Go to Content
Columbia College Chicago
Occupational Hazard
Print this PageEmail this Page

Occupational Hazard

By Nason

I guess you could say my Uncle Mackey and I had a bit of a falling out when he gave me a failing grade in his seventh period gym class. See, my uncle had grown tired of his unemployed bliss. So, Uncle Mackey set out in search of a real, grown-up job. And while I was praying that he would find employment far away from me, he took a long-term sub position at my school. That's when he burned all of the lesson plans the teacher had left him and, instead, taught my classmates everything they needed to know about picking locks, smuggling cases of Swiss army knives onto airplanes, and being a self-proclaimed "free spirit" in South Carolina.

I'll admit that I'm partly responsible for giving my uncle the idea of substitute teaching in the first place. I was trying to get my dog, Fitz, swaddled in a flannel blanket when Mackey walked into the kitchen, carrying a box of tissues and my mother's old briefcase. Fitz was terrified of thunderstorms, and, since the sky was filled with low-lying, dark clouds, I took the initiative to bundle the dog up, instead of watching him tremble under the china cabinet. Uncle Mackey sat down at the table and put the briefcase on the top so he could use it as a pillow. He sighed loudly and started to crack his knuckles.

"Hey, are those some new overalls? They're quite sharp," I said, trying to divert him away from the pressing or emotional matter he wanted to talk to me about. I'd seen him get all depressed before, and it wasn't pretty.

"No, these belonged to my ex-wife Shannon's father. I stole them from his closet when he died of a stroke," he said. "They were his fancy overalls. Anyway, Lillian, I've come to a realization—"

"Was that you're third or fourth wife?" I asked.

"Hell if I know. You'd really have to check a couple different courthouses in Tennessee to find that out. Listen, I was just watching —" Uncle Mackey said, as he pulled out a notepad from the briefcase.

"Was Shannon the one you married so you could stay in America?" I asked. I picked up Fitz and cradled him.

"Alright, you try explaining to the United States Immigration people that you're not Mackey Walsh, the Irish terrorist. Let's see how that conversation goes when there's a slobbering German Shepard—who looks a good two years late on his rabies shot—staring at you." Uncle Mackey tightened his pony tail and then started writing on the notepad. "Listen,—and don't you dare interrupt me—I was just watching that movie Dead Poet's Society on the television. And let me tell you, I was moved. Genuinely, moved. I mean that son-of-a-gun, Keating, was inspiring those little prep school boys. And I want to do that."

"Are you saying you want to be a teacher?" I asked. I was praying he'd say No. While my uncle's erratic behavior was certainly becoming more endearing to me, I had enough common sense to realize he was in no way suitable for a job in the teaching field. See, Mackey didn't think all twenty-six letters of the alphabet were necessary and was completely convinced Cuba wasn't a real place. This made Mackey an interesting person, as long as he stayed away from impressionable children.

Uncle Mackey got up and walked over to the fridge. He got one of my mother's Tab sodas from the bottom shelf and turned back to face me. "That's exactly what I'm telling you," he said. "I'm ready for a stable job. No more of me spending hours in the Bering Sea, hoping I don't get sucked under those icy waves right next to the mean crabs I'm fishing." He popped open the can.

"You've been watching Deadliest Catch again, haven't you?" I asked. He shrugged and held out his arms so he could hold Fitz. I passed the trembling dog to him and said, "Before you commit to the whole community college teaching degree track, how about you test the waters? Try doing some sub work and see if it's a good fit."

Uncle Mackey nodded his head. "I knew you'd steer me on the right path, Lil. Sometimes, I think you're a real killjoy. A regular teenage fun-sucker. A spoilsport. The girl form of George Bush, after Katrina and all those people of New Orleans hated him."

"I get it," I said, crossing my arms and leaning against the counter.

"But, you've always got the right idea. Always. Thanks for believing in me, Viper," he said. I shook my head. Uncle Mackey insisted on finding me a proper nickname because he thought that would bring us even closer together. "Not a good nickname?"

"Not a good nickname," I said, stopping to scratch Fitz on the head before walking out of the kitchen.

Since I was positive that Uncle Mackey would completely fail the standard background check required for substitute teachers, I ruled out the possibility of him showing up in a bright orange tracksuit at the rundown private school I attended. All of my friends from my knitting circle and pot luck supper club went to the local public school, which was better than my school in every single regard. My school was a good fifty miles to the west of South Carolina's Corridor of Shame, so we were told to stop our complaining and wear an extra parka when enrollment dropped and there was no money left over to pay the January heating bill.

