Dear Miss Lang

12×24 oil on cupboard door, 2019

[This post is just a little bit of fun. My husband, Kevin, is always talking about Type 2 fun. The kind of fun you have that is more fun after the actual event, like a slog of a climb, or a grueling bike ride, or an adventure race. Type 1 fun is the kind of thing that is enjoyable while you are actually doing it. Things like, playing music, watching a movie, eating a good meal. I’d like to propose Type 3 fun, which is something that seems very traumatic when it happens, but later becomes something you can laugh at. Hope this makes you laugh.]

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November 14, 2005

Dear Miss Lang, 

            I would prefer not to be writing this note, but I feel it is necessary for the sake of impressionable students.  Your students are embarrassed; are talking about; and are getting grossed out by the marks (assumed to be hickeys) on your neck. After the first incident, I didn’t say anything; since you used a scarf to cover up, and I hoped it wouldn’t happen again, but the students are wise to the cover up and have complained that it has been happening again.  The students have expressed that they like you as a teacher and that you are a good teacher, but that they wish the hickeys would stop or that, at the very least, you would use cover-up.  I as a parent would like you to be a good example to our students and refrain from showing up in class with hickeys.  I and some of the other parents have been encouraging our children to wait until marriage before any sexual relations, and thus evidence otherwise from a teacher they respect undermines what we are trying to teach our children.  

            This not is not meant to embarrass you, but to make you aware of the uncomfortable feeling that are being stirred up, and to respectfully request that you help the parents encourage our children to remain pure, by being a good example. 

Sincerely,

[a concerned parent whose name I begrudgingly withhold]

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This is, word for word (including gross misuse of semicolons), a letter I received just two months into my first job teaching at a Christian school, a job I had taken to be closer to my parents when my dad was diagnosed with cancer, and my mom had to be put in a care home.   I didn’t have a teaching credential but managed to talk myself into the position by waving my newly minted Master’s Degree in Forestry and having my dying father’s best friend Craig, (who happened to be the president of the Spokane Valley School Board) write me an irresistible letter of recommendation.  Which is why Craig was the first person I called after school the day I received this letter.  I was not expecting, nor appreciative, of his response on the other end: howling laughter. 

“Craig!  This is not funny!” I scolded.  

“Well, it’s kind of funny,” he paused.  I was silent.  “Ok, it’s not funny.  I’m sorry. This must feel terrible for you.” I could practically hear him still grinning on the other end of the line.

“Yeah, that’s exactly what the mother said to me when the principal called her to demand an apology: ‘I’m sorry it made you feel that way’—what kind of apology is that?!”  I was furious, at her and at Craig for not taking this more seriously.  My reputation was crumbling.

“Well, were they?” Craig asked.

“Were they what?” I snapped.

“Hickeys!  Did you show up to class with hickeys?”

“NO!  I didn’t! Gross!  Are hickeys even a thing anymore?”

Craig laughed again, “Well, I’ve never had one.”

“The only hickey I’ve ever had was when I was like 6 and sucked on my arm during church because I was bored.”

“So why did she think you had hickeys?  Was she even in your classroom?”

“No!  That’s the thing.  This whole account is based on the testimony of a 12-year-old,” I fumed, “and how did that 12-year old know what a hickey looks like?  Did the mom think to ask that?”

“Yeah.  Good point.” Craig tried to sound like he was taking this seriously.  “So, what are you going to do now?”

“I’m going to show up with a real hickey.  Or a condom stuck to my shoe.  That would get me fired.  But it might be worth it.”

