TTWA:  Problematic Party

 A thank-you note for a weekend visit where everything went wrong.

As a devout introvert, weekend visits are chimerical, that is rare and often terrifying.  Attending family parties, being forced into polite but shallow conversations, and eventually seeking out a quiet place to hide and read or play games . . . the whole ordeal taxes my mind and spirit.  Shame, guilt and anxiety build even if I do manage to escape to my comfort zone.  Am I running away from my problems?  Do I dislike the people with whom I surround myself?  Maybe I’m afraid of crowds . . .Talking to two or three people at once is stimulating, but add half-a-dozen and the conversation nose-dives into general pleasantries or rehearsed opinions about sports.  At worst, the conversation devolves into a lecture with the more competent speaker assuming the role of professor.

Those were my thoughts growing up.  Then, the many millions of younger siblings and cousins saved me from too much self-analysis with volleyball, capture-the-flag, and Mario Kart.  As we’ve grown older, the games have all but stopped, replaced with mortgage complaints, political gossip, and nap schedules.  I get bored easily.  Most of my friends and family are — if not extroverts — at least very comfortable talking to others.  They make friends easily, show genuine enthusiasm for other’s opinions, and converse competently about sports, kids, mortgages, cars and a multitude of other topics.   Meanwhile, my social anxiety gnaws at my conscience, eventually metamorphing into social guilt: Shouldn’t I try to talk to someone?  “Why don’t you come out and talk with Katie’s friends?”  What do I say?  A joke?  Do I know any? “That’s no way to find a girl, dude.”

And these are just the conversation I have with myself!  Who knows what everyone else is saying . . .

Despite appearances, I have no particular hatred for people, just boring conversations.  As a kid, I’ve always dreamed of joining a group of friends where your indiosyncrocies are welcomed.  Together we accomplish missions for the greater good: defeat evil scientists, save animals in danger, maybe find love in the process  between mysteries . . . I watched a lot of Chip and Dale Rescue Rangers as a boy.  Gadget struck me a hottie . . . for a girl mouse.

Anyway this has little to do with my TTWA assignment, but I hoped to establish the stage for my actions in the following account.

Dear Unity School Administration,

Thank you so much for inviting me to teach over this past year.  The past several months have illuminated me This last weekend chaperoning the eighth grade camping trip near Antietam battlefield has convinced me never to return.  Frankly, our journey to the battlefield over the weekend proved an enjoyable experience.  The kids survived the hour drive to Western Maryland, a rare achievement considering the concoction of learning differences, social anxieties, and emotional disorders shared among them.  Far from Baltimore and a short drive from Frederick, the towns and buildings receed into the mountains relinquishing the hills and mountains to green grass and fragrant evergreens.  It was beautiful and serene . . . until the kids began screaming at each other.

I won’t spend too much time on the battlefield at Antietam.  There’s a lot of history buried beneath the hills and fields besides the bullets and bodies of solidiers; the land feels blessed or haunted by the blood of thousands.  You find yourself whispering even outdoors like the trees and sky formed an immense cathedral.  The kids only sought to shoot off a cannon, and became despondent when they discovered it was disallowed.  One kid — I will refrain from identifying him, although you may probably guess — kicked the cannon in response to this refusal.  His resulting limp should not accredited to any abuse or neglect on my part.  

I should mention my fellow chaperones, to diffuse the blame as much as share the accolades.  Liz, our history teacher, was our de facto leader since she made up the whole of the 8th grade leadership team.  Sarah, the new literature teacher, made up the third member of our team.  Her easy smile, youth and penchant for wearing cut off jeans and white tank-tops made her an easy favorite among the all-male eighth grade class.  I would suggest to the administration that dress code be instituted for all future retreats to prevent . . . awkward nightly conversations overheard in the kids’ cabins.  Finally, we recruited Tom, our art teacher.  

