Now and Then
by Jane Harper
Sammy’s hand is up and I hesitate before calling on her. I know that she’ll start off by slowly telling me “I have two things to say.” Then she’ll stumble over her words before she finally says something that is completely unconnected to what the class is discussing. It’s grade four so I must remain patient and appear interested. The class gets restless as she rambles on about her dog and the point of her anecdote continues to remain elusive. I try to cut her off but she makes it difficult. Despite her struggles with communication she is forceful and insists on taking her turn with the class’s attention. She will not be interrupted, not even by the teacher.
I take this moment to reflect on my own grade four experiences at St. Patrick’s Catholic School with Miss Nanny. My recollection is that she was old, cranky, and strictly devout. I also recall her wearing a lot of brown. Our class was routinely left standing outside in our recess line on cold winter days long after the other kids were inside kicking off their snowy boots. Coming in late we’d all try to avoid stepping in little ice puddles and melting snow as we took our own boots off. Once your socks were wet there was very little to be done to remedy the situation. I remember some kid tripping on a stray boot once in those messy hallways and breaking his ankle. After that, boot neatness was rigorously enforced by all teachers, especially Miss Nanny.
Academic challenges followed me closely through those years. Despite the fact that dolphins are one of the most intelligent mammals in the world, it was clear that in Miss Nanny’s class the Dolphin Reading Group was the dumb reading group, and that was my reading group. I also received zero stars for perfect spelling on the chart that hung at the back of the cluttered classroom. There were many instances when I was told by Miss Nanny to look up the spelling of words I didn’t know and seeing, even then, the paradox of dictionaries — i.e. the need to know how to spell a word in order to look it up to find the correct spelling.
Probably the most powerful memory I retained from grade four was the picture of Jesus’ face that hung above the black board looking down on us students — students and sinners. Miss Nanny told us that Jesus was watching us always and that when we were bad in class it made Him cry. The picture did indeed portray a woe-begotten Jesus with a single tear coming out of his left eye. That sad Jesus stayed with me a long time. I remember sitting on the toilet and the thought of Jesus and the angels and my dead grandfather up in heaven looking down and watching over me would come into my mind. It was at these times more then ever that I hoped Miss Nanny was misinformed about the all-seeing power of the Lord.
Catholicism, including Confession, was an integral part of my early education. I could never think of any sins when it was my turn for confession. I would often string together the most common and plausible sins in order to appease the church. There was one occasion when the priest asked me a follow-up question about my sin and I was forced to confess that I had lied about my confession. My nine-year-old brain decided that, with Jesus watching over me, it would be appropriate to commit sins before confession in order to avoid being put in the awkward position of fabricating them later.
This was the start of a minor fourth grade crime spree which included sneaking inside at recess and both graffiti-ing and toilet-papering the girls bathroom. Miss Nanny handled it fairly well; I was reprimanded and given detentions for a week. This involved cleaning the black boards and erasers under Jesus’ mournful eye. As far as I recall she didn’t bother calling my parents.
It’s hard to really trust those memories now, especially when I look at the students sitting before me. All 20 pairs of eyes are looking up at me, innocent and full of anticipation, waiting for the next thing to come. Sammy has wrapped up her never-ending rant about dogs and thankfully it is recess. I dismiss the class and they quickly run out the door.
Before Sammy leaves I ask, “What should we do last period?”
“We should read our class novel Ms. Hartford. Everyone is dying to know who the murderer is and I read it on my own and I don’t think I can go much longer without telling everyone who it is. Do you want me to tell you Ms. Hartford?”
“No thank you Sammy, but reading our novel’s not a bad idea. Let’s do that after recess, let’s finish it together.”
by Jane Harper
I’m sitting in a truck wedged tightly between Emily and a gearshift that he aggressively maneuvers — his hand frequently sliding along my bare thigh. I am suddenly all too aware of the precarious situation Emily and I have placed ourselves in. Why had we agreed to go surfing with these two unknown men who now had us sandwiched in the front of their old Ford pickup?
The horn blares and Adam quickly changes gears, pulling my skirt up even higher and exposing my blue bikini bottoms. As the truck veers to the left down a dirt road and the effects of the old, dry weed we smoked out of an empty soda can wears off I have a flash of the newspaper article to come: Two young girls found dead just outside Puerto Vallarta, Mexico. Locals report that the girls willingly went with the suspects. All too often Canadian tourists put themselves in unnecessarily dangerous situations because of poor judgment and lack of common sense. Let this be a warning to other young travelers out there.
Next I see the scene as it could play out. We are headed further down a small dirt road and I can see Adam pulling the truck over and Ted grabbing Emily. I turn around attempting to crawl through the tiny window behind us. Emily is screaming, trying to grab the door handle to escape. I’m halfway through the window but I feel his strong hands around my waist, pulling and pulling. I claw out into the air but there’s nothing in the back of the truck to grab. I’m almost out but he’s too strong. My body is being jerked back into the truck. It’s over. We’re dead. We’re both dead.
