Like a fox.

9 Mar

The teacher to whose students I just gave a three-day tour remains a complete enigma to me. Upon arrival, she greeted me with this charming indiscretion: “We’ve had Carrie as our guide for the past four years. You have a lot to live up to!” I know Carrie. Carrie is insane. My first thought to myself was, “Piece of cake. I can run with the insane like the bulls in Pamplona. There’s a document floating around Columbia-Presbyterian from 1994 that says as much.”

Her next request, well, I take that back, her next demand was that I hold an umbrella up like Carrie always does so that her fourteen students won’t lose me. I don’t do umbrellas. (One guide here walks around with a stuffed horse’s head atop a stick. I always whisper to my students when she passes, “You guys dodged a bullet there.”) I suffer enough abuse on the streets of New York without inviting any Mary Poppins comments. And had I lost even one of the over ten thousand students I’ve given tours to since 1999, I may have taken her requirement under a bit more advisement.

So we were off to a bad start. She wanted control and I wrangled the reins right out of her abusive horse-whipping hands. And her eyes turned blood red, popping out of her head like the stable was on fire for the next seventy-two hours.

I take these tours seriously. These are kids who have lived in tiny towns and eaten tiny diets and learned from largely tiny people their entire tiny lives. This is an unprecedented opportunity to open up their heads on a spectacular world stage. I have little time to pacify the egos of the teachers. I sit with the kids at meals and ask them a thousand questions about themselves and work my way into their heads and explain that balsamic vinaigrette is a miracle and not everything need be smothered in Ranch dressing and that walking is good for you despite what your newly sneakered feet are telling you and that it’s OK to call it “pop” but we call it “soda” and there is no judgement there and to beware of making fun of the way the Chinese talk in Chinatown because I guarantee they know more English than you know Mandarin and so on and so on. There is a lot of ground to cover. And a lot of time to make up for the time this particular teacher has clearly squandered all year:

“No, Savannah, the Statue of Liberty was never a hotel.”

I sat with Sandee, a young Native American girl, who, after having her country stolen out from under her, was saddled with severe vitiligo. She was amazingly strong and charming and self-possessed. I sat with Isaiah, whom this gossipy teacher had earlier, in an ulcerous whisper to me, lovingly referred to as “a crack baby,” and found him to be bright and orderly and respectful and the owner of the hugest set of blue eyes that seemed to forever implore “please stop thinking of me as a crack baby.” I sat with Conor who hasn’t spoken to his father. Ever. And Conor did card tricks complete with the wise-cracking smooth-talking Borscht-belt schpiel one would have expected from the Sham-Wow guy and Conor could recite whole passages from Romeo & Juliet and Conor wants to be a psychiatrist and I imagine he will some day and Conor thanked me as we departed with the words, “You’ll never know how much this meant to me.” And I sat with Nicky and Nathan, two buddies joined at the hip who laughed easily at everything and wondered at the wide wide world at their four feet. I sat with Mariel who was as lovely as a lily; who could, thanks to some branch on her variegated family tree, actually speak some Mandarin, a point to which I apologetically conceded given my previous comment, and who was constantly chilly in the 90-degree weather because there is more fat in water than on her fastidious frame. I sat with all of them, under the glaring eye of their petty, poor neglected teacher across the room.

I am the least competitive person I know. I fight for very little. But I suspect this teacher was reading competition into my need to know her students and felt threatened. Perhaps Carrie sat with HER those previous years and indulged HER tattle tales and tedious stories about her husband the head wrestling coach and how they almost made it to semi-finals last year and whatever the hell that means or matters. (Let me add tangentially here, I am not in the least impressed that your school takes sports “real seriously,” you say with a smile. Perhaps if your school took reading a goddam book once and awhile as seriously as it did football, Texas wouldn’t have recently gotten away with re-writing American History. So fuck you and your football and the divisive dullards it produces.) Perhaps Carrie didn’t mind when this teacher had the balls to announce to her students that the more people she gets to sign up for the trip, the more of her family and friends she gets to bring along for free. I frankly didn’t know whether to be refreshed or appalled at such impolitic candor. How many officials do YOU hear admitting so blithely to kickbacks?

There were many other instances of rudeness, if not outright hostility, on this woman’s part. Every moment I stopped the group to lecture, she pulled out her cell phone, or pulled aside a student, or pulled focus any number of ways, often commenting on my comments with utterly false information or tossing out a lame joke to win back the affection that had wandered over to me. Hey. More power to her. But she was wilting in the heat. And in my home court. She stood not a chance with the least competitive person I know. Her husband would have had her in a half-Nelson for that poor display.

On the final day, standing on a horrid humid subway platform, as far away from me as the platforms of the NYC Subway System allow, I noticed this teacher was weeping, her chest heaving as she lost the battle to hide her tears. I felt compelled to finally approach her, finally put our cards on the table, and finally say something politely but with the following subtext, “What the fuck is UP with you? Are you really that fucking disappointed with me? What the FUCK are you crying about?” But the better voice in my head said, “This doesn’t have to be said. This doesn’t have to be said by you. This doesn’t have to be said by you right now.” So I let it ride and realized, despite all my considered analysis, I could be completely wrong. Maybe the all-star welter-weight back home had his Achilles’ heel breached. Maybe the dog died.

One is only paranoid, however, when the other person DOESN’T want to kill you. In my forty-plus years of maneuvering the jungles of Earth, my fight-or-flight response has been dead on. And I typically fly. Except when it comes to umbrellas. And this time.

I opted to fight. With honey. While they were off shopping on Fifth Avenue, I went to MoMA and bought her a Jeff Koons coffee cup. I had it wrapped and topped with a big beautiful bow. And I bought a card and wrote in it how grateful I was that she organized this trip and started these students on the wonderful road of travel at such a tender age. Allow me to pat myself on the back here, though. In a stroke of brilliant and stealthy passive-aggressiveness, the card was a print of van Gogh’s Starry Night.

In effect, it read: From Crazy to Crazy: Crazy.

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