So, here we are, 843 miles from home, on a beach in Jekyll Island, Georgia, at the end of a three-day expedition to learn about coastal ecology.
Yes, I teach on some slab of Fantasy Island called Clayton, Missouri, where field tripping to the three-mile-away art museum or to the bird house at the zoo, is not quite extravagant enough. We trek with kids, every spring, for 18 hours, across the country on a Cavallo bus to learn about maritime forests, about sand, about ornithology, about sea turtles.
So, anyway, the trip is nearly over, a few wee hours left, and we have this master plan to drop students off at Point A and have them stroll along the beach to Point B, two miles away. At Point B, they will frolic just like kids used to frolic before there was Halo and World of Warcraft, Wii bowling and little Mario. They will swim, they will reach sheer exhaustion, then they will march onto a bus for the slog back to The Lou, to Saint Louis, to their landlocked habitat.
It is a brilliant plan for this Wednesday afternoon in May.
Until something dreadful happens at Point A.
Brian has to go to the bathroom.
That kid has cantankerous bowels. When that kid announces, in the middle of your kick-ass lesson on subordinating conjunctions, “Umm, Ms. Baker, can I go to the bathroom,” you know he’s not heading in there to text his girlfriend, to pop the juicy zit on his forehead, to do whatever it is eighth graders do in the bathroom when they’re really only in that hole to escape from adjectives, from ancient Greece, from the quadratic formula.
98.2 percent of the time that others land in the bathroom, they don’t even have to go. I know. I’ve collected mounds of data. For an action research project. On peeing.
Anyway, Brian’s situation is desperate. Poor Brian. This kid’s Terror level switches to Orange when he’s not in close proximity to a john. Sirens blast.
So, Brian tells me that he’s gotta go, and I don’t want a darn nuclear explosion, right there on the beach, because he’s a nice kid and all, with decent manners, so I say, okay. And then, Bob jumps in, Bob whose name is Xuechun, but who now lives in the Land of the Free, so is Bob. And Bob says he’s gotta go too, and Bob never asks to go anywhere, he just sits and is Mr. Perfect Asian Student, so I say, okay. Then two girls start yapping at me about needing to change tampons, which is really too much information for them to be exchanging, right here, right now, on this beach, with their teacher, but what am I going to say, Bleed Girls, Bleed On? So, I just gesture for them to follow the boys.
Up the stairs.
Meet me here. Down here, I say. Here.
The 200 other eighth graders, those who can hold it, those who don’t have sudden urgent sanitary needs, and the eight other teachers, trek to Point B.
I stay behind to wait for the bathroomers.
Bobby is the darkest black kid one can imagine, and lucky Bobby is chillin’ with Ms. B today because Bobby decided to smack someone in the forehead in the back of the bus. Lyndsey had stolen Bobby’s seat. Or so the story goes.
Anyway, in these here parts, smacking another kid on the head? That’s still a no-no. And Bobby knows it. He’s not exactly the world’s finest rule abider.
We don’t hit, Bobby.
“Well, my Daddy tells me that if someone’s messin’ with me, I can smack him.”
I try to counter with my best Suburban White Woman advice. Next time, you should take a deep breath, Bobby. Just walk away.
Genius. I am certain that my sound, inspirational counsel has altered his existence.
So, instead of sportin’ his Speedo trunks and hittin’ on the girls in their flimsy bikini tops, Bobby’s stuck with his English teacher. Which sucks. Truly.
So, we’re standin’ there and we’re standin’ there and we’re standin’ there, and then it’s 20 minutes and 25 minutes and 40 minutes, and I’m thinking, okay, well, sometimes Brian takes awhile to do his business, so they must all be waiting for him.
I race up the stairs. There’s nothing. Nobody. Nada.
So, I panic. It’s 800 degrees Fahrenheit in that sand and I don’t have a water bottle and my mind veers right to child snatching. Some redneck with a bandana around his head coaxed my babies into his truck, and now they are locked up in a basement, gagged. This is rural Georgia, after all. There is simply no other logical explanation.
And then I have that crazy holyshit moment, the one where I realize that the moron (me) can’t remember which girls she sent to the bathroom. Jesus, I don’t even know who the hell’s missing. It was two of those ponytailed ones that I teach every day, which rules out, like, nobody.
My brain zooms to the local precinct.