This was not the only time during my teaching tenure that my commitment to righteous faith had been called into question.  Being a science teacher in a conservative Christian school is really a delicate art, a dance.   The textbook chapters on evolution were crossed out in the teaching manual I had inherited.  I once had the audacity to suggest there were scientists that believed that Noah’s ark was not a scientific account.  I didn’t even say I was one of them (I am), but it was enough to create quite a ripple through the parent pool.  Then when I got married and chose not to change my name (because I had recently become the last living member of my family), I was pegged a feminist (yes!), and reading John Muir quotes for inspiration at the beginning of the day made me a communist.  Was John Muir a communist?  News to me. I got phone calls on my home number from a father who wanted to drill me on whether I believed in 7-day creation and demanded to know how I could call myself a Bible-believing Christian if I didn’t believe that every single species on the planet sprang into being in 7 literal days.  I corrected him, and said technically it was only 6 days, because God rested on the seventh. He hung up on me.  

I knew this job was not the best fit for me, theologically speaking.  I got the job because I knew all of the ‘right’ answers, even though I was finding myself asking very different questions. But I was here, gainfully employed, and I was close to my parents, and that’s what really mattered to me at this moment.  And I really did love teaching.  Because I love science, and I love kids.  And there were a handful of redeeming parents who appreciated my more scientific approach to science.  They may even be democrats.  

One of the best things about teaching at the Christian school was the staff. They became an incredible community of support during my parents’ decline and eventual deaths. I would find notes in my staff mailbox with gift cards for gas to cover all the trips I was making back and forth across the Canadian border to see my parents.  And I would come back from such trips to find my unruly lawn mowed and the hedges trimmed.  Days after my dad’s funeral, one teacher friend drove across the border and showed up at my mom’s care home with coffee and pastries, just because she knew there were a lot of people hanging around and wanted to do something useful. These are people that know how to show up.  To this day, they still show up for me.  

Meeting my husband, Kevin, was also a result of my affiliation with the Christian school. I first met Kevin’s brother Tim, as he was helping me start a garden at the school (or vice versa).  Tim worked for a farmer whose wife taught home-ec at the school and had 3 boys who attended the school.  One of the boys, Mark, was in several of my classes over my 3-year teaching career.  At one point, in the middle of class, I heard a cell phone ringing from the back of the room. As the back row was Mark’s usual place to sit, and he was a teensy bit prone to distraction, I was not surprised to walk back and find his phone ringing.  School policy was that any phone discovered at school was turned into the office for parent pick up.

      “Hand it over, Mark,” I put my hand out. 

            “Aww, Miss Lang,” he began his sweet talk. “I’ll just turn it off and we can forget this ever happened.”

            “Nice try.  Hand it over.”

            He pulled it out of his backpack and looked at the front screen of the flip phone. “Oh!  It’s Tim!”

            “Tim, like Tim Terpstra, Tim?” I said.  “Let me answer that.”  I grabbed the phone and flipped it open.  

            “Hi Tim,” I said flatly into the receiver to my brother-in-law.  “Mark can’t come to the phone now because we are in the middle of class.”

            “Oh—uh, sorry!  I didn’t know Mark had this phone.  It’s his dad’s number.”

            Mark looked at me and shrugged.  

            Mark was also in the class where I resorted to bribery to get the kids to do their pre-algebra homework during class-time (instead of goofing around and having to do it at home later).  I told them that if they all finished their assigned problems with 5 minutes to spare, I would tell them the story of the worst thing I had ever done.  

            The motivation this generated was unprecedented.  Apparently, word had gotten around about the scandalous hickeys and they knew there was more dirt where that came from.  I had never seen a more focused group.  They kept shushing each other so they could maintain concentration.  Unknowns had never been more passionately solved for.  

            When the last pencil was down, the students sat in rapt attention.  I went to the front of the room and perched on my stool next to the overhead projector.  I proceeded to tell them the story of my home-ec class in the 7thgrade, when I decided my squeaky-clean pastor’s daughter image needed some tarnishing.  Jason and Brian were my class partners the day we made sugar cookies.  I wish I could blame them for inspiring this brief lapse in judgement.  I somehow got the idea that it would be really deviously funny to put a bunch of salt into the sugar to ruin everyone else’s recipes.  I didn’t really think through the problem that would arise when our cookies were the only batch that tasted as they should.  

            “I still remember the tongue lashing I got from Mrs. Snider about ‘sabotaging her sugar,’” I recalled to the class.  

