Adult Education, Part 1

(by an4@anon.lelnet.com, 26 March 1997)


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Article 1538 of alt.smokers.glamour:
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From: an4@anon.lelnet.com
Newsgroups: alt.smokers.glamour
Subject: Adult Education, part 1 of 2
Date: Wed, 26 Mar 1997 14:21:32 -0500 (EST)
Organization: Alt.smokers.glamour society
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   Helena walked out of the school and for the first time in two hours, she
felt a genuine smile creep over her face.
   She had a whole period to herself, and she wasn't planning on spending it in
a stuffy teacher's lounge. Not on a day like this one, with the sun singing
in a spring sky. That was no way to live. The birds were out in full force,
chattering in their alien language about bird things. A gentle breeze was
tickling the early leaves and the buds, carrying the scent of new life to her
bench.
   From 11 to 11:50 am, Monday through Friday, this was her bench. 
   Looking at the backpack between her feet, Helena had to admit that in some
ways she'd never gotten very far from this place. Bensonville Public High
School. She'd carried this same Eastbay pack around as a student through the
familiar halls. Even the contents hadn't changed much. She pulled her glasses
from the front pouch along with her cigarettes and her lighter, then
extracted Thackeray's Vanity Fair from the depths of the pack.	
   The only difference between now and then was that she'd never once in three
years as a teacher felt a need to hide her smoking- from anybody.
   After putting the glasses on she pulled a single cigarette from the pack of
Benson and Hedges and lit it casually, savouring the rich flavour of the
smoke. She'd no sooner pulled that smoke into her lungs when someone she
didn't recognise walked up to her and said "How can you do that here ?"
   At first Helena had a wild idea that this woman had somehow mistaken her for
a student. With the wire-frame glasses and her hair pulled back into a pony
tail she probably looked a little younger than 26, but she quickly dismissed
the idea as all too-self flattering.
   The other woman was striking, a tall blonde with a sharp face that was
either still young or a byproduct of excellent surgical technique. She
couldn't be more than about thirty. She was lean without being unnecessarily
thin, the sort of woman who probably worked out an hour a day- and spent her
spare time harassing smokers. She just had that anti-look. But there was
something wrong about it Helena couldn't place.
   "It's been a very long time since Thackeray's work was considered
objectionable."
   The other woman did not smile at the joke.
   "I mean, how can you sit there in public and smoke-"
   Sometimes, playing with antis could be fun. But not now. All Helena wanted
was to relax.
   "And you are ?" Helena asked, just before taking a long, thoroughly
enjoyable pull on her cigarette. The inhale was quick and forceful, the
exhale carefully rendered to take advantage of the way the breeze would carry
the smoke into the face of her persecutor.
   "Marcia West." The anger in the woman' voice was so thick that Helena
decided to try politeness. She placed the novel down on the bench and stood
up as she brought the cigarette to her lips. She turned her head carefully to
the right and exhaled so that this time the thick milky smoke would float to
one side of Marcia's angry face.
   "I'm-" she started to say, extending her free hand, but Marcia cut her off.
   "I know who you are. Helena Duncan. You teach my twins' honours english
class."
   Helena was puzzled. There was only one pair of twins in the junior class.
Cassandra and Giselle MacDermott.
   "Are you Cass and Gissy's mother ?" she asked.
   "Yes. I divorced last year and went back to my family name." The way Marcia
said this made it clear she had a chip on her shoulder about something,
perhaps the divorce. Her mouth, which might otherwise have been extremely
pleasant, was twisted into such a pucker of distaste that Helena was already
looking for some way to end this little confrontation.
   "And I don't call my children by those names."
   Polite conversation didn't seem to be the solution. 
   "Is there something specific I can do for you, Ms. West, or did you just
come over here to annoy me ?"
   Even as she asked the question Helena had the most disturbing image of
Principal Kanner asker her if she'd really said that to a parent.
   West- the name was familiar-
   Of course. Marcia West. President of the PTA. That Marcia West. 
   "I came over to ask you what you think you're doing, sitting out here in
public smoking a cigarette."
   "Well, I have fifty minutes between classes and in case you hadn't guessed,
I'm over eighteen. Add that to the fact that even the students are allowed to
smoke outside the building-" She extended her hand to point out about a dozen
students walking around the entrance, all of them smoking- more happily than
her, at the moment.
   "They aren't role models the way that you are."
   All Helena could do was laugh. Marcia said it with such a serious face.
   "Role model ?"
   "Yes. The way Giselle talks about you, you'd think you were the next coming
of Margaret Atwater."
   "Well, I don't smoke in class, Ms. West. I hope that's a relief."
   Thunderclouds formed on Marcia's forehead. "That isn't the point. Couldn't
you- I don't know- go off school grounds to smoke ? Or stay in the teacher's
lounge."
   Helena's frustration with this anal woman was reaching the breaking point.
