Friday, January 30, 2009

Abraham Lincoln Was Home-Schooled

The first squabble Dr. Fiancé and I had about public-versus-private school was on our one-week anniversary. He’d taken me to a trendy Italian restaurant—one of those places with vertiginously high ceilings and shiny steel tables filled by women with shiny pants and shiny lips. We perched on a gigantic leather ottoman in the middle of the restaurant while we waited for our table, sipping sage-muddled cocktails and trying not to spill. Or at least I was trying. Dr. Fiancé didn’t seem like he was having to try. He seemed totally calm, confidently resting an affectionate hand on my lower back, as voices in my head confidently informed me, “Lady, you're an impostor. Just look at those shoes!”

I was in way over my head and way over my bank account. I’d been to restaurants like this before—as a twelve-year-old with my parents on the dime of my dad’s rich Republican cousin who was all too happy to choose the wine, tell us all what to order, and provide most of the “conversation.” But here I was, a full-fledged grownup on a date—a fourth date—with a guy I really liked—a doctor. Who went to Harvard. How could I live up? My body flooded with anxiety at every decision. Rossi or Bianchi? The Cesanese Lazio or the Cannonau Sardegna? Did I even want wine, or would I just spill it? Should I request the cheapest bottle? The most expensive one? The one I might be able to pronounce? My face got so hot my glasses fogged completely over.

Taking my cue from the sage in my cocktail, I tried to muddle along, acting, more or less, like I could pass for a person with a trust fund—hell, with a savings account—until just after the course of multinational olives when Dr. Fiancé announced that his future children—and by optimistic implication my future children—would be attending private school.

I lay down my hand-forged $3 cracker as if freeing up my hands for an imminent fistfight.

“Nothing’s more important than education,” he said, like that was a point I’d argue. “And the Seattle public school system’s terrible.” End of discussion.

To his credit, he didn’t actually say “end of discussion,” it was just implied by choosing that moment to take a large swig of his wine. (Also to his credit, it turns out he’s even less comfortable in trendy Italian restaurants than I am. He just fakes it better. Way better. They probably taught a class at his private high school on how to accomplish such feats.)

My comeback, honed by thirteen years of public school education? “But I went to public school.” Like, See, I turned out fine! I mean, sure, my glasses fog over when presented with a decision in Italian, but other than that I’m pretty smart and stuff.

Now—a year and a half later—when sketchy things happen at the public high school where I teach once a week, I have to think twice about whether to tell Dr. Fiancé, lest he put it in the “further reasons our children will attend private school file.” Instead I try to focus my commentary on the charms of public education, like how one of the teachers I work with has a bi-monthly “song day” where 10th graders do rhetorical analyses of Dylan songs and another teacher has propped a word-of-day calendar at the front of the room and makes a point to use the word throughout the day. Yesterday the word was lackadaisical, which she worked into a lesson on the importance of using specific sensory details to illustrate abstract concepts. “You can say a character is lazy, or you can describe the way he skips the corners when he vacuums lackadaisically.”

I have yet to tell Dr. Fiancé about the “lock-down drill” yesterday.

Just between you and me, it was the scariest fictional experience I’ve had in my life. Sure, when I was a kid we had bomb threats that sent us out into the cornfields for hours until the bomb-sniffing dogs could snoop through our lockers for pot or porn or whatever, and yes, we had to cower in the hallway in preparation for a tornado—but this, this was nothing like that. A pack of angry teenage gunman with semi-automatic rifles storms towards your class, determined to blow everyone to smithereens, but it’s okay—you’re protected by a piece of black construction paper covering the window in the door? And if by some chance they shoot through the construction paper you’re still okay because you’re sitting under your desk? I’m sure it won’t occur to the rampaging killers to aim a little lower.

The intercom crackled on and a man's disembodied voice reminded us, “If this were a real situation, we would use the district-wide code: Mr. Lincoln is in the building.” Like Honest Abe had finally snapped, having been teased one time too many about his height and his odd taste in facial hair and hats.

Perhaps it’s because I run a little on the anxious side, or perhaps it’s because I have a very rich imagination, or perhaps it’s because I’m a writer, so it’s my job to wonder what it would be like if the drill weren’t just a drill. Whatever the case, within ten seconds of sitting on the dirty carpet under a desk, wondering whether a cardboard box full of raggedy paperback copies of Catcher in the Rye would stop a bullet from reaching my heart, my armpits were completely soaked.

Sitting under their desks (shouldn’t the desks have been turned on their sides to better act as shields?), 28 students fidgeted, rustling papers, fingering cell phones, bored as bored can be by the prospect of one of their own turning homicidal and bursting into their classroom to massacre them all. Even their teacher—not me, their real teacher—seemed calm to the point of ennui as she reminded them from underneath a table to be silent “so no one knows there’s a classroom full of people in here, even though...” By the end of the sentence her voice had trailed off in homage to the impossibility of our silence protecting us from an arsenal of assault weapons. But you know what? That’s true at private school, too.

After what was probably three minutes but felt like 30, the intercom crackled back on to declare the end of the drill. “Well, that was completely terrifying,” I told the roomful of students as I dusted off the seat of my skirt.

They stared at me, not incredulous or amused or even confused, just blank-faced like they didn’t trust me enough to use facial expressions in my presence—or like they didn’t feel or care about anything. And with that, they brilliantly demonstrated the word of the day.

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