The Escape Artist 3

by Gabriel Urbina


Ben, a Vietnam veteran, has recently graduated from college. It is now time to look for a job. He not only finds a position, but he also starts a new journey of learning and discovery. The cities, towns, places, and schools are real. The world of Education presented is based on the realities of the time. All the characters in the story are fictional.

It was time to look for a job. I went to the University's Placement Center soon after graduation. I had an appointment with Mr. Robinson, and I realized very soon I was fortunate to have been assigned to him. Before working at the University, he had been a High School counselor for 25 years. He suggested looking for a position in teaching, but he added that I should consider getting a teaching credential first. It would take an extra year to complete all the requirements. It was called the "fifth year" in Education. I explained to him I wanted and needed to get into the world of work soon.

"I need a break from school, Mr. Robinson, and I need to go to work." He smiled and said, "You know, I think I understand. Before going to graduate school, I taught at a small private school, and I didn't have a teaching credential. It helped me a lot in my future career decisions. Are you willing to go anywhere, or you have geographical restrictions or preferences?"

I told him I didn't. I was willing to go anywhere. He said there were two possible job search paths. Both possibilities involved school districts who had extreme difficulties recruiting new teachers. Large inner city schools, and schools in very small towns. In both cases, places where most people didn't want to go. An extra challenge was the fact that many of those prospective employers might not be looking for a French teacher. I said I would like to try small towns. I needed some space; not crowded environments.

Mr. Robinson said, "we don't have a Placement file for you, as we do for our graduates with credentials. Can you get some letters of recommendation from your French professors?" I answered, "Well, the semester is over, they are all on vacation, except one. She is teaching during Summer Session, and I know she's still around."

"OK, ask her for a letter of recommendation, explain to her what you are trying to do, and also ask for permission to list her as a telephone reference. I will be your second reference. Also, get a couple of official transcripts, and make sure your degree is posted. You see, the school districts with unfilled vacancies have to resort to Emergency Teaching Certificates. You don't apply for one, it is something the District Superintendent would have to request from the state certification agency. To do that, they are going to need a copy of your transcripts"

I ran those errands, and Mr. Robinson gave the current bulletin with job listing for teachers. He warned me the list was not comprehensive, and to make telephone inquiries with small districts not on the bulletin.

I called schools listed on the bulletin.. Arizona, California, Nevada, Colorado. Nothing panned out. Some positions had been filled; some administrators where confident they would find a credentialed teacher in my subject. They usually got my phone number just in case. Some said they would send me a district application, and a questionnaire, to be sent to them along with resume, transcript, and recommendations. Obviously, not in desperate need of a French teacher at all.

I went to the library to make a list of places I would call, using telephone books, and to consult any guide to public and private schools. I started with Arizona. I didn't have to do the same with other states.

After more than a week, I finally found someone who was interested. I called a small school district in Arizona, up in the mountains, about an hour and a half from Phoenix. My call was transferred to Mr. Rooney, the high school principal. He said he had been looking for a French teacher for a long time. They only offered Spanish, but he wanted to expand the course offerings. I said I had no experience and no credential. He said he was still interested. We had a long conversation, and finally he asked me to give him the phone numbers of my two references. He said he had to go to a meeting, but he would make those phone calls as soon as he could. He promised to call me back the following day, or in a couple of days at the latest.

Mr, Rooney called me the following day. He said he was very impressed with what Mr. Robinson and Dr. Dubois had to say about me. He said he would like to see me in person, would I come to Globe to see him? I said I would, that I would have to drive, and that I would have to allow myself four days to get there. That was fine with him. He said to bring my transcripts, which the degree posted, and my two recommendations. He also said he would like to look at my military discharge papers. He said he would like me to drop by the Arizona Department of Education in Phoenix, to request a Substitute Certificate; it would be issued to me immediately, just by showing them my transcripts. This was just in case the Emergency Certificate was not issued in time by the beginning of the school year. He said it was just a precaution. Finally, he asked to call him from Phoenix, to let him know when would I be arriving in Globe. I had a very good feeling. It looked like I was going to be hired..

My old but reliable car got me to Phoenix in two and a half days. It was close to lunchtime, so I decided to eat something, before going to the teacher certification office. Maybe they closed for lunch. I took me about 10 minutes to get my substitute certificate. I called Mr. Rooney to let him know I would be in Globe the next day. My ETA, estimated time of arrival, would be 1030 hours. Then I continued driving until I got to Apache Junction. That would leave me in position for my final leg, a mountain climb, about 90 minutes away from my final destination. I stayed in a cheap motel. My car didn't have an a/c unit, so I drove with all the windows down. I took a long cold shower at the motel. The temperature was above 100 degrees.

