A Thousand Words

You came to me in the hallway of a school that I had mixed feelings about on a night in mid-December that I had mixed feelings about (I’m a teacher, and I was annoyed about the timing), and your tone was a little bit too grateful.

Is it possible to be too grateful?

That mid-December night was before the pandemic, before the isolation, before I even knew your name. And you put your hands on my hands and your eyes on my eyes and said to me: “I just wanted to thank you. Because your daughter saved my daughter’s life.”

They were in seventh grade (one of the worst grades). And I knew you meant it, though my shy child hadn’t even mentioned your daughter’s name at the dinner table.

Yet.

I want to tell you now, on your fiftieth birthday, that I can’t buy a decent gift other than this silly gag gift for your stock-tank “pool” and soon-to-be six-person hot tub. I can’t photograph “The Lovers” or paint “The Fly That Looks Like a Bird in the Sunset Scene” with acrylics and talent like you can.

But I can write a thousand words.

And I’ll try to make them worth as much as a picture.

The picture of you with your hands on my hands. Of you sitting in my backyard for a thrown-together fall party around the Solo Stove, then going home and buying one and giving ME credit for the idea. Of you trying to hide behind this tree, because you don’t want your dreadlocks, your beautiful dreadlocks, to outshine the flowers.

(This far along, I don’t know if I can limit this picture to a thousand words.)

Of you in that bar/laundry-drying front room with the original-owners’ Nebraska-farm barnwood walls bearing down on us, when you poured out your whole soul with a sip of bourbon, with a sip of trust, and trusted.

Me.

And I listened and tried my best not to take sides. And my husband said, “But why would she choose you? You’re barely friends.”

But you chose me, in that December hallway, in that barnwood barroom, in that part of yourself, to be your friend.

I want to capture a picture of how much it means to me to be your friend.

Of you, who I can text-rant, text-cry, text-breakdown until the ultimate five minutes of three dots and a, “You want to come over?” invitation when I’m already in my pajamas, leather moccasins and all, and there’s no question that Rosie is going to sit in my lap and your daughter is going to make me dinner and your son is going to praise the concoction of meats and cheese he created and Guy is going to entertain us all with his stories.

On a Monday night.

Of you with your hands on my hands, your eyes on my eyes, your heart on my heart, telling me not to cut the strawberry stems, warning me about the upcoming winter storm, teaching me and all your second-graders how to garden. All your COVID-traumatized second-graders who you did nothing but publicly praise and nothing but quietly worry over and save.

A picture isn’t enough. A thousand words isn’t enough.

Because you–I–can’t encapsulate, in a blog post or a birthday card or a gag gift, how much you mean to me.

You once sent Lilly on a trip with me in the middle of a lockdown. You praised me on social media because my packing list required three masks. I drove the five kids–Lilly, Rio, Mythili, Naomi, and Fabian–to three campsites in as many states, took them on a pontoon, on a series of bikes up the Sun Road in Glacier National Park, on a reservoir along the Snake River, into the depths of Wyoming gun country, into the depths of Montana right-wing ignorance, and you?

You were nothing but grateful.

To thank someone whose ideas are crazier than hers? To hear that voice that you’ve heard in your head your whole life but now has vocal chords and that beautiful face?

I can’t tell you what it means to me.

It means more than that moment when you told me that my daughter saved your daughter from the bullies that epitomize seventh grade.

Because we are fully-grown adults now, and those bullies still bully on the other side of those barnwood walls.

Yet.

You are too grateful to be bullied. As is she.

And you put that light in her and that light in my youngest and that light in the world, and I wish I could paint it. I wish I could pick up the brush and choose just the right texture, the correct mixture of pale blue, soft white, maybe a shade of gray, and be that painting that belongs on an easel first and a living room wall later.

Because a picture is worth a thousand words.

And there will never be enough words, colors, hands, or hearts to describe how much you mean to me.

Happy birthday, Tonja. Thank you for taking your hands into my hands, my baby into your home, and my heart into your heart.

A Boy of Eighteen Years

So many nights of no sleep lost to you. It’s all I can think about on this rainy Wednesday, my mother’s birthday, a cool rain that kept me awake with the endless thoughts of your cold cell, your cold refusal, and my cold ignorance.

