If you are my kid, i prefer you do not read this.
When last we visited “The Rise and Fall of Me,” I was six years into the best job of my teaching career, and it was about to explode. Well, not explode. Fizzle and sizzle, like a fuse burning on the way to part 8, where the first of several bangs will occur. Here, Part 7, is the fuse.
Family is big to me because I was a very introverted kid who did not take the time to enjoy the daily moments with my brothers, sisters, and parents as much as I should have. I went through typical teenage angst, and I separated myself from the others at my address, and it was stupid. When I was about 16, they went on a great vacation to New York to visit the Baseball Hall of Fame. My family is big with baseball, but I didn’t go on the trip because I wanted to be a cool 16-year old with the house to myself, have some friends hang out, sleepover, fun stuff. What actually happened was that I ate a lot of frozen pizza and probably masturbated a lot. Occasionally I see pictures of that week, and it reminds me to stress the whole “family” thing with my kids. They’ve heard quite often how I messed up and don’t want them to make the same mistake. When it’s vacation time, we’re all going. Nobody stays home, nobody makes other plans unless it’s something unavoidable. And if that’s the case, we reschedule our vacation.
So, I was in a lovely town with a great job, married with a beautiful daughter, and I could lean out my classroom window and see the ocean to the east and the bay to the west. Problem was that my wife’s family lived about 90 minutes away over towards Philadelphia. Almost every weekend we packed up the car with baby accessories and drove over to either her parents’ or her sister’s house. They were great people. Won’t say “are,” but I will say “were,” and I didn’t mind at all visiting them. Every weekend. Ahem. Three out of four weekends a month, 90 minutes there, and 90 back again. As a teacher, I had a ton of paperwork to do. Every weekend. Finally, I had a brilliantly stupid idea.
“Honey,” I said, “instead of driving back and forth every weekend (because your friggin’ family won’t make an effort to drive over and visit us, even though we have a baby to truck back and forth 90 minutes each way, 10 pm, dark road, deer everywhere, almost every weekend) how about we just move closer to your family?” Why wasn’t someone around to kick me in the mouth? “Honey, since I’m a teacher, I can probably find a job over there somewhere. I’d rather do that than drive back and forth, 90 minutes, each way, every weekend.” (STFU!) “Honey, what do you think?” For family, that’s why. That, and I’m an idiot.
We found a nice Victorian house in a Norman Rockwell kind of town, Pitman, NJ, and I’ll write a post about that on another day. The house was right across the street from the school that my kids would attend. I was always jealous of kids who lived that close to school, so I hoped my kids would love being there, and I think they did. For some kids it feels kind of special to walk out of your school and there’s your house, right across the street. Or when you’re having a hard time in math, you can look out the window and see your house. I think that’s comforting for most kids. It was perfect. Giant walk up attic, good yard for a swing set and tire swing in a strong oak tree. It was truly a gift, but it came with a price. That price was – instead of driving 90 minutes, back and forth, every weekend – driving 90 minutes every day, twice a day, there and back again, five days a week, for about a year until I finally found a teaching position much closer to the new home. I survived the drive because I was doing it for family. No problem. Priorities. Yes, I left the house at about 6am, which many people do, and I was getting home about 7:30pm, which many people do without complaint. Unfortunately, it’s easy to look back and see that I should have kept doing that instead of taking a new job in a new town, Franklinville.
I went from the beach to the farm. Franklinville, NJ. Farmers, rednecks, hunters, klansmen, klanswomen, and klanskids. It was a throwback, but not in a good way. You remember the teachers who screamed, threw books, ridiculed kids for getting a math problem wrong, and broke yardsticks on desks? Franklinville had some of them. You remember back in the 70’s when some schools would pass out cups of fluoride for the kids to rinse their teeth for families that couldn’t afford toothpaste or dental visits? Once a week we had fluoride delivered for rinsing and spitting. Over ten years prior it had become illegal to make kids write 100 times “I must not talk during class” and other repentant statements – but it was a daily event in Franklinville. I heard rumors of students being spanked, but I was never sure. I instantly became the smartest person in the building – and as I’ve said before – if I’m the smartest person in the building, then I’m in the wrong building.
This was 1997. Most schools had “departmentalized,” which means each teacher was responsible for one subject and kids circulated to various classrooms for other subjects every 45 minutes or so. Instead, in Franklinville, teachers were still responsible for everything: math, English, science, social studies, health, Spanish, etc. So I was teaching fifth grade everything, which was dropped by almost every school district – except Franklinville. There’s more to say about that, but in a later post about education in general. This is about me.
Let me give you a brief summary of things that went wrong in Franklinville:
- A kid came late to school one day, had blood all over his boots and pants. I asked him what happened. He said there was a deer in the yard that morning, and his father told him to go get it. He did. He was 11.
- Many teachers had pickup trucks with gun racks in the back window. Several would change into their camouflage outfits in their classroom and head right into the woods after school.
- I picked up the classroom phone one day and had to tell a student that he needed to leave right away. One of the pigs had gotten loose from the yard and was running around town.
