We are Nomads Now

Indiana’s license plate used to say “Wander” above the plate number. I had a friend who attended college there during that time. She wanted to get a car and personalize her plate to read AMLESLY. I thought of this as we headed away from our house to start the next segment of our lives. We weren’t really wandering aimlessly, but it sure felt like it. We were heading to Texas by way of Iowa and Illinois.

The boat was not yet ours but the paperwork was in the works so we were confident and slightly giddy as we headed towards it in preparation. I was dreading sitting in a vehicle for days; arthritis in the hips and knees makes long trips rugged. I also didn’t relish all that time with the “damned dog”. He wasn’t a really great traveler either. Rick, sweet man that he is, tried to get a rental RV that would allow movement for Bert and me. The company didn’t have a one way for us so we rented a U-Haul instead. Anyone who has had the self move experience knows those trucks are slightly less than plush. We were just glad we had air conditioning in this one (we didn’t on the move TO Arizona nine years ago).

Setting out in the moving truck. Bert looks comfy.
Setting out in the moving truck. Bert looks comfy.

We were sitting three across an Bert got the window seat for fear he might cause an accident next to the driver. I got the “hump”. Story of my life. As a child, during all our family road trips, us three girls got the backseat. As the youngest, I always got the middle seat where the floorboard had a giant hump back in the day (regardless of make or model, it seemed). I got them all back one summer by throwing up over everything after eating an entire bag of Funyuns. Bwahahahahaha!!!!

The truck had no hump, but the engine compartment jutted into the cab at my legs. Strattling that, I settled in for the long haul while the pup curled up for a nap. Rick thought I was crazy for giving Bert the window seat and it didn’t take long (the first potty stop, I believe) to swap seats. My body couldn’t take it and the engine hump was not an issue for him.

As we traveled, Bert got restless. As he got restless, he became more clumsy and erratic. Totally understandable, but so exhausting. There was a gap between each of the seats. So as he would adjust his position, a leg would be lost to the crack and his head would land hard on a lap, a seat cushion, or occasionally against the engine compartment. He would just lay like that for awhile, even when I tried to coax him out. When he could no longer stand it, he’d jockey to get out (generally with my assistance) and readjust again. One day he slept on Rick’s lap the whole day. It was an uneventful day for me but Rick could barely move by the end. Cramps in his feet and legs set in and he had a miserable night.

Our marriage has been peppered with regular travel. We love to travel! When we had little money we drove, camping or staying in reasonable hotels along the way. We starting using a booking app that got us great deals but you never knew the hotel until you booked and paid for it. Still, we had pretty good luck.

This trip started out well. We found a great hotel that even Bert liked. He claimed the sitting chair as his own.

Bert and his "TV Tray."
Bert and his “TV Tray.”

But there were others.

The hotel that added a bathtub liner to “update” it. Instead it allowed water between it and the actual tub making your shower a bizarre surfing experience. The two star hotel that needed a plaque with a veiled warning against taking their hideous bedspreads or cheap towels.

Seriously folks, have you seen the bedspread and towels?
Seriously folks, have you seen the bedspread and towels?


And then there was this.

I was afraid of what it might do to me.
I was afraid of what it might do to me.

Sigh. I left it alone.







While traveling we got the signed boat contract back from the seller with about half of it crossed out. He had a problem with having responsibility for the vessel while all the particulars were being completed. Apparently he felt once he signed the contract agreeing to the purchase it was up to us to insure and/or pay any damages that might arise prior to our actually owning it (can’t insure something you don’t own–oops). He also didn’t like the brokers’ ability to sue if we go behind their backs to skip paying them their fees. Once we arrived in Texas, we went to the seller’s broker to try to explain why we needed those parts signed, too. I, of course, spoke out and said, “I’m sure the contract he signed to buy the boat had the same info in it. He would be foolish not to have that.” The broker informed us that they didn’t do that in their paperwork. Its done differently in Texas. Yea–just like their rest stop bathrooms (see previous rants on Texas). In reality, the guy didn’t understand the contract either. So OUR broker had to explain page by page to THEIR broker so he could explain to the seller. Finally, it was signed and I could sleep at night. Whew! Now we wait. We wait for the survey and sea trial (like a home inspection) and those results. We wait for the title search. We wait for all the paperwork to be completed. We wait for the owners to clear out their stuff. Our broker said about a week more, but with this owner it could be years (ha, ha). In the meantime, we sit in a hotel room, the three of us. At least its been updated this century with fairly nice décor. Hmmmm…there’s no sign that says I can’t…(just kidding).



That Damned Dog!

