My Friend, Sheila

 

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Photo by Jamie Taylor on Unsplash

When I was six years old, I had a friend named Sheila. Sheila wore dresses every day. Her favorite one was the color of a mimosa blossom. A magenta satin sash with a rhinestone placed in the center accented her waist, but also got in the way when she lifted buildings. One late summer afternoon, Sheila lifted – a full two feet off the ground – the garage behind the United Methodist Church downtown. She strained and grunted to hold it up for about five seconds before gently setting it back down.

 

Even though Sheila and I were good friends, no one else had ever met her.  I had spoken proudly of Sheila and her weight-lifting feats to my mother and my older sister, but they never had the pleasure of meeting her. She was my own secret, elusive – and muscular –friend.

Two months passed after she lifted the garage. School started and Halloween came around again. The Saturday before Halloween, my mother, sister, and I went to Whitson’s Grocery. As we drove down Judson in our big, red Bonneville, I saw a house I had never noticed before. I blurted out, “Sheila’s grandma lives in that house.”

My mother turned and looked at me intently. “She does?”

“Yup.”

“Which house?” she asked.

“That one. The plain one.” Peering from the back seat, I pointed to a small, white bungalow sitting squarely in an unkempt yard. The shades were pulled in the windows and an empty swing hung at one end of the porch.  I justified the home’s bland appearance. “Her grandma is really old and likes plain houses. And she uses a cane.”  My mother rubbed her forehead as she stopped at the corner and checked for oncoming cars.  I decided to press on.“We should go trick-or-treating there on Friday.”

“Well, I guess . . . we could do that,” she hesitated, and then glanced over her shoulder to my sister riding next to her in the passenger seat. My sister shook her head.

The week continued and the thought of my impending visit to Sheila’s grandmother’s house crossed my mind often. Friday arrived. We donned our hand-me-down clown and hobo costumes that we had dug out of the trunk in my mother’s sewing room.

At dusk, we followed our regular trick-or-treating route, walking door-to-door to neighbor’s houses, then driving to our friend’s houses beyond our neighborhood. As I climbed back into the car after our last stop, I reminded my mother that we still needed to visit Sheila’s grandma. “Well, let’s go before it rains,” she said.

Just then, a gust of wind rattled the leaves in the oak trees, the cool freshness of an approaching storm entered the car, and I suddenly dreaded the idea. Sheila’s grandmother was a real person, after all.  We ventured down Judson anyway, looking for the plain white bungalow in the dark. “There it is,” I said.

My mother applied the brakes, pulled over to the curb, and put the car in park.  “Make it quick.”  Thunder rumbled from east of town.

My sister and I climbed out, carrying our bright orange plastic pumpkins.  We trudged across the yard. My plastic clown mask, still wet with sweat from our last stop, dangled around my neck as we strode up the sidewalk and ascended the steps. The windows were dark, but the porch light was on. Apparently, Sheila’s grandmother did not observe Halloween. There was no jack-o-lantern. No colorful fall cut-outs taped to the windows like we had at home.

Standing on the porch, I looked down at our car to see my mother leaning over in the seat watching us. I pressed the doorbell. We waited. The house was quiet. My sister rolled her eyes, set her pumpkin down, and crossed her arms. She had had enough. “Sheila’s grandmother doesn’t live here,” she said aloud. “Come on. This is dumb. Sheila’s not even real.”

But then the porcelain knob rattled and the door opened. A woman stared blankly back at us. “Yes?”

“Trick-or-treat,” I said meekly.  My sister was silent, forcing me to follow through. Without a cane, the woman stepped toward us over the threshold, into the glare of the porch light. Her thin lips glowed an unnatural poppy red color. She wore a gray cotton house dress and her hair, stiff and dark and streaked with gray, was fashioned in a youthful flip.

“Oh, I don’t have anything to give you,” she replied in a no-nonsense way, her eyes studying our tired, well-worn costumes. She craned her neck forward, and squinted beyond us to the street to see who on earth had brought us to her home late on Halloween night.

