Monthly Archives: September 2006

Fire Anniversary

Journal Entry
October 28, 2003
Northampton, MA

“The flower beds are still there,” Mom tells me over the phone. I’m sitting in my roommate’s ugly fluorescent kitchen with dim windows, the cord dangling across the table. A million miles from home. “And…the porch, ’cause it was made of brick.” Her voice breaks a little. “And the chimney.” My Aunt Judy was surprised, in fact, at how much was left. “Holly was hysterical,” Mom says. Their whole block was obliterated. Half a million acres so far; 1,500 houses. It’s headed for Julian, where Camp Marston sits in the middle of a forest of draught-stricken, bark beetle-infested timber.

“You kept telling me to send the boxes,” she says. “Don’t feel bad about that,” I order, thinking, See? I told you to send them. “You couldn’t have known,” I insist. “Seven boxes are expensive to send 3,000 miles.”

I think of the precise moment when each thing combusted–the death of each object, from curling edges of paper to flaming skeleton to pure flame to cinders.

Old journals, 1998-2002
Boxes of old photos dating from as far back as 1890
Letters
Files
That gigantic Larousse French-English dictionary
An autographed copy of ‘Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?’
My senior yearbook
Prints from college photo classes (old boyfriend, trips to Boston, ex-girlfriend, house parties, etc., etc.)
Clothes, CDs, papers, notes, ephemera

There. That’s the stuff.
Right now: you can see the sky from it, there’s no roof; gnarled black trees cling to the smoking hills; I haven’t seen it, but I know. My stuff is two square feet of ash. Aunt Judy’s house is a smoldering black pile. Unrecognizable.

I can’t speak to my aunt’s loss, aside from the obvious. The enormous, life-altering obvious everything.

If you’ll allow me a brief, indulgent mourning while it’s still fresh: All the anguish and elation and obsessive archiving from four years of my life-things I was convinced would outlast me, would be mined by descendents or scholars–gone, never to be recovered, the molecules irrevocably changed. As I write this, I feel it being read–and relaize it’s not that I’m psychic, it’s just a habit. There’s no permanence. Now my things don’t feel like posessions; they feel like unruly birds on their way upward. The sun blinds me and I let them go.

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Shred of October 2003

Journal Entry
October 12, 2003
Northampton, MA

I like being on the inside, knowing the digestive system of something as tireless and puzzling as a restaurant, squatting on milk crates in the alley with fiftysomething war-tank waitresses. “You’ve got a friend who writes for the Boston Globe?” Krissy growls, peering at me over her bifocals. “Tell him I got a story for him,” she says, launching into a detailed critique of the last Red Sox game. “He writes for the Ideas section, not Sports,” I tell her. “I got IDEAS about BUNTS!” she snaps. She’s off and running to Table Three before I can answer.

History Lessons

At the suggestion of a friend, I gave my kids index cards and told them write two anonymous questions for me on them. The first had to be about school or English, and the second could be anything. We would discuss the appropriateness of questions before I answered them.

Very popular:
How old are you?
How long have you been teaching?
Do you have a boyfriend?
Do you have kids?

More than once:
Why did you decide to become a teacher?
Have you published any novels? Are your plays famous?
What was ninth grade like for you?
Were you a straight-A student?

Most intriguing:
Do you like African Americans?

The last one cracked me up. Well, cracked me up and moved me to my core. “Obviously, YES,” I said. But obviously, there is more to both the question and the answer than that. I remembered Kevin from the first season of The Real World on that episode where he had a fight with Becky and called her a racist, and he declared later, “The black/white thing is always in effect.”

I said, “There’s some heavy, heavy history between black and white people in America. So I feel that,” and they sort of groaned, like, here we go with the black/white thing. “But on a face-to-face basis, are you kidding? Of course I like black people.” A sea of 30 black faces considered what I said. Chanel, mouthy and sharp in the front row, giggled and said, “So like, what if a BIG black guy was coming toward you? Would you be scared then?” I shook my head, like, Next question.

