Talking to Strangers: Linda

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I dropped out of High School for a semester during my Junior year.  I was already bombing each and every one of my classes with such hard F’s that even making a D- in anything was out of the question.  I observed the situation, analyzed my statistics, spoke to my Guidance Counselor, read my horoscope and decided to draw a line in the sand.  “Self,” I said to myself, “We’re going on a small sojourn.”

And I did.  For the following 4 months of school and 3 months of summer break I became, what some would call, a Lump.  I didn’t become a “Productive Member of Society”, I didn’t get a full time job and I didn’t move out of my parent’s basement.  Instead, I continued working at Subway during the night and, always the avid reader, spent my days at the lake with my face buried in a book.

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It was incredible and, I think, a very formative experience for my adult life.  I was given the opportunity wherein I had the chance to examine what I was supposed to be doing ie school in a cement building but instead got to exist in the lush outdoors.  Even today I have a hard time crawling into my office when I know that there are trees and lakes and trails to be seen and explored.  It often feels like we are living life backwards and the system that we’ve set up isn’t really working for most of us.

Anyway, I never had plans to NOT go back.  I always assumed that when the school year started again, I’d count my losses and start with a fresh slate.  Really give it the ol’ college try.  SO… September rolled around and I DID go back… but not to the local High School.  Instead, I enrolled in “an experimental program” called The Alternative School; a place with a terrible rap that is doing incredible things for wandering and lost youth.  This is the place where kids who, frankly, can’t get their shit together, go in a last ditch effort.  You bomb Alt School, you’re gone for good.  There is no Third Chance High.

The program provides an environment with smaller classroom sizes wherein kids like myself have their feet held to the fire by a small handful of mentors.  It’s thanks to this school that I was able to graduate high school, leave my hometown, go to college and pursue a career that I’m passionate about.  Did my grades at the Alt School accomplish this?  No.  But the teachers at the school helped me to see what my worth was.  It’s very easy for a teenager to get stuck in the mentality of “This is What I Am This is What I’ll Always Be” and it simply isn’t true.

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I was lucky enough to be surrounded by people who helped alter my course fairly early in my adult life.  I understand, however, that this is not the case for everyone.  Case in point: Linda, a 50-something who is still attempting to recognize her full potential, which just goes to show you that, even though school is over, you’re never too old to learn…

I’m sitting at a Mongolian BBQ with my extended family; wife, mother-in-law, 2 brother-in-laws and a sister-in-law, my two children and my 7 week old nephew.  The baby has been good so far as baby’s are concerned; sort of just lying there and counting dots on the ceiling and making the occasional fart.  My children, on the other hand, are nearing The Breaking Point.  Every parent is familiar with this.  It happens at around the 45 minute mark when you’re eating out and nothing can stop it; no amount of stern looks or promises of punishments can help it.  Even those lousy crayons buddied with the water-ringed paper place mat stand zero probability of success.

See also: Ants in the Pants.

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They’re out of their seats, climbing under the table, pushing chairs around, rolling on the ground, covering their eyes and darting left and right, squealing and laughing.  They’re not “misbehaving” so much as they are just “being rowdy”.  A fine line.  Luckily, the restaurant is about to close and there’s only one other couple that’s just getting ready to wrap things up.  It’s 9:30pm, an hour past the children’s bedtime but, since it’s our last night in town and, due to a few other scheduling issues, we decided to make an exception on a late supper.

Our waitress approaches us with the check and says, “These are cute kids,” and we give our customary, “Thank you,” and she asks, “How old?” and we say, “Two and a half,” and she says, “Twins?” and, because our son is enormous and our daughter is dainty, she, like everyone, says, “REALLY!?” and we smile.  But this woman, Linda, doesn’t care about our children.  She is, after all, a stranger.  She doesn’t care about how old they are or how well rounded their vocabulary is or that they can count to 11, recite their ABCs frontwards and backwards, sing Twinkle Twinkle and play Moonlight Sonata on the French horn.  Linda, like so many unfortunate people with blogs, is just waiting for her turn to speak.  Linda, like so many strangers, just wants a turn to tell their story.  Linda, God bless her, begins throwing down her personal demons onto my plate right on top of my leftover noodles and spicy chicken.

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In one long, nearly uninterrupted spew of rhetoric, she tells a table of six complete strangers…

“I have a daughter.  This girl is a mess.  A mess!  A real mess.  From day one.  She’s 26 now but still acts like she’s 13.  Had a child when she was 16 years old, didn’t drop out of high school, they just wouldn’t let her in.  The High School got a restraining order on her.  From the police.  Girl loved to fight.  Just loved to fight.  She went to an alt school; what do you call those….alt schools, yeah.  She went there but they kicked her out.”

I take a sip of my water and wonder if it’s rude of me to ask questions; the topic being so intimate.  I decide to, instead, make a personal statement by confessing that I, too, went to an Alt School but– she talks right over me.  This goose is cooking and there’s no stopping her.

“Her son – my grandson – cutest fella.  Eight years old.  He’s so quiet and nice and just – hates his mother.  Can’t be around her so I took her to court and gained custody of the child.  Now the kid just lives with my husband and I – Grandma and Grandpa.  This is supposed to be The Golden Years of our lives but, well —

I knew the martyr statement was coming next.  The point of it all.  The thing she was getting at from her first breath.  Whatever she said next was supposed to lift me off my feet and make me see her in a different light.

She finishes with, “You do what you gotta do.”

As she’s staring at my son and saying, “Hello.  Hello.  Hello, how are you?  Hello,” I try to imagine what this kind woman must be like in the quiet moments of life when no one is watching.  What was her reaction to her 16 year old getting pregnant and kicked out of school?  Did she scream?  Shout?  Did she throw something and break a mirror?  Did she tell her daughter to get out of her house in a fit of rage?  I begin to wonder what sort of guidance she gave her daughter; did she give her guidance / advice / encouragement?  Was this woman a good parent?  Did the courts have the right to hand over a child to a person that already tried to raise a human and turned out a hotdog?  I’m not saying they’re wrong.  I’m just saying that I don’t know.

I wonder if this woman, Linda, looks at her grandson and sees a second chance for herself.  Some sort of redemption to her “previous life”.  Something that pushes her to sacrifice her “Golden Years” for the peace of knowing that she didn’t drop the ball completely… or at the very least, for the peace of knowing that she picked it up and tried again.

We pay for our meal and Linda walks us to the door, locking it behind us.  I turn around before I step off the curb and see her waving at my daughter.  I squeeze her hand and think that this is my chance.  I don’t want to have to take a redo.

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