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Stuart Rose

Temporary Children, Permanently Mine


    The big shovel and sorting job on my teaching career began in 1997, about a month after a weird, half-altercation with my student Michelle. An unpleasantness that crowned the first semester at Hillcrest H.S., and left me shamed, teary-eyed, and defensively cold to her for weeks. 
    And one that deepened my fluency, already reflexive for a teacher, in self-interrogation. She hit a vein of feelings I didn’t know existed and every day I began asking myself: Could or should I become a father, and what does this padre facsimile thing I seem to be doing as a teacher really mean?   
   That Monday morning in U.S. History, trailed by a respectable minority of my students, I was plunging across the continent, teaching how the Louisiana Purchase had tripled the size of the new nation. I repeated “tripled the size” a few times, a nice ready-made phrase for Regents essays they’d be struggling with come June. My kids were learning disabled; they especially had trouble organizing facts and ideas when they wrote. Some were hyperactive, a few raucous if you didn’t lean on them. Almost all were headed for trouble on those New York State Regents exams they needed to pass in order to graduate.
   There was an undertone of talking, the topic of which became obvious when I stopped speaking and began setting up the overhead projector. Michelle was complaining to her friend about her stalled relationship with an 18-year-old sophomore. Worse than talking over my lesson, I happened to know Safraz, one of the hall-walker elite of the school.  

    I didn’t think twice before opening my mouth. Michelle had been in two of my classes before; we had a certain closeness, a certain rhythm. Earlier that period she offered her regular take on my monthly haircut (her adenoidal “you colored your hair” too blasé for my vanity) and at least once a week she bitched about her customers at Target and I’d offer my past retail incompetence as succor.               
   “Safraz?, Michelle. You deserve better.”
   “Mr. Rose,“ she whined, “mind your freakin’ business. You’re not my father.”  
   “I wouldn’t bug you if I didn’t care,” I whined back. 
   With her whine, Michelle was a teenage girl fighting off the pushy advice of an aggrandizing adult. With my whine, I was a grown man, merely her U.S. History teacher, who was trying to punch above his weight as a father. I could still hear my voice after it left my mouth and it sickened me, that drooping “I wouldn’t bug you if I didn’t care,”, which sounded more like begging than a righteous demand for inclusion.  

    Both of us took my impotence as a good point to stop. Michelle slid down her chair and into, I assumed, a stupor of worry about Safraz, occasionally mumbling to her friend. I had to reach for something rote but complex enough to do teach so that my shame wouldn’t rise into shrill irritableness with the rest of the kids. I began ladling out paragraphing tips for the State exams  “Each of your four paragraphs gets its own topic sentence, all four topic  sentences get three supporting details, each details gets its own sentence” — a test-prep liturgy whose recitation kept other words out of my mouth. The responsive part of the class and I improvised a paragraph on the reasons for westward expansion. For the final ten minutes, I piloted a manly tenor, and if I bored them, at least I’d regained teacher status.

    But when the class ended and the room cleared, I cringed. Jerking my chair forward, away from the door so none of the students in the hallway could see, I leaned forward on my elbows, so I was practically turtle like. My stomach flush against the desk, I turned my fists sideways, pressing them together so tightly against my lips and teeth that my knuckles of my index fingers grew damp. My eyes were tearing up.
   I stared into space. But that space filled up. Memory reels back Michelle’s blonde head as it had turned from Niroopa to face me. Blue eyes on the glare. Again, I’m unnerved by a doe-ish face gone surly. There was a delicateness to how she tilted her head a bit to the side and pursed her lips before firing: “Mind your freakin’ business, Mr. Rose, you’re not my father”. That salvo loops in my head. The poise of this wispy thing on the attack again humiliates, unseats me.

    I stood up, leaned over the desk a bit, using my hands for support. And then I took out my voice and slowly repeated, word for word, the exile-making sentence she spoke. “Mind your freakin’ business, Mr. Rose, you’re not my father.” Maybe I thought laying them out in my tenor voice would be the first step in neutralizing them, nudging the whole demoralizing scene from the masochism of reenactment to the distance of autopsy. But my voice wobbled. It went high and skinny. Late adolescent me, at best. Like the rest of my body, it knew I had badly overextended myself. Michelle, I wanted to spar affectionately like father and daughter, but you wanted no part of it.   

