My high school graduating class’ motto was “Free in ’83!” The fact that I was going to graduate at all that year was a kind of minor miracle. My high school grades reflected my interests more than they did my capabilities. I failed and had to retake Intro to Algebra twice. I got Cs in most subjects, Ds in the ones I found particularly uninteresting or pointless.
There were two subjects, however, in which I had always excelled: English and Art. These I threw myself into. They provided me with a voice, a form for capturing what I was feeling at the time. Since I was good at making art and at writing, those things also gave me some social validation – admiration, even. “Gosh. Your hand is so steady,” whispered my friend as she watched me drawing when I was supposed to be listening to a lecture in Western Civilization. I’d cheated on the final exam in that class during the first semester because I hadn’t listened to anything for months, so lost was I in my inner world of dreadful and wonderful fantasy. I’d tucked a tiny stack of notes into my sleeve. They’d fallen out onto the floor, fluttering down like guilty snowflakes. I had gotten caught, was called on the carpet, raged at, ejected from the classroom. I’d violated my teacher’s principles, not just his rules. I had no respect, no scruples. I was given an F. I took the class again, with another teacher. That time around I listened enough to barely pass so I could get out of high school and get on to the task of failing at college, a place I’d get to primarily on the basis of my art and writing portfolios – and, let’s face it, because my father was willing and able to pay full tuition.
During my senior year I’d somehow finagled two sessions of Ceramics back to back in the morning for two days a week. On one of those days I also had an English class in the afternoon, where the focus was on both reading and essay writing. Wednesday was the high point in a week of low. I spent mornings sitting in a sunny art studio, hand-building things out of clay. I spent afternoons sitting in a sunny English class taught by Barbara, a petite, intelligent woman of around 30 years of age who bore a strong resemblance to the actress Patty Duke. Barbara liked me. Or, more accurately, she respected me, respected my mind. I knew this much. Wednesday was the one day a week that I got to feel good about myself and my creative strengths. The things I read, wrote and made during that day fed me and kept me going.
I was so quiet and withdrawn in my classes. I wonder if I would have survived in today’s extranormative, group-oriented educational settings. My dial was set to a default of Socially Anxious, but on many days that was turned up to Depressed. I was then, as I am now, given to long periods of silence punctuated by mumbled witticisms. That’s how I kept my friends then. I’ve grown to the extent that I can convincingly carry on a conversation (with a great deal of effort) but this remains my modus operandi: silence, funny, silence, funny, silence. I always sat in the back, in a corner, with two protective walls around me.
I was the star of the Ceramics department that semester. My prodigious output resulted in my being given an entire display case in which to show my wares to anyone entering or exiting the library. I’d tried throwing pots on the wheel but disliked it. We used large, manual kick wheels, which required constant forward pushes from my right leg, which threw me off balance. I wasn’t coordinated enough to combine vigorous physical output below the waist with the delicate, above-the-waist challenge of shaping a wildly whirling pot with my fingertips. My vases all ended up weighing about as much as a small roasting chicken.
I moved to hand-building quickly, and that’s where I found my medium. I mostly built small, standalone human figures. They were turned inward on themselves, hands covering their heads in gestures of self-protection. One crouched in the center of a pile of individual ceramic shards. I sculpted a hooded figure of Death, carrying a delicate scythe. I built a diorama of a family of three, all lost in their own worlds, one watching television, the other knitting, the other buried behind a newspaper. I look at these sculptures today, the ones I have left, and they so clearly telegraph my isolated, bereft state of mind when I was 17 years old. Not that I was trying to. I don’t think I realized at the time that whatever thoughts I was having weren’t normal mental fare. Or at least they had become normal to me. Which shouldn’t have been acceptable.
Did anyone notice? Yes. One person did.
Barbara had learned early on that it was a bad idea to call on me in class. I’d fumble and fluster, withdraw further. I’d need a week or two to recover. So she let me do my talking through my essays. She knew I was listening. I didn’t need to speak to prove that. I got As most of the time, sometimes A+s. She’d mark up my papers, underlining phrases she liked, peppering the margins with “Good!” and “Excellent!” When I got one back, I’d take it home and glow.