Bert waiting expectantly in our hotel room in Denison, TX
Bert waiting expectantly in our hotel room in Denison, TX.


If you’ve read previously, you’ll know we’ve sold our house in order to live on a boat. Not the least of our worries is how Bert, our dog (nicknamed “that damned dog” by my husband), would react to it. It is definitely at the forefront of our minds. To know Bert is to love him, but he does have his issues.

We got him from the Humane Society shortly after moving to Arizona. I had done research and found that Wheaten Terriers were supposed to be non-shedders. I learned that’s not entirely true, but the hair balls up into “tumbleweeds” that roll across our kitchen and living room—generally at inopportune times when we have company. They are unsightly but easily picked up to throw away.

I saw on the Humane Society’s website that he was available and he was a pure-bred Wheaten about 3-years-old. We were second in line the next day when they opened. The couple before us went straight for him. I was heartbroken. Rick was probably relieved. After putting our Yorkie down the year before, he wasn’t too interested in another dog. (Although he did say if we got one he wanted a bigger dog. This says to me that he really did want one—or at least was willing to give in.)

A worker suggested we hang out since the matches don’t always go through. The other couple did decide against Bert because it was reported he was not good with kids. (We have since learned he is great with kids.) It was Christmas Eve and we took him immediately to my parent’s house. My mom wasn’t too pleased when I called and said we were bringing him, but everyone immediately fell in love with him and he was soooo well trained. We had beef for dinner. He showed no interest in the food whatsoever and sat quietly while we ate. What a good dog. He was sweet and charming around all these new people. What a good dog! We learned he stayed next to you during daily walks and never barked when the doorbell rang. What a good dog! He stayed off the furniture and never went on the beds. WHAT A GOOD BOY! A week later, our house was completed and we moved in. I didn’t even bother putting him on a leash. He sat quietly while we tramped in and out of the house with box after box. Why would anyone give up this perfect dog?

Then we both went back to work.

It started when he locked us out of the house. We had a habit of coming and going through the garage so we left the door leading into the house from the garage unlocked. We never carried house keys. One Saturday, we went to a movie. Upon our return, we couldn’t get the door to the house opened. He had apparently jumped at the door when we left and must have locked the deadbolt. We were going to break a window, but every window we went to he went to. We didn’t want to risk cutting him. I suggested breaking the lock with a sledgehammer. When that didn’t work, Rick just started pounding on the door until it gave way. The cost of our pound puppy was starting to rise.

A regular pattern appeared when we left for work. That damned dog got on our bed and ate the pillows, comforter and sheets.  We closed our doors. So he ate away at the molding around the door. He started going potty in the upstairs hallway. He ate a box and all the books inside.

To combat this, we barricaded him in the kitchen with a gate. Came home from work and he was out. We put the gate up and moved two kitchen chairs against it with the backs facing him. Came home from work and he was out again. The wall separating the kitchen and living area had two large cut outs—one above the sink and counters and one in the hallway. He must have jumped through the space in the hallway. So we barricaded it with boxes. Came home from work and he was out! He must have jumped into the sink and then over. But the worst part was that he was becoming violent towards us as we left for work. He had bitten holes through clothes and we had taken to using a box to deflect him as we backed out the door. When we got home he loved us when we left he wanted to kill us.

We hired a personal trainer who told us we needed to crate him until he learned not to go potty in THIS house (even though he was totally trained already). He ate through the plastic crate and was out when we got home. We bought a metal one. He bent the wires and worked the door and got out. By this time, even though he obediently went into the crate, we knew he hated it. He was successfully moving the crate halfway across the room every day and getting out about half the time. The trainer said to cover the crate with a blanket to make it “cave like.” It would seem like more of a home to him then. We put a blanket under the crate so it wouldn’t scratch the floor and put a blanket over the crate per the trainer’s instructions. We came home to Bert and both blankets, shredded, inside the crate. Having seen the crate, the trainer suggested chicken wire to cover the gaping holes Bert created. I got home first that night. I walked in and he was in the crate as was the chicken wire. The scene was horrific. The crate was halfway across the kitchen floor. There was a streak of blood showing the path the crate had taken. There were blood splatters on the wall and his face and paws were covered in blood. I frantically called Rick home. He took Bert into the bath to clean him and determine where the blood came from, but I figured it out first. As I was cleaning the kitchen, I found his canine tooth. We called the vet and got in right away. She gave him pain medication and gave us the contact info for the doggie dentist (I didn’t know that was a thing, either) and the doggie psychiatrist (again—new to me). We took him into the dentist right away. He worked on the big cats at the zoo, so we felt we were in good hands. He needed two teeth pulled, one root canal and a titanium crown.  With our pockets $6,000 lighter, we took him home resolved to throw out the crate and the trainer (another $500 down the tubes). We had to wait a week before we could get into the psychiatrist, so in the meantime, we gave him run of the house and Bert-proofed as much as possible. We put thing up high, kept bedroom doors closed and used painter’s tarps for the hallway where he did his business. Every night I came home and washed the painter’s tarps.

