Photo by Nicki Varkevisser

Nocturne

There is a class of seniors in my library. Their teacher is stuck in a meeting with the superintendent and his classroom is locked. I have gathered them in from the hall, where they were being absurdly noisy. They are still being absurdly noisy, but at least in here I can contain it, close the doors, shut the lights, and collect their hubbub in. I could raise my voice at them for quiet, but, right now, there is no need. There is no other class in here, and I want them to know that sometimes they can speak freely. I do stop a few of them from a game of keep-away with a grimy Mets hat. They give it up easily. They know not to push. This is a small, unexpected chance at freedom.

I watch them from my tall desk in the corner, remembering their best and most honest selves, shining and fretting, blooming out of the essays they wrote a few months ago for their college applications. They bring me their drafts, and I have learned to be a careful editor, to always praise first, to only suggest concretely because usually they have laid it bare. They have exposed souls and disclosed secrets. They have shared a memory for the very first time.

Their stories rise above them, pulling at their small town roots, clamoring for a chance in the big, wide world. Like me, they are anchored in this rural village two hours east of New York City. They have dark farm dirt in their bones and the salt of the bay on their breaths. They know what it looks like (and some of them what it feels like) to do physical labor until they drop. They know each other, have been together since kindergarten. They know, too, that their stories can have power, that their telling might give new form to their bodies in this crowded din: The time I broke my femur when I fell from my horse and had to do hours of agonizing therapy to walk right again. The winning soccer goal that smashed my jaw to pieces so all summer my mouth was wired shut and I drank my meals through a straw. That defining moment when my mom moved us to New Orleans to teach art for a semester and I was just a little boy with a Cajun accent, a yellow bedspread and a window.

When their teacher comes, sighing, to collect them, I almost don’t let them go. I want to keep them here forever, suspended at the precipice, satiated with their own capacity. I want them to stay just like this.

 

With a fat blue marker, I write Sara Teasdale’s poem, “There Will Come Soft Rains,” on my whiteboard. I am covering a freshman class next period for an English teacher on jury duty, and we will talk about Ray Bradbury’s story by the same name. He borrowed both the title and the poem in full from Teasdale, who wrote her ominous twelve lines in response to World War I: “Not one would mind, neither bird nor tree, / if mankind perished utterly.”

Bradbury’s story is post-atomic bomb and set in the year 2026. His characters, a family of four, have been incinerated by the radioactive thermal flash, leaving only their silhouettes burned into the side of their house. Their house, though, is still going. This is Bradbury’s futuristic mind at its best, and the house is a little like H.A.L. from 2001: A Space Odyssey. It alerts its (no longer existing) owners of the time on the hour, prepares breakfast, and issues reminders about birthdays and bills. At the end of the day, it fills the bathtub, lights the fireplace, and warms the children’s beds. At just after nine, the house asks what poem to recite this evening. When it gets no response, it proceeds with the wife’s favorite, “There Will Come Soft Rains,” and keeps on declaiming even while an errant wind knocks a cleaning solvent over the stove and the house goes up in a roar of chemical flames. I have a digital version of both the story and the poem, I can project the texts easily on this borrowed board, but it calms me to write Teasdale’s ode here, helps me gather my thoughts.

The students are supposed to have read the story already, but we read it together just to make sure. I have put the clock times that correspond to the house’s hourly announcements up around the room, and I get them to stand under them to read those parts. I give myself the poem part, because I am a teacher and allowed to play these sort of tricks, because it won’t work, won’t work very well at all, if the reading is botched, if the poem becomes a sing-song, labored valentine. I want them to feel like it is just after a world war. I want annihilation in the air. I want it to scare them to death.

After the story and their initial responses, we talk a little bit about what they know about 1950, the year Bradbury’s story was written. We swipe away the middle of the poem on the board to make a timeline of world events. World War II derails a little bit when Katie Jeffers launches into how unfair life was for the housewives of 1950, though I am not exactly sure where her information is coming from. My students talk about Mad Men and The Jetsons cartoon. When there is a brief pause in the TV conversation, I try to corral them with this amazing fact: in the original edition, the actual publication from Collier’s on May 6, 1950, Bradbury’s story was set in the far off year of 1985. They groan. They weren’t even born then, not even close. Tomorrow, when their real teacher comes back from jury duty, they will pick up with Mockingbird where they left off.

