by Rory O’Hollaren
Fresh Voice Award, Echoes Writing Contest
“One word,” I demanded, surveying the classroom. “Go.” The students ranged from four foot eleven to six foot four, from eighty-five pounds to two hundred. I could read each of them like a billboard. I probably already knew more about each of them than they knew about themselves. “Go on,” I said again.
The short freckled boy at the front of the room spoke first. “Friends.” The responsibility of words passed around the circle like a hot rock, no one wanting to be caught with it.
“Love” said an art nerd.
“Defenestrate.” A show-off.
“Food.” Class clown.
“Word.” A smart-ass. Tentative laughter bubbled up around the room, and I swallowed down the urge to yell.
“Music.” A streamline teenager.
“Wild.” An athlete.
Another student began, but I cut him off, saying, “I’m sorry, what was that?” I tried to track the origin of the weirdest and most beautiful word a student had ever presented in this exercise of thinking fast and on the spot. It was also the first time I had ever interrupted this first-day-of-English class tradition. All of the faces went cold. Maybe their older siblings had given them the “Don’t mess with Ms. Larchmont” lecture last weekend. Maybe they were already aware of what was in store for them this year. I couldn’t say.
“Fall,” She confirmed, not timid at all. She raised her eyebrows at me, challenging me. I could not stand tall. I had seen rebels before, believe me, I had seen rebels and druggies and drop-outs and plain idiots, but I had never seen a student as strange as this one. I had never heard someone come up with that word before. I kept thinking, fall like the season? Or fall like ‘fall down the stairs?’
“Interesting. Hold that thought,” I said dismissively to make the situation seem less odd. I let the class finish with their gray and overused words, and then proceed to my anual opening lecture. “In this class, please don’t ever talk unless I tell you to, don’t ever sharpen pencils, pass notes, get up to go the the bathroom, eat, drink, or sleep. None of that. You’ll learn best that way, and you’ll thank me later once you go to college.” Would they, though? I had never even heard from a former student let alone gotten a thank-you. “Oh, and if you want to go into the tenth grade next year, those goddamn cell phones of yours better stay off and in that bucket on my desk.” The room was silent and attentive, just how I liked it. But this time it was scary, watching them all sit there like dead weight. I had never been scared of a class before.
“Tonight, for homework, I just want you to write a quick reflection on the word you chose in class today. It can be anything, whatever the word means to you, why you chose that word, whatever. The only thing you can’t do is change that word. And remember basic formatting expectations. Twelve point Times New Roman black font, one point one five line spacing, one inch margins. And it should be at least a page. Don’t forget your proper header. Good? Good.” I looked around and smiled. “See you tomorrow. You can head off to gathering.” The kids rustled out of the room like dry leaves, and I suddenly realized how dark it was in there.
That night I went home to my apartment and started to write. I really should have been making assignment plans for the coming week, but, as always, I was distracted and inspired by my shelf of books that I had always wanted to teach but had never been allowed to. I really had to fight to get The Catcher in the Rye, so they weren’t going to let me throw in The Virgin Suicides in on top of that. I could only think about all of the ingenious Socratic questions that I would ask my class when I finally did get to share that fantastic piece of work with them. But of course, the administration didn’t have to read any part of it more than the title in order to rule it out as “PROVOCATIVE.”
I thought about my most interesting new freshman class. That “fall” girl was really ugly. You could tell she had tried to straighten her artificially highlighted hair earlier that morning, but had failed and left little strands standing up all over the place. She wore way too much makeup and a huge sweatshirt that was less than flattering. She was pale and had yet to make a trip to the orthodontist. But I couldn’t read her, no, not like the “wild” boy, Dallas, who was pushed too hard by his football coach, leaving ninth grade English pretty low on his list of priorities. Not like I could tell how the boy who had said “friends” was scared as hell for this class, not wanting to screw up his GPA freshman year. You see, I can just tell these things about kids, which is why I love to work with them so much. Until that “fall” girl.
The next morning, the class sat down to work on their essay on their summer reading assignment, The Catcher in the Rye. While they busied away, I started reading the one-word reflections. I was originally planning on not giving a grade and just marking them as complete or incomplete, but some of them were just so terrible that I couldn’t let them think that that was okay. But I discovered a lot about the kids, and I learned the name of the girl I had been thinking about. It was Cecilia. And this is what I saw from her:
“I always said that it’s not fall until Requiem rehearsals start. Others say it’s not fall until Starbucks begins to serve pumpkin spice lattes. Yet even thinner-minded people say that it’s when school starts, or when the leaves turn yellow, or when I can start wearing sweaters to school, or when it starts raining. I assure you, dear lovers far and wide, that I have never driven through the long arch of trees, a tunnel of settlement, loss of life and color. I have worn sweaters day in and day out. I have never lived to see the leaves turn yellow, only rocking myself back and forth in a memory that never was.”
And that was it. That was all she wrote. Not a page. I guess I should have taken it as a message, but it didn’t make much sense to me back then.
Cecilia continued to amaze me more and more every day. In the beginning of November, I once looked around the class, asking, “Any questions about last night’s homework?”
