A Magnificent Human Being

 M the Media Project
Mick Carlon writes on public education for M the Media Project. He is an internationally recognized author of novels for young adults.

Mick Carlon’s Jazz novels—RIDING ON DUKE’S TRAIN; TRAVELS WITH LOUIS and GIRL SINGER (Leapfrog Press)—are in the curriculum of 100+ schools in the United States. According to the late Nat Hentoff: “Nothing like Carlon’s books has yet been attempted in the history of Jazz. They are introducing a new generation to the glories and stories of our music.” A six-time speaker at the Satchmo Summerfest in New Orleans, Carlon has spoken to audiences about Jazz in New York City,Boston, Dallas, Anaheim, Los Angeles, Minneapolis, and all over New England. After enjoying a 38 year career as a public school teacher, Carlon lives on Cape Cod, Massachusetts with his wife, Lisa. The couple are very proud of their daughters Hannah and Sarah.

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By Mick Carlon

It’s not a secret that America’s educators are unfairly underpaid–but we do find

riches in the students we meet. Here’s one example:

Blind from birth, Janet (not her real name) gave hugs that pythons would envy.

“Is this what I think it is?” she asked, releasing me.

A fanatical fan of U2, Janet’s family didn’t always have the extra cash to

spend on albums, so I had bought two copies of The Unforgettable Fire at

Strawberries Records in Hyannis, Massachusetts in October 1984.

“Yes,” I said, “it’s the new Engelbert Humperdinck album.”

“Stop it,” she said, giving me a shove. “It’s it, isn’t it?”

“Yes”—and once again I was in the python’s grip.

I was a 25 year old first year teacher at Barnstable High School on Cape Cod,

and Janet was a freshman. With porcelain skin and red gypsy hair, she was a

beauty who did not know it. A bout with cancer had resulted in her eyes being

removed when she was only weeks old, replaced with blue glass eyes that stared

into the middle distance. (Most teachers and students did not know about the

glass eyes; they merely assumed that they were looking into real blind eyes. I

think only the school nurse, Janet, and I knew that her eyes were glass).

A student in my ninth grade speech class, Janet and I hit it off right away. One

evening in my tiny rented house in Bass River, I received a phone call from her

mother. “I’ve just taken a new job that begins at seven o’clock,” she said. “I hate

to ask—but could I leave Janet off with you around 6:30ish? She said that you get

to school early.”

I did. Even though students did not arrive until 7:45, I was at school by 6:10

each morning. This way I could warm up the copier in the library and have that

baby to myself. Then with my day’s handouts all run off, I could retreat to my

classroom and grade papers. With the time I was putting into planning my lessons

in the evenings—sometimes working until midnight—there was simply no time to

read and grade papers at home.

So Janet would arrive each morning, say “hello,” sit at her desk and begin

reading a braille book or magazine while I graded papers at my desk. A turntable

would be softly playing music—usually Mozart or Kind of Blue—and within days

we were comfortable with the silences.

But then Janet would ask questions.

“Am I pretty?” she asked me one morning.

A bit surprised by the question, I recovered quickly. (School teachers have to

be mentally quick on their feet). “Yes, you’re beautiful, Janet.”

“But why?”

“Hmm…. Well, you have gorgeous thick red hair and—”

“But what’s red?”

Good question, that.

A year later, when my journalism class learned how to review films with the

Beatles’ A Hard Day’s Night, Janet asked that I sit next to her to explain what was

happening on the screen. Taking copious notes, her review was the finest in the

class. I always liked to use students’ writing as a model. One, it rewards the

writer; two, it shows the students who struggle with their writing what fine

writing looks like. However, I always asked the writer’s permission first. Most

would say yes, but every now and again a student would shake his or her head no.

“How about if I white out your name and keep your identity a secret?” I’d ask. I

never understood this reticence. Janet, however, said Yes!, and her porcelain skin

glowed pink as the class read her superb work.

