Saturday, September 16, 2006

The toughest job, whether you love it or not

Yesterday was the United Way Day of Caring, an annual event where local corporations, NerdCo among them, sponsor their employees to take a day off to volunteer in the community. It's a Wonderful Thing, of course, but also so earnest that it's easy to make fun of, which we all do--perhaps spurred on by the manager I'll leave nameless, who once blurted "Eh, I cared last year" in front of the wrong audience. So for the past week, many statements have been made along the lines of "I am trying to care, but you are making it difficult!" and "Excuse me, The Needy, but could you please go and need outside maybe so I can finish painting your subsidized housing?"

The big boss in my division picks a huge project from the list each year, something that can absorb up to 100 people. Unfortunately, it seems always to be "weeding," in some form or other. Clear this ivy-infested slope next to the highway for eight hours! Pull dandelions from 50 acres of parkland! Big Boss loves to weed, apparently. I do not, which is why my yard looks the way it does. So, this year I chose my own project, and descended with a mob of like-minded souls in matching ugly free t-shirts on Sacajawea Elementary, in Seattle's north end. (Seriously, United Way: you do good work, but this year's shirts are particularly unattractive, as well as being sized for individuals that evidently average seven feet tall.)

The original plan, weather permitting, was for groups of us to repaint four-square grids and hopscotch squares on the playground's surface. This being Seattle, dark clouds threatened. A surfeit of outdoor volunteers set to...weeding. I was relieved to be dispatched to a first-grade classroom instead, to do pretty much whatever the teacher asked for six hours.

And good lord, I don't know how they do it. My mom has worked in the public schools for 26 years, I went through the system myself for 13...and I have absolutely no idea how anyone does it. I enjoyed myself thoroughly, even as I felt...ashamed, nearly, of my cushy NerdCo job, the ridiculous salary I draw to sit in an ergonomic chair and type all day. The kids were cute as hell: ages six and seven, mostly, so their teeth are going every which way, as is their hair in many cases. But they're too little to just sit and drill in rows, you know? So they were in constantly shifting groups: playing with clay or letter puzzles, poring over library books, listening to Caps for Sale on headphones, coloring apples and turkeys and pumpkins and leaves on that day's worksheet. It's school, it's fall.

The building smelled like wax, both floor and crayon, of pencil shavings and rubber erasers, of hot lunch. Though not of chalk, any more--they've all got whiteboards and dry-erase markers. I entered the new students' names in classroom computers, xeroxed mountains of handouts, labeled folders; I sat in a wee blue chair and reviewed sight-reading word lists with individual kids. Some smoked through the columns of "go" and "good" and "like" and "make" like it was a race; others shrugged and sighed over anything longer than three letters, groaning "Are we done now?" Boy, you'll be President one day, I thought darkly. Through it all, the din was happy but controlled, and the teacher was cheerful and magically omnipresent and never had to raise her voice. We should pay these people millions of dollars.

One dreamy, towheaded Walter Mitty child completely cracked me up. The teacher carefully went through a long list of activities kids could choose from after finishing the worksheets: puzzles, writing journals, etc. Immediately Walter raised his hand: "What are we supposed to do?" The teacher laughed, to her credit, and gently reviewed the list again. Whereupon the kid, I guess nonplussed at these choices, asked "Well, what if we fall asleep?" Oh, honey, THEN you are ready to start attending meetings at NerdCo! And again, the teacher laughed, and said "[Walter], if you fall asleep, I will pick you up and carry you to the couch"--a well-worn loveseat, crowded with cushions and stuffed bears, tucked into a nook of the classroom. This, I think, is actually a service we could benefit from at my job.

Lunch in the cafeteria with the kids: hot dogs, tater tots, and little cartons of milk (which, I can assure you, is pretty much exactly what hundreds of other NerdCo minions were also eating, in one of our many cafeterias). After lunch, I was handed off to a pleasant but frazzled kindergarten teacher. "Can you stay?" he and everyone kept asking. "Do you need to leave?" Many of the volunteers had indeed slipped out at noon, taking conference calls in the parking lot, already distracted, their faces clouding over with Real Jobs. I wanted to take in the full day, though. I was ridiculously tired already, amazed at these people who were calmly responsible for HUNDREDS of CHILDREN, educating THE FUTURE OF SOCIETY, for six hours a day and a mere pittance. Put me to work, teachers. I like my job, but in the bright hubbub of the school it seemed ever more distantly absurd.

