by Kevin Bray
My New Year starts in September and no matter how depressing the final days of the past June were, I possess an expansive naiveté that allows hope to spring in the fall. As a kid I was a numismatist and bought bags of stamps from the Hudson Bay store. I’d pray that in amongst the common and uninteresting ones I might find a rare Canadian stamp, or at least a colorful foreign one. This never happened because Gresham’s law, normally applied to pecuniary matters, guaranteed that the bad stamps would drive out the good ones. When I walk into the room where two dozen teens wait, I wonder if one of them is the elusive analogy to a metal-embossed Bhutan stamp that I coveted for years and kept an album page empty in case it appeared in the Bay’s grab bag. In some of my classes the bad students have banished the good ones and I am left with the underclass and dross of teenaged society.
I tighten my expectations that a wonderful young person will drop out of the class list and into my memory. The appearance of such a student is infrequent and Az immediately revealed the triumvirate of what Charles Murray (of the “Bell Curve” controversy) calls academic ability: linguistic and verbal skills, logical-reasoning, and mathematical talent. She dropped from the bag with such brilliance that she obliterated my view of the others. She was not overbearing or one of those students who ask so many questions that you begin to suspect they knew the answers all along and only needed a forum to show it.
I don’t know everything about Az. I did not get her file from the guidance office and check her life’s inventory from kindergarten to grade eleven. I might have applied the accounting traits of teachers (how many suspensions? is there an upward or downward trend in grades?) to decide if she was a worthy investment. The file is gone, all traces of her removed in a bureaucratic expunging. (In the official records, Az has disappeared like the children of Argentina’s Dirty War).
What I do know of her was created at the intersection of time and space in the four walls that we shared. I know Az as the girl who stood out from the students who waited for me to give a conductor’s sign that it was time to begin (“bring out paper, a pen, a straight edge and then, listen, please”). She wasn’t loud or obtrusive or stricken by the preeminent school-house malady known as Attention Deficit Disorder. She didn’t avoid eye contact to protect her from my need to mimic Socrates. When I asked a question for which she had no ready answer, she would smile. In deference to a time-honoured tradition, Az always raised her arm, then spoke eloquently and with much thought about, for example, why the shift of a curve on a graph illustrates war, or why drugs and public transit might both be addictions.
Az was fifteen, an age that reveals much about one’s historical milieu. You feel much older at fifteen when you are huddled in a shelter in London while bombs are spat down from the Luftwaffe, or less hopeful, actually just outrageously hopeless, if you are this age and barely living along the shores of Lake Victoria in Tanzania, sniffing solvents melted out of packing pallets used to ship fish from your lake to rich Europeans. For fifteen years-old in our country, at this time in history, in this city and borough, it is a bit like being in a theme park on a brilliant July afternoon with cash in your pocket, headphones plugged into your iPod, while attractive and well-fed friends goad you onto the next greatest thrill ride. Being fifteen and at Canada’s Wonderland is about all that is needed to illustrate twenty-first century, first-world adolescence. It is a perfect world, really.
As for me, everything I own is imperfect and broken. Even that which is new is damaged. I bought a car last year and embedded in the “soul of the new machine” was a flaw, not yet heard or felt , that ticked and tocked until the gremlin emerged and sent me to the shop for expensive repairs. My house is never right and the only respite is to forgive and forget and let the mortar crumble and the roof exfoliate, or sell the offensive death-pledge and become a renter. My body is a chimera, its DNA code hobbled together by the equal contributions of my mother and father and each of them has given me flaws—physical and mental—that condemn me to a lifetime of medical tinkering.
We are born broken. The Book of Psalms denies perfection in my soul, but says nothing of the flaws in my body. The Church says I can purge myself of original sin, but no amount of baptismal anointment will obviate the medical sins I have inherited from my parents. No prayer or good deed will stop the genetic code from unleashing its malevolence and crucifying me on the cross of chemotherapy, radiation and radical incision. This is real original sin and the New Testament can only imagine the varieties of pestilence available to modern humans. Age is a vanity we relentlessly pursue and as we approach the infirmities awaiting us, the original sin of my parents—not Adam and Eve—is revealed with clarity and completeness.
