Tag Archives: teen

Making Tracks–for a walk on the wild side

ziegfelds secretsI grew up in a small town (Do I hear a song?) farm community during another era. We had, I believe, 62 students in my graduating class, all straight and Christian. Ostensibly. At least, no one I knew of admitted to being gay or to not being Christian. Well, except Erica. Erica was our Jewish student. We were very progressive for the 60s. We even had a black student. For a week. I have no idea what happened there.

I managed to go through college and the Army being aware of only one person who was openly gay. When I tried man-handing him (I hear it.) out of the third floor window, it was for entirely unrelated reasons. (He was playing “Incense and Peppermints” over and over when I decided to help him explore the possibilities of leaving via the window. Justifiable? I think so. No serving member of the United States Army should be dreaming of a production number to that tune at 4 a.m.) I was unaware of his orientation until he was dishonorably discharged.

I mention all of this to say that I have no gaydar whatsoever and, as a baby boomer, I had very little–virtually no–experience with people who openly identified as gay. And that might go some way toward explaining my reaction when….
Well, let me tell you:

I was thirty-years old and teaching English within the boundaries of the original District of Columbia in Northern Virginia. While serving in the military I had traveled through several foreign countries; later I had lived in New York City and in England; my horizons had expanded once I started wearing shoes. One weekend, a colleague suggested that we go into DC for a bit of bar-hopping.

We were passing a bar on the corner of 9th and H, NW. As I recall, the blacked out windows featured silhouettes of what appeared to be bare-naked ladies (not a band) and advertised dancing girls. My friend looked at me and asked whether I wanted to in.

Not my thing, but I shrugged and said okay.

There was a small–foyer is so much more elegant than it deserves–let’s just say that a guy sat on a stool inside the door, collecting $5 a head. My friend, Let’s call him Buddy, said that he’d get the cover charge and preceded me into the establishment, vibrating with disco music. (It has been some time since I was 30. I still miss Gloria Gaynor and Donna Summer, and my heart still pounds at the beat of “Knock on Wood.”) As I cleared the entrance alcove, I saw scantily-clad young men–they looked like teenagers, but had to have been in their 20s, at least according to their IDs– dancing. On the bar.

I noticed that they all wore white socks.

I noticed that they wore only white socks.

That is to say, I noticed that they wore nothing but white socks as they gyrated and bounced to the tunes.

I thought of AC/DC. I understood the song.

Ever the model of discretion and decorum, I fell back against the wall, grabbed my chest and shouted, “Oh, my God!” not an exclamation I often use, but it seemed much better than “I’m coming, Elizabeth!” à la Redd Foxx.

Buddy roared.

He knew.

Not only did he know, but he also knew I don’t know. He was openly amused by my naivete in some areas, this numbering high among them.

I was thirty years and did not know about–had never heard about–gay bars. Well, maybe I had heard about them but vaguely thought they were urban legends. I had never heard of bars in which young men danced naked.

We pushed through the throng of men crushing (probably more than one meaning here) around the bar. It was a long, narrow room with a single row of cocktail (Again, you hear it under certain conditions) on a raised platform facing the bar.

We ordered beers from a handsome and charming young man and sat talking as there were not more than participles dangling before us.

Buddy said that he liked to come here…it was called the Chesapeake House (I’ll tell you why the name is important anon.)… because drinks are much less expensive than most straight bars. I later learned that that was not the only reason, but for now we maintained the illusion.

I expressed my concern that I wouldn’t know how to react when guys started hitting on me. Buddy told me not to worry about it. It took me much too long to realize that he was not flattering me.

No one so much as glanced in my direction as I scanned the room for someone who might recognize me and rush out to tell the world that I had been in a gay bar. Among the lessons I learned that night were two huge ones: I am not honey to gay bees and the world does not revolve around what I do or who I am. It was more deflating than it was a relief.

Besides, Buddy pointed out, how would anyone who was patronizing the establishment explain his presence therein?

Buddy explained that the Chesapeake House was (a massive office building now stands on the site) what might be called a “chicken” bar because it catered to very young men, “chickens” in the parlance of gay culture. I don’t know whether it is still used, but he told me that there were many specialty bars in DC, including a leather bar,( which would be torn down to make way for the old Convention Center) transvestite bars such as the one with regular drag shows across the street from FBI headquarters, (I wish it had been called Hoover’s, but it was called, I think Louie’s) and others.