    Later that week there were after-shocks of shame, but I found myself prowling about the quake scene. How did Michelle bang such torque out of one obnoxious chunk of the teenage lexicon? Had Michelle morphed into some composite of remembered coldness from the high school babes of the 1970s? While I couldn’t recall any time since adolescence when I wasn’t pestered by self-doubt, when I donned my teacher-performer hat it seemed that I did a credible upright-and-steady. But yearnings I’d never glimpsed hovered right there in the classroom, ready to be walloped like badminton birdies by a choice phrase or unkind look. 
   Ambitious emotion seemed to be the culprit. I’d been caught playing un-licensed father, trying to draw the unwilling into my orbit of affection; practically asking to be humiliated with that “If I didn’t care”, a phrase likely excavated from my mother’s repertoire on those occasions when someone— I among them— would drench her goodwill with cold water.
   A month later, raw emotion had drained. The residue was curiosity about my implosion in that empty classroom that I thought Natalie, my friend and guidance counselor at Hillcrest, might be able to explain. I went to her cubicle of a safe space. The boy she’d just finished counseling slipped by me, our skinny frames allowing passage and communion at once, a continuity of unease on which Natalie could ply her maternal smarts.                      “Talk to me, sweetie.  You look gloomy”.
   “The usual stuff. the miserable kids you bet your kindness and concern will maybe trigger at least a bullshit thank you as they brush you off.” I was laying back here. I told her how Michelle told me to bug off when I suggested she steer clear of Safraz. But not my “you deserve better”, nor (not) Michelle’s “you’re not my father “zinger, and certainly nothing about the sudden shame and tears.   
   “Spoken like a parent. You’re ignored but you get over it and you’re back the next day, to support them.
   “But they don’t love you. And they don’t belong to you “
   “And vice versa”, she said. “You go far, very far, because you’ve got a good heart but without the 24/7 drama of a parent. You do what you can, and then step back—or go out and have a drink with the lushes from the English department.”
   I got up, relieved. I’d been stingy enough with the facts to ward off Natalie’s speculative powers. Drifting to my next class, this security purchased by cowardice began to crumble. I walked into that office thinking I was ready to understand what happened in that windowless room with Michelle. Why did her telling me I wasn’t her father make me feel like an impostor? Why did her brush-off humiliate me? A new thought elbowed in: Maybe all these years in the classroom I’d always resorted to some overheated idiom of emotion whenever a bit of connection seemed to be on offer.

   It didn’t really register until the blowup with Michelle, but for the previous months, leading up to my 40th birthday, I’d had a dreamy eye on infants and toddlers.
   Here come the little ones. In Forest Hills, where the subway disgorged me at workday’s end, carriages and strollers maneuvered like taxi cabs, zigzagging and charging to get past the glacial elderly and clumps of teenagers chattering in the middle of the block.
   I got sharp at spotting them long before we crossed paths, but once up close, those babies were always a surprise. I slowed down to drink in their smooth little faces, delighting in the lifting of an arm or a sudden smile aimed at me, perhaps, or more often a response to the stimuli of the street. If the latter, it was a pleasure to delight in their pleasure. They were the creation reborn, and all I had to do was angle my eyes downward and the knot of fatigue and meaninglessness loosened, and I stood again in a larger world.
   One early spring twilight, as I was walking home along streets of small private houses, fatigue morphing into serenity, I saw a young Indian mother in a sari across the way, pacing and cradling her infant high up on her shoulder. I stopped, mimed fumbling in my pocket for something, concerned not to alarm or break her reverie, which now was on loan to me. Under the tall trees, the houses were darkening ahead of the sky. The two of them, a rail-thin dyad, dimmed slower than those houses. No cars passed, no street lights yet to bruise the falling darkness which seemed to breath itself into place. She looked at the infant and began to sway, and then the two of them were swaying as the day and the baby fell into sleep. I thought I was watching a scene from a thousand years ago and began to cry.

