Odd Thomas

It's been a bad week...a deep bout of depression last weekend, giving way to some damned bug that's thrown me for a loop as I try to get through the final month of yet another school year. Then, Friday, the school district rears its ugly head with rumors raging that members of the Class of 2008 who have failed to meet the graduation standards will walk across the stage...anyway!

On that latter account, I can state with certainty that Julie ain't happy.

Julie and I and several Cairo High School teachers have waged this battle on several occasions in the past...the most dramatic being in 1996 when the Board of Education called an "emergency meeting" the Saturday before a Sunday graduation in order to change their Board Policy to allow such an event. Through public media pressure and attendance at the meeting, we were able to convince the Board that they could NOT legally change their policy - literally over-night - to allow the students short of credits to walk.

The issue was raised again earlier this year...and then, again, Friday. Rumor has it that this time the Board of Education may flex its muscle and do the dastardly deed. If, indeed, they do, they should be ashamed...it was the last leverage that teachers could use to try to motivate able but unwilling students to meet the minimum standards as set forth. With that final hurdle removed, there will be no incentive for many students to graduate from CHS. They'll do their four years, make their contribution to chaos, walk across the stage, and live "happily" ever after. As the adage goes..."Ignorance is bliss!"

However, don't expect the Board of Education to lose any sleep over it.

Yes, the dropout rate will increase...one of the "triggers" for sanctions under the federal No Child Left Behind legislation. Of course, the high school is already into sanctions because students are not meeting state standards. When the teachers were trying to motivate the aforementioned able but unwilling students to study harder to meet said standards, the Board of Education stepped in and "assisted" by lowering the passing grade from an "old school" 70 to a 60. Oh, and without any input from teachers, the Board of Education further "assisted" by increasing the number of periods at the high school from 6 to 7, enabling a student to receive 28 credits of classes instead of 24 credits of classes during a normal 4-year term.

You might say "Well, that's GOOD! That will allow the students to take more classes, work in more electives, become a more well-rounded student!" And, you might be right...for a couple of students. Unfortunately, you would be WRONG about the vast majority of our "able but unwilling students."

Oh, did I fail to mention that the Board of Education, with keen educational insight, left the number of credits required for graduation at 21? I mean, we wouldn't want to put any undo pressure on our "able and unwilling students"! In short, a current member of the Class of 2008, upon entering CHS as a Freshman, had the flexibility to fail as many as two classes a year and STILL have graduated on time...assuming he/she took a summer class or two.

So, my question is (and Julie would be screaming this) "Why in the hell does the Board of Education feel a compelling need to break its long-standing policy to accommodate a student or two that has failed to meet these minimal/sub-minimal requirements?"

A concern for self-esteem? The student is a relative? The student is a friend of a friend?

Take your pick...because they won't tell you. All they WILL tell you is that "It's the teachers' fault...they don't care about students."

Well, pardon my French...Bull Sh*t!

I've seen these teachers spend hour after hour preparing for classes, trying to find some way to stimulate interest in totally uninterested and unmotivated students. I've gone through the same abuse that they endure every day of the school year. They shed the insults (necessarily because nobody is going to do anything about it) like water off a duck's back.

For you "old school" folks, fondly remembering YOUR days at Cairo High School, let me give you a personal example from last week - a "day in the life", if you will, of what it's like to attend good ol' CHS in the 21st Century.

I now do "Alternative Classroom", supposedly for the students who are excluded from the regular classes for at least a quarter for behavior reasons. Well, for various reasons, it's not run that way this year...it's what we formerly called "Crisis Classroom", in-school suspension for anywhere from one day (actually, my "record" for this year was two minutes) to five days for minor infractions.

Anyway, last week, I accidentally called one of the students by the wrong first name. She told me in no uncertain terms that her name was NOT "Sharon". I apologized, but repeated my request that she stop talking and remain quiet, as is the rule in the Alternative/Crisis Classroom. This young lady promptly told me "I don't know who the f*ck you think you're talking to!" (Pardon HER French.) I politely asked her to leave the room and report to the office.

Well, YOU know that she was suspended for that, right, old-schoolers? Yeah, I thought so too. Silly us! Nope...back the next day! She was better...quiet in the morning...only raising her voice in the afternoon when she walked away from me to go to the restroom, announcing in a loud voice that "I have to do do!" Ah, the daily pleasures of working at Cairo Junior/Senior High School!