Tom and I had bonded professionally over the past year.  As you can imagine, being the only male in a profession where most of your coworkers are women can prove . . . overwhelming at times.  Tom owned a beat-up Civic with a broken radio and barely functional CD player; he only owned one CD though, a mix of 80s and 90s soundtracks.  Once he revealed that track 1 was the theme to Ninja Turtles, we became fast friends.  

Yet I digress.  We had take two vehicles on this excursion: Tom and I drove the van with the boys while Liz and Sarah drove Liz’s Subaru full of luggage.  After the tour of the battleground, we drove up into the mountains near Frederick to the camp site.  Madame Principal, I would suggest that if we continue this eigth grade retreat in the near future, the camp should avoid all resemblance to horror movie cliches.   I do realize that money is tight, but third-world prisons were more luxurious.  The site proved a hodgepodge of flimsy cabins, steep mountain trails, and scum-soaked liquid that the management tried to camoflauge as a swimming pool.   The inside of the cabins consisted of a rotting picnic table, a crumbling fireplace, and four wire-mesh cots with inflatable mattresses that expelled the sickly-sweet scent of rotting fruit  whenever you sat on them.  The walls themselves may have once been painted sky blue over the past year; there may have been a mural of a sunset over the Appalacian Mountains;  perhaps even an inscribed treasure map signed in blood by the ghost of Stonewall Jackson.  I cannot say because every panel, corner, and surface skittered and crawled with a hundred-thousand stinkbugs.  

Due to the lack of school funds, our dinner consisted of Doritos and Mountain Dew.  We abandoned the campfire after it was made apparent that the logs offered by the campsite were rotted and soaked.  After ‘dinner,’ we decided to turn in early since we had scheduled sailing lessons the following afternoon — I now realize where all our camping budget went.  All of the teachers shared the largest cabin; the boys had decided on a smaller shack near the bathrooms.  Frankly, I believe the boys chose their sleeping space based on the amount of work required to clean it.  Having dealt with adolescent boys many diagnosed with ADHD, my fellow teachers and I had no energy to clean or fumigate.  Instead we had positioned a flashlight at the far side of the room like a mechanical anglerfish to draw away most of the insects.  Still, I slept little that night.   Insects bounced against the glass panel of the flashlight every five seconds, the buzz of wings in my hair, and finally Sarah snoring in a sports bra and gym shorts only feet from my mattress.  Fear, desire and the smell of rotting nectarines left me tossing and turning in the darkness until dawn.  

The next morning, the van broke down.   We had just left the campsite when the van stalled.  The radio was the first to die, followed shortly by the fuel gauge.  Not knowing anything about alternators, I immediately stopped for gas and jumpstart.  This seemed to work for about one mile, until the van engine stopped altogether.  We managed to park at the entrance to an old farm.

Compared to the stink bugs and Dorito dinner, this proved less of an issue.  We had two vehicles and rather than sit for a tow with six hyperactive teenagers, Liz and Sarah decided to load up the extra luggage in the van and pack the kids in their Subaru.  The sailing excursion would continue.  Tom elected to stay with me and wait for the tow truck.  After the ladies drove off, we sat and talked about life.  Tom played bass in a band with his wife.  Together they performed gigs up and down the coast.  He wasn’t sure about teaching as a career, but admitted that he loved kids.  He and his wife were working on their first:  Rosie if it was a girl and Sam if it was a boy.  They were big Tolkien fans.  

The tow truck arrived three hours after the van broke down.  Twenty miles from school, the tow truck itself broke down along I70, depositing us at local rest stop.  We waited another two hours for the second tow truck, thanking God for the invention of indoor plumbing and vending machines.  

I tell the administration this because by now you’ve probably received Tom’s letter of resignation too.  Sarah and Liz are not far behind.  I’m fairly certain that I will teach again, despite this unfortunate weekend, but refuse to work for anyone who favors sailing fees over dry firewood, warm hamburgers, and s’mores. Thank you again for this learning experience.  

Yours truly,

Murph

PS: Do you have Sarah’s home phone number?  I’m fairly certain I have no shot, but after this weekend I’m feeling unnaturally brave.  

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