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Back To School

After Dylan Haskell tried – but failed – to escape from the Winnebago County Courthouse, my remaining weeks of summer seemed to bask in this guy’s absurdist tragicomedy.

“Holy shit. My client just got sentenced to prison and he tried to run out of the courtroom …”

Ryan’s text had dropped into my day, grist on a hook, as the kids captured frogs and skidded out on bikes, whooping in their outermost voices, up the road from our house. I waited forever inside that ellipsis.

“After nine years in criminal defense, I’ve never seen anything like it,” he finally told me over the phone.

Months earlier, a jury had found Haskell not guilty on two of three heroin delivery charges at trial, and he was feeling optimistic about his sentence despite Ryan’s sober warnings. His children, young like mine, wiggled in the gallery by their mother as if attending an event in which their father might be honored. The children’s soft voices, inaudible and sweet as graham cracker crumbs, did nothing to sway the judge in this new opioid era.

The judge sentenced Haskell to prison, not jail – a big difference. Two and a half years in. That’s how they phrase it – time spent inside. After the judge retreated to her quarters, Haskell stood beside Ryan, fidgeting, working out the bugs in the lining of his hot skin.

“So am I going today?” Haskell asked, his new reality settling in.

“Yes, Dylan, like I have been telling you for weeks, first you’ll go to the jail,” Ryan explained, “until Dodge Correctional can arrange a transport bus to pick you up.”

Ryan studied the ball-point pen clenched in Haskell’s fist, a seeming harmless but potentially dangerous weapon. Haskell opted for his feet instead. He darted behind the judge’s bench, bolted out the back door, a courthouse security officer taking chase, and hurdled the railing. His apocalyptic wail, which Ryan heard back inside the courtroom, signaled his broken landing at the bottom.

In lieu of jail, Dylan Haskell was headed to the ER. Perhaps that was the point. Of course, he’d end up incurring additional felony charges for his attempted escape, but at least he’d altered, if briefly, the course of events. This botched break-away transpired three weeks before back-to-school eve.

Our second child, Leo, on the brink of middle school, was beginning to demonstrate his anxiety about returning. He’d sidle up next to me, pepper my shoulder with his breath, and later toss restless in his squeaky bed.

“Mom,” he’d say, then bury his face, expecting me to scan and read his brain.

Going back to school signified endings: summer, elementary existence, age 11, open windows, shorts and T-shirts, warmth, dribbling basketballs on pliable blacktop, and other freedoms of infinite varieties. All I could imagine was the cool sunlit morning after Labor Day, Leo running up Greenbriar Trail away from the accordion doors of the school bus. I filled his heavy silence with imaginings of his escape. As a little boy, and still now, he’d say, “Mom, Mom, Mom – look how fast I can run” and he’d take off sprinting, hands tight and webbed like the rubber paddles of a platypus.

“Do you know my trick for running so fast?” he asked me one day.

“What is it?”

“I pretend a clown is chasing me, and I’m running for my life.”

As an educator myself, and as a girl who loved school, I could not help but feel sad for sixth grade– not because he is growing older, not because I will miss him, although both are true.

I felt sad because Dylan Haskell’s prison and Leo’s school had merged in my own brain, a cross-wiring I could not undo. For better or for worse, I began to think of our children as being institutionalized on the tail end of their wild and emancipated summers.

The weekend before school started, Ryan mentioned that Dylan Haskell, just a 26-year-old kid for Pete’s sake, had dropped out of high school in conjunction with his addiction problems.

All the boys’ role models say it best, Muhammed Ali, Michael Jordan, Mr. T: “Stay in school, Kid.” One institution is so clearly preferable to the other, but the similarities between them are, at once, startling: cinder-block walls, florescent lights, locked doors, hall monitors, cafeterias, and a strict regimen marked by ringing bells. Structure is structure.

At long last, by some good fortune, the bus was so late on the morning of September 5 that Leo felt relieved when that chuffing vehicle careened around the bend. I’d left home already to get our youngest to his 4K program, and part of me is glad for this. What would Leo have looked like boarding that bus – smiling and waving or wincing as he does?

Mom, Mom, Mom. Look how slow I can walk. Look at me scuffing my brand-new shoes against the pavement. Look at me trudging down the aisle to find my seat as the bus rolls onward.

***My blog posts are inspired by my husband Attorney Ryan Ulrich’s work in criminal defense. Any casework I write about is from public record, but I have changed the names of his clients to protect their privacy.

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