Healing through story

Tag: classroom

shortfiction24 – a rosary of names

Credit: BBC

What I’m Writing This Week

A teen tries to make sense of her father’s death and the murder of eleven school kids by making a film. Can new life come from this?

The story is my own way of dealing with the senseless and continual tragedies in our nation.

A Rosary of Names

Bob Gillen

Call me Alex. It’s what my father called me. My mother, she prefers Alexandra. Alexandra Sanchez. I live with my mother. My dad is gone. If it’s possible to die of a broken heart, that’s what killed him.

At this moment I am sitting in an empty classroom. In a vacant elementary school. The school will be torn down in a few months. The floor is cool on my butt, on my crossed legs. 

I’m holding my film camera in my lap. I came here to make a movie. To try to make sense of what happened five months ago. In this room. They called my father a hero at his funeral. He didn’t die here. Eleven children did. My father kept it from being worse. A teacher and eight children survived. 

My graduation from high school last month would have been a proud moment for my dad. I have a scholarship to study at the film school at CSUN. Cal State University Northridge. My dream come true, right? Today my college days are on hold. I can’t leave my mother to attend an out of state school. She needs me. I need her.

I’m sitting here alone. The school has been shuttered since the murders. I have a key. My father was the senior custodian. For twenty years. His keys were still in our house.

Last March, while a teacher worked with her students, all third graders, dad was in a corner of the room mopping up a kid’s puke. Something he did often. A man pulled open the door, started shooting an assault rifle at the kids. He didn’t see my father. Dad lifted his wet mop and ran at the shooter, shoving the mop and the puke in his face. The man dropped the rifle, pulled a handgun out of his belt, and shot himself in the head.

All the news reports say the whole thing was over in a minute. It will never be over for any of us. I want to capture the tragedy, the loss, on film. I don’t know how. I hope something will trigger an idea. I want the world to know what can happen in a moment’s time. How a deranged man can kill children, then kill himself to avoid responsibility for his actions. I want others to feel what we feel.

My father died in his sleep, two months after the shooting. My mother said he had nightmares every night. He would wake up screaming. In a sweat. Trembling. Every night. I can’t imagine what he must have seen in this room. The shooter dead. Eleven kids bloody and lifeless. Dad was like a zombie after that.

I’m thinking that the surviving children from this classroom also wake up screaming every night. As do the parents of the children who died.

I’m sitting here in silence. There are traffic noises outside. Far off, a siren. Distant thunder from an approaching storm. I listen. There is only emptiness. I turn on the camera. I check white balance and focus. I hit Record, panning around the shell of a room. All of the desks and tables have been removed. The walls are bare of teacher art, of student drawings and papers. The floor smells faintly of bleach and ammonia. I can only capture images and audio with my camera. No other sensory bites. The camera runs as I sit with my silence. A tear works its way down my cheek. I leave it to hang till it dries. 

It occurs to me, are the spirits of the dead children here? It’s been five months. Have they moved on?

And I wonder, do they grieve for their moms and dads, their brothers and sisters, their friends and classmates? Miss them the same way we all miss the kids? Do they reach out their hands for a mom who is not there? Do they call out into an empty space?

I have the names of the eleven dead children memorized. Like my dad. He knew most of the kids by name. The whole school. He was good like that. Always a smile, a nod, a fist bump. Mr. Sanchez. Always there when a teacher needed a cleanup. Always providing enough heat or air conditioning.

I begin to say the children’s names out loud. Ryan. Melissa. Pedro. Terrell. Megan. Iris. Maya. Shantell. Luis. Michael. Stacey. I repeat the names. Over and over. Like a rosary prayer. My dad’s name…I can’t even say it.

Tears run down my cheeks freely. I extend the camera out to avoid dripping tears on it. It’s still running. Capturing a void. What should be a room full of noisy kids, writing their lessons, making art, listening to the teacher tell stories.

I continue to say the names aloud. Thunder rumbles a bit closer. 

And I hear a toilet flush. A toilet? Can’t be. I recite the names once more.

“Billy?”

A voice comes from somewhere in the building. Soft, tentative. I stop talking.

Again, “Billy?”

I’m sitting in the middle of the room. Nowhere to duck and hide. The door creaks open. I turn to see a girl peering in. She’s maybe my age. Dressed kind of shabby. Hair messy.

She stares at me. I stand, holding my camera. Still recording.

“You’re not Billy.”

I shake my head. 

“He left yesterday. He didn’t come back.”

