The Island Within A Maze

written April 21, 2012


One of biggest surprises of teaching so far is that I really enjoy being in what they call “behavioral rooms.”  These are sparsely populated classes that are somehow deemed temperamentally unfit to be in regular classrooms, who all work at a lower level.  What is perhaps most rewarding, in an admittedly challenging role at times, is that I get to work with individual students for long stretches, I get to know a bit about them, and their unique personalities and can adapt better to their specific needs.  Sometimes, in regular rooms I do not get to know as well, it can feel as if I am addressing a great squirmy gaggle of blurry faces. And, when I arrive to teach in a middle school behavioral, as I did today in place of Ms. Egan again, the odd “good lucks” I received from other members of the school makes me somehow enjoy it all the more.

Before heading in to the building I had to clean up a mess that was gumming up my efforts to gain a Missouri teaching license, now that I was moving to St. Louis.  Part of this involving getting yet another background check.  But the dotted i’s and crossed t’s of this was proving difficult. Arriving early to the middle school by 7:10, I called Missouri’s Department of Education.  The lady on the other side looked everywhere, she said, for the electronic fingerprints I had taken Thursday in Florescent.  She didn’t have them, she said.  I gripped my phone.  Not only this, the voice on the other side informed me I had  not shown up for the appointment.  I can’t take it. I described to her in detail the entire bizarre encounter: the claustrophobic room I had been in, the multitude of warning signs, the camera, and the blaring alarm when a door would open (See “Home Away From Home” for more).  I was told I would have to call MorphoTrust USA, the company in charge of the fingerprinting.  I called.  The unlucky person to take my call told me, by her records, I had not shown up for the Thursday appointment.  I uncharacteristically launched at her a bit, expounding on my experience of MorphoTrust USA’s sorry history of incompetence so far, and–perhaps for the first time in my life– uttered “I need to speak to a manager.” He was not in yet.  He would call back later.

The kids today in the behavioral room acquitted themselves much better than the adults of MorphoTrust, at least after their–the kids’ I mean–morning medication kicked in.  One girl did have a freak-out, and had to be put in the “time-out” room by the assistant, Mr. Griffin.  When he left to seek the principal, there I now was, pressing my weight against the door of this inverse panic room to keep it closed as an upset pre-teen banged and screamed.  This wasn’t in the brochure. Yet as this played out the other students amazingly pretty much took this in stride and continued to work.  Later during another lesson I led a reading from their English texts about an African-American cowboy, and finally we introduced the week’s spelling words.

Mr. Griffin really is great with the kids, always hitting the right perfect tone, choosing toughness when needed and tenderness when necessary.  He seems to be a leader of the wider school, and a great person to emulate.  We’ve worked enough that we have side conversations, and I got to tell him about finding my Tower Grove East place.  He assured me that driving in from St. Louis himself , the commute a bit further out from University City, wasn’t a big deal.

After Mr. Griffin expertly lined up the kids in an impressive column, and led out the door to morning recess I pulled out my phone for another round with MorphoTrust.  Climbing my way up the phone-tree to the elusive manager, he said, “I should get to the bottom of it all by tomorrow.”  I made it clear I had heard that before, it all before, and these stalls were now impacting my chances at  fall employment.  “Look, I’ve taken care of my responsibilities long ago, and your company has yet to,” I said coldly.  He would get back with me by the end of the day.  For the remaining minutes of morning recess I read a closing segment of The Great Gatsby.  I was meeting Fitzgerald halfway, at least, this new crack at this novel, relieved that perhaps with a few more years behind me I was finally feeling the boozy, electric, and crowd-huddling-in-place-of-self of the historical 1920’s  I could not have fully contextualized in past readings.  I’ve taken note of the modern descriptions, of fall scenes and party blather.  I finally like this classic, so at least my English Lit. B.A. cannot be revoked.

Worksheets in rounded out the morning, a quelling of flaring, short tempers.  The class had performed up to expectations, so we went outside early afternoon recess to release a butterfly, then some of the class broke in two teams to play basketball.  Eventually I joined in too, to even the odds of the other, Mr. Griffin-less, squad.  With the call to lunch I called it a day, hopping into my car and rolling down my windows for a warm spring drive into my new almost-home of St. Louis.

  *    *    *    *    *

The afternoon  was for exploring my new home and surroundings of the ornate, Victorian-tinged Tower Grove East neighborhood.  After getting keys again and signing the lease agreement (adding a garage and Payton to the deal), I finally pulled up again to my stately brick townhouse apartment with adobe shingling, on Magnolia Avenue.  My block is particularly lush, with looming maples and elms proving shade.  The apartment, built by as part as German immigrant neighborhood in 1912, welcomed me in my imagination.  Windows were opened, releasing stale air for fresh and the city sounds mixed along.  I set to work cleaning, my productive reason for making the trip in.  Wiped down surfaces, washed the fireplace, swept both flights of stairs, and mopped the wooden floors.  While cleaning I made mental notes of where things would be placed and decorated; I could see it all.  I tried knocking on the front door of my downstairs neighbor, but no one appeared.  Finally I lugged in a few crates of essential things.

