In March, I went to the computer to subscribe to the New Yorker, and found out one of my students had been shot. He was dead. I was having another one of my seizures of certainty that I could not be an educated person, a writer, a worthwhile human being, without subscribing to the New Yorker. And now he was dead, which was hard to believe, so I had to call someone and tell him the news, to try and convince myself, and the New Yorker was sort of a nonissue.
My sister came over that evening and we watched “French Kiss” on television. I had never seen it before. I thought it was terrible. I could not for a minute believe that Kevin Kline was French. He’s clearly British, I argued to my sister. Um, no he’s American, my sister said. Later my boyfriend came by and showed us the new lens he had bought for his camera. It was a high-powered, long-distance thing, and someone referred to it as “the elephant cock.”
The following Monday, I sat on the bleachers in the gym, next to the senior class. I had taught them twice, their freshmen and junior years. I had known them three and a half years. The kid who had died had been a senior. It was incredibly quiet in the gym that morning. Usually we have to scowl and threaten to get the kids quiet for assemblies. On that Monday, you heard every foot shuffle, every kleenex swish out of the box.
I felt like I could hear the hum of eyes staring, the static of eyes sliding around dumbly. And then one of the senior girls started sobbing like she couldn’t stop.
I held my coffee cup. I thought, I’m not allowed to bring coffee in here. I looked up at the school mascot painted on the wall. I looked at the places where the wooden floor had been clumsily patched.
It was hard to tell the story of what had happened, because people might be freaked out that our school was dangerous or our students were dangerous. And just to hear about the death of a 17-year-old kid is scary for people. But someone said to me, “You know, when my daughter was in school, they went outside to take their 8th grade graduation photo, and saw someone get shot to death right across the street. It was horrible. It was just horrible.” This story, oddly, served to encourage and comfort me. I was grateful for it. It was hard to fall asleep. I had two violent nightmares.
In April, I drank a giant glass of a latte, and then I walked down the street to hear Victoria Williams sing. She sang wearing ugly brown linen pants and a giant white blouse that went down almost to her knees. Her voice wavered between sweetness and country whine, and she flapped her arms like a chicken while she sang. I thought, this is what makes her good. How weird she is.
And I went home and wrote a little about what happened with my student, and about the Monday after he died, when I sat in the school parking lot and I knew I had to get out of the car and go inside, and I really thought that I couldn’t.