Counterweight

I pulled into the driveway of my close friend’s small brick house one autumn afternoon, the air thick and humid, stuck in transition from summer heat. She wasn’t home, but her neighbors’ kids ran and yelled at one another in the front yard next door, enjoying their first few moments of freedom after school.

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I jiggled the doorknob and prayed it would open. It turned without hesitation—I exhaled and let myself in. I could have imagined it, but a strange hush filled the rooms as I determinedly made my way to her bedroom, contrasting with the intermittent boom firing in my chest.

The handgun lay exactly where she’d told me I might find it. My hands shook as I dismantled the weapon; I felt silly for this. You’ve killed a deer, for Pete’s sake, Bethany. This is just a handgun.

But I’ve never dismantled a handgun at my friend’s home and held it for safekeeping after she placed it next to her own head the night before, contemplating pulling the trigger.

One small handgun never felt so heavy in my hands.

It was just one moment in one afternoon, in response to one action taken in one moment on one evening, yet the impact of hearing Dickinson’s carriage wheels screeching to a halt has not yet faded. I will never know why my friend chose not to pull that trigger, but thank God she didn’t.

This week, the Ozarks were hit with a line of thunderstorms I’d categorize as a deluge. I waded to my car in my rain boots after a meeting and drove home at 7:30 in the darkness, listening to Iron & Wine’s Trapeze Singer.  Another dear soul I love deeply and had to release came to mind, and I literally could not breathe. This was a problem since I was in the process of operating a vehicle in the midst of a downpour. I nearly stopped driving and clutched my chest, tears falling. I’m sure I was making what my friend Tara calls “the ugly cry face,” but I couldn’t help it. For a few seconds, the grief of losing someone invaluable overwhelmed me.

282244_518566098082_1117807_nA few days ago while the sun rose and glistened across the horizon, I stood in my backyard, which is nestled deep in the woods, and I noticed the spindly spider webs connecting trees on the hillside waving and dancing in the wind, the dew on each silk thread reflecting light with every tiny movement. Dry leaves fell among them and rustled through the recently raked yard.

I thought about grabbing my camera and attempting to capture this beautiful moment, but I knew it would be in vain. Even the best photographs are poor mirrors of our experiences; life is meant to be lived.

As painful as it is to grieve, to remember, to work through and process trauma, to watch people suffer, and to suffer myself, I don’t want to stop living. I never want to lose the chance to experience beauty that can’t be captured.

Those brief, beautiful moments are enough to serve as a counterweight for me, and I’m grateful for that.

One of my favorite poems, which resonates with me, is “Thanks” by Yusef Komunyakaa.

“… What made me spot the monarch
writhing on a single thread
tied to a farmer’s gate,
holding the day together
like an unfingered guitar string
is beyond me.  Maybe the hills
grew weary &  leaned a little in the heat.
Again, thanks for the dud
hand grenade tossed at my feet
outside Chu Lai. I’m still
falling through its silence.
I don’t know why the intrepid
sun touched the bayonet
but I know that something
stood among those lost trees
& moved only when I moved.”

 

Day 14: Dear students

*It’s Day 14 of the Dear Gratitude project. Today, I’m sharing a letter to my students. There is no way I could ever thank each of them individually for all they’ve added to my life. I’m grateful for the opportunity to teach today, and I look forward to teaching for years to come, hopefully!*

Dear students,

Humoring my students, Halloween 2013

Humoring my students, Halloween 2013

Thank you for teaching me. At Youth Home, you taught me that playing softball and Skip Bo is more therapeutic than sitting around in a circle and rehashing your childhood trauma. At Arkansas Baptist High School, you taught me that sometimes, my initial judgments are dead wrong. I remember thinking that you, the girl in my English class with long, dark hair and glasses who sat quietly in the back of the room, were surely naïve. I later learned that you were struggling with trying to end an illicit relationship. And the boy with red hair and sullen attitude who drew pictures of poop for me—you taught me that bad kids might require more work, but they’re often more fun to teach.

Thank you for making me laugh and helping me relax. When I walked into my classroom and saw one of you hanging out the window chasing after sneakers tossed outside by another boy, I threw my hands up and laughed (before meting out necessary detention duty). When I tried to punish one of you, a troublemaker and rebel with absolutely no cause, by commanding you to pull your desk to the front of the classroom next to mine, you smiled and were genuinely excited about the opportunity to sit next to me and tell me stories. I had to smile back. When I showed up to class the first day this semester, one of you mentioned that I bore a scary resemblance to Velma from Scooby Doo. You proceeded to ask me to incorporate the phrase “Jenkies!” into my lectures. I had much more fun lecturing that day than I would have otherwise.