THAT was probably enough to make my point for you old-schoolers, but there actually was another incident while the aforementioned young lady was "do doing". Another young lady had been hiding around a corner, trying to sneak into the gymnasium. When I asked her to step out into the hallway so that I could keep an eye on her, she decided to walk past me to the restroom. There was ample room on both sides of me to pass, but she chose to intentionally bump me as she walked past. When I called her back to correct her, she walked up and bumped me again.

She got suspended...right? Have to admit, I expected so...I mean, she's already in "Alternative Classroom" for misbehavior! Why do we keep being so silly? I should know better for sure! She DID have to spend the afternoon sitting at a private table in the office...a "front row seat" to all the happenings! I'm sure she learned a lesson...I simply choose not to think what!

And, folks, this was "minor" in the scheme of what happens daily at the school in which I have toiled for the past 39 years...where Julie and I spent a combined 65 years. Hey, I choose to look at the bright side...at least I didn't get shoved into the trophy case like the security aide a couple of weeks earlier...when a couple of young ladies decided to fight. Since the broken safety glass has been removed, there would be nothing to protect me from the jagged edges of glass shelves and various trophies...OUCH! (Oh, by the way those latter ladies DID get suspended...for a couple of days...and then three days each in the "Alternative Classroom".)

Julie could not believe the stories I would tell when I would come home at the end of the day...she could not believe what had happened to her beloved CHS after she was exiled in 1995. (In fact, most of the stories she did not hear, as I declined to mention them...too damned depressing for me to retell and I knew it would get her blood pressure up...for nothing. It became one of those "on a need to know basis"...Julie didn't need to know.)

Unfortunately, the Board of Education is safe and secure in the knowledge that IF they should erase the final barrier to total chaos - that you can walk across the stage even if you don't graduate - the parents of the "non-graduates" will be forever grateful, the parents of the "graduates" won't know (and probably wouldn't care) that their child's accomplishments have been sullied, and the teachers will (wrongly) take the fall when the school is "restructured" under NCLB.

Uh, Ron...what's this got to do about "Odd Thomas"?

Oh, I'm sorry...glad you asked!

The above "rant", "diatribe", whatever is what was bouncing 'round my brain when I tried to go to sleep at 10:30 p.m. Two of "my teachers" at CJSHS reached out and touched me today...expressing their concerns to me by e-mail...voicing their outrage.

And, I probably let them down...

I empathized, I sympathized...and promised post-event (IF it happens) reaction...publicity. Unfortunately, I think they were hoping for more...some kind of pre-event action. (Hey, in response to a query by the Superintendent on Friday morning as to my personal opinion or the opinion of the Cairo Association of Teachers, I sent him a copy our our press release from 1996, condemning the proposed action.)

I figured that was enough...and got by with it! Why? Julie is not here...

While the drama played out at school I was home nursing the bug...a condition that did nothing but enhance the depression that I had fallen into. To pass the time, I read the latest PREY novel by John Sanford...excellent escapism. Having whetted my reading appetite I turned to another book that I had purchased at the same time...the fourth installment of a character named "Odd Thomas" created by the author, Dean Koontz.

BIG mistake...

Julie was a Dean Koontz fan, although I honestly don't think she ever "met" Odd. I remember telling her about the new character and that I thought she would like him, but this occurred during the years that Julie's voracious reading appetite dwindled. The drugs had finally taken their toll on her concentration and she turned more and more to magazines...articles that could be consumed in one sitting.

What I'm leading up to is that when I picked up the new book Thursday, I was expecting a good read...a distraction from my physical and emotional dents. I had thoroughly enjoyed the three previous editions...but that was before Julie left us.

Unfortunately, I proved not ready for the hero who sees dead people, lost the love of his life (Stormy Llewellyn) in the first book, and has since contemplated the great meaning of life and afterlife without her. I forgot...

DISCLAIMER: There were no "signs", no doo dee doo dee doo dee doo dee stuff...just stuff that hit a few raw nerves.

"Odd Thomas" is a short-order cook...keeping life simple because of all the supernatural stuff with which he must contend. The dead people in Odd's life are sometimes instrumental in what he does, but most often they are simply a "sideline"...spirits who have become "stuck" so to speak and have yet to "move on". Odd has what he calls "Psychic Magnetism"...some unknown force that draws him to places and people...his next adventure. At the end of the third book, he was joined while walking down the road by a new celebrity companion...Frank Sinatra, ol' blue eyes. Odd had finally convinced Elvis to cross over...that a mother's love for her son would forgive the nefarious lifestyle he followed after her early death at 42.