A couple days prior to the doggie psychiatrist visit I came home and he greeted me at the door. I went upstairs to do my usual laundry of painter’s tarps. When I came downstairs, Bert was gleefully ripping up the couch cushions with fluff flying everywhere. I called Rick and told him to pick the dog up and take him back to the shelter. I was done. Rick had been wanting to on and off for weeks. Fortunately for Bert, when one of us said “get rid of him,” the other said, “we can work it out—they will put him down because he had attacked us.” This time, Rick said, “Its two days until the psych appointment. Let’s wait and see what she says. Besides, we just spent $6,000 on him. I want to get my money’s worth!”

What the vet said was “separation anxiety” and put him on 30 mg of Prozac. She was not surprised by anything we described and told us we can’t train him until he can concentrate on what we are teaching. Now, instead of attacking us, he followed us around the house panting. Huge improvement, but he was still so anxious; I felt so bad for him. We’ve had ups and downs with him since, but the medication remains. So from his perspective, it’s terrific we are retiring. The only question is how will he do on a boat? How will he adjust to peeing on the bow of the boat? It will be rare we won’t be there with him, but when we have to leave him will he tear up the place? Jump into the water to follow us as we head out in the dinghy to get groceries? He’s much older and slower now, so will that factor in? This last year about half the time he would be sleeping by the time we left for work. (We tend to time our “escapes” based on what he is doing when we are ready to leave.) Time will tell how things go (and so will I). We really do love that damned dog!

Preparation and Boat Purchase

A while back I was sitting on the couch marveling at the shelves and shelves of books we had amassed over the years. How did we get there? How would we walk away from our comfortable predictable life to start over as liveaboards? We talked about it for years, of course. But some shifts and major life events suddenly made it all a reality. At 53, I was retiring along with my 56 year old husband (although he was consulting so we still had an income). Exciting! But our timeline was über tight. Getting the house ready to sell in three months. Getting rid of most material things. Getting ourselves a liveable boat we can afford. Then there was an already agreed upon European vacation (agreed upon but far from planned). Doing all that was enough. Adding to it my work as a teacher and my need to keep my health at the forefront and it was all very overwhelming to say the least.

And I was just sitting there. For heaven’s sake, clean out a closet. Grade some papers. Write some lessons. Something. But no. Right then I needed to sit. I knew I’d miss our library. (It sounds loftier than it appeared but we loved it.) My mind was ping-ponging all over the place as if it were 3:00 in the morning when I usually did my most intense worrying.

Of course it all got done. Regardless of how much or how little you worry, it always gets done. When we listed our house, we’d hoped to time the sale so that we would be done with the school year. As luck would have it, a week after we listed it, we sold it. The new homeowners wanted to be in by April 1st. Holy crap! Now we had to find a furnished rental in our little town (our furniture was being sold with the house) so we could complete our contracts at work and still have a roof over our heads.

I knew I needed to seriously purge “stuff” before the move. We had been in our house nine years. Some things were easy: clothes, shoes, purses. Anything Mom or Dad related that I couldn’t keep went to nieces, nephews or sisters. For the most part I was okay with that. But there were things I kept because, in my mind, there was a great attachment to Mom or Dad. I had to keep the big red bowl. The one we used when I was a kid to eat fresh homemade popcorn while watching TV. (This was pre-microwave—man I feel old.) I loved the ritual. Getting out the old popcorn popper with the heat coil and the pot perpetually covered in used oil. You could never get it clean, but that was okay. Much like you don’t perfectly clean a grill, the popcorn tasted better coming from that pot. The popper was long gone, but I had the red bowl and I wasn’t giving it up. I also had Mom’s recipe box still organized in her odd style. If you wanted to make Chicken Parmesan you had to look under either “chicken,” “parmesan,” “cheese,” or “Italian.” It could be in any of those spots and it wasn’t consistent. Just because you find Chicken Parmesan under “Italian,” does not mean burritos would be under “Mexican.” It worked for her, as she always knew exactly where to find what she wanted. So I keep it that way. That’s the charm of it. And I will take it on the boat with me. As a remembrance of Dad, I kept one of his beer steins from their trip through Germany. The only furniture we kept were a coffee table made from a tree trunk that my dad built and my great-grandmother’s steamer trunk. She used it to hold her stuff as she took her son and a nephew out of Ukrane to the United States to meet up with her husband who had preceded her. My husband had books his grandfather (a printer) had given him. Their mustiness adds to their charm and would be a welcome addition to our almost book-less new home. (Almost book-less in Rick and Linda speak is keeping about 60 or so books. How will we fit them on the boat? Beats me. Rick just keeps saying, “No problem.”)