    Meanwhile, on the streets of the Upper West Side of Manhattan, one of my weekend haunts, it was getting impossible to walk a few blocks without seeing men, 40-ish like me, even younger, festooned and entangled with their progeny. 
   I still didn’t know what to make of these pangs. I had fatherly instincts but marriage phobia grew in the rich soil of my parents' divorce and a childhood of loving but suspicious mothering.   Did I want a child for its unconditional love or for someone to bear my name? Give me those for sure— but when I looked at the fathers, envy and insecurity reigned. Masters Degree or not, a public school teacher stood a rung above a DMV clerk, envied mostly for our copious breaks in actually doing what we do. Failure to procreate and failure in the marketplace fed from the same trough.
   Since the brush-up with Michelle, the pangs for a child had diminished. It was my shadow parenting in those elementary school classrooms in which I began my career that was coming to fascinate me. What does it mean to be father-like to a procession of children? Cold word, procession, but you come to know these children so well who will never be yours?                                        
   For 7 years, I had taught 4th. Graders. Each September brought the intimacy of a new group of 10 children. The air buzzed with simpatico personality traits, odd but endearing ones, and one year, with one of my kids, a ritual of disruption that was exasperating but addicting. Everything of psychic import about myself and how I related to my students must be lodged in those years.
   I can still see every face— it's the same pleasing medley of the affectionate and the needy. Haitians, Italians, Salvadorians, Guyanese Indians, and Jamaicans, mixed with tow-headed Irish and Black Americans of various hues, from the nearby projects and transplants from southern backwaters. Lifted from the muck of substitute teaching in 1986, I had my own brood, a fourth-grade special education class in a Brooklyn elementary school. 
   I had kids with two good parents, and foster children who might, on a given Monday, following the bend of their personality, either slump mute into their chairs or shove the kid sitting next to them, taking out the frustration of having been dumped over the weekend, with one of their siblings, in a new family.
   In daydreams, I can still see the wobbly line my kids couldn't help but form as we made our way through the halls after breakfast. Pulling up to the room, the line flaking apart, the smallest boys pressing so close to me as I jiggled the key in the lock, their heads communing with my elbow, that I had to remind them to shimmy back a step so I could open the door without hitting them in the head.
   Special education was segregated in half-sized classrooms in a separate wing of the third floor, our neighbors other 3rd and 4th grade special ed classes. But it was home. Each student had his own desk. Enough personal space for the crusty ones to avoid arguments and cocoon space, as I came to see it, for the fragile who needed an interval of hibernation between group activities.    
   All my kids were learning disabled, many emotionally disturbed. I had criers, mumblers, window gazers, readers, non-readers, those who blindly turned pages, non-page turners, and compulsives like Earl, who inscribed ballpoint arabesques on every nearby surface when he wasn't busy clawing acres of skin off his palms as if he were scratching an itch.
   From the start, the emotional disarray and misbehaviors felt natural. The kids crawled around my personality and jiggered some unseen wires. I discovered I naturally co-mingled maternal compassion with the mischievous vibe of a bachelor uncle. I knew when to push or coax a student who was afraid of failing again, when to drape an arm round a shoulder, when to be stern and when to channel silly voices. I slipped their names into improvised ditties. In mock solemnity I’d chant the names of the original 13 colonies. The other teachers told me that the kids, who had already gone through a couple of teachers that year, really loved me. You begin to like something that comes naturally, especially when others notice your talent.

