. The end effect, was that most class time in Miss Higgins' Art was spent in a class-wide chorus of don't-give-a-shit, with most everyone doodling away on pictures of a motorcycles or race cars or horse heads, as opposed to sketching the object du jour, as they'd been meekly instructed. In other words doing whatever they damned well pleased 90% of the time.

Mind you, these were not your lazy or usual unruly bunch of schoolyard routs, but students who otherwise, in other classrooms, were largely a picture of cheerful, scholastic goodwill. As if a rotting animal carcass on the hot African tundra, the smell of failure on Miss Higgins was as acute and obvious to a teenager as would have been the soured stench of death itself. This, of course, only granted an additional degree of hopelessness to her situation, one that might seem to beg pity as well as minimal facade of compliance. Instead it demonstrated in brutal fashion that sympathy came less easily to heyenas and fifteen year-olds than did contempt, and especially when the food chain of authority was called into question.

In fact, had any of her students possessed the gift of precognition it might still be anybodies guess if that would have made any real difference, or moved the needle a significant degree on our dials of adolescent empathy, such was our mutual self-absorption. Whatever the case, in a handful of years this fretful woman would be buried, and long after, when I'd eventually learned of this, her face and figure remained a clear memory. I cannot begin to guess at the details of her personal life, only that human lives are sometimes overwhelmed by a darkness they cannot endure, and in her case, ending in a final descent to death at her own hand. A suicide. I have to hope that if the slack-jawed faces in her classroom had haunted her at all, that we did so not as demons, but simply as the clueless, bratty teenagers we were.

But back on this particular morning Miss Higgins was still very much alive, left alone to suffer out this first period class and a remaining full days worth of other ones just like it. She chatted away - most of the speech being largely ignored past the baritone of her voice - as her students dragged out their 8" x 8" squares of red linoleum and continued (or pretended to continue) their lesson in print-making from last week. A simple picture or design was to be first outlined in pencil on the linoleum and then a curved cutting tool used to scoop out the image, now in relief. This image or shape - now in shallow two dimensions - would later be coated with a layer of a thick ink and pressed onto a sheet of paper, or in the case of a especially enthusiastic student, a white t-shirt.

This was one of the art projects that I personally enjoyed, as it gave me the opportunity to embellish the logo of my 8mm film club "Greasey Films" onto a virtually endless host of objects. Just as I was nearly done cutting my block print (a design variation of a "bomb with wings" I'd admired in a book of military insignias), the linoleum cutter jumped from the square, landing in the tip of my left thumb, and partially "scooping' out a 1/4" thick strip of my flesh instead of linoleum.The skin flopped back into place, and as I gaped, for an instant, it did not bleed. In that moment I was unable to judge how badly I'd injured myself. Another moment later and the blood, almost purple, arrived - seeping in first under the flap, and then into my palm, then the table.

"Shit!"

In a sweep to pinpoint the epicenter of that blurted this profanity, Miss Higgins' face whipped upward with an expression with equal parts surprise and anger. That face melted nearly instantly, replaced with furrowed brows as she came scurrying to stand at my side. "Oh, my gosh!". I was still staring at the wound, from which now emanated a dull, ever- increasing ache. Our eyes locked, first on one-anothers, then back to the wound: It was probably going to require stitches. To her credit, Miss Higgins did not over-react, but stepped calmly to the large sink in the rear of the classroom and tore a long sheet of paper towel from the dispenser. Soaking under under cold water, she gently wrapped it around my thumb. "You'll need to see the school nurse. That might even require stitches."

Impassively, I rose from the chair and lumbered to the classroom door. As I stepped out, I could hear "Way to go, Ketchup!" followed by a small chorus of laughter, one of which was unmistakably that of Rob. I didn't bother looking back, but kept walking, turned the corner, and started up the wide stairwell that led back up to the first floor.

The Attendance Office, in addition to being the main entrance to the teacher's lounge, was also homebase to the Principal and Vice Principal's offices. Additionally, a adjacent alcove served as the "sick room", a tiny nook where the part-time attendance secretary played double-duty as part-time school nurse. When I arrived at the attendance counter, however, neither of her two persona's were present, so,after glancing up at the clock (20 minutes 'till my next class), I stepped back and slumped into one of the chairs under the teacher's mail nooks.

While the seating arrangements were not new to me - I'd be waiting in precisely the same place if I'd been called into the Vice-Principals office for a dressing down or under the worst of circumstances, a swat.

In about five minutes, Mrs. Lagstrom finally showed up, unlocking the door to the nurses room and lead me inside . "That's a nasty one!" the comment came from over her shoulder. I thought the room smelled faintly of mouthwash. Two plain oak chairs sat in the room, painted entirely white, across from a single narrow cot, also white, which was covered with a plain wool blanket and a single pillow. Once, as a freshman, two years ago, I'd spent a few minutes on this cot while he waited for a phone call from my Mother, standard procedure when students were targeted for going home early, sick. Mrs. Lagstrom took her time carefully cleaning my wound, dabbed it with a pink cotton ball soaked in disinfectant, then covered it with a large wrapping of white gause, which was then taped again, almost from top to bottom. The ridiculously huge bandage would no doubt supply my friends with additional fuel for their amusement, and as she finished up I considered my options.

"I'm going to call my Mom and see if she can take me to the doctor."

Nurse Lagstrom agreed it might be a "good idea, just to be safe" and I stepped across and out of the room and dialed my home number. Over the sound of unanswered electronic ringing at the other end, I pretended to be talking to my mother, supposedly arranging to be taken to the doctor "for stitches". I wrapped up the phoney conversation with"OK, I be out front. Thanks, Mom!" and glanced up at the nurse. She seemed pleased.

I headed out of the building and started walking home, ,thinking maybe I'd watch cartoons for while then head back in time for lunch. Join my friends for a smoke before heading to my afternoon Periods, once of which was working on the school newspaper, a class I probably enjoyed more than all my others combined, except maybe for Drama.

I crossed the intersection and headed to the alley, turned into it and pulled a wrinkled pack of Old Gold cigarettes out of my coat pocket. I looked down at the bandage on my thumb, then pulled it off. My thumb badly swollen and also bright pink (from the Mercurochrome). I'd intended to throw the bandage away, but instead pushed it back on, crumpling it slightly and causing a fresh jolt of pain to jump up my arm. Fuck. I raised my smoke and took a long drag, then started walking again. In another minute my eyes were fixed once again on the blue sky, and the gulls, still up there.

It was Wednesday, and I was starting to wonder if I could find some acid by that Friday night. Mikey, a teenager with as purely sweet a soul as ever their was, would be the guy to see.

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