The kindergarten teacher set me up in the supply room with a die cutter, punching hundreds of shapes out of construction paper: orange squares, green triangles, blue diamonds (aye, me lucky charms!). I did that for more than an hour, breaking a sweat as other volunteers tag-teamed the two copiers, cranking out reams of handouts. (Remember the heady purple ink of mimeographs? Good thing they didn't have us in there doing that for hours; we'd have been high as kites.) "Well look at this," the teacher laughed when I came back in at the last bell with half a dozen envelopes, a representative colored shape taped to the outside of each (yes, I'm compulsive). "We'll use these for years," he told me.

The yellow buses were still loading as I passed up the line to my car. "Bye, Miss Kim," shouted a voice: one of the first-graders, a wild-haired little girl hollering from her lowered bus window. Between snacktime and jump-ropes and turkey-coloring, she'd remembered my name.

It was the most fun I've had in months, even though I went home and passed out on the couch for two hours in sheer exhaustion. Millions of dollars, I'm telling you. They don't print enough money, for what we owe our teachers.

Mrs. Bacon, Mr. Wilson, Mr. Hathaway, Mrs. Eskenazi, Mrs. Chinn...thanks. I'm thinking of you, tonight.

Monday, September 11, 2006

Because the sky is blue, it makes me cry

I remember. Who I called when I sprinted for the phone that morning, how I ate breakfast in front of the Today show in a fog of routine, not knowing what else to do. I chased Peanut-Butter Bumpers around a bowl and watched the towers burn, a fact that still shames me five years on. I was still watching, live, when Matt Lauer said wait, something's happening, something happened, run that back. The first tower was gone, and I stood in my living room, wept and stamped my feet like a tantrumming child, in utter disbelief. Three thousand miles away, three thousand levels of magnitude below "helpless."

When we were still in college, David took me to dinner at Windows on the World. He wore a charcoal suit procured by his uncle, who worked in the Garment District; I had a little black jersey dress I'd gotten at the mall in Yonkers. We met under the clock at Grand Central Station and took the subway allllllll the way downtown, a surprise for me that I figured out halfway. It occurs to me now that we were broke-ass broke, and where did the money for that dinner come from? Uncle Phillip, I have you to thank for this evening as well.

In the elevator, my ears popped twice, it was that high.

We had a table at the interior of the room, rather than being flat-up against the mind-boggling view; I don't know now whether I am grateful for that or regret not having the opportunity, now lost, to take it fully in. I remember that we had pheasant consommé as an appetizer, probably because David mispronounced it. Pheasant! What Richie Rich was always having under glass! The rest of the meal has slipped away from memory. The waiter was unfailingly polite and solicitous and clearly bemused at our youth, our concerted effort to behave as classily as we could imagine people might. We spent $100 and felt like royalty. Afterwards, we convinced ourselves that we could've gotten wine if we'd mustered the nerve to ask, despite being underage. That waiter would have brought us wine, we were sure of it.

I have thought of that waiter a hundred times in the past five years. I don't know his name, can't take even a wild guess as to his age, couldn't choose him from a lineup today. But I've thought about him. Even on that terrible day, I did, and I wondered: do waiters at high-tone restaurants stay on, for years, for a decade? was there a morning shift at Windows? There was, I know that now. Staff and attendees, gathered for a breakfast conference. Those people died horrific deaths, they roasted and strangled on the blackening air or chose a different devil, chose to jump. Would you jump? I've asked and been asked, any number of times. Would you jump, do you think? I want to believe that yes, yes I would--that I would seize upon a method to my fate, that bravery, a last act of defiant will. But I say that knowing I fear fire more than I fear heights. And knowing that I didn't have to choose.

All this to say that I have not forgotten, that I won't. I'll remember, even as the President squanders the world's goodwill and leads us ever onward into a morass of war that will take thousands more lives, American and not, than were lost that day. I remembered, when I looked into that yawning hole myself last year--Ground Zero just a huge construction pit to the naked eye, if you didn't know what had happened there you never would. I think of it. I think of that waiter. For me he is its public face, even as I would fail to recognize him if he walked past me on the street. How I hope he might, though I can never know.