    That first year of teaching often swims back with his image. Leon. Always weepy-eyed from a tear duct condition, Leon was known, in the acronym-binging education world, as EMR—educable mentally retarded. He crossed freely between real life and the worlds of his favorite cartoon shows and the advertisements he knew verbatim. In the middle of a phonics lesson, he’d pop out of his seat, beaming, and exclaim, “Rock and Roll,” with an air guitar down-sweep of his skinny arms.
   His Guyanese lilt, sometimes barely audible, flowed from a long, delicate brown face always on the verge of smiling, topped by short hair so fine it seemed knitted. The plane of his equally skinny arms and legs was punctuated by pants yanked high on bony hips. He looked so comfortable and content in that makeshift frame of his he seemed to have chosen it. Everyone— classmates, teachers, custodians— liked Leon. But I’m sure I was the only one who looked forward to Leon’s clasping my hand in his as I bent over and tended to the riot of numbers on his arithmetic page, or to Leon smiling as he traced his fingers through the underbrush of my forearm hair. 
   Math was especially bewildering to him. Carrying numbers, downright alchemical. For two straight weeks we toiled. When the workbook failed, I went to his notebook and used up page after page, etching giant numbers. He smiled as I hauled cargo from the tens column to the ones. “Okay, ones column, first. Are you with me, Leon? Seven plus seven is 14. Now, the four sits down right here. But what do we do with the one”? Just smile, I guess.
   His befuddled calm was unnerving. It showed the extent of his limitations. Other kids grew anxious when they realized they weren’t getting the work. A baker’s dozen of such moments of incomprehension convinced most they were dumb. Leon just smiled and opened the spigot a bit wider on my attention. He was warming himself in my dedication, so who was I to lose hope? The world was made, I was beginning to see, for the impaired as much as anyone.
   One day I set the page up yet again, starting him off with the two numbers he already knew, and reveled in knowing. Slowly, and with anxiousness softening into resignation, I wrote 417 plus 17. This time his hand flew up, he set a four down under the ones column, carried the one of the fourteen to the tens column, and added up the three numbers there. He paused for a second peering at the funny-looking gap under the four, and then scribbled the four beneath the line to complete the sum. He jumped up and down, returning my "I'm proud of you, Leon" with "No, I'm proud of you,” and a stroke of my chin.
   I had never realized just how tender those moments were even when, over the years, in my daydreams, the children stopped by to visit. So now I gave Leon as a grace to that young teacher who wasn’t conscious of the love he tended or on which he fed. Maybe if he had understood the blind ease and flow of Leon’s gratitude, he never would have prodded Michelle for emotion she couldn’t be expected to deliver.

   The first Tuesday in February, the new semester at Hillcrest H.S. began. It’s called the Spring Semester but we were five months out from June. I got the same web of long faces I had tried to disentangle in the Fall, the same recycled interruptions I could recite verbatim.
   In U.S. History class, Norwood resumed his Titantic obsession, a fever which first semester had seized all my regular attendees. When the others found a fresh page to begin their essays, Steven started playing, The Heart Lives On on his Walkman and narrating the great ship’s catastrophic end. “Don’t make me cry, Steven,” Michelle pleaded as he reached the bit about the orchestra continuing to play as everything on board is inundated. When the bell rang, I moved off-stage, feeling almost disembodied, my hoarsely shouted “finish reading this section at home” possibly heard by no one.
   What was on offer here in terms of father-ship? Like an actual father of a teen, much of what I said wasn’t heard the first time, barely registered the second, and was never requested. At best, Michelle one day might realize the wisdom of my warning her off losers. I much preferred Leon and company, always craving my attention.
   From that thicket of Hillcrest students whom I knew would forget my name or conflate me with half a dozen other white male teachers pushing 40, I thought Michelle was one kid for whom I had pried myself off the masonry and appeared singular. Maybe lurking inside my gift of concern was the snake of needy affection, and she instinctively pulled away. Once, in another 4th. grade class, I had offered such impure affection to a student and he volleyed it back, to the detriment and pleasure of both of us.