When I read the question, “What was ninth grade like for you?” I began, “Well, it was the fifties…” And they were like, “Are you SERIOUS? Yo, she’s OLD!” And I was like, “Uh, no, it was the nineties, I was kidding.”

Indelible

I was on the A train to Manhattan from Bed Stuy. At Hoyt-Schermerhorn, someone got on and started playing his ring tone over and over, at maximum volume. (It will never make sense to me why kids enjoy listening to the tinny, gravelly tones of music through the tiny speakers on cell phones or handheld thingies. Walking around with a boombox I can understand. But this is like carrying around an old grammophone with a rusty needle.) I could see him from over my copy of the New Yorker: skinny, spry, defiant.

I watched him approach a woman in one of the seats facing the aisle. He gestured and panted and performed a strange, offensive theatrical routine–I tried not to watch, but whatever it was, it was nasty–until she got up and vacated the seat. He reminded me of the boys in the film “Kids.” As soon as he sat down, his friend, a gangly tomboy, sat down next to him and punched him in the arm, like, Why you gotta be like that? I liked her instantly. I wondered why they were friends.

He was small, but he took up so much space: his language, his stacatto cadences, his limbs, the way he seemed to be careening in every direction. Everything announced him. He cursed and declared and argued and kept playing the ring tone. His friend, the tomboy, finally wrestled it from him and started playing her own ring tone. I bored my eyes into the New Yorker, praying they wouldn’t notice me, even though I was facing them. I saw him engage one stranger, to disasterous results, and I reeled with the possibility that I might be next.

What would I say? Would I get up wordlessly, like the lady before me? No. I was fascinated by them. Mostly by her, but I could tell they were both sort of brilliant. They reminded me of the metalheads I hung out with in junior high: genius assholes, lazy and hellbent at once. I imagined winning them over, not buying his schtick, disarming him by paying close attention.

I thought, somebody is that kid’s teacher. And I am lucky enough not to have anyone, really, who behaves like that in my class, and a school that basically doesn’t admit anyone who does. Other schools, “zone schools” in New York parlance, have to take kids from the neighborhood. Thousands of students applied to our school, and we only took 50. I almost shook my head in disbelief. All my complaints about pedagogy, intention, collaboration, a collegial community I can be proud of; at some schools, teaching is fought like a war.

Who was this kid? Who was his friend? I was appalled by how little consideration he showed for everyone around him. I wondered how he got that way. I could see the delicate line his friend walked, exasperated, disgusted, but maybe devoted to him anyway.

They never noticed me. I got off before the train sped up to midtown. I walked past the projects on my street, impossibly tall and efficient; past the luxury condo, all windows and aluminum; I walked into my nondescript brick building. I pushed through the door and saw a porter, the one with the beautiful smile, Windexing the inside door. He grinned and pulled the door open for me. The lobby smelled faintly of floor-cleaner.

I stepped out of the elevator onto the seventh floor, carpeted and hushed. I remembered the dark, odorous hallway with creaky linoleum stairs in my old building in Brooklyn; the front door didn’t lock, and two guys would sort of let you through, the entryway billowing with pot smoke. I thought of the photographs of the Ida B. Wells projects in Our America, an autobiography of two teenagers who grew up there, that I’m using in class next week, and how it didn’t look like a place where people lived, but a place where you went to die, until you saw pictures of children hanging out in shopping carts, laughing, being children.

I don’t know where the boy and the girl from the train were from. I can’t make any claims about them; I don’t want to make them into archetypes; I don’t know them. I don’t know what their homes are like.

Boys like him are pretty familiar, though, and I could imagine the kind of parenting, or lack thereof, that turned him into such a terror.  I could imagine the bullies who made him want to be so tough, the choices he had to make between taking or being taken, getting or being got, acting or being acted on – the choice between being the subject or the object.  The noun or the verb.  With her, the struggle was obvious.  You could see her wrestle with the choice: citizen or menace?  He had already decided.

I couldn’t get them out of my head.