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Monthly Archives: September 2016

When I first started working at a city charter school in 2011, it was because the Dean of Academics had called frantically the previous evening.

The Dean was frantic because I was the only substitute teacher she had interviewed and she had been unable to reach me all afternoon. I was working at Walgreens at the time and I had dropped my phone while on my bathroom break. I had very little money and owned a cheap flip phone that shattered when it struck the tiles. When work ended that night, I reassembled my broken phone in the car and listened to her voice mails in the dark parking lot.

A very necessary teacher at the school, the ISS (In-School Suspension) teacher, would be out and her spot needed to be filled the next day. This position was necessary because the school-wide discipline system involved setting aside students with the most serious infractions in a separate room for the day. These sort of infractions included swearing at teachers, skipping classes, bullying other students and racking up enough detention referrals in a single disciplinary category. The same tiered system of discipline would remain in place for the next four years I worked there, the detentions so plentiful that the ISS room was often filled to the brim, proving far too popular to be effective.

On my first day there, I walked briskly into the old brick building crammed in between the much larger buildings downtown. At the time, there was no grass anywhere to speak of, just asphalt and notable architecture in the neighboring run-down office buildings. Eventually the school would put some effort into landscaping alongside the front steps of the school, filling the space with stones and aesthetically placed trees. A block away, there were bars with neon-lights in the windows, and a giant hole in the ground where some building had been demolished, surrounded by wire fencing.

The school itself was an old YMCA building, far too small for a school. All the classrooms were crammed on top of each other.

I was delightfully surprised by the school lobby. There were leather couches and a rug with the school’s logo on it, as well as potted plants and a high ceiling. The secretaries had an enormous counter surrounding their office space, and there were students and parents leaning over the counter-top at all times, waiting or filling out paperwork.

Eventually, I would learn that they put forth a great deal of effort to make this positive first impression.

The lead secretary was a fastidious and shrewd older woman, her hair sparse and gray, just a few longer strands pinned back onto the base of her skull. She would shout at the students during class changes and guard the front desk like a vicious badger. We often saw her snap at the principal (or the Director, as he called himself) and were left with the impression that she ran the school. We would joke with the students that she had been there before the school and the administration had no choice but to employ her, as she wouldn’t leave.

On my first day, the Dean of Academics greeted me in the lobby and led me down into the school basement. There were several classes down there, in an open and well-lit hallway. Though the ISS room would eventually be moved into a room branching off this brighter hall, on my first day it was hidden behind two large double doors that led to a dim and pencil-thin corridor near the maintenance and storage rooms.

The Dean opened the door to the ISS room and I saw several rows of desks crammed into an incredibly small room with a desk, printer, and bookshelf. Five students were already sitting in there. One high schooler had her head down on her desk, and four middle schoolers fidgeted and gawked at me with near-manic anticipation. The Dean of Academics handed me a walkie talkie and told me that if the students talked or didn’t follow my directions, I needed to summon one of the school’s two security guards, or the Dean of the Middle School or the Dean of the High School.

After asking me if I was okay, she then left me there in the room with a computer, a walkie talkie, and five students. I was to spend the entire school day with them, and they were to be completely silent the whole time.

For a while, we all sat in silence in that grimy little room in the basement. But despite my ordained task, in reality I was in a room with several human beings who I had never met before and I was curious to find out more about them.

Their names were Jericho, Royal, Ariana, Torian, and Magic. The four middle-schoolers were in seventh grade, and I would end up seeing them throughout their middle school years and then their high school years, chiding them when they needed it, giving them advice, guiding them through writing tasks, and recommending them books.

After that day, I discovered that nobody really wanted to substitute at this school. The entire building, both high school floors and the middle school wing, only had one building substitute to rely on, and no outside substitutes ever applied for the job — or came back after one day. The Dean of Academics was absolutely delighted with how casually I went about my day down in the ISS room, coming out of it unruffled without any student yelling or picking a fight with another. I hadn’t even really done much at all. The students hadn’t had anything more to do than a worksheet or two over the course of eight hours, I had only chatted with them and shook my head at their adolescent silliness.

The Dean asked me to become a second building substitute teacher. I would come to the school every day and she would put me wherever I was needed. Teachers were constantly taking off, and there was such a shortage every day that often classroom teachers were pulled away from their planning periods to cover classes in other rooms. Everyone was overworked, with few breaks. Often, no breaks. I always figured this was why they took off so much. I would later find out how exhausting it was, how the constant screech of stress flayed the immune system.

I had just graduated with my teacher certification. I was more than happy to accept the position and it seemed charming to work in a small charter school compared to a big chaotic public school. The high school and middle school only had about 400 students total and this remained consistent the entire four years I was there.

