When the bell rang above my head, it startled me. I looked behind me at the large black and white face of the school clock, and it confirmed what the bell had already told me. Class was over.
At the time, I was the editor of our High School poetry magazine, and I had spent my free period going over the many submissions for the next issue. I had winced through the countless sappy entries, wondering if I could stomach one more ditty glorifying sunshine and flowers, when I came across a handwritten submission scrawled nearly illegibly on yellow lined paper. And when I began to read it, time froze.
This particular entry had an urgency and an anguish that I knew intuitively was not contrived. The words shouted at me from the page; I could feel the poet’s anger and desperation, and as I read it a second time, I felt queasy. It was at that moment when the school bell rang, startling me back to reality. I watched the clock for a moment; it always seemed that the minute hand lumbered, its electronic hand shaking, until it finally clicked into place with a loud clattering sound. Two minutes had already passed, but I knew I couldn’t go to class. I needed to speak to my advisor.
Scooping up the strange poem, I went directly to her office and tapped lightly on her door. When she saw me, she smiled and waved me inside. “Don’t you have a class?” she asked me.
“I do, but I really need to talk to you,” I said as I sat down. “I need your advice on whether or not I should print this poem,” I continued as I waved the yellow slip of paper, and then laid it on the desk in front of her. “It’s one of the best submissions I’ve had all year. The kid obviously has talent. But....” my voice trailed off.
My advisor put on her reading glasses and took the poem in her hands. “But?” she asked, although as she began to read, her question was answered. Her eyes began to furrow, and she grunted. “Who wrote this?” she asked, scanning the sheet for a name. “John Brown. Do you know this student?”
“He’s a freshman. Yes, I know who he is,” I answered. And sadly, I knew exactly who he was. A loner, my friends and I had noticed him in the quad one day. He walked from one side to the other, as if in a great hurry; he was clumsily holding a huge pile of books, and he nearly ran as if he was late for a class. Then he hid behind a tree, and when he thought no one was looking, he turned around and walked back to where he started, in the same hurried manner. I remembered we all laughed, wondering aloud what on earth he was doing. Then it occurred to me that he had nothing to do, and was trying to appear busy. It was so painful to me at the time. I remember feeling a sharp pang of sorrow as I watched him; I imagined that it was his lunch hour, and he didn’t want to be seen sitting all alone.
My advisor removed her glasses and stared at me. “Well, this is VERY disturbing,” she told me. “VERY disturbing. His desire to commit suicide is somewhat inappropriate in itself, but to allude to the fact that he wants to take others with him really crosses the line, don’t you think?” I nodded. She went on. “You know I’ve never censored anything you’ve printed to date, and I agree with you that the writing is solid.
And although I’ll leave the decision up to you, my advice is not to publish this poem. Furthermore, I’m considering showing it to the Principal. But you have to learn what being a responsible editor is all about. It’s your choice.”
I thought long and hard about whether or not to publish that poem. These were the days long before the Columbine shootings and other massacres at public schools. It was an innocent time, and I think none of us could even fathom a student acting out any of the atrocities that we are now too familiar with. But still, I decided not to publish it.
The day that the magazine came out, I was standing by my locker, when I felt a strange piercing tap on my shoulder. It was too hard, and more of a poke, or even a jab- than a tap. I turned around quickly, feeling a bit put off, when I saw John Brown standing in front of me. He was nervous; he was stuttering, and he was looking at everything but me. “I need to know why you didn’t publish my poem,” he muttered.
“John,” I said, hardly above a whisper. “I loved your poem. It was excellent. I think it was the best submission I’ve had all year. But the content, you know, is a bit troubling for a High School publication; do you know what I mean? Maybe you could publish it elsewhere?”
His face grew beet red, and I could see sweat forming above his eyebrows. But still, he never looked at me. “But I don’t WANT to publish it anywhere else, I want to publish at the High School,” he told me. “Will you put it in the NEXT edition?” His voice cracked, and I feared he might cry.
“Sorry John, I’m not going to publish it. I hope you’ll submit again.” I was already using language that I’ve seen on countless rejection slips in my literary life. And I’ve since learned how heartless it can feel to the writer. But I didn’t have the experience or empathy in those days, that I might today. Instead, I turned on my heel and flounced off. To be honest, I found him creepy, and wanted to be far away from him.
That afternoon I saw him in the quad again, doing that same busy dance that I had seen him do before. Walking with a purpose, when he had no purpose. The image haunts me to this day.
