The Times I've Made Small Children Cry
1. I’m 18 and my job is teaching poetry to 7th and 8th graders. I’m trying my best, eschewing a traditional curriculum, not making them read either Elizabeth Barret Browning or William Carlos William’s “The Red Wheelbarrow,” both of which inspire universal hostility in students. They’re not having it. On a Thursday, I give them one week to write something original. The job is killing me, because it’s occurring to me that I might not be a very good teacher and because, only tangentially related to my job teaching poetry, I have absolutely no idea what I’m going to do with my life once I leave for college. When the kids come back with their compositions, my partner notices that one piece is actually the lyrics to a Grateful Dead song. I’m more offended by the bad taste than the plagiarism. I call the kid out on it in class, which is a rookie mistake. He cries and the students hate me even more than they did, previously.
2. Only a few weeks later and the teaching job is compounding my already poor health. I develop an ulcer, which I don’t realize till I’m driving around with friends one afternoon and I end up on my knees out the passenger door, puking blood onto clumpy grass and cracked concrete at the side of a suburban road. My friends, being good friends, crank the music to drown out my scream-puking, which continues for some minutes. When I’m finished I look up and realize we’re parked in front of a yard where two, roughly 8-year-old kids are playing. They look to be brother and sister. They’re frozen and staring at me for few seconds before the girl bursts into tears and sprints toward the backyard, screaming.
3. Fast-forward two years. I’m a philosophy major at a small liberal-arts college, so I think I have all the answers. I’m sitting in an all night diner across the river from my college and a friend tells me he’s been cheating on his girlfriend with her sister. They live together, these sisters. I’m not angry so much as incredulous at the impossible position he’s put himself in. To emphasize a point about his situation, I slam my fist down on the table and all the dishware lifts and drops, making a terrible rattling sound. My coffee spills and everyone in the little chrome plated restaurant turns toward us. Two toddlers have been standing, peeking out over the back of the opposite booth and they crouch down after my outburst, starting a small, dual whine. Nobody asks us to leave, but I spend the rest of the meal speaking in a sort of strained whisper about how I don’t believe in monogamy so it’s not that what he did was wrong but jesus fuck did it have to be her sister?
4. Some months later the same friend calls and asks if he can come pick me up. He sounds in a bad state. Walking out to his car, I can see he’s sitting with his head slumped down on the steering wheel. When I get in he’s silent so, because I’m a good friend, I ask, “What, are you pregnant?” He says that Shelia, the sister of his now ex-girlfriend, is. I laugh because I can’t help it and he gets, rightfully, pissed. Thus, we do what we always do; drive to a Borders bookstore and talk while we wander around not buying things. He’s scared, though he’s pretty sure it isn’t his. I tell him that, no matter what, he can work it out. We’re standing in the section with the manga and I want to make him laugh, so I start loudly ranting about how stupid Yu-Gi-Oh is. He’s laughing so I keep ranting even after I notice a skinny kid at the end of the aisle with his face buried in a Yu-Gi-Oh manga, shooting daggers at me with his eyes and sniffling. I know I should feel like shit, but I don’t. Turns out, Shelia wasn’t pregnant.
5. That summer I’m home and a family friend dies unexpectedly. He was a lawyer and I had a crush on his daughter all through high school. At the funeral, I’m the only one not to kneel in front of the casket and I see his daughter for the first time in years in the receiving line. We hug and talk about school, how I’m doing and how she’s pre-med and wasn’t quite prepared to spend hours memorizing flashcards full of organic molecules and how sorry I am and how it’s good to see her. I can’t bring myself to say anything about her father. She hasn’t shed a tear since I’ve been there. Afterwards, I see her little cousin. I kneel down in front of her and tell her that her uncle was a truly great man, because he was. Tears start streaming down her face, but she doesn’t sob or even really move. This time, I feel like shit.
6.The next summer I’m working at a law office. One of my jobs is to catalog an immense number of file boxes my boss has. Mostly they’re his, from years spent with various firms, but some of them belong to my dead family friend. By law, a lawyer’s files can’t be destroyed or given over to his/her estate. Rather, another lawyer has to take them and sort them out. My boss has an arcane filing system, but my family friend’s is worse. Some of the boxes are in a storage unit a few blocks away, in a building that used to be a theater back when the city had industry. The rest are scattered around the office and nobody can make sense of what order anything is in. I’m tracking them in a spreadsheet and, when I finally get around to it, I pull a box out from under my desk and open the first file to see how I should label it. The box contains my dead family friend’s personal files and the one I’m holding contains, among other things, my crush’s college tuition plan and a heavily annotated travel brochure published by the Irish government. I don’t think they ever took that trip. This time, I’m crying, sitting in my chair trying not to make noise. I realize, distinctly, that I don’t want to be a lawyer.
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