Thursday, 29 December 2011

Lalia ~ Between the Stops

"Are you starting today?"

She wondered what had blown her cover. Was it the white-knuckled hand-wringing? The nervous pulling at her poorly fitting uniform top? Her name badge in its perfect perpendicular position? She nodded and thought about offering a handshake, just for the practice, but opted for more shirt tugging instead. 

"It isn't even my first job - just my first new job in a long time. I bet I look like a rookie." The other woman, maybe fifteen or twenty years older and wearing a uniform that looked much more worn though just as clean, nodded reassuringly to the blonder version of her younger self. The name Lalia was embroidered just below her left shoulder. "You'll be fine," she said. "Even if you stumble through the first day, tomorrow will be more comfortable. A couple of spaghetti stains on your apron will do wonders for feeling like you belong. Deep breaths when you need them; head tall like you know what you're doing, even when you don't. You'll be fine."

"Thank you," she murmured and shifted her attention out the window. The bus had pulled over to one of the stops at the farthest reach of its route. The bus driver called back over a rather crackly loudspeaker that there was a scheduled ten minute delay in their trip, and if anyone would like to hop out for a smoke they were welcome to join him. Two or three young guys from the front followed off the bus, and a girl from their party swung her legs up to the newly vacant seat beside her, hugged her knees and nestled into a light doze like a bird. Her breathing visibly slowed in a matter of seconds; peace in the midst of chaos.

"I hope you planned ahead a bit better than I did," the older lady piped up, as though the five-minute lull in conversation was nothing more than a pause for breath. "I forgot about the stop here by this old school. I usually catch it on the return, but I was worried about it filling up with kids going off to class, so I jumped on before. By the time I realized this bus doesn't even go up to the college, I was already aboard. But just think! If I'd waited, maybe I wouldn't have talked with you! Everything happens for a reason, I say. I do always say that." 

The young woman looked down at the phone in her hand and checked the time. She tisked her tongue quietly, without opening her mouth and without looking up. The older woman was chattering like a wind-up toy that used the last few movements of its mechanical momentum to turn its own key and begin again.

"Be glad that the buses are so quiet right now. I used to work the really early morning shift; I'd be up at three and to work by five, coffees in hand. The girls and I used to take turns getting it, but eventually the task fell to me because I was the only one who didn't need it to get it with a smile! But some people are just morning people I guess. Believe it or not, those crack-of-dawn runs are some of the busiest of the day!"

"Don't work mornings anymore?" She asked in a tone barely inflective enough to confirm that a question existed at all. She wasn't really paying attention.

"No, not since my son left for school. Working in the mornings was great when he was little - gave us the afternoons together and we both hit the hay early. Then suddenly he wasn't little anymore! Got tall, like his father was, and popular in the same fashion. When he went off to school he got wrapped up in the typical college scene, staying up all hours like an owl. When he did come home, his body couldn't adjust and I ended up never seeing him at all. Since it's just the two of us, that didn't fly for long. I figured it would be a lot easier to change my life than his, so I took an afternoon shift and now, when he's home and not out drinking with friends, we stay up and talk. Unfortunately, he comes home less and less. There's a girl, you see."

Activity at the front of the bus drew everyone's attention. The guys who had gone for a smoke returned to their seats, except for the boy who seemed to be with her; he had tried to, but his seat had legs all over it and moving them proved a war. The sleeping beauty who had so peacefully drifted off minutes before jolted and snapped forward at him like a viper when he dropped one of her feet back to the floor. She shouted at him, he yelled back - not for long, but snake fights rarely take much time, once the venom is loosed. The viper had suffered the bite of a larger predator. As she stormed to the back of the bus her lightning and thunder melted into the poisoned rain of embarrassment and hurt. She curled up again, once a position of rest now an armoured shell.

Lalia sighed. The boys at the front of the bus laughed and punched each other's arms and sat down just as the driver returned to continue the route. Had he witnessed the scene he would have likely stepped in. One more reason not to smoke.

"I worry about this with my son," she said sadly. "He is so much like his father. My Rod never could see the pain he caused and I'm afraid it's a trait that Sam learned to mimic as a child. It's been a while since Rod's gone, but so much of his influence still lingers. If Sam was closer, if he brought this girl of his around a little more, then maybe I could remind him to be gentle. He tries though. At least he tries." She looked back at the girl tucked into the corner, shoulders shaking from more than the rough road beneath them. 

"It was nice to meet you today, hun, but I think that I might be on this bus for her, not for you. Will you excuse me?" With a smile, Lalia took up a seat beside the girl and spoke in whispered, caressing tones. Although she didn't move, her breathing gradually evened and she opened her eyes. Lalia put one hand on the girl's calf and gave it a pat. The girl's tears returned, but they were different -- no longer laced with anger, all toxins gone.