She steps into the room. I see she is pregnant. I would guess five or six months.

My voice squeaks out, “Who are you?”

She looks around the room. “I heard voices. Are you alone?” 

I nod.

She smiles. “I’m Kenzie.”

“Why are you here?” I ask her. “The school is closed. How did you get in?”

“Billy jimmied a door at the back of the gym…he’s good at that stuff.”

She cradled her hands under her belly. “I’m pregnant.”

“I see that.”

“And I’m homeless.”

“Who is Billy?” I ask.

“My baby’s father.”

I take a step closer to her. She backs up. I stop. “Are you sleeping here?”

Kenzie nods. “We have a couple of sleeping bags in a closet.” She points to the rear of the school building. “It’s, like, a classroom, but it’s real empty.”

I feel my body tensing. I’m pissed. My focus is broken. I want to get her out of this room. “Show me.”

Kenzie walks me towards one of the classrooms near the back of the school. Mrs. Jenkins’s room. She opens the closet door at the back of the room. It’s a big walk-in closet. There are two dirty sleeping bags. Cans of diet soda, a loaf of bread, a few bags of chips. 

“I’m running low on food. Billy went out to get more.”

“Where is he?”

She shrugs. “He always comes back when he goes out for food. He didn’t come back yesterday.” She giggles quietly. “I’m like his little bird in my nest. Every day he goes out to bring me food.”

Thunder rumbles again. The storm is much closer. 

“What’s your name?” she asks.

“Alex.”

“That’s cool. Alex.”

She points to my camera. “Are you filming something?”

I shake my head. “Just messing around.”

“Do you go to school here?”

“This is…was…an elementary school. I graduated from high school last month.”

She looks confused. “This was a school?”

“You’re not from around here, are you?”

Kenzie looks down at her feet. “Me and Billy, we’ve been on the road for a couple months. Heading for California.”

On the road. That explains her sun-bleached hair. 

I stare at her belly. “What about medical care?”

“We hit a couple of clinics on the way. They say my baby is healthy.”

I look at the food on the floor of the closet. “You’re eating junk. Can’t be good for the baby.”

Again she shrugs. “Best we can do.”

We stand facing each other. Me with my camera. Her with her big belly. I wave my thumb back towards the classroom we left. “Eleven kids died in that room. Five months ago. A shooter. They’re going to tear this building down.”

“Oh shit.” She cradles her belly again. “Eleven kids?”

I nod.

“I don’t think I can stay here now.” She kneels to roll up her sleeping bag.

“Where will you go? How will Billy find you?”

“He’ll find me. Oh God. Eleven kids died here.” She shudders.

I lift my camera. Words spill from my mouth. “Do you want to be in my film?”

“Really?”

I nod.

“I never saw myself on video before.”

“How old are you?” it occurs to me to ask.

“Eighteen. I would have graduated last year…if I stayed in school.”

I begin taping the sleeping bags and the food spread out on the floor. I move the frame up to Kenzie’s belly, then to her face. I point to her.

“Am I supposed to talk? Okay. Hi, I’m Kenzie. I’m traveling to California with my boyfriend Billy.”

I roll my finger for her to keep talking.

“We’ve been sleeping here for a couple nights. So quiet here.” She pauses. “Not like the shelters we stay at. Or the homeless camps. They’re so noisy. This place…” She pauses again. “The silence is peaceful…but now, scary. I mean, I just found out eleven kids died here. Shot to death.” She wraps her arms around her torso. “I can’t stay here. I need to move on. Right now.”

Overhead a clap of thunder rattles the building. Rain falls outside. I turn the camera towards the windows. Rain pelts the glass like bullets. Like shots that won’t stop. I whisper the names. Ryan. Melissa. Pedro. Terrell. Megan. Iris. Maya. Shantell. Luis. Michael. Stacey. 

“Iris.”

It’s a girl.

I turn to Kenzie.

She touches her stomach. “It’s a girl. I’m going to name her Iris. My grandmother’s name.” She slides up the right sleeve of her hoodie. The name Iris is tattooed on her wrist. Surrounded by flowers.

We both sit down on the floor, backs against the closet door. A flash of lightning streaks somewhere close by. I see Kenzie rub her fingers softly over her tattoo.

Through all the thunder and the pounding rain I keep on saying the names. My rosary of names. Reciting them over the crashing storm.

