A Year in St. Louis: Outtakes
On Craigslist, Substitute Teaching, and Why I Have a Baby in My Tummy
I began to spend a lot of time on Craigslist looking for work. I’d never really been on Craigslist before. What struck me was the amount of work available locally for adult film actors and actresses, for nude models, and for jobs of the “other” category, such as “beautiful soul.” (The job description for “beautiful soul” was a bit vague. It didn’t pay, but it did include a travel stipend.)
Finding jobs on Craigslist feels a bit like online dating, which I’ve never done. But I imagine it would be sort of disembodied and rootless — text alienated from context. And for these reasons, it leaves an impression on you, stirs up some nameless sorrow in your heart, some aching for our common humanity — two souls mingling like ghosts in a graveyard. The person evaporates as quickly as he or she came, and you find yourself wondering if you’ve just had a relationship with a person or with a computer.
There are a couple of times I’ve had friendships like this, friendships with people who blew into town and drank gallons of coffee with me and told me everything. They were hiding in the Midwest from some trouble back home, somewhere in the East, and I’d met them through social connections so tenuous that, once they disappeared, I never saw or heard from them again.
Via Craigslist, I found three part time jobs: A tutoring job, a worship leader position at a church, and a substitute teaching job. The substitute teaching job was by far the hardest — also the easiest — and the most boring and pointless — also the most interesting and illuminative. Hardest because I had to get up when it was still dark and I’d often only slept a few hours the night before, and I had to drive in crazy traffic, sometimes an hour and a half each way, and I would inevitably get lost because every day I was teaching in a different suburb, at a different school, and I don’t know my way around this place, and I happen to like my cities a bit smaller and easier to navigate.
But the hardest thing about substitute teaching is just that it pretty much sucks all around and in every way possible.
Sometimes, no one will trust you to do anything, so the teacher just has you sitting there the whole day, “observing” while a teacher’s aide takes care of everything. Other times, you have a full day’s worth of stimulating lesson plans — but then the charming, lovely children decide to be completely insane — perhaps they are in fist fights over a pencil sharpener, for instance, or one child has stolen another child’s “stuff” and the whole class gets involved — or you make the mistake of letting one child be your “helper” and everyone wants to be your helper and they are fighting over who is your helper and those who aren’t the helper are crying and the noise gets to the point where the stern old lady down the hall has to come in and shame everyone into shutting up.
Usually, you feel like you’ve lived an entire lifetime — like you’ve worked an entire career — in one day. And it was a horrible waste of a life, a horrible failure of a career. You go home and you just give up. You just think, Oh well. That was an interesting life. Too bad it didn’t work out.
It’s weird to drive on highway 270 toward the suburbs at 6:30 in the morning, everything dark but a vast sea of headlights, and you know you’re part of it yet completely disconnected from it, and it feels like everyone is hurtling toward perdition at 35 mph.
There were moments when it felt like the ghosts mingling in the graveyard thing I talked about earlier. Especially when I worked with the special needs kids. There was Katie (not her real name), a little girl with CP who brought an adorable stuffed koala bear to school, and she loved it so passionately that she would stop at her locker between classes to embrace it and rub her face in its fur and whisper “I love you” in its ear, and as the day went on, she noticed that her koala had a little tear in it, and she asked me would I take it home and sew it up for her and bring it back the next day, and I told her I’m not coming back the next day, and I felt like the dude in Tom Petty’s song “Free Falling” — a no-good drifter — a rambler — a rolling stone.
There was this other time I worked with a blind boy, and I walked with him around the school, and I helped him eat his food, and I helped him listen to music on his mp3 player. I felt like we knew each other pretty well by the end of the day. I took him out to catch his bus and helped him up the steps. I said “goodbye” as he walked down the aisle to find his seat. He ignored me. “Say goodbye,” the bus driver prompted. “NO!” He shouted.
There was another time I was given the task of accompanying a suicidal middle-school boy to and from a couple of his classes. It’s strange to walk the halls with a thirteen-year-old boy — who seems normal in every way — who is wearing some kind of sports jersey — trying to make small talk with him about sports and music and whatever –and you sense that his young heart and mind are open and eager to live — and yet you know this secret about him, and you wonder about it, and your heart breaks for him, and you wish you could do something, and then you drop him off at his class, and that’s it.