The students were mostly African American, with perhaps a 20% Hispanic portion of the student body. There were also many students who had recently immigrated from other countries and had only spoken English for a year. Many had gaps in their education — missing a year or two. There were many students from Turkey, some from Somalia, Nepal, Bangladesh, Ukraine, and Iran. The majority of the students came from Christian households, but there were enough Muslims that we provided prayer rooms for the students.

All students were required to wear uniforms and teachers were required to police the uniforms with daily ferocity. One buttoned down shirt with the school’s logo cost the parents around twenty dollars — the average student owned perhaps two of these shirts, then maybe a school sweater. Some only owned one shirt and they wore this shirt every day for the entire school year. Many also only owned one pair of dress pants. Their crumpled blue shirts would obtain bleach stains and grease stains. Often when this was noticed, teachers would pool money for additional uniform items as Christmas presents for the students.

Many times students would arrive to school without their uniform. This resulted in them spending a day down in the ISS room. Sometimes, they didn’t have the correct pants because they were staying with a parent who was at work all the time or who didn’t have a washer and dryer. Our school would have seriously benefited from having a washer and dryer down in the basement –– the students could have gone to class instead of wasting time in punitive isolation.

Within a month of work, I was asked to be a co-teacher in an 8th grade English Language Arts classroom. This meant I would assist the classroom teacher with planning and delivering lessons, and provide extra and small group support to students who were struggling.

At the same time, I was also pulled from the classroom a lot. I was placed in every classroom in the building at least once when there were staff shortages. When the Dean of the Middle School was out on maternity leave, I was placed down in the ISS room for an entire month. Eight hours a day of mostly sustained silence. I would crack most of the time and answer the students’ questions, give in to their prying and speak with them about their lives. They joked with me and it was genuinely funny, I enjoyed that more than staring at the crumbling ceiling. If teachers walked in while I conversed with them, they would shoot me a resentful glare.

Later, in three years, I would be the teacher walking into the ISS room. There were several times, my fourth year there, in which I walked into that room to deliver worksheets to the students and found them laughing about something. I would glare at whatever teacher was behind the desk. I had forgotten.

One day, during that month I was down in the basement in that small room with ten teenagers, a rock from behind a pipe on the ceiling fell down and hit a student on the arm. The student — a seventh grader — made a dramatic show of the event. She screamed and writhed, laughing at the same time, yelling that her mother was going to sue the school. She forgot about it pretty quickly, like adolescents are prone to do, but I knew it was ridiculous that the ceiling was falling on the students.

That year, despite the effort everyone put in, the 8th grade ELA state test scores were abysmal. We had played a lot of catch up but they just didn’t do well on the test. This was the same year the state test had included the passage about the talking pineapple that raced a rabbit.

The hammer from administration came down hard, because the state test results for 8th grade ELA and Math were an important part of the school’s charter. When the state came by to see how the school was doing, in consideration of whether the state was going to renew the school’s charter, after doing a day of observation they always disappeared into the various conference rooms and watched Power Points of the test results — including data from periodic benchmark test results.

When that 8th grade teacher was fired — a move that didn’t look very good, considering at the time she was the only minority on staff — I was passed on to the new 8th grade ELA teacher. It was the previous 7th grade ELA teacher, so she was going to be receiving the same students from her classes the previous year.

She had short hair, a short temper, and a shrewd eye. I knew immediately she had eyed me up and down and decided I was too inexperienced. I was intimidated by her, but I also knew that I was just as short tempered and quick. I decided to prove myself to her, so I dressed in the best clothes I could afford and arrived to our classroom every day with the willpower to pound out task after task, making materials and assisting students and being as useful to everyone around me as possible. After all, this was my second year co-teaching and I understood the rhythm and vibes of it.

It didn’t take long for us to become a formidable teaching pair. She was able to yell with a booming authoritative voice that shook adults, and I had a keen eye that noticed everything that went on within the classroom, appearing by a student’s side and whispering instructions before they fell out of tempo and lost their momentum, giving them that slight push they needed to remember the task at hand and excel. We shared secretive, knowing looks, and communicated wordlessly across the room. We shared jokes and fed off each other’s intelligence, performing a two person play in front of the kids that kept them entertained and involved. Students visited us in between classes, and filled our room in the morning and after school, seeking our advice.

As required for the preparation of transforming my initial teaching certificate into a lasting professional form, I chose her as my mentor. We bore the stress of the job together and left the school for good at the same time as well, an escape we didn’t plan but executed together. I chose to not renew my contract with the school, having decided that I was moving to another state. She was fired after a disagreement with the principal, regarding her coming in on a Saturday and the school refusing to pay her.