Time for a walk.  Passing numerous two or three storied brick homes, the local indie radio station, and what appeared a school for deaf youngsters, Magnolia came to an intersection with bustling Grand.  Just beyond was the stone-hemmed, manicured wilderness of Tower Grove Park.  Couples jogged past me with headphone cords dangling while others strolled content with quiet.  Teams of kick-ballers played, a few Frisbees were thrown, while still more grilled beside ornate Japanese pagoda pavilions.

A warm breeze rustled green branches.  Golden and violet flowers proudly soaked up the sun.  It was an island within a dense, at times monotonous, city maze.  I could make the move with confidence because a natural serene respite from human banality could be found minutes away.  Having journeyed far to the west along one of the park inner’s concrete arteries, I made my way slowly back to my starting point on Grand.

Just southeast of the park, also along the north-south commercial district on Grand, exists a remarkable run of international restaurants and specialty shops.  My first stop was a reunion with a lefty cafe called Mokabe’s.  If coffee is a reason to move, Mokabe’s was high on the list.  The vibe drew me in from the first, snarky eco bumper stickers, a slighted fading “Hope” poster. A sign meanwhile behind the counter suggested “Read a fucking book,”  while the odd hipster discussed Big Things, or grey Boomer read.  I could easily become a regular.  I even introduced myself, and asked the name of the barista, which I never do—time to make some roots.  Falafel and hot tea, please.  Handed a bottled flower instead as a place-keeper, I wandered to a second floor booth, and read an local indie publication all about Big Things.

Mokabe’s patrons during October 2014 St. Louis protests occurring on Grand

Sated by ground chickpeas and jasmine drink, I turned the corner onto Grand for nearby Dunaway Books.  The smell of yellowing papers met me instantly, as my eyes took in endless shelves of used volumes.  It’s website describes itself as:

“an absolutely necessary stop for the bibliophile on the Grand South Grand strip. Housed within an airy, spacious former gallery, we carry an unparalleled selection of fine used, out of print and rare volumes. Upon stepping into our store, you’ll find aisle after aisle of scrupulously collected books treating a broad variety of subjects in depth.”

“Good afternoon,” welcomed a brandy-warm London accent from the desk, where a small, twee grey-haired gentleman (somehow finding escape from Dickensian benefactor duties, I supposed) sat wearing a bow-tie.  Charm and character described the store as well the owner.  For the next hour looked over the overflowed shelves, from dusty biographies to forgotten fiction.  Surely I should make a purchase on my maiden visit. The selections were not easy, but I narrowed my spending to the historical Shakespeare in London, Northrop Frye’s The Educated Imagination, and A Reading of the Canterbury Tales.  I am eager to begin finding my literary self again.

Again I introduced myself to the English owner, Patrick Dunaway, as I checked out, complimenting the business, and asking if a position might be available.  Mr. Dunaway welcomed me for a second time in his accent of sugar, but regretted there was nothing right now.  I will return soon.

   *    *    *    *    *

Another reason for visiting my future community was to attend a meeting of  the Tower Grove East neighborhood association tonight.  The sky was already dark when I showed up at the Stray Dog Theatre, originally built as the South City Church, just two blocks north of my new home.  I didn’t know if I would meet anyone, or learn anything vital; I just wanted to already turn to the page to this next, invigorating chapter.

As a still-outsider I entered somewhat cautiously, politely introduced myself and took a name sticker.  The pews held a scattered smattering of locals.  I thankfully took a seat to the back.  I had barely time to open my Tower Grove East pamphlet when a well-groomed man in a suit approached me.

“Good evening, Mayor Francis Slay,” the night’s featured speaker smiled with hand outstretched like the pro he is.  I mumbled a hello, sir, and my name.  First time here.  The man puts baby’s hands to shame they’re so soft.  I’m sorry that is the only impression I have to relate, but that’s what happened.  He moved onto the next cluster of likely voters.

The first timers were asked to stand and introduce themselves, so I gamely rose at my turn, and said I had just taken a place just down on Magnolia, and I was looking forward to being a part of the community.  That over, I could settle in for the festivities.  This included a crime update, some fundraisers, and missing pets.  Mayor Slay took the second act, speaking of the realities of balancing resources with police and fire protection.  He seemed to be in favor of the big McKay land buy and development in North St. Louis—possibly the only way such an area was going to get a needed chance).  Afterwards was some chatting over sodas and waters, but as I scanned the room it looked more like a dance, everyone already having a partner.  It was time to return to Illinois once more.

Thinking about this entire afternoon, people often say they have déjà vu or flashbacks, but has anyone ever had a flash forward?  I did.



For an earlier chapter of this story, you can read “Home Away From Home.”




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