All art is collaboration, coincidence, kismet

Because in high school I was fascinated by Spoon River Anthology, and 15 years ago came close to finishing a poetry manuscript with the working title Yearbook, and two years ago met a writer whose memoir blew open my ideas about both poetry and memoir, and sometime in October saw an article about Marian Winik’s The Baltimore Book of the Dead floating by in my Facebook feed, and two weeks ago attended the reading of a writer-teacher I first met a quarter-century ago, and earlier this month joined an online poetry writing group and last week found myself commenting to another writer there, “I’ve never written about my work as an educator, not really. I guess instead I have migraine and fibromyalgia,” and the next day a second-grader took a swing at me and a first grader with the oldest eyes I’ve ever seen in a child’s face began meditating in the middle of library read aloud, and the writer-teacher reminded me 2 days ago that “if you don’t keep open the channel to your soul, you will pay for it,” I have a written a piece that is, perhaps, the beginning of something my whole life has been leading me to.

The Student Who Shot My Other Student

He was a quiet boy, a sandy-haired freshman in the second row of my second period class. Unremarkable, really. I liked him, and not just because it was my first year of teaching and I was open to liking all of them. (I wasn’t. That didn’t come until later.) I liked him, maybe, because there was nothing not to like.

I wish I could tell you more than that about him. But it was nearly 30 years ago and I don’t remember much beyond the top of his head, bent over his desk while he wrote, and his eyes that watched me when I talked to the class. I remember them as kind, but maybe they were simply absent of malice. Maybe I’ve filled them with what I wanted to be there.

I remember him more for what he wasn’t than what he was.

I didn’t know, then, that a secretary’s voice on the intercom announcing an emergency faculty meeting is usually a call to tragedy.

The boy he shot and killed in a dispute over drugs (in a mountain quarry not far from a place I would live after fleeing the city)–that boy was my student, too, though in a different period. A boy with hair bleached loud as his mouth, a joker. I liked him, too, though he was trouble and troubled. I hadn’t known they were friends. My colleagues met the news with silence or sighs before treading back to their lives. I walked numb from the choir room to the parking lot, shocked by all I didn’t know, throat thick and arms slack, for once empty of papers to grade. After dinner that night, I made a new seating chart for each class.

Later, when I was pregnant with a son, his teacher father and I struggled to choose a name for him. For nearly every one we considered, one or the other of us had an association with a student. Each name belonged too much to someone else or to hard memories we didn’t want attached to our dream.

In the end, though, we gave him the name of the student who shot my other student. It was a family name on both sides of ours and the only one we both wanted. At the time I told myself I was claiming something I shouldn’t have to give away, and that the boy I’d hardly known had nothing to do with the one I would raise. Now I like to think it could have been a different kind of claiming, a way of calling home the man-child who once sat in the second row with his head bent over his papers, a kid who, but for the grace of any of our gods, might have been any of ours. I like to think it could have been, maybe, a way of filling the seats left empty in the rooms he once occupied.

9 thoughts on “All art is collaboration, coincidence, kismet

  1. Marian says:

    You call this piece “the beginning of something” — I’m interested in seeing where it goes from here.

    On coincidence and kismet — oh yes, it’s everywhere, isn’t it?!

    Names are hard. We had a tough time with our youngest’s — so many that had been on our minds with the previous two had been “taken” by others; unlike you, I found it hard to lay independent and unapologetic claim. I admire that you were able to do that.

    • Rita says:

      Thank you, Marian. Sorry I’m so delayed in responding. This time of year…
      It’s funny how we do and don’t choose names. My mother wanted to name me Jamie (after my dad, James) but didn’t because one of his cousins had recently named a son Jamie. This is a cousin we rarely saw. In fact, the only time I remember meeting the son with the name she felt unable to give me was this past spring, at my grandmother’s funeral. Instead I was given a name with far less meaning, to spare some awkwardness with a person who ended up not being important to our lives at all. There’s some kind of lesson in there, though I’m not sure what it is.

  2. Bethany Reid says:

    Rita — “if you don’t keep open the channel to your soul, you will pay for it,” and writing our stories is one way to keep that channel open. I’ve found myself back in a classroom this quarter, and I find your words wise and terrifying and necessary. Thank you for sharing them.
    Bethany Reid recently posted…Where I’m Reading NowMy Profile

    • Rita says:

      Hi Bethany,
      It is always nice to hear from you. I know that sometimes I am blocked as a writer because I don’t really want that channel to be open. Sometimes I struggled with teaching because it filled the channel with others’ pain, and I found it difficult to regulate the flow. I hope you are better at that than me.

  3. TD says:

    Rita, I just wrote. It is my first poem. A couple of years ago, I responded to you on your blog and you sent a wish that I would find my voice. I just did. It just came to me. The free flow of organized words with thoughts that create meaning for me as I sat down, than wrote. It was about my family tribe and the moment I am in now. When done, I stood up to walk into the other room of my home not thinking much. As I broke through the room to room barrier, I realized what I had just done. Goose bumps up and down my arm. I must let you know that you are an inspiration for many people. I feel lucky to have crossed paths. Thank you.
    I was named after my birth father spelled different with a combination of his name and the name my mother wanted me to give me which had no relevance to my knowledge. She divorced after I was born. At six years of age, I was renamed yet carried my birth father’s first name.
    This was a powerful piece. What you wrote about and how you organized the words. Powerful, I say.

  4. TD says:

    Rita, I didn’t know what I wanted to do with those written words. It sat on my desk next to the photos all day. This evening, I decided that the writing has no meaning other than to me. I will be the only one who would understand the words that I wrote. The writing of the poem offer me a deeper understanding of what might have happened and why certain circumstances are as they are, as I must accept to move into the next moment within my day. I shredded the poem and discarded those organized words. I kept the photos and placed them back into my photo album. I needed those words. No one else needs them.
    Interesting exercise.

  5. Kate says:

    I know I’m late in commenting. I’ve come back to this post a few times. Always meaning to say something, always leaving without because I don’t know what to say. Or I write down a comment and then delete it because while this makes me think of Robbie (a boy I barely knew but was the first boy to ever hold my hand) and how in high school he committed suicide on the anniversary that his mother committed suicide and how can I have such sadness in my life but only tangentially come into the sad moments in someone else’s while it makes me question the validity of my right to dis function when there are other much worse…but I don’t know if that’s what I’m supposed to be reading into these words. Because it’s heartbreak.

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