I arrived in Globe a few minutes after 10; and I was shown to Mr. Rooney's office right away. He was a very pleasant man. He didn't really ask me any questions. He asked me how was my trip, and where I had stayed during my trip. He read and examined all my documentation. He smiled, and he offered me the position. I accepted. Then he asked me if I could coach a sport. I told him I had never participated in any sport. How about taking care of the Yearbook? Yes,I could do that. He said Yearbook was a regular class period, the last period of the day. It had a small number of students, always a very good group. Mr. Rooney was happy because that would help him expand the course offerings further. The Yearbook class had been assigned to a Math teacher in the past; now, he would be able to teach another course; something called Consumer Math. So, my teaching load would be four French courses and Yearbook.

The principal told me I could not be offered a contract until the Emergency Certificate was in their possession. My sub certificate would be registered with the district, just in case. He asked me when I was coming back, and I said the first week of August. He showed me the school, introduced me to the staff, and took me to the District Office to introduce me to the Superintendent. They took me to lunch, and I descended back to Apache Junction. I would start my trip back to Indianapolis the next day. I must say, I was treated extremely well. It is nice to be wanted.

Two days later I was back home with my brother Patrick, and we went out to celebrate my new job. Ray, my other brother, was out of town, and came back four days later. We went out to celebrate again. I also dropped by the Placement Center to let Mr. Robinson I had gotten the job, and to thank him for all his help and advice. He said, "Terrific. Thank you for letting us now. That good for our statistics." I told him about my interview, and I said I was curious as to why Mr. Rooney wanted to see my Army discharge form. He said, "Maybe for two reasons. Don't forget you are still young, of draft age, and teachers are not on the list of exemptions. And you were a little short of references, and this document is really a very good reference." He gave me one final advice. "Get yourself a textbook about teaching methods in foreign languages." When I was saying good-bye, Mr. Robinson said, "Good luck to you. We appreciate your coming in. You know, we don't get too many former students giving us thanks, not even by phone. You are a very thoughtful young man. Keep in touch." I said I would. I dropped by the college bookstore, and bought a book on Methods.

I returned to Globe in August, as promised. My contract was ready to be signed. Next I had to find a place to live. That was easy. Mrs. Bianchi, the school secretary, who had worked there for more than 30 years, said she knew a couple who had a house for rent. All it took was one phone call. Mr. Rainer said, "Come on over, we want to take a look at you." Mr. and Mrs. Rainer were retired postal workers and the house they had for rent was right next to theirs. I was approved. No application, no lease to sign, no deposit, just the first month's rent. That's the way it was in this town. You wrote a check to a merchant or cash a check at the bank, and they wouldn't ask for identification. They knew who I was. I was a teacher.

Globe was a small mining town, with a population of about five thousand. I realized very soon that available women were scarce. Among the five new hires, there was one single female teacher (Home Economics), and she was snatched right away by the Art teacher. She was another teacher who found a place to live right away. The Art teacher, a very nice guy, had a spare bedroom in his house. The other three teachers arrived a few days before the beginning of school, and two of them had to live in a neighboring town, six miles away.

The practically non-existent opportunities to engage socially with members of the opposite sex in Globe, led me to my regular weekend trips to the Phoenix area. I began to use the college library in Tempe, as a base to correct homework, prepare lessons, and to read French Saturday morning, early in the semester, there was a very young female student sitting at a nearby table. Usually, I had the whole floor to myself. College students don't show up at the library, until near the end of the semester, to do "research," and write papers at the last minute. Why was she here? After a short time, she got up and approached my table. She said, "Excuse me, I see you have a French textbook on your table, and you are reading a book in French. Are you a graduate student? Are you a teaching assistant?"

I said, "No, I'm a high school teacher. I teach French up in Globe, about an hour and a half from here"

"You look young to be a teacher. Are you some kind of genius?"

"Not really, Just someone who likes the language, and who needed a job. What's your name?"

"Leslie, and yours?" I told her. She said, "Well, Ben. I'm really worried. I have to take care of my language requirement, and I already having .problems with my French class, I took French in high school, and I barely passed the elementary course."

"Well, I descend from the mountains every weekend. I leave as soon school is over on Friday, and stay in a motel until Sunday. You could sign up for a study room for Saturdays. I would be glad to tutor you."

"Oh, Ben, that would be great!"

That's how our friendship began. Leslie was from Santa Barbara, and she felt like she was in exile in Tempe. " I'm one of the black sheep in a family of achievers, doctors, lawyers engineers, and architects. I was rejected by every top university in the state I applied to, under the direction of my parents. I would have been perfectly happy to attend the local community college, but it was beneath my parents' expectations. So they were willing to pay a ridiculous out-of-state tuition, to save face, basically. There is another reason for my exile, but I'm not ready to tell you yet. I'll save that for later."

