Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Empty Chair

“Tell Jason I said hi,” I say casually to his mother when I conference with her on a Thursday night. It is an afterthought; our conference is about Vickie, and Jason, now a college student, has moved out of my orbit.

The next Monday morning at 7 am, my fellow CSAP proctor and I distribute the Writing/Reading booklets alphabetically to the empty seats of my English 10 class. But she frowns as she puts down the last booklet. “This girl won’t be here today,” she says with weight in her voice, pointing to a yellow sticky note with Vickie’s name on it. “She won’t be here this week.” I look up at her quizzically. In response, she tells me sadly, “Her brother died this weekend.”

My thoughts race like slides being fastforwarded, each one with a cut-off thought: Her only brother is Jason--Jason sat on the right side of my English 10 class--Jason sat in the left front of my American Lit class--His backwards white hat always looked dingy—He had a happy, open-mouthed smile when he said “Hi Ms. Kakos” in the hallway--He had a note in the back sleeve of his binder that said “I love you,” presumably from Channing, his girlfriend.

He lounged in a chair-desk in room C-10, and it is impossible that he is dead.

At the funeral one week later, I am anxious to see Vickie. I finally spot her standing near the open casket, and her friends are holding her up. When I get my chance to hug her, she crumples, and it is the first time I notice how small she is. She sobs openly, the way children do, and I feel her pain physically shake its way in and out of her.

A little later, I move through the reception in search of Jason’s mother. I finally find her, and she is tiny. Her eyes are unfocused, and she nods absently as people tell her how wonderful her son was. But she really looks at me, I think, for a second as I try to tell her that I will make sure Vickie is taken care of when she returns to school. This is the best thing I can think to offer her.

I notice as I step outside the huge church that it’s a beautiful spring day. I need to breathe in as much of this air as I can, knowing that when I return to school I will have to face what I’m dreading most—a temporarily empty chair, and resting invisibly behind it, a permanently empty one. And I know that all my students can see these chairs, too.

So the next day, I sit right down in that chair at the beginning of my English 10 class. John, on my left side, is sadly without his iPod. I almost don’t recognize him without those white little earphones draped inside his gray hoodie, but I learn that John’s dad has confiscated this prized possession in response to some recent “poor decisions” on John’s part. Kaleigh, on my right side, is squinting at her laptop while biting the nails on her right hand. John is hurting without his iPod because he’s an industrial rock addict, and Kaleigh, who lost her mother just a year ago, asks me quietly about the funeral, and I know that she’s feeling more than she’s letting on.

Kids are starting to move around for peer editing, and as another boy walks behind us, John pleads to him, “Hey—can I borrow your headphones?” No dice.

John looks almost comically defeated, so I tell him cheerfully, “I’d be happy to sing for you while you work on your Macbeth essay if that helps ease the pain.”

Both he and Kaleigh give me huge grins, and John laughs as he mumbles, “No thanks.”

I’m not really that funny, but these are nice kids, and I think this will be a good spot for Vickie when she returns.