Saturday, December 04, 2010

First Name Basis

Kids at my school ask me, "What's your real name?"
I tell them: "Mister Caven."
"No. What's your first name?"
And that's how we go. Every so often, one clever fifth grader figures out that if he read the staff roster that is posted in the office, they could know the first names of every adult on our campus, but those are few and far between. That's okay with me. I prefer the distance.
Probably because I never called any of my teachers by their first name. Except one. She was my sophomore English teacher in high school, and she insisted that we all call her "Sylvia." It was part of her vision of putting us all on equal footing. If she got to call all of us by our first names, why shouldn't we be able to return the favor? If the intent was to build familiarity, it certainly worked. When I had a free period, I would hang out in Sylvia's room. When it came time to pick classes for the next year, I looked for classes Sylvia taught. In three years, I took four different semesters of what she had to offer, including a Science Fiction class that I didn't even really need to graduate in my senior year.
In that time, I believed that we had struck up a friendship. When I had questions or problems, I didn't bother with my guidance counselor, I headed to Sylvia's room. Eventually, I was one of the favored few to gain admittance to her office, where I helped out grading papers, making copies, and general clerical drudgery. I didn't mind. I was helping Sylvia. When my personal life began to blossom and I had questions about girls and dating, I turned to Sylvia. If that seems like an odd leap of familiarity, you probably didn't know Sylvia.
She accepted my confidences and listened patiently. She gave me plenty of good advice, and confessed to me that she wasn't always such a hip and together person. When she was in high school, all the other kids used to call her "Saliva." Knowing this somehow made it easier to navigate the hazards and pitfalls of high school.
Then one day, Sylvia went off on maternity leave. It didn't happen all at once. I may have been naive, but I wasn't stupid. Still, when she left during my senior year, I felt a loss. I had a girlfriend, and I was in even more need of her wise counsel. The day that she packed up her office, she told me that we should keep in touch. I know now that this is what grown-ups always tell kids, and each other. But I knew where she lived. Only a hundred and fifty yards from where I went to junior high. In a trailer. With her husband: Mister Sylvia.
I stayed away for a few months, and then when I felt confident in my relationship with my high school sweetheart, we decided to pay a visit to Sylvia and her baby. It was dark outside, and I parked in what I assumed was their driveway. I knocked on the door to the trailer, and my girlfriend and I waited at the bottom of the cinder block stairs. We heard the footsteps, and then the door opened. Sylvia looked a fright, or at least she did back then. What I recognize now as new-parent survival mode made me think twice before I accepted the invitation to come on in.
I don't remember a lot about our visit, except that it was brief. It was cramped inside the trailer, and the smell of new baby was everywhere. Sylvia was wearing glasses, something that I had never seen her do at school. We made small talk and looked in on the baby, who seemed impossibly tiny. I had intended to make a show of how well my girlfriend and I were getting along, and to thank Sylvia for helping us find our way as a couple, but there was never a comfortable moment. All of that familiarity seemed to have vanished.
When we left, there were more vague promises of coming back to visit, but in the back of my mind I knew that I would be graduating soon. I would head off to college and return only briefly for holidays and the eventual wedding to this girl I was sure would be my wife. None of those things happened. I ended up taking a year off before I went to college, working at Arby's. I didn't marry my high school sweetheart. And I never went back to see Sylvia and her little family. It was just a little too close.


Anonymous said...

Great story, Dave.


Mrs. Id said...

That's what I was going to say, CB!