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.