The administration were all former teachers, but they were unlikable. They had been awful teachers. We discovered this by talking to older staff members and older students. They were not the teachers that students visited after classes ended, desperate for some tidbits of wisdom. They were awkward and stiff, like an out-of-touch relative at a holiday gathering. They were still attending college to receive their administrative degrees while holding their positions and bringing their instructive incompetency to an administrative level. They were far less qualified than many of the regular teachers on staff.

The principal (sorry—Director) was a tall gangly man with sallow skin and a weird connection with the Board of Trustees. All of the staff kowtowed to the Board of Trustees, they were the final say in any decision, a disembodied, distant ruling head. The Director was not seen very much and the students often didn’t even know he was the principal. The ones that did know him believed he was a vampire. They would speculate about where his coffin was in the building. Whenever he did walk into our classroom, the students would eye him as a curious stranger.

After I left, he was cycled out to be the principal at a different charter school owned by the same people in another state. His underling, a thoroughly unskilled man that stuttered and floundered at every challenge, replaced him despite the fact that all leadership roles had been passed down to him over the years with the ease of someone fumbling over glass plates.

One year the administrative team introduced a new evaluation form for the administrators, sending them to the teachers’ inboxes with an air of solidarity over how much we all were evaluated and torn apart on a monthly basis. I only filled out one evaluation form — it was for the principal’s underling. The Dean of Whatever-It-Was. The future principal. He had thrown many poorly planned schedules and baffling error-ridden emails at me, implored me to come in on breaks and drag “low level” students around the building to small closets that were never unlocked, in which I was supposed to drill them with test prep questions. He made me drag these children around during any available half hour throughout the school day, pulling them from Homerooms and Art and Music classes to fill out multiple choice answer sheets.

I wrote a long bitter paragraph about him and punctuated it with the fact that no one knew what his job in the school building actually was — every email he sent had new job titles in his signature — and we had no evidence of any tasks he performed outside of making confusing Excel spreadsheets.

That following August, the underling took a moment during the beginning-of-the-year Professional Development meetings to show a Power Point that explained his many jobs in the building. The title of the main slide was my question, the one I had written so vehemently: “What do you even do?”

The Board of Trustees cared only about test scores. They cared because the state cared. The principal, therefore, cared about these test scores immensely, and he passed down all the burdens of this care to his underling. And the underling passed them down to the teachers.

And the teachers, we slopped down all these concerns and charts and data sets onto our plates and struggled to hold them up high over our heads without any of it spilling over onto the students. A lot of my time at the charter school was spent struggling to prevent the ridiculous workload and demands from becoming palpable to the students.

This was an impossible task. During visits from the state, the administration and strange men in suits breathed down all of our necks over the test scores. They increased the amount of benchmark exams and practice tests that were given throughout the year, and peppered these long test sessions with diagnostic tests as well. There were many things that were difficult that I had to deal with my four years at the school — students swearing at me, beating the shit out of each other, bleeding all over the place, running around, parents screaming — but nothing was quite as difficult as delivering blocks of testing that could take up to two weeks — four hours a day, every day, for two weeks — multiple times a year — to a small room full of squirrely, dreamy, growing, bewildered adolescents.

The charter school had more tests than the other public schools. More benchmarks, more practice tests. This was because our test scores were not better than the public schools. We weren’t doing better than the public schools.

To say the students were burned out was an understatement. They would writhe in their chairs looking delirious after staring at a booklet with 12-point font for four hours, knowing they needed to do the same thing for the next four days in a row. I would slip them paper and crayons and Jolly Ranchers, something to occupy their minds while they waited for everyone to finish, but often they would just slump forward onto their desks with defeat.

As children, they didn’t even really fully understand what it was they were working so hard for, but they knew it involved new levels they needed to reach. They knew because with so much pressure and content revolving around the state exams, the administration would open the gates so that all the information surrounding the tests reached the students.

I always felt as if the whole affair should have been less pronounced, the students themselves not so embedded in the process. But the administrators needed the scores to go up every year — specifically with the eighth graders — and they didn’t seem to think that lecturing the teachers about it every morning was enough. Their approach involved pep talking the students with complete disclosure about what was going on.

The students knew that the continued existence of the school — the renewal of the charter — depended on the 8th grade Math and ELA state test scores. The same students who would rant and rave about how much they hated the school would keep their mouths shut and fill out their Scantrons, the seriousness in which everyone took the situation registering in their heads.

I always imagined that if I was an adolescent who hated my school, I would break the no. 2 pencils in half on testing days and declare that the whole school could be boarded up for all I cared. But even the most bitter students never did that. The most troublesome students would pinch their peers, throw their papers all over the hallway, but come in and silently test with grave looks on their faces. It’s not exactly that I wanted them to rebel, but the level of conditioning was observable.

Things that involved money and numbers and products were important. The administration would order new t-shirts every year with lame slogans that appealed to the students: “Turn up for the test!” Every student received one.