And then there’s the first grader who is big for her age and a little slower than everyone else, but not so slow that she doesn’t realize it — not so slow that she isn’t frustrated and angry in PE when she can’t seem to do the things the other kids do — not so slow that she doesn’t see the way the little blonde girl in the pink sundress with the flower in her hair laughs at her and talks about her with the other girls. My job? Make sure her shoelaces don’t come untied.
“And I’m free….free fallin’…”
And then strangers began to make their comments. The first to do so, of course, were children. One of the special needs children I worked with on a sub job had a conversation with me about it:
GIRL: Do you have a baby in your tummy?
GIRL: Why? Why do you have a baby in your tummy?
She kept asking me this question. All day. After math. After reading. After putting together a puzzle.
“Why do you have a baby in your tummy?”
How does one approach this question? She didn’t ask me how it got there. She didn’t ask me where it came from. She didn’t ask me what it’s doing in there, or how it’s going to get out.
She asked, “Why is there a baby in your tummy?”
Maybe for some people, there is an easy answer to this question: Because we want a baby. Because there is my biological clock. Because we have an extra bedroom.
It’s the most commonplace thing in the world, having a baby in your tummy — I am probably one among a hundred million or so who find themselves in this exact condition right now — and yet, it’s also the strangest thing in the world. (At least it is for me.) Here comes a tiny human who has never existed before. Why do we want more of them? Lots of people would argue that we have too many of them already. Regardless — and in spite of the fact that we have the technology to prevent this baby-in-tummy phenomenon — it keeps happening.
I think it’s because many of us — maybe most of us — in the face of our messed-up world — our shootings, our car-jackings, our troubled school districts, our horrible commutes, philosophers like Schopenhauer, etc — still believe that life is inherently good. That something good happens when we mingle with the young — when we see the world through brand new eyes. I wonder if it brings us closer to our own origins, closer to the answer for our own “Why?”
And maybe, for people like me, it’s the antidote to the “ghosts mingling in the graveyard” feeling. I keep thinking about how soon I’ll be done carrying this baby, and then I’ll learn how to feed her and stay up all night and all of that stuff, and then…once I figure that out…she still won’t be going away. She will always be there. It’s not like a temporary job you find on Craigslist. It’s not like a friend you stay up all night talking to at the Waffle House who leaves town the next day, walking off into the sunset, with his guitar slung across his back.
The church where I work as a part-time worship leader, they all have roots. They all have mothers, fathers, sisters, brothers, cousins, aunts, uncles, grandparents, great grandparents. The treasurer and his wife recently celebrated their 50th anniversary. I told the pastor of the church when I took the job, I may not be here for long. I may be blowing out of town like that crazy girl your friend met on match.com.
And he said, it doesn’t matter how long you’re here. What matters is how engaged — how present you are — while you’re here.
So I engaged the best I could, and all these good people with deep roots put up with me, with my absent-mindedness, my tardiness, my clumsiness, my unwieldiness and complaints of discomfort, and my decreasing diaphragm space, which made my voice turn dull and lackluster as a set of old guitar strings.
And here we are, on the cusp of summer. It’s already swelteringly hot, even more unbearable because I have a little furnace inside me. I am so big that I can barely walk, and I can’t pull myself from a lying position to a seated position very easily. I’m not sleeping at night. Getting out of a car is much more difficult than it used to be. My legs and feet are so swollen that a seven-year-old girl asked me, “does your baby go all the way down your legs?”
As I write this, I am two days after my due date. I saw the baby on a sonogram a few days ago: She was picking her nose.
A few weeks ago, we received a package in the mail from the Indian consulate. Without any letter of explanation, there was my husband’s passport, with a brand new five-year business visa inside it.
So, one of these days, after our little nose-picker is born, and she has a name, birthday, social security number, and an approximate hair color and eye color, we will take her to the post office, get a photo of her chubby little face on a square white background, get some ink on her foot and stamp the necessary documents (since she can’t sign her name yet), and get her a passport and visa. We will miss the dry, sweltering summer and arrive in time for the monsoon.
I’ll buy some colorful rubber boots and we’ll sleep under mosquito nets and finally get to use one of those electric mosquito zappers.
Update: Our baby, in fact, is NOT a nose-picker. (At least, not yet). It just looked like that on the sonogram.