I bought her a book. The Perks of Being a Wallflower, to be precise. An old favorite of mine from when I was in high school, when the world was bright and fresh and moved so, so fast and I could feel myself growing and stretching in new ways every second, every day.
I bought her a book. The Perks of Being a Wallflower, to be precise. She’s been coming to my room during lunch, dropping off her problems like sacks filled with rocks, I see them tumbling out every time she opens her mouth, something new each and every time. Her mom’s multiple roommates coming and going, six, seven, eight people crammed into a tiny house, staying up late watching Adult Swim reruns and her having to come to school bleary-eyed every single day, her feelings of alienation as the white girl with the green Mohawk, her past of sexual abuse that she hints at every single day but can’t talk about, each one another burden that drags her down further and further each and every day until she’s slipping through the floor, leaving parts of her between the boards on the ramp up to Portable 4.
I bought her a book. The Perks of Being a Wallflower, to be precise. She writes me letters, talks to me at lunch, stays close by my side on walks to the library, listing off anniversaries like rap lyrics, spitting them out one after the other. Two years ago today this uncle went to jail for heroin possession, six years ago this cousin shot himself, six months ago this uncle was taken to the hospital frothing at the mouth when he mixed his Percocet and Hennessey wrong. I nod through each one, tell her that life is tough sometimes, that we can become stronger through these things. I show her poems, postcards sent in to PostSecret. Tell her that her future is bright, that she’s one of the smartest kids I’ve ever taught and one of the most mature too. She beams. I tell her I care about her.
“I haven’t heard that in a long time.”
I bought her a book. The Perks of Being a Wallflower, to be precise. It comes in while we are gone for Spring Break, is waiting for me at home when I return from my travels. I get to school early the Monday after our break, open it up. I read a chapter, it reminds me of lying in bed at age 16 in the middle of the day, desperate to get to the next page, to absorb everything that this book has to offer me. I look at the cover, it reminds me of lying on a couch at age 24, watching the movie with several people who meant the world to me that I will be moving away from in two short months.
I bought her a book. The Perks of Being a Wallflower, to be precise. I open up the book and scribble a note.
To one of the smartest and most mature people I’ve had the pleasure of teaching: you have so much potential. You’ve been through more than some people experience in an entire lifetime and I see your strength in that. You are a fighter: keep pushing forward because for you the rewards will be incredible. I’m so glad to have you in my class. For you, the future is bright.
I bought her a book. The Perks of Being a Wallflower, to be precise. I wait to give it to her at lunch but she doesn’t show up. She misses fourth hour too. I tell myself that it’s fine. She just missed a day. But inside my stomach lurches, roils. The roommates, the drugs, the guns, the law, CPS, landlords, lost jobs. There’s a million things that could have happened over two weeks of Spring Break.
I bought her a book. The Perks of Being a Wallflower, to be precise. But I can’t give it to her on Tuesday because she’s still not in class. I go through the day, go through the motions. School ends and I go to soccer practice with my boys. Soccer practice ends and I head back into the building and start working on grad school papers.
I bought her a book. The Perks of Being a Wallflower, to be precise. It’s 8:00 PM. I’ve just finished my grad school work and can’t wait to get home but I still have to post my grades. I log on to the computer system. I post my 2nd hour grades. 3rd hour. 4th hour comes around and I scan the list of my students. Then, I check again.
I bought her a book. The Perks of Being a Wallflower, to be precise. But her name isn’t on the list.
It’s late, the only people left in the building are the custodial staff and me.
I sit. I stare blankly at the wall in front of me. I want to cry, to somehow release the emotion welling up inside me but I have nothing left. After twelve hours at school, I’m empty.
So I sit. One of the custodians walks into the conference room, sees me, recoils, then laughs.
“Sorry. Didn’t know anyone else was still here.”
A wan smile.
“No worries. I was just about to head out.”
I put my things into my ragged, torn backpack, sling it over my shoulder, and go home.
I bought her a book. The Perks of Being a Wallflower, to be precise. It remains on my desk.