The administrators fretted on testing days and barked at us to never sit down, to walk the room, watch the children, be encouraging. Without really knowing anything about the students at all, they would prowl and get in the way. One year, a student named Jose was completing his ELA 8 state test with a slow-paced intensity that I knew was characteristic of him. In order to remove all distractions, he lowered his head close to the paper and carefully scanned the lines on the page. I sat in a chair, watching him do this — I had seen him do this many times before. I knew he was struggling to follow the passage, occasionally his head lifting up as he turned the page and then zooming back in on the small font.

The principal walked in and saw him with his head down. He assumed he was sleeping, failing to observe that the boy’s face was hovering over the paper as if he were about to take a plunge. The Director walked over to him and stuck him with a long, gangly finger in his upper arm. The poke startled Jose immensely and he jerked up, yanked out of the complex reading passage he was attempting to follow and staring up at the principal with a wide-eyed, confused stare.

The year after this occurred, I became used to the task of disseminating the data we received from the results of the state tests. What was always very inconvenient about the whole thing was the impractical timing of the whole affair. State tests were in April — we did not receive the results until August. By that time, the students were once again disinterested in their efforts and the data was only good for their upcoming teachers.

The school administration instructed me to analyze the results based on standards and prepare materials for each student based on the areas in which they needed the most work. This involved slapping the students with the labels that were used to determine the students’ “grade” on the state exam.

For the ELA state test, a student could receive one out of four “grades:” Level 4, which is Mastery; Level 3, which is Proficient, or Passing; Level 2, which is Partially Proficient, and then Level 1, or Well Below Proficient. These were divided up even further, where certain scores would be considered “Low Level 2s” or “High Level 2s.”

When I first began using this data and splitting up students onto lists, I kept this data hidden in my desk and never spoke of it with the students. I knew they needed work on making inferences, for instance, and that was enough, as I was in charge of providing them with the tools necessary to improve that skill. The idea of telling a student they were a Level 1 seemed abhorrent to me.

As time went on and pressures mounted, the state ticking off a list of things our school was doing wrong, jabbing their finger at the test results and tearing apart our principal, this data became common knowledge. When I was arranged to pull Level 1s from their electives to grill them with test prep questions, they somehow came to know they were Level 1s. This information was communicated freely between the admins to the parents to the students. I was forced to make phone calls home that involved me telling parents, “Your child has scored a high Level 2 on their benchmark exams, and so we would like them to attend extra classes over this Spring break in order to help them achieve Level 3 this April.”

Students sat in front of me with multiple choice questions, telling me, “I’m a high Level 2, but I want to be a Level 3.”

In meetings, the principal’s underling scrolled through Excel spreadsheets and bar graphs, telling us, “Please compile a list of high Level 1s to pull for extra help. Do not bother with low Level 1s who can’t be helped — but we do need to reduce the amount of Level 1s we have. Level 1s make the school look bad.”

The Level 1s were almost always students with IEPs — Individualized Education Plans — who attended Resource Room every day and received the attention of consultant teachers during class. The school’s individualized education department was incredibly small, and the staff were often unable to provide students with the level of support they needed. Over the years, the school cut the special education department — but also bragged about how much money they spent on technology.

The students who were expelled were almost always Level 1s. We expelled a lot of students, with carefree abandon. In order to keep up the attendance numbers, new students would be brought in, with parents who knew the administrators. The new students all scored 3s.

Level 1s were also largely English Language Learners, or ELLs, and our situation in that regard was even worse — we had one ELL teacher on staff, a poor, overworked, abused-looking woman who could hardly catch up with her students’ needs or provide them with the resources they needed. Her room was a tiny, squished room in the corner of the building without any windows. We had a number of ELL students, perhaps making up 15% of the school’s population. Some students had only been in the United States for a year and did not have parents who spoke English that I could speak with.

While on the topic of short-handed departments, the most egregious example at this charter school involved the counselors. We were constantly short counselors, and our school social worker — we only had one — doubled as both a school counselor and an administrative assistant. I found that the roles of social workers and counselors in the school were absolutely necessary and that they were an invaluable resource for teachers and students, so only having one at any given time was incredibly frustrating. Students would have problems, serious problems, and I would have a dozen things to do at any given moment. I couldn’t help them. Helping them meant shirking my duties and I would be in trouble. Often, no one could help.

Often, they were sent to the ISS room.

The administration would often talk about how it was okay to make the students feel uncomfortable. We didn’t need to baby them. They would excel when they were uncomfortable. It all just seemed so literal — the poking during testing, the desperation of the students trapped at their desks — and then the temperature. The old building had ridiculous temperature regulation problems.

