Mary at School

“Ann got hert real bad.  Dee’s a mess.  Horse got killed.”

The Martyrdom and Last Communion of St. Lucy by Paolo Veronese

Mary got Colette’s text during gym class

“OMG” was Mary’s immediate reply.

English class followed gym.  They were told to read quietly for the last 20 minutes of class. Mary couldn’t get into any story.  Her mind was racing thinking of dead horses and Ann in the hospital and Dee pacing the barn the way Mary would be pacing if it were her best friend Colette in the hospital.  She tried to keep the macabre thoughts from flowing through her mind. Was there a lot of blood?  Did the horse break legs? How did the horse die? Will Ann be able to walk again? Who is going to pay the hospital bill? What was the horse’s name? How old was it?  

Mary knew that she should be worrying about Ann, but she couldn’t stop thinking about the dead horse. She took a pencil from her bag and started doodling on the back cover of her book.  She couldn’t help it, the pencil moved itself and a prone horse appeared, tongue lolling, legs crumpled, closed dead eyes depicted by a stark X. She tried to stop but the picture just kept coming.  Her furious scratching drew the attention of the teacher who looked disapprovingly her way. Mary met the teacher’s gaze with embarrassment. She tucked the pencil away and tried again to read the book in front of her. Her body squirmed, her neck ached she needed more than anything to move. Being trapped in the hard desk surrounded by students was stifling.  She asked permission to go to the bathroom. The young teacher, exasperated,  recognized pain on the face of a student who was one of her brightest and most attentive, excused Mary. 

Ducking her head and darting out of the classroom eager to breathe outdoor air and to move her body, Mary flexed her fingers and rolled her head trying to expel the nervous energy coursing through her body. She wanted to yell,  cry and to run all at the same time, but she knew she was watched from classroom windows by teachers and kids  and Mary hated to draw a scene. She walked as quickly as she could across the school campus, past the cafeteria that smelled of grease and sugar, past the noisy drama class with it’s clanking piano through the quad and to the least used bathroom. She was disappointed to find that she was not alone. The school’s bad girl, Becky Dinah was sitting on the floor smoking a clove cigarette. The sweet smell made Mary cringe.

“You look like crap.” Becky exhaled through squinted eyes.

Mary tried to ignore her, she wanted so badly to be alone and everyone knew that Becky was bad news. She inched towards a toilet stall but Becky stuck a thick boot with shiny chains and buckles in Mary’s way.

“C’mon, what’s up?” Becky growled.  There was a glimmer of concern in Becky’s heavily painted eyes.

Mary gave in, her body sagged and her head rested on the scratchy mirror.  She began to cry. It felt good to let go and the tears gathered momentum. 

“Dead, dying, snuffed out, toast, gone. That’s what’s the matter!” Mary knew she wasn’t making sense, but Becky was weird and maybe, just maybe she would understand her crazy thoughts – and if she didn’t, who cared?

“Wow, heavy stuff.  Want some?”  Becky proffered the cigarette to Mary.  Mary waved her hand no, but her body sunk to the floor and the girls were sitting side by side.

“What kind of a God kills horses and little brothers and grandparents and everyone you love?”

“Maybe it’s not God that does it, maybe killing or death is what we do to ourselves. How the hell should I know?” Becky puffed again.

Both girls sat silently, pondering. The bell rang and both girls hopped up nervously Becky snuffing out the clove cigarette and Mary wiping her tear stained face. The bathroom would fill up momentarily with chatting and screeching girls and neither wanted to be seen in such a sentimental and intimate pose.

“You’re pretty cool Mary. You’re gonna be okay. I know we haven’t hung out since we were like in 2nd grade, but I remember how fucked up your family is. And believe me, I know what a fucked up family is like.  I’m not sure how you’re going to be okay, but you will.”  Becky ducked quickly out of the girls room leaving Mary lost and bewildered.

Instantly, the room filled with gum smacking, singing and screeching, toilet flushing, makeup re-arranging, cel phone texting girls.  Mary lost herself in the fray of noise and movement and stumbled out into the crowded hallways smelling of smoking cloves and still thinking of dead horses. 

She didn’t want to be at school, she knew that. The idea of hanging out with other kids when her head was heading to the dark places filled her with dread.  There’s no way she can discuss the latest Vampire movie or tomorrow’s homework or the new guy’s acne with her friends. Colette went to a school across town and today wasn’t a barn day for either of them. Home wasn’t an option. She thought about going to the school office and asking to see the counselor, but previous attempts at that only had the counselor calling home or state authorities. Nothing she said in that office was confidential. 

Mary realized that she’d left her books and bag in her English class when she had escaped to the bathroom.  She picked up a nervous jog across the campus and entered the empty classroom, her teacher looked up from her grade book.

“Mary, I knew you would have to come back for your stuff, I have it here at my desk.”

Mary exhaled relief.  But it was short lived, the teacher opened the book to the sketch of the dead horse.

“This book is school property Mary.  You aren’t supposed to draw in it.”

“I know.  I’m really sorry.”

“It’s um, not a pretty picture Mary.  Anything you want to tell me?”

Mary made a grab and was surprised that her teacher, instead of grabbing the book back to her, pushed it toward Mary.

Look Mary, this next period is my prep period.  I can write you an excuse for your next class if you just want to stay here.  And I can give you some paper so that you can do your artwork on something other than the back cover of a book.

“Why are you being so nice to me?  Is it because you want me to tell you what’s wrong? Believe me, I know how it works with teachers, I know that you HAVE to tell the authorities everything I tell you. So don’t ask me anything about my life okay?”

