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Monday, May 26, 2008

Matthew

I don't believe in coincidences. Whatever you file amazing, potentially life-altering happenstances under-fate, predestination, God-I filed one yesterday. Still too fresh and incredible to share, but not unlike the one other time this has happened in my life.

His name was Matthew. You remember him. The one you grew up with in elementary school who had the eye tick everyone made fun of. He existed in a constant nervous social bubble, causing him to repeatedly stroke his thighs with his moist hands. His head seemed too large for his body, his neck too loose, like a bobble head with bad hair, but no one thing identified him as someone with a condition for which the teasing became taboo. He was just Matthew. He drank glue and ate snot and that was just him. He held a small, forgettable slot in my fifth grade memories until he moved away.

Nine years passed. I moved twelve hundred miles away to attend college. Fresh back from Europe and internalizing the enormity of the planet, its boundaries and people, I moved through a Randall's supermarket checkout late one night.

"Hey, I think I know you," the checker said. His arm stalled, whatever item I'd bought dangling forgotten over the scanner.

In an instant I knew. Not the kind of metamorposis most boys undergo-deeper voice, matured face that would render someone from the past unrecognizable. Dressed in a blue supermarket apron, he was the same boy on growth pills.

"Did you grow up in Denver?" he asked.

"Yeah, I did. You're Matthew." Genius, given his name tag, but I knew so much more about him. I remembered him sitting on the parallel bars at recess because no one invited him to play wall kick-ball. He'd sit alone at a study carol in the library instead of the seven steps littered with pillows where everyone else accumulated to read. He stuttered when he spoke up in class.

I smiled, a genuine release stemming from the incredible odds and the unbridled enthusiasm reflected from him. The vast, tiny world closed in on that express lane.

He remembered my name. First and last. His eyes, his smile, lit up like he'd stumbled upon some family reunion complete with fireworks.

"This is incredible! How are you? What are you doing here?"

"I go to school here."

"Me, too."

A Greek blond, leading a brigade of impatient customers behind me in line, snapped her gum and shoved her Zimas closer to the scanner. Matthew glanced at her, felt the rush of the moment. His words shot out rapid-fire.

"Give me your number. We can catch up sometime when I'm not swamped."

I scrawled my name and seven genuine digits across a corner he'd ripped from a paper in his apron. Something about it spelled relief for him, no longer a passing moment never to be recaptured.

His shoulders relaxed, his speech returned to casual. He uttered those three words girls loathe. "I'll call you." This time they were a comfort. What could he and I possibly have to talk about? How I never once went over to those parallel bars? How I'd never borrow a pencil or wish for one of my own back from him because I was afraid of some unknown funk residue? Did I ever once show him a shred of human decency in my own child-like way?

I bid him good-bye and left, fresh with an OMG story to tell my roommates and a lingering sense of awe at the distance and time. I tried to find meaning, because there are no coincidences.

The next night, alone in my dorm room, the phone rang. I listened to the insistent bell vibrate seven, eight rounds that night, certain it was him, but unable to understand why I wouldn't pick it up. Rings born of the same excitement we'd both been guilty of. Curiosity. A desperate need to connect. Instead, I tackled a creative writing assignment I'd been putting off. As bad as this poem is, it came fully formed that night, later published in a class anthology:

Like Him

He was the one
Who would make you laugh
When he did something wrong
Laugh, at his expense.

He was the one
The boys would shove
The girls would ignore and giggle at
The one no one wanted.

He was the one
I saw last week at a store
A thousand miles away and nine years ago
He was the one I giggled at.

He and I recognized each other
And pretended a long lost friendship had been reclaimed
He and I are near again
Much as we were back then.

He was the one who found my number
And called hours after the encounter
I still have not called him
Because they would think I was like him.

Not a proud moment, the poem or my deplorable inertness, but I did take something away from it. From that night on, I was determined that every student who set foot in my classroom would never feel what Matthew must have. On recess duty, I'd head up a kickball game with a special invite or make sure I had pressing business I needed some special hands for. An attonement, too late for Matthew.

This yesterday encounter, incredible on its own, but a complete echo of Matthew came full circle. There are no coincidences. Only fleeting pockets of meaning.

Its up to us file them.

6 comments:

Sandra Ferguson said...

Your words made me flip back through my childhood memories -- there was a girl in middle school. I can't even remember anything specific about her, you know, what would set her apart. It wasn't exactly like I ran with the 'cool' crowd. I wore a 'I love Jesus' pin on every garment I wore in 7th grade (and this wasn't exactly a time to wave religion about -- so hence why I wasn't cool). But I remember that this gal just wasn't accepted. I can only remember her first name, Kathy, nothing else. Whether we had a class together or not, I couldn't say. BUT I do know I would have passed her in the hall, I would have shared a girls' locker room with her. Did I talk to her? Did I acknowledge her in anyway? I can't remember doing that either, which means I probably didn't.

Now, that I have kids of my own (those who have never quite fit into the 'cool' world), it makes me much more cognizant of those kids.

My son went through something similar when he was in 5th grade; where he became the class outcast. Why? Who knows. Did he do things that much odder than the rest of the 10 year olds. Probably not. But an outcast he was. Did his teacher catch it? Nope, as a matter of fact she was completely clueless until the whole class imploded one day. It's a hard thing to forgive a teacher for -- missing your kid is on the outside.

I hadn't thought about Kathy in years, but I'm sure our lack of acceptance shaped her, altered her life. I know it has in my son's case. The sweet, open, I can accept anyone boy of 5th grade was forever gone at the end of that year. While he still has a gentle heart, he guards it much closer now. And he wears a sarcastic shield design to keep people out.

What a huge impact our words and actions can have.

Thanks for sharing the memory, LA and making us all relive a moment we should have done better.

Marilyn Brant said...

What a beautiful and haunting post, L.A. (and happy belated birthday :).

L.A. Mitchell said...

S,
What a moving post. Sometimes I don't recognize the person I was. I was never one of the mean ones, but the girl I was back then was too afraid to speak up, just as guilty IMHO. Thanks so much for sharing.

Thanks, Marilyn :)

Sherry Davis said...

I had a "Matthew" in my 5th grade, too. Except, his name was Monty (I remember his last name, too). At the time, I was repulsed (I must have Howard Huges DNA somewhere). Later, I just felt sorry for him. And I wondered if he KNEW why he was an outcast. What if someone had handed him a list that said: "Don't do these things and you'll be okay" if he'd have followed the list?

I think there's a social awareness which comes with maturity that cannot be taught. Everyone has to get it when they get it.

I think, at one time or another, we all asume the "outcast" mantle. For whatever reason, we each take our turn at standing on the precipice of conformity. It's one of those universal themes which repeats itself. (Remember 7th grade?) The need to fit in, to take our place, drags at us until we give in.

I wonder which is the braver choice; to conform and put aside our idiosyncratic behavior or to retain the ticks and eccentricities which make us unique?


As always, LA, you've broached another thought provoking blog. What made you think of this childhood almost-friend?

L.A. Mitchell said...

That, my dear friend, you'll find out. After a past-life reading and a stiff drink :)

AN ARTFUL BLOGGER said...

"Bless the beasts and the children for in this world they have no choice, who have no voice... Light their way when the darkness surrounds them; give them love, let it shine all around them."

A very tender memorial of childhood. dc