During the winter, the building was absolutely freezing. I would tremble and sometimes even wear my coat. The students would curl up in their desks and pull their arms inside their shirts, their teeth chattering. At first, the Director would not allow them to wear their coats. Sometimes we would tell the students to go get their coats anyway. We told the Director they needed it, they were freezing! Our insistence led to an announcement that any student who wanted to get their coats could do so. Every year we spent several weeks wearing coats inside the classroom.

This was not helped by the fact that in our classroom we had a broken window, boarded up. We spent weeks heckling the admins that cold air was seeping in through the cracks. This led them to fix it — by putting a black garbage bag over the window. The window wasn’t actually fixed until they replaced every single window in the entire school.

This problem was not reserved to Winter. The heaters would not turn off in the Spring in our first classroom. We emailed the admins, the secretaries, maintenance, but they ignored us. Our classroom was so small that some of our desk were up against the heaters and one day a student complained to us that his seat was hot. I walked over and touched the desktop, yelping and drawing my fingers away. It was scorching. We had no other place for those kids to sit, so we took out some folding chairs and moved the students away from the blazing heater. The admins narrowed their eyes at us and told us we had one of the biggest rooms in the building. We should be grateful.

Eventually, Tim the maintenance man showed up. He was the only maintenance staff in the entire building. He was a massive man, bloated to the point that he looked like he would pop. He looked unwell, constantly waddling from one end of the building to the other, doing every single thing that needed to be done in the building in silence while the staff of the financial office barked at him. He had a room in the basement, where he showered and often slept.

It’s difficult to tell all the stories I built up over the years. There’s too much to tell, it’s overwhelming. We worked long hours, teachers and students alike. Teachers were required to go to work early for meetings and leave late for mandatory activities. We all came in on Saturdays and we worked during holiday breaks, holding academic boot camps for students. I taught summer school. It felt like so many of us, students included, just didn’t get a break. Teachers often lost our planning periods, our lunches. We united as a team to give each other breaks, sparing moments to allow each other to eat, to go the bathroom.

Sometimes, we gave each other crying breaks.

The teaching staff was wonderful, we all formed a formidable team and we looked out for one another. I loved them. We bonded as a family and we enveloped the students into this family. We were all incredibly overworked, dispirited. We needed to be social workers, parents, therapists for the students, and we needed to teach so much. We needed to work harder to compensate for the mistakes the admins made, we kept the school together by working harder. As much as we wanted to scream, “FUCK THIS SCHOOL!” and run far away from the building, we knew we left the kids behind. So we put on poker faces and bit our lips and worked hard for them.

The turn-over rate was ridiculous. Teachers were fired every year, their contracts not renewed, almost always because they had a disagreement with the admins, who were unprofessional and held grudges. Teachers quit, or found better jobs, usually outside of teaching.

Eventually, I quit. After four years, I told the Director I would not be returning for a fifth school year.

I am still ashamed of this. I chose to turn away from the endearing, lovely adolescents because the environment was too poisonous to me. I was someone who could help the students and I turned away from them. I was sick all the time, I was angry every day, I came home and spent hours destressing, I thought about work all the time, even when I slept. I was exhausted, both physically and spiritually, and there was never any reprieve from this. Every day was a trial, with a tidal wave of problems that swept us all away, teachers and students alike.

I wanted less stress, I wanted better resources, I wanted less work, I wanted better benefits and support. I wanted to stop working so damn hard to compensate for the school’s shortcomings only to have the school not even register as being as good as the public schools. I wanted that blame to not fall onto me. I wanted to be thanked. I wanted to be appreciated, rather than having my outstanding work ignored.

So I left. So many of my teammates left. I cried on my last day of work, slipping on my sunglasses to hide my grief and standing outside the school with my mentor. We leaned on our cars and looked at the old building. I would miss almost everything: my team, the students, the familiar classrooms. She burned with anger. Eventually she would homeschool her children, to do a better job than all existing school systems.

I keep in touch with many of my old co-workers. Only one of them still remains at the school and she just texted me to tell me that they were expanding to include fifth and sixth grade. They asked her to teach fifth grade, expecting her to get certified to do this while she taught without her elementary certification, expecting her to compensate for their shortcomings as usual without actually paying her to go back to school. Typical.

Where are they putting the fifth and sixth graders? I asked. Did they purchase a new building?

No, they’re cramming them in the basement. The basement, a single hallway, such small classrooms. No windows.

When I fled to another state and began substituting in the public schools, I was shocked. The teachers seemed so independent. So carefree. They complained about trials that seemed so easy and miniscule to me. The admins weren’t hanging around to criticize them every single day. I found myself nervously following routines out of fear, only to find there was no one breathing down my neck. No one was criticizing me.

I was… respected as a professional. People believed I was doing the right thing. And I was, but I was shocked to find myself in an environment where I was doing so little work and people still had faith in me. I was so accustomed to going above and beyond only to face doubt and scrutiny.

