Part 1 of 2

My cell phone vibrates on a July morning in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. I am meeting with five colleagues who, like me, are serving as teacherpreneurs or teachers in residence this year with the Center for Teaching Quality. We’re planning for the upcoming year, talking about how we’ll define these hybrid roles, which balance the classroom and policy work. I am too excited about the possibilities of the new job and this meeting to check my text messages.

Another text interrupts me. Then a third. I am annoyed but now curious about this interloping texter. I finally check my phone under the table and see three messages from my wife:

LORETTA: 911! Get to a phone! Do not wait!

LORETTA: Call me immediately!

LORETTA: Our van was stolen last night!

Panic strikes me squarely in the gut. Really? It can’t just be a “What r u doing” type of message? These are exactly the texts I fear when I leave my family for a business trip. Good ol’ Murphy and his law will spark my youngest son’s interest in an electrical socket (no pun intended). My oldest will nose dive off the bunk bed. Or our most vital possession will disappear from our driveway like the blink that is summer vacation.

I excuse myself and call my wife in Buffalo, where we work this summer in my grandparents’ bed and breakfast inn. Someone has indeed stolen our mini-van during the night. Forget the safety of an idyllic, historic neighborhood that charmed my childhood. Never mind my grandparents’ tempting Lexus or the new Land Rover belonging to a couple from Canada. My Honda Odyssey complete with a used stroller, sticky car seats, a Wal-Mart DVD player, and a collection of Disney DVDs enticed this thief.

How will I get my family home to Florida? How will I replace the stolen items? Why on Earth did Loretta leave $100 in the glove compartment? Are we stranded in a Victorian museum of a home full of antiques and Niagara winery tourists, unable to even buy groceries without car seats, a babysitter, and of course, a car?

The police offer little help. “Ma’am,” a surly officer tells Loretta, “there are over 140 cars stolen a month in Buffalo. What are you calling me for?”

Upon returning to New York, I help my wife pepper our insurance company and the police department with endless phone calls ranging from polite requests (hers) to tearful whines (mine), each time refusing to hear that we need to be patient and wait for an adjuster’s visit sometime between Tuesday afternoon and the year 2030.

We are on our own for now.

Then it occurs to me, what if the thief simply abandoned my van nearby instead of fulfilling my grandfather’s hypothesis: a one-way trip to a New Jersey chop shop? If so, then it might have been towed. I Google Buffalo towing lots, remembering the sober looks on my college buddies’ faces one night as they left a Washington, D.C. restaurant to find both of their cars towed. No one ever notifies you of this consequence, by the way. You just happen upon that correct conclusion when you see empty pavement.

The City of Buffalo has an online towing database. I plug in the license plate number every 12 hours for three days until finally, unbelievably…

Bingo! I find it. Listed clearly in the database, someone abandoned my van and now it sits in a city impound lot five miles away.

What we recover two days later from that impound lot bears an uncanny resemblance to our American public school system as it gears up for another year. Because of this experience, I am a more mature teacher leader. I’ll tell you why in my next post.

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