    I can still see the dirty blond geometry of Jonathan's hair. Messy but so thick that it circled his head like a storm system on a meteorologist's map. It did the shaggy dog when he shook it, throwing itself against a forehead that betrayed no individual strands, just areas of greater or lesser pileup.
   Jonathan shook his head a lot, all those times he’d let his classwork lie fallow so he could exhale complaints about his parents, the kids who were allegedly bothering him, or when he’d sighed excuses for yet again not having his homework, the shake then a soft avalanche. He ground out for me the details of life in his ramshackle family and supplicated me to trust his tales of what little bastards the other kids really were.         
   He arrived mid-year. At first, he was welcomed by the others. Seeing him pouting in the corner, his desk mate suspended her daily search for yesterday’s homework, to drape an arm around him and drawl, “What’s wrong, Jonathan?” rolling out those three vowels of his name as if he were a kitten who might loose itself from the crook of her elbow. When we gathered in the hallway to head to lunch or gym, tall Patrick, who commanded the back of the line, stepped off to slot a chattering Jonathan into the small guy’s section up front.
   “Mr. Rose,” he chanted, the long “o” of my name stretched for mesmeric effect: R-o-o-o—se. In Jonathan’s mouth my name sounded different than it ever had before. I fell to the demanding intimacy of a human voice. One that called my name as it kept calling out its pain, urging me to comfort and heal him as a father would. It helped that I was a model of gullibility at first, but even once I spotted the close weave of hurt and manipulation in his talk, I was happy to be his first line of adult defense.   
   Jonathan hugged every teacher who paid him attention, especially when it was a good chunk of time stolen from the other kids. He delivered the hug in a trinity of words and motions whose pious theatricality masked the odor of manipulation. First, a step towards me, which was more of a catch-me stumble, his lead foot planted simultaneously with a “thank you, Mr. Rose”, which  seemed to rise from the hoop his arms formed, a gap wide enough to clamp his arms around the midsection of a six-footer like me. I looked forward to those hugs, even when I could smell the manipulation. 
   The avalanche to and fro on his forehead, was Jonathan’s weekly shuffling from family member to family member; the flapping about the eye, his emotions toggling from attention begging to sadness. It meandered but was thick all over for protection, a marker of assertion and defiance. Tracking its movements never failed to drop me into the orbit of his pain.
   I took to sermonizing when Jonathan castigated his family. Don’t return fire when mom shouted; strike a balance between steering clear of a mother who easily lost it and insisting on what you need every day—a change of clothes, enough time and space away from the hollering, and the blasting T.V. to do your homework. Sound advice. But what got through? He listened more for my eagerness to listen and the melody of my advice than for its content. Like many adults, he loved the feel of attention slathered on a tender ego. 
   Towering over Jonathan at his desk, or perched at mine, still far north of him, I saw that blond head nodding when he agreed, or just basked in my attention; sometimes my voice would begin to wobble in my ear, the sermon words sloshing about just beyond sense, and I’d become light-headed and giddy as I felt myself slathering away, Jonathan’s eyes locking with mine.
   I was intoxicated by our rituals though I had no idea what vein Jonathan was tapping. It was different than the emotional economy placid Leon and I set up. Jonathan and I were a duo, two needy creatures, one ripped wide open, the other in professional straitjacket, feeding each other daily.
   Still in the shadows of a post-college life that landed me back home, away from college’s high tide of peers, no old friends to call on, I had mucked through several years of temp jobs and low maintenance dating. Unbeknownst to either of us, it fell to the students to fill my emotional gaps. 
   I sit here recalling, beginning to understand, but I remain envious of my old non-reckoning self. It’s a blindness to meaning that allows you to be a buoy, rocked and lifted by strong currents, sometimes so suddenly into the salty air that you’d never again allow, if you could, a hair’s breadth between your emotions and you.     



    Even in those days of oblivious emotion, I’d come to resent how Jonathan managed my class to the beat of his whims. He’d sing as I was teaching or antagonize the others. I set out to reclaim my class. It was clumsy work at first but gratifying to sound like a responsible teacher. Jonathan stopped being so disruptive. And then he stopped offering those hugs. Whenever P.S. 197 comes to mind, conniving as they were, those hugs come right to the surface.
   Did I feel like a father in his presence? Actually, some part of me even then must have sensed that he was a brother-spirit; his waifishness a vessel for an adult counterpart who couldn’t pour out his lostness in public as a broken child can. Jonathan vented all his sadness and loneliness while I could only vent mine in the twilight world of a music-sealed bedroom. Maybe Jonathan represented for me what Judy Garland had been for gay men of a certain vintage, releasing in song what they secreted away. In a film of her London concert, Judy walks to the edge of the stage, sits down. “We’re going to sing all the old ones tonight”. She tells her fans. And she starts in on The Man That Got Away. The camera catches the most fervent. They knew her bad marriages, the father who ran away, her drink and her pills. And they cried. If you’re not repulsed by someone who is exponentially you, you linger on the sideline as they perform and let them expel for you what you can’t express.