So, in book four, Odd has to work on Frank...figure out what is holding him back...why he is afraid to leave this world for the next. Odd's description of Frank had a familiar ring:

As was often the case, I could not read those extraordinary blue eyes, but at least they were not bright with hostility.

After a moment, he affectionately pinched my cheek.

He went to the nearest window and turned his back to me, a genuine spirit watching the fog haunt the night with its legions of false ghosts.

I recalled "It Was a Very Good Year," a song that could be read as the sentimental and boastful recollections of an irredeemable Casanova. The poignant melancholy of his interpretation had elevated those words and that music to art.

For him, the good and the bad years were gone, and what remained was merely forever. Maybe he resisted eternity out of fear based in remorse, though maybe not.

The next life promised to be without struggle, but everything I had learned about him suggested that he had thrived on struggle. Perhaps he could not imagine an interesting life without it.

I saw no real connection...just a sad recollection. However, getting teary eyed over something so removed should have told me to switch books. But, hey...stubborn as a Newell. I read on...

Odd meets with a 78-year old widow named Birdie who laments the loss of her husband, Fred...and the emptiness that ensues. He consoles her...Odd, not Fred...

Because Birdie seemed to expect me to elucidate, I fumbled out what I thought she might want to say herself: "Grief can destroy you - or focus you. You can decide a relationship was all for nothing if it had to end in death, and you alone. Or you can realize that every moment of it had more meaning than you dared to recognize at the time, so much meaning it scared you, so you just lived, just took for granted the love and laughter of each day, and didn't allow yourself to consider the sacredness of it. But when it's over and you're alone, you begin to see it wasn't just a movie and a dinner together, not just watching sunsets together, not just scrubbing a floor or washing dishes together or worrying over a high electric bill. It was everything, it was the why of life, every event and precious moment of it. The answer to the mystery of existence is the love you shared sometimes so imperfectly, and when the loss wakes you to the deeper beauty of it, to the sanctity of it, you can't get off your knees for a long time, you're driven to your knees not by the weight of the loss but by gratitude for what preceded the loss. And the ache is always there, but one day not the emptiness, because to nurture the emptiness, to take solace in it, is to disrespect the gift of life."

Okay, that one struck a little too close to home...especially, since I'm still sitting on emptiness. Shoulda quit while I was behind...I mean if one is depressed, why rub salt in the wound. But, when I start a book...

Got to the happy ending...all's right with the world...the hero, the heroine and their two dogs (one live, one ghost) riding a Mercedes to their next grand adventure...

All of sudden they pull to the side of the road...and I lose it.

"The stars, odd one. They're beautiful. Will you show me the constellation Cassiopeia?"

She could not have known. Yet she knew. I did not ask how. That she knew was grace enough.

We stood together on the cracked blacktop while I searched the heavens.

Stormy Llewellyn had been the daughter of Cassiopeia, who had died in my sweet girl's childhood. Together, we had often picked out the points of the constellation, because doing so made Stormy feel closer to her lost mother.

"There," I said, "and there, and there," and star by star I drew the Cassiopeia of classic mythology, and recognized in that familiar pattern the mother of my lost girl, and in the mother I saw also the daughter, there above, beautiful and bright, for all eternity, her timeless light shining upon me, until one day I at last stepped out of time and joined her.

As I said, it's been a bad week...

It can be worse.

A dear friend of ours will bury her third close friend this Memorial Day weekend...all lost to colon cancer during the past year-and-a-half. We never met Bill, but I wish him "Bon Voyage!" I hope Julie hears of his coming...as a short-order cook, Odd Thomas would meet his match.

On Sunday, at 3 p.m., in the Cairo Junior/Senior High School gymnasium...

  • where seven months ago today we honored the life and legacy of Julie A. Newell, and

  • where a mere two weeks ago Rachel Jones took center stage and called for Cairo students to ACCEPT responsibility for their lives and to work hard in pursuit of their dreams...NOT rely on or accept the "excuses" by the adults in their lives, excuses that may bring immediate relief or gratification, but result in a lifetime of underachievement and disappointment
...we will witness whether the Board of Education lays to rest the ultimate standard of academic achievement in Cairo School District Number One.

Julie, I DID try...