Friday, April 22, 2011

Why I Own Huge Purple Wrestling Shoes

 [Misery is absolutely mountain high today.  I need to grow up!  I need to get a fucking backbone!  I will have a great life again some day, because I will make it happen.  As soon as I pull my head out of my ass and stop being a heartbroken, cowardly SCHOOB.  In the meantime, I'll indulge in a little story telling.  Not so little!  This is a very long story, but writing it will serve as an anesthetic.  HAHAHAHA!  I even found some old, rather blurred photos to illustrate it!] 

First of all, schools in Poland are different from how they are here.  In my opinion, teachers in Poland at the end of Communism had a ridiculous amount of power over their students' futures.  Getting on the bad side of a teacher could cost you the grades you needed to get into a decent university or major in the subject you wanted.  Grading criteria were entirely up to the individual teacher.  I remember introducing the concept of objective grading criteria and taking a hell of a drubbing at several faculty meetings.  Twice, they even had an interpreter present, to make sure that I clearly understood my pissed off colleagues when they were giving me a piece of their minds.  So, school was a stressful place for kids; and although teachers were treated with the utmost respect by students and parents, this respect mostly came from fear and loathing. 

In 1992, not long before I left, our school tried to create a kinder, gentler atmosphere.  They hired a guidance counselor, painted the classrooms cheerful colors and removed the daises from the fronts of the classrooms.  The first two things were fine, but I missed the daises.  They didn't lower the blackboards when they took the daises out, so every time I wanted to write on the board, I had to jump on a chair.

Here I am teaching my Sophomore class.  Note jazzy, stress-relieving stripes painted on the walls.  Note lack of dais.  Note chalk tray, level with the top of my shoulder.  The chair I would leap onto is just out of the frame.
I had Michal J. (Hey!  Pronounce that "ME-how" rather than "Mitchell", OK?) in my English class for his Junior and Senior years.  He was very good-looking, sweet and quiet.  He was built like a Mack truck:  national wrestling champion in his weight class the year before I met him.  I wish I could say that he was a good English student, but...not really.  He got a lot of B minuses from me.  That group of kids were in the Economics track, with a greater emphasis on math than language.  Michal was a bit of a non-entity in class, for the most part - not a standout in any way.  Except that I began to notice that he was often hurt .  Broken finger. Then a burn.  Then a sprained wrist.  One thing after another.  I asked a few questions in the faculty room.  The other teachers shrugged.  No suspicion of abuse:  he and his sister were being raised by a single mom who would be no match for a big guy like Michal.  And in Poland at that time, teachers didn't intervene in home problems.  Huh.  Well, I thought it was weird.

One night, the last spring that I was in Poland, I left a meeting at the school pretty late - it was dark.  And cold, because I remember that I had my hands in the pockets of my canvas field coat.  I was walking down the sidewalk when a large tree said, "Miss P.!"  After reinserting myself into my skin, I saw Michal in the tree's shadow.  "Miss P., do you have any money?  I need bus fare."  "Yeah, sure, Michal.  You scared me!  Why are you behind that tree?"  He hesitated, then said, "And do you have a shirt I can use?"  He stepped out to where I could see him in the streetlight. His face was a fucking mess!  His shirt was in blood-soaked ribbons. Blood from his mouth had trickled down his chest. "God!  Michal!  What happened?!  Did you get in a fight!?"  He started to give me the globally-recognized teenage eye-roll, but it dissolved as his eyes filled and his face crumpled.  Ooookay.  I knew he would die of embarrassment if he cried in front of me.  "Let's walk." 

I had a one-room apartment in the local dormitory for girls.  Kids who lived out in the smaller villages couldn't travel back and forth every day for school, so they stayed in these dorms during the school week.

Home sweet home

We took a round-about way that was not well-lit until we were behind the bushes at the front of the dorm, just beyond the lights from the windows.  "I have first aid things.  I'm worried about your mouth!"  "I can't go in there, Miss P.  Everyone will see. Can't you just go in and bring me something to wear?"  "Well, OK."  Luckily, in the early '90s, you may recall, we are all wearing giant sweaters than reached below our butts.  I had a wine-colored one, which I grabbed and took out to the bushes where Michal was waiting.  He pulled off the bloody remnants of his shirt and shoved them deep into the bushes, then put the sweater on.  He smiled the best he could with a bashed up mouth; and then he was gone.

So, Michal got in a fight.  Well, it happens.  That must have been a Friday night, because I didn't see him again until Sunday morning, when he knocked on my apartment door.  I was still in the long johns I usually slept in, and was washing my face, so I reached to open the door with one hand, toweling water out of my eyes with the other.  Michal was standing there holding my neatly folded sweater.  "Oh, hi."  I was a little embarrassed  that one of my student was seeing me in my long johns, but, whatever.  "Thanks for this."  "You're welcome."  I reached to take it, but he wouldn't relinquish it.  He sucked on his (still bad-looking) lip for a second, then said, "Can I talk to you?"

Yeah, the first of a thousand times that I have heard this sentence.

"Um, yeah.  Come in."  I didn't have a sofa - I had two beds.  One I treated like a sofa, so we sat facing each other cross-legged on this sofa-bed, and I began my education about organized crime in Poland.  This was one of the most difficult conversations I have ever had:  he couldn't tell me much in English; I struggled to understand in Polish.  Lots of hand-waving and sketching.  And the more I understood, the more frightened I got, because I realized that he was in deep shit.