"No. It's a beautiful day and I don't need to waste time-"
   The cigarette had burned down to the filter, so Helena stubbed it out
against the heel of her sneaker.
   "You shouldn't be smoking where the students can see you, is all I'm
saying."
   Suddenly the anger fled from the woman's face, replaced by- it was almost a
look of sadness. It was instantaneous and unexpected
   "Can we start over ?" Marcia asked. "I'm sorry. I was out of line. Let's sit
down and try again."
   The transformation was amasing. From fury to a sort of forlorn angst in the
space of a facial gesture. There was even some guilt on her face.
   Nodding, Helena moved back to the bench and sat down. Her hand strayed
automatically to the pack of B&Hs by her thigh. Marcia noticed and shocked
the young teacher by saying "Please, go ahead. I know exactly what it's
like."
   "What do you mean ?" Helena asked, hesitating with another cigarette half
out of the pack.
   "I mean, I used to smoke those same cigarettes. Please. I was just being
rude and short before. Go ahead. You're absolutely right- there's no reason
why you shouldn't be able to smoke out here. I'm not sure that I can
explain-"
   After she lit the cigarette and took a long, pleasing drag on it, Helena
asked Marcia to try anyway.
   "I- I smoked from the time I was fourteen. I got started early on a lot of
things. I was married when I was 17- and I had the twins when I was
eighteen."
   Helena smiled. "Don't take this the wrong way, but I thought you were a
little young to have a pair of sixteen year olds."
   "I'll take that as a compliment. I quit while I was pregnant, and it was the
worst nine months of my life. I swore I would never go through that again."
   The young teacher began feeling a little bit uncomfortable. What had started
as an annoying but understandable encounter with a parent was quickly turning
downright weird. Helena wasn't really prepared to sit on a bench between
classes and listen to the president of the PTA bare her soul. Tilting her
head back she exhaled another thick cloud of creamy smoke and asked what
happened.
   "Well, you know the old story. Mike and I were good Catholic kids- after a
fashion. There was never any question that we'd have to get married, but he
was never really- I don't think people that age are ever really ready to be
married. My parents basically raised the girls until I finished my law
degree. I came back here and started a real estate law office- Mike's father
owns Hamlin-MacDermott Real Estate, so there was plenty of work from day one.
But Mike's an artist-"
   "A free spirit ?" Helena asked, tapping ash from her cigarette. She saw the
way Marcia's eyes followed the cigarette to her mouth, saw hunger in those
green pools as she inhaled deeply. She was really a striking woman, and the
sadness which she carried only added to that.
   "Yes. He was always off in Boston or New York at some exhibit. I- well, I
tried very hard not to be jealous, tried hard, but his heart was never really
in- well, that's not important now."
   "Tell me why you quit," Helena said, feeling herself slip into the old
familiar role of teacher-psychologist.
   "The girls were twelve at the time. I came home early one afternoon- I work
out of the house but you know, it's just appointments all day. I was coming
back from a closing and they were in their bedroom with the music up loud and
they didn't hear me come in. I walked down the hall and they were laughing. I
remember thinking how happy they sounded- they're great kids, really. I
looked in the door- it was about half-closed, like they were maybe doing
something a little bit risky-"
   Marcia laughed. It was a self-depreciating, embarrassed sound.
   "They were at that age where you can still pretend, you know. They were
acting out having a meeting, just like their Mom. They have these big desks
that sit facing each other in their room and they had spread some of my old
paperwork out- contracts and notes scribbled on legal pads. They were so
cute- uninhibited."
   "And ?"
   "They'd slipped two cigarette out of pack. I'd wondered about it. Like any
decent lawyer, I thrive on detail, and I'd thought I was a couple short when
I left the house, but I had forgotten about it- until I saw them, that is.
They'd taken two ashtrays from the living room and they were sitting there,
pretending to smoke those cigarettes. I'm sure they weren't planning on
actually lighting them. They were just mimicking me. It was odd to watch.
These two mirror images, holding their cigarettes exactly the way I do- I
did. They'd take long inhales and pretend to blow smoke at each other."
   "I'd imagine you gave them quite an earful."
   Marcia shook her head. "No. That's the funniest thing. I wasn't mad at all.
That's the really embarrassing part. I saw them and the only thing I could
think was about how cute they looked. I let them go on for a moment or two
and then I went back to the front door and pretended I'd locked myself out. I
rang the bell and made a big show about not being able to find my house key."
   "You never said anything ?" Helena asked, surprised.
   "No. In fact, all that night all I could think about was that it would be
nice when they got to an age where they could really smoke. I'd always
imagined that sooner or later they'd want to start and I had planned on being
very supportive about it. I wanted to share it with them when they were old
enough-"
   Helena finished the cigarette, picked up a soda can one of the students had
left under the bench, and dropped it inside.
   "Please, have another."