“Mrs. Johnson,” Nick Baldi says when the bell rings and they are released, “I like that story, but it was so wack! That dude was stuck in like Harry Potter time, not 2026!”

“Is that the past?”

“No, not the exact past, like a future past.”

“A past imagined in the future? A future imagined in the past? A story written in the past imagining a future that’s almost come to pass?”

“You are so wack. See you later, Mrs. Johnson.”

 

After the next bell has already rung, David Jacoby and Josh Dickerson sweep into the library, flash me their mangled, laminated hall pass and give me the daily countdown for the Europe trip. They lean on my counter, flipping the pages of my calendar. Josh has a giant diamond stud in his left ear that catches and throws off fluorescent light. David’s thick gold necklace spills from the open collar of his sweater. There are nineteen more days before the Europe trip, which I have agreed to chaperone. In less than three weeks, I will spend my spring break accompanying sixty sophomores and six of my colleagues on a European tour. These boys are beside themselves, quivering with excitement. They have been anticipating this trip for years now, working during the summers to sock money away. Recently, their Christmas and birthday presents have all been checks for the Europe trip, a foldable down jacket for the Europe trip, a flesh-colored passport pouch for the Europe trip, a lightweight crossover bag for the Europe trip. “Amsterdam, man!” Josh says.

David responds, “I can’t wait to see Auschwitz.”

It is my turn. “Paris,” I say, “I am really looking forward to Paris.”

When we all high-five, I see Naomi Kavanaugh there behind them. She pushes the book I gave her this morning back to me, Legend, by Marie Lu.

“Don’t like it,” she says. “Too boy-y. Sentences too short.” Naomi is not going on the Europe trip. She says it’s because her father won’t let her—he is rough and tumble, a taciturn fisherman—but I think it’s because they can’t afford it. There are always a few scholarships given, but Naomi didn’t get one. My brother and I were the scholarship kids, subsidies always given to both of us for travel to music festivals, Great Adventure, even Washington, D.C. I let Naomi sprawl on the floor behind my desk with a box of new books that I haven’t had time to process yet, but nothing satisfies. She leaves with The Lightning Thief, a book she’s already read, the first of a series she’s finished multiple times. Sighing, she flits her dark lashes towards the door as David and Josh walk out, waving, and tries to wound me, “Mrs. Johnson, seriously, do you even like those guys?”

 

I have a small wooden lion on my desk near my computer, a netsuke my husband Tim bought online when my second son was born. I love how the bottom of this tiny sculpture is carved just as thoroughly as the top, how the soles of the lion’s paws have ridges just as small as the whorls in the lion’s mane. I have some students who come and rub the lion’s belly for luck before a test. Now, though, my boxwood lion stares up at me balefully, her inset onyx eyes unreachable. She is holding her baby lion in her front paws, though they are more solidly connected throughout, two carved from one block. The baby curves one paw closely around its mother’s while the other paw pushes away its mother’s furry chin with all of its young strength.

You have so few choices when you are a child. You come with all these strings attached, umbilical and otherwise. All these invisible silk skeins, this web that tethers you even if you don’t want it to. Were you wanted, planned? Were you a chip in the bargain? What marks will you bear? Which grandmother’s long neck? Whose thick calves or cleft chin? What forehead, fingers, eyes, nose, skin? Will you be fed, clothed, loved, sent on a European tour?

Next to my small lion is something called a Mirascope. Made of curved black plastic outside and mirrored paint inside, it creates a 3-D reflection of any small object you place in its open middle, a sort of flying saucer with low-tech projection capabilities. I bought it at a gift shop at a science museum. I liked that we shared names, and it brought back childhood memories of a larger one somewhere permanent—the Museum of Natural History? The lobby of the World Trade Center?—where, on the top of a large black cylinder, there seemed to be a red button with white letters, P-U-S-H. As you got close enough to do what it asked, the button looked to be really there, but when you reached for it, when you were sure your finger would make contact, you found yourself jabbing only at air. You could poke through that shimmering button, you could swipe your whole little hand through the hole and never feel the smooth, shiny plastic mirrored there, just the rush of air, just the edges of nothing.

The version I have came with a small red plastic frog, but my students prefer to experiment. They put in arrangements of paperclips or elaborate sculptures made of ripped up sticky notes. They like to see what works best—sizes, shapes, colors—but mostly what they like is to show somebody, to have an audience. They like to have company when the world is not at all what it seems. They need a witness to be really sure.

