In a college dorm, in a prison, in a marriage
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I teach in a scruffy old building at a small state university in the middle of nowhere.
Intro to Poetry takes place in B143, deep in the back end of the basement. The walls are cheaply paneled. No windows. The carpet is thin and stained. A tangle of broken chairs lie in a heap by the door. Fluorescent lights buzz.
It’s the first day of class. Ten or twelve students sit silently texting. The clock says 2:20. It’s 12:25.
There’s a sign on the podium with a picture of a gun and the words ACTIVE SHOOTER followed by a list of instructions:
I place my notebook, books, laptop, and handouts on a table. I write on the board in blue marker, WELCOME TO POETRY! With my back to the students, I add more exclamation points. I draw a smiley face. I try to imagine staying alert in a terrifying situation.
Since it’s the first day of class, we introduce ourselves, say our names, where we’re from.
An orange-haired boy in the middle row, who has a large backpack on his desk, writes “Thor” on a piece of paper, then licks it and pastes it on his forehead. When it is his turn to introduce himself, he shouts, “Socket wrenches! Dark energy!” Then he slumps back down and closes his eyes.
The students look alarmed.
I say, shaking, “I’ll ask to see you after class, sir, thank you. Next?”
The next student waits a long time before she says her name, and she doesn’t tell us where she’s from.
A few weeks into the semester, I walk out of the building just after 6 PM. It is not yet dark but will be soon.
In my car I turn on the radio. NPR’s Marketplace is just beginning. “You’ve already heard about the terrible school shooting in Florida. We don’t have more to say. . . . Please know our hearts go out to all the people down there.”
I’ve been teaching all day and hadn’t heard about the shooting. I turn off the radio. The engine idles, and I look for news on my phone. Seventeen people dead at a school. Many injured. The headline reads: “Lifetime of Trouble: Family Loss, Flashes of Rage.”
I sit in the school parking lot, watching students walk into the building, and I think about another boy, far away and yet so close to me: a boy with a lifetime of trouble, family loss, and flashes of rage.
One Christmas Eve I went into my brother’s room while he was sleeping and climbed into his bed. I was five years old; he was three. I looked out the window into the dark sky, and when I thought I saw Santa’s sleigh, I woke my brother. We pressed our faces to the window, and I whispered, Do you see it? He put his hand in my hand and said, I see it. I see it.
That’s the only time I remember him responding to me with anything like tenderness. It was the first and the last time my brother seemed OK. After that, he was different. I’d go up to him with a toy, saying, Let’s play, and he’d bang me on the head with his fist or spit in my face.
Honey, my mother said, let him be. He doesn’t want to play. He doesn’t want to be with you. That’s his right. Don’t pester him.
But I couldn’t let him be.
Mom, I complained, he won’t play. He’s so mean.
Let him be. Let him do what he wants to do.
My brother and I looked nothing alike — I was super skinny and had long red braids; he was chubby and had silky blond hair. I yearned for hair like his.
Sometimes I’d sneak up and tickle him on his stomach or his feet, but he’d just lie there, staring at the cartoons on TV with his flat blue eyes. He didn’t seem to even see me.
He came to life around my mother. They’d sit at the kitchen table and talk and talk for hours. They shared a language I didn’t know. When I complained that he got so much more attention than I did, my mother said, He needs me more. You’re fine. She said he appreciated her. She said, You’re your father’s favorite. She had to make up for that special treatment.
It was true. My father, a pilot who was frequently away from home, was much kinder to me. He’d take me to the park or to lunch and ask me what was wrong with my brother. I didn’t think anything was wrong with my brother. My father hollered at my brother and hit him.
We played softball with the kids who lived in our apartment complex. Since my brother and I didn’t resemble each other, the kids always asked if we were adopted. Sometimes I lied and said yes.
He was eleven when he started calling me Cunt. That was his nickname for me. When we picked teams, he’d say, You take Cunt. Or he’d yell at me for not catching the ball: Cunt, you’re so fucking stupid.