    So far, my young adulthood had been a souped-up adolescence. I left the kids at 3 o’clock and went home to my one-bedroom apartment in Sheepshead Bay. How much it ached but ritualistically safe it was to be holed up in that room after work every day, with records for friends.
   I never bothered putting on a light as daylight faded. Or to clear space on the couch. Gravity eased me to the carpet, an arm’s length from the turntable, so I could play my Smiths records, brimming with tales of misery set to the relentlessly melodic. One of them began, “Call me morbid, call me pale”.         
   Beyond my window stretched the Belt Parkway. Through the bushes that buffered my street from its noise, the Parkway was a mysterious place of elegant and anonymous motion. Come rush hour, all I had to do was open the window and the evensong of the constant swoosh of traffic was mine. Sitting against the side of my bed, I lifted my head and peered through the uneven mesh of the bushes, one moment training my eyes on the larger gaps so I could see whole cars flash into view, hurtling themselves forward, and then, squinting through a close weave of leaves and branches so I could make out only the top halves of cars—disembodied metal shooting by like the tops of houses. Headlights winked and died, each wink another unseen person.
   On the turntable Morrissey sang about a life sentence of loneliness as I stared out, and let the music carry my sadness alongside those Parkway cars until my loneliness became light and motion, and was returned to me sweeter and more addictive.


    I lay Exhibit Michelle and Exhibit Jonathan side by side. Do they recognize each other? I offered both my benevolence. Did they spot the demand for gratitude, note the rider that it was to be delivered warm voiced so I’d know what I offered had been received? Michelle paled next to him. Jonathan met both terms and delivered the intoxicant of dependency.


    One morning in February teacher mailboxes came stuffed with exam results from the January Regents. In U.S. history class I recited the results, but just numbers, no names, except when I could announce a passing grade. Over the years, I learned to deliver bad news in brutality free candor to give a medicinal taste of doom, while highlighting any upward movement in their failing scores from last time as incentive to plug away and pass the damn thing on their final try come June. Each semester this was a favorite moment. The broken, the unsteady were waiting. They leaned, if not on me, in my direction at least.  

    “Mind your freakin’ business, Mr. Rose, you’re not my father”. So this was Michelle’s version of those hard sayings of Jesus. An unwanted truth that flattens you, and there on your back you know if you keep gazing at the world through the same two eyes, more and nastier spills await. 
   It was time to stop scrimping on kindness. One day, Michelle was trying to decipher a 3-part Regents question, her head swaying from side to side, as if earnest head movement would  dislodge the confusion. I didn’t wait to be asked, I walked over to her desk. She told me to review the questions she needed to ask herself when analyzing the question and then told me to listen to her as she thought her way aloud through a couple of problems. Sitting there, listening, talking only to the problem at hand, my whole body felt lighter, looser.

   The childless have an imperative. How do we leave traces of ourselves when we leave this world? Little actions, mostly; small scale and personal. Once, I shared with a young man who stuttered badly how I overcame my stutter. Sit down and show patience with the kid who fears your subject, and as she watches you struggle to explain something in real time, his desk mate might begin to see there’s routine and discipline to kindness. If you don’t have lineage, you just might have influence. 

    It was all such a rush, those elementary school years. Unknown emotions forced themselves on me and I buckled. They hurried towards a vacuum, but unnamed as it was, I didn’t know toward what hole in my life they were headed, but I could feel their heaving. It never occurred to me that I could name those emotions, even ask what they were demanding. Sitting wavelike under the skin of those moments was a lost history of tenderness and loving-kindness, given and received. Like an art restorer of the psyche, I could now start chipping away at the sad sack expressions I applied.
   By the time I was teaching high school, Jonathan and Leon were almost 20. Some days I was troubled that I wasn’t a bit curious about the young adults they were becoming. Just where did Leon’s innocence or Jonathan’s manipulation land them? Maybe the reports I’d gotten over the years of special-needs kids sitting home while the family collects their Social Security made me reluctant to even speculate. But something more selfish was at the wheel. I loved them, but for what they were to me in the past and how, lit up in recollection, they have comforted me from a distance. 
   Perhaps the most we can do when we move far away from others is to leave ghosts of ourselves behind for those we’ve departed. I have sat with Leon and Jonathan over coffee, in all kinds of weather. All I knew of these children was one incarnation at one stranded moment in the 1980s, but it was a lot to know once memory began sharpening itself on freshly realized needs. It summoned their faces, stirred the liquid of their voices. And I became still with reverence. They couldn’t help plying me with their needs every minute I was in that classroom. And yet their fidgety hands also were busy, peeling layers of self-regard and emotional fear off a lonely young man.

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