The Locked Room

door

Who knows how long I’ve sat here in this room. The door beckons me, but I know it’s locked. My current situation can’t be easily explained. But for the sake of my sanity, I will attempt to retrace my steps.

One day, no different than any other, I left home with my lunch pail and my coffee in hand. After allowing my car to warm up in the frigid morning air, I drove to work. I even parked my car in the same parking spot that I do every day. Of course, I was the first one in my office to arrive.

My key turned in the office door as easily as any other day. I confess my mind was already consumed with the huge pile of problems waiting on my desk inside. After I flipped our sign around to Open and closed the door, I turned to find myself in an unfamiliar space.

I struggled to reconcile what my eyes were telling me to what should have been there. No desk, no computer, no phone, no filing cabinets, no thin, uncomfortable chairs for clients. Instead, a small cot with a lumpy mattress. A small table with a pitcher and a glass. A tiny window high up on the wall secured with black bars. Bars?

It made no difference to my circumstances whether I believed them or not. Everything I knew was gone, replaced by a solemn prison cell. Suddenly, my common sense kicked in, and I ran back to the door.

My frantic yanks on the knob produced no result. I was locked in.

Of course, I did all the things one should do when finding themselves locked in a strange room instead of their office. I cried. I tried to stand on the table to look out the window. Not as successful as crying. For hours, I pounded on the door so hard my hands turned red.

“Help! Open the door! Anyone out there?”

No one came.

Exhausted, I plopped down on the bed, but the musty smell forced me back up. One close look at the floor convinced me the bed would be a better choice, and I sat back down. Was this a prank? Someone would enter soon with a video camera and crowds of my friends shouting, “Surprise!”

No one came.

Anger surfaced after time passed. This is no way to treat one of their best employees. Twenty-three years of my life sacrificed to this company. Not one single sick day. Never late. Always willing to work overtime off the clock.

“This is what I’ve worked so hard for?” I scream at empty walls.

If I ever get out of here, I’m going to do something I love. Like start a catering business. My lemon bars are legendary. Or sell everything, buy a motorhome, and travel the country. The more time I spend planning my alternate future, my anxiety begins to recede.

Here I am, sitting in a locked room. After considering everything that led me here, an idea blossoms. I’ve always known how to escape, but I’ve been afraid to do it.

“I quit,” I said with a strong voice. Striding confidently to the door, I turn the knob and walk into my new life.

Erosion

This story is another assignment from my UCLA class. We had to write a magical realism story that incorporated a scientific process to reveal a character. 

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It started as a trickle down my cheek. I was changing a tire on my sand rail in the third bay of our garage. I wiped away flesh-colored sand from my face. What was that? No time to worry about it. We were leaving for Glamis in the morning, and I still needed to load up Susan’s sand rail.

The weekend started well, as we joined our friends and drank by the campfire until the horizon brightened and the stars began to fade. Then we all stumbled into our trailers and slept it off. When I got up much later, there was coating of sand in my bunk.

That day I’ll never forget. Susan and the girls went out on their rails by themselves. Barely an hour passed when one solo sand rail came racing into camp. One of Susan’s friends took off her helmet, exposing a tear-streaked face.

“Jeff, I don’t know how to tell you this,” Marley said. “We went over this ridge, and there was a huge sink hole! I stopped in time, but the rest fell in. I helped them get out, but Susan didn’t make it.”

A large clod of dirt dropped off my back. For once, I was speechless.

After calling on my sat phone to transport Susan’s body, I packed up the trailer and remaining sand rail by myself. Our friends had just started the barbeque and were preparing to grill steaks. They barely looked as I pulled away, as I had become a major party killer.

The truck came out of nowhere as I entered the main highway. Clods of dirt fell from my arms as the air bag deployed and I woke up in a mist of white powder. When the fire fighters pulled me out, I looked at the twisted pile of metal that used to be my weekend getaway. Somehow, I felt lighter. Piles of sand and dirt surrounded me. The paramedic led me back to his rig, and I finally plucked up the courage to ask about the gathering piles of dirt.

“Probably erosion,” he said as he checked my vitals. “It happens. You’re lucky you made it out of this one alive. Do you have a wife?”

My throat closed up. “Until this weekend,” I managed to choke out. What was happening to my life? My wife was gone. My truck, trailer, and toys were gone. I felt the release of another chuck of dirt from my back as I lost myself, pebble by pebble.

When they finally released me, I called my neighbor, and he drove out to pick me up. His face was white. “Dude, you’re never going to believe this!”

Somehow I felt that I had gone beyond all reasonable belief. Sand burned in my eyes.

“Your house,” he said. “While you were out in the desert, a fire started! Your house, your beautiful house, burnt down, to the ground. The fire fighters were able to save mine and the other houses on the street, but not yours.”

My heart fell to the ground. My now deceased wife’s voice echoed in my mind, harping at me to renew the fire insurance. I remember telling her I was waiting for a cheaper quote from one of my buddies. The house had no insurance. More clods of dirt fell off and my clothes became so loose that I had to clutch my pants before I lost them.

On the way home, actually to my neighbor’s house, we barely spoke. If my neighbor noticed the deepening piles of sand on the seat, he didn’t say anything.  All the things that held my happiness—my wife and all my possessions—wiped away in a single weekend. Even though I wasn’t a religious man, I knew about Job, and I wished I could talk to him. What is leftover, after everything is gone?