It was about a week after the magazine came out, and I was sitting on the floor of Hallway C, right outside the door of my next class. I always got to English class early, as it was my favorite subject, and I was getting in a little extra studying before class began.
As I read over my notes, I suddenly heard a loud pop.
I looked toward the closed door of my English class, and tried to discern what I had just heard. It sounded like a firecracker. Had some hoodlum just set off a firecracker in class? I struggled to my feet with the intention of peering through the small window that was in every classroom door. But I didn’t get far.
The door swung open, and students started spilling out. But it wasn’t something I’d seen before; the jubilant rush when students are excused from class a few minutes early. This was more of a panic. They pushed past me; one even knocking me into the wall as though I wasn’t there. They were running.
I was still standing there, stunned, when my English teacher ran out of the class as well. Her face reflected absolute terror, and she rushed past me and through the double doors into the quad. Without knowing why, I ran after her.
My English teacher tripped and fell, and suddenly she was sprawled unceremoniously at the edge of the quad. Her skirt was hiked up nearly to her waist, and her legs revealed nude support hose, which had fallen loosely around her ankles. The sight was so undignified, that I could only stare down at her with horror.
I heard loud screams coming from Hallway C. I turned my head just in time to see John Brown emerge from the double doors; he was running and stumbling as if drunk, and he was covered in blood. I am still ashamed to admit what the image reminded me of that auspicious day; I thought he looked like a chicken with its head cut off.
Sadly, the image wasn’t far from the truth. John Brown suddenly collapsed, and hit the pavement hard. I, and many others, ran to his side. I remember how the students encircled him; but no one moved to help him.
At first, I couldn’t believe what I was seeing. Because half of his head was gone. I saw only one eye, staring still at the sky, and only half a mouth. The other half was simply gone. And an enormous pool of blood began to form around him.
Amazingly, he was alive. He was twitching and kicking; his hands were reaching toward the sky. “Call an ambulance! Call an ambulance!” I heard someone scream, and a few students scurried off. I stood there, staring down at his convulsions and spasms, as though I was rooted to the spot.
I heard several girls break into sobs behind me. I turned around and asked them, “What happened?”
“Oh God,” the girl sputtered back, her voice growing hysterical. “John did this. It was John. In the middle of class he turned to Carol who was sitting right next to him. And he said he was going to kill himself. And that he was going to take Carol with him. And then he pulled out a gun. And he pointed it at his head in the same direction as she was sitting. Then he pulled the trigger. He wanted to get them both with the same bullet. Her face is covered with his blood and skin. But I think she’s okay. Oh my God. Oh my God.”
I looked back at John, and noticed his one remaining eye had developed a severe tic. I felt immediately guilty, and mused about whether or not my rejection of his poem could have triggered this. What if publishing his poem was his way of expressing his torment, so that he wouldn’t need to act on his yearnings? And did my rejection contribute to the erosion of his self-esteem? Could I be partially responsible?
A moment later, emergency vehicles pulled into the school parking lot, with sirens blaring. Several paramedics ran toward us, pulling behind them a gurney. The students opened the ring that encircled John Brown’s shuddering body, and let the paramedics by. John was hoisted onto the gurney, and they ran his body out as quickly as they appeared.
Suddenly a voice came over the loudspeaker. “Attention Students. Attention Students. School is officially closed for the day. I repeat, school is officially closed for the day. In an orderly fashion, please leave campus immediately. I repeat, please leave the campus immediately. The busses that normally run at 3 o’clock are lining up in the parking lot now. Please exit the campus immediately. ” I heard more sirens pull into the parking lot, and suddenly the quad was swarming with police.
I was in shock. And I think so many others were as well. But no one hung back to discuss the events that had just taken place. Some students ran for their cars in the parking lot. Others made a hasty exit on foot. And I took my place in the long lines for the bus. I was due at work immediately after school, and even though I’d be early, I figured I’d head straight there regardless. I was so shaken, and had so much to process, that I was relieved I’d have a little time to myself before my shift began.
At the time, I worked at a hospital.
Primarily, it was a convalescent hospital, and that is the section where I worked. But the hospital also served as an emergency room, as it was the only hospital on the coast.
