I canít talk about my
burns. Thereís a door in my mind I seldom open: too many
memories crowdingólike Bluebeardís wives in a darkened
upstairs room, resigned but still somehow seeking to escape, to
scream out into the light. People see my scars, especially my
twisted left arm, my half a pinky with a tough, dead piece of nail
on the end, and they think they want to know what happened, but
they really donít because when I start to tell the story and the
words rush out, they just want to get away from me. They offer
some platitude like, ďWell, but look at you now, so vibrant and
beautiful...Ē And I have to stop my story, like stopping the
earth from turning, so painful to push the crying wives back into
their room, as small and dark as a closet.
I should consider, I
suppose, what my high school students must think when first they
notice my hand, and then their eyes travel up my arm. They
must think they are imagining things; they blink, and then see
that my arm hangs at an odd angle and my skin is knotted and
corded like bark, and that there are webs at my elbows and
armpits. Since I ignore my scars, some of them never notice them.
I have tight, ropy muscles in my limbs that tell a different story
than one of a life stopped short. I imagine their conflicted minds
must pause; their thoughts stutter and contradict as they seek to
comprehend my confused appearance. But still they talk. In biology
or gym, they comment on my scars. They are grossed out. They are
disgusted. Iím so weird.
All in all, I figure itís
good for them. Besides, I have Shakespeare to teach, and Herman
Hesse, and Homer, for Godís sakes, so I assume theyíll just
get past it and learn to focus on formulating a thesis and
passing my class. Thatís hard enough. Ferejohn and I teach the
most rigourous freshman program in the school. The parents
appreciate it. They show up after school and talk to Ferejohn and
me about how much their kids are learning.
Last year Barbie showed up.
Her daughter Kelli is unnervingly silent. She never laughs, she
never smiles. Thatís hard for me because I consider myself
hilarious. For better or worse, student laughter is a kind of
gauge by which I measure my own teaching, so Kelliís silence and
stoicism is a silent, subtle irritation.
Even though she is Asian,
Barbie has huge, round eyes. She has a little, clipped nose and
huge breasts. She always wears tight tee shirts and jean skirts.
Barbie follows me from my final meeting of the day into my
classroom. It is five oíclock, and I have been working non-stop
since 7:30 this morning. Barbie is smiling up at me. Her big eyes
are luminous, her face is as open as the full moon, and she is
smiling as if she has a special secret for me. Her eyes
never leave my face, her smile never falters as she speaks.
ďKelli talks so much about
you. She wants to know what happened to you. She says you start to
talk about it (No I donít. I never talk about it. I donít like
to talk about it, and can we please not talk about it right now?)
But then you stop. She really wants to know what happened to you.
The kids are curious. I think you should tell them.Ē
The air around me suddenly
feels thinner. The wives in the unlit room start softly scratching
on the door. I have a night class to teach, so I have only a few
minutes to tell Barbie that I prefer not to talk abut my scars,
and it might be just a bit too much for 9th graders to hear.
Confused and agitated, but desperately dedicated to appearing
professional and calm to the hyper-vigilant parents in this
college prep program, I manage to end the conversation. Still
smiling, Barbie departs, leaving a faint scent of apple perfume in
her wake. My breath is pulsing at the top of my chest as I herd my
books and binders together, jam them into several large book bags,
and scramble to my next job.
Later that night, by the
time I have fallen into bed and lie staring at the paisley
patterns in the inky blackness, Barbie and her silent daughter
have acquired long, Mormon skirts and silent open mouths like
black, round stones. They have joined the faceless murmuring mob
of wives behind Bluebeardís door. I wait for the housewives to
subside, give up, and tire into compliance. Then I deliciously
surrender to memories of my childhood before I was burned. This is
my room: the farm where I grew up, full of ancient, sentient oak
trees, watchful guardian angels and sap green dreams of spring.
Soon I am asleep.
Months have passed since
Barbie ambushed me. I have grumbled about the incident to Ferejohn
and a few of my colleagues. I really could not have been more offended,
and my teacher buddies stoke my indignation with their silent
sympathy, and wonder privately, Iím sure, exactly what the hell
happened to my arms, legs, and feet that have left the skin
marbled with flowing textures of fishnet and bread dough.
Meanwhile, I have enough to
keep my mind busy and the unhappy wives of Bluebeard are
hibernating. Ferejohn and I are reviewing applications for next
yearís Academy. We have high standards and eliminate students
based on their essays, GPA, or teacher recommendations. Our
program is not for everyone. For example, Kelliís sister, Teri,
applied and her name was ruthlessly slashed from the list. She
narrowly missed meeting our criteria. I growl a little when I see
her name, and Ferejohn glances at me in empathetic amusement. I
hear some mild pounding in my head as I remember the incident with
Barbie. I reject Teri with pleasant, self-righteousness, and the
door remains implacably and comfortingly slammed closed.