Cecilia raised her hand, but spoke before she was called on. “Yeah, I’ve got one, Ms. Larchmont. When you’re graphing a parabola, should you stop at the zeroes, or do you have to keep going after that?” she asked sincerely. The class laughed, leaving Cecilia looking confused, but then they remembered my wrath and snapped back to attention. But I didn’t get it. What was so funny? The poor girl had a serious question about her homework, although not this class’s, and she was probably too scared to ask her math teacher. It had been a while since I had faced algebra, or calculus or whatever it was she was dealing with, but I racked my brain for lost information I knew was in there. I wanted to help her.
“Well, the zeroes are where the thing crosses the line, right?” I asked the class, motioning with my hands, and they responded with a light laugh and nodding heads. Apparently my incompetence in the field of mathematics was amusing to them. “Then I was always told to keep graphing until you run out of room. It may have changed though, since my time.”
Cecilia smiled, and muttered, “It’s funny how life works like that too, isn’t it?” She shook her head and closed her math notebook, leaving the whole room in awe, annoyance, or curiosity of her.
Another time, about a week later, she approached me after class, hesitant, like a deer crossing the road. I was terrified.
“Ms. Larchmont,” she stuttered, “I like your name.” Cecilia had stumped me yet again.
“Thank you. Go to F block, you’re already late.” I wanted her away. Her cryptic ways made me uncomfortable and anxious, like an itch on the bottom of your foot that you can’t scratch.
“I have a free period,” she said and sat down on the floor right beside my desk. “Is your name like the tree?”
“What tree?” I responding, trying to sound uninterested.
“You know, the larch. Also known as tamarack. It’s common in the Northeast. That’s my favorite tree.” Cecilia’s eyes were full of passion and curiosity, something I rarely see in students.
“Your favorite tree?” I said it like having a favorite tree was a really stupid concept, but it was actually one that I had thought about a lot. It was just strange to me that someone else had thought of it too. “Why might that be?”
“It’s one of the only deciduous conifers in North America. That means that it has cones, not flowers, but it still sheds its needles in the fall.” She fell silent when I didn’t respond. “What’s your favorite tree?” She asked. I suddenly realized how much I hated her talking to me. It seemed that she already knew me too well.
“Um,” I said, pretending to be busy reading another student’s essay draft, “I guess dawn redwood. It’s also a deciduous conifer.”
“I planted one with my sister when we were little.”
“What happened to the tree?”
“I don’t know. I haven’t made it back to Virginia in years.” I was intentionally being brief with her, hoping she might leave me alone. She was making me uncomfortable.
“What happened to your sister?”
“Same thing, I guess.”
“Which is worse: ignorance or apathy?”
“Cecilia, I appreciate you coming to talk to me, but I really need to get some work done, thank you.”
She was silent. It hurt, feeling the active absence of something that was still hanging just behind her teeth: questions. I looked down at her, and saw something in her glassy eyes. Was I the only one whom she could trust to ask these questions?
“I think that each is the leading cause of the other,” she whispered, like her opinion was some great forbidden secret.
She stood up slowly and walked to the door. The period was almost over. Cecilia put her fragile hand on the doorknob, then took it off. She was debating if she wanted to ask me another question. I read the last sentence of the class’s shittiest essay, which made me cringe. “In conclusion, Holden and the guy James Castle are similar but different.” I looked up, and she had left.
Throughout the month, Cecilia became less and less active in class. She blended in with the wall, and was soon no more than furniture at the back of the room. I’d sometimes call on her, prompting her to speak, share her beautiful complicated thoughts, but she would shrug and some asshole would interrupt her and call out his answer. Her once vibrant colors seemed to fade and fall away, like the trees outside. Then in December she stopped coming to class altogether. At first I thought nothing of it. But the week before winter break, I started to actively feel her absence. There was a dark cavity where she sat, it was weird. I wonder if she transferred, or if there was family emergency, or if she had come down with mono, or what. So as the students jumped out of the classroom on the last day before break, I called for this one football guy whose final essay I liked a lot. Also, I once saw Cecilia get in a car with him, so maybe that said something about him.
“Dallas, stick around just a minute, would you?” I called as the kids ran out of the door screaming for vacation. He stood and approached me, after throwing a quick wave to his friends.
“You’re Cecilia’s friend, am I right?” He nodded his head slowly and hesitantly. “Can I just ask you, where’s she been? I haven’t seen her all month, and I haven’t been able to get ahold of her.”
He looked around the room for a minute. “Ms. Larchmont, did you ever wonder why she wore sweaters every day?” I could tell how much courage it had took him to say that. “Cecilia’s dead.” He shook his head at me and left for the rest of the year.
My head spun and I saw nothing but Her. My heart sunk into my stomach and I fell into my desk chair. I felt true to my name. Like a larch, and also a dawn redwood, I was a conifer; I was supposed to be strong throughout the winter. Autumn should not affect me! But my needles fell, I could not be constant. How could the seasons dare to keep changing without her? She had just stopped graphing once she reached the zeroes. She knew that life is not a function and could not be represented by any equation. But it couldn’t have been her fault. No, I was convinced that someone had just snatched her pencil out of her hand and refused to let her keep going. Was it her disease? Then I figured out what it was that my subconscious mind wanted me to ask myself: Was it me? How could I be such an idiot, watching her fall from life and telling myself that I didn’t care? All the time when she would ask me her little questions, she must have been trusting me with some responsibility that I clearly couldn’t handle. I hid my face in my hands, but was in too much shock to cry.
And to this day, I don’t know why, but it always seems like those of us who feel as though they are unloved are the ones who are truly loved the most. I wish I had come up with those words while she was still around to hear them.