            They all stared back at me, waiting for the punchline.  

            “That’s it?” Derrick yelled from the back.  “Miss Lang, that’s the lamest story I’ve ever heard!”

            “Well, I didn’t even tell you the worst part!”  I said, drawing out their torture.  “She gave me a B+ in the class!  Can you believe it!?  A B+!  And, I had to buy extra sugar to replace the stuff I ruined!  WITH MY OWN MONEY!”

            I could practically hear the eyerolling.  What they couldn’t believe is that I had succeeded in tricking them into doing their homework.  The bell rang and they packed up their things, groaning and laughing as they left. 

            The truth is, I have always had an incredibly strong, God-fearing inclination to do what is expected of me, the ‘right’ thing, what is best for the greater good.  Are goodie-goodies born or made?  And, importantly, can we be cured?

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I saved that letter for over a decade.  Here is the response I composed in my head but would never send.  So, I will publish it here, for all the world to see.

Dear [a concerned parent whose name I begrudgingly withhold], 

 I am so very sorry to hear that my severe allergy to wool caused such alarm to break out amongst the impressionable students in my classroom!  Because I am a poorly paid, first year, private school teacher, I have to move from classroom to classroom to teach one of the 6 different subjects I have to prep for every. single. night.  Although I am allergic to wool, I am a fashion-conscious sentimental sap and wear a hand-knitted wool scarf when I walk outside across school campus. Because there are a mere 4 minutes between classes, sometimes I run, particularly if I am detained by students requesting academic help or prayer (both of which I am very happy to offer) which means sometimes I arrive out of breath and slightly red in the face (and apparently, neck, no doubt further exacerbated by previously discussed allergy). I do hope you assured these delicate flowers (for the benefit of my reputation) that you were certain there was some other explanation for the marks on my neck.  Perhaps I was in a climbing accident and the rope rubbed my neck; perhaps I was in an abusive relationship and exposing my hickeys was a cry for help, not a sign of my ‘sexual’ indiscretions (also, could you provide a list of ‘sexual relations’ I am to avoid?).    I’m sure you asked the students what the hickeys looked like. But then again, how would those pure little souls know?  Easy mistake to make.

Perhaps you were far too busy policing the rest of the Christian world to actually visit my classroom in person to evaluate the evidence for yourself. I might caution you that young girls can be very susceptible to the vices of gossip and slander.   I’d hate to set an example of jumping to conclusions based on false testimony or talking behind someone else’s back. 

Yours Truly, 

Nicki (only coincidentally rhymes with “hickey”)

P.S. You know my parents are both terminal, right?  Just checking.  Thanks for your encouragement!

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24×48 oil on honeycomb cardboard, 2019

6 Replies to “Dear Miss Lang”

  1. Miss Nicki expert on hickeys I just loved this latest instalment. You are the queen of grace and humour — no wonder you’re such a popular teacher. Sign me up. I learn something new in your wonderful “classroom of life” every time. (And I so enjoy the beautiful artwork that accompanies each piece.) Write on.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. How do you get me every.single.time?! I was enraged on your behalf, then laughing – with you, not at you, and just when I thought I’d end with my smiling face, you had me in tears. P.s. SEND THE LETTER! Rooting for you, your pal “Mere”

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  3. As with all your writings, both amusing and resonating! ❣Eve Wilms.

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  4. I love you friend . I am proud of you for letting go of that painful piece of your past & for being able to look at it with humor. That shows incredible growth & healing on your part!! Thank you for sharing your many gifts once again with all of us!

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  5. Oh my! I love it! Yes, when my dad used to teach at a Christian school early in his career, sadly, it was the parents that made the job hard. The question I am left with is this — isn’t teaching evolution in a safe, Christian environment a good way to PREPARE our children to be IN the world, but not of it? I had 15 years of Christian education and never learned much by way of apologetics or how to defend my faith against secular thought. Still something I’m sad about… although I am overall so thankful for my education.
    Thanks for sharing!

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