At the same time, we had a chain of all-you-can eat seafood restaurants called the Chesapeake Bay Seafood House, very popular with our family, especially the teenagers and their friends and teammates.

One morning shortly after my first foray into gay DC, I was having coffee in the English office when a colleague said, “You go to the Chesapeake House, don’t you?”

She seemed surprised that I just stared at her without speaking, my cup halfway to my mouth. People always seem surprised when I am not speaking.

I made a half-nod, a quarter twist of the head and a dem-shrug trying for as non-committal a commitment as I could muster.

“Do they have chicken?” she asked.

“Well, yes. Yes, they have chicken,” I said, not sure whether tears would help or hurt. I hoped that the lip-quivering would be as far as I went.

My colleague looked steadily at me as she said slowly, “I think I’m going to take [her daughter] there. She likes seafood, but I’d rather have chicken.”

And the light broke through and understanding descended.

“Oh, yes,” I said. “I think you’ll like it; My family loves the Seafood House.”

My borderline manic response did not go far toward breaking her steady gaze as she gathered her books to go to class.

I buried my head in my arms when she left. Walking on the wild-side, no matter how tamely, takes a lot out of a guy.

It was not the last time I went to a gay bar. The next time it was my step-son who took me. Well, he wasn’t technically my step-son and he didn’t actually take me. His mother took me.

“Clare,” and I were together for many years. We were “without benefit of clergy,” but I routinely referred to her as “my wife” and to Chad (You know it’s not his real name, but he has made clear that he does not especially like my writing about him.) as my son. In all fairness, I had asked her to marry me and she explained that while I was good enough to live with, she was not interested in marriage. But she was more diplomatic. Nonetheless, I loved them both as much as if we were legal and legitimate, and I was heartbroken but not stunned when she left me to marry someone more “exciting.”

I think I lost the thread.

Oh, I remember! Two weekends in a row, Chad, then 17, came in very late, as in the wee hours. When I asked where he had been so late, he named a club called “Tracks” in the District.

I had heard students talking about Tracks. I said, “Isn’t that a gay bar?”

He said “No” as if I had asked whether he still wore lace panties.

“Are you sure?” I asked.

“Uh, yeah! I think I’d notice that.

When I asked how he could even get in at his age, he showed me a large black X in indelible ink on the back of his hand. “This means I can’t have alcohol.”

He looked at me.  There are many ways people look at each other. We can look at each other with our eyes filled with love or hate or understanding. Chad looked into my eyes and his steady gaze said: “Now, what you got to say about that?”

“Then, why do you go there?”

Now his look was a mixture of contempt and condescension: “To meet girls.”

Okay, that was his answer to every question, whether or not it was verbalized, and, if we are being honest, even that answer was only partial, because for Chad, meeting a girl was only a rest stop on the road to releasing his excessive hormones. (Yeah, I’m not sure that that makes sense either, but I’ll bet you catch my drift.)

“And we play volleyball. There’s a volleyball court in back and that’s where we usually hang.”

I looked at his mother and said, “As responsible parents, we should go and check it out.”

She agreed and there began our gay adventuring.

In those days, there were two semi-official gay zones in Washington: on and around Dupont Circle and the industrial section of Southeast where Nationals Stadium now stands. Other gay clubs were scattered throughout the city, but these were concentrated areas.

Southeast Washington also was (is?) the violence-saturated drug-dealing center of activity in DC. With the arrogance of the ignorant (and the ignorance of the arrogant) we slapped down the top of my convertible to better showcase our white honky selves while riding through an area into which Wonder Breads do not often wander.

I got lost.

There are those who have suggested that those words should be inscribed on my tombstone. (Surprise! It will have to be written on the side of the little butcher-paper-wrapped ash-filled box.) Night was falling and drug dealers were openly plying their trade on street corners.

And they were looking at us…hard. Chad’s mother, ever the shrinking violet, grabbed me by the shirt front and shouted, “You’re going to get us killed.”

I’m sure that made us less conspicuous.

But we were well and truly lost, driving among what appeared to be vacant factories, when Clare said that her nose urgently needed powdering.

Right.

We heard loud music coming from what appeared to be a warehouse. We followed the music to the entrance (Picture Pepé Le Pew following his nez.) and were dismayed to see a line of–mostly women–lined up to pay a cover charge. Annoying, but at least we knew that a powder room was near.

As we waited, I thought to myself that these women were unusually tall. Looking down, I quietly said to Clare, “These women have big feet. What are the chances that so many women would have big feet?”