“Oh, okay,” I said. “Well . . .  bye.” I decided not to mention her granddaughter and our unique friendship. My sister swiped her pumpkin off the porch, pivoted, and ran down the steps to the car. I followed. Behind me, I heard the woman close the door, and turn the deadbolt with a click.  I tumbled into the backseat, relief washing over me.

“She wasn’t ready for trick-or-treaters,” I said.

My mother smiled knowingly and shifted the car into drive. “You girls have plenty of candy anyway. Let’s get home and sort it out. Hot chocolate sound good?” We both nodded.

As we headed back toward home, I stirred the mound of candy in my pumpkin, feeling the crinkly foil, plastic, and paper wrappers, envisioning how much floor space it would occupy when I dumped it out later on the carpet.

It was the first and last time I ever saw the woman I called Sheila’s grandmother. Over the next month, whenever I passed by the plain white bungalow, I thought of how meeting her had allowed me to separate from Sheila. Sometime around Thanksgiving, I just told everyone that Sheila had moved to California. I haven’t heard from her since.

 

How Not to Live in the Southwest

 

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Photo: AZcentral.com

One day in 1992, my husband and I were invited to visit an acquaintance who happened to be occupying a house designed by the world-renowned architect, Frank Lloyd Wright. We had seen the house from a distance and had admired its unusual appearance with its exterior winding walkways, circular windows, and austere concrete masonry. It was intriguing and beckoned a closer look.

 

Wright originally designed the 2,200 square foot structure for his son, David, and his wife, Gladys. It was built in 1952. We’re not sure about the arrangement between the homeowners and our acquaintance. We can’t even recall her name now. Maybe she was renting it or acting as caretakers while the owners were away temporarily. We accepted our acquaintance’s  invitation to visit the historic home and stopped by one sunny afternoon for a tour.

Perched near Camelback Mountain, the spiral home was indeed stunning and modern and magical. It was also trashed. Our acquaintance, who was fortunate to occupy Wright’s last residential masterpiece named ironically, “How to Live in the Southwest,”  was, in short, a slob.

Bedroom floors held oceans of wadded-up loads of laundry. Dirty dishes lined the kitchen counters. Smudges and stains sullied the bathroom mirrors and floors. Crumpled junk mail littered the hallways. We were dumbfounded. All this disappointment obscured the home’s jaw-dropping features: an entrance preceded by a winding walkway ramp; Philippine mahogany ceilings, cabinetry, and furniture; ubiquitous concealed built-ins; custom carpets; a rooftop deck; panoramic views of the rocky desert terrain. Without a doubt, we had seen it at its worst and even then, it was beautiful.

As we roamed through the home, with its desert views, calming circular structure, and ingenious use of space, our acquaintance apologized for her poor housekeeping habits. “Oh, well… yeah,” we answered, laughing nervously, embarrassed for her — and the house.

Not too long ago, I was curious as to the status of the home and wanted to see what had become of it since our move to Missouri about a year later. So I googled the house  while my husband and I reminisced about our Phoenix experiences. Yes, the house did survive that messy time.

And somebody, many people in fact, care about the house’s existence and condition today. After their deaths, the Wrights passed on the house to a granddaughter, who later sold it to a developer who wanted to demolish it. Concerned citizens stepped in, and the house was eventually saved. In fact, another developer is now devising a strategy to preserve and operate the home and grounds for tours, weddings, and cultural performances. It seems a fitting purpose for the architectural gem now known as the David & Gladys Wright House. Still, there is controversy surrounding the whole ordeal, which I likely don’t fully appreciate or understand, since I no longer live in the area. To find out more, go here. As I understand it, the developer wants to expand his concept and residents of the surrounding neighborhood are upset about the increased traffic and congestion they expect to occur.

I hope, even though they disagree on a number of points, that the developers, area residents and preservationists are united in their gratitude that the house previously survived a greater controversy: the disrepair and poor treatment it received when it was in the care of our acquaintance.

 

 

 

 

 

Active Shooter Training Day

“Now. Students. Go to your next class.”