We ended up purging 3 or 4 times, each time giving away to friends and family or to Goodwill. Then there was my classroom. When the number of years you’ve worked at a job is in double digits, you tend to accumulate a large amount. When you are a teacher, double that amount. When you tend towards “projects” redouble it again. Man, the crap I had! So I had a “raid my room” day for the other teachers. It was on their calendars, for gosh sakes. It was a success—I was able to give away pretty much everything so the stuff would live on in another’s classroom. The best part was my classroom library. For whatever reason, the books didn’t go with the teachers–I think they were mesmerized by all the other things. So I offered them up to my students, foolishly assuming they would be disinterested. Wow! Was I wrong! Gives me hope for the future that so many wanted at least one book. Many took more.

While all this was happening, we were looking at boats. Rick had been on-line searching for months. Living in the Arizona desert meant we had to go to the boats. We spent school breaks heading to California or Florida or the Carolinas because we could line up a series of used boats to peruse. This helped us determine what would work and what we disliked. For my part, I knew it couldn’t be so small that it felt like camping. We were planning on living on this until the kids put us in a home, unable to take care of ourselves. Let me just say this: I enjoy camping but I can’t do it forever. I also needed a walk around bed—at least a queen. So many boats will say “sleeps two” or that it has a queen bed. Then you see it. The bed may technically be queen, but you’re going to be bumping into each other while you try to sleep and that just isn’t right. Or it’s a V-berth which means that, although you won’t necessarily bump into each other, your feet will forever be tangled together. We had a small boat previously with this sleeping arrangement and although it’s “cozy” at first, it’s irritating in the long run. I also did not want to crawl over the bed to make it—so I had to be able to “walk around” both sides of the bed. Those were my non-negotiables; everything else could be changed as needed. Rick’s concerns were more equipment and operation-related and that was a good thing. He was the one who understood what was needed and how things worked. Although I know I will have to learn, in the here and now I was happy to let him deal with that.

Armed with these requirements, Rick spent many a night on his phone searching for boats and setting up trips to see them. From his research and in talking with our broker, he focused on two brands in particular: Chris Craft and Hatteras. We spent an abundance of frequent flyer miles checking out the boats until we came across the one we thought we could agree on. Its twin was in Texas on a land locked lake where we were disinterested in living. So we didn’t go to Texas to compare; instead choosing to head to South Carolina. The boat was a 1982 46-foot Uniflight. (Uniflight was eventually bought out by Chris Craft.) The layout was great. It was small enough to do what we wanted to the engines. (This involving eventually swapping out the diesels for electric engines and putting solar panels on the roof for truly cost free cruising.) It was big enough for my needs although it needed updating and Rick felt we needed a few equipment additions.

We fell in love with it even though it was a little rugged around the edges. We hoped the inspection and subsequent sea trial would tell us it was mechanically sound. We put in an offer that was far below the suggestion on the listing, because it had been for sale for quite a while and the updates needed, and hoped for the best. When we visited, the broker happened to mention that the owner was in jail and this made it difficult at best to complete the offer. The owner had a nephew that was acting as his agent, but the nephew was unprepared to agree on the price if it was below the listing. So we waited.

And waited.

And waited.

Luckily we had time as the school year and our contracts hadn’t yet ended.

Eventually we got papers signed and had a date for the inspection and sea trial. Rick attended and reported back. Oh my. Oh my, my, my. They had to take it to a second location to pull it out of the water to check the underside. As they got underway, Rick noticed the listing broker was using the engines to steer rather than the wheel. At first he thought it was just a tight spot and maybe he had more control that way. But he finally asked. Sheepishly, the broker said, “The steering isn’t working.” What?? Apparently it had a hydraulic fluid leak.

Once they got out of the marina, the broker went down to main deck and was able to steer from that wheel. As they got underway, the mechanic went below decks to check on the engine. Shouts rang out.

“Hold up! Stop!” shouted the mechanic.

“What’s the problem?”