One afternoon, after my Look At How Special I Am ceramics display had been up for about a week, I passed Barbara in the hall on the way to some class I was probably getting a D in. She stopped me, looking intently at me, and said, “Julie. How are you doing?” Her question was asked with such gravity that I was momentarily baffled. Then I thought, She knows. She knows how sad I am. She can see that I’m drowning. But how does she know?
A few days later it happened again. “I’m fine,” I said. “I’ll see you in class.”
At the conclusion of the next class, a few minutes before the bell, she said, “I’d like you all to know that if any of you ever wants to talk to me about anything – anything at all, it doesn’t have to be about school or this class – I usually run some laps on the track in the afternoon. Just come look for me.”
I went home and played out a film in my head. Me. Walking to the track. Barbara. Running around the track. Me. Asking to talk to her. But what would I say? I’m feeling so trapped and so hopeless that I want to die sometimes. Is that what I’d say? Anything less would be a waste of time, skirting the edges of what was actually going on. Yet to say such a thing was too much, although I wasn’t sure which of us I thought it was too much for. What would she do anyway? Something enormous and irrevocable might happen. I couldn’t risk it.
I’d walk home after school, in the opposite direction, feeling a thread of awareness pulling me back toward the track where I knew she’d be circling. One day I did will myself to turn around. I got to one entrance just in time to see her leaving through another. I only did that once.
A few weeks later I arrived at her class and headed for my usual Siberia seat. There was an energy in the room, a sense of something about to happen. Once everyone had taken their seats, she stood silently for a few seconds, looking at the floor. She seemed to be gathering herself. Finally she spoke. “I am sorry to tell you that I will be leaving this school district the week after next.” There were audible gasps. One was from me. Her tone conveyed that her impending exit from our classroom had not been her decision.
“So here’s what we’re going to do. Today you can ask me anything you’d like and I’ll answer honestly.” No one was dumb enough to ask her why she was leaving. Even as teenagers we knew that was bad form. So we asked about other things. We learned what she liked to read and eat. We learned that she didn’t have children. We learned that she was married to a black man, a very tall black man. They lived across the bridge in San Francisco’s Haight-Ashbury district.
The hour flew by, to my regret. I drifted out of the classroom, thunderstruck by both her news and her candor. I couldn’t even look at her. How could this person be leaving my life, before I’d taken the chance to let her into it? But that ship had already sailed. I had to begin to detach myself.
The next week we arrived to find her waiting for us with a portable record player and a stack of albums on her desk. “I brought these in. For us to listen to.” They were Bill Cosby comedy albums. I couldn’t understand why there were so many since we’d only have time to listen to one. Maybe she’d been sitting there listening to them by herself.
Barbara dropped the needle and the room was filled with the voice of Bill Cosby doing a routine about dentists. He was funny. His audience was laughing, most of my classmates were laughing. But I wasn’t laughing. I was looking at the clock, watching the minutes slip away. This record album was her Novocain for us, a kind gesture to dull the pain of her leave-taking. It also kept her from having to talk to us. When the bell rang I got up, tears streaming down my face, and left.
* * *
A year later, after I’d moved across country to go to college, I was back visiting my family in California. My sister was living in the Haight, and I’d been staying with her and her boyfriend for a few nights. The three of us had gone out to dinner. On the way home, with me crammed into the back of her Volkswagen Super Beetle, quiet as usual, we stopped at a light. I looked out the window and I saw a couple walking away from us, arms around each other’s waists. I instantly recognized the woman, mostly because of the context: the reddish-blonde bob, the small frame, the enveloping arm of a tall black man. It was Barbara.
I thought of asking my sister to stop. But now it was truly too late. I’d have to explain who these people were, then leap out of the car and accost them.
I let the moment pass without a word, let them keep walking. It was all right, as was I.