   Helena strongly suspected Marcia was getting some vicarious pleasure from
her smoking. That was fine with her. But an idea was forming- a way to help
this woman who seemed so morose.
   She lit the cigarette casually and inhaled slowly and sensuously, happy to
put on a lit bit of a show for Marcia. She exhaled slowly through her nose,
letting the smoke drift lazily between them, and Marcia inhaled the drifting
cloud as she'd expected, the enjoyment clear on her face.
   "I went to bed that night, and, well, you're going to think this is
strange-"
   "You dreamt all night about the three of you smoking together-"
   The look on Marcia's face confirmed this. "I did a minor in psychology.
Mostly because I knew it would help me get into graduate school."
   "Well, you're exactly right. I woke up in the morning and- usually your
dreams fade when you wake up, but these were crystal clear. I got into the
shower and it was all I could think about. It was so pleasant. But by the
time I got to the breakfast table I had started to wonder what the hell was
wrong with me. What kind of parent was I to-"
   "They were also pretending they were lawyers. That's not such a bad thing-"
   "You're a little behind the curve with your opinion about lawyers, Helena."
   They both laughed at this and Helena admitted a little amasement to herself.
The period was half over and suddenly she was regretting that they wouldn't
have more time together. Marcia was now watching her smoke with open longing
and Helena obliged, her inhale deep, her exhale slow and languorous, what she
referred to jokingly as a bar exhale. 
   "The point is that I started to wonder what was wrong with me that I wanted-
really wanted- my girls to start smoking. They've both always been very
athletic-"
   "They play field hockey and softball, right ?"
   "Yes. It took me about a week to quit. When they asked me why I told them
that I was just tired of it. They never really questioned that. It hasn't
come up in years now."
   "You still want to smoke, don't you ?"
   Marcia considered this. Considered lying, if Helena guessed right. In fact,
she expected Marcia would lie.
   But she didn't. "Of course. Sometimes when I'm standing in the line at the
grocery store by the cigarette display I envision myself reaching out and
taking a pack of Benson and Hedges and dropping it on the belt. Most of my
friends still smoke. I was even- this will sound stupid, but I was watching
Primal Fear on HBO the other night and Laura Linney smokes all through the
movie- I was-"
   "Why don't you, then ?"
   "It comes back to responsibility. You know, as a parent, as the head of the
PTA. When I made that crack about being a role model, that's something I take
seriously."
   "So do I," Helena said, feeling a little edgy. "I take my responsibilities
as a teacher very seriously. But I'm also a person. Smoking can be a
wonderful thing, if you do it for the right reason. And there's no guarantee
that just because you don't smoke that Cassandra and Giselle won't start
anyway."
   "I know. But I don't want to be the reason."
   "They're two smart girls. And they're old enough to start making some
decisions for themselves. If I were you, I'd go back to those dreams you had
and ask yourself if they are really such a bad thing. If you can go on
denying yourself indefinitely."
   "Are you going to finish by offering me a cigarette ?"
   Helena laughed. "Only if you want me to-"
   "Of course not."
   The two women look at each other for a moment. Helena drew in one last long
inhale from the cigarette, dropped it into the soda can and heard it hiss
out. As she exhaled she picked up the half-empty pack and smiled.
   "It's been four years, after all."
   "Are you sure ?"
   There was something almost sexual about the tension between them. It had
been a long time since Helena had felt anything forbidden about smoking but
this brought back memories of a time soon after she'd started when she'd
talked her friend Seth into trying his first cigarette. It was a nice
feeling, all things considered.
   "No."
   Helena lit another cigarette, pulling on it until her cheeks sunk around her
teeth. She then held it out to Marcia, who took it in between her fingers
with ease. For a moment she just stared at it longingly, sure she would hand
it back. Then she brought the cigarette slowly towards her mouth, holding it
with her wrist cocked the way Mike had always said he loved to watch.
   She held it an inch away from her waiting lips, envisioning what she would
look like, wondering if the President of the PTA could really sit on a bench
in front of the school and smoke a cigarette without shame. She thought about
how harsh the smoke would be, how cloying the taste of tobacco would be in
her mouth, how her lings would scream in protest at the invasion of smoke.
   Helena could only think that the cigarette completed this woman somehow. Now
she understand what had bothered her about this from the start. Marcia had
the look of a smoker. She still carried that air with her, which was why her
initial indignation had seemed so terribly displaced. It was funny that she'd
mentioned Laura Linney. She bore a striking resemblance.
   Then it was over. Marcia finished the motion, planting the long white
cigarette between hungry, waiting lips. Her inhale was practised, perfect,
and deep. She coughed slightly, but that was to be expected. Before she could
regret the decision Helena lit another cigarette, glancing casually at her
watch. She had eight minutes. Time enough to offer some friendly advice.
   What neither woman saw was the twins, watching this exchange from Mr.
Krackov's room. They shared knowing smiles and went back to listening Krackov
drone on about the physics of mass on an incline.


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