Red Riding Hoods
from Old Teachers Never Die
—Being tall tales in the ‘life’ of Davis Stringer, former high school teacher, now retired, trying to come to grips with the world after teaching.
All Davis wanted to do was get to his meeting.
To this point the morning had been going pretty well. The predicted rain had held off so he was able to walk to the train without having to put up the umbrella and without getting wet. The train had been on time. Actually, according to his watch, it was a few minutes early – almost unheard of this with the AMT. Since it was the ‘Last Train to Clarksville,’ as he liked to call it, the train had fewer riders and more seats than the earlier ones. He had no trouble sitting alone with the wide window across from him giving him a clear view of the passing scenery and his Nano Touch entertaining him with an Eagles mix.
The train ride had been uneventful, no one out on Meadowbrook golf course yet, and the English Super Hospital was still an open shell. He’d navigated the platform of the ‘terminus’ without bumping into anyone or a safety pole, and had not fallen into the other set of tracks. From there he’d day dreamed his way, no set way, to Peel nearing Sherbrooke, letting red lights protect him and white crossing lights be his guide. He was going to be on time for the meeting. Of course, ‘on time’ to Davis Stringer meant different things at different times. If he were still teaching and this was a staff meeting, ‘on time’ meant about one minute before the set starting time so that he could take his usual perch in the rear, and only have to wait ten to fifteen minutes for the administrators to deign to show up. For this meeting with his fellow supervisors, it meant a good half an hour before so he could guarantee a seat in the back, and first shot at the coffee and whatever snacks might be provided.
‘Making good time,’ and then he saw whatever it was he was seeing. Whatever it was . … . ‘Oh, shit,’ . . . then he knew. He came to a halt on the corner along with some other equally helpless pedestrians as waves of young people- and here the terminology gets dicey: striking students, protesting students, class skipping students, along with those who just loved the fact that they could walk in these major thoroughfares with impunity and immunity wreaking havoc as they pleased, all these had been used to describe the mob that had pretty much dominated the Montreal scene for about two months now- moved along Sherbrooke completely blocking the road.
Davis weighed his options. He’d innocently encountered some of them in the Metro last month when the ‘En greve, de Maisoneuve,’ gang was getting off as he was trying to get on. A salmon against the current, he’d been bounced off the wall till they were gone. Pushing his way across was not an option.
As he stood feeling rather helpless he began to feel not right, an ‘old friend’ was coming for a visit. Mr. Anxiety was beginning to emanate from its hiding place in the left quadrant of his lower abdomen. It wafted up under his rib cage, his heart began to race and he was having trouble breathing.
. . . . . All he wanted that day in 1982 was to do was teach his Second Period history class. But, it was a Monday morning and the kids were unsettled – nothing new there- and the ‘lessons’ of the previous week were like futuristic events to them, ‘You never taught us that,’ ‘Who’s he?’ and looks of abject disbelief stared at him as he played dentist, trying to pry things from their collective memories with the ease of pulling teeth from a runner. And to top that off, there was some sort of disturbance in the hallway beyond his closed front classroom door. As would become the norm in any school he would teach in for more than one year, Davis’ room was one of those farthest from the office, administration, and help. [Later in his career he would muse about this. Was it that they did not want to think about him, or was he a hidden gem to be discovered by only a select few?] He knew if he did not deal with whatever was going on out there, no one else would. Steaming he flung open the door . . . only to find himself face to side with a stream of humanity, kids, lots and lots of kids, high school types, but not from his school. Not one even remotely familiar face in the crowd, and all the voices were French.
In one of those moments where a person suddenly puts twenty and twenty together, he realized what he was seeing. Last week, the PQ government had announced changes to the educational system. One of the major ones was to be the raising of the passing grade from 50% to 60% for high school, CEGEPs and universities. Most teachers he knew had no problem with this. Who would want to be operated on by a doctor who got 50% on surgery in med school? But to the students, especially the fringe students for which east end Montreal was famous, this seemed a death sentence. He’d heard rumors that they were planning something, some attempt to shut down schools, get other students behind them, but did not know what, until now. Here they were, a mass of them, parading past the farthest reach of the school heading towards the main areas. He was facing them alone. In the same instant that the realization of what he was facing hit him, he moved in to ‘responsible adult mode,’ the one that all too often falls to the teacher.
