Going Up the Down Staircase

I’d finally made it to eighth grade. This was the top of junior high school, so the year promised to be a great one. I had two classes in the annex, but the rest were in the main building. The only one that was upstairs was an Algebra class with the toughest teacher, Mrs. Geiger. She would turn out to be one of a few math teachers who would scare the daylights out me, but who would also prove to be teachers that I truly respected because they actually stood for something.

One day I found myself hanging around the library too much and caught with barely enough time to make it to Mrs. Geiger’s class. As I hustled past the principals’ offices, I was forced to make a decision. I either went up the “UP” stairs or went to the next stairwell and used the “DOWN” stairs. I knew that I was risking detention by using the wrong stairwell, but I figured that no one would be in the hallway, so I would be safe. Besides, Mrs. Geiger’s classroom was just a couple of doors away from the “DOWN” stairs.

I had grace going up those stairs. My feet barely hit the ground as I made it to the turn for the last eight steps. Given that I was skipping stairs, that meant only four more steps and I would be home free. Was I really using math to rationalize my poor decision making? Alas, I forgot to show my work for standing at the top of the stairs was my baseball coach. Normally, this would not have been a problem, but he was standing with Mr. Palmer, the principal.

“Uh, young man, what are you doing?” Mr Palmer asked.

“Trying not to be late, sir. I know I shouldn’t have used these stairs, but they’re quicker,” I said.

“Please use them again. They will get you to my office just as quickly.”

I was assigned a Saturday school, which was unheard of in our school. Mr. Palmer had decided that I needed to be an example to others that had such disregard for the rules. He was letting everyone know that this sort of insolence would not be tolerated anymore. After all, kids just weren’t respectful of authority as they had been in his past.

The Saturday came around and I was the only one sentenced to the detention. I got to the library, took my seat, and waited. There were no adults to supervise me. No Mr. Palmer. No Mrs. Geiger. No Coach Oweis.

“Hmmm,” I thought.

I knew that it was a bad decision that had put me in this situation. I also knew that there wasn’t anyone to check on me, so if I wanted to walk around I wouldn’t have to worry at all. I got up and headed down the hallway. First, I went to the gym and looked for a ball. Nothing. The PE office was locked, so I decided to check out the rest of the school.

This was my first time in an empty school building. There is something both soothing and creepy about vacant schools. The hum of the lights replaced the sound of screaming kids. The hallways seemed wider and the floor shined like I had never noticed. It was almost blinding until I got to the “DOWN” stairs. That was when the light changed and I could see clearly that I was meant to run up these stairs again.

“Who’s going to know?” I thought.

I hit those stairs with every bit of speed I had. I never slowed down and when I got to the top, I sprinted the last few yards to Mrs. Geiger’s room. I expected to see her door locked and the lights off. What I actually saw could not have been more unexpected. Mr. Palmer, Mrs. Geiger, and Coach Oweis were in the room together. There were other teachers there, too. They were laughing and listening to music. They drank coffee. Some wore jeans and others sweat pants. It was a strange sight. They actually looked like normal people. But why were they in school on a Saturday morning?

Mr. Yates, who had nearly written me up for calling General Joe Hooker, “Mighty Joe Prostitute,” saw me in the hall and waved me into the room.

“Come on in, Chris. We’ve been waiting for you,” he said.

I should have just stayed in the library. If I had been chosen as the example for using the wrong stairwell, what would Mr. Palmer do to me now? For a minute, I thought about running.

“That wouldn’t be a good idea, Chris,” said Mrs. Taylor who had taken up position behind me. She was cool, but she had the PE teacher aura that makes a person wonder how far they could take something if needed.

I went in and sat at my seat in front of Mrs. Geiger’s desk. She made me sit there, even though it was out of alphabetical order because…well…maybe I didn’t do a few homework assignments, or watched recess during class, or forged my parents’ signatures on a couple of bad tests.

Mr. Palmer started, “Chris, we are part of a group who can see into the future. You will be put into situations as a parent and teacher that will require you to make decisions that will have great impact on your children, step children, and students.”

“Step children? Hmmm…,” I thought.

“And that is why you are here,” started Mrs. Geiger, “we want you to know your future, so you are ready when the time comes.”

They passed me a cup of coffee which for some reason I drank. I didn’t even like coffee then. Almost immediately I started having visions. I saw me talking to my children about staying out too late. I saw me talking to my step children about being snarky to their mother. I saw me talking to my students about finishing assignments and the importance of exercise. In each dream, I seemed frustrated that the children were not listening to me. Why wouldn’t they just do what they were told? 

“And that is the lesson,” said Mrs. Geiger, “Kids don’t do what they are told because they need to test the boundaries. What they need are people who will help them understand the consequences of their choices, not just dole out punishments.”

Mr. Palmer added, “We can’t change your actions. You will make the choices that you are supposed to make, but our meeting today will help you when the time is right. Mr. Oweis, do you have anything to add?”

“Chris, could you get around faster on that inside pitch and pull the ball to left field?”

“I’ll try coach.”

I was free to go. As I stood up to leave, I was quite shocked that no one was there. There was no coffee, no principal, no teachers, and no reason for me to be in this room. My shock turned to fear and I bolted out of the room, past the “DOWN” stairs, and without a bit of hesitation, I ran down the “UP” stairs. I made it back to the library and waited for my parents.

Years would go by and I would eventually become a teacher. I would also become a father and step father just as foretold back in Mrs. Geiger’s room. One day I was faced with a dilemma. Should I send a student to the office or let him slide for his infraction? What egregious mistake had the young man committed? He didn’t speak English. He also didn’t speak Spanish and since he never answered my questions, I was beginning to think he was just playing a game by pretending not to understand. 

I was the one who did not understand. Soon I would.

While I was telling the young man about the potential ills of the world if he did not learn to talk to me respectfully and how completing his writing prompts was most important to his success, none of which he understood, my vision began to roll like when my black and white TV would need adjusting. At the end of the gym I could see Mr. Palmer, Mrs. Geiger, and Coach Oweis having a serious laugh. I shook my head to clear things up, but it was about to get weird because they were heading towards my office.

I took a breath, apologized to the kid for being ridiculous, and ran through the gym to my office. He had no idea what I said and was probably wondering why I ran off so quickly. I had to see if my old principal and teachers were really in my office. Sure enough, there they were.

“What’s going on here?” I asked.

“Just checking in,” said Mr. Palmer.

“How are you, Chris?” asked Mrs. Geiger.

“Fine? Really, what’s going on?” I asked.

“You know what’s going on, Chris,” said Coach Oweis. “His inability to speak English is a big deal. Why don’t you just teach him that. The health stuff will come later. And remember, you didn’t do your homework either…”

“And you made prostitute jokes,” said Mr. Yates.

“Where’d he come from?” I thought.

“And you broke more than a few rules, yourself, hypocrite boy,” said Mrs. Taylor.

“Where’d she come from?” I thought.

Coach Oweis continued, “Chris the trick is to plant seeds in the students. You may never get them to like school, but you can help them enjoy learning and get them thinking about important lessons..”

“Like you guys did for me… Gotcha.”

And there I was, alone in my office, thinking of James Blair Intermediate and how to help students from Mexico who don’t speak English or Spanish.