Az was fifteen when she died. I was forty-six. Mortality mathematics clearly states that this combination of dead and alive is improbable. More likely, much more likely, is the converse conclusion. Her death derailed my imagined vista of life: that we are trains moving along a track with a few stops (the planned seminal events in life, like graduation, marriage, parenthood, careers…) and then we reach the end of the line at seventy five or eighty years. A nice journey, one way of course, since there is no turn-table for the train to reverse direction and provide a Benjamin Button transcendence. By dying so young, she twisted and bent the rails before the train even got to full speed.
Young people are naïve: they believe that the scales of justice tip in favour of good over evil. Young people think that problems can be solved and intractability is an awkward word whose meaning is confusing. Indoctrinated with years of character education, “peace circles”, talking sticks, and conflict resolution, they think that their will and moxie are enough to conquer cancer, eradicate poverty, and redistribute wealth. Tents and chants and good feelings are talismans, not tools, and this distinction eludes them when they Occupy parks but Conquer nothing. If I think about Az and conjure her now-impossible future, my prejudices crumble because Az would have put her finger on the scale and nudged it in favour of the good. She used words and love to fight sticks and stones. Az debated on our school team and was relentless in her need to help people in Darfur. It was difficult, even for a jaded soul like mine, to ignore this meteoric kid. She occupied a larger amount of psychic space in the school than other students, and when she died the hole in the intellectual fabric was visible and ragged. The EQ of the school dropped, like taking a heavy hitter out of the batting rotation and watching the team stats depreciate.
We found out about her death in an emergency staff meeting. She had died in her sleep the night before and the parents had called the school early to report her permanent absence. (The cause of death was not provided, but sudden cardiac arrhythmia can extinguish teen life in the middle of the night. This was the sin she carried.) There were three other teachers who taught her, but I could not talk to them. I didn’t need commiseration or a group hug or any other contrived extension of grief. My lesson plan for the day was useless. Why talk about government interference in housing markets when the only student in my class who might listen and speak was dead? We were not allowed to discuss her death, so I sat at my desk while the students worked on independent reading and I bubbled the attendance sheet. You can be late you can be absent, but there is no bubble for dead. After school I supervised the debate team where seven adults stood in a line in front of five students sitting in desks, announcing Az’s death and offering counseling, support, intervention, accommodations, and an excuse to take tomorrow off. The kids said nothing and I remember one of them made a joke (a faux-pas that demonstrated his immature teen brain rather than bad taste or neglectful parenting).
If God has an assembly line from which new souls and bodies are built, then his rate of failure is higher than Ford’s or General Electric’s. God needs to improve quality control and review some probabilities, notwithstanding Einstein’s assertion that God does not play with dice. “Behold, I was shapen in iniquity; and in sin did my mother conceive me.” Was Az born broken and denied a chance for redemption or repair? Did Az lose her life because we are collectively condemned to suffer for sins connected to Adam or Eve by a filament of superstition or faith?
The classroom in which I taught Az is my room again. I had not been in here for six years. I did not purposely avoid the room, and the administration that was present on the day she died is retired or removed to another school. The students sitting in class have never heard her name and know nothing about her. There is no photograph or commemorative plaque for her in the school. Not even a tree was planted (a gesture that many schools use to remember teenagers who most often die on long-weekends in car crashes or swimming misadventures). Her parents endowed three scholarships in her name, one for each of the schools she attended. In an oblique way I have found a few scholarship winners who wrote resumes for me as class assignments and listed their achievements. One of them is sitting in this classroom and I will congratulate them for winning this award and measure their worth against Az. They listen to me while I tell them about her and what a good person she was and what she might have become.
We are all broken and ultimately beyond repair. The biological equivalent of original sin is the hundred broken genes that every one of us carries. Some of these will end our lives far too soon and some might provide benefits not yet discerned. The science is too late for Az, likely for me as well. If the human genome project is able to one day fix us or reduce the defects on the heavenly assembly line, then maybe no one will ever go to bed at ten and wake up in eternity.
Kevin Bray is a writer and teacher in Toronto, Canada. His essays frequently appear in the Globe and Mail (Canada's "national" newspaper) and can be found in The Healing Muse, Airplane Reading, and The Barnstormer. His essay about fatherhood is contained in the anthology How to Expect What You're Not Expecting (Touchwood Editions, Fall 2013). He blogs about education atwww.insidethereadingbox.com