There’s still so much I haven’t recounted. More flaws, more joys. I can recall so many memories, but they all slip in and out of each other, weaving and unweaving, it’s hard to pin one down. This experience wasn’t unique. It wasn’t typical of every charter school, but many of them. Most of them.

Is this a real solution?

 

 

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I am a renaissance woman, in the sense that I’m not yet 30 and I’ve held
nearly 20 different jobs, not a single one like the last, I’ve held many
different hands intimately in my small clinging child-like grasp and let go.

I cry at the same news story once a year: this is what it means to be my age,
we all do it but we don’t talk about it face to face, we just tweet about it.
I save my soul with music because that’s the closest I let empathy come to me,
I choke out my own salvation and then write about it everywhere in space
to make sure you believe me, that I am believable and repetitive, so it’s catchy,
so you feel me.

Let’s not know how to end things — together,
in the same way that we can never do anything for long because it grows cold
and we grow paralyzed with confusion, realizing that contentment is a plateau
stretching out never-ending to the horizon; it bores us, we’re restless til death.

On our first date, we sat at a counter in a local restaurant, facing the windows that stretched from the floor to the ceiling. They displayed the television show that was main street. There was a smattering of hard clumps of snow on the ground and yellow Christmas lights wrapped around the trees by the roadside. I was too nervous to eat and I watched the endless stream of people passing by while he unfolded his taco and regaled me with stories that were doing an excellent job at convincing me that he was interesting and adventurous.

“On our way to San Diego, we got into a pretty bad car accident. It was on the highway. We were just riding along – I was asleep, he was driving – and then out of nowhere,” He slapped his hands together. “We were flying! Someone coming from an on-ramp merged into our lane from the left without seeing us, struck us from the side, and my car went flipping across several lanes of traffic. I was still trying to figure out what had happened when he yelled for me to get out of the car, and we did. My car was completely totaled!”

“Were you hurt?”

He pulled out his phone and flipped through his photos. He still had the pictures they took at the hospital afterward. “Here I am,” he said, showing me an image of himself where he looked younger, with longer hair, yellow bruises on his face. Other than that, no real injuries.

I tried to imagine being in a car as it flipped across the road. I couldn’t. I had been in several minor car accidents at this point in my life, but they were nothing more than fender benders. Anxiety bloomed in my chest just thinking about it.

My first experience with a car accident occurred when I was twelve years old. My friend’s mother was driving and my friend Casey and I were in the backseat, her little brother sitting in between us, his face a dense map of freckles and his nose running. We were driving to an amusement park on an island, vibrating with excitement. We bickered with her little brother, who whined about our presence as her mother swore and sighed loudly at the wheel.

“Stop touching me,” I snapped at the little boy. I had known him since he was two years old and felt as if he were my own little brother. “Why are you such a brat?”

“You smell! It’s not my fault, you smell!”

Suddenly all of our heads snapped forward. I hit the seat in front of me and let out a loud exhalation of air. Casey grabbed her brother and her mother screamed, “Fuck!” She then leaned the front of her body into the backseat and began patting around at us, asking us if we were alright. We were fine, just confused. I looked around, only seeing a gas station through the small windows in the back.

A young woman in a Chevrolet in front of us had slammed on her breaks in front of the gas station. The back bumper of her car was smooshed inward. Our car, on the other hand, was completely fine, for all I could tell. Casey’s mother ordered us to stay in the backseat and left the car door open while she went to talk to the young woman. We waited in the backseat for what felt like a long time, watching all the cars on the road passing slowly and staring over at us.

“Stop staring! Who do they think they are?” Casey huffed.

“Yeah, what do they think is happening here? Look away, losers! Bye!” I said.

We made faces at everyone spectating.

Eventually a young police officer showed up, and he stuck his head into the backseat. He looked incredibly large looming over us. He asked each one of us a series of questions that seemed unimportant and unrelated to what had happened, interviewing Casey’s little brother last. He asked him for his home address multiple times, but the little boy just stared at him blankly, the quietest I had seen him that day.

“He’s five,” Casey told him testily, laughing. “He doesn’t know his address.”

The police officer stared at her, then disappeared without saying a word.

After more than an hour, we were finally free to finish our journey to the amusement park, since there was nothing wrong with our vehicle. We drove away, leaving the miserable-looking young woman behind. The day proceeded from that point as it was meant to and we grew sunburnt and content underneath the crisscrossed shadow of wooden rollercoasters.

I didn’t experience another car accident until I was nineteen years old. At this time, I was working at home for the summer and staying with my parents to shorten the commute. One night, my boyfriend at the time managed to finagle away his grandfather’s car and came to pick me up so we could spend the night drinking in a nearby suburb with his scruffy neckbeard friends. His grandfather was a solid blob of a human being, melting into his recliner, never speaking a word, making this a rare opportunity.

