Sometimes it feels like you're drawn by a Looney Tunes cartoonist on a bad day.
Picture this: a second-grade classroom full of tiny human beings, each with ten times the frenetic energy of the full-grown models. Running and bouncing for no reason other than that they can.
I sat at the front of the class, three-hundred-and-fifty pounds of obsolete cop teetering on a second-grader's chair, the wood creaking and moaning, threatening to go at any moment. The buttons on my too-small blue uniform are threatening to pop free and join the kids in bouncing around the room, possibly with sound effects like ricocheting bullets.
But I sat here, again, today, in front of a class of rug rats not much bigger than my hands, praying my chair won't break, or my buttons won't fly off like cartoon bullets, and the kids won't all run screaming for the door.
It didn't seem to bother the spiky-haired little girl hugging my leg as far as her arms could reach around it.
"He's my huggy bear," she said.
The teacher was a mournful-faced middle-aged woman. Probably sad-faced because of the way the years had pulled her body down until she looked like a pyramid on top of tiny scurrying feet. Or maybe because someone had shoved it all into a purple mu-mu like some kind of bad cosmic joke.
I reached down to pat the girl on the head and the teacher pulled the girl away, "Jessi, today your huggy bear is a cop—police officer." The girl gave me a finger wave and a farewell smile.
I tried to return the smile. My smiles never come out right.
"Please don't make that face around the children," said Ms. Purple Tent.
Off on a bad foot, again. Even the last woman who loved me had described my face as looking like an old-school prize fighter who had just lost a bad fight and was sad about it. And that was a hundred pounds and several chins ago.
I did my best to look serious and presentable. I put on a blank face and sat completely still and completely expressionless, my eyes flitting back and forth as I searched the little faces.
Purple Tent rapped a ruler on her desk and the faces all got quiet. Her mouth had the tight lines of someone who fought a losing battle every day to impose authority amid the rampant anarchy of the world. "OK, everybody, let's get quiet for—I'm sorry, what was your name?"
"Officer Joe. What's yours?"
I was trying to be friendly, but the class giggled anyway.
The teacher had those angry lines again. "My name is Ms. Capulet. You need to give the class your proper rank and—"
"Just Officer Joe."
A huff and an eye roll, and I thought the ruler was coming my way. "Very well. Officer Joe." She turned back to the mob-in-training. "Class!"
There was silence again.
"Officer Joe has been sent here to tell you why you shouldn't do drugs."
She hissed at me. "As if we need this kind of fascist government crap in the second grade."
Out loud, she said. "They're all yours. I assume you have a presentation."
"I do." I started to stand. Decided there was too much risk of winding up with a chair leg up my ass, so I carefully and slowly reached over and picked up the spiral-bound poster boards our community outreach people had given me.
Jessi giggled. "You're funny." The class laughed with her.
"I try to please." More giggles.
I flipped to the first page. "This is Henry. He ate some drugs that the bad man there, named Alphonse, gave him, and now Henry doesn't feel good."
Ms. Capulet said, "Alphonse looks very dark-skinned. It's important to tell the children that the bad man could be any color."
"He certainly could. In fact, he could be a man or a woman, young or old, even a neighbor or a teacher."
The tent had sat down, but now it stood up. "What's that supposed to mean?"
"Nothing. Look — I'm trying to agree with you. And I try to be honest with kids."
She snorted. "Go on."
I tried. Jessi waved her hand furiously. I felt like thanking her for the interruption, but I only nodded.
"Henry looks sick, like I look after my mom gives me medicine. Are drugs like medicine?"
"No. Well, yes, but not good medicine."
A boy slouching in the front jerked his chin at me, a seven-year-old with a teenager's attitude. "Medicine tastes bad. I won't take drugs if they taste bad."
I didn't want to lie.
"Well, sometimes people make them taste like candy."
"I like candy." He hesitated. "But they make you feel bad like Henry?"
I paused. "Well, yeah, eventually." I sighed. "But sometimes they make you feel good at first."
This wasn't going the way community affairs planned. It rarely did.
"Maybe," I said, "we should put off talking about drugs for right now. Let's talk about Henry being safe. If Alphonse tries to talk to you, what should you do?"
Tough Kid tilted his head to one side. "I'm going to ask him for drugs, if they taste like candy."
Ms. Capulet gave a harsh laugh, "Good work, Officer Joe." She turned to the boy. "Juwan, you should tell your teacher if a strange man tries to talk to you."
I looked at Juwan and tried to hold his eyes. "No. You should tell a police officer. Like me."
She looked shocked, then her mouth got that tight look again. "Teacher."
I knew she expected support, but I couldn't give it. "Cop."
She opened her mouth, but Jessi got the last word in. "What if Alphonse tries to grab me?"
I thought about what I would have told my own daughter. "Kick him in the balls as hard as you can and run away."
The class all giggled and Ms. Capulet rapped the table with her ruler. "Enough. I think we're going to lunch now."
Jessi said, "The bell hasn't rung. I want to talk to Huggy Bear."
"We're going to lunch early. Line up out in the hall and wait for me."
While the kids were filing out, I stood up, towering over Ms. Capulet. She seemed to take affront at my size and stepped into my space.
"Believe it or not, I'm trying."
She softened, a little. "Sorry. I get tired of all the crap that the Birmingham School Board and the State of Alabama wants to cram down my children’s throats, while ignoring the things they really need.” She paused. “The kids seem to love you, though."
"Younger ones, anyway," I said. "Older ones get suspicious of the uniform. I try to catch them before they reach that point. While I'm still a big huggy bear."
"Yeah. Kids are naïve and will trust anyone, including cops." She waited for an argument and didn't get one. "You really think kids should go to the police first, tell on their parents and teachers? Beat people up if they need to?"
"You really think the police can always help?"
She put her hands on her hips. "You can't teach them self-defense yet. I don't think giving every second grader karate lessons or teaching them to kick people in the balls will help."
"Kids are getting hurt every day. So-called grownups aren't taking it seriously enough. Karate lessons might not be a bad idea."
She said, "You're not the one who has to supervise recess."
I laughed and looked at her to see if she thought it was funny. Hard to tell.
She reached up and poked her finger into my shoulder. "That's a detective rank, pretty high to be doing community relations. Is this just a day of volunteer work for you? Acting like you know something about kids?"
"This is your full-time assignment? Basically, a clown in a cop suit?"
I thought about it. "Yes."
"Quite a comedown, wouldn't you say?"
"You weren't always called 'Officer Joe.' "
"No." She was waiting for more. "Detective Third Brosette. Hard for kids to remember.”
"Hard for adults to believe you’re a detective."
"Yeah, I know I don't look like a detective. Anymore." I wanted to change the subject entirely. "You know your police ranks."
"My dad was on the job. Brothers, too. We don't get many detectives in here for school officers."
"No." I didn't elaborate even when she waited. Finally, she won and I spoke first. "You seem to be older than the suspicious teenagers I talk to in the high schools. Not sure why you're so suspicious."
"Like I said, my father and brothers were and are cops. I know how you guys think. And I spend enough time battling school boards and the city that I assume anything they send down must be crap.”
“I’m not sure you’re wrong about that.”
She studied me for a minute.
"Not trying to be confrontational, but when I said the young kids love you, I'm not sure that's all good. I may be overly suspicious—some say paranoid—about threats to my kids, but you do seem to take an unusual amount of interest in kids."
I thought about it a long time.
I picked up my props and walked out the door.