“I’m being nice to you because you are a good kid and you seem to be having a hard day.  And you are right, I’m bound by state law to report any  suspicion that a kid might hurt herself or others. So you don’t have to tell me anything that you don’t want to. But you should know that we teachers really are here to help if you want help and there is a lot we can do. You’re a smart kid. You know that and you have some real talents. If you want to sit here and draw pictures of dead horses, please be my guest, but do it quietly so that I can grade these papers – deal?”

“Can I ask you something?” Mary sat down heavily and spoke very quietly.

“Sure.” Her teacher was part exasperated and yet gentle.

“Do you think God created death and war and stuff like that?”

“What do you think?”

“I think he’s a bastard.”

Her teacher smiled and twirled her long pencil.  Mary noticed that she had nice hands.  Soft and clean.

“I think God is exactly what you make him out to be.”

“How can that be?  I thought God created us and everything, not the other way around.”

“You can spend your whole life trying to wrap your head around that question.  In the meantime, you need to live – right?  So how about you believe that no matter what, God gave you the choice to choose what you do and what you believe in.”

“You sound like my friend Dee.  She even named her farm Timshel Farm.”

The teacher’s eyes flashed interest and excitement.  “Timshel, like the Hebrew word – thou mayest?”

“Yeah, but it’s complicated.  It’s also named after a racehorse.  Anyway, it’s all complicated.  My head is a crazy jumble and I’m not supposed to be thinking all of the bad thoughts that I can’t shake.”

The teacher paused and after a moment she took a deep breath.  This kid was smart and she was listening and she was clever enough to tackle some giant concepts.  She took a chance. “Well let me just give you some of the worst and the best news I ever got.  There’s a very old book, older than the Christian bible, it’s called The Tibetan Book of the Dead.”

“Uh, that doesn’t exactly sound up-lifting.”

“Hang on, it gets worse, and much better.  Anyway, the book guarantees  that you will lose everyone you love and everything you have ever had. That your only true possessions are your actions.”

“That’s the most depressing thing I’ve ever heard.”

“Really?  It just means that the rules are the same for everyone. We will all lose the people we love and the things we cherish – it’s the way of the world.  It’s the same for me and for you and for an old man in India and a beautiful woman in China and a newborn baby in the richest family in New York.  We are all connected by this and we are all in true possession of our actions.  They are our gifts to the world.”

“Wow.  That’s pretty heavy.”

“I guess it’s heavy.  For me, it’s really light.  It makes me feel like I’m in control of some things and it lets me let go of the things I’m not in control of.”

“Like what?”

“Well, it means if my mom has cancer, it’s a new chapter in our lives. I didn’t cause the cancer and I’m not able to cure it but how I treat her as she goes through scary treatments is what I own. And if I choose to sleep through a beautiful sunrise, I own that. But tomorrow the sun is coming up again and I can get my lazy self out of bed and smile at it. It’s totally my choice. I can present amazing literature to 8th grade students and I can encourage them to read it, but some kids will never be moved by it, but at least I presented it to them and I showed them how it affected me.”

“Can I tell you about this dead horse picture?”

“If you want to.”

“She got killed this morning, on the track and my trainer’s best friend was riding her and now she’s in the hospital and I don’t know if she’s going to be okay. I know I should be worried about her, but I can’t stop thinking about the horse. I mean, did she choose to go out on the track this morning?”

“This was a racehorse?”

“Yeah.”

“So she was bred to race.”

“I guess so.”

“And she was running when it happened?”

“Yeah, I guess so.”

“So she died doing what she was bred and trained and hopefully loved doing? What if you believed that she was loving every second of her running right up until the moment she died?”

“So you’re saying that this dead horse is a good thing?”

“I’m saying that there might be worse things.”

“HOW?  She’s dead!” 

Her teacher looked down, worried that she had gone too far with this sensitive intelligent child.  Damn, why couldn’t she just shut up, give the kids homework and then go home at the end of the day? Why did she have to care about these kids so much? And now this poor kid was in even worse shape then when she came in.

“I’m sorry Mary.  I should have realized that you just needed to mourn.  It’s who we are as humans and you aren’t wrong to question and to be sad. It shows what a neat kid you are. So if you need to cry and be angry and draw pictures and write poems you absolutely should. All good art comes from pain and suffering. But I do want you to know. Well, geez, I don’t even know anymore what I want you to know. I guess I just want you to know that you are special and I’m glad we had this time together. I hope we can be friends.”

Mary wiped her eyes and looked away.  “If you have some paper, I’d kinda like to be quiet now, I promise I won’t bother you if you let me stay here for the rest of the period.”

“Sure Mary.  I’ve got a lot of stuff to do too.  Do you want to work here at my desk with me or do you want to take a seat?”

“If it’s okay with you, I’d like to stay right here.”

“It’s okay with me. Can I ask you one more thing?”

“Okay?” Mary was wary.

“Do you know the horse’s name?”

“I think it was Dolce Es-something.”

“Here it is, on my computer, I looked up the news story. Her name was Dolce Est Decorum.  Strange.”

“Strange?  Why?”

“Dolce Est Decorum Est translates loosely from Latin as “it is sweet and right. But, more famously, it’s a poem I really like by a guy named Wilfred Owen about how it is ‘sweet and right to die for your country’”

“That’s terrible!”

“Maybe, maybe not. Mary.”

Both women lapsed into an embarrassed silence, picked up their work and spent the next 40 minutes sitting across from each other working and thinking. 

At the end of the period, when the bell rang, Mary gathered her belongings not meeting her teacher’s eye.  She walked slowly to the door, paused and mumbled “Thanks, for everything.”

“I’ll see you tomorrow.” 

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