The bus climbed a hill and passed a Macs Milk store. Her stop was coming up, just on the other side of the highway, and in a few minutes she would be waiting on tables and talking about which special she would recommend to the complete strangers who sought her advice. She signalled her request with the yellow cord and looked back at Lalia who had the girl laughing now, cheer and tear blended and smeared with the make-up on both of their faces. Maybe that was the real difference between their uniforms. Hers, un-wrinkled and crisp was prepared for presentation and performance, as was her attitude... but Lalia's, with softened edges and smoothed creases resembled a nurse's scrub, even with the cropped black apron of the food industry. She didn't just wait on her strangers -- she cared over them. 

As the bus slowed down across from Kelsey's, Lalia took a little piece of paper from her pocket and pressed in gently into the girl's palm. Then she stood, gave the girl a maternal kiss on the top of her head and returned to the doors. 

"Fancy that," she said, rubbing mascara from under her eyes. "The same stop all along." Thanking the bus driver, she hopped off and headed toward the crosswalk. Part of Lalia's story flashed into mind; she said that her son had patterned his life after his father's from childhood. She didn't have a mom to mimic... maybe this loving, chattering lady would do. "Thank you," she called to the driver who tipped his hat and closed the door as she ran to catch up to her newest acquaintance. And the bus rattled off again.

Monday, 5 December 2011

Kelly ~ Between the Stops

Ten minutes of rain without an umbrella had let loose her curls and streaked the foundation that covered her face. Another morning wasted with the fussing of hair and careful application of liners and blush. Why did she bother? Why did any woman bother with such nonsense.

She should have seen it coming when the radio played the same song twice in a row. Even if it’s a good song, twice in a row is a bad start as far as organization of a day is concerned; it makes you second-guess yourself, tricks your mind into believing you have more time than you do, throws your subconscious for a loop as though your whole life has skipped like a scratched CD. A few minutes later she discovered the fracture in her cereal bowl, responsible for the leak that had silently soaked a pile of history quizzes that she was in the middle of marking. She had been taught early in life not to cry over spilled milk, and so she held herself together right up until she knocked the table trying to leave and her coffee cup dumped its contents into her lap. A few angry tears followed in the aftermath while trying to speedily spot clean her cream coloured cotton skirt that she eventually abandoned for denim. It was a grim forecast from the start, and the weatherman had yet to open his mouth.

It is amazing how we can survive through even in the most wearying of seasons; we learn to invest in deeper things than rouge and curls, and we find purpose that runs at a much deeper level than circumstance can determine. It was, for her, the kids that kept her going. Every morning as she crossed the threshold of her classroom door, the bright orange gateway to adventure and discovery that had been the bearer of her name placard for seven years and counting, every morning she was met with 30 brilliant reasons to keep waking up. They brought all emotion into her life: joy, grief and meaning. Students were a transient sort of family with faces always changing in season, but they were family, and she poured her heart into them without reserve.

But this morning, her heart (not yet at school and not yet focused on the more important things) tripped over her hair. She twisted the front pieces between her fingers and pinched hard, willing her locks to lock in place with inevitable failure. “It looks okay. Don’t worry about it.” The voice that came from a few rows behind had caught her off guard and she spun around with a start, scanning the seats over twice which at first glance had appeared to be empty.

The camouflage of an urbanite is not made of the greens and browns readily associated with the term. To blend into the city you must adopt the plumage of muted vibrancy, of patterns so outrageous that they climb over you like an artificial ivy and smudge your features into the moving mural of the city scene. Kelly had learned the art by osmosis, the way that you do by growing up in a place. She could fade, blend, almost disappear with an effortless decision to do so; she could adopt the attitude of invisibility as literally as any mystical cloak, and once under its protective shield the world could not touch her.

She had been hiding four rows behind her teacher. Hiding from her, if truth be told. To see a teacher outside of its native context is an alien encounter that requires a carefully calculated approach. She had spent several minutes in observation, watching in absolute stillness; she was a veritable chameleon in her zebra-print overcoat and retro green headphones. Unnoticed. Unnoticeable. 

The teacher had clambered aboard the bus with a furrowed brow, cursing with her eyes at a newly torn hole in the back cuff of her jeans. The hem was sopping wet and hanging on by a few frayed threads. Her emotions seemed to match. She had taken a seat somewhat absently, and Kelly couldn’t tell if she had yet noticed the tangle of leaves caught in her hair. It didn't seem to bother her; she was preoccupied with a pair of tendrils hanging down limply from her forehead. Time had come to emerge from the metaphorical foliage. “It looks okay,” she said, loud enough to get her attention. Then more gently, “Don’t worry about it.”

Recognition wasn’t instantaneous, but it only took a moment for the young teacher to catch her bearings and make the mental switch. “Good morning, Kelly! I didn’t realize you lived over here! Are you headed to school too?” Her cheerful voice might have been a semitone too jubilant to come across as perfectly sincere on such an obviously sallow day, but her smile was genuine. Kelly pointed vaguely to the left side of the bus. “Mom and I moved into an apartment a few stops back last year. City bus is faster than a school bus, so I catch this one and do my…” After a short pause she finished her sentence rather bashfully, “…my homework,” she confessed, “about twenty minutes before class. It gets done though, honest.” Professional persona in place, she suppressed a mirthful expression that might have been called a sort of chortle, had it been given the freedom of exposure. She cocked one eyebrow instead and half-rolled her eyes. “As long as it hits my desk, we’re okay,” she said, and took a red-felt seat across the aisle from her young pupil.

