01/09/2001, A Joe Kleen Story, Atticus Kleen, Brookview Lane, Cedar Rapids Iowa, Eric Peters, Hiawatha, Hiawatha Iowa, Iowa, Joe Kleen, Master Bryce, Misty Kleen, MS Kay, MS Kicksum, Nixon Elementary, Patrick Kleen, Tomas Vincent, winter
In “To Build a Fire,” Jack London tells of Yukon temperatures so cold that spit freezes before it hits the ground. Science tells us that spit can freeze midair at temperatures of negative 40 degrees Fahrenheit. Late in the day on January ninth Tomas Vincent faced a windy Iowa afternoon that reached an anemic high temperature of minus thirty, or, as the saying goes, a day cold as a witch’s teat.
Tomas was new to Nixon Elementary. Tomas was so new that January ninth, 2001 was his second day at his new school, at his new chance, new hope, new surroundings. I had met Tomas the day before when I had been the substitute teacher in his new special education classroom.
Nixon Elementary houses two special education classrooms that bear the pejorative label of B.D. Room. “B.D.” is shorthand for behavior disorder, and B.D. kids are divided by age, with the K through third crowd spending much of their day in room 113, while the fourth and fifth grade B.D.ers attend class in adjacent room 114. Tomas had spent virtually the entire previous day with me and the para-educators of Nixon’s room 113.
“Least Restrictive Environment” is education jargon that rightly dictates that students must have as much freedom as they are capable of handling. Nixon’s B.D. classrooms are designed and staffed to assist youngsters with mild to moderate behavior disorders, and that means that Nixon’s B.D. kids flit in and out of their B.D. classroom at various times of day, either en masse, in small groups, or individually as the individual students’ needs require and that they are accompanied by para-educators to greater or lesser extents. (“Para-educator” reads “Teacher’s Assistants” for those of you who prefer Twentieth Century lingo.)
It was rotten luck that Tomas’ first day at his new school coincided with his teacher’s illness, but this misfortune was offset by the presence of the mostly wonderful para-educators that, when the classroom teacher was away, really ran room 113. I am a great B.D. Room substitute teacher. My patience and empathy with the kids is high and I know when to lead and when to follow. If fate dictated that Tomas was to have a substitute teacher for his first day at his new school then at least fate was kind when it gave him me.
Of course, being great at something only helps so much, and Tomas has issues. One of the issues we face is that el chico habla muy poco inglés. Muy poco inglés es un gran problema, porque hablo muy poco español. With the help of para-educator MS Kay we muddled through our day and I waved adios to Tomas as he got on the short bus and headed for home.
My January eighth had been a full day of substitute teaching, while my January ninth had been a nine to three at North Towne Cycling and Fitness, my “normal” job. My older child is a fourth grader at Nixon and the younger is a second grader. My bike-shop workday ended fifteen minutes before Nixon Elementary dismissed for the afternoon. Most days I would cycle from work to Nixon and then home with Atticus and Patrick, but with the bone chilling cold I had agreed with my wife Misty that it was just too cold to make the kids ride- so we’d walked instead -figuring that there’s nothing like a little brisk air to make the descendants of Vikings feel alive!
As I pass Eric Peter’s house on Brookview Lane I can see the snaking line of queued, idling cars. The ultra-cold day has produced more exhaust spewing cars in the queue than usual as moms, grandmoms, babysitters, older siblings and a few dads sit with motors running and heaters blasting as they impatiently wait to pick up precious, pampered cargo. Passing Nixon’s bike rack I see MS Kay and call out to her, “Hey! How was Tomas’ second day of school?”
Expecting a perfunctory answer, MS Kay shakes her head violently, a scowl on her face, and declares, “Don’t ask! He ran off into the woods. I need to go call the police!”
Turning from the line of cars to the playground area behind the school I see Tomas running through the soccer field and heading toward the woods on the other side of the creek. “Crap!” I say quietly to myself before adding, “I’m going to follow him! Tell my kids where I am! Keep em inside for me, okay?!” I shout, taking off in a sprint without waiting for an answer.
Nixon’s schoolyard includes a blacktop path that leads to a bridge that crosses Dry Creek; the stream that runs through the woods east of Nixon elementary. Tomas is not following the blacktop, he’s not heading for the bridge; rather he is hightailing it for the woods.
Dry Creek is a misnomer, there’s usually water in it and when temperatures are warm the water can provide a significant barrier to the woods on the other side, and, more importantly, precludes easy access to the expanse of trails and extensive woodlands on the north side of Boyson Road.
I know there’s a game trail that sits behind Nixon’s farthest baseball diamond. If Tomas crosses the frozen creek and heads into the woods the fast descending darkness will almost certainly disorient him and get him lost. On a day with temperatures so low that exposed skin can freeze in less than ten minutes I know that I have to stop Tomas from reaching the far side of Dry Creek, to stop him from getting lost in the woods. Fortunately, I know the lay of the land and am quickly gaining on him as I run pall mall down the embankment that separates the school from the creek.
“Tomas!” I call out, “Tomas! Wait! It’s me, Mr. K!”
Tomas looks up and for a moment I think he will listen to me, that our six plus hours yesterday may have convinced him that I’m on his side. That was my hope, but Tomas’ actions soon convince me otherwise as he reaches down, picks up a baseball bat size branch from the ground and hurries into the thin strip of woods that lines the Nixon side of Dry Creek.
“Crap!” I say for the second time in less than two minutes as I scramble along the frozen ground and enter the woods behind the small boy. “Tomas!” I call out again as he slides down the embankment and his sneakered feet slide on the creek’s ice, “Soy yo! Señor K! Uno momento, por favor!”
Tomas answers in Spanish far too quickly for me to understand but his action with the stick needs no translation. Swinging his bat like a Dominican homerun king I hesitate as I reach the ice, my mind simultaneously searching for a way for me to communicate with him while thinking of ways to stop him without either of us getting hurt. My mind flashes to Master Bryce’s taekwondo class and the instruction I’ve received at his and MS Kicksum’s tutelage. Sweep the leg and roundhouse are immediately replaced with, “What am I thinking?! All I need to do is keep an eye on this kid until the police come, then he’s their responsibility.”
It is less than half-a-mile from Nixon Elementary to the Hiawatha police department. I hear feet hurrying my way and look up to see two bullet-proof-vested, boys-in-blue above our heads on the Nixon side of dry Creek and more on the far side hurrying towards us.
“Esta bien,” I say to Tomas. “Esta bien,” I repeat before calling out, “Hey! We’re down here!” as I frantically wave my arms above my head to get the cops’ attention. Watching the police approach my mind asks the question, “Are we in Hiawatha’s jurisdiction?” Dry Creek is the boundary between Hiawatha and Cedar Rapids and we’re definitely straddling that border. I shake my head to clear it of the irrelevancy and step back to let the police do their job and soon I’m walking back toward the front of the school to retrieve my children.
I don’t sub at Nixon again until late the next week, so I don’t learn what set Tomas off, what made him run away. There was some petty theft involved, he got caught and like many of us who find ourselves cornered with nowhere to go he panicked. Tomas was subsequently assigned to a special education classroom in another school that facilitates children whose behavioral problems are more severe than what Nixon’s B.D. rooms are expected to accommodate. I never saw him again.
Jack London’s “To Build a Fire” actually has two variations. In the 1902 version, the protagonist heads off in the Yukon wilderness alone and after suffering hardship and a permanent disability due to exposure and severe frostbite lives; in the more popular 1908 version the unnamed protagonist dies. I like to think that Tomas is out there, eighteen years older and living a rich life with nothing more than minor scars. I like to think that, but I’ll never know.