“We’re here ladies. I’m telling you this is the best surf spot for starters, this is where I started. Let’s grab the boards out of the back.”
Okay, we didn’t die — not even close. We learned some basic surfing skills with the help of our new friends. I discovered that Adam was a recovering cocaine addict, which made him a little moody and sometimes irrational, especially while driving. Note to self: see if he’ll let me drive back. I also learned that he is currently on parole in the US for drug running but he grew up in Mexico and decided to come here and just call his parole officer and pretend to be in the States. He didn’t seem concerned about the potential of being caught and sent to jail “if they figure me out? I’m already in Mexico so I think I’ll just stay here.” This had a sort of twisted logic I was forced to acknowledge. Adam was surprised in Emily and my interest in his family and his experiences growing up in Mexico, so he decided to introduce us to his mother.
“She just lives 20 minutes from here.”
Mrs. Adam ex- cocaine head — or Lily as she instructed us to call her — was something else, something not quiet real. She was this aging hippy who lived in some town in California when her boyfriend — the father of her three small children — left her high and dry. She had no prospects in the US so just said “fuck it,” packed up what little possessions she had and her three boys (ages 6 months, two years and Adam was about six) and started driving her caravan until they were in Mexico. She had a little money from her family and bought an old run down orchard.
“This is amazing, Lily,” I said as I stood in her kitchen staring at the old silver caravan she had driven down here with her three boys so long ago. She had incorporated it into her open concept kitchen. The kitchen was done in beautiful Mexican mosaics and the shelves were lined with red handmade clay plates and bowls.
“It took a hell of at lot of work but I turned this place into a sort of elite spa,” she said. “These couples or small groups come down, mostly from California, and stay in cabins. We do yoga, hikes and of course I take them for psychotropic experiences.”
We took a tour of the property, which was unbelievable. Everything was custom made and unique. Each cabin had its own feel. Hand carved furniture and beautiful orange linen curtains and canopies blowing in the wind. The orchard itself had been partially restored but it was smaller than it had once been.
“We pretty must just grow what we can consume ourselves. We sell a little in the market but it’s usually more trouble then it’s worth,” Lily explained.
The entire place was on a hill that overlooked the tiny village and the expanding aquamarine ocean. Lily had really managed to make something out of what I can only assume was an overgrown mess. We sat on the veranda of one of the cabins and cracked open a few beers and watched the sun start to set.
“It is like cowboys and Indians here girls. See this rifle,” our eyes followed Lily’s until we saw the rifle leaning against the corner. “That rifle was all I really needed. Workers here are cheap and in abundance but they’re all thieves and crooks.”
She told us about workers stealing all the tools she bought for them until she finally realized they would bring their own shovels, and that a machete was used for almost everything in Mexico. She told us about standing in front of her caravan in the early days and pointing the rifle at the men that came up in the evening. I could see her then in my mind — younger, thinner, with her tanned face, in some loose sundress, no bra and a band across her forehead. Beautiful, but not fucking around with her own protection and that of her three boys asleep in the caravan.
“I pointed that thing at more than one,” she said. “I shot it a few times too.”
We all took a moment to think about what it was like for her then.
“As soon as I got going I gave back. Every year I have a party for the entire village — food, beer, music and dancing. It’s my thank you and my bribe to the town. I need them. I need their help but I need them to protect me too.”
Emily and I nodded, but the truth was we had no idea what she had been through or what her life was like now. She was alone. Two of her children had gone back to the States. Eric was a student at Stanford and Peter was starting out as a landscaper.
“The first time Peter went to the States he was 17 years old. He got off the plane in San Francisco and was supposed to call his father to pick him up. However, he hadn’t been to the States since he was a baby and didn’t know how to use American payphones. He also didn’t speak perfect English because he did all his school here. All his friends and girlfriend were Mexican — my English wasn’t enough to keep him fluent.
I watched as she spoke of her sons. Adam and Ted had disappeared a while ago, probably getting high somewhere. Lily’s face was hard. Her jaw was tight; her skin was aging leather —brown and creased. Her bare arms were strong and muscular and her hands were worn from hard labor.
But her eyes were soft despite all her hardness; her eyes were still very soft. She was alone and lonely here in this life she had created from nothing. She trusted no one and she connected to no one. She was tired and lonely.
Adam and Ted found us again and we said our goodbyes.
I woke up the next morning next to Adam and looked around seeing it all in a different light. The sun was coming up through the large window across the room. The patterns of the bars in the window reminded me of vines creeping up the glass. The whitewashed concrete absorbed the light in a particularly soft way in the morning. The floor in his place was covered in dust and sand. Everything in Mexico seemed a little dirty.