In a nutshell, if possible... Years before, he had been befriended by a man in his apartment complex.  The guy was nice, and since Michal had no dad, he got pretty attached to this guy.  Well, the guy taught Michal how to  rip off cars and Michal started working for him.  Because Michal as a juvenile... yeah, are you thinking, "Fagin?"  That's pretty much what it was like, except this guy had another guy that he answered to.  As Michal got older he was doing well in school and was accepted to a high school for university-bound students.  He wanted to get out of the stereo theft business, but when he would complain about it or threaten to tell anybody, they would hurt him.  He was going to be 18 soon, but before that happened, they had a plan they wanted him to carry out:  to break into an office at the local police station where there were materials for making identity papers.  No way did he want to do this.  Juvenile or not, this was a whole different level of crime.  He was worried less about prison (although he was very worried about it) than he was in a panic that the whole story would come out and that he would lose his place at university.

What should he do?

He was asking me?!?

"You need to tell someone!"  "I AM telling someone.  I'm telling you."  "No, like a real, Polish someone.  You need to go to the police!  Tell them you're being coerced!  You need to tell your mom!  How can she not know?"  "It's dangerous to tell her.  I think she guesses, but she's afraid to say anything.  She just cries a lot.  I can't tell other people.  Miss P., just tell me:  should I do the police station break-in?"  Wha-? Oy.  What was I supposed to say?  "I have to tell you that you shouldn't.  Anyway, it's a stupid idea.  Bound to fail!  Maybe if you say you won't do it, they will just abandon the plan."  He agreed that he would tell them, "No". 

Just in case anyone thinks that I am a font of wisdom...

Michal was absent on Monday and on Tuesday afternoon, he was late for English class.  It was warmer that day and I had the windows open.  I remember that when he opened the classroom door, the cross-breeze billowed the long net curtains in across the desks.  He eased the door shut and slid into a seat in the back while I continued explaining something to the class.  Then I glanced up at him and our eyes locked. My vision narrowed - I thought I was going to pass out.  He had a cut that went all the way from his forehead, curving down the side of his face to his chin.  It was expertly done:  like a deep scratch. Not so deep that it needed stitches, but deep enough to leave a scar.  I'm sure it couldn't have been the case, but I felt like I did the entire presentation of "if-then" conditionals while staring into that boy's eyes.

Naturally, he was waiting by the front gate when I got off work that afternoon.  I marched up to him and got in his face.  Well, not really, because he was much taller than I.  You know what I mean, though.  "Michal, we need help!  I don't know about Polish criminal law!  I'm going to make things worse for you."  "NO!  You can't tell!"  [light bulb!]  "What about Jolanda, the new guidance counselor?"  "No way!  No teachers!"  "She's not really a teacher.  What if...  What if I asked her for advice, but I didn't tell her your name?" It took me two days to wear him down and get him to agree. 

Jolanda was delighted when I asked her if we could talk.  She was completely distrusted at the school, and the kids wouldn't confide in her about anything.  But, hey!  I come from America:  a therapist-friendly culture!  I told her the whole story (again, complete with language barrier), leaving out identifying characteristics.  And...she knew a lawyer!  "Awesome!"  (Well, I didn't say, "awesome".  I must've said something like, "wspynjala".)  "So, we simply have to have your student come to the office of-"  Uh-oh.  Here we go again.  "Michal, how can the lawyer help you if you won't-" "No way!"  "What about a phone call?"  Etc... etc... Finally, he agreed to call the lawyer from a phone booth.  No names.  Confidential.  "For now.  Sooner or later, you have to meet him, OK?"
At this point, the story left my orbit a little.  It was out of my hands, happening in Polish legalese; too difficult to explain with hand-waving or sketches.  I understood the important part.  Michal was meeting with the lawyer. The lawyer was helping Michal report the criminals, protecting him from repercussions and working to get him off the hook. 

June came and the weather got hot.  It was almost time for me to go, so I was busy:  returning borrowed items; eating and drinking too much vodka at different peoples' houses; packing. 

I did this a lot.  Note quantities of booze on table. 
I was rolling up my carpet so I could haul it out to the line and beat it when there was a knock on my open door.  It was Michal, gazing around my almost empty apartment.  "When are you going, Miss P.?"  "Tomorrow, " I said, stepping over the carpet and joining him at the door.  "Who is taking you to Warsaw?"  "I'll take the bus, but Filip is going with me, to help me with my bags."  "I brought you something.  These are my lucky shoes."  He handed them to me by the laces.  "You know, Michal.  Really, I didn't-"  I never finished the sentence because I was nearly suffocated by the enormous pressure of his embrace.  He kissed the top of my head, and because he knew that both of these actions were inappropriate, he darted out the door and jogged away down the corridor.

I was left to ponder the enormity of his gift.  At first in the literal sense, as I was trying to find room in my suitcase and wishing that he had a!  Or coin!  And of course, the real gift, which was simply that he trusted me despite the fact that I was not at all prepared or equipped to be trusted with a problem so big.  I went and found Jolanda before I left.  I took flowers and gave her a big hug to thank her for all her help.  But...I kept the shoes!

Some of my students stayed in touch.  The girls, of course!  I never heard another word from Michal, but when others from that class wrote to me with bits of news, I heard that he was in university and doing well.

I had a letter from classmate Beata C. about a year later.

Teacher, Michal will have to take an extra year of university!  He has dropped out of the economics program and changed courses.  He plans to be a LAWYER!  It's a pity:  if he wanted to be a lawyer, he should have chosen the Humanities track when we were in school, rather than the Economics track.  I wonder why he did that.

Dear Beata, 
Wow.  That IS strange.  Huh.


  1. That is the coolest story, Kate.
    Be very proud of what you did; it truly was awesome (or whatever that is in Polish).
    I hope Michael made it into the law in some way or other.

  2. What a great story - sounds like a premise for a John Irving novel.

  3. Wow! That is a totally totally totally awesome story! Thank you for sharing!

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