 

Last night, Tim and I dropped off our little car at the mechanic’s for a tire replacement so we can both keep getting to work every day. We drove the main road home, cocooned in our big car. There is space inside this car—we are only four and it seats eight—but it is cozy, windows shut against the night. Outside, the dark fields roll all the way to the water. Inside, Taylor Swift is blasting from the stereo, and we are scream-singing along with her. “When you are fifteen somebody tells you they love you, you’re gonna believe it.” A story about a girl who gives it away and then regrets it. An anthem. And we are laughing at it, at ourselves, but some of that is because we are feeling it, too, because, even in all its jangly pop sparkle, we recognize a bite of truth.

My two boys in the back are trying to keep up—Taylor Swift was their request. They are eleven and seven and were raised on Django and Marley and the Beatles but live in the world enough to know what they’re supposed to want. The words are fast for them, and I’m not sure they get all that they mean. Tim and I are showing off; we can do every word, even the uh-huhs. We can drum our hands on the dashboard, pump our fists to the chorus. The engine thrums and I have a sudden and powerful illusion of freedom. We are ten minutes from home, but we could go anywhere, keep driving all night, start over in the morning. Everything I need is in this car right now.

These are the same roads I drove when I was in high school. The desperate and exhilarating cruise from beach to beach, cosseted in a steel shell, a bubble of music and shared teenager breath. Constantly circling. Looking for something. What? Tim drove these same kinds of streets too, though his were in Los Angeles. Long smooth loops, deep rutted paths. How much of us holds on and how much can set itself free? Who decides what parts of our past we get to keep, which stories we choose to tell? Who, ultimately, do we get to be?

 

There is a swathe of blue down the side of my arm from the whiteboard. I find that I am often covered in ink, dry erase marker smudged all the way up to my elbow, stray ballpoint pen on my neck or nose, grey pencil stains on the sides of my hands. When I started working as a school librarian, I vowed that I would not be the kind with horrid coffee-breath and mysterious oily spots. I would not have specks of food in my teeth or huge wet ovals down the sides of my shirt. Mostly I have held to that, but I am marked anyway, bound to the things that I do: inky splotches, crumbling paper bits down my front, glue on my hands, bits of tape that have landed on my pants, rubber bands around my wrist. There is no hiding from what we are.

Scott Jacinto comes into the library to ask about database access. He is behind in Earth Science and needs a way to study on his own. I show him how to navigate the library’s databases, the way he would from home. I have shown him before, but it is unnecessarily complicated, and this time, we promise, we will write it all down. When the school’s web site flashes by, I am surprised to see a photograph of my older son. I know I signed the waiver at the beginning of the school year allowing for this, but it still shocks every time. Not so much that someone else posted him there but the small reminder that he has such separate experiences, whole days of his very own.

After Scott leaves with a detailed post-it affixed to his binder, I go back to my computer and watch the whole online slide show of the sixth grade’s experiment with the Big Bang. My son was over the moon about this. He told us all about how he filled up a balloon with glitter and water, launched and splatted it in the parking lot and then measured the distances, calculating to find the mean. How far did the water (space) travel? How far did the glitter (matter) go?

A few days ago I brought home a Scientific American, which my son and I have been trying to puzzle through, lying together on his bed at night. Telescopes, it seems, have had their day. We can’t actually see all the way back to the beginning of time: “…photons of the infant universe stayed trapped in a dense soup of light-suffocating particles, like fireflies sealed into sludge.” There is nothing but hazy darkness there. Yet, scientists think we may be able to hear the universe in motion. Albert Einstein’s theory of relativity predicted the existence of something called gravitational waves, but even he thought they were so infinitesimal that they would never be perceived. Now, there are huge laser interferometry observatories and a plan to put a gravitational-wave detector in space. We might be able to listen long enough and hard enough that we can distinguish the small swells of dying stars, the reverberations of creation and time. When we switch the light out, we try it, stilling our breathing and straining our ears, trying to listen to what it felt like when we were only just a single spark.