Here I sit in my mostly empty classroom, the students done for the year, or done till Monday for me, when I give up three weeks of my summer to give my Newcomers a chance to see the city, learn how to fill out a job application, make a budget, make a meal together.

Remember last year when I tried to get you to come to the program and you blew it off half the time, arrived late when you came, never took notes, and flirted with all the girls instead of paying attention?

You were like that from the beginning. When I called Bruce and asked him if I could bring you home two and a half years ago, he said to me, “But you barely know the kid… and how do you know what he’s really like?” And my gut sank, and I sucked in my breath because you had been nothing but apathetic, misbehaving trouble from the moment you walked in. But I didn’t tell Bruce that. Because you were a boy of eighteen years, and you needed a chance, a home, and someone to believe in you.

I just got into an argument with a colleague about this intuition I have which he claims can’t be true: that I almost always can tell just who a person is within one or two meetings, and I am almost always right.

I was right about you and wrong about myself, and I sacrificed more than two years of my family’s happiness trying to show you that you could take hold of a different way of looking at the world.

But all you wanted was that damn car, that speed, that recklessness that drives so many young boys into cells and gun stores.

And who’s to stop them?

When my husband donned his high school cap and gown after a tumultuous educational experience, having been held back in second and fifth grades then promoted halfway through seventh and barely passing eighth, he walked right across that stage and across our country to San Antonio, just down the road from Uvalde, to don a uniform and learn how to shoot a rifle in the Air Force and begin a career that he would later abandon.

He was a boy of eighteen, just like you were when you came to my house, just like Salvador Ramos, Payton Gendron, Ahmad Al Aliwi Al-Issa, all the boys whose faces I feel I have somehow met in my classroom or otherwise, but he didn’t join the military so he could blow things up and learn how to shoot.

He enlisted because he wanted a future for himself that didn’t involve working in his daddy’s shadow at the cotton mill, because he couldn’t see himself in college, because he wanted the safety and security that so many of us crave.

And is he so different now, twenty-six years later, the father of my three children, the detail-oriented Airman First Class who checks our credit score with the regularity of the rising sun?

Older, yes. Jaded, a little. More liberal? Of course (he’s married to me).

But he is still that boy who knew better than to argue with a cop or buy a gun or bully girls on the Internet.

And he didn’t have your background, and we can all blame these backgrounds till we’re blue in the face. But what of the backgrounds of the two boys who started this sickness, Dylan Klebold and Eric Harris, who came from the perfect middle-class life?

What possesses an 18-year-old boy to choose to forgo a decent future for a life of crime, or worse, death by mass shooting?

I was thinking about all these boys, all these shooters, before you called me from jail the other day. And I know that you think I shouldn’t compare you to them, but I can’t help it. Not because I think you would do that, but because I’m afraid you will.

You have the same tendencies. Resistance to authority. Self-entitlement. High-school burnout. Internet addiction. Recklessness. Ingratitude.

Maybe, just like those boys, you would claim that no one has ever loved you. Or that every adult in your life has failed you. Or that you’re better now than you were when you were younger.

I don’t know what your reasons are. I will never know. I will never understand how an eighteen-year-old boy can walk into a gun store and buy 362 rounds of ammunition to kill fourth-graders just as well as I will never understand how after more than two years of me trying to guide you, love you, offer you safety and security and a home and a future, you lit it all on fire in a matter of months, burning through money, burning through your next two homes, burning fuel into three other states till you found yourself in jail, penniless, without your precious phone, knowing only my number.

I hate myself today, this rainy day in June, for knowing your number, and not just saying no. Because no matter what happens to you, no matter what anyone says to me about how “this isn’t your fault”, I will always carry the burden of failure, of not following my gut, of giving you a chance you never wanted to have.

I met my husband when I was nineteen and he had just turned twenty, and we married each other within a year. He hasn’t changed much; nor have I. And even though you are no longer a part of our lives, we are still going to be the good people we were when we were young.

And you are still going to be the same person I met two and a half years ago.

And I want you to go on with your life. Stop calling me. Give me my life so that I can take my Newcomers to the zoo, to Red Rocks, to the museum, to all the places you never wanted to go. So that I don’t have to hear my girls complain about how you treated me.

So that I never lose another night of sleep trying to make you a better person.