I said, 'Well, I didn't have to please my parents, Leslie, they were long gone when I was still a child. And I had the freedom to choose what I was going to study, with the total support from my two elder brothers who raised me. What's your major,anyway?"

"Undeclared major. My parents are thinking about law school for me, so they want me to be in a pre-law program, criminal justice, or something like that."

"Forget about your parents, Leslie. What subject do you really like?"

"I like History. I cannot get enough of it. I like Geography too. I would like to learn about other cultures."

"Then that is what you should study; that should be your major; that's your passion. You can keep your parents at bay, by telling them you could still go to law school, as no specific major is required."

I got my first kiss from Leslie. She said, "Thank you, Ben. I'm so glad I met you."

We continued to see each other every weekend. Leslie was doing much better in French. We also spoke on the phone during the week. In late October, Leslie told me, "Ben, the winter visitors are already arriving; you are going to have problems getting a motel room on weekends. I heard motels are packed with long term guests, who are getting away from the snow."

"I know. I guess I'm going to have to come to Tempe on Saturdays, and return to Globe the same day. If I get desperate, I can do the same on Sundays."

"I have a better idea. Pamela, my roommate, has the same routine as you do; She disappears on Fridays, after her last class, and doesn't return until Sunday night, You could crash at the dorm with me. I already checked with her, and said it was no problem. She said there was no chance she would return early."

I agreed with the plan, and I began my weekly commando raids to the dormitory where Leslie resided. Sometimes, when I called her during the week, Pam would answer, she sounded very pleasant. She liked to say out loud, "It's your mountain man on the phone, Leslie" On Fridays, as Pam was leaving,, she would say to Leslie, "I'd better leave before your wild man comes down from the mountains, and ravishes the both of us."

There was no ravishing going on, but we were showing signs of mutual affection. The end of the Fall semester came. Leslie got a B in French, and A's in her other courses.

For the Christmas holidays, Leslie went home to Santa Barbara, and I headed for Indianapolis. That would be the norm for the time we were in Arizona. She also went home for Thanksgiving, while I stayed in Globe, where I would be invited over for dinner, either by my landlords, or by one of the long time teachers.

I returned to work right after New Year's day, while Leslie returned just before the third week of January, to start the Spring semester. I endured those missed weekends with Leslie by reading books, and going to the movies. I really missed her.

When I saw Leslie again, she seemed sad, preoccupied, and something was bothering her.

"What's wrong, Leslie?"

"Remember, when I told you about being one of the black sheep in the family, and about being in exile?" I nodded. "Well," she continued,"the other black sheep in the family is my cousin Rick. He's a year older than me. In high school he was the star pupil in the Auto Shop classes. He is a talented mechanic. His parents weren't happy to have a 'grease monkey' in the family. That was the least of his problems. We were always very close. We were intimate from the time he was 16 and I was 15. We were 'two consenting teenagers.' We were caught in the act by the time Rick was a senior. We were truly in love. All the adults dismissed our feelings with one word, 'hormones.' Rick was treated very badly, and was sent to live with a distant relative, an accountant living in Alaska. They wanted Rick out of the picture, and they even gave him some money."

"Maybe that distant relative is the original black sheep," I said, "he's distant in more ways than one. Maybe being an accountant is not on the family's approved list of occupations either. But why are you sad, do you want to be with Rick?"

"No, that's not it. I don't think I will ever see Rick again. I have accepted that. What bothers me is that he was inducted into the Army in Anchorage, and was sent to Ft. Lewis, Washington for basic training. I am afraid that he is going to be sent to Vietnam. I just want him to be okay; safe and sound, that's all."

I said, " It is not a given that he's going to be sent to Vietnam. Besides, after boot camp he will be sent to some service school. So he's all right, at least for now. By the way, I liked your bit about 'consenting teenagers.' That was cute. You know, adults can accept adolescent love in fiction, like in Romeo and Juliet, but they cannot accept that in real life. I think it is because that didn't happen to them, or maybe because they were all hormones themselves when they were in high school. They can't relate.,"

She hugged me and said, "Ben, I love having these conversations with you. I love being with you; you make feel at ease."

"I missed you so much, Leslie. And I am desperate to kiss you, and take you to dinner. She kissed me, and we went to dinner at The China Doll, her favorite Chinese restaurant.