 

We librarians call it weeding when we throw books away. The last bell has rung, and the lights are off, but I am still here, culling books and stacking them in an old copy paper box. Back in 1976, the American Library Association, in cooperation with the Texas State Library, coined a mnemonic acronym, M.U.S.T.I.E., in order to help with this complicated task. The six letters stand for: Misleading, Ugly, Superseded, Trivial, Irrelevant, and Elsewhere (as in the material is easily available somewhere else, online or through interlibrary loan). Of course, there are more recent guidelines as well, most notably the 2012 CREW (Continuous Review, Evaluation, and Weeding), which systematically explains this kind of “reverse selection” and urges, in bold lettering, “to use professional judgment at all times.” I hope my judgment is professional. I took over this library a few years ago. Right now, there isn’t enough room on the shelves, and sometimes students, sneezing, hold up books they find and point out to me murky spots of mold. It feels like mostly instinct I am relying on.

I have a few minutes left where I am deciding fate. This crumbling old linen binding, this yellowed cellophane tape. It would be nice to have only happy stories, shiny and clean, but it wouldn’t help. We all need to know what to do when power gets abused, love gets withheld, viciousness occurs. There is an old paperback copy of Mein Kampf with deep, ballpoint-pen etched swastikas on the back cover. Its circulation numbers are high. The edition itself is fairly new. Is it Misleading? Ugly? Has it been Superseded? Yes, but perhaps it is not Trivial, perhaps it is not Irrelevant at all. I can’t decide yet, but maybe we need a hardcover version, one that will be more difficult to deface. The same is true for Lester Julius’ To Be a Slave, though it doesn’t seem right that these two books are, at least temporarily, in the same category. This 1969 Newbery Honor winner, a symphony of primary source slave stories along with historical explanations and illustrations, has not been checked out in some time. I am hoping its cracked spine and loose brittle pages are to blame, or its ghostly grey-green cover. It is easier to decide on this one. I will buy the thirtieth anniversary hardcover edition, the one with more commentary from Lester, with the Tom Feelings’ paintings perfectly preserved. This fragile balance—how much of the past to keep and what—requires a constant chipping away. This is what I do here; I go after it every day.

 

The Europe trip is a whirlwind, Amsterdam to Paris to Berlin to Dresden to Krakow to Prague to Budapest and back to Amsterdam in ten days. We go to Auschwitz on Good Friday. Not in train compartments but on an ancient bus from Amsterdam with a driver named Mohammed. We all have cushy seats and places overhead to store our stuff. It is snowing lightly, and we are full of breakfast from our hotel: cured meats, pickled herring, sweet flimsy Chocopuffs. We have a long way to go, and the bus is heavy with sleep. A tinny soundtrack seeps from disparate headphones spread out all over. There are occasional bursts of laughter, and suddenly, a collective stirring when the bus pulls over, stops in its wobbling path. It takes Mohammed a while to figure out why all the traffic has halted. He talks on the radio in Dutch and in Arabic. He shuffles into his coat and walks in between stalled cars. Ahead of us, somewhere we can’t see, there is a 14-car pile up. A truck slid sideways in the snow.

We wait in the bus, parked near the lane divider, and watch the ambulances and tow trucks make their way through. For almost four hours, we are stopped dead on the road. Out come books and cards and iPods, everyone is sharing them around. They pass whatever food they have through the aisles—gluten-free chocolate chip cookies, sour gummy worms, a dry croissant wrapped in a paper napkin from the breakfast buffet. The cheerleaders are braiding each other’s hair in elaborate fishtails. They are putting makeup on a boy who has volunteered. Others are drawing intricate ballpoint-pen tattoos on each other’s arms: hearts and skulls, stars and names. There are some whoops and cheers when Emily Gover rustles up enough batteries for her portable speakers and Harry Hughes, who has a scholarship to be here and a terminal illness that won’t let him past twenty, starts to lip-synch and dance—the aisle as his stage—to the best of Queen.

When we are free to go again, when the bus is bumbling along, there is a small jolt of recognition, an undercurrent of panic begins. The toilet is backed up, there is no more food aboard, the students fret now that it is already too late, that they will miss their chance at the concentration camp.

When we do get there—Mohammed is a good, fast driver—they can’t believe their luck and, for a moment, we are all giddy. “Mrs. Johnson,” they say, as they approach the first low brick building, “Mrs. Johnson, look at me, I am standing on history!” We snap pictures, pound fists. Soon, though, we are silenced and not just because we are being polite to the guide who is talking to us through the headphones we wear. The frozen ground makes our feet feel heavy, and the grey sky pushes down and constricts our chests. It is hard enough to just keep shuffling along, to be a witness to these echoing halls.

