My Popcorn Story

My Popcorn Story

Thirty five years ago, I was teaching at Bloomfield Hills Middle School.  The kids were nice. They were also rich, largely from  families of GM or American Motors executives.  During my tenure, the son of GM CEO Robert Stempel was kidnapped skateboarding after school.  He was recovered after a ransom of $150,000 was paid to his kidnappers, who were promptly caught.  The 8th grader had been kept in their car trunk, and he was able to identify them.  The other students mostly wished to know if he had pooped his pants. Maybe the rich are not so different from us after all.

I lived in Royal Oak- six miles away as the crow flies- but worlds away in socioeconomics.  I was the drama teacher, and one day I drove a young man home after an afternoon of set construction.  I complimented Ben on his lovely Cape Cod home, and in the most confident of manners, he said- Yeah, well you are a teacher.  You'll never have a house like this. 

Wow. I liked this kid, but he was speaking the truth.

Once during the school year I babysat for a student for a week while his parents went skiing.  I was summoned to the home for an pre-stay interview.  This home was also beautiful, so rife with antiques that the only television ( 13 inches, tops) was hidden in the base cabinets in the kitchen so as to maintain museum appearances.  When I showed up to sit, the silver had disappeared from view.  Upon return, this dentist with an Aspen home gave me $50 dollars and said it should suffice since I was closer to work in their beautiful home. So yes- I guess the rich are different.  Or they have different homes.  Or manners.

I use these anecdotes to illustrate the cognitive dissonance there was between our charges and the lives of us teachers.  $150,000 in ransom would represent ten years of teaching at that time.  We drove from modest homes to teach these kids.  Sometimes after a frustrating week, we needed a Happy Hour. We were not a bar group, like the high school teachers I had previously hung with. We went to each other's homes for a little spot of community.

I hosted only once, since my cooking and hosting skills were minimal.  I always bragged about my excellent popcorn.  It had been the go-to cheap snack for the 6 Joliat kids.  I was a Popcorn Gourmet.

Vicki Brykalski, our flamboyant art teacher, called me out on it, daring me to amaze the staff with my mad skills.  I tried to beg off, since I lacked my Mom's magic fudge/popcorn pan:  a crusty, seasoned pressure cooker, long divorced from its valve and gasket. No worries, said Vicki- she had such a pan, and had not used it once since her divorce.

And so we commiserated one Friday over popcorn and beer, and when we adjourned, I was still in possession of the greasy pan, which I promised to wash and return to school on Monday.

Of course I forgot.  And Vicki did not care; she was never going to add stew meat to liquids and pressurize it.  I kept promising to return it. She fanned me off, and so I decided she meant it.  I had my own popcorn pan.

The next school year was terrible for me.  I had a  bad student teacher, was going to law school 4 nights a week,  teaching 7 classes of English and Speech, and directing the plays for the school.  Steve had sold my condo,  and I moved home to  plan my wedding. We saw each other only on weekends, and I had class on Friday nights.  I was to move to Chicago during the summer, leaving my job, my home, my family and friends. I was overloaded. There were no Happy Hours. There was no time.

I developed some petit mal seizures that were clearly stress related. At the time though, my fatigue led me to believe something more sinister was at play. Brain cancer ?

During this procession of medical drama, I received a call.  My friend Vicki had been hit by a car.


Unthinkable and shocking.

I went to her funeral with adhesive in my scarf covered hair after my last brain scan.   I had been written prescriptions for phenobarbital to arrest my "psychoneurotic epilepsy." When I asked how long I would need these drugs, I was told forever.


I had no interest in living a beige, pharmacy subdued life. Vicki had been a wild looking woman: red hair, crazy clothes, giant earrings,.  She was outspoken and independent.  She juggled all kinds of things, and she laughed at her woes.  I chose to  laugh rather than obsess.

It was summer, worries were receding. I decided that I just needed to chill. It worked.

I still get a little "spell" now and then when I am overtired or overwrought. But I have the cure: Popcorn.

I schlepped my pan to Chicago, and we put down happy roots together. It has 35 years of additional grease and love upon it.  My kids would say my best meal is popcorn.  Sure, it's sad.  But true.

It's odd, isn't it, that Vicki lives on in my life this way?

I think of her every time the kernels sizzle. Steve is impressed with this one kitchen savant skill I have. I have caught him bragging on me.

I may not have Revolutionary War era antiques, vintage silver, or a home up the road from the Romneys, but I have a Magic Pan and a good life.  I have never wasted time thinking of what I do not have, and I still have a fond remembrance of Ben's Cape Cod with the white picket fence.  He was wrong of course. I have a better life than I dreamed of.

A Vicki Bonus:  Tomorrow I will bring you pictures of my pan, my methods and my triumphant snack food.

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