This is a horse-free story. You've been warned.
I was fooling around with Microsoft Word, trying to follow the eHow instructions for getting ancient .wps files to open properly in Word '10 when I happened to notice a file I'd titled "Bird on a Wire". I couldn't for the life of me remember what it was about, but it since it was in a folder with a bunch of random articles and stories I hadn't read through in a decade, I figured I'd do a Memory Lane ramble and try opening it. It turned out to be one of only three non-fiction Holiday pieces I'd written...ever. I'm not generally that kind of writer. Originally destined for the Chocolate for Women series, it never saw the light of day as the anthology editor stopped anthologizing under that title just after I submitted it.
That was not my fault. I swear. She loved me and loved buying my work. Honest.
So here is my contribution to your Holiday Joy. "Bird on a Wire" is a true tale about a student I had back in 1986 in one of my first classes at that school. I hope you like it as much as I liked living it.
Bird on a Wire
Brian*, tall and lanky with a shock of straight black hair brushing his forehead, came to my Resource Center without fanfare. In fact, he came without any paperwork at all, which, while not unheard of in my school, was the exception to the rule. He handed me an algebra book and found a seat, legs folded origami-style, knees jutting out, forcing me to wonder as always why the high school furniture is designed for Munchkins. We exchanged pleasantries, and at the sound of the bell, found ourselves in that unique relationship that crosses traditional boundaries while creating the new ones that are necessary to the process of teaching teenagers.
A very intense young man, Brian had little to say. He responded to direct questions, but kept his nose in his book. He was there to learn algebra. Period. In this eclectic group of mixed-level learning disabled math students, it was more than his lanky frame and intense stare that set him apart. While the others struggled over fractions and decimals, Brian flew through the Algebra I text. Occasionally I would catch him tossing a look of disdain at a fellow student whose motivational level left something to be desired.
Days raced into weeks, and Brian proved himself a most faithful student. He arrived early and seemed loath, at the end of the period, to move on to his next class. He’d begun to open up a bit, but only to the extent that he shared an occasional muttered epithet regarding his father or the school’s administrators. Fifteen-year-olds are notoriously poor at eye contact with adults, but his was direct and piercing. I couldn’t help but feel that he was searching me visually for something I wasn’t sure I had.
Weeks slipped into months, and Brian became more voluble . . . and more agitated. Still no paperwork had appeared on my desk to explain his presence, but I was beginning to pick up rumblings about something awful that he’d done. Schools are notorious rumor mills, so even as a newcomer I distrusted most of what I heard. But the murmurings were growing louder, and Brian more restless, with each passing day.
When it seemed as if the walls were dripping with handwriting that I couldn’t read, Brian brought the answer to me himself. It seemed there’d been a theft of equipment earlier in the year, and he’d been caught red-handed. His own father had turned him in to the authorities. The words came in a flood, then stopped as suddenly as they’d begun. We looked at each other, blinking, silent. I wanted to ask him why -- why he’d done it, why he’d told me, why he hadn’t told me sooner -- but there was something a little off-putting in the darkness of his eyes. Instead I asked, “Is there anything I can do?”
“No.” The word was a grunt, then he left -- fled -- the room. The court date came and went; there was a suspension, then he was back. He seemed calmer. The year ended without incident.
The following year there were more problems -- poignant displays of Brian’s desire for attention. Much fuss and furor ensued, and Brian returned to court. He never protested his innocence. He simply lowered his eyes and moved along the path he’d set for himself. I wondered whether he’d be back; was surprised when he showed up in class, algebra book in hand, and resumed his studies as if nothing had happened. Time went by, silent forgiveness occurred, and eventually, with much diligence on everyone’s part, brilliant Brian graduated.
At Christmas the following year, I was surprised to find a gift on my desk. When children metamorphose into teenagers, the apple-for-the-teacher generosity of their early years fades, and they move towards a peer relationship with the adults in their lives. I was startled by the gesture, but no more than by the signature on the card: “Love, Brian.” I sat musing for a while over the unexpected kindness, then packed up my things to leave. Winter break would begin the next day, and I was more than ready for the time off.
The hallway was empty as I locked my room, but as I started toward the parking lot, I heard the sound of footsteps and a voice calling my name. Brian’s long legs covered the distance in half the time it would have taken me, and I was genuinely pleased to see him. His smile lit the building. I turned around and unlocked my room so we could sit in private and talk. And talk he did.
“I don’t think . . . well, you probably don’t know . . . umm. . . “
I laughed at his unaccustomed shortage of words and poked fun at him. He grinned and chuckled. “Yeah,” he said sheepishly, “I guess I don’t usually have trouble talking to you. That’s what I wanted to tell you.”
As he warmed to the subject, the words flowed more smoothly, and I, in turn, was silenced by the power of them. He spoke of his family -- the distant mother and demanding father -- and of his desire to make someone, anyone, sit up and take notice of him. He spoke of the theft incident and his other foolishness. On and on the words rolled. Then he paused. “You didn’t know -- couldn’t know -- what you did for me. When they put me in your class, I was planning on -- you know. I didn’t figure there was anything left to live for. I was such a screw-up! Everything I did turned to shit. I just wanted them to see me. That’s all. They punished me by switching me to your class!” He laughed.
“But I came in here, and you treated me like I was smart. You believed in me, in what I could do. So I didn’t kill myself that weekend, and even though I screwed up again, I knew you’d still like me.”
I was speechless. He laughed again. “I’ll bet you didn’t know that I arranged to be in your class for the next year, did you? You probably looked at the list and thought, ‘Geez! Not another year with Brian!’ right? But I had to be in here. I had to have someone who liked me.”
The words drifted off, and through my tears I saw his own. Brian and I walked out together that day, and each year for several years after that he came to my room the day before Christmas break with a gift and a hug. When he graduated from college, I wished him well.
Just yesterday--some 18 years later-- I ran into him and was treated to his huge smile and a warm hug as he said, “You’re a good person. I love you.” Brian’s doing fine. I am thankful that I was privileged to hear his cry for help, and I’ve tried my best to keep an ear open ever since.
Listen; you’ll hear them too.
*the name has been changed
[copyright 2004 Joanne M. Friedman, all rights reserved]