“There’s water spewing out all over the engine room.”  What fresh hell was this? Well, there was a problem with the exhaust. “We can go ahead to the pull out location but we can’t do a sea trial until this is fixed.”

The balance of the inspection went off without much issue. We contacted our agent who reported that the exhaust problem needed fixing to complete the sea trial. Our mechanic and inspector offered to oversee things to get them completed correctly. We waited.

And waited.

And waited.

We received the written inspection. In addition to the two “big deal” items, there were 6 pages of needs. They were all little things (like needing new fire extinguishers and having life vests). Not a big deal. Smph.

During the inspection, Rick talked with the marina manager. In chatting about the difficulties we’d had with the paperwork so far, he offered up that he understood the owner was in jail, possibly for a DWI. The manager told him a tale of two men who showed up one day looking for the boat owner. The manager questioned them.

“We’re police,” they told her.

“I need to see your badges before I can let you onto the docks,” she said.

“Well, we aren’t exactly police—we’re bounty hunters sent by the police.”

She wouldn’t let them in. She wasn’t sure what to do so she called a neighbor who was a bounty hunter and one of the helpers went down to let the boat owner know someone was asking after him. The neighbor talked the manager into allowing them access to the docks, but she followed them. The two men shouted to the boat owner to come out. He refused. They pulled out guns. Now she’s thinking, “Great. They’re going to shoot up a marina full of boats.” But they gave the boat owner one last chance and he turned himself in. He was taken back to Virginia to serve his time. I wonder why he didn’t just drive away? Probably because the steering didn’t work and the exhaust spewed water. Sigh.

At this point we left on a pre-arranged family vacation to Scotland. We had started planning 18 months ago and were going with one son and daughter-in-law and my father-in-law and his wife. Our itinerary was tight. So tight that the travel agency we contacted said it couldn’t be done. (But that’s a post for another day).

We finally got word the exhaust was fixed although our guys had nothing to do with it. Upon inspection, it was determined it was jerry-rigged, not actually fixed. There was mention of Duck Tape. Disappointed, we withdrew our offer. We decided we needed to go to Texas to see the other boat on our return from Scotland. It could be moved to the ocean, but the selling agent said it would cost around $20,000. Nevertheless, we decided to spend a few more frequent flyer miles for what could turn out to be another wild goose chase; but we also did a little research. We were running out of time. The school year ended and we were set to be homeless shortly.

After some on-line research and a few calls, Rick determined the cost was more like $5,000-$7,500. If we got a good deal on the boat we could swing the relocation cost. The boat had been listed for a long time. Each person that showed interest had been deterred by the $20,000 moving cost the selling broker tossed out there. That was good for us since we had done the research and knew it to be wrong.

I dreaded going to the Dallas-Ft. Worth airport because, in my opinion, it is a crap airport. I had vowed to never, ever, ever change planes there again. Inevitably, my connection was across the entire airport and they don’t make it easy. I will admit I have a chip on my shoulder for Texas in general. Really it’s their rest stops. Having driven through Texas on many occasions, I’d sooner wet my pants than use their rest stops. OK, I exaggerate. But you walk in and see two things right away. The walls don’t go up to the ceiling. There is a ceiling. There are walls. They just don’t meet. I guess it’s a way to let light in without paying for windows. But honestly. Pay for those windows. In December, it gets mighty chilly. The other thing you notice is that, unless you are a little person, you can easily see over the stall doors/walls. Really? You can’t afford to buy the big boy bathroom stalls, Texas? Holy cats. (But I digress, yet again.)

The owner’s son met us at the boat. We could hardly contain our excitement! The boat was super clean. So much better than the one in South Carolina. The carpet needed to be thrown out and the countertops needed to be replaced, in my opinion. But the things missing from the other boat were there and in running order. Maybe losing the other boat was supposed to happen so we could get this one.

Our dream boat.
Our dream boat.

The son told us the family story and why the boat was for sale. It was a sad tale about a man who retired (his father). He’d had the boat for a number of years and still owed a fair amount on it. Apparently, his wife (the son’s step-mother, he pointedly told us), went nutso after her parents’ deaths and went on a spending spree that left them needing. The dad went back to work. He was really only working to pay off the boat and the slip. Once he sold the boat he could retire again and tend to his health. Oh and by the way, the son has a special needs child. I tried to make a connection by talking about being a special needs teacher for many years. His response was that special needs children get abused a lot. Oh, kay. He also said his father just wanted enough money to pay off the boat and the commission. No real connection there, but we made an offer, they countered, we settled.