She gave me that look and that screamed “idiot.”

I was not unaccustomed to it.

When we entered I thought that the dance floor looked like a skating rink, with a circular path around it to the bar, toward which we bee-lined. (I could have stooped for pee-line, but I have so much class and dignity that it never occurred to me.)

Ever the gentleman, I asked the barmaid to direct me to the women’s room. She jerked her thumb over her shoulder toward an unmarked open door. I walked Clare to the door and took up sentry duty, but she was back in seconds.

“There are urinals in there,” she said.

I returned to the barmaid. “Sorry,” quoth I, “that seems to be the men’s room. We need the ladies’.”

Her gaze was steady. “Well, we’re pretty unisex here,” she said. “The the one women use is behind the ‘men’s’ room.”

The quotation marks were unspoken but understood.

We investigated again, but found only the one door. Back to the bar. Clare was dancing an awkward little jig with her knees together.

“Do you have to go through the men’s room to get to the women’s?”

She nodded.

“Or you can go around.” She gestured toward the other side of the bar. We decided to take the more modest route and go around.

As we walked into the back room, I noticed that the young man who was dancing on the miniature stage was scantily clad, indeed. The hushed crowd seemed mesmerized. Even Clare slowed her pace, yet we soldiered on.

She ducked into the ladies’ while I guarded the doorless door. When she emerged she grabbed my arm, trying to drag me into the woman’s room.

“Did you see the feet in that stall?” she demanded.  “There was someone peeing,” she said, managing to sound scandalized that people with feet engaged in such behavior in a room designated for the purpose.

Humoring her seemed my wisest course. “Well, people…”

“They were huge!”

“Well….” I was so lost. “Some people have large feet; some people have…”

“And they were facing the porcelain!”

I was silent.

We began to retrace our route through the back room, called “Secrets,” as it turns out. I began to suspect what some of those secrets might be, because the young man on the tiny stage was now wearing only a bikini bottom and his socks as he gyrated to the musical stylings of Madonna.

“Hold on,” Clare said, catching my sleeve. “Let’s wait till he finishes.”

So we sat across from each other at a table with a direct line of sight to the stage.

The Speedo briefs went away and the dancer stepped down to the floor and began to shimmy from table to table.

Unaccustomed as I was to having naked young men gyrating around the tables, I felt myself stiffen. That is to say, I tensed. I felt my face flush and I didn’t know where to look. Clare looked more than a little amused…when she wasn’t looking at him.

When the young dancer was close to her, she said, “My friend is feeling a little tense. Any ideas about what might relax him?”

“Oh, yes I do, honey,” he said. “By day I am a massage therapist.” Whereupon he gyrated around the table behind me and began to massage my neck and shoulders.

Gay, straight, bi, or alternating among the various choices, I do not understand how anyone who is feeling tense about a naked person dancing around him would relax if said person begins massaging him.

He moved closer until I could feel his squishies pressing against my back.

Mixed feelings here. At least they were still squishies…and then, “Wait, What?” Nothing? Am I nothing more than a piece of meat?”

Clare was clearly enjoying my discomfort, and she had the presence of mind to tip him.  I was far more confused and flustered than a grown man should be.

Again.

But Clare never massaged my shoulders. Maybe we were onto something here.

After one or two more dancers, Clare decided that we should make Tracks…or at least try to.

But just at that time, apparently at some signal I missed, all the big women in our room decided to rush back to the main room. Of course, Clare snagged my arm and dragged me along with the crowd.

Her doing so seemed the more appropriate when we saw that our lady-friends had been rushing back for the drag show that was underway in the main room.

If I had been confused before (There really is no “if.” I had bewildered from the moment we got there.) now I was in serious trouble.  The fact is that many of these women were beautiful–perfect.

Now, I had seen La Cage Aux Folles more than once and so I knew that men could be beautiful women. I did have fun “guessing [their] gender.” As I looked at these ladies, some were grotesquely obvious cross-dressers, but I found myself intently checking bulge locations of the others who were just stunning.

Then the music changed and the crowd took to the dance floor. Clare saw her chance, but my head was spinning and she stopped hitting me when I promised that we would go dancing the next week. When my head had cleared.

As we were leaving, a man approached and asked “how far on the wild side” we wanted to walk.

Of course, my immediate response was to flush crimson and choke on a response (as if I had one). Clare just shook her head, laughing, and pulled me away by the arm.

