As any of my co-workers could easily attest to, I am a magnet for the strange. Like a bad, and ironically, never-ending episode of the Twilight Zone, peculiar people and situations seem to find their way to my personal coordinates almost every single day. I wish I could say this only happens at work, but no. It manifests itself everywhere. I apparently carry an invisible portal along with me that beckons dark and bizarre forces from far-off, dusty corners of the universe, and each of these forces passes in and out of the portal at will with explicit orders to swirl solely around me, making my day-to-day reality as off kilter as possible. I also wish I could say that this has only been a recent or fleeting phenomenon. Quite to the contrary, however, and whether benign or malevolent, these excursions into the curious, these visitations by the freakish and the grotesque, have been occurring for as long as I can remember. It would appear that I am cursed for life.
In the fourth grade I had a particularly mean music teacher. We only went to music twice a week, but it was literally a torturous experience. This teacher was intensely serious about her subject matter, and she expected every student in class to live up to her impossibly rigid standards. She was the type of person who constantly paced back and forth and back and forth across the floor, looking for infractions. She would scream in your face if she caught you not singing, or swiftly whack your hand with a ruler if you were exhibiting even a hint of incorrect posture. Needless to say for anyone who knows me, I was in trouble a lot.
One day, much to my bewilderment, we walked into class and saw a rather large hand drawn onto the chalkboard at the front of the classroom. The appendage appeared to have been more diagrammed than drawn free, umm, hand. One of the fingers on it was decidedly misshapen and had a dotted line across it, indicating some important feature. “What, pray tell, does this have to do with music?,” I worried. My music teacher waited patiently until everyone settled into their seats. Then she took her place at the front of the class and made her grand announcement. The previous night, it turned out, she had accidentally chopped the tip of one of her index fingers off while dicing vegetables, and she wanted to share this joyous life event with the class. This was no casual mention, however. This was the centerpiece of the day’s lesson plan, an in-depth discussion of the entire incident. We were told how it happened (clear down to describing the juicy, red ripe tomato she was slicing), got to hear about the emergency room visit, were treated to detailed chalkboard visuals of exactly where the finger was severed, and were even reassured (thankfully!) that her fingernail would grow back since the “cut” was slightly above the fingernail base. She even pondered how this might affect her piano playing in the future, so at least there was some sort of musical tie-in. The only thing we were spared was a peek beneath the bandage itself.
This being back in the day when the microsurgical technique of limb reattachment was still in its infancy, saving the fingertip had apparently not been an option. The more troubling matter to me, however, was not the incident itself – yes, it made a deep impression and the graphic detail of her story obviously still haunts me to this day – but the fact that this woman, who terrorized us each time we came into contact with her, now suddenly wanted our sympathy. “What was she thinking?” “Why should I care?” Being the sensitive kid I was, I did find myself pretty upset over it, but it certainly wasn’t because she’d earned it. My reaction was strictly because of the sheer gruesomeness of the accident. And actually she was still terrorizing us, but in a new and different way. I was fairly good with words, but I was a far cry from having the term “narcissist” appear among my weekly vocabulary lists. I only knew that something was incredibly “off” about the entire ordeal. As time went on, however, it became clear that her “lesson” was far more valuable to me than she would ever know.
As children we supposedly grow up in a cocoon, immune to the harshness of life, but this was hardly my first encounter with the strange. From my Cub Scout days I still remember a kid missing a finger, who, I was told, lost it in the mere act of catching a baseball. While walking around and minding my own business, I had some random jackass extinguish his cigarette on my arm at a cultural festival on the island of Guam. (Have you ever felt a cigarette burn??) I found a totally kick-ass, discarded steering wheel in some thick brush at summer camp and had it confiscated by my bus driver, who, a week later, thought I should be impressed that he’d installed it in his own car. Without warning I had a switch taken to my bare legs by a hall monitor at my elementary school, just because I was standing in the wrong place. One of my childhood friends was killed by a drunk driver following an argument we had over which of us would live longer. I even came face to what was left of a face with someone in the advanced stages of leprosy…and now this.
This, and other bizarre childhood incidents, were teaching me that the world was anything but normal. Expect the unexpected. Contradictions and randomness abound. Brutalities are as common as the roadkill your neighbor dragged down the street. I also learned that any wacko can get a job in education. They say that a person is the sum of his or her own life experiences, but I’d like to believe I hover somewhere above the line of train wrecks strewn behind me. Decades later I am still walking that lonely trail, far from life’s highways and byways, never quite embracing or becoming a part of, but always soaking in and observing all the oddities life throws my way.