The bus was nearing the school, but its route would take them farther from it again and tour around the residential neighbourhood before stopping across the road from the cafeteria entrance. She could walk from the next stop and save herself between seven and twelve minutes, but nine minutes longer with this girl might be more important than coffee brewed before the bell. She resolved to follow Kelly’s lead.

It wasn’t often that a child would overlap in her classes. On only eight occasions had a student been held back in the history of her school, and only once – well, twice – under her care. The school board frowned on extremely high class averages as much as failings, and most teachers danced, curved and nudged the numbers to meet requirements if they could, but some children have a knack for monkey-wrenching even the smoothest of systematic gears and cogs. Curtis, her first rebel, was a kid bent on breaking every teacher he faced off against. He was angry and strong, like the rock-dwelling rams you might see on a commercial for the Discovery Channel. Every September he would lower his head and charge full steam into the Principal’s office. Once he did this when the door was closed, an act that earned him an overnight stay in the hospital and a month of passes to see the nurse. But he wasn’t an idiot, contrary to popular opinion and school report card records – Curt was scary smart and a talented manipulator. The first two terms with him in class were a migraine inducing torment, in mild-mannered vocabulary. He had almost broken her spirit by third term, and then a miracle happened: they studied law. Lawyers became an obsession for the boy – to twist and connive and massage truth to serve a positive end was a nearly inconceivable idea. He bombed every course except History that year, settling at a frightening 27% overall average. Arrangements had been made to transfer him into another class that would “cater better to his particular developmental needs,” and she had to fight to keep him. The paradigm shifted a few weeks into their second year together and Curtis progressed by leaps and bounds. By mid term he was rivaling the self-identified geniuses, and joined the debate team. He was sharp and competitive, and led them to the provincial championships, proudly bringing home a silver podium-shaped trophy that Curtis presented to the Principal, in his office. All three of them had a bit of a cry that day.

And Kelly was the second, although her situation was somewhat different. Last year she had taught a split class at the small elementary school. It was a seven/eight split, with only a handful in the lower grade. The schools make it sound like a random draw when students have their classes chosen, but in reality it’s a carefully orchestrated collection of kids. She had the best possible set up for a split class – the over achieving of the lower grade, and the rougher-edged older ones who might benefit from a naturally slowed pace. For the most part the lessons were divided, but on occasion when the classes could be combined for the bulk and then tailored away from the chalkboard such a set up served the greatest number at the greatest efficiency. But last year Kelly’s family took a couple of hard hits and she stumbled towards summer in obvious pain. Kelly would stay in from recess from time to time and dissolve into tears at her desk. “Teacher” became a blend of much more last June – mentor, friend, pseudo-mother, tutor, guardian and advocate were unofficially added to the list by graduation, and when Kelly requested to be in her class again this coming year, in the upper half of another split class, her request was heard and honoured by the faculty. She was the only one of the Sevens that stuck, but it had been a good decision. There was a distance between them this term, old classroom social boundaries reestablished, but this tough little girl was one of the special ones.

The bus rolled past four stops without so much as a pause. They rode on in silence for a while, both lost in similar memories. It wasn’t the strained or awkward quiet felt between two unfamiliar acquaintances trapped uncomfortably in the same taxi or cue, it was the silence that almost folds into a sigh of relief and security, and that warms with each moment gone by. Kelly looked over and smiled. “Ryan started walking a couple of days ago. Mum says that we’ll have to start locking everything up now. But he’s kind of a bit more human than he was, now that he’s standing up on his own.” Ryan was Kelly’s toddling nephew, a beautiful baby boy that she had met on a couple of occasions after school when the girl’s sister had been given the charge of picking her up. “That’s an exciting change! There are probably a million things you can’t wait to teach him. There’s definitely a bit of a teacher in you, Kelly. And coming from me, I hope you can take that as a compliment.” Kelly nodded and picked at one of the many buttons that tiled her backpack. Then she stood and pressed the red alert button on the yellow poll near the door. “Wait,” she said, and quickly walked back to her teacher. She reached up behind her a bit and with swift fingers untangled the twigs that had matted her hair. She pulled a bobby-pin from her pocket and tucked the two limp tendrils back off her face. By the time the bus had stopped, still a few blocks from the school, Kelly was at the door again. “Thank you,” said her teacher. Kelly turned, just before she hopped off the bus. “No,” with a slight shake of her head and a penetrating look that directly affected her heart, “thank you.” Then the seriousness in her eyes blinked away. “See you in class,” she said, and hopped off the bus.

A young dad with a little one clinging at his hip like a koala boarded and sat just behind her where the seats faced into the bus instead of ahead, towards the driver. The boy was buried inside of a snowsuit, gurgling and giggling as he stared out the window. Children: none of them were hers, but all of them felt like they were. She lived and breathed for these little jewels of heaven and, for their love, however sparingly awarded or fleetingly felt, she would happily walk in the rain every day of her life.