On the way home, we had fun guessing what he meant, but we never did make Tracks. We planned to try again the next week, and I was grateful that one of us was a man of the world.

Next time: What happened at Tracks (and didn’t stay there).

On the Right Tracks at Last: No More Dancing Chickens

gay clubOur first attempt to find the dance club our son was enjoying was a washout. We didn’t find the club, but we did see my first drag show, experienced our first time with bisexual (pansexual? ambisexual?) non-specific sex bathrooms, and enjoyed a stressful massage.

Two observations about language here: (Uh-oh, a tangent!)

There were no baths or even showers in the “bathrooms.” They were what our British cousins bluntly and accurately call “toilets.” And urinals. But toilets will suffice.

Second, “Gender” has always troubled me when it refers to sex. We are so afraid of calling a spade a pointed shovel that we can’t even use the word “sex” when referring to whether one is male or female (Yet our president-elect can say by what he can grab women with immunity.) I’d prefer womb-challenged or testicle bereft, but with so many surgeries available for so many reasons, I am surprised we can still say female, which comes with a “male” in it. (I’ll wait while you make your filthy remarks. How many levels can you attain?)

All ready? Maybe we should use ‘hes” and “shes;” we gave up elegance when we decided that mankind was a sexist (genderist?) term. (Remember the “personholes” in the streets of Rhode Island?)

Never mind, I just realized that “she” has a “he” in it.

Agan, my train of thought has been derailed.

Wait! Train…derailed…Tracks! We were looking for Tracks. (And may I ADD that I think Moosetracks ice cream is amazing?)

So, to recap: when we learned that one of our underaged teenagers was hanging at a DC club on Friday nights through the wee hours of Saturday, his mum and I decided that responsible parents would check out what kind of a place it is, so we went to a transvestite bar because A) I am perpetually lost (direction, not soul) and B) because his mum had to…um …powder her nose….like a racehorse. So we had a few drinks, hit a unisex loo or two, watched some skinny guys dance naked (well, they did have their socks on) and enjoyed a neck/shoulder massage from a lovely young man…who was also naked….except for his socks. All for the sake of being responsible parents.

Let’s just take a moment to digest that.

Deep breath…and….

We got better directions and decided to try again. Now, this was the early 90s and we were not in the habit of getting directions via GPS or even Mapquest. These were primitive days when maps were paper, folded in exactly the perfect pattern to make grown men weep in trying to reproduce it. Now the AAA had Triptiks, amazing little flip books with turn-by-turn directions, but, after all, our son was routinely going to the place on Friday nights, so this should not require a pith helmet and safari guide. The place was 6-7 miles from our house. What idiot could not find it?

(Hellooo.)

It took some doing, but after getting directions from our other teenager (I began to suspect that Chad’s directions might have been intentionally off the mark) we made our way there. As a guide and fun-loving addition, we invited a friend—a military mortician–to come along to spice up the evening.

Well, guess who turned out to have a little problem with homosexuality? Clare and I had not given any thought to the issue; as aging hippies, like Marines, once in never out. Semper high!

Where was I? (Maybe the short-term memory thing is making more sense?)

Yup, Don was a little homophobic. (Which is like saying a corpse is not the life of the party.) So, why would a homophobic military mortician opt to join us in our quest for the bay we believed to be gay-oriented and our son declared straight as a bee-line?

He likes beer.

Bars have beer.

QED

We found Tracks–another warehouse a short distance–maybe within sight of–Ziegfeld’s. We entered, showed ID, and paid the cover charge. The house was hopping. (Another beer allusion, perhaps? I would have gone with the “joint was jumping,” but I already made one marijuana allusion and who knows whether I will need to update my security clearance?)

When we entered, I could feel Don’s relief at the banner that congratulated the newlyweds. He would be able to swill brew without worrying about keeping his masculine virtue intact.

(When you’re talking ‘rhoids instead of hymen, it kicks the stakes up a notch. Feel the burn, baby.)

We ordered drinks and were debating whether to dance when we noticed a preponderance of men on the dance floor, (Okay, most of them looked and dressed like Freddie Mercury) and they appeared to be having a great time.

No big deal; no proof of anything. Men outnumber women in any number of straight bars. Dancing together is less common, particularly in some of the more rustic bars out west Virginia way, (unless there is banjo music) but, anyway….

The loudspeaker interrupted the music to direct our attention to the doors opening across the dance floor, and it invited us to welcome the happy couple: Darlene and Helen.