Thank you for reminding me that I’m not perfect. When I gave you a handout with a typo on it, and then counted off for the same errors in your essays, you called me on it and accepted my apology (along with corrected scores, of course). Thank you for asking me really difficult questions that I could never anticipate. You force me to go home and reread the textbook and to dig through every nook and cranny of every piece of literature before presenting it in the classroom. You keep me humble and remind me that six years of studying English doesn’t give me all the answers.

Thank you for owning up to your mistakes. When you, the vivacious and tender-hearted 16 year-old girl who’d plagiarized her entire paper, admitted to plagiarizing and begged for a second chance, I believed that your generation might not be so misguided after all. When you begin whining about how difficult it’s been to prepare your speech, and then admit that you stayed up all night playing video games, I’m relieved by your honesty.

Thank you for refusing to own up to your mistakes. When you, the boy with the big blue eyes who seemed to be on a mission to make my life miserable that year, stood in front of me and denied using SparkNotes, even though I held an identical copy of your paper (printed out from SparkNotes) in my hands, I felt incredibly disappointed and angered. But I learned, from you and others who made similar choices, that I couldn’t control you, and that was okay. I had to let you learn from your mistakes, whether you admitted them or not. And when I saw you 10 years later, same blue eyes minus the negative attitude, you told me you were sorry for being such a turd. That apology meant more to me than if you’d admitted to cheating way back when.

Thank you for persevering. I have watched you, my sole student from Central America, go to the writing lab over and over and over again to earn points missed due to grammatical errors. This boosts my spirit. You embody the American dream. You remind me that no matter where my students start, they can improve and become better writers than native English speakers who don’t put forth the same effort. Thank you, single moms in my English Composition class, for staying up late to write your essays and for showing up to class even though you have difficulty juggling class with bottles and sniffles. You remind me of my mom and her amazing journey through college as a single mom of four young daughters.

Thank you for hating English. Thank you, boy who never makes eye contact with me and who dons a baseball cap to class every single day, for sighing in disgust when asked if you enjoyed reading the poem “Thanks” by Yusef Komunyakaa. Thank you, boy with curly blonde hair who complains that reading interferes with your fishing time, for reminding me that not everyone in the world enjoys the arts and humanities as much as I do. All of you who hate to read and write push me to find ways to make learning more interesting and engaging.

Thank you for loving to write. When you, the quietest student in class, submitted a personal narrative essay about owning your first car, I was blown away by your innate ability to write well. You incorporated allusions I’d never fathomed. I am grateful for my own professors who saw raw talent in me and encouraged me to keep writing. I am motivated to do the same for you.

Thank you for making me feel younger and for simultaneously reminding me how old I really am. Thanks, APPLE students, for laughing at my dance moves in the van on field trips. Thanks, college students, for complimenting me on my hipster dress and boots combo and, on the same day, for staring at me blankly when I asked all of you if you remember Milli Vanilli or not. Thank you for assuming that I use Snapchat. I’d never heard of it. Thanks for being surprised that I do not own a smart phone. Thank you for referring to me as “an old English teacher.” I view all of you the same way I view my former stepdaughter, Liz. Seeing the gigantic oyster of a world splayed in front of you reminds me that, though I may be 15 years older than you, I’m not too old to have more adventures, to travel the world again, or to try something new.

Thank you for showing me who you are. Thank you, Jewish student whom I have not heard from in over a decade, for explaining your beliefs to me and accepting our differences of opinion so deftly. Thank you, sweet student with bipolar disorder, for opening up to me and letting me be part of the path that healed you. Thank you, gay student who needed guidance, for allowing me to listen to you. You had no idea that you were allowing me to make a living amends to my friend who I’d responded to so horribly years before in a similar situation. Thank you, turtle-loving girl, for visiting me repeatedly and serving as a ray of sunshine during a truly dark time in my life. Thank you, my Andrew who was taken from this world much too soon, for explaining to me why dead white men were your heroes. As a young, troubled black man, I’m still astonished at your ability to put your own pain aside long enough to care for others and to lead your peers. Thank you, nerdy gamer boy, for confiding in me last week about trying to kill yourself in high school. You broke my heart. But when I listened to you explain the importance of communication, and the reasons you now refuse to sit around texting, I felt surprised and proud of you. When you talked about how much joy you feel when you volunteer at church, I understood that you are no longer an empty shell of a person. And please don’t worry about only having two dates thus far—someday, women will appreciate your interest in having real conversations, and your luck will turn around.

Thank you for proving to me that there’s still some good in the world.

Thank you for giving me hope.

Thank you for teaching me more than I could ever teach you.