Just in time, I might add. We had a week before we would be homeless. Our broker sent the contract and Rick did all the legwork setting up the date for the inspection and moving the boat. The lower price for the move came about because we found we could have it moved to the Arkansas River rather than the ocean. We could cruise down the river to the Mississippi and then to the Gulf of Mexico. Fine by us.

We planned to leave Arizona upon vacating the rental. We had a U-Haul and were taking our meager things to a storage facility in Ft. Smith, AR. Tune in for how that went.

An Introduction to the Blogger

So I want to start off by saying that I am, I suppose, “old school.” Blogging is new to me and seems like a very strange animal. My first film school professor said you have to know the rules to break the rules. Well, here’s the rub–I’m not sure if there ARE rules in blogging. So my plan is to tell my story and hope others are either amused by it or learn from it.

My husband and I are newly retired–three weeks in. It has always been our dream to own and live on a boat, so we have sold our house and are in the process of finding that elusive boat. This blog, then, is a (hopefully) humorous telling of our journey. Before I get into the boat search itself, I’d like to give a little background on myself.

I started my 12th year as a public high school teacher this past August. I was by most accounts a good teacher–some say better than good. Before I earned my teaching license I had many job changes. Early on I worked as a bread girl for a fish restaurant. I once had a job collating paper. Yes, eight hours a day, five days a week, collating papers. I spent many years at many locations working as a secretary. Later, that position was renamed “Administrative Assistant,” yet still meant the same mind numbing repetition each day. I was a meeting planner, a technical writer, and a small business owner. For a brief period, my husband and I were part-time independent filmmakers (although we never actually made any money or films–but we tried really, really hard and somewhere still have the proposal we used to try to get backing. It was a good proposal). My point is, well, I have been around the job block a few times.  But teaching was my first true “career.”

As a child I wanted to be a writer. But I always had a secret desire to be a teacher. I wasn’t sure I was smart enough, but I thought that would be the best job ever! I played school a lot. I was the best fake teacher on the block.

People tend to think teaching is a cush job. Summers off. Two weeks at Christmas. Obscure three day weekends. I don’t know. I spent my holidays working. I spent my weekends working. I attended training in the summer and spent evenings working. The desire to write that elusive perfect lesson that gets that one kid excited is so powerful.

My point is its not an easy job. Bread girl is an easy job. (Although I managed to drop a crock full of butter on the carpet in the dining room.) But teaching is difficult and all consuming. I don’t know if all teachers feel like this, but I always assumed I just screwed up. I’ve always been excessively reflective (which is a nice way of saying “critical of myself”). When you are scrutinized by large portions of the population daily (parents, students, administration, politicians, etc.), when all that is wrong with education is heaped onto your shoulders whether you have anything to do with it or not, and when someone, somewhere is always upset with you, well you tend to get a little tired of defending yourself and instinctively want to be PERFECT just to prove them all wrong.My point is no one has a clue what the job is unless you’ve done it.

It’s not like being an actuary or a scuba instructor. If a teacher screws up, we’ve just ruined the future for the ENTIRE PLANET. Awesome responsibility. Why do you suppose there are so many teachers that don’t make it to their five year anniversary? I mean besides the pay, crummy hours, ridiculously large classes and lack of respect. So what IS it like to be in the classroom? Well, let me tell you…

I was fairly old when I started teaching. My kids were grown, my husband and I had just sold the family business and I was floundering around looking for something new. I lived in North Carolina and in an attempt to get fresh blood in the classrooms, NC Teach was born. The program took people who had a career other than in education that also had a degree and gave them training in the basics of running a classroom. You continued your education while having on the job training. They were only looking for math, science and special ed teachers. Having no abilities in math or science, I interviewed to enter the special education program. I was accepted and set about learning child psychology and classroom management. It took me an additional two years to get all the special education courses I needed in order to get my unrestricted license. Basically, I got another bachelor’s degree without having to take the 101 courses again. I would continue my education and earn my Master’s degree in language and literacy, but first I needed a job.

After the summer boot camp I started interviewing. I had a surprisingly easy time finding work and was quickly offered two positions. The first was in a middle school with a group of emotionally behaviorally challenged kids. Their previous year’s teacher had been a burly guy that quit the profession after a year with these kids. The other was a high school group of kids with mental disabilities. The high school job would be job preparation and internship placement. That seemed more in sync with my history, so I took a slight reduction in pay from my secretarial job at a non-profit (yes, you read that right) and headed back to high school.