I could sense Don’s ‘rhoids clenching. He was as still and erect…that is standing at attention….in a military way. (This is hard. See? Once you start down this path….)

He was tense.

When the applause died down Don got a couple more beers. He wasn’t sharing. Clare took my hand and pulled me onto the dance floor like a cartoon character: now you’re standing here; now you’re somewhere else and there’s nothing left but a feet disappearing off the edge of the frame, with a few lines indicating a rapid exit.

When I caught a look at Don, he was still standing at attention but his eyes had turned into white stationary radar dishes. The only thing moving was his arm, as it mechanically raised to pour beer down his throat.

After a couple of dances, Clare asked Don if he’d like to cut a rug with her. He shook his head rapidly enough that I wasn’t sure whether it was two or three times. It was like a dog shaking off water. In the cartoons it would have made a wacky rattling noise.

But the shaking didn’t last long. Don and I sipped our beers and talked…well, I did most of the talking. Except for the regular motion of his arm as he moved his beer from his side to his mouth, Don was as close to catatonic as I have seen in a club…or museum..or doctor’s office or home for the terminally bewildered. Let us say that he adopted behaviors traditionally modeled by his clients.

Well, I never have seen anyone as motionless as he, even as a young man pressed into him from behind in an effort to squeeze past him. Mirabili dictu, the man levitated! Nothing else moved. He simply seemed to rise into the air, straight up and straight down, arms at his side. Now only his eyes moved, and those bad boys were pinging as if they were in a pinball machine. I might have laughed if I were not so enthralled with the bizarre manifestation of the only case of true homophobia I have seen. Don did not so much manifest animosity toward gays, as fear…terror might be closer to it. And apparently that was limited to the terror that they might engage him.

Even Clare, who rarely allowed my quirks to pass without comment only stared, snarky comments tugging at the corners of her slightly smirking lips.

When he regained some color, Don leaned slightly toward me: “Come to the men’s room with me.”

“What?”

“Come with me to the men’s room.”

“You must be the easiest convert ever!”

“What? Don’t be stupid. I’ve gotta take a leak and I want you to watch my back.” (I think he meant it literally.)

And so it was that I found myself in the men’s room at a gay club protecting a military mortician from sneak attack by sex-starved gay men. It was not my place to mention that he was about a (generously) three in a club full of 8-10s and no one had seemed to so much as glance in his (or my) direction.

But, one thing remained clear: This was not a straight group, and although there was in fact a volleyball court, other questions remained.

We needed to talk with Chad.

The next morning, we were having coffee when Chad joined us, so it must have been closer to noon. We bantered for a while and when he sat next to me, I mentioned that his mother and I had been to Tracks the previous night. I was feeling confused because I knew that his every waking moment seemed to be concentrated on finding girls who find him attractive, which wasn’t hard because in addition to being unusually handsome and charming (Okay, I am a little prejudiced but still….) he is extraordinarily persuasive.

I remember a rare disagreement his mother and I had when she wanted me to buy condoms for him. I was not happy. I was jealous of how easy it was for him to find willing partners….No, that’s not what I meant to say: Not only was I opposed on religious and moral grounds (and maybe a little jealous) but also, I said, buying him condoms was a not-very-subtle message that we condoned–encouraged even–his sexual activity.

But this was the early 90s and AIDS loomed large and scary, His mother asked whether I would rather see him dead or dying.

I went to the drug store.

Chad was baffled at my sudden encouragement of activity of which he knew I disapproved, with that distant of someone denied the same. And that was when I was worried about girls, never mind Haitians. (You have to be a certain age.) But he didn’t hesitate to to take the condoms, with a snarky query about whether I would get him for more the next day.

But now we sat around the table and told him that we had been to Tracks and has no doubt that it was a gay crowd. If nothing else, they were having too much fun to be straight.

He stared at me. Apparently mum was off the hook on this one. His eyes did that thing where they go back and forth from one eye to the other, searching for which showed stupidity and which showed madness.

Never one to heed a warning… or take a hint, I plodded on. “I am comfortable that you know your mother and I love you no matter what,” His face gave away nothing; although he managed to look at me as if I were completely out of my mind, “and if there is anything you want to talk about, we are here and always ready to listen.”

“You’re nuts,” he said. “You’re crazy!”  In case we missed his drift the first time. As he rose from the tale he continued” “Tracks isn’t a gay bar and I am not gay.” (Tacitly understood; Not that there’s anything wrong with that…except that it was an era when that seemed to be a death sentence.)

