For two years, I taught high school classes from a cart more suited for providing drinks on an airplane than education in a high school.
I pushed my desk on wheels and dodged teenagers in narrow hallways with stacks of books, folders and notebooks balanced precariously. Like a contrary grocery cart, the vehicle frequently braked and veered, sending books and papers to the ground, creating mirth for onlookers.
Eager to ditch the cart, I was overjoyed when the principal told me, "Good news. You get a room this year." He didn't mention the fact that I had to monitor the bathroom next door.
The theory behind bathroom monitoring by teachers is that frequent snooping will reduce vandalism and smoking. Most of the time when I entered the bathroom, stall doors slammed, toilets flushed and the culprits left.
With a crowd of smokers, it was difficult to gather real names. In a one-on-one encounter I could remember the name for the report -- or if the student lied about who she was, I could identify clothing, face, hairstyle or shoes. Many an ID was made by jewelry.
I remember the bathroom's layout well. On the left side was a line of six stalls, on the right six sinks. The cleaning staff had painted over graffiti. Cigarette butt burns decorated toilet seats. Nothing in there made you want to stay longer than absolutely necessary.
All that considered, one encounter stays in my mind as if it happened yesterday:
I'm grading papers at my desk during my only preparation period. Loud talking from the restroom interrupts my careful reading of a student essay titled, "If Lady Macbeth Used Hand Sanitizer."
I enter the bathroom and encounter a fog bank hovering over four girls, two of whom share one cigarette with a 6-inch ash. They turn their backs to me, slam stall doors and disappear behind them like a choreographed magic act. Toilets flush in unison. Cigarettes drown.
My best authoritative voice announces, "All right girls, let's clear out the bodies and smoke. I'm getting cancer just standing here."
Three doors open. The two girls on one cigarette blur by. A third girl stops to splash her hands before she escapes.
I'm missing the fourth girl. I stoop and check for legs under the stalls. None. One stall, however, continues to send up tell-tale smoke signals. I am irritated. My "Clear Out" message had been offered as a free pass: Extinguish the cigarette, flush and leave -- no names, no detention, no principal's office.
I hear a lock slide shut. Does she think I was born yesterday? She knows that I know she's in there squatting or standing on the toilet. Knocking on the stall door, I remind myself that a teenage brain is like an entertainment center with loose wires that aren't fully hooked up.
"I have all period to wait," I let her know, "and you have to return to your class or your teacher will report you."
Without warning the door smashes into my arm. Miss Smoker sprints out of the room. I rub my arm and follow. Today, miraculously, my feet wear soft-soled flats. Miss Smoker has a head start, but I see her turn right at a hallway.
I debate my instinct to chase the prey. I don't know what I will do if I catch up. I just want to let her know that there are consequences to bad actions. If she is a sneak and breaks rules, I can track her down. I take off running.
Forget my experience with the North Park triathlon, the Great Race, the Pittsburgh Marathon; this is running for a purpose -- down the hall, past the planetarium, past the library. The chase is on. Turn left again. At the chemistry lab door she looks back and heads for the steps.
I hear her clomp down the stairs before I see her hand on the zigzag of handrails below me. I hear her laughter. She thinks she will outrun me. She exits to the outdoors. I see daylight at the bottom of the stairwell (in the days before chains and locks). She is the fox; I am the hound.
She makes a fateful decision and heads uphill to a walking track. Her pace slows and our gap narrows. Her over-the-shoulder checks increase. Her mood changes to worry. At the hilltop, winded and sweaty, she barely jogs toward the front parking lot. As I sprint up the hill, she walks slowly back toward the school's entrance, where I am able to sidle up to her.
"If you weren't a smoker, you could have outrun me," I say.
We walk to the principal's office together. Miss Smoker, too out of breath to deny anything, gets detention. Victory is mine.
Leslie Byrd Evans of Mt. Lebanon, retired from teaching English in the Steel Valley School District, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.The PG Portfolio welcomes "Back to School" submissions about memorable experiences at all educational levels, in addition to other reader essays. Send your writing to email@example.com; or by mail to Portfolio, Post-Gazette, 34 Blvd. of the Allies, Pittsburgh PA 15222. Portfolio editor Gary Rotstein may be reached at 412-263-1255.