October 3, 2011

Where We Go

When I was in fifth grade, the rough kids went out behind the middle school building, down to the footbridge that crossed over the stream, and smoked beneath it. I have memories of their black-leather-clad backs, their furtive glances before they’d duck under and step down on the rocks. Later my brother and I would find the stubs of their cigarettes, muddied and stained with red-lipstick. We often wondered, when we sat beneath the bridge ourselves, if their pack would ever show up when we were there, drop from the trail like a thick cloud, and surround us in their haze and age. 

The last time I was in my hometown, I returned to the stream. It had been years, maybe, since I’d walked the banks, strolled with my hand out, tapping the chest-high grasses and small  sunflowers, blazed though the mass and tangle to the water’s edge just like my brother and I had done during so many days in my childhood. It threw me, as I should have anticipated, to see how changed it all was, how grown-over and wild. Still, when I ducked beneath the bridge’s new wood, its sturdier structure, I glanced over my shoulder, licked my lips, and caught myself peering for cigarettes among the rocks.

I found one, wedged just so between two dry stones. But I considered it and its subsequent memories for as long as it takes to toss a pebble into the water, as long as it takes that pebble to sink. My thoughts skimmed on to the boyfriends I’d led to that bridge, the way we sat not under but on top of it, our backs against the wood, our legs dangling off its edge into air that was, for us, spectacularly open. Our whispers and bursts of laughter filled up the evening sky with simple, warm breath. I remember leaning toward one boy, right before a kiss, and whispering, “I am so lucky.”

I didn’t know then how true that was. When I thought of the rough kids with their attitudes and bloodshot eyes, it always seemed like a life they had chosen.
Years later, days after revisiting the stream and a week or so into a new school year, I watched my students stepping into and out of my classroom in their specially-selected outfits, watched their pencils furiously filling up their journals, watched the way they wore forty bracelets on both wrists and touched each other in shy, anxious ways. It did not seem possible, did not seem even remotely realistic that such youth and optimism could be connected to anything other than the hope that they so often give me. But then there came this word, heroin, hard and ugly. And I was reminded again of teenagers who, city or not, black-leather or not, cigarettes in hand or something much stronger, have gone under the bridge their entire lives.
I’m not sure what my brother and I would have said to the older kids had they converged on us beneath the bridge. I was a protective older sister, so most likely I would have grabbed my brother’s hand and splashed through the water quickly and suspiciously away. But if I could go back. If I could grasp then what I think I understand now. I don’t know. Would I have stayed? Sometimes our own experiences are too much in our eyes to see someone else’s clearly. But tomorrow I’ll have these students in my classroom, these leather-jacket and letter-jacket kids, and so many of them just need some place to go. A bridge to walk over or under unafraid.

4 comments:

  1. I came from under the bridge and after boing down the wrong trail for quite a while managed to find wild places and a good path to follow. After college I worked with tough kids for eleven years. I still see many of them today. Some made it and some did not. What you write here is so full of the truth that it grabbed me right by the throat. Yes, they need a place and someone to love them. That would be at least a good start. Thank you so much for writing this. You are a fine writer, but much more a fine person.

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  2. Thanks, Bill. I love teaching, but in many ways it's frustratingly limited in regard to what I'm able to actually DO for some students, especially the underprivledged ones. 55 minutes a day. In and out they go, on to a dozen other things that ecplipse Shakespeare. Hopefully they know I care about them; in many moments, that seems like the most important thing.

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  3. This is strong writing, Emily, really strong. Your deftly told story has taken me back to an earlier age and to what passed for bridges where I grew up. You're so very right about the need for love, the need for a place and possibilities. Thanks for these important words, for bringing them home.

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  4. Thank you, Julian. (And for perservering through the Blogger comment-block-thingamagigie!) It's easy to fit kids into one mental compartment: how they are in a classroom. But of course there is so much else going on. So much. Something for all of us to remember and remind.

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