“Well, if you go there again, just notice who else is there and think about it.”

“And so what if it is…and it isn’t. I’m not gay so it doesn’t matter about the others.”

He left the table shaking his head, looking back once or twice just to have a couple more opportunities to give me “the look” teenagers are so good at giving their parents.

The next week, we repeated the pattern. Chad went to Tracks Friday night, and we returned Saturday night to verify our initial findings (minus Don, who remained traumatized at the thought of the men drooling over him…although they had successfully managed to feign indifference to him all evening.)

Chad reported that he and his pals had met quite a few girls the previous night; we found that that was not a likely scenario when we were there.

Clare didn’t seem to care as much about who was around us as that we were going dancing, which was not high on my list of things to do.

So, after another uncomfortable Sunday morning discussion that left Chad annoyed with us (especially me), while our older boy seemed to find the situation tremendously amusing, I decided to take it to the people.

I had one senior class with quite a few of Chad’s pals in it, so at the beginning of class the next day, I asked whether anyone knew of a club called Tracks.

Peas and carrots, lots of nods.

What kind of place is it?

“It’s a lot of fun,” volunteered his handsome and popular friend from South America. “Some nights it’s gay, Thursdays and Saturdays, I think. The other nights it’s straight…and there’s a volleyball court…it’s a great place to meet girls.”

Smirk.

And so it was that we learned that everything is not always what it seems to be. Chad manifested his continuing contempt with the odd haughty glance from time to time.

And Clare pouted because I wouldn’t be taking her dancing any more.

“Some girls have sex for fun, but others think she is falling in love.”

I started a career in journalism when I was a teacher. I always had enjoyed writing, and serving as the editor of my high school newspaper whetted my appetite for publishing my every thought…and believing the world better for it.

One day I was teaching a writing class when the voices in my head (it turns out okay) whispered that I was a hypocrite. How can I teach writing when I haven’t published since before I finished even my undergraduate degree. Why does everyone (Wrongly. Quite wrongly.) believe that all English teachers are qualified to teach and judge writing. Even before I wrote a “Learning Language Through the Newspaper” (under a different name) other English teachers told me that they were reluctant to write a note to me. One said that she was intimidated because I was stickler for grammar.

Before anyone hastens to note that I already have used several sentence fragments and violated numerous rules of grammar in this piece, let me add that I also believe that once was has mastered good grammar, he has permission to violate whatever rules he chooses for impact or effect.

All of the preceding is to say that my feelings of inadequacy—or charlatanism—drove me to submit a few articles to local newspapers, which prompted an editor to offer me a regular spot on the opinion page. For 15 years, I wrote opinions that called down the wrath of pretty much every faction, sect, ethnicity or nationality. For example, at a time when I was raising and supporting two students, one from Mexico and one from El Salvador, a colleague who was married to a Latino wrote a letter to the editor accusing me in the harshest terms of being anti-Hispanic as evidenced by a recent column.

A column I wrote about the extraordinary number of teen-age mothers or mothers-to-be drew unwonted vitriol. For example, I noted that teen-age mothers and mothers to be often used pregnancy or their babies as a reason that they should not be held accountable for excessive absences or for not turning in work. The high school, T.C. Williams (Yes, “Remember the Titans”) in Alexandria had support groups and parenting classes, both of which are good, but they were conducted during the school day which made keeping up even more difficult and further hindered attendance.

One teacher who had a class for single mothers and mothers-to-be read them the offending column and told her students that they should let me know how angry they were. Imagine my surprise when a gang of pregnant girls pounded on my door during class and proceeded to berate me in loud and profane voices for the error of my thinking.

Let’s hear it for the wisdom and judgment of teachers and the teenagers who interrupt a lesson to teach me about respect.

Another teacher told his students to write me letters to express their displeasure. And that brings us to this juncture.

I have chosen some excerpts to share. Although they require little comment, I find it hard to resist. Keep in mind that for many years I was a single parent who also “parented” more than 40 kids, abused, cast out, illegal (shh); kids who had nowhere else to go showed up at my door. Word spread among the kids and the school social worker started to bring them by. Eventually, social services asked me if I would take formal placements as well. My qualifications were that I lived near the school and don’t know how to say no. But, I was not naive.