I figured Mackey would just hang out at home stealing the buttons off my Oxford shirts and sewing them onto his button-less flannel ones. I thought he would just forget about the teaching thing. That was until he showed up at school, carrying my mom's briefcase. I was in gym class, sitting next to Slim—the gaunt Jewish boy who was my only friend—when the headmaster, Dr. Barks, and Mackey walked in. I sat in the very back of the bleachers, tightening my shoelaces and readjusting my bright pink sweatband. Slim and I were taking gym class pretty seriously because we had the Presidential Fitness test coming up, and our sit-and-reaches were nowhere close to where they needed to be.

All the cheerleaders, football players, and even the weird kid who kept lobbying for a varsity boules team crowded near the bottom of the benches. They hadn't even bothered to dress out. They were that unserious about the Presidential Fitness test and must not have understood the awesome certificate that came along with scoring in the top twenty-five percent. Or maybe the real problem was that they knew all too well what awards you got because unlike Slim and me, they'd actually scored in the top percent and didn't have ten years' worth of participation certificates pinned up on the fridge.

"Alright, shut up you rich fat freaks," Dr. Barks said. He was a couple insults short of termination, but as long as he kept telling those bear hunt stories everybody loved, he would stay on as headmaster. Mackey crossed his arms like he was offended by the inappropriate behavior, and I rolled my eyes.

Everyone stopped talking, and I crawled down the bleachers, far away from Slim, so I could look like I was part of the group. I had a feeling Mackey thought I was a freak, but I didn't want to confirm that for him. "As you all know, Coach Braddock got severe rope burns on her hands after trying to break the state record for the fastest rope climb." Some students snickered, but stopped when Mackey looked at them. "So, this is Coach Mackey Walsh, and he'll be filling in for her while she's at that burn unit. He's very trained at the athletics. Fun fact—he was in the Olympics. Butterfly stroke right, Mackey?" My uncle nodded and then winked at me. I put my head in my hands. I couldn't believe what was happening. "So, I'm going to let you have at it, okay?" Dr. Barks asked, before he turned around and walked out the door.

Mackey paced in front of the bleachers, clipboard in hand, and whistle swinging from his neck. He stopped in front of the boules kid and looked up at us. He looked calm, which surprised me because he once told me that he'd been at the very prom that book Carrie was based on. And that dance took place in an un-air conditioned gym like the one at school.

"Like Dr. Barks said, I'm Mackey. Your teacher left me some lesson plans, so y'all could get ready for the —"

"Presidential Fitness Test," I yelled out. Everyone turned around to look at me, and I could've sworn I heard someone call me "stupid Gumby" under their breath. I wasn't popular ever since I insisted on getting rid of chocolate milk in the cafeteria. I was positive that people would thank me for saving them from diabetes caused by the sugary drink. I was still waiting for people to show their appreciation.

"Yeah. Thanks, Lillian. Let's take roll," he said, flipping through the papers attached to his clipboard. "Um, Mary Etta Castles? Right, there you are. Almost positive I used to date your mother."

Slim raised his hand. "Are you going to help us prepare for the Presidential Fitness Test?" he asked.

Mackey rolled his eyes. "Let me tell you. I was looking at these lesson plans, and I just think this stuff is useless. Do you think the president really cares about you and the extra twenty pounds that are hugging onto your thighs like cellophane wrap? I mean, really, when are you ever going to need to run a mile in less than ten minutes? Maybe if an alligator was chasing you but even that's kind of a rare situation." He stopped pacing, and put his clipboard on the ground. "You know that you really shouldn't run in a zigzag motion when one of those reptiles is chasing you, right? Take the advice of someone who knows," he said, pointing to a cut on his arm he got two weeks earlier from a can opener. The boules kid extended a fist so he and Mackey could fist-bump. Uncle Mackey returned the gesture and smiled at me.

"No, I'm pretty sure you need to do that when an alligator is chasing you," I said.

"Shut up, Hurricane," Uncle Mackey said.

"That's a horrible nickname," I said.

Mackey adjusted his overalls and then sat down on the splintery wooden floor. "Y'all don't need a gym teacher. You need a life coach. And I'm here to help you. By the end of this week, you'll know how to make a tent out of a garbage bag, amputate your foot without causing a significant amount of nerve damage, and make a shank out of a toothbrush. Now, let's cry havoc and let loose the dogs of war!" Everyone cheered and ran onto the gym floor.

I was so confused by my inspirational uncle that I just kind of sat there watching the other students circle around Mackey. I then turned around to Slim. "C'mon, let's do some laps. You can learn all that stuff from the Discovery channel," I said.

Slim looked uncomfortable. "But class participation is one-hundred percent of this class," he said. "We'll fail the class if we don't join in on Nature Survival 101."

"Do you want to get another certificate of participation from the president?" I asked. Slim adjusted the sweatbands on his arm and then shook his head. "Yeah, I didn't think so. Now run."

