If I were a middle school principal, I would put up whimsical banners for Back to School Night that read “Corn Dogs in Hell- Friday, the 7th” . Because it’s common knowledge that middle school is a trough point in life, and the best thing about it is you only have to be that age once, so why not just come right out with it? And if the Hot Dog on a Stick truck is going to be parked out on the basketball court so you can simultaneously eat dinner and purchase PE clothes, even better.
I’ve been re-visiting my junior high days this week, because my son started sixth grade. Last Friday we showed up dutifully at Back to School Night with the rest of the families, and milled around waiting for the schedules to be posted with the anticipation of Broadway hopefuls waiting for the cast list to go up. We made small talk to pass the time.
“If I get straight A’s this semester, can I get a kitten?” my daughter lobbies.
“If I get straight A’s this semester, can I get a parrot?” my son asks.
Then a woman with a beard appears next to me. It turns out I used to know this woman, back before she had a beard. I am surprised to see her and her husband and kids here, because they have long been staunch homeschoolers. Separatists, armed with worksheets.
“It’s nice to see you,” I say politely, averting my eyes tactfully from the outgrown razor stubble adorning the underside of her chin.
She does some surreptitious stroking of the aforementioned beard growth. It is blond, yet robust. I ask about her daughter, who is enrolling here as an incoming seventh grader. She talks briefly about needing to go back to work, and how homeschooling has become unworkable.
“I feel like I’m sending her into the pit of Hell!” she blurts suddenly.
I laugh. Uh, yeah, it’s middle school, I think. I settle in for some bonding over memories of adolescent acne and drama-laden school dances.
Only, she’s not laughing. She is serious. Really serious. Her eyes have a bleak, hopeless quality about them, and her tone is flat.
I look around me at Pit O’ Hell Intermediate. The school is clean, safe, and virtually new. It sits on a piece of prime real estate (multi-million dollar homes surround it) at the top of a hill, giving the school panoramic views of the entire valley. The teachers are caring and energetic, and the test scores are some of the best in the state. If I could live in this school, I would.
Those waiting with us in front of the office are polite and smiling, and the kids, while a little over-excited, are generally well-behaved.
Only one kid is noticeably loud and disruptive. One imp cavorting on the lawn.
She is the bearded lady’s daughter.
“It’s a great school,” I say. “We’ve already had a kid go through here, and she had a good experience.” I mean to comfort her, allay her fears a little.
The bearded lady looks at me disbelievingly. Her eyes narrow in suspicion, and suddenly I feel irrationally guilty. Of course I would defend the pit of hell. I am, after all, one of the damned, a public school teacher.
“I’ve already read through the science textbook and taken note of the errors,” she said. “I’ll be speaking to the principal.” She turns from me dismissively. I wish I had a pitchfork. Just a little one.
I know better than to try and change her mind. I know it is the accepted wisdom in this country, particularly in some conservative Christian communities, that public schools cannot be anything other than Satan’s playground. I also know that for most American schools the political spin is not true, but I can’t help but take the prejudice personally.
Fortunately, there are corn dogs, (and for the husband, obscenely large bags of kettle corn) eaten under a California sunset to take the edge off, and the concept of parrot-ownership to mull over.
Can you teach a parrot to say “Welcome to Hell”? Would it be wrong of me to send the bearded lady a little Back to School gift?
PS. For those of you who questioned the whole strange concept of a classroom with a patio, whether or not it comes with palm trees, I submit the following picture, taken with my cell phone from inside the room:
(Satan not pictured.)