I was given the old band equipment storage room for a classroom. No windows, but two doors (only one opened) and a small “office” attached, where the band uniforms had been kept. Mine was the only classroom in an area full of locker rooms and the gym. My room came equipped with an old-fashioned, freestanding, swivel chalkboard, an old sink, and a pile of crap I needed to organize, in the center of a narrow room. The pile of crap was actually a very expensive hands-on job preparation system for students with disabilities. But it had no instructions and no training was provided. There was no “panic button” or phone in the room and the nearest speaker was in the hall. I was told if I had any fights in my room, I should send a kid to the gym to get a coach to help out. This came in handy in the not too distant future. I was also told by the principal that he was a little concerned about my being by myself down that wing. (Not concerned enough to find me a real classroom, but still…). If I wanted my students to hear the daily announcements or the pledge, we needed to keep the door open and be very, very quiet or go into the hallway.

The NC Teach program assumed your job was your “student teaching,” so I had never been in a classroom as a teacher of any kind when I started my first day of work. Needless to say, I was ready to wet my pants. The upside was that I was enthusiastic and my class sizes were small (given they were special ed classes). If I recall correctly, there were only seven in that first hour, all upperclassmen. (Eventually experience taught me the older the students in a sped class, the more dropouts.)  This class had six boys and one girl. The girl didn’t show for the first half hour. There was one scrawny boy (who was later caught selling cigarettes out of the school store I set up) and five MASSIVE men. I thought back to what the principal had said.

That morning I met James. It hadn’t dawned on me that my upbringing was all that different to my students. But James was an African American living in a broken home in rural North Carolina whose family were welfare recipients from way back. He wasn’t the biggest one in the class but he had a very intimidating scowl on his face. He didn’t speak. He didn’t work. He just stared at me. I had started them off, right out of the box, with the hand-on stuff I’d organized. I wanted them to enjoy themselves in the class and think this place would be okay. Because it was hands-on and everyone had something different, my plan was to sit with each student as needed and assess as I went. While I pondered what to do with James, I walked past another kid, stopped and asked if he needed help. He smirked and said, “No.”

“Why aren’t you working?” I asked.

” What’re you gonna do about it?”

I wasn’t sure. They didn’t cover this type of thing in the education classes. When we practiced with our cohort they always did what I asked. My head was reeling. I knew if I didn’t take control right away, it would be chaos all year. I would be a wash out as a teacher. I also knew I didn’t want to puke in front of them, but my stomach was doing flip-flops. I grabbed a book.

“Fine,” I said. “If you aren’t going to do that then you can read.” I slammed a book onto his desk. “But you’re gonna do something!”

“Naw, I’ll do this. I was just foolin’,” he said with a big smile on his face.

So I passed the first test.

They all turned out to be great kids. Most made good choices and I got to see them graduate. James turned out to be the biggest teddy bear of them all. He had a fantastic smile, and wanted to get a decent job, meet a girl, and live happily ever after in a little house (he literally told me this). I learned a lot from James my first two years of teaching. Like don’t judge a book by its cover. Like southern boys are terrified you will call their Mama and tell her how they have been behaving in class. Like we all just want a decent life.

I had some disappointments. The girl that had, literally three weeks left to graduation and dropped out because she was pregnant. I came to realize these kids didn’t have the childhood I did. Nor did they have the same ideas about men and women. One day the kids came in talking about a fight that had happened over the weekend. I saw this as a teachable moment and said that no one has the right to hit another person. Kristina looked at me funny and said, “Miss, you can’t tell me your husband don’t hit you to keep you in line.” It took me a minute to register what she was saying. “N…no…” I stammered. “I wouldn’t still be with him if he did.” I was unable to convince her that what she had seen all her life wasn’t reality for all people. She was another student that heartbreakingly got pregnant, dropped out and became a welfare recipient. She followed in her mother’s, grandmother’s and great-grandmother’s footsteps.

But not before she started the first brawl my classroom had seen. I had both her and her brother, Kevin, in the same class period. An argument that had started at home continued in class. She was in a surly mood and he loved to taunt her, which he did liberally at the start of class. She got up and punched him, swear words flying freely. He retaliated. A chair flew. Clothes were ripped. My free standing chalkboard was no longer standing. All in a split second. I did the exact thing I was told not to do. I got between them resulting in a glancing blow to my cheek. I yelled to another student to go get a coach. They stopped fighting before the coach got down to us. He took Kevin to the office. I told Kristina we had to go to the office too. She started crying and threw her arms around me. A cry turned to wracking sobs and pleads to stay in class. They both received nine days suspension which cost them much needed instructional time and cost me hours of paperwork and meetings.