Slim and I ran around the gym, jumping over the fallen ceiling beams as Uncle Mackey taught the rest of the students how to build a tent in severe weather and in horrific social conditions. Patrick Fawcett, the kicker on the football team, held a hose over the head of whoever Mackey was coaching. I guess that was supposed to resemble heavy rainfall. The rest of the students were supposed to strike at the students' knees with sticks Mackey had collected from our backyard. That was supposed to resemble vicious homeless people being mad at new arrivals at their camps.

"Just recreating my experience at the 1998 Jack Kevorkian Appreciation convention. One of y'all start chanting 'We should have a say, on our dying day, hey!' C'mon!" Mackey screamed. The other students started chanting, while Slim and I kept running. And while the water soaked down into the cracks and made the floor slippery for our running shoes, I realized this would only get worst. Until, Coach Braddock got home from the burn unit, I'd never get in the top seventy-five percentile in the Presidential Fitness Challenge. And I sure wouldn't talk to my uncle.

*

A week later, I got my report card, and there was a big fat "F" right next to gym. I sat on the couch next to Fitz and realized I had completely underestimated the seriousness of my uncle. For the last couple of days, during seventh period, Slim and I had practiced our pull-ups, while Mackey taught the class how to take a punch, crawl through a cloud of pepper spray, and maneuver their way out of a pair of handcuffs. Two students thought they'd gone blind, and it only helped Mackey's reputation as a modern Jesus when he held his hand over their eyes and said, "Here comes the sun," and miraculously restored their sight.

I dressed out for class the day after I got my report card and walked right up to Mackey. He was circled by a group of football players, all who wore overalls and tie-dye shirts like my uncle. I guess he was "inspiring" my stupid classmates.

I knocked the Tab soda can right out of his hand and said, "Dude, what's your problem? I'm your freaking niece! Don't play me like this." The football players stepped back. Until then, no one had known we were related, and I guess being stupid Gumby's uncle hurt Mackey's reputation.

"Would you shut up, Bo Ray?" he said, as he bent over to pick up is can. "I'm going to need you to respect me as your teacher."

"What do I have to do to make this up to you? What do I have to do to get an A?" I asked.

Uncle Mackey smiled and grabbed a bag. "Because participation is one-hundred percent of your grade," he said. "Just participate in today's lesson." He handed me a wire coat hanger and walked to the middle of the gym, the bag of coat hangers over his back in a Santa Claus fashion. "Class, to the parking lot!" he yelled and started off toward the faculty parking lot.

It turned out we were going to break into some cars. That was our lesson in delinquency: breaking into the automobiles of the people who slammed us with papers, problem sets, and projects that took half the night. I picked an old, beat-up red pick-up truck. I wouldn't know until later that it was Dr. Barks's car. Maybe that had some part in Mackey's eventual termination.

"Straighten that wire hanger, Fetus," Uncle Mackey said. "Put some shoulder into it." I did as I was told, and then slid the hanger into the back of the window, fished around until I heard a click, and knew I had done well when Uncle Mackey patted my shoulder. "Good job. Now steal all the weed you can find in this car. And quarters. Your mother isn't letting me use the washer at the house ever since I washed that box of crayons. And the Laundromat is freaking expensive." I stood staring at him, the wire hanger still in my hand. "Well get moving, One-Percent!" At the end of the day, Mackey got something like forty dollars' worth of quarters. He wouldn't tell me how much drugs he collected, but I guessed a lot.

Uncle Mackey got fired shortly after. Well, Coach Braddock came back with her hands all bandaged up and my uncle was sent back to the couch to spend his days cradling Fitz during bad thunderstorms. For weeks after his termination, people talked about his farewell speech. It was indeed moving, but the whole singing the national anthem at the end was a little over the top, even for Mackey. And they wore neon sweatbands around their foreheads and whispered "Cry havoc and let loose the dogs of war," every day. Coach Mackey "Jesus" Walsh was a legend.

"Guess I did inspire those kids," Mackey said to me, when I relayed the information to him. I nodded and tried not to think about how I would never get to do the Presidential Fitness Test.

That was until one night, a couple of weeks after Mackey had left school. It was late, and I was almost asleep with my sock monkey flannel sheets pulled up to my chin, when he knocked on the door.

"C'mon, we're going to the track," he said, hurling one of his smallest tracksuits onto my bed. I put it on, and climbed into his car, trying to avoid sitting on stuffed lemur that was riding shotgun. "It isn't real, but it's cute, right?" He drove to the track, and he held out his stopwatch. "Well here's your chance, Lillian. Make the president proud."

I ran lap after lap, did push-up after push-up, and sat and reached. At the end, Uncle Mackey looked at me and smiled. "You are the most un-athletic kid I've ever met, Britches."

"I like that nickname," I said.

"Thank God, Britches. I'll get it monogrammed on this tracksuit for you," he said, as we walked back to his car, where I picked the lock and he hot-wired the car because somewhere on the track we'd lost the keys.