Upon hearing those words, we teachers looked at each other, grinning at the awkwardness of the situation we suddenly found ourselves in: active shooter training.  Some of us whispered and tried to figure out which classroom would be nearest whenever we heard the “gunshots.” Some of us milled around in the hall, pretending to gossip with our “middle school” friends. Others were clearly anxious about what was to unfold in the coming moments, biting their lips and peering down the hall to the law enforcement officers who would be the “shooters” in just a moment.

Then the gunshots. One pop, then a pause, then three more. I shoved and scrambled to the health classroom. I felt someone nudging against my back, pushing me quickly into the room. It was a kindergarten teacher who taught in our district’s other building. I didn’t know her well; that would change.

We entered the room and pulled the door shut, clanking it hard against its metal frame. We ensured the door was locked and then looked for something to shove against it. The trainer had told us to do this even if the door opened out into the hallway, which it did. We maneuvered a 3- by 6-foot table up against the door. We had also been told to barricade with anything we could get our hands on. So we grabbed two standard-issue chairs, navy blue plastic and steel, and stacked them on top of the table. We clumsily tied a length of rope, which had been supplied in the room, around the hinge mechanism at the top of the door. This would supposedly make it difficult for the intruder to pull open. I looked toward the window, knowing that it could be an option. My co-worker spied a large swath of ripped paper on the counter, ran to the vacant teacher’s desk for a piece of Scotch tape, and taped it to the door’s large window. In the rush, she missed an edge, and it drooped down in the upper right-hand corner. “Can he see in through that?” she asked aloud, but there was no time to retrieve more tape.

The officer beat his fists against the door of the room across the hall. “Let me in. I’m here to kill yooouu!” he screamed. He tugged at the door handle then kicked the door violently. “Open up!”

We dove under the table and cowered.  The shooter’s footsteps approached. My partner and I both reached for the door handle and strained to pull hard. I closed my eyes tight and waited. He was here. He breathed heavily and banged on the door. We pulled harder. Then he yanked on the handle. “Gonna die!!!” he screamed. I stopped breathing, pressed my eyes closed, and buried my face in my co-worker’s shoulder, knowing it would soon be over, reminding myself it was only a drill.

The course was taught by a company that specializes in training people who work at schools, workplaces, churches, and malls with the knowledge and tools they need should they ever be faced with an active shooter. This company trains not only employees and staff, but also law enforcement officers and security guards. That morning in the school cafeteria, my teacher-friends and I had sat alongside many other men and women, in both uniforms and in civilian clothes. Some attendees were from local police departments, and some were from as far away as Oklahoma. Over the course of the morning, the officer had shown a Powerpoint presentation embedded with videos and charts to teach us about the history of school violence in the United States, common one- and multi-shooter scenarios that might arise, and approaches that are critical when the unthinkable happens. We listened. A few of us took notes. Many asked questions.

As the morning lecture wrapped up, an uncertainty arose in the back of my mind.  How would I react in a real situation? Would I know what to do? Would I keep my head and act quickly to get my students to safety? It’s easy to talk about it. It’s also easy to watch actors demonstrate effective procedures on a Smartboard screen, but in the hallways of a crowded school, how would I perform? And that’s what made the afternoon session so valuable.

The threat of school violence is a reality for educators. Thankfully, school districts do provide training that allows educators to be prepared and cope with the anxiety or worry that may arise.  Even though I think about school violence, I don’t dwell on it because the training and the drills we conduct during the school year have imbued me with self-confidence. Please know that it’s a wary sense of self-confidence, though. It was terrifying to hear those footsteps approaching the classroom door. However, confronting that terror and equipping myself with knowledge and experience in shooter scenarios enables me to continue doing the job for which I am trained and serving the students to whom I am dedicated.

The door to the health room held fast. My co-worker and I had secured it well enough. The “shooter” slammed his hand down hard on the handle, gave up, and stomped on down the hall to try the next door. We heard him yelling and tugging again. He finally ended the drill to speak in the calm, authoritative voice of a law enforcement officer.

“Good job, team. Good drill. Now. Let’s do it again.”