Every School's Got One...or Two

Attending public school in the 1980s gave Generation X an education beyond phonics, Base-10 math, and how to toss a small kid off a parachute: it taught us that the world was a dangerous place, crawling with white vans in search of kids out after curfew. Kidnapping was the theme du jour then, especially since the widely-broadcast disappearance of Etan Patz was still fresh in people's minds. Given the avalanche of child abuse and abduction stories that dominated the media, is it any wonder my generation grew up to be overly-anxious helicopter parents? 

Airing America's Most Wanted on Sunday nights sure didn't help, as Monday's short journey to school became an adrenal-draining experience. My sisters and I would be suspicious of any car that dared slow down to a cruising speed, particularly if it matched a car we saw on TV the previous night. Naturally we did this to scare each for fun, but deep down we were freaked out about the whole kidnapping thing. Our parents instilled a lot of fear in us, but it wasn't necessarily their fault. They raised us during the age of cable and satellite TV, making "news" available beyond prime-time. From the Satanic Panic to kids falling down wells, the world the media painted for our parents was one of fear-by-numbers. 

Dramatic television aside, statistically speaking kids are far more likely to cross paths with a predator in their school, as opposed to being abducted by a stranger while walking to it. Thankfully our mom had given us the talk concerning unwanted touch, but it's important to know that by combining grooming and authoritarianism (school), predators are able to manipulate in subtle ways and fly just below the radar. Other times the perpetrator seems more obvious—think about the two Hollywood archetypes of the male predator: the Gregarious "Trusted" Adult or the Creepy Lone Weirdo. Take a wild guess which group "Mr. Baker" belonged to.

Mr. Baker taught computers and technology, which back then was the 8-bit Apple II computer, and maybe a Tandy or two thrown in to keep things interesting. Mr. Baker really looked the part, with black glasses, short-sleeved shirt, pocket protector, etc. As far as I know he was single, with a personality more fitting for a chemistry lab than an elementary school classroom, which makes sense. You see, during the 1970s and '80s New York City experienced quite the fiscal crisis, leaving schools understaffed and without workable budgets. In fact, back then many teachers were working without proper teaching licenses. While this is no longer the case, today's public schools still offer math and science teachers perks like tuition reimbursement and grants to entice them to take pay cuts as public educators. I often wonder if Mr. Baker was someone who had been downsized in the private sector and chose teaching for its benefits and stability...but more likely he gravitated toward the classroom for access to kids.

He seemed to wear the same clothes every day, his large set of keys jangling against his gray wool slacks with every step. His Ben Stein-esque monotone would repeat, "Computers are not toys," something I found confusing given his earlier sales pitch about computers being fun. In fact, Mr. Baker assured, we were going to play a really fun computer game that we could act out. My little mind snapped to the Snoopy Spelling game, or maybe we'd find Carmen Sandiego...but no, Mr. Baker's idea of childhood fun was Logo, a programming language developed in the 1960s...and pretty much the opposite of fun for me.

I hated Logo mainly because I was terrible at it. On the screen would be a triangle known as a "turtle," which you would program to make fun designs...unless you were me. Then you'd have a mess of lines all over the computer with no discernible image. While the other kids had fun and stored their designs on floppy disks, I simply viewed it as another form of math I wasn't good at. Mr. Baker attempted to make Logo engaging, but in hindsight the game he invented seemed to have sinister undertones, giving hands-on learning a whole new meaning.

In order to explain how the 2-dimensional turtle behaved on screen, Mr. Baker would ask for a volunteer. You'd kick up your legs into a handstand, with him holding you by your feet. Mr. Baker would then have you "walk" and spin on your hands, demonstrating the 360-degree movement of the turtle. Sounds innocent enough, eh? When it was my turn, I kicked my legs up and felt Mr. Baker grab my ankles. Immediately my shirt flew over my head, exposing me naked from the waist up. The kids laughed, with a few boys gleefully camping themselves underneath to get a closer look (pff, I was 8 and looked the same as they did). Embarrassment washed over me, as I was raised to be the type of girl who waited until college to flash people (just kidding). I balanced on one hand while attempting to cover up, surprised that Mr. Baker didn't stop the game to allow me to do so. You may be thinking that this was just an accident, a forgivable mishap, but something tells me this wasn't Mr. Baker's first rodeo. 

I never liked this asshole, particularly his creepy giggle.

I never liked this asshole, particularly his creepy giggle.

Now at this point you might be questioning the accuracy of this memory; kids have vivid imaginations, don't they? But it's precisely that line of thinking that predators exploit in order to gain leverage over their powerless victims. As unscientific as this sounds, sometimes you just get a feeling about someone. It turns out I wasn't too far off, as Mr. Baker gave a lot of young girls that same feeling. My sister reminded me that he would come up behind you and massage your shoulders, which I had forgotten about. We also recalled the time he patted "Cindy's" butt to encourage her to sit on a chair, rather than lean over the desk. Really? You couldn't tap her on the shoulder and ask her to sit? This upset 10-year-old Cindy, and eventually Mr. Baker was replaced by a new teacher, a woman whose educational background resulted in a class with more appropriate tone. Still, it's not hard to wonder if he ever advanced further with a child; chances are good he did (but again, this just my opinion). Maybe I was one of the "lucky" ones. 