I looked over at Adam, remembering what his mother had told us. Thinking about his early childhood, being six years old and finding himself living in Mexico in a caravan. I left before he woke up that morning. Emily and I had been in this town too long already.
by Jane Harper
I’m standing in front of the class. Twenty pairs of eyes staring up at me. They’re waiting for me to say something, to start the lesson. The problem is that I have no idea what I’m doing and I have nothing to say. I’m unqualified for this job and completely unprepared to deliver a lesson today. The class is three weeks into a novel study on a book that I haven’t started. I didn’t even have the energy or inclination to rent the movie. Lord of the Flies — why did I never read that in high school? Was I supposed to?
I promise myself that I will definitely read it this weekend. I have a vague notion of the story line: boys lost on an island, fend for themselves and chaos ensues — what more do you need to know? I’ll have to come up with some sophisticated sounding analysis of the hidden meaning and layers that exist in the story. Bullshit, I know, but that’s all English class is, isn’t it?
I decide at the last second that the class should get into groups and discuss the last two chapters amongst themselves and formulate a couple questions to put forward in a larger class discussion. This will give me time, plus it will allow me to eavesdrop and figure out what’s going on in the story. Thank god it doesn’t seem that hard to make up greater meanings and metaphorical analogies to impress and sometimes even astound my grade 9 class.
I catch my reflection in the giant glass windows that cover one side of my classroom. I am a fraud. I look like I’m 12. No makeup, long mousy brown hair tied back into a ponytail. I’m actually thankful that the private school I work for enforces a strict dress code for teachers, uniforms for students, conservative wear for adults. I’m wearing a knee length black shirt, black nylons and shoes and a white short sleeve blouse. Just try and blend in, that’s what I tell myself when I get dressed in the morning. Do the students notice that I wear the same five outfits each week? Probably.
Oh god, I’m a teacher. They actually call me Ms. Hart and are forced to stand up when I come in the room. I wonder what they say about me behind my back. A flash of all my freakish art school professors and the unfortunate faculty that made up my high school educators comes to mind before I can stop it. Ms. Lin, the dance teacher and alleged alcoholic, with her inability to do a salutation to the sun during her first period class because of hangovers. Her infamous water bottle sitting in the corner of the dance studio was rumored to be filled with vodka. Suddenly I have a new appreciation for the desire of teachers to drink. The drama teacher was even more pathetic, hanging out with students at cast parties, trying to fit in. I know at least I’m not one of those teachers; I had no desire to relive my high school days or connect with the youth of today. It takes enormous effort each day not to walk out the door and never come back. How does someone who hated school end up as a high school English Teacher?
Late into August and still without an English teacher, they must have been desperate to have even given me an interview. I had just graduated from teachers college a month previous in the elementary teachers program. I had only been in Vancouver two months and attempted to take public transit to my interview in West Vancouver; which turned out to be a rookie mistake. Of course by the time I figured out that things were going terribly wrong the bus was in another city continuing in the opposite direction of my desired destination. I was off that bus and into a cab in a blur. I walked into the school in a sweat, trying to pull myself together as my high heels echoed in the empty hallways.
When I sat down in the interview I couldn’t help but notice the WWJD (What Would Jesus Do?) bracelet on the principal’s wrist. This could be trouble for me. It wasn’t until halfway through the interview that I realized I was interviewing for a position I had no qualification or experience in. Imagine my surprise and worry when I received the phone call a few days later that I had been hired. It was only supposed to be four months and I really needed the money. I was in no position to turn down a job.
I was now into my sixth month of teaching. They actually extended my contract for the entire year. The ‘real’ English teacher was coming from England and couldn’t get away until September. Sorry kids, you’re going to have to settle for a ‘pretend’ English teacher. So far I had managed to successfully dodge questions from parents and students about my previous experience and qualifications. This seemed to satisfy the administration tremendously.
But it was true; I had successfully faked my way through the better part of the school year. It was becoming increasingly difficult not to tell my students that I agreed with them that the curriculum, their parents, and the entire school was full of shit. I wanted to tell them that their world would get better — way better — once they left their over-indulged lives and over-protective parents’ houses, moved into dingy basement apartments with friends and got to actually live life. Although who was I to talk… I was here at this school under my own cognition.
“Yes, Chris, would you like to start the discussion?”
“Ms. Hart, I was just wondering if you like working here at Western Heights Collegiate.”
I can’t help pausing before saying that it’s great. He catches it. I can see it in his face but he doesn’t pursue it further. Someone else has their hand up and asks the class if they think the problems would exist in the story if it was all girls instead of boys, and quickly a discussion gets going about the differences — if there are any between men and women.
I catch Chris’ eye again and try to hide the truth, but he sees it. I have to get out of this school — at least get out of this grade. I realize that I can’t hide from all of them, and that all I have to protect myself is my fraud. Pretending that I know what I’m doing and that I’m happy. That’s all I have right now.