The thunder rages. My camera is still running, focused now on the rain against the windows. My voice runs on. Name after name. Dead child after dead child. I keep reciting. Not praying. Simply calling their names. Maybe I hope I can reach them. Tell them we have not forgotten them. Tell them we miss their smiles, their curiosities, their hopes and fears. Really, though, it’s probably all I can do… say their names.

After a time I realize Kenzie is echoing the names with me. Hesitantly, missing a few as she tries to follow my voice.

We go on repeating their names. The storm outside is passing. The rain quiets. I spy a streak of late afternoon sunlight beaming through the departing clouds. 

Kenzie turns to me. “I need to find Billy.”

I aim the camera at her. “Do you want me to go with you?”

She shakes her head. “I can do this.”

“What if you can’t find him?”

She stands. I do, too. 

“What if you get stopped? They’ll put you in the system, won’t they?”

“Been there, done that,” she shrugs. 

“What about Iris?” I point at her belly.

“I got four months to figure that out,” she says.

My camera is still running. 

“I’ll leave our stuff here,” Kenzie tells me. “If I find Billy, we can come back for it…don’t think I can sleep here again, though.” Once again she cradles her belly.

“Bye.” She heads for the door at the back of the gym. She stops, turns to me. “Thanks for putting me in your film. Me and Iris.”

I wave. “Bye.”

I’m back in the classroom again. Where the kids died. The late afternoon sun flares through the rain-spattered windows and sprays across the floor. I film what I see. Sunlight. I find myself thinking, I wish my dad could have seen only sunlight in this room.

I start reciting my rosary again, this time repeating only one name. Iris. Iris. Iris. 

***

shortfiction24 – losing Maxine

An art teacher has done a lesson on the power of observation a hundred times…until one student opens her eyes.

What I’m Writing This Week

Today’s story is inspired by an old, old (worn out?) joke and by an interview I did years back with Georgia Packard, a cinematographer who was taught by Ansel Adams. I hope you enjoy the story.

Losing Maxine

Bob Gillen

Students slipped in the classroom door just as the bell rang down the hall. Maria Santana turned to Grace Medford. “Ready?”

Grace nodded. “I’ve done this lesson a hundred times. Let’s do it.”

The two women stepped into the classroom. Sixteen heads turned to gaze at the stranger carrying a cardboard box.

“Let’s focus, class,” Maria said. “Today’s lesson will be fun.”

The high school juniors dumped backpacks on the floor, settled into their seats.

“I want to introduce Ms. Grace Medford to you. She is a friend and a fellow creative arts professional.” Maria gestured to the class. “Grace, this is my class. Sixteen students hungry for art.”

“Good morning,” Grace addressed the class. “I’m happy to be here, happy to meet the class my friend talks so much about.”

“Any of it good?” a boy piped up from the side of the room.

Grace said, “Yes, all of it good…although I don’t recall her mentioning you.”

“Woot,” a girl behind the boy said, as his face turned red.

Grace jumped in. “I’m teasing you. What’s your name?”

The boy said, “Mark.”

Maria slipped to the back of the classroom as Grace took over. “Mark, how’s your knowledge of art history?”

Mark perked up. “Pretty good. I read a lot of it.”

“Okay. Here’s a question for you. You know of the French painter Toulouse-Lautrec?”

“Sure, the Moulin Rouge paintings.”

“Mark, do you know how he got his name?”

Mark’s brows wrinkled. He shook his head.

“Anybody?” Grace called out to the class.

Silence.

“Okay, here’s a bit of art history you won’t learn in books. When Lautrec was a young teenager…maybe your age… most of his clothes were worn and faded.”

Grace looked around the class. “Still with me?”

Lots of nods.

“Lautrec’s mother was not much of a seamstress. She took her son to a tailor. The tailor looked Lautrec up and down, pulled a pair of pants off a shelf, and had him try them on. Lautrec pulled the pants up. The tailor told him, hold out your arms. I want to see how they fit.”

The class peered at Grace.

“So…Lautrec lifted his arms…and the pants fell down around his ankles. The tailor looked at the pants, looked at Lautrec, and said, ‘What’s the matter, Lautrec, too loose?”

Silence for a second. Then a groan from a girl in the front seat. Two more groans. A few students shook their heads.

“What, you don’t believe me?” Grace said.

Mark said, “That was really bad.”

Grace smiled. “Remember, you heard it first here.”

More heads shook.

“All right, let’s get serious. Mrs. Santana invited me here to talk about art and the power of observation.” She reached down and picked up the cardboard box, set it on a small paint-stained table.

