Life After Home Economics

I’m not in the secret service. I don’t need to alternate my route to work and I don’t drive an armored car. Driver carries no cash. Lord knows that’s true. I’m a teacher. I take the same streets to the school where I’ve taught for past 22 years. At East M Street I make a right, because right is the direction I need to go. Anybody who knows me knows that somewhere around 7:45 am each weekday morning, I’m going to make a right onto M. Street.

It was Malcolm Peabody, someone who should have known I was going to turn right, who tried to grab my purse at the corner of 12th and East M. Of course, at first I didn’t realize it was Malcolm. I had come to a complete stop before I turned, no California stops for me thank you, when the passenger door opened and a large hand groped the seat beside me. I turned right anyway. My purse was safe in the backseat. I figured the hand would just slip away but on its way out, an arm attached to the hand got itself tangled up on the door. The arm was encased in a puffy jacket sleeve with all manner of hooks, straps, and zippers, and one of those straps got hooked on the window handle. There was the sound of running feet and a lot of breathy huffs and puffs. Well, that had nothing to do with me. I kept my eyes straight ahead and sped up a little. Then there was a thump against the side of the car.

“Stop,” a boy’s voice cried out, “Miss Underwood, stop!”

That surprised me. I pulled over to the side of the road and a little head popped up over the edge of the passenger seat. It was Malcolm Peabody. His eyes were as round as biscuits. Normally when you saw Malcolm Peabody his head would be tipped back and he would glare menacingly at you from the bottom half of his eyes, his lids at half-sash. He was one of my students, one of my former students I should say, since I hadn’t seen hide nor hair of him since before Christmas and it was now the middle of March. He was the kind of kid guidance counselors were always sticking in my home economics class thinking that maybe if he could learn to boil water, the school hadn’t failed completely.

“Geez, Miss Underwood,” Malcolm said now, disengaging his jacket from the door. “What’d you do that for?” He stood up and looked down at his legs. I hadn’t even driven half a block with him dangling from the car but his pants looked shredded below the knees.

“Malcolm, was my blinker not on? Was it not clear that I was going to turn right?”

Malcolm hung his head and kicked the curb beside him. “I thought you’d be stoppin’ for longer. Didn’t think you’d take off like a shot.”

Well, that figured. In class he couldn’t think ahead far enough to move his hand off the gas burner before he turned on the stove.

“Why haven’t you been coming to school?” I asked him.

“Oh, well, school’s just not profitable. I’ve taken to a life of crime.” As if to prove it, he tipped his head back and gave me a public enemy number one stare.

“And how’s that going?”

He widened his eyes. “Not so good, really. It’s a lot harder than I thought it would be. Something always seems to go wrong.” He turned around a couple of times brushing gravel off his pants and sat down on the curb. He leaned forward companionably with his elbows on his knees. Malcolm was always a talker. “I tried dognapping to start out. Sounds easy when you think about it but…,” he rolled his eyes, “me, I kept picking the wrong dogs. Bad dogs mostly. I got bit twice and both times the owners didn’t want the dogs back after they was dognapped. I had to take them to the pound. I felt terrible, like it was my fault.”

It is your fault, I wanted to tell him. But the school administration had reprimanded me for being too negative with the students. Constructive criticism — that was all I was allowed to offer. “You might have done a little research on the dogs before you took them,” I said. “You could have found some wealthy lady who doted on her dog and dognapped that dog.”

“I coulda but that would have taken a lot of effort. It was much easier to just grab any old mutt with a collar walking down the street.”

“Mmmmm,” I said.

“Then I tried breaking and entering. I had even worse luck with that. Too many people stay home nowadays. Why don’t they go anywhere? Got so I couldn’t break a window without the occupant suddenly looming out of nowhere with a baseball bat or a cast iron frying pan.”

I was pleased he could recognize cast iron. If there was one thing I had learned as a teacher, you had to take pleasure in the small victories. “Did you read the obituaries for funeral dates and times? Or scan the wedding announcements? You’d know then that the whole family was out at the funeral or the wedding and you could break and enter in peace.”

“But reading all that would be too much like, well…, reading. I figured I could go hit-or-miss like a true or false test. Chances were I’d be okay fifty percent of the time.”

“Fifty percent is still failing, Malcolm,” I reminded him.

“This purse grabbing thing is my new gig,” Malcolm said. “A nice lady like you stops at the light. Her passenger door lock is up. That much takes no planning. It just is or isn’t. Black or white. Not much I can do to mess that part up. Then I just open the door, take the purse, and run.” He fingered his torn pants and shook his head. “Shoulda worked.”

I was tempted to pat the top of his head. What would happen to boys like Malcolm? Boys who couldn’t fill a saucepan without splashing water all over the fly of their pants? Boys who couldn’t break an egg without also breaking the yolk? Who didn’t have the patience to read a recipe all the way through but just started throwing ingredients into a bowl?

I switched off the engine and gave him my full attention.

“Malcolm,” I said gently. “A successful career in any field requires forethought and effort.”

Malcolm groaned.

“You have to think ahead even with this purse grabbing thing. Number one, you need to wear a different jacket.”

Malcolm caressed his sleeve. “I like this jacket.”

“Yes, but Malcolm, it can get caught up on things like it did today. And it has your name printed on the back.” I thought I saw a small light go on behind Malcolm’s eyes. “You want to be sleek and unidentifiable. You need something less bulky that allows you to move quickly.”

Malcolm nodded.

“Number two,” I said, “make sure that is another car stopped in front of the one you’re going to purse-grab. That way your ‘victim’ so to speak can’t drive away before you get a hold of her purse and run. Do you need me to write this down?”

“I got it,” he said.

“Number three,” I said, “and this is very important, avoid robbing people you know. Besides being very bad form, those people can identify you. I would suggest going to another area in town.”

Malcolm stood up and squared his shoulders. “I can do that.” I felt a glow of satisfaction, that glow that only come when you know you’ve broken through and really connected with a student. This was the reason I went into teaching the first place.

“Well, good luck, Malcolm,” I said, starting up the car and shifting into gear. “Stop by the school and let me know how things are working out for you.”

“Kay,” he said. He was lost in thought, mulling over what I had said.

I hadn’t driven two blocks before I realized my mistake. Number one, number two, number three! What had I been thinking? Why, there were a million things that could go wrong. All I had done was instill a sense of false confidence in the boy. I’d given him the very basics of purse-grabbing and turned him out on the streets. Malcolm was the kind of boy who needed very detailed instructions. When you told him to leave a room, you had to include directions for turning the handle and opening the door or he might very well hurl himself out the window.

I almost turned the car around to go back but I was already late for first period. The last time I was late, barely five minutes late, mind you, the students used my cooking utensils to fashion a disgusting sculpture of a naked man. I could never bring myself to touch that turkey baster again. I had to throw it in the trash.

Malcolm got hit by a car the very next day. He wasn’t hurt too bad. They have him under police surveillance at the hospital until he’s well enough to go to jail. He had crossed right in front of the lady he just robbed so she hit the gas and pinned him against the car in front of her.

He was, however, wearing a different jacket. With some kids, all you can teach is the basics.