My boyfriend decided to take me home around 2AM and we began our drive through the inky darkness of the countryside. My parents lived deep in the woods, where the streetlights were rare and glowed eerily under a blanket of insects. We could see little of the road in front of us, the asphalt continuously spawning with a ghost-like haze, the sailing vehicle surrounded by darkness on both sides. I had my window open as I leaned against the door and let the cool wind whip at my face.

Then a figure loped into the road, a brown comet soaring out of the blackness. It passed quickly in front of the car and nearly cleared its passage when —

CRACK. The sound exploded as if a bullwhip had come crashing down next to my ear. The doe’s head struck the right side mirror and rolled wildly on its neck. My face was just a foot away. I watched her glowing eyes spin as she ran, leaping back into the endless black.

I screamed, I screamed. My boyfriend pulled the car onto the gravel shoulder and began shouting, “Fuck! Fucking deer!” He turned to face the abyss beyond the ditch. “I hope you’re dead! I hope you’re fucking dead!”

He ran along the side of the ditch looking for the animal, but she was gone. He said that maybe she had only been slightly injured since she had been able to run off. I remembered the hideously loud crack. “I doubt that.”

The right side mirror was dangling from a single vein. My boyfriend was yelling and swearing as he tried to snap it back into place, mortified that he had damaged his grandfather’s car. We fiddled with the mirror for a while, then gave up and drove to my parents’ house as I held the mirror on the ledge of the door.

I didn’t want my parents to discover we had hit a deer, so I crept into my house and searched the supply room for gorilla glue — or something. My little brother, still in high school at this time, appeared in the kitchen doorway, his eyes squinty from sleep. “What are you doing?”

“Do we have some sort of — strong glue?” I whispered, then told him about the deer.

“No.” He laughed, shaking his head, his long hair sweeping in front of his face.

I found some duct tape and held it up victoriously.

He shook his head even more vigorously. “You’re an idiot.”

I glared at him, then glanced out the front door at my boyfriend sitting in the car. Maybe I was an idiot.

It would take me another two years to affirm that I was indeed an idiot.

Meanwhile, my next car accident would happen the following summer. At this point I had saved up enough money to buy my own car, a blue ’99 Chevrolet Cavalier that I called Bathsheba. One day I drove several towns over to pick up the same dopey deer-killing boyfriend and took some backroads as I brought him back to my parents’, where I was staying while I had my car inspected by someone we knew.

Despite having chosen the backroads as a short cut, I was feeling incredibly impatient and couldn’t fly through the woods fast enough. The roads were long and straight, with small rounded hills that sent my car flying into the air as I struck them going 90mph. I felt exhilarated and my blood roared in my ears. My GPS had given me an estimated arrival time and I had managed to shave five minutes off of it. I was incredibly impressed with myself.

“We’re almost there!” I shouted, my car lifting off the road and seamlessly rolling back down. I realized my turn was coming up soon, quicker than I had expected, and I spun my wheel to catch it.

As I rounded the corner I tapped my brakes to slow down but felt the back of my car continue to drift. Alarmed by the way this felt, I slammed down harder on the brakes. Bad idea. The vehicle was far beyond my control at this point. My boyfriend grabbed the handle on the ceiling as we spun across the intersection, the car turning sharply to the right and veering straight into a deep ditch.

I hyperventilated for a moment in the front seat, still fairly new to this sort of thing. Finally, I stepped out of my car, walked through the weeds in the ditch and looked down at my poor automobile sticking up at an acute angle. It looked like someone had chucked my car down there from the sky and made a bulls’ eye.

I called my mother, who was just down the street. “M-m-mom?” As I held the phone up to my ear I saw some damp spots on the road from water. It had rained earlier. “I — hydroplaned.” Yes, I’d been taught about this once. The lie was effortless and removed some of the guilt from driving recklessly. “I hydroplaned on the wet road and my car is stuck in the ditch.”

She groaned, her instinct most likely tuning her into my lie. Naturally as well, I grew annoyed that she didn’t believe me.

A tow truck showed up eventually and struggled to yank my car out of where it was stuck in the ditch. The first heavy duty, beastly-looking chain snapped. The second chain did the trick. My car was fine, despite the mud and weeds crammed up into the grill.

I received a reprieve then in my life from smashing my car into things, such as other cars, ditches and deer. I was doing fairly well, actually, until I was around twenty-four and working at a charter school downtown as an English teacher. On my way to work one day I found myself smacking into the back of someone’s car in a rather uneventful fender bender, startling an old hippie who was just as desperate to get to work on time as I was. He waved it off and slid back into his car, which was crammed full of boxes of paperwork.

I continued my jaunt to work and arrived late. The gym teacher found out that I had been in a car accident that morning as I stood around the faculty room, sipping at a coffee, and she grabbed my hands and stared down into my eyes.

