Friday, January 31, 2014

The Empty Chair

In one brief moment, I realized that all of the questions I had about my new journey had been answered. God’s reply wasn’t in words, but in a gut-wrenching feeling that I was right where I needed to be in that moment.

“Please don’t cry, Mrs. Shadrix.”

I could barely breathe, much less talk. The more I tried to contain the lump in my throat, the harder it was to hold back tears.

There had been many times when I doubted myself. I wondered if I had made a mistake of leaving a job as a magazine editor, which I loved, to venture into a career that I knew nothing about. 

At 40 years old, I became a high school teacher.  And, in my 40 years, I had never encountered a 16-year-old pleading for me to not cry.  

I looked around the room at the other students who were holding back their own tears. Each of us desperately tried to avoid looking at the empty chair in the classroom. But, it was there and it showed us no mercy.

Just a few days earlier, the orange chair embraced life as she casually took pictures of herself on her computer. Wearing a pink shirt, she took a few pictures of herself on her classroom Mac computer before the bell rang. One was silly and one was sweet. So fitting.

Her big eyes had a way of taking hold of your soul. Even when she was being mischievous, looking in them left you powerless.

She was sitting in that orange chair during the first weeks of school when I called her name and asked her to meet me in the hallway.

She had lied to me about something the day before and, as I told her, lying was something I couldn't tolerate.

Her mouth said, “I didn't lie,” but her eyes said, “Please just love me and let me get away with it.”

“Yesterday, you looked me right in the face with those angelic eyes and you lied to me,” I told her. “I care about you and I can’t let you get away with lying.” 

Caring about her meant I had to write her up.  It was my first lesson in teaching. It's not about being mean, but it is passing on life lessons to young people. 

She will never know that I didn’t feel prepared to teach and that she was the first student I had to formally discipline. She will never know that I didn’t even know how to complete the discipline form.

She will never know that if I could go back in time, I would spend every moment in class letting her know that I did, in fact, care about and love her. I would beg her to not go out on a late night ride with her friend.

I would plead with her to have mercy on me so I didn’t have to hold back tears when talking about her death to her classmates.

I would beg with her to not leave that chair empty every day.

No one really prepares you for dealing with the death of a student. But, God did prepare me.

When I was able to talk, I asked the class if they had ever heard about the stages of death. I asked if anyone had ever even talked to them about death.

The room was silent. 

"No one talks about death, Mrs. Shadrix," one student whispered.

In that moment, I realized that when I was a young woman and changed my major from journalism to social work, it was God.

In that moment, I found myself pulling out of my memory, Elizabeth Kubler Ross and the five stages of death from her groundbreaking book, 'On Death and Dying." It was God.

I realized that the brief time I spent working for Alacare Home Health & Hospice prepared me in some way for that moment. It was God.

In that moment, I realized when I left the world of social work behind me to take a dream job at The Anniston Star and Longleaf Style magazine, it was all God.

In that moment, I realized becoming a high school teacher was all God.

In that moment, I stared at the empty chair in my classroom and knew I would never forget the life that it once supported. I knew the pain of mourning is real. The denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and anger are all real.

Day in and day out, other students fill that empty chair now. Stories about that mischievous girl, who made everyone call her "Tha Boss" are told. Sometimes there are laughs and sometimes the words trail off. Questions of why are still asked.

I try not to ask why. I only imagine that now, instead of sitting in that old orange chair in my classroom, she is sitting next to a throne and her angelic eyes are now seeing Him. It is God.


In memory of Brittney "Tha Boss" Bonner.
4/24/1996 - 12/8/2012


Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Come on in

When I was a young girl, my grandmother had a living room in which no one was actually allowed to live.

My brother's and I felt if we breathed near the room, the plastic on the chair might disintegrate.

Our very lives might also disintegrate if we stepped into it.

So, we risked our lives and held our breath when we walked by the room.

The only time I recall spending any amount of time in that room was a rare visit with my dad in which he played a Mad magazine record of Alfred E. Neuman's "It's a Gas".

It was a dream come true for my older brother and our dad, who shared a moment of pure 12-year-old laughter while listening to the record.

I didn't pay much attention to the symphony of flatulence. For, on that day, I was stunned that we survived. It's a precious memory of my dad and brother that I dearly hold.

I'm not sure if anyone outside of our family ever sat in that living room. Maybe they didn't live to tell about it. My grandmother was a Mississippi Southern Belle, but her stare could stop Medusa in her tracks.

When family visited, they usually sat in the informal living room. As a young girl, I knew style. The informal living room, with it's brown panel walls, plush carpet and orange and brown striped cushions, was my Panel Pad. It was the room with the color TV, where my grandmother rolled my hair, where we napped on recliners, and where we lived in pure bliss.

Time and families have changed. Children are no longer scared of anything. There are no formal living rooms, no paneled walls, no plush carpet, no orange and brown stripes.  No Mad magazine paper records.

Our homes are cozy and cluttered. We are too busy for company. Too advanced for our own good.

The last time I let a friend in my house, she told me that I needed to clean my sink in the "powder room" because there was dried toothpaste in it.

I think she even cleaned it.

I'm only assuming this because when I remembered the toothpaste a few days later. It was gone.

Truth be told, I should probably invite her over more. She could do wonders on my stove.

Until then, I may get nostalgic and wrap some plastic around a chair.