One day my mentor (a wonderful older lady named Mrs. June who got me through my first year of teaching) came to my room to tell me that one of our students was in jail. Josh was a goofy kid who wanted to be a rap star. Yeah. He lived a lot of the time in a fantasy world where he was walking down the street and was “discovered” by someone in the biz. Every other week he was flying to LA to cut a record.  But he was a good kid. It had to be a mistake. When I heard the story I wanted to spit nails.

See, Josh lived with his aunt. Both parents were out of the picture. Dad never in it and I believe Mom was shot to death or some other tragic event. His aunt was tired of him coming in late, refusing to shower or wash his clothes. Her solution was to kick him out. He had nowhere to go and didn’t tell anyone. So he hid after school in the building and spent the night there. He knew there were usually some discarded soda crackers or something similar in the teacher’s lounge and he could usually find something to hold him over until the next day when he would have free breakfast and lunch. Since he was always a ragamuffin his clothing didn’t seem any worse than usual. He lived at the school several days before being detected by the janitor. Who called the principal. Who had him arrested.

That was the only time I had to visit a student in jail. And it was intimidating! They wouldn’t allow me to give him pencils and paper to write his raps. Only cash to use in the prison store. When I got there, I had to wait. All the other loved ones had obviously been there many times. One lady came up to me and said, “Honey, you cain’t take your purse with you. I’d lock it in yer car if I’s yew.” Once Mrs. June arrived we had to put all personal belongings in a little tray and be frisked before heading back. Only one person could talk with him at a time, so while Mrs. June talked with him I hung back a few feet feeling very self-conscious as I got looks from other inmates waiting for their family to enter. The room was small with four Plexiglas “stations.” Sort of like the spot you walk up to to get a train ticket or movie ticket. Only more cramped. With no air circulation. He said he was holding up okay although I had my doubts. He ended up being moved to a new town becoming another family member’s charge and I never spoke with him again (we were not allowed information on where he was).

While working in a small rural school had its challenges, it was a great place to work with great support from the principal. He always had my back. It was a great start to my teaching, working in North Carolina. The southern way meant that I had not only parents and the principal behind me, but also clergy, grandparents, and other teachers that had grown up in the area and knew these kids from birth. Eventually, we moved to Arizona and I learned this was not the case everywhere.

The move was a knee-jerk reaction to my mother’s diagnosis of colon cancer. I wanted to be closer, partly to help out, but in all honesty, mostly for selfish reasons. I had a hyperactive need to get to know mom again and I knew being physically closer would make me feel everything would be alright.

Having completed my master’s degree, I was a “hot commodity” in education circles and found a job for the following school year months prior to moving. I went from a school of 500 students to a school of 2,000. It was intimidating. It was exhausting. It was not a happy time. But I got along well with my co-workers as well as my students who did fairly well in my class, and I was well regarded by administration. Working as a special education teacher is so different than any other teaching job. If you were to look at an average day, 75% of you time is taken by paperwork and its subsequent follow-up. This leaves 25% to create inventive lesson plans, execute them and play parent/counselor/friend/doctor to your students. It can’t be done well in that amount of time. So you spent all your “personal” time doing what you need so that your students have what they need. Inevitably it breaks your heart.

I completed my master’s degree specifically because I knew I would get burnt out as a special education teacher. Eventually, I found a high school job as a reading specialist (a rare, although desperately needed position). The school was in a small town. It had a melting pot of students: rich and poor, black, white, native, and Hispanic, old family names and new transplants, as well as the usual mix of smart asses and sweethearts. I spent the balance of my teaching career here.

Having lost both my parents, there was no reason to stick around Arizona and based on this we had planned to retire soon. The decision to accelerate that came early in the 2015-16 school year. As tired as I had felt battling special education paperwork, it was nothing compared to the struggle as an Arizona school teacher in this particular town. I hate to bring politics into things, but the Arizona legislature. Man. They are experts at funding increases for education on the front end and slipping that money back out on the back end, with a result that the average citizen thinks education has all this money, but must not be spending it wisely. It happened time and again. Lawsuits abound and it still happened. To give you an idea of the money situation, I had been in Arizona for nine years as a teacher and had not had a raise of any kind in five (with teacher salaries as a hot topic). Add to that a dysfunctional school “family”, class sizes as high as 40, and yet another year of screwing up “my” program and I was DONE. There’s no point in airing grievances here, but suffice to say I wasn’t interested in waiting an additional year if it was feasible to leave after my contract was complete. Add to that illness exacerbated by stress and the decision was an easy one.  The process of buying our boat, on the other hand, was a little more complex (see the next posting: Preparation and Boat Purchase).