By the time she was a senior, Janet was one of the editors on the school

newspaper, Insight, of which I was the advisor. A fearless interrogator and a fine

writer, she was a natural reporter. In addition, her memory was prodigious. Tired

of her walking stick, Janet had memorized our huge high school by the late fall of

her freshman year. She knew, for example, how many steps it was from my

classroom to the library, then how many steps, after making a right-hand turn, it

took to reach the cafeteria. I felt that this was a mistake because thoughtless boys

running in the hallways could have easily slammed into her, but she simply no

longer wanted the stick. “It makes me stick out—ha, ha,” she said.

In the spring of Janet’s senior year, when it was time for the Insight’s staff’s

softball game versus the yearbook staff, I stupidly told her that she could be the


“What do you mean?” Janet asked.

“Um…I mean you can be the manager,” I said.

“But I want to play!”

“You can’t play. What if you get hit by a ball?”

“That’s my problem. You can stand behind me and with four hands on the bat

we can hit. Then grab onto my hand and guide me to first base.”

Not a naturally touchy-feely person—most especially with students—I did not

like this idea. “Doesn’t that creep you out?” I asked. A gently encouraging

mock-punch to the upper arm (to boys) was the extent of my touching.

“No,” she said, her blue glass eyes gleaming, “it doesn’t.”

The game was held on our school’s baseball field. We even had umpires. The

second base umpire, however, was a joyless officious type, a guy I did not like. I

was surprised he had volunteered for the job.

Our first time up at bat was a bust—a strike-out. But our second time up we

slammed a pitch over the shortstop’s head into left field. Grabbing Janet’s hand,

we rounded first base—(“Here comes the base—step up”)—and headed for

second. The throw came in and I swear Janet’s foot touched second base at the

same moment that she was tagged.

“Out!” yelled the officious dude, the pole up his ass tickling his uvula.

“I was safe!” shouted Janet. “It was a tie—and tie goes to the runner!”

“You were out, Janet,” said the ump. I looked at him over Janet’s red head, my

eyes trying to convey the message: “Come on, man—let a blind girl hit a double.”

But he was too dim to receive the message.

“I was safe!” yelled Janet, her arms now doing a type of helicopter motion.

“I said you were out!”

One of her hands finally grabbed its target—one of the umpire’s wrists—while

Janet’s other hand popped out one of her glass eyes. Placing the blue orb in the

palm of his hand, she hissed, “Here—you need this more than I do!” and then

began walking like Frankenstein into left field. The ump, not used to young ladies

placing their eyeballs in his hand, yelped, dropping the eye into the dirt.

For a moment, I thought: What do I do? Janet was a good ways into left field,

and her eye was staring up at me. What do I retrieve first—the girl or the eye? Do

both, my little brain told me. Scooping up the eye, I ran into left field and gently

grabbed Janet by the elbow. She violently wrenched away. “Hey, it’s me,” I said.

“It’s Carlon.”

Tears were flowing. “I was safe,” she said again.

“I know, I know,” I said, “but he’s a horse’s ass. Come on, let’s go back in.”

“The eye has to be sterilized,” said Janet.

The sparse crowd gave us a hand as we walked past. I noticed that the umpire

was suddenly finding the sky mighty interesting. Soon the nurse had boiled the

glass eye, cooled it, and Janet popped it back in place.

Just another day in the fertile fields of public education.

After she graduated, Janet and I lost touch. Well, actually, it would have been

my job to stay in touch—with the occasional phone call or post card—but I didn’t.

I heard that she had moved to Dublin, Ireland on her own in order to live in the

city of her beloved U2. Can you imagine the courage it took to do that? She

worked in a pub. After she returned, I did give her a call and we chatted. Her now

lilting Irish accent was lovely.

Years later, returning home after visiting my mother in New Hampshire, I was

beyond shocked to read Janet’s obituary in the Cape Cod Times. The early

childhood cancer had brutally returned and she had died. She was only in her

early 30s.

In my imagination, I can still feel Janet’s python hugs. She deserved to live in

Dublin, walking along the Liffey without a walking stick, until she was 107.

It’s fellow human beings like Janet that one meets when one teaches.

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