I hated that place. A lot of my friends worked there as well. But while they worked as Candy Stripers and with the patients themselves, I found the idea of that all together too distasteful. Instead, I applied for a position in the kitchen. I aided the nutritionist in preparation of the patient’s meals, as well as did the dishes. Each patient had a meal card, and I had to carefully check to see what was restricted on their diets before preparing them a tray. There were a handful of patients which were on “Mechanical Soft” diets, as they called it, a name which always gave me the creeps. But basically they meant they couldn’t chew, and whatever I made for dinner that night for the other patients, I would simply throw into the blender and make into a savory milkshake. A turkey, mashed potato and peas shake, for instance.
The bus ride that afternoon was strangely quiet. I expected the students to be crying, and talking excitedly about what had just happened at our school. But no one spoke.
At the stop nearest to the hospital, I exited the bus, and walked directly to the beach. I sat on a cliff, staring sadly into the ocean, wondering if he could possibly survive the injury I saw with my own eyes. I decided it was impossible.
I walked up the long hill to the hospital to begin my shift. I was used to seeing ambulances in the hospital parking lot, as the old folks died off on a regular basis. My friends were sometimes asked to wash their bodies before pick up; something I never envied. One time my best friend begged me to join her in the room with her as she did it, just for moral support. She was terrified. Reluctantly I agreed. I remember that the deceased had a bowl of chocolates next to her bedside, which I guiltily ate as my friend screamed and squirmed holding a damp washcloth and dabbing at the corpse. These days, I doubt if they’d have Candy Stripers do such an enormously difficult job.
But on this day, the parking lot was filled with emergency vehicles. At first I didn’t make the connection, but it dawned on me, finally, that they had taken John Brown to the hospital where I worked.
I had barely gotten through the door, when my Supervisor accosted me in the hallway. She began talking breathlessly about the shooting at the High School, asking if I had been there. When I told her that I had, she went on to explain that John’s parents were in the Waiting Room, utterly distraught. “I think it would mean the world to them to have one of their son’s friends sit with them right now,” she told me.
I didn’t want to go. “I’m not exactly his friend, I’m a classmate is all,” I stuttered.
“PLEASE,” she almost shouted. “We kept the boy alive for over an hour, but he has just expired. It would be a kindness if you could sit with them when we deliver the news. The nurses are much too busy. And the boy’s parents keep asking why his friends aren’t here at the hospital.”
Because John didn’t have any friends, is what I thought to myself.
My Supervisor gave me a gentle shove toward the ominous double doors of the Waiting Room. I pushed the doors open slowly, and I saw a sweet gentle couple sitting there, holding hands, and crying. I smiled shyly, and sat down beside them. “You must be John’s parents?” I asked.
“Yes,” they muttered. Then they looked upon me as if I were an Angel of Mercy. “And you must be one of John’s friends?! We have so wanted to speak to one of his friends! We want to know what happened, and WHY this happened. Did you talk to him today? Did he seem different? He is such a good boy. A wonderful boy. Didn’t you think he is a wonderful boy?”
I nodded. Then offered the only truth I really knew. “He is very smart. And talented.” When I spoke those words, his mother’s eyes filled with tears and she grabbed my hand and held it tight. “Oh yes. I can tell you must have been very close,” she said.
A moment later, a surgeon appeared. He was dressed in green surgical wear that had been stained with red blood, yet the spots appeared dark brown. He was wiping a sweaty brow with a gloved hand, and looked tired. “I’m sorry,” is all he said. The doctor only hesitated for a moment, looking down at the floor, and then marched away. His announcement was met with a long howl from John’s mother. A strangled cry, like a wolf with his paw caught in a trap.
I held onto her hand for a moment longer, and let her cry. She gripped my hand as though she would never let go. “If there’s anything I can do,” I stammered.
“Could you just sit and talk with us for awhile?” John’s mother asked me. “I know you were close, and I want you to tell me everything. Everything you knew about him.”
But I knew nothing.
“Was he popular? He must have been very popular at school, right?”
I just nodded.
I’ve often wondered why I was called upon to bear witness to these series of events. It always seemed like much more than a coincidence that this complete stranger would entwine with my life so many times, and in such a strong way. From my rejection of his poem, to my being outside of the classroom when he shot himself, to going to the hospital where he died, to holding his mother’s hand when she learned of his death. One day, out of the blue, his life and mine began weaving together inexplicably into a tapestry that begged for explanation. I’ve never figured out what the message was in all of that, but I will tell you, that it began my hatred of the marketing and publishing world, in the literary arena. It began an abhorrence which has lasted all of my life, and has led me in directions that caused me to give up on my dreams.
It was as though we both gave up our dreams that day.