Agree or disagree:
- Most adults don’t remember what it was like to be young.
- We must leave our innocence behind in order to mature.
- Your life is what you make of it – nothing more, nothing less.
I remember Cody’s eyes darting around behind his glasses, like a goldfinch perched outside a windowpane. I remember that face nodding along as I gave directions. The kind of student you wrote lessons plans for, who worked well with others, who got his energy out where and when he was supposed to. The perfect hybrid of Phineas and Gene.
My Language Arts classroom had only three walls, the fourth replaced with the hallway that connected to the other rooms. A horseshoe that we lived in together from that September to June. The windows showcased mostly snowy fields tinged with mud, gray skies. Outside, it smelled of nearby farms, and the blue-green algae on Lake Champlain. I don’t remember what Cody’s voice sounded like, but I bet that it was high-pitched, that it hadn’t changed yet. Seventh grade was made up of toddlers and teenagers. Cody hadn’t had his growth spurt yet.
I don’t recognize his face in his obituary five years later. The glasses are gone. He has braces. His rosy lips are faded pink; his face has caught up with his features, and he looks more now like the man he will never become. I’m not surprised to read that he was high honors, that he taught other kids how to make healthy choices. That he was confident and a confidant.
What was that game I played with my students when we had a few minutes left at the end of class? I see myself, seven months pregnant, galloping around the room with my hands and arms clapped together above my head.
“You look like a pregnant giraffe,” Cody said.
Everyone laughed. I paused to catch my breath. This is what I always remember when I think about that year, 2007, the only year I taught in Shelburne, Vermont. Also: round ligament pain. Piles of snow, with no snow days. The Pigman, The Outsiders, A Separate Peace. Decisions. Wide leg child’s pose. Driving up Mt. Philo beside my students who hiked. The year that Grace Paley died, and I traveled down to Montpelier for her memorial service.
On the whiteboard, I wrote… Do now:
- What do you do when you feel isolated?
- Write about a close friend. What makes them so close?
- Make a Venn diagram of the three main characters’ traits. In the center, the traits should overlap.
My six year old sneaks downstairs with a plastic sword. He smiles when he sees me, but cries ten minutes later when he can’t figure out how to make a frog out of origami paper. Five years until he’s eleven. Another five until sixteen. Bigger kids, bigger problems, my mom always says when I complain about this age.
I have turned off the alerts for Facebook Messenger, but once in a while I find my way there. In 2012, I had a four-year-old and a one-year-old when I clicked on a message from an old colleague and learned about Cody’s fatal car accident on an icy road on his way to high school. Usually I keep samples of students’ writing in my files, but the year I taught Cody, I was distracted. I can only find quizzes, notes on motif, foreshadow, theme. I wanted to remember him more. I wanted to find Cody’s words hidden there between a vocabulary test and its answer key. I looked for his face in my mind. Did he learn anything about life in that year that our paths crossed? He had only five more years left, but they were the years that his body would grow the most. By sixteen, when he lost his life, most boys have stopped growing. I wonder if his parents worried that he was a late bloomer. He is eternally eleven to me, along with all of his classmates who never really grow once they leave my classroom. Now he exists in that space in between those three connected circles of time: eleven-years-old, sixteen-years-old, and whatever follows.
Liz Matthews received her MFA in Writing from Vermont College of Fine Arts. Her fiction and essays have appeared, or are forthcoming in The Rumpus, Brain Child, Brevity, Spelk, Milk Candy Review, and The Tishman Review. She teaches writing at Westport Writers’ Workshop in Connecticut.
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Details of previous publications & links:
“No-See-Ums” at Spelk
“The Periphery: Preserving your writing time” at Brevity:
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