Yes, Officer. We’ve got two girls missing. Names? I dunno. Yes, yes, I’m their teacher. Yes, I gave them permission to head to the bathroom. No, I said I can’t remember who they are, okay? Okay? Yes, Officer, I understand it’s odd, but have you ever been a 40-something-year-old woman in charge of 200 hormonal teenagers on some beach in Georgia? No? Exactly my point.
My brain zooms right on over to the principal’s office. Then to the school board meeting. Then to the headlines. Fifteen-Year Clayton Teacher Loses Children in Georgia. Dismissed.
I have finally been outed. As irresponsible. As stupid. As a loser. For years, I have awaited this trainwreck, certain of its imminence.
That anxiety that mounts, night after night, in my damn wherethehellamI, lost-again nightmares, suddenly announces, I’m Ba-ack, Ready to Haunt you in the Daytime, Girlfriend. And the sun is roasting me, and I just know I’m gonna pass out, boom, onto the sand, right there next to my fourteen-year-old prisoner, Bobby.
But, instead, I let loose.
I start cussing like a damn woman with missing teeth.
This is bullshit, Bobby. Where the hell are they? I told’em to come down those stairs and to meet me here, didn’t I tell them to come down those stairs, these’re kids who listen, these aren’t kids like, like, like like ( like you, the word almost slips out), these are perfect students, or at least the boys are, I don’t know who the hell the girls are, what kind of teacher doesn’t remember who she sent to the bathroom? I’m done, Bobby. This is it. Kaput. Over. Through. Be nice to the young’un who enters Room 309 on Monday, lesson plan in hand.
Bobby smiles, a small smile. He loves this. It’s perfect.
“Ms. Baker, you’re hysterical,” he says.
“It’s just like how my mom gets. You’ve gotta calm down. I’m sure they just walked over to where everyone else is, but they walked up there, rather than coming down the stairs.
No way, Bobby. They’ve probably already got that crazy Stockholm syndrome, are, right now, gleefully pulling weeds for Mr. Redneck.
“Ms. Baker, I’m sure they’re playing in the waves, swimming. They’re teenagers, Ms. Baker. They just didn’t listen.”
* * * *
Yup. Bobby was right.
They were teenagers being, yes, teenagers.
We found them out there, four hundred hours later, bouncing through the waves, giggling, carefree.
Well, except for Xuechun, aka Bob, who had blood streaming down his face from some killer nosebleed. Thus, he alone was spared the fury of his English teacher.
* * * *
“Ms. Baker, you went a little crazy back there, by those stairs, waiting for those kids,” Bobby says, when we finally collapse on the sand.
“You dropped the F-bomb like, at least twice. And the B-S word and the sh-word, and… I think you said’em all, Ms. Baker.”
I know he is right again. And I know, too, that I want to hug him like a son.
“You know, Bobby, maybe it’s unfair that those four kids are out there swimming, free, no punishment at all, when you’re stuck here with me.”
Nah, Ms. Baker, he smiles. That back there? That was a misunderstanding. What I did, hitting Lyndsey, I did that on purpose. There’s a big difference.
Let’em keep swimming, he says.
I listen to him.
And as we sit there together, on that sand, I want to tell him how unfair it is that he, at age fourteen, still struggles to read, and that his father is one giant no-show in life.
I want to tell him to keep his stupid fists down, that people who keep their stupid fists down land in college, not in some jail cell somewhere. I want to tell him to ditch the bravado, the nonsense, to study harder, to focus.
I want to tell him about my dad and about his childhood with nothing, how he would scream that there were cockroaches roaming in his Chinese food and then refuse to pay, when really he had no money in his wallet anyway, and how now, he lives in a schmanzy home in a place called Boca Raton, Florida, how he worked and worked and worked, and got there, got out.
And I want to tell him that I, too, understand about coveting what other people have, about craving fancy cruises to Alaska, or stuffed savings accounts, or finished basements with flat screen TVs, or even, yes, a stupid seat that someone stole from you in the back of a bus, a seat that, damnit, was yours.
And I want to tell him that there’s something magical about a kid who can talk a crazy-crazy woman down from a cliff’s edge, to remind her to be still, to even make her laugh.
So I do.
I tell him all of this, as we sit, together, staring at the horizon, this boy and his teacher, 843 miles away from home.