She rolls up her sleeves as she works, the baggy arms of her sweater pulled up to her elbows. It is only then that I notice the cuts. Dozens of tiny criss-crosses crawling up and down both arms.
I wait until the end of class and then hold her for just a second.
“What happened to your arms?” Please God, let it be scratches from a cat. Let it be a bush she ran through. Let it be any number of plausible explanations.
“What do you mean?”
“Your arms are all scratched up.”
“Oh, it’s nothing.”
“Okay Samantha, well I don’t want to make you late for your next class. Have a great afternoon and I’ll see you tomorrow.”
She gets up, walks to the door. Seeing something in my slipping away, I open my mouth, hesitate for a beat, speak.
“Hey Samantha? Just so you know, my best friend in high school cut himself. I understand.”
An open mouth. A how-did-you-know? stare. And then, she’s gone, disappearing into the sea of people scrambling to get to 7th hour on time.
The next day, she finishes her bellwork early. Raises her hand.
“What did you mean yesterday?”
“Oh, nothing. Just that you can talk to me if you need to.”
“Can I after class?”
“Of course, Samantha. I’ll write you a pass and we’ll stay as long as we need.”
And fifty minutes later, she’s unloading everything, dropping off all her problems like rocks into the quarry that I made for the first girl already, that spot deep in my soul where they are free to hurl their problems into the immense blackness.
The parents’ separation, the house burning down, the dead best friend whose limp body she had to drag all the way home, the girlfriend leaving over Spring Break and her, just like me, not knowing where she is, all of it just too much and no one at home, no one to count on, the antidepressants not helping, the therapist canceled because the insurance didn’t come through, all of it piling up, suffocating, too much.
I’m here for you. I care about you. You can talk to me, come in at lunch, you’re always welcome, here’s my number call me if you think about hurting yourself, we’ll find you a therapist. You’re a wonderful person.
“Thanks Mr. Goodier.”
“Like I said, any time. Here’s your pass to class. I’ll see you tomorrow, right?”
I sit. I stare blankly at the wall in front of me. I want to cry, to somehow release the emotion welling up inside me but I have nothing left. I need to leave for soccer practice, have the state data review to prepare for, haven’t seen a living human outside of the school’s walls in three days, feel that same crushing sensation filling up the void in my stomach, spreading through my chest into my lungs, sitting heavy in my shoulders.
I put my things into my ragged, torn backpack, sling it over my shoulder, and go to soccer practice.
My 5th hour class is taking their GMRT assessment. The room is completely silent except for the scratching of pencils on paper and the quiet piano of The Fray emanating from my laptop. All students are engaged, working hard on a timed test and so I have a few minutes to myself.
I hop on to Teach For Us and scan some of the most recent blogs, eventually falling on one from Teach Houston call “death hits home”. I read about this fellow teacher’s experience, about how a student at their school died last week. The knot in their stomach as they explained and then cried to each class.
I read about the final conversation held with a student. I read about this teacher’s implicit understanding, the social contract that binds all teachers and students together:
“As a staff, we’re dedicated to helping kids create for themselves the types of lives they’ve dreamed about, so dealing with the reality of this loss is heartbreaking.”
“That’s what it is. This is a profession based on hope. It’s like an implicit deal. ‘I will love you, care about you, teach you everything I can. You will grow up into someone who makes the world a more beautiful place.’ There is something so powerful in teaching subject-verb agreement for the eighth time and hoping this is the time – just this one time – when it will finally “click,” when a student’s History 101 essay freshman year of college will contain the subject-verb agreement you struggled for so long to convey.”
And as I read, I was no longer empty. All of it came to me, the seconds minutes days weeks months and now even years, every one of them long, stretching into eternities and everywhere I turn, all these precocious faces staring up at me, asking me, begging me, telling me to lead them, to take them away from here, to care, to be a bulwark against this constant, constant tide of dirty, raw, grimy life that constantly threatens to overwhelm us.
I sit. I stare blankly at the screen in front of me. I choke back the emotion and step outside, feeling the cold wind on my face, easily penetrating my shirt. I take a deep breath, then step back in and continue teaching.
I do not put my things into my ragged, torn backpack, sling it over my shoulder. I stay.