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Hot-spvrr: Mr. Fred is missing

Sunday, August 30, 2015

Mr. Fred is missing

     Hi, I'm Tom O'Shea, North End teacher, with two hours to type you something that'll take five minutes to absorb, tops.  Five minutes.  Decide what to do with it.  It's the last day of summer break.  In two hours I hit appointments for dental, mental, and PT.  Reimbursement just kicked in so I can at least put food on the table in September.  
     But have a heart, though, because this is pretty effing dire.
     It's about Mr. Fred, Fred Altan, whom you may have read about this morning.  Ramsey County sheriff's boats are dragging the river, looking for his body.  I hope they don't find him.  I hope we come back Monday to opening week without a teacher's suicide on our hands.  A really good guy, Fred.  We went to university 15 years ago.  I don't know about teacher of the year, but he was the first one in our cohort hand-picked for an opening in the district.  So intense around his kindergartners.  He wore them out moving to his guitar by the time they got home.  Put out an album of kid music, too.
     Some teachers walk a plank at the end of summer.  Jump, or get pushed.  Work, or don't work.   You're worthy, or worthless.  Have money, or maxed-out credit.  Life, death.  Stay in the classroom, or stay home, kick it in your rocking chair with slippers and a crossword.
     What I know about Fred makes me ask:  would you like to be stomped on like a puppy mill dog by multiple administrators, year after year, destroying your mastery, slapping you into different grades, jerking you to different schools, portables, onto carts with elevator keys?  "We know you just learned that curriculum; skip that; do this new curriculum!"  Yay!  You're not cheering?  With pointed fingers at your chest, they don't like your lack of flair, your lack of awesomeness, your tone.  Do you just resign?  You don't, and there's no more tenure, no more safety, if you look cross-eyed at a downtown administrator who's observed you 25 times for no reason, zero feedback, and told you to set up a tag-team meeting with your principal "to discuss your future."
     Your union can't stop them.  That's what happened to Fred.  And where is he? in the river?  Could be happening to me.  Ever had the bullseye on your back?
     You'd think we'd all help each other, teachers.  You'd think we'd band together like unhip dorks with Pluto or Goofy buttons on our ID lanyards.  But no, when word gets out, one's going down at the hands of an admin., everybody else scatters like roaches when the lights come on, covering ass, saying, "I wouldn't know," or, "There but for the grace of God."  
     I must've texted or called Fred five times last spring when I heard they'd moved him again.  Then he took medical leave same time as me, and they escalated his W.A.S. (Wrap Around Support) from yellow to red, the worst.
     We were both on medical leaves, he from Saint Anthony, I from North End.  Mine was for neck surgery.  His was for emotional.  Stuff takes so long to diagnose, it probably came too late to protect him.  My neck took half the year to get surgery.
     Fred would pick up when I called, but never hang out, not even on leave.  Geez, on leave, he disappeared overnight from his wife, and they found him in a fetal position on the golf course, wet and freezing.  But when he was okay, I'd be like, "Let's catch a beer at Micky's like we used to at university."  Nope.  Anxiety or meds., I couldn't understand him on the phone.  Chattering about lessons and station rotations, and kids whose behavior needed backups.  Contingencies.  Five-year-olds are hard.  Sweetest, most honest kids on earth, and he could stand back sometimes and let them go auto-pilot, but he had transitions every 15 minutes, so that's 20-24 lesson plans per day.  So glad I'm with high school.
     God, I hope they don't find Fred in the water.
     Social media is a horror show.  You gotta resist that vortex.  Parents jump in outraged, you know, advocating, swinging hard.  Moms, ex-teachers, charter advocates, politicians.  It's a total kill zone for us. You have this horrid circular firing squad of blame.  Stay off that.  He couldn't.  He went on there, flamed, got flamed back, got called a troll.
     After he blew me off a couple times, I ran into him at a dollar store.  He was empty handed, scavenging the loading dock for kid books and markers when I said "Hey!"  He hopped down off the dock, startled.  Dang, was I a cop?
     "How you doing, Fred?"  
     He knew me in an atomic second, looked down, surveyed the hot black tar around the dock, at a dieting book on its spine with pages flapping in the breeze.  He windmilled and one-handed it.  
     "Oh-h, I'm fine-fine.  Want a book on counting carbs?"  Fred rattled off excuses why he hadn't answered my texts.  He wasn't even working, but still dumpster diving for kids.  I asked if he'd be well enough to come back off medical leave this fall.  He chattered like an auctioneer, breathless bits about peer assistance, doctors, keeping appointments, needing clearance to work again, how he should be fine, just fine.  Just fine.
     "Oh, you know," he said, "kids aren't gonna wait around for a wacko teacher," he said.  "They keep growing.  Gotta check in with my guy twice a week so I can keep up appearances.  Gotta be straight.  Then I should be all good, all good."
     He had such a forcefield, I couldn't get a word in edgewise.  That's all we said 1:1 this summer.  I keep hearing an echo of his double words:  "Fine-fine."  "Good-good."  Shifting feet, lips and face all elastic.  Black curly hair flying, tongue licking his upper lip.  Not much else.  Seemed refreshed.
     I need a moment of silence.

     Wrap this up.
     You know what?  Teaching is a hard fricking job, and Fred is really good.  I've been leaning over to type, but now I'm sitting back.  It doesn't take long, if you don't refill your tank, to run out of gas.  I'm sending up this prayer.  This is how I pray.  It's dark now, the livingroom walls are flashing red, video of Fire and Rescue from our quiet TV.  They found Fred's wallet and one of his shoes downriver.  No, the TV goes off.
     Need more than a moment of silence now.

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