“Go home, sweetie. Go home.”

This made me incredibly nervous. “N-no, I’m fine. Everything’s fine! I need the money anyway.” I had a contract with no paid sick days.

She continued to stare at me unblinkingly. “Go home. I’ll pay you. I’ll pay you right now to go home.”

I pulled away from her and told her I couldn’t accept that. This woman had a skeletal look about her and routinely took off work to go in to donate her platelets. They looked like they had sucked the meat off her bones in the process. She quit later that year.

Stress from work forever rendering me a shaky and manic creature, I had fender benders in my stars. I had only recently learned to not fly over the road like a madwoman and that was after being forced to take a class for “At-Risk Drivers” that was supposed to reform me. A year later, I bought a newer car — not new, newer — also blue — and named her Esmeralda.

I had Esmeralda for only around three months when one day I was driving home from work, wracked with stress over a new after-class program my charter school had me in charge of with a few other teachers. The program was called Study Hall (not a traditional study hall) and was after last period. Since the middle schoolers weren’t allowed to walk home or catch a city bus, every single one had to file up to the cafeteria after their class period and be subjected to this regimented work period. Near 200 adolescents would file into the cafeteria, screaming from the maddening flux of hormones coursing through their bodies and exhausted from the school day, unwilling to take another pointless direction. Eventually we would organize this chaos a little better and develop ways to lessen the traffic, create group activities and bring in guest speakers. At the beginning of the school year, however, the administrators had thought very little of this out and also not given us time to plan for it.

Four teachers struggled to figure out how to contain the storm of pre-teens. We were miserable, we hated it. Eventually we figured out how to keep 200 children moderately quiet, but this hadn’t happened yet.

My hands were trembling on the steering wheel, my nerves frayed in all different directions from the hour of unorganized madness I had just endured. I drove down the wide road that cut the city into two, waves crashing through my brain: How can we group the students with so little space, the tables so close together? My feet hurt. Red light. How can we lower the noise level? What do we do about the stairwells? Is Class Dojo even worth it? Green light. What worksheets and activities are worthwhile and even possible with so many kids? How can I make sure they do their homework? My feet hurt. Why was Isaiah so rude to me? I thought I had been rather nice to him. Red light.

Green light. I sped up. A wave crashed and I saw an errant movement out of the corner of my eye. Several cars ahead, a vehicle moving forward had suddenly braked and turned left without signaling. This resulted in a series of cars slamming on their brakes.

HIT THE BRAKES!

I was too slow. I watched as the bumper of the car in front of me came hurdling toward me, my car sliding forward despite the effort of the brakes. I watched our bumpers collide and my head snapped forward, my chest smacking the wheel, bruising my ribs. I sat stunned. Cars simply drove around us.

I pulled out my phone and texted my co-worker: “I crashed my car because of Study Hall.”

The driver in the other car didn’t get out. I climbed out and approached only to find an ancient woman, shriveled into a mantis-looking creature, clinging to her steering wheel and looking confused. She turned toward me, her neck trembling and making her head wobble. Her wrinkles had hardened into narrow mazes without an exit point. She wore glasses that magnified her eyes to the size of walnuts.

“What do we do?” she asked.

“Pull over,” I instructed her. “We need to exchange insurance information.”

She spent five minutes carefully writing out her information on a piece of paper, each letter formed with noodled lines. Eventually a police officer showed up, looking massive with a cowlick dampened with product. He told us to get moving in a monotone voice and I sat on the corner to watch liquid leaking out of the front of my car. My hood had buckled and would no longer close. He raised his voice and told us we needed to go. I snapped at him, “Aren’t you supposed to help?”

I ended up needing to bolt my hood down with pins in order to keep it from flapping around menacingly on the highway.

At this point, whenever I drove I began to see the image of a bumper rushing toward me, faster than I could react. While on the highway my imagination would paint vivid pictures of the car in front of me suddenly braking, racing toward me as my car pummeled forward, my brakes ineffective as the metal crunched. I imagined that familiar jolt as I hit the steering wheel and my neck snapped forward. I dreamed about car accidents, waking up from the force of the impact.

I began to think that surely that image of a car backside rushing toward me would be my manner of death. One day my car finally would flip and it would be the end of me. The more I drove, the greater the chances.

If you ask me now how I think I’ll go, I will still affirm — a car accident. A real one. All these shocks and fender benders were just training for something bigger. So I could recognize what was happening in the moment and really understand my fate.

Last year I hit a patch of ice on a bridge and spun, smacking my bumper on the side of the bridge. I had been driving slowly — carefully — dreading — so there was merely a crack in the plastic. I looked at the crack, at the cars driving around me, and I just got back into my car and moved on.

These things happen. Accidents happen.

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