Bags and Forgotten Princesses
The article in the morning
paper about Denise Duncan covered little more than two inches of
column space. There was no photo, no mention of her
accomplishments, and nothing about what had led her to do what she
It had been over ten years
since she had sat in my fifth period English class, but she was
the kind of student a teacher doesn't forget. How many 11th
graders could write essays that still haunted you after a decade?
I wish I had kept more of them, but I remembered a brief one she
had written that I had filed with the few other student essays I
had saved. I read it again, and the damned thing still got to me
after all these years.
By Denise Duncan
Tommy Watson got hit hard
yesterday during the fourth quarter of Harrington's play-off game
against Washington Prep. I watched him writhe in pain on the
forty-yard line in his blue and gold uniform, thinking he looked
like some kind of large tropical fish who had flopped out of its
tank. A few moments later when they carried Tommy off the field,
the stadium exploded in cheers for his valiant effort.
But I didn't cheer. I wanted
Tommy's leg to be broken in six different places for what he had
done to me four years ago.
One cold Sunday when I was
twelve, Tommy had kept me waiting for an entire day with the
promise that we would be going to a movie. I dressed in my best
new clothes and my mother let me put on make-up for the first
time. But Tommy never showed, and he never called. I cried all
My mom somehow took care of
it, because she was good at that sort of thing. She told me that
after a while, the hate and hurt would go away, and for these last
few years I thought she had been right.
So I smiled whenever Tommy
was around and acted like he didn't know me. I smiled when I saw
him walk down the hallway holding hands with one of the
cheerleaders. I even smiled when I saw them together at the Junior
Prom. And I smiled yesterday, when I saw Tommy flopping in pain
and I could only think "Now you know how it feels!" I
wondered how long it would take for Tommy's pain to heal?
Probably nowhere nearly as
long as it has taken mine...
Denise Duncan kept the pain
well hidden, but the smile she had strained so hard to maintain
did not show in her eyes. Still, her writing indicated a vague
optimism that happiness waited in some magic place that she could
create for herself.
I hoped Denise’s files
might provide me with the answer to her magic place, but I had no
idea what a chore I had set up for myself. The school system
doesn't computerize the records of any student who graduated
before 1983, and there's a quarry where the old Harrington High
School building had once stood. I had to go down to the Central
Administration Building, and it took two hours there before anyone
could even find her name listed.
Finally a temp named Patty,
who was on her lunch break, took me to the eleventh floor and led
me to a small filing room lit by a single bulb that I had to reach
for a chain to light. I told her I was a teacher and that I wasn't
breaking any rules being there, but she never even asked for my
name. I mentioned I needed a photocopy machine just in case I
found what I had been looking for. She pointed down the hall, and
that ended our conversation.
The filing cabinet listing
1982’s graduating class from Harrington High School clearly
hadn't been opened for years, and for a moment the dust itched my
nose. I searched under the "D's" and there she was:
Denise Duncan, Honors Course, Straight-A student in her senior
year. A yellowed photo (which showed her at age six, smiling,
minus one front tooth) was affixed to her medical records. There
was a separate folder for awards: Future Leaders of America Award
in her sophomore and junior year; winner of the Scholastic
Achievement Essay Contest in her senior year; honorable mention
for her volunteer work at the Clayton Home for the Aged throughout
her four years at Harrington High School. She had received a full
paid scholarship to Midwestern University three months before she