- The principal verbally abused an older, female teacher in the cafeteria in front of a room full of kids during lunch. When I whispered to another teacher that what the principal was doing was just way wrong, the other teacher said, “No, it’s okay. That’s his aunt he’s yelling at.”
- Parents were removed from D.A.R.E. (Drug Abuse Resistance Education) graduation because they were drunk.
Combined with that were personal issues. The wife refused to go back to work. The agreement was that we would cut expenses and save $10,000 to help pay bills prior to having a child so she could stay home and raise the baby, and this would continue while financially possible. However, when it was not financially possible – mainly because of the pay cut by working in farmland instead of a beach town and buying a huge Victorian house – she refused to return to work. This forced me to get a second job. So after teaching from 8am to 4pm, I then drove to a part-time job from 5pm to 8pm. Then I’d get home at about 8:30, just in time to give the baby a bath and put her to bed. Then I’d spend an hour or so marking papers, planning for the next day. Then I’d get to sleep about midnight. What a week. Oh, but the weekend! The wife slept all day, and I watched the baby all day. I regret no time with the baby. She was as perfect as I could hope. Beautiful inside and out, a brilliant kid, but I needed some downtime. I was burning out. I was a family guy for sure, but I was burning out. My school was primitive and my home was a sweatshop. Yeah, unfair comparison, but it’s all I got right now.
Things at work were – for me – not bad because the principal loved me. I was always on the edge of technology, and he knew that computers were slowly but greatly boosting education. I could build them from scratch, fix them, maintain the network, install software, and run workshops to educate teachers on using them in the classroom. The guy made sure I had anything I needed. He wanted me out of the classroom just to take care of all things computer related, and that might have been a good thing, but I would have missed the kids too much. The kids, the interaction, the learning was everything. Getting notes from parents telling me how much their kids loved my class was a gift, and it was sorely needed because things at home were getting more and more difficult.
Resentment grew with my wife because of her refusal to work and her insistence that she needed more and more “beauty” sleep. To this day, she still takes unfair amounts of sleep. Her parents have a shore-area home that was messed up by Hurricane Sandy that hit the shore area a few months ago. While most of her family have made several trips to the house to clean up and prepare for rebuilding. The only problem is that she sleeps the entire time while the other three do all the work. She’s a lazy slob, cut and dry, and unfortunately I unknowingly facilitated it.
During our last year together, I kept telling her how I needed a distraction, and outlet, something to do to reboot myself. A block away was a tennis wall. I said, “Give me an hour to go hit tennis balls against the wall.” She said, “Great, but take the baby with you.” I said, “Give me an hour to go to the driving range and hit a bucket of golf balls.” She said, “Great, but take the baby with you.” I grew up playing hockey, and I wanted to join an adult hockey league. She actually gave it a shot, let me try. When I got home after the first game, she said, “Sorry, not gonna work. You were gone too long and the baby needed you.”
What also didn’t help was our social life. We didn’t have one. We used to see movies every week, but not anymore. We used to go to parties, and we used to host parties including some great ones at Halloween, but no more. I totally accept that things change after you have a baby, but most people – sane people – occasionally get a babysitter. Not us. “It’s our baby,” she said. “We raise her. Nobody else.” It got so bad that our teenage niece unexpectedly showed up on Valentine’s Day and chased us out of the house for dinner and a movie while she watched the baby. She was and still is a great girl, and she was smart enough, even while just in high school, to see that we were headed down a bad road. So we go to a Valentine’s Day dinner and a movie: Saving Private Ryan. Foreshadowing.
Those of you in relationships know how exterior stressors can affect the internal relationship. There were discussions, disagreements, arguments, escalations, and even fights that got physical. I recall at least two occasions in which we argued literally until the sun came up. I then had to get ready for school while she rolled over and went to sleep. The second time that was about to happen, I got smart. Somewhere past midnight I came to the sudden realization that she was right. I admitted it, then I went to sleep. The next day, however, I made sure to let her know that she wasn’t right, I wasn’t wrong, but I was in need of sleep.
Things were already fragile enough, and then my wife had a miscarriage. Though my reaction was sincerely an attempt to soothe the situation, it could be called that of a “typical” male: the baby wasn’t developing properly. It was going to have developmental issues. It’s your body’s way of saying, “It’s not working out. You should start over.” As logical as that was, it didn’t work with her and likely not with most women. Perhaps that’s a sexist statement, not sure, but it made me seem like an insensitive douche and drove the emotional wedge further between us. I tried to focus on my family, specifically my amazing child who was reading at 2-years old, thanks to her talented mother/teacher.
You’re correct if it seems I’m avoiding talking about my children very much. I want to keep my kids out of this and make it more about me. I don’t want them to have any reason to think they were the cause of anything that went wrong. My new school was a depressing comparison to the beach school in Lavallette. My previously solid marriage was weakening from a combination of work stress and my wife’s insistence that she no longer work and that I get a part-time job. It was an incendiary situation. Then someone lit a match.
Next chapter: Boom!