It is springtime for sure in the house of The Storming Bohemian and Argyle C. Klopnik. All day, every day, Klopnik digs his garden. Our once-chaotic backyard is now a richly soiled pile of black, with a section of lawn and some brick pathways, terraces, and several rose bushes a-blooming. (Ah-choo!) Our landlady is delighted with her tenant’s gardening obsession. Daily, she appears with cuttings, seeds, and suggestions. According to the current plan: we will at the least have artichokes, raspberries, blackberries, and herbs. (I’m hoping for a true “Shakespeare garden” with a statue of the bard, of course, but I haven’t yet had the nerve to tell Klopnik.) There will be multiple varieties of tomatoes, shard, lettuce, peas, several different types of carrots and peppers. Only Argyle, the landlady, and perhaps the muse, know what else. At night, Klopnik gripes about the constantly evolving plan, agonizes over his collection of geraniums (he plans a rainbow of ‘em, full spectrum, bordering the yard), lawn furniture, the survival of the rosebushes, the orange tree, the lemon tree, the possibility of catalillies, and stumbles into bed groaning over his sore muscles and his dirty fingernails and the aggressive neighborhood turkeys, two of whom he caught today rutting in the roses. I’ve never seen him so happy. Yes, it’s spring, alright.
All is renewed. A few days ago, I brought my teaching credentials up to date and began looking for work, as I hope and fear a return to my days of shepherding adolescents through the thickets of literature, and excitedly anticipate a respite from artistic poverty. I am now officially a substitute teacher.
For the first time in years, I spent time in a classroom this past week. It was not what I expected. The school district sent me to teach second-graders. That would be seven-year-olds. Talk about a return to beginnings!
I remember second grade quite vividly: Miss Jackson was my favorite teacher ever and her classroom perhaps was the place where I have felt most safe in my entire life. And it was there I fell in love with the Affini twins, Anna and Jessica. Blond Catholic Italian twins! What could be more exotic to an Ashkenazy Jewish boy? Some days I would walk the long way home from school, avoiding the park and the playground to brave the mean suburban streets and travel three extra blocks so I could stalk them past their exotically pretty blue house near Cedar street. I’d walk on the opposite side, slowly, dragging my feet to keep them in sight and they would glance back and giggle. Ah, the sound of angels!
I grew up to be gay, but, I haven’t forgotten that the twins were my first love. Second grade.
In July, I will turn sixty, and Klopnik had his sixty-sixth birthday today. Second grade is long gone. I heard that one of the twins died a couple of years ago from a brain tumor, after suffering long but gracefully and with good cheer. It’s been fifty-five years since I left my home town and the lilac bushes that lined the driveway of our old New England house.
I wonder if I could convince Klopnik to plant some lilacs?
Can you ever go back? I became a teacher after I got sober twenty-five years ago. It was never my ambition: I wanted to be an actor and maybe a writer. But a teacher? That was my mom’s thing. But I had to earn a living, and the school district offered me an opportunity.
It was hell. My first assignment was at a middle school in the heart of South Central Los Angeles, not long after the Rodney King uprising. It was reputed to be one of the poorest, most non-functioning schools in the very large Los Angeles School District. I was sent to my first classroom in a portable building in the farthest corner of the campus. The previous teacher had been reassigned from this room after ten years and, in his anger, had not bothered to clean it up. Instead, he left material in every drawer, on every bit of wall, behind every chair, and piled in every corner. He also left a frightening note warning me “don’t touch anything!” until I heard from him. With no guidance, I was afraid even to clean the room. That’s how it was at 7 a.m., the first day of school. I sat in terror, waiting to see if he would show up and help me get settled. He didn’t. At 8 a.m. over thirty thirteen-year-olds poured into the room. By the end of the first day, I was literally throwing furniture. Things did not improve. Before the school year was out, I had a nervous breakdown and left the classroom, subsequently blacklisted from the school district.
Did I quit? No. I was in for a dollar, and spent the next decade moving from school to school, never quite fully successful, never quite a failure. My adventures carried me from Los Angeles to the small town school district of Lompoc, a happy time, replacing a teacher on leave, never offered a permanent job. On to a charter school in Tracy, where the corporate culture didn’t fit my bohemian soul, and then stints with Job Corps (great!), an East Bay continuation school where I ran afoul of a homophobic administrator, a year teaching incarcerated adolescents (wonderful!), and a stumble into early retirement and a second (unpaid) career as a writer and theatre reviewer and painter.
And that, dear readers, is how I became the Storming Bohemian.
But spring teaches us that our lives are seasonal, we go round and round, back to our beginnings, spiraling on to we know not what, into the past and into the future, round and round goes the wheel.
Try as we might, the past is never the past. So I am back in the second grade, back in the classroom, back with Klopnik, back with the twins and the lilacs, always, always, back to the garden and the blossoms and the aches and the dreams and the losses and the rich soil of our pasts and the ever-blooming future.
Y’know what I mean?
Happy springtime, everybody!
Rumpus original logo and artwork by James Lorenzato, aka Argyle C. Klopnick (ACK!).
“The Storming Bohemian Punks the Muse” was originally developed as a column under the editorship of Evan Karp at Litseen. An earlier incarnation of this work can be found there, along with many other interesting things.