When we got to my neighbor’s house, I looked at the smoldering pile of ash that used to be my luxurious home. My neighbor’s sister, Annie, came rushing out.

“David, I am so sorry,” she said, with watery eyes. “Poor Susan. And your house!” She hugged me, and more clods fell off. “What happened to you? You’ve lost a lot of weight.”

“It’s erosion,” I said.

Days passed and then weeks. I was busy with Susan’s funeral and taking care of the paperwork on all my lost things. When I looked in the mirror, I barely recognized myself. Dirt had stopped falling. Instead of the heavy-set, beer belly partyer I used to be, I was a pale, thin, balding man. My neighbor and his wife, Frank and Jan, took me with them to their church, and I never missed a Sunday. Suddenly eternal things mattered. My Glamis friends never called, and I was surprised that I didn’t care.

The process of erosion is slow. I worked hard, saved money, and bought myself a new house, in an older neighborhood because I couldn’t afford it on my own. On weekends, I worked in the garden, and invited over Frank, Jan, and Annie for burgers in the backyard. My garage didn’t house any flashy toys. They had washed away, but the core remained. I had my health, faith and real friends. That was enough.

Changes and Why I Hate Them

calendar

You’ve heard people say, “I don’t like surprises” and that’s not what I mean when I say I hate changes. If you want to secretly invite all my friends and throw me a surprise birthday party, I would love it, just not held at my house when I am out having dinner (really happened to me).

In a world filled with anxiety and chaos, I cling vigorously to my structured plan. Each day as a teacher I follow my lesson plan grid, minute by minute. Every ding on my iPhone is a gentle reminder that all is going according to my schedule. Even on my busiest day, I can keep up with meetings and errands, as long as I enter them into my phone. On Sunday nights, I like to preview my week so I can plan which days I can cook and which days will be heated up leftovers.

But trusting in my own agenda doesn’t leave room for divine guidance. Slowly I become confident in my own abilities to manage my life, a house built on sand. In the back of my mind I think “Wow, if this is going to work out, everything’s got to happen as I planned it.” Then the storm blows in.

It could be a literal storm. When it rains during the school week, my schedule is shifted by the infamous “Inclement Weather Schedule.” On these days, students come to my class ten minutes earlier in the morning, and they’re in the room with me all day except for 30 minutes at lunch. Those of you who are not crazy enough to be teachers will say at this point, “So what?” Maybe you should spend all day cooped up with thirty kids who need to play outside and are distracted by the wet stuff coming out of the sky.

Or it could be a minor car accident that creates all kinds of phone calls, coordination with my husband to drop off and pick up the car, and reports to fill out. Sick family pets, rained out Harley rides, and non-functional ovens at Thanksgiving all crash my well thought out schedule. Of course, I must face these challenges as they come, but sometimes I have to swash my grumbling.

And then there are the opportunities I don’t even realize I’ve missed. Times that I should have called that friend who posted a melancholy Facebook paragraph. Times that my grown children needed to hear a word of encouragement. Times I didn’t even notice that my husband was having a bad day. I wish I could have looked up from my carefully planned day to see what really needed to be done.

So I sigh, and enter a new event on my calendar—Make time to see what’s really going on, Tuesday, 7:00 p.m. Not exactly opening up my schedule, but it’s a place to start. Even for a person who hates changes, this is one change I need to make.

 

 

 

A Teacher’s Lament to Change

tired-teacher

 

 

Seasons change, our classes change, our priorities change, our attitudes change.

Change has been both a friend and enemy to me. The same elements of my teaching career that energize me—new classes, new curriculum, new teaching strategies, new focuses—are also major stressors in my life.

Sometimes I hate change. Routines bring me peace, as I can add the finesse to my teaching art when I’m familiar with the reading passages. I can plan ahead with a clear image of what my lessons will look like, and what the pitfalls could be. Each year I create bulging files stuffed with organizers I’ve created or borrowed from someone else. Every year, I believe that I’ve made my job easier.

But familiarity also creates boredom and discontent. There were some stories in the reading book that I wanted to skip because I really hated them. Many of the passages were so out of date, students couldn’t relate to them at all. Priorities about physical education and fine arts needed to be balanced with reading and math.

When my district announced they had finally chosen a new language arts program, I wanted to stand up and cheer. Now two weeks into the new school year, I’m too busy reading all the components of the lessons to get excited about anything.

Change means I must throw away all my old files away and start new. My flip flops stay in the closet as I wear my Vans for stair climbing. New faces and names wait for me to call on them. This year I am teaching 4th and 5th grade in a combination class, so I will have two sets of lesson plans. Besides the language arts program, we have a new math program, a new science program, and did I mention a new principal and vice principal?

Seasons change, our classes change, our jobs change, my attitude must change.

Instead of feeling rushed, I’m going to take time to listen and look my students in the eye. My pacing guide will adapt to the needs of my class. This year, my students will do more, and I will talk less. My new routines will include wonder, laughter, forgiveness, and collaboration.

I will make Change my best friend. I will invite her to sit down and have coffee with me. She will accept that I won’t do everything perfectly and together we will change the lives of our students.