We talked about our plans for our first summer apart, so to speak, since, at the time, we were still just friends. Leslie said there was no way she was going to stay in Tempe, in the Arizona heat. She was going home. Myself, I would start working on my master's degree. I would escape the heat in Vermont. It was a rather expensive private college, but I had talked to my brothers, and they said they would pay for it. Pat told me, "Think about all the people who get up in the morning to go to a job they hate. I don't want that for you." Ray told me, "I cannot picture myself not being a pilot. I would be one of those people Pat is taking about. You have to go to that school!"

Leslie asked me, "so you are not going to work on your teaching credential?"

"The most logical thing would be to do that. But I can teach three years on emergency certification. To go for my master's is what my heart tells me to do."

"How long will it take you to finish that program?"

"Three summers. Two in Vermont, and one in Paris."

Leslie laughed and said, "Well, that is much more interesting than working on your credential, that's for sure. I'm happy for r you. I'm going to go home every summer. But wait a minute, after Paris, you are going to be unemployed. Your three years in Globe are going to be up."

I said, "Is that so bad? Well, then it would be time to work on the credential."

"You are a good planner. You plan way ahead." I just smiled and nodded.

I continued staying in Leslie's dorm room. I kept my sleeping bag there. Pam said I could use her bed, but I never did. I had no problem sleeping on the floor, after all I used a sleeping bag a lot during my military stint. About the middle of the Spring semester, on a Friday night I was falling asleep, when Leslie decided to lower herself down to my level. She swiftly, with amazing agility, accommodated herself inside my sleeping bag. She said, in a very sweet voice, "Vous avez des preservatifs?" I cracked up. I said yes, in my backpack, and I reached for it. Next day we had coffee in the room, no croissants though. We bought some cookies from a vending machine, and we headed to our study room at the library.

I said, "Your French is improving dramatically. You should get an A this semester. But you should have said, 'Tu as des preservatifs?' the familiar form is used with friends."

"OK, teach. How do you say 'to get pregnant'".

"Tomber enceinte."

"Je ne veux pas tomber enceinte."

"Leslie, you are making tutoring such fun!" She smiled. We continued reviewing her lesson, and checking her homework.

She did get an A in the Spring semester. The following school year she took Intermediate French and did very well. She heard news about Rick, from Cindy, his sister. She was delighted to learn that Rick had been sent to a service school in Maryland. It was no surprise, he was the first in his class. He learned about working on big trucks and tanks. Then he was sent to Germany. Rick avoided Vietnam, and the Tet Offensive, which lasted almost eight months, the most bloody and brutal period of the Vietnam war. I was happy for him too.

Leslie's senior year was great for her. I was doing great also in my final year at Globe High. Leslie got more good news about Rick. His military obligation was coming to an end. He had asked to be discharged in Germany, and that was approved. He had decided to stay in Germany. I told Leslie I thought it was a great decision. His mechanical talent would be better appreciated there. Germans don't look down on skilled workers like him. He was engaged to a German young lady. Perfect.

Early during Leslie's senior year, we went to Carlos O'Brien's for dinner, her favorite Mexican restaurant. She said she had made a decision. After graduation, she was going to complete the "fifth year," the teacher credential program. I asked her how she made that decision, and she said by hanging around with me for several years. She had seen how happy I was with my work.

"So, you are going to stay in Tempe for another year?"

"No way. I'm applying to Fresno State."

"Fresno State? Are you crazy? You want your parents to have a nervous breakdown? That's beneath their expectations. I'm sure Fresno State is not on their approved list of higher education institutions. Not even UCSB?"

"I'm not going to seek their approval, or financial backing. I'm a grown woman, and I need to stop being so dependent on my parents. I'm not going to be paying out-of-state tuition here in Tempe. Remember I'm still a California resident. And Fresno State's tuition is much lower than UC Santa Barbara.I have some money saved, and plan to work part-time, and try to get some form of financial help.. But, I don't want to be separated from you, so tell me what you think."

"You have an excellent plan. What I'll do is apply to Fresno State also. I will attend summer school in France, to finish my master's, then I'll go to Fresno. I'll be the one paying out-of-state tuition, roughly for one semester, because I won't have to do student teaching. I'm an experienced teacher, so I only will have to take the necessary courses to obtain the credential."

"That's great, Ben. I'm so happy!" I told her I was very happy too.

So, eventually, we went to school together in Fresno; we got our teaching credentials, and we both found positions right away. Leslie got a job in Ventura, and I got one in Oxnard. The two cities are 10 minutes apart. We reside in Ventura, and Leslie can still visit family, relatives and friends in Santa Barbara. In spite of everything, she loves her pushy parents. I get along with them. I guess French is an approved subject on their list.

Our formula for happiness is to love each other; to have an occupation we love; and to never stop learning.

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