So, on with the show: The names are fictitious; the quotations are unchanged. I am not using sic to indicate that each error in grammar, spelling or syntax is exactly as written, because doing so would double the length of this essay.

Melissa cut directly to the central issue: “I don’t think any man should be critisying a women when she gets pregnant when its not all the womens fault anyway. Were not walking around the street one day, trip, + all of a sudden were pregnant.”

At a rough count, I found eight serious issues with the two sentences. Now, my point is not only that the writer seems to concede at least partial responsibility for her pregnancy—at least that she is aware that it is not solely the result of tripping—but also that the exercise might have been more beneficial if the teacher had used it as, let’s say, a teaching moment. How does one construct an argument? How does one support one’s thesis? How does one proofread? I submit that the sole purpose of the exercise was to give me what for. (I don’t pretend to truly understand that expression, but it seems to work here.) She went on:

“Where I come from a reporter stated the facts. If I knew when I moved to virginia that you let anyone with half a brain write a article I would of taken more English + writing classes.”

Now, given that I think the “half a brain” assessment is too generous for her, I would like to explain the difference between a reporter and an opinion columnist. Apparently no one else had. In doing so, I add that I generally made two or three points in an introduction, supported them in ensuing paragraphs, and concluded with summarizing how my points support my hypotheses, preferably with a clever or provocative closing sentence.

Shantel said, “If you get pregnant…you should suffer the consequences [which is how I always refer to my children: “Come sit on Papa’s knee, my insufferable consequence.”], don’t uses your being pregnant as an excuse in life or you will ever suceed.”

Okay, writing prowess could use some punching up, but at least she seems to agree with my premise.

She continued: “As far as mothers being irresponsible [Do you feel the uh-oh coming?] I think that you are more ignorant than I expected.” [Ummm. Yeah.] I assumed that you knew it take two to make a baby [I do: and in many, nay most cases of unwed single mothers, too much unsupervised time; too few morals and character lessons; too much attention to hormones and too little to judgment.] What about all those guys that are making…[Okay, I did not need to know that she thinks it requires “all those guys.” One will do…and probably with great alacrity.] Before you can talk about all the mommies in the world, you need to know everybodies situation.”

Right. If I start interviewing now, I might know “everybodies” situation in…Oh, dear, more will keep being born as I work my way around the globe. Never mind. I’ll never be able to talk about “all the mommies in the world.”

However, I will grant that girls were not getting pregnant without a male accomplice somewhere along the line, and lest I appear to be targeting girls—the original article after all was about schools nurturing irresponsibility—let me add a word of contempt for the unwed fathers: I knew a high school senior who had fathered six children by six different mothers. He and another chum (and they would serve humanity better as such] were in a competition to see who could sire the most children by different mothers. They were not alone. I found that most boys were quite proud of their demonstrable virility and the manifestations of their masculinity popping up like tulips in the spring all over town.

Let me also say that I am aware of the conditions that sometimes make kids—and adults—seek love, or least intimacy, wherever they can find it. That is why adults—parents, teachers, clergy, Scout leaders, neighbors—have the responsibility to help children and teenagers to understand self-discipline and responsibility.

Warning: soap box ahead.

Every time a student who has done nothing to meet class requirements is passed on to the next grade, every time we focus on making teenagers feel good about making their bad decisions because it is more important to validate their feelings of self-worth than it is to teach them that doing it because they want to or it feels good is not always in their best interest, we fail. Sure, it is easier for us to go give in—schools have done that for one thing after another so that any standards that remain are artificial and typically unrelated to real life success afterward.

Those students who are successful in school, successful in life—not only with high paying jobs, but as good and decent people—have or had parents who held them accountable for their actions. Certainly there are children from poor families with drug-addicted abusive parents who become spectacular successes and kids from loving families with strong morals and character and a comfortable lifestyle who become wastrels or scoundrels or whatever we consider an adult problem or non-contributing member of society, but those are exceptions, where individuals made decisions that were not formed by their parents or environment.

I do not hold my family out as an exemplar of either, but I don’t expect any awards for how they turned out, either. I made an honest, earnest effort to raise my family, including all those fosters, with good values and ethics. Sometimes the magic works—and then there are those other times.

But, back to my fan mail:

Shantel was not finished with me: Also as a teenage mother by now if not later you should have more respect for yourself because you are the one’s who makes the decision how you want your child to grow up.”

Now who’s being silly. As a single father for many years, I have given up my dream of becoming a teenage mother, now or later. I was not aware that it is destined that all girls will be. Notice that I have not addressed the fact that the sentence is a non sequitur, even internally.