I didn’t know what the word meant. I knew it was mean, but I didn’t know why.
Once, when I came home from school, I found my brother in the closet digging a pencil into his arm.
Once, I found him setting ants on fire in our driveway.
I found him tying a live frog to a bottle rocket, and I lunged for the rocket, yelling. Somehow he got my wrist in his mouth, and he bit. He bit so hard that blood pulsed out. It felt as though his teeth had gone to the bone, and it hurt.
This was not the first time he’d bitten me, and also not the last.
My mother asked me what I’d done to provoke him. She said the bite was deep and serious, but she didn’t take me to a doctor or hospital to get stitches. She told me not to tell anyone. My mother said: You must not let anything like this happen again.
She wrapped a kitchen towel around my arm, and it became red with blood, and then she took off with my brother in her truck. Later they came back, and they were grinning.
I have no idea what they did or where they went. But I will never forget their coming back to our house and walking in with a secretive, victorious look on their faces. Like two people who’d just shared something wonderful. Like two people who’d just had ice cream.
After the bad bite, I was careful not to turn my back to him. Or sit with my feet outstretched. Or allow my chair at the kitchen table to get too close to his.
I hate your guts, he said to me. I hate your guts, and I hope you die.
One afternoon I was in our dark kitchen, drawing a map of an invented world.
My mother came in and took me out to the back of the apartment complex. She looked serious.
What? I said.
What do you mean, “What”? she said. Her arms were crossed. She was staring at the siding. You’re telling me you don’t know anything about this? Choose your words very, very, very carefully.
I felt sick to my stomach. I haven’t done anything wrong. I went to hug her. She pulled away and pointed to the shingles. I saw that the side of the building had been burned, and the shingles were charred and black.
Do you understand how serious this is? Do you understand we could all die? Do you understand I can’t live this way? My gosh in heaven! She put her hands to her head and opened her mouth as if to scream.
She didn’t think my brother had done it. I knew my brother had done it, but by the end of the evening, I was honestly wondering: Did I light the side of the apartment complex on fire? Could I have done such a thing?
When my brother was twelve, I found six mice nailed to the wall of the abandoned tree house in the woods near our apartment. He spent a lot of time there. It seemed to me the little mouse faces were frozen in agony. As though they’d been alive when he’d hammered the nails through them.
I ignored the neighbor kids when they said he shot live frogs into the air on bottle rockets.
When a neighbor boy said my brother had taken his calico cat and other cats and put them all in a plastic garbage bag and thrown them into the river, I ignored this boy and hated him.
But I had seen my brother with a plastic bag on his bike.
And then my father moved away, and we moved across town. One day I saw my brother walk into a run-down apartment building on our street that everyone said was filled with hippies, druggies, sick people.
They’re his friends, my mother said when I told her about it. It’s fine. It would do me well, she said, to try to get along with others in the world, like my brother did. Not to be so difficult. Not to always be questioning, spying, tattling, nosing into everything — people needed privacy. My brother, she said, was brilliant, well liked, and I should focus on my own issues, get my grades up, or I’d be working at a fast-food joint for the rest of my life.
I said I’d love to work at a fast-food joint for the rest of my life. It would be much better than this crappy existence.
For a long time, even after he bit me and left a scar on my arm, I still wanted my brother to be my friend. I didn’t have friends at school, because everyone there thought I was weird. My brother had friends. He played on the football team — and my mother went to all his games while I stayed home alone.
I did not talk to strangers. I did not talk to anyone.
It seemed that my brother was on the way up, and I was not.
One day we were sitting at the kitchen table, and my brother said that the world would be so much better if I was dead. He would love to see me die, he said. I sat there and listened to him describe the various ways in which I could die.
When I was fifteen, I spent my evenings and weekends babysitting, and my brother took the money I’d made from under my mattress. He also took my crystal necklace, which had been given to me by our grandmother. My wallet, emptied of money.
My gold confirmation necklace, gone.
He took anything he wanted.
People started calling my mother on the phone.
Oh, it can’t be him, my mother said. He’s not like that. He is not that way.
