The unexpected, the unlikely, the unbidden…call it serendipity, fate or grace. It can change your life – this I believe.
It’s cold this January morning. I walk up the century-old sandstone steps of our city’s alternative high school with some trepidation because for the next semester I’ll be among tattoos, gothic coats, peacock-colored hair and body piercings. I’m here to help a friend who teaches creative writing to teens unwelcome at the other high schools. Mark knows I’m still grieving my husband’s recent death, I’m at loose ends, and I like to write. Neither of us knows what a lifeline I’m being handed; it will pull me from sorrow into an extraordinary experience.
I hesitate at the classroom door. Mark, wearing jeans and a sweatshirt, cheerfully waves me in. After a brief introduction, he declares that the day’s assignment will be a letter to Bev – that’s me – telling her how to cope with loss. Touched and surprised, I wonder what this somewhat sullen group can possibly offer a 66-year-old grandmother. But I soon learn that these children, worn and beaten down, are daily fighting battles I only read about from my safe and predictable world. The words that come at me are sweet, achingly tender; these kids, wise beyond their years have already experienced more loss than I will in a lifetime.
Jenny, losing her childhood to drugs and incarceration, losing her innocence to rape writes:
“….the only way to cope is to wake up each day and say I made it through another day. I’m still breathing and walking…tomorrow is a new day and that’s what keeps you going. As days pass, pain subsides….”
This, from tattooed Don:
“….Plant the sadness into a beautiful magnolia
Water it with your tears
Fertilizer it with your sorrow
Tomorrow you will have something new to look forward to
Tough guy Ross writes: “….pain is needed in life; with pain comes love and growth…”
The class smart-aleck advises: “ ….only the passage of time assuages the sting….show me a person who deals well with loss and I’ll show you someone who hasn’t lost much…”
Eyes still wet when I reach home, I fold the notebook papers scrawled with unexpected compassion into a small box and a tie pretty ribbon on it.
That was five years ago. The gift box contents have been read many times and I still feel joy and thanksgiving for having known a tattooed kid who would show me how to grow, blessed to learn about a new day from a girl wearing black lipstick, and privileged to read the words of a 15 year old quietly battling depression. How can I forget this parting wish: “…Happy trails, Bev.”
Each wrinkled sheet is a reminder that this total stranger to them was given the ultimate gift: themselves. Their private struggles, their own tools for coping, prevailing, and moving on have become my own…unexpected, unlikely, unbidden.
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