My second-grade teacher asked to borrow my wooden ruler, and I knew someone was destined for pain. That someone was a miniature criminal who could not stay seated in the first-grade row just to my left. He was a beginner. I knew the ropes.
And I was secretly glad he was getting paddled, because for once, it wasn’t me. I got in trouble at home — a lot. (But never at school.)
As I sat in my desk I could hear the thwack, thwack, thwack of his punishment over Miss Stillabauer’s knee.
That little boy came from the poorest family in the school, transient farmers. His sister, named after a desolate city, was a sullen fifth-grader who without a word made me want to turn away. And the oldest daughter, named after one of the characters in The Wizard of Oz, spent her free time combing her chestnut hair. I thought she was beautiful.
My mother had just learned to drive and volunteered to give any child a ride. The day of the boy’s reckoning, she scooped up the whole family in her screaming turquoise Nash and headed down an unfamiliar gravel road. We all sat leaning forward to watch the road peter into dirt.
Without warning sister elder said, “My dad ran over our little brother with his truck. He said it’s our fault, because we weren’t watching him.”
The entire car fell silent. We knew this was a Big Thing. But I had to ask, “Did he die?”
“Oh yes,” she said. I listened to her voice for any emotional markers. But she sounded as she always did.
Now I understand that their feelings were invisible. The little boy beaten with my metal-lined ruler was acting out kinetically. Sister younger was sitting on a rickety stack of undead furies. And sister elder interred her grief on a remote formation built of past torments, already a calcified monolith.
FYI, I’m never going to die. No, really. I’m pretty sure of that now. I have no proof to the contrary. But just to make certain, I celebrate each of my life’s birthdays for a month.
Last week as spring blossomed her way past the cold, three people I knew passed away through that opaque curtain most of us fear.
And I find myself thinking more frequently than usual of my youngest sister, Barbara. She and I shared a bed, because in wood-burning families, it was the warm thing to do. It occurs to me how closely our hearts beat, how comforting that was. When I most miss her, she comes in a dream to remind me of her laughter or her wit or her integrity.
At the inner-city high school where I taught ninth grade, many of my kids lived in unrelenting grief. Occasionally they stepped into the safe space I was to share their sorrows, just as that child of years ago had:
“My sister’s boyfriend killed her last night.”
“I was sitting with my two best friends yesterday when one picked up a gun and killed the other.”
“I tried to commit suicide last week.”
“Somebody shot my step-father yesterday.”
Yet each kid was in school with grief pooling around. Each was acting out in the ways reminiscent of that long ago itinerant family.
It seems unnatural for a first-grader to sit motionless while someone lectures. Ninety percent of those words fall like quicksilver through everyone’s drain. But it is the child who is at fault.
In uncertain times life isn’t fair, and it is common to rage at life’s inequities. And maybe we don’t want to look at death — or life.
But there is a better alternative. As we live, we can keep those passed alive in our heart’s beat.