But she has a P to her S:

“I am a junior with a two-year-old daughter making A’s and B’s and I work and playing to start Georgia University.

“What if you were pregnant?”

First, let me say how proud you must be of a two-year-old who is making As and Bs. Second, “Georgia University”? I see, you said “playing.”

I am tiring. Let’s hear from a guy:

“It is my concern to let my opinion be known about the article that was published last in your Journal. I believe that it’s my duty as a student to let the author now that his comments were too strong. [Got it.]

“Although some of his points made sense and were good [I do believe I am getting the vapors.] it was not necessary to go to that Extent.” And later: Well, there it is.

I loved Nadeah’s comments: “First of all not all teenage mothers are trifling because they pregnant at a young age or got pregnant by accident.” I should add that most of these arguments take issue with something I never said. I begin to think that the teacher didn’t read it but summarized through his own filter. “If a girl comes to school to get an education why deprive them of that?” Recall that my argument was that they need to attend regularly and do their work or to get a GED. “It all depend on you.” As if I don’t have enough on my shoulders.

Sandra: “I’m against your opions….You are a teacher and your job is to grade then in what they turn in and give them NC (No Credit because of excessive absence) when need it. [Now that I understand that my job is grading rather than teaching, all the standardized tests make sense.] You should not waste talking.

“For example in one of my classes there is a student who is always late, I mean every day [Aha. Always takes on meaning for me.], but the teacher can’t do anything. She talked to him, but it didn’t work But she doesn’t waste her time because she has other students to teach. I think you should try to help then and support then….

[In “Their feet are roasting by an open fire,” I discuss the rare administrator who disagreed.]

Kris was less tactful: “First of all I did not like the way you sounded in your letter. [See, I knew they weren’t reading opinion columns in the newspaper!] you made it sound like you know everything. [well, I was an opinion columnist. That is sort of in the job description.] In this world where there really is no such thing as right or wrong….[!] As long as you support your feelings that’s all you need in this world. [That single sentence explains so much.] So I think you need an apology [Now we’re getting somewhere!] to those girls you wrote about. [Well, that took an ungrammatical and unsurprising turn.] We girls are very sweet. [Never mind easy. Oh, dear. Address your letters to the Hon. John Boehner. He has nothing to do with anything, but if we occupy him….]

We wrap up with Elizane. “We girls are very sweet and sensitive [You did not see the gang of sweet and sensitive pregnant girls shouting obscenities as they chased me down the hall way. Oh, for a hidden camera.] It all begins when you are small your parents talk to you about life. They tell you….not to have sex before marriage.

“Some girls have boyfriends at early age between 13 to 17. They think they cool because they have a boyfriend….If a boy tells a girl that he loves very much. [Warning!] she might go crazy. [Go on.] And then a boy will ask her to come to his house to let’s say do homework and study. [Yes, let’s. But we all know where this is going.]

“They study for a while but then they will start kissing and doing things. [Study?] and the boy says he loves her very much. [And, let me guess, she goes crazy.] He never seen a girl like that. And then they do it. [Those sweet-talkers.]

“Then 2 months later. The girl starts feeling things. [No comment.] Then she go to the doctor and she finds out she is pregnant.

“Well some girls have sex for fun and pleasure, but others think she is falling in love. [The audience, I assume?] Well but the thing is if she gets pregnant she has to make a decission, will she keep the baby or will she adopt the baby.” [Ummm….]

“It’s a very difficult life to have a baby. In the first few months it’s ok. [Girl, that much time for a delivery is excessive!] But then you have put them in daycare. So you could go to school. And then run to work. Other girls like me would never do such a thing like that, have a baby in such a young age. One problem that the girls might have might be that they don’t have any person to talk to. So they go and do it.

“I think you shouldn’t say anything about people or girls like that.”

Lesson learned. I will not talk about either people or girls like that. Mainly because these missives, completely off -target, have convinced me that school isn’t doing anyone—people or girls—enough good to make an issue of it.

I also want to mention that I taught in Alexandria City Public Schools for 20 years. In that time, I had at least a score of students whose grandmothers had been my students. Somebody didn’t have any person to talk to.

I guess at bottom, Sandra was right. I should not have wasted talking because it did no good; most schools are still determined to pass students through the machine regardless of whether they learning along the way.

Anyway, that was ten years ago and I am sure that things are much better now.