Isn’t he something else? she’d say to me, her voice full of reverence as she watched him. Yes, I said. My sarcasm was lost on my mother. Yes, he’s something else. By which I meant: Get me out of here.
When I was sixteen, I told my mother we had to go to family counseling. My mother said, We’re fine. If you have a problem, you can go.
She said that I had caused my brother to become very unhappy.
What are you talking about?
She said, You bear the burden of the blame. She said he was the light of her life, the only person who cared about her and loved her.
I started searching for my absent father, and, as soon as I found him, I called him and said, Please let me come and live with you.
More people called my mother: A cat was missing. The silver was missing. There was a dead dog in the alley. A girl had been molested.
My brother was accused of all these crimes.
The police came to our apartment many times. My mother stood at the door with her hands on her hips. I stood behind my mother and wanted to tell the officers exactly what was happening here, though I had no idea exactly what was happening.
Many years later, after I left home and went to college, I became a teacher. One evening I got home from work and found a chubby blond guy — my brother — leaning against a car that was parked in my parking spot.
He said he was on his way to Mexico, and he handed me a cloisonné box.
I bought this for you, J., in Texas. I hope you like it.
That was the only time I remember him using my name. That was the last time I saw him.
At the school where I work, the American flag hangs in every classroom. In my classroom the flag is the size of a pillowcase, and it hangs from a pole tucked into a corner.
A month into the semester I don’t even notice the flag or the active-shooter sign anymore. I’m used to the stains on the carpet. I’m teaching students the value of reading a poem thirty times. Some of them are falling for poetry. Joe says, “I finally get poetry. I finally get poetry. I can’t believe it.” Zena cries when we read some poems. Amelia nods constantly through class. “This is so great,” she says, raising her hand and talking at the same time.
Thor, the boy with orange hair, dropped Intro to Poetry after the third week. He’d had outbursts in class, and afterward he would come up to me and apologize.
Another boy, Guy, slumps down in his chair, his Star Wars ball cap hanging over his face.
At the end of class Guy waits until the others have filed out. He approaches me while I’m packing up my papers.
“I’m so sorry,” he says. He bows. His hands are in a prayer position. “I’m really, really sorry. I respect you as a teacher. I know I was inappropriate. It will not happen again. That was inappropriate behavior. I’m working on that behavior.” He speaks as if he’s rehearsed.
“Thank you,” I say. “Thank you.”
Then he spins dramatically with his enormous backpack and stumbles through the door.
After class, when I go to my office, there is a line of students waiting for me. They have come to explain their lives. To explain absences. To hand in late work. To ask if I know how to get rid of mice infestations in an apartment where the landlord doesn’t care about infestations. To talk about unbelievably difficult lives and to cry. Mothers die. Fathers die. One student loses a child right before the midterm. His baby daughter.
Lenore takes care of her mother, who is developmentally disabled.
Angel’s girlfriend just died in a car accident, and he’s been helping her family ever since the funeral. That’s why he hasn’t been in class.
Then LaSaundria. LaSaundria comes in every day. Her mother has just been diagnosed with terminal cancer — she only has months, not years. LaSaundria weeps in my office, and I hand her tissues. “I don’t think that I can do this,” she says, sobbing.
A boy named Chris comes to my office to apologize for disappearing in the middle of last semester. He has expressionless eyes, intelligent eyes, a familiar medicated gaze. He tells me he is going to have to drop out of the university, but he really enjoyed my class. And he is sorry he missed so much of it. He tells me it has been hard to get his medication right. “I’m a science experiment,” he says. “I have no life.” He says, “Thank you for being so kind and patient with me and trying to help me. No one else has done that.”
As he is leaving, he asks if I want the door left open or closed.
“You can leave it open,” I say, because if it is open, I might be safer. Someone might hear me call for help. And I feel ashamed that I am afraid right now.
I go to work. Every day I see boys who remind me of my brother. Every day I see boys who look like the boys in the news.
I love my students. I read poetry out loud to them. And every day I am afraid.