In front of the cases of eyeglasses, suitcases, shoes, we sniff and hold in our ragged breaths. These once-possessions are categorized and displayed separately, and the mounds of these once-owned, once-used things are so deep, it feels as if you could swim in them. You could wade through a small ocean of old leather valises, slip your way through a mountain of well-made pumps and worn-in brogues, crash lightly through what seems like thousands of wire-rimmed spectacles. You can’t, though. You wouldn’t. The anti-reflective glass walls hold them all in, hold you apart. You can only gasp at the two-tone stitching on the burgundy sling-back heels, the frayed laces on the child-size black leather boots, the perfect shell-like acrylic button on the ankle-strap toddler flats. And you can imagine the people who were wearing them, who were ordered to take them off.

We pass an enormous urn full of ashes and a display case of prayer shawls, their blue stripes gleaming dark against the gauzy white wool, their knotted fringes made by and for warm, aspiring hands. I have volunteered to be caboose, to gather the end of the line, and Chris Thiebault—an unlikely soccer and drama star who refuses to wear anything but pajama pants and who has put himself in charge of taking the garbage off the bus—hangs back with me. We walk in twos but in our own orbits. Tears slide soundlessly out of Susan Anderson’s mascaraed ice blue eyes.

There is a lot to take in. Miles of photographs; miles of desolate, hard-packed ground; religious carvings in the stone walls; the gallows some German POWS erected in 1947 near the Crematorium specifically for the execution of the camp commandant Rudolf Höss, but it is the hair and the empty canisters of Zyklon-B that get me. More than 4,000 pounds of chopped off hair massed behind glass. A jumble of multicolored tin cans, empty now of their pesticide, their compounds of cyanide gas. Because we have all wordlessly agreed not to speak, Chris puts his hand on my shoulder and gestures to where the small placard says it could take up to twenty minutes for the poison to work. His eyes go big as we take in this information, as I clutch at the elbow of his thin hoodie and let the tears come.

 

Boarding the bus after is the quietest time we’ve had this whole trip. Everyone is whispering, they are clutching each other’s bony hands, snuggling into each other’s gawky shoulders. “Man,” they are saying. “Oh, man.” As we ease onto the darkening road ahead, the last of the light shines a stripe of pink over the low, shadowy buildings, and I am remembering another instance of communal hush, another moment we felt irreversibly bound.

A couple of days ago, after we saw da Vinci’s Mona Lisa at the Louvre, there was a heavily sauced dinner in the stuffy attic of a tourist trap restaurant in the Latin Quarter. We poured out onto the cobblestone street and checked in with our groups before free time. Mine was called the Monkeys. They were eight girls, and one, Amanda Raines, was wearing a tiara in her thick red hair. It was her sixteenth birthday. Evening had just set and the night was the warmest we’d had so far. We were all eager to stretch our legs, see what this city had to bring. Our meeting place was Place St. Michel, where the victorious archangel tramples the devil while two winged dragons look on. It was too cold for the fountain to be on yet, but a man with a miniature piano, a real upright small enough to be wheeled onto a hand truck, played ragtime and the moon had risen, a bright crisp crescent.

Our budget hotel was a long metro ride away and then a long walk, so I had just enough time to savor some French hot chocolate at a café, to pet the soft orange cat asleep on the cushion next to me. Back at the meeting place, Tom Gibb was on the piano, his plaid lumberjack jacket and his preposterous earflap hat. Our own piano prodigy, he was playing something snappy, jazzy. He was into it and smiling. The crowd was growing larger. Most of the kids were watching through their devices, recording this musical moment. The busker joined in and played a few explanatory notes. Tom caught on. It was rollicking and those with free hands clapped along. They ended with a flourish and bow, big showbiz smiles.

While the crowd applauded and some coins were thrown into the pot, Meadow O’Connor slid in. I had never seen her on stage, I didn’t even know she played. She bent her neck, there was power in her graceful hands, and when she started in on a Chopin Nocturne, it seemed as if all of Paris was standing still. Her fingers flew, her face was bare. At some point, her lips closed hard, her bottom teeth peeked out quickly, and she fumbled on a trill, blushed, laughed. The crowd chuckled with her, and she did not make one more mistake. The street lamps cast an amber glow in her hair, and when she hit the last note, she released us and did not bow her head, just looked up at us, her breath coming in small white clouds.

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