As quickly and as violently as he had opened the door, he yanked it closed. And just as quickly he rushed to the rear door which stood open. He got to it, and tried to pull it shut only to have it be grabbed and held open by a rather large young man who looked questioningly at Davis. Whatever question was in this kid’s mind, Davis had no answer. He got the door half shut, or as the large kid holding it firmly now probably felt, half open. For the next ‘forever’ Davis stood in the opening between the mob and his class of students, trying to keep members of the mob out as much of it filed past. He felt as if he were on a high dive over an empty pool- to go forward was not an option but he could not back down either. Why couldn’t he just be standing naked on the Metropolitan in rush hour? As the mob passed and passed and passed, he stood, his right hand kept pulling pressure on the door knob, his left pushing any intruder away from the opening, his insides in total chaos. ‘Nope, can’t come in,’ ‘Uh, uh,’ ‘Sorry,’ ‘Not today,’ and other silly useless words come from his mouth as he continued this little game . . . until another large kid came to the door and actually asked him what he was doing! “I’m just trying to close my door,” and in his best French, ‘fermer la porte,’ was the most eloquence he could come up with. This fellow, for reasons that Davis would always wonder about, nodded at the one who had been holding the door open, and then helped to close the door.
Davis, his class now ‘safely’ inside, leaned against the door proud of the fact that he had not wet himself.
“Mr. Stringer!” Danica was in his face. “Look! One of them tore up Toly’s notebook.”
‘Wonderful.’ Davis could see that the front door was now open, some heads were looking in, and Toly was waving two pieces of what used to be his history notebook. Again, in an instant Davis realized that Toly, pain in the ass that he was, and directed to never open that door as he had been, as all Mr. Stringer’s students had been told from Day One, one of his peccadilloes, had ‘naturally’ opened the front door for whatever insane reasons and was lucky it was only his notebook that had been damaged.
Davis moved to the front door, and witnessing the end of the mob march on, slammed it shut.
“But what about my notebook, Sir?” demanded Toly.
“Tell you what, Toly, you point out the one that did it and I’ll kick his ass.”
He turned to the class, “Now as we were trying to remember what we had done last week. . . “
Later that day, when calm had returned to RHS and Davis was sitting still shaken in the staffroom. He was approached by a female colleague. “Some of my students told me how brave you were placing yourself between those hooligans and your class.”
“Thanks,” was all he could say. . . . . .
As he gradually got his heart rate to slow and the odd feeling in his gut to subside, he saw that he had somehow drifted a few blocks east as if once again trying to find the end of the mob as it headed west, but none was in sight this time.
He laughed to himself as he realized he was wearing his red checked A&E jacket. Most in the mob were wearing red, if some were only sporting little red squares of cloth pinned on the outer wear, the color symbol of the protest. And then he heard a familiar refrain, “En Greve, du Maisonnueve, En Greve, du Maisonnueve.” His old ‘friends’ from the Metro encounter were approaching.
‘When in Rome.’ He about faced himself and slipped into step with them. “En Greve, du Maisonueve, En Greve, du Maisonueve,” he began, fist in the air. Two young girls, er, ‘jeuns filles,’ looked in askance at his grey beard and craggy face. Without missing a beat he said, “Moi, je suis un professor d’histoire de U de M,” and he continued with “En Greve, du Maisonueve, En Greve, du Maisonueve.”
It took him two blocks to surreptitiously work his way to the north side of the crowd as he neared Peel once more.
“Au revoir, mes eleves,” and he was on his way up the hill.
After all, all he wanted to do was get to his meeting . . . on time.
Why not take a ride on the ‘last train?’