“What’s in the box…a head?” one girl asked.

Grace pointed at the girl. “As a matter of fact, yes.”

She lifted the lid and pulled out a mannequin head. She turned the box upside down, set the head on the box, a right-side profile facing the class.

“This is Maxine.”

Maxine featured a smooth alabaster complexion, subdued makeup, a couple of barettes in her curly dark hair. 

“Let’s see what kind of sketching you can do,” Grace said. “Please study Maxine’s profile and sketch her. I’m not looking for a finished sketch. Highlight any features that appeal to you. Give me a snapshot of what you see.”

The students’ pencils scratched as they put on paper what they observed. Grace walked around the room, glancing at each sketch.

Grace stopped their work. “That’s enough time to capture an impression. Anyone want to share?”

A hand went up in the back. Grace waved the boy forward. He held up his sketch, moved it around so everyone could see it. 

“You are…?” Grace asked. 

“Eric.”

“Thanks, Eric. Any comments from the class?”

One girl said, “I like the way he captured the flow of her hair against her head. What I see first is a woman with really cool curly hair.”

“Yeah,” a boy said. “It’s kind of sexy how her hair flows down.”

A couple of girls grimaced.

“No…we’re talking about observation here,” Grace said. “That’s what he sees.”

Several other students shared their sketches as well.

Grace said, “You all know the photographer Ansel Adams, right?”

Heads nodded.

“Adams was a believer in observation. When he prepared to photograph a subject, he studied it carefully. He walked around it. Peered closely at its features. Studied the light.”

More nods.

“Look at Maxine again.” She stepped aside so all the class could see the mannequin head clearly.

“I asked you to sketch what you saw – a side profile. I did not give you an opportunity to study her completely.”

Grace turned the pedestal, box and mannequin to face the window.

“I want you now to stand up and walk around Maxine. Study her fully. Observe light and shadow. Look for features you did not see before. Bring your paper and pencil if you wish.”

Grace gestured and the students got up to walk around their subject.

“Please observe in silence. I would prefer you see what you see, not what someone else may notice.”

Students studied, sketched, wrote notes.

“Go back to your seats now and sketch a fuller impression of Maxine. I’ll give you fifteen minutes.”

After Grace wandered around observing their work, she asked them to stop.

“Anyone want to share?”

A girl came forward. Held up her paper. She had captured a forward profile of Maxine, the flow of hair to one side, a high fade on the other, a single earring to the left side. In her sketch the earring caught the light from the window.

“Good detail. Anyone else?”

Another student displayed a close-up sketch of Maxine’s left side, where three tiny butterfly tattoos could be seen behind her ear.

More students shared their sketches. Grace smiled. “You all get it. I can see that from your sketches. If you had limited yourself to your initial view of Maxine, her right-side profile, you would have done a decent study. But by walking around, studying all angles and lighting, you produced work with greater depth. Greater interest.”

A hand went up. Grace acknowledged the student. “You are?”

“I’m Morgan.”

We’re all missing something.

“Okay, Morgan.”

“You’re talking to us about observation, but I think we’re all missing something.”

Grace nodded. “Talk to me.”

“I see Maxine’s pain.”

Grace turned to look at the mannequin head. “How so?”

“You keep referring to Maxine as she and her…”

Grace squinted.

“Maxine could be they/them. Maxine could be different from what we see on the surface.”

Grace looked at the student. “Morgan, what are you seeing here?”

Morgan stood, hesitated, stepped up to the mannequin. Lifted it to face the class. “I see someone with one earring. Not usual for a girl. I see butterfly tattoos tucked behind the ear. Visible…but not obvious.”

“Yes. We see that too,” Grace said.

“But they speak to me of pain…and of courage. The earring and tattoos are on the side of their head with the fade. They can easily be seen. There’s no earring or tattoos on the side with all the curly hair.” 

Grace stared at Maxine. 

Morgan set the head back on the table. A girl from a side seat stepped forward, her smartphone extended. “Cool. I want a picture of Maxine.”

 Grace continued to stare at Maxine. “I started the lecture with a weak attempt at humor, but I did not anticipate closing here. Observing difference in our subject.” 

Grace spoke to Maria. “I applaud your class. If Maxine could speak, she…they… would thank you for truly seeing them.”

Grace placed the mannequin head back in the box, closed the lid. She turned to Morgan, smiled. “From here forward Maxine’s name will be Morgan.”

***

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