Making Out is a series centered on how Jess Burnquist, mother, writer, and teacher is "making out' as she processes adolescent issues amid the glare of parenthood and the shadows of nostalgia.
Sitting on my kitchen shelf is a Betty Crocker’s Cookbook that my first real boss gave me when I got married. She didn’t wrap it. In fact she picked it from a donation closet that was situated between the living area and kitchen of the youth shelter where I worked in downtown Tucson. Laura remains my favorite employer some 24 years after my two-year stint working for her ended. Fresh out of college with a bachelor’s degree in Creative Writing in hand, I was looking for a job that would satisfy the demands of rent, health care and my desire to contribute something to this world while collecting life experiences worth writing about.
I was hired two weeks after my interview at the shelter. I knew I wasn’t Laura’s first choice. The shelter where I would begin work was a transitional home for youth ages 12-18 who were leaving the juvenile system, about to enter it, or who were homeless--usually as a result of turmoil with their parents, and in many cases foster parents. I was an optimistic, short and sweet college grad and the juxtaposition was a glaring one. During my interview, Laura gave me a tour of the shelter-home, an explanation of a youth worker’s responsibilities and then she grilled me for about an hour.
“How would you react if a teenager hit you?”
“Why should any kid trust you?”
“How would you handle a physical altercation between two residents?”
“What if a kid runs away during your shift?”
“What would you do if a resident called you a bitch?”
Laura shot these questions at me in rapid fire, but she dragged slowly on a Marlboro Light in between my answers. Her office was a designated smoking area--it was the early 90s and she either ignored fire codes and smoking laws or they hadn’t been passed yet. They certainly weren’t enforced at the shelter. The quickest way to a colleague’s heart was a pack of smokes.
She was a stunning woman. Her eyes were bright blue, and her dirty blond bob was always tousled but somehow perfect. She was 15 years older than me but seemed generations wiser. She could raise an eyebrow at two muscular male residents and they would instantly add ma’am to the end of their phrases. She had a smoker’s voice in the best of ways. Sultry, intense. Her laughter rang out like an award. We all coveted her smiles.
It took Laura a good 8 months to like me. In her eyes I was a spoiled, sheltered, college girl. I had advantages that neither she nor many of the kids who passed through the shelter would ever have. I resented such judgement but she was absolutely right. She never let me forget it. Once when she was training me on how to enter things in the daily and nightly log, she reviewed my comments then tossed the log with disgust.
“Jess, don’t write a novel. Just note what they had for lunch. And you better start putting the word *seemingly* behind your suspected reasons for the kids’ behavior. Your fancy degree isn’t in psychology.”
Daily, I vacillated between hating and worshipping her. Mostly, though, I just worshipped her. I learned more from Laura then I have learned from any boss since:
Less is more.
Talk is cheap.
Kids smell bullshit.
These lessons are the most meaningful to my life as a teacher and mother--both of which I was years away from becoming when I worked for Laura. She offered praise rarely, but when she did say something positive it could keep me and my colleagues motivated for months. When I was hired, she made me work overnight shifts. From midnight until 6 am, I was single staffed. I would walk around the house, help a resident if he or she woke up from a bad dream, or ill, or if a bed was wet from some sleep-filled trauma. I read novels and wrote poetry during the downtime. Many of my poems were about her. They were awful, but when I read them now I see what I was trying to do—Laura as Helen of Troy, Laura as Medusa, Laura as a misplaced flapper.
Downtime was rare though. There were inventory lists to maintain and morning routines to get rolling. My world tilted from the strange hours I kept. I had Sundays and Mondays off and for the first time I began to truly understand that the work of many didn’t end at five pm or resume after a traditional weekend. I met so many young people during my time there—brave, terrifying, angry, guilt-ridden, aimless, or determined youth and I began to also understand that I was good with them. Laura gave me the room to figure that out on my own.
She could clear her throat and I knew I needed to change my approach with the gang member who wanted to call his mom. A quick nod and sparkle in her eye was enough to let me know I was handling something well. I still mimic her quiet nod and slightly tilted head when I’m teaching. Laura’s quiet power and ability to know kids better than they knew themselves extended to her staff.
On my last day at the shelter Laura called me over to donation closet.
“You’re getting hitched, huh?”
“Okay, well you should know how to cook better because the shit you’re stirring up in our kitchen ain’t much.”
She handed me the cookbook and a pair of moccasins that would “fit with socks”.
I invited her to my wedding, but she had to oversee things at the opening of another shelter. I remember thanking her and being unsure of how much gratitude to express. I sent her a card with all of the smoosh I’m pretty sure would have made her cringe if I had told her in person. I don’t know if she got it but if she did, I hope she made her crinkle-eyed smile and stuck it on the bulletin board behind her smoke-scented office couch.
A couple of months ago, my former colleague sent me a message letting me know that Laura died that week of lung cancer. She kept her illness private. I can’t make the leap in imagination of the Laura I worked for with an ill and dying Laura. I never spoke with her or saw her again after I left to marry and move back to my hometown. She remains in my mind formidable and wise. The cookbook she gave me is getting tattered. I have to negotiate stained and sticky pages until I find the recipe for quick biscuits and gravy. Next to this recipe a cluster of blue inked hearts and some reductions in ingredients are noted in Laura’s handwriting. It occurs to me that I doodle hearts next to things my students write when they write well.
It is hard to explain missing someone I never really knew. Our relationship was primarily one-sided like most mentorships and it wasn’t until I was much older that I understood she was helping me to grow up—certainly more than any of my professors did. On the night that I found out about Laura’s passing, I dreamed of doing inventory on endless cans of vegetables. Right before I woke, Laura was there drawing bubbled blue hearts in the air and smirking as if she might pop them--instead she blew them toward me like wishes. I think that in many ways my whole adult life has been about fulfilling them.