***

While men are more likely to be the perpetrators of violence and sexual assault, there is emerging data suggesting female predators are vastly underreported. It seems women are able to hide under the radar by relying on sexual politics and stereotypes that work in their favor. That will be a blog post all its own, but I thought it only equitable to share a creepy story involving a female teacher (this time I was 12).

It was toward the end of the school year, and whenever it rained during recess we'd end up in the auditorium watching a fifth-generation VHS of Return of the Jedi. I sat in the back row, half-watching the movie while my stomach grumbled for lunch. I shifted in the decades-old wooden chair, the kind that gave you scoliosis and ripped your tights during Friday Assembly. I slumped down a bit, wondering why the paras never started the movie from the beginning. Soon I felt someone sit behind me, the hairs on the back of my neck prickling as they leaned in.

Part of our core curriculum (Spoiler Alert: the dad's on the left).

Part of our core curriculum (Spoiler Alert: the dad's on the left).

"Are you excited about junior high?" a voice asked. I didn't have to turn around to know who it was. There was no mistaking the potpourri of musky perfume, halitosis, and something else I couldn't quite put my finger on, maybe Listerine? I turned around to face "Ms. Wilford," one of our librarians. She was an odd one, seemingly very out place in a community that regarded pizza joints with the same reverence as church. She reminded me of someone who secretly desired to be alive during the late 19th century. I could picture her sitting in a bay window surrounded by golden dust particles listening to opera on her Victrola, a glass of absinthe in one hand, the Communist Manifesto in the other. 

Ms. Wilford's eccentricity was prevalent in her classroom. She would water her plants using old liquor bottles, leaving us to joke that she was a heavy drinker. Hmm, come to think of it, could her halitosis simply have been alcohol masked by mints? Yet she never stumbled when she walked or slurred her speech; in fact, her voice sounded as if a finishing school taught her diction and enunciation. She must have been horrified by the way our Queens accents mangled the English language, our colloquialisms causing need for a fainting sofa. An example of this would be when "Vinny" and some other boys began making fart noises to entertain themselves. Ms. Wilford was not amused. She approached their table, demanding to know what the laughter was all about. 

"He was making noises that sounded like farts..." Vinny began, but he was no match for the set of bagpipes God graced Ms. Wilford with.

"AHH!" Ms. Wilford's voice cut through the room, her jowls trembling. "We don't use that word! We use the word 'FLATULATE!!'" she bellowed, looking and sounding very much like the trombone from one of her beloved symphonies.

Most health professionals recommend 3-4 drinks per day for teachers.

Most health professionals recommend 3-4 drinks per day for teachers.

Man, she may as well have said "shit" because right then and there 35 kids had to try their damnedest not to laugh at the absurdity; how can you expect kids not to laugh at that? Everyone finds this story funny. To this day my dad makes me tell it during the holidays, wheezing in anticipation of "flatulate" every single time.

"Oh, yeah, junior high" I said, half-heartedly. I wasn't all that excited since I was going to a different school than all of my friends, many of whom had already begun to detach from me. It wasn't hard to feel lonely. Maybe that's why Ms. Wilford was talking to me? Like it or not, I was a little odd and entering my most awkward years, and nothing seemed to be going right. Braces filled my mouth, my hair was simultaneously dry and greasy, and the skinny little body I once possessed had painfully transformed into a mushy, more womanly figure, something I didn't welcome. I was literally uncomfortable in my own skin.

My parents socialized me to converse with adults, so I didn't mind bantering back and forth with Ms. Wilford. I did my best to talk culture, despite being 12 and from the suburbs of Queens. Ms. Wilford then asked if I made it to Manhattan often. I shook my head, honestly bummed that my family didn't venture into the city more. I told her that I mostly hung out at friends' houses, played my guitar, rollerbladed in the park—

"—Ohh, I just love going to Central Park!" she leaned in, her faux pearls clacking against the back of my splintered chair. "I go there on Sunday mornings when there's no traffic just to watch everyone while I do my crossword."

"I only skate here, I'm really not that good..." I attempted, but this caused a spark in Ms. Wilford. She leaned in again, lowering her voice.

"You ever see the guys skating wearing those tight pants?"

I looked at her quizzically. "You mean spandex?" I asked, not being one who enjoyed fashion. I tried to turn my attention back to Jabba the Hut.

"Yes!" she gushed, "Don't you love watching them in those pants?"

Huh? I was at a loss here. Was she asking me what I think she was asking me?

"Ohh, I just love watching the men skate by with those tight, tight pants," she breathed in, choking back her sexual desire. "Don't you?" She actually made eye contact with me.

"Uhhh..." What else do you say to that?! For the record, I have nothing against spandex, I just never had the desire to count bulges in Central Park!

Cyclists or plum smugglers? 

Cyclists or plum smugglers? 

Looking back she was probably under the influence of alcohol, and who knows what may have happened had we been alone in a room. Maybe nothing, maybe this was just a lapse in judgment after sneaking a few nips in the coat closet? Either way, it didn't exactly leave me scarred, but it certainly was creepy having a septuagenarian attempt to engage me in a sexual conversation. I was glad when the bell rang and I was released to go to lunch, leaving Ms. Wilford alone with her lycra-covered thoughts.

***

Hey, all! Things have been busy, as I'm moving, finding new work, and living with my partner and her child. I have decided to give my photography a little rest to focus more on learning Lightroom, and with that also means more writing time. I really do wish to post a few times a month, and I'm hoping the drastic changes I am making will allow me to do that. Thank you for being patient and continuing on my journey with me :) 

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