I wonder if the wind knows it’s the first day of summer vacation. I stand in a canopy of pine and hear the wind crescendo and diminuendo through the clinging needles. The sound is a distant cheer that has the power to lift my spirits most days like the timeless flow of a baseball game in the next valley over sending muffled signals to me through the trees. Other times it fills my loneliness to the brim of exclusion and makes me long to leap over the ridges that surround this home to land anywhere, but here, to connect with anyone, but myself.
It is a perfect day, high sun, a full summer green hanging everywhere. It is razor sharp where the horizon meets the sky in surgical precision. No haze hangs gauze over the landscape, not a cloud in the sky.
But a cloud hangs virulently in my breath under a mask.
I tied two haphazard bows behind my ears in the emergency room to protect the world from my air. Now, I am home again ensconced in a scud of uncertainty that billows my mask with each flex of my diaphragm. The warm mist collects on my upper lip and the more I think the more I start to sweat.
It is not about me anymore. I am medicated and whole. Tomorrow the hole will hollow out the earth for my student, John. He failed my class officially on Wednesday. He turned in his exam without a word and sped quickly out the door, so much fun yet to live. Today’s Saturday, the first day of summer vacation and John’s dead.
I know what you’re thinking, “Tough teacher!” and you’re right. I am tough. I don’t accept late homework. I make students write down their complaints on a piece of paper and throw them in a waste basket. (I believe in catharsis.) I require them to stand up in class when they speak and stand in the back when they’re late. They prove their mettle with intellectual contributions, precise essays and shrewd literary observation. I abhor weak verbs, impersonal you, a lot as one word, expository essays using personal pronouns, excuses, students saying the sentence, “I don’t know.” and all of it’s kin like, “I’m not sure.” I crusade against laziness, incomplete thought, plagiarism and students who make nothing of their lives. We read stories, novels and shorts, scrutinize essays and poems, find tone in our voices when we enact a play to emulate the anguish of our characters, and we think on paper in our journals. We discuss work, death, freedom, religion, braggadocio, sin, apathy, regrets, dreams, hate, goodness, and love. I only have them for fifty-eight minutes a day and keep them for fifty-nine and a half. It’s a full hour and I’ve only covered half the syllabus.
Don’t get the wrong idea. I didn’t kill John, not with my questions as he stood over his seat in a perpetual stoop longing to sit down again. He chose the back row so his peers would have to crane their necks to see him. Most didn’t bother. They were too busy keeping their own eyes low, as if I need eye contact to call on someone.
John was a junior and he failed… in the early morning today. Even the doctors did not hold any hope, those men and women, our paragons of science and study could only fill John with drugs and fold their hands in prayer. They flew him to a bigger hospital, his first helicopter ride, but he’d passed the point of return before the blades ever wiped a circle in the sky. It was a brave pilot to fly him in the face of futility.
His emergency doctor stopped in the middle of telling me the story. He turned his head, closed his eyes tight for a moment, and brought his fist under his nose.
“I’ve only seen one other case, when I was in Cleveland. I could literally see the rash growing, while I watched from behind the glass. The next day the room was empty.” Fist up, “And that’s all you have to say.”
And John didn’t say much in class. I never saw him beneath a raised hand. His smiles usually flashed from embarrassment and subsided rapidly beneath fearful drooping eyes that edged readily behind the student’s head sitting in front of him. Such moves he practiced most of his life always socially in the shadow of his gregarious older sister’s tresses.
I liked the thought of John, the quiet respectful student with adequate potential, a nice boy. At conferences his mother was concerned about his grades as was I. His low percentages added up too slowly. His father nodded.
“We just can’t keep him at home. This is the first year he’s talked of girls and he’s out with his friends every night, when he’s not at work.”
“But his homework isn’t done,” I said with assurance. “It’s not a matter of ability. He just has to do it.”
We know. They talked about pulling him from my class. He refused. “I’ll drop out of school,” he threatened. I always liked him for that not because I thought it was a compliment of me, but because it spoke of toughness. There’s hope yet, I thought, but he failed and I don’t know what I did to stop it.
“John, you can do better. Why aren’t you turning in assignments?”
“I hate to see a kid like you miss making something out of himself. If you don’t do the work, you aren’t going to pass. English and communication are life’s most important skills no matter where you’re headed.”
And he knew, just like I know that I’d have forgotten him if it weren’t for today. His face would have smudged in the long hallway of our school, like a sneaker’s streak across the tile. The custodians would have cleaned it up of course. The wax they buff the floor with every August gleams in the fluorescent light reflecting the fresh faces cycling through. There is always someone new to try to remember, new students to anger with unbending rules or to intimidate with practiced glares.
John was a junior and I felt he could learn from his failure. He had another year to set things right. I’d welcome him back and he’d be the class expert, salving the fears of the initiate, advising that they too would survive. He’d pick up responsibility, proper priorities and all the things that would make him a success at something other than avoiding notice.
The community notices him now. He set hundreds of phones to knelling, warning those in “direct contact” to flee into hiding. That’s where I am, at my parents in a stand of pine looking out at the first crisp day of summer vacation. My two oldest children chase each other down below in the yard, waving from a distance. My infant son in my wife’s arms looks calm in his blanket, while I hold a door handle to keep both my other two from bursting in to give me a hug because, “Daddy’s sick.”
It’s a solitary day, one for which I’ve looked off in the distance longingly for respite. It hung tantalizingly in front of my classroom clock like a stretch of sanity outside cracked glass of an asylum window. Yesterday, I turned in my class room keys and patted my colleagues on the back on my way out the door. “See you in the fall. Job well done.” I’m all done and done at a professional arm’s length, a safe operating distance, like I try to keep from my students.
“You enjoy your family,” they said.
“I’m sure I will.”
I’m not sure now.
I don’t know.
The hummingbird feeder on my parent’s deck sways two-thirds full in that gently cheering breeze. It’s suspended from a shining steel rod bent into the shape of a shepherd’s staff that plays an unlikely highway for some hardworking ants. It seems a dangerous trip to the grocery store. I can see their methodical line advancing across the wood rail, up the steel rod, undulating over the S-shaped thoroughfare, down the invisible high wire hanging vertically to the holes where they can slurp up the sweet juice. Somewhere in that line between those marching ants is a wider gap. Maybe a quarter of an inch more space, maybe half. Perhaps one or two drops of sugar fail to make it back to the nest because suspended in the nectar floats the corpse of an ant.
I move in closer and tug my mask down away from my eyes. In the mad rush of plenty he drowned amidst the early days of such a summer. The cylinder of glass and water magnify his bulbous thorax and grows him in my imagination. “I wonder if he knew it was the first day of summer vacation.”
That’s all I have to say.