You Could Make It a Lot More Sad

Allison Gruber

Carly writes only of her father. He died last year, a suicide that left behind two children and one section of Composition 101 at the local community college.

Five months after his death, I interview for his job.

His name is still on the sample syllabus. The document was immaculately detailed, fastidiously well-organized, carefully crafted rubrics for each assignment. The schedule lists articles about the prison industrial complex, truck drivers, and the death of print journalism. I am struck by how much one can learn about a person from a syllabus.

I have a full-time job teaching at a charter school in town.

I don’t need the class at the community college, but I take it anyway out of greed, out of a need to remind myself that I am still able to run a college level course. I hope Carly never finds out about my side-gig. At fourteen, she’s surely old enough to understand that someone had to fill the class, but I fear how she’d feel if she knew it was me.

The day after he died, Carly did not attend her morning classes, but she came back for Creative Writing. The school counselor visited me ahead of third period.

For some reason she wants to come to your class today. Just don’t let the other kids overwhelm her.

News traveled fast at our small school.

By lunch, everyone knew what had happened to Carly’s dad, and when she showed up for our 3rd period class her peers, 7th and 8th graders, greeted her with awkward hugs and offers of candy.

I let them.

I wasn’t sure, in this context, how to diagnose “overwhelming.”  

Carly was a good writer before her father died, but she got better still after his death, even if her subject matter became impossibly limited to grief.

Mostly for Carly’s benefit, I introduced my middle-schoolers to the word “cathartic.”

One of the joys of working with middle-schoolers was that their lack of knowledge made the process of teaching, at times, feel very easy.  I could tell them what they didn’t know.

Ben didn’t know that he couldn’t hug girls at random, the way girls hugged each other. I intercept him during a passing period, Hey, Ben. We have to chill out with the hugging, man. A girl will let you know if she wants to hug you, okay?

J.D., an aspiring actor, didn’t know that his Christopher Walken impression sucked. Doesn’t sound like Walken, dude, I told him. Maybe a poor man’s Travolta.

And Carly didn’t know how good of a writer she actually was. This poem melted my face off, I told her. Really, I mean it.

***

The lights are low, from the rafters and taxidermied elk heads on the wall, pastel streamers hang; opaque balloons are dreamily bumped as teenaged couples sway to “I Only Have Eyes for You,” while I stand in the back corner of the dance floor, watching.

As the faculty liaison to student council, my duties include (but are not limited to) attending high school dances. In the course of a semester, I’ve attended more dances than I did in my four years as a high school student.

In every movie from my youth, chaperones were the deeply uncool antagonists.

Chaperones, in films, were the antithesis of youth – unable to appreciate the music or grasp the culture, out to ruin the teenager’s good time: killjoys, cock blockers, and buzz kills.

As far as I can tell, high school dances have not changed. Kids dress up, socialize, girls get their feelings hurt and cry, boys sulk or crowd together uncomfortably, and some dance. This affirms what I told my AP students ahead of reading Hamlet – the way we live, the way we eat, the clothes we wear, all these things change, but for better or worse, human behavior remains fundamentally the same, we get jealous, we fall in love, we feel ambitious, we hate our mothers, we mourn our mortality.

In the classroom, topics like death and grief become abstractions, strangely sanitized by their academic context. But as I stand in the dark borderlands of the dance floor, the oldest person by at least two decades, watching young bodies sway to a song that predates me, my own mortality feels desperately, pathetically concrete.

***

The rules were simple: no dubstep, no contemporary country, no Jack Johnson.

Remember, I’m old, I told my high school Creative Writing students, and they seemed uncertain.

They called me “Grubs,” the way only close friends do. They said they liked my red jeans. They asked about my piercings, my tattoo. Sometimes they seemed to think I was one of them, and in some not-so-small way, this made me feel Margaret Mead-ish: accepted among the natives.

It was my first year teaching in a secondary school. Accustomed to the college level, I exposed my teens to Bukowski, Sexton, and Lockwood. I let them curse in their poetry, and in class discussions. I did what I’d done for the past ten years, and as a result they trusted me, confessed hard in their writing—failed relationships, pot smoking, alcoholic fathers.

On our in-class writing days, we listened to music. I dangled the speaker plug-in from my desk, and students attached their phones. When we first began this ritual, I hoped to learn about some new music. Instead, my teenagers played Nirvana, Janis Joplin, The Beatles, Public Enemy.

In turn, I introduced them to Joy Division, Morrissey, and once, for fun, Yoko Ono. Until I busted out laughing, they assumed a scholarly neutrality while Yoko screeched in Japanese.

My students seemed to have a particular fondness for dead musicians.

I told them about the portly, balding English teacher who, on the day Kurt Cobain blew his brains out, said to my class full of mourners that he “didn’t want to hear another word about Kurt Cobain.”

This was before adults cared about teenagers’ feelings, I explained.

We wrote and revised while the dead sang to us.

Sometimes I wanted to ask them if they knew that Elvis died on the toilet, ask them if they ever heard the cruel, unfounded rumor that poor Mama Cass choked to death on a ham sandwich, ask them if they’d ever seen the insane footage of G.G. Allin’s wake, his corpse still smeared in feces and blood while junkie mourners tucked syringes, baggies of smack, and bottles of whiskey into his casket.

There was a whole education to be had here.

When David Bowie died of cancer, we played “Queen Bitch.”

When Prince overdosed on fentanyl, we played, “I Would Die for U.”

When Sinead O’Connor went missing for a day, we preemptively compiled an “in memoriam” playlist beginning with, “I Am Stretched on Your Grave.”

***

Gruber, did you know there’s an element named after Einstein? Vera asks, pointing to the table of periodic elements posted on the wall. En.

We are in the chemistry classroom. I am pinch-hitting for the chemistry teacher, felled by the flu. Vera is the teacher’s student assistant, and one of the stars of my AP Language course.

The chemistry students have worksheets, which is good because of chemistry I know nothing but how to set things on fire, how to make frothing volcanoes out of baking soda and vinegar.

I did not know there was an element named after Einstein. What is it?

Vera tells me it’s a radioactive metal. It doesn’t occur naturally. They found it after the bomb was dropped.

Hiroshima?

Yeah, she replies, self-consciously tucking a strand of hair behind her ear. I think so.

My grandfather was there when they tested the bomb, I tell her, and she scrunches up her face like I’ve just said, “My grandfather was at the battle of Waterloo.”

Vera is into science, but her parents don’t support her desire to go to college.

It’s a religion thing, she explained, dismissively, when I asked why. Next year, she plans to be a missionary in South America.

Maybe, I hope, after her time proselytizing in the jungle, she will go to college.

You’re such a good student, I told her. You could get into any college you wanted.

At this, she gave me a tight smile.

She knew things I simply didn’t.

I hardly remember what I knew at seventeen.

The only classes I ever paid attention in were English and Typing and Home Ec, where I once learned how to properly make a Denver Omelet. In the hopes that being stoned would make the subject more interesting, I often showed up high to Geometry. I once got a Saturday detention for calling the PE teacher a “cock knocker”—only I didn’t call her a “cock knocker,” but my friend Amanda did, and to this day I still don’t really know what that term means. Outside of classes, I was once an accessory to stealing a mannequin from a department store and to blowing up a mailbox. The latter, I’ve since learned, is some kind of federal offense.

I wasn’t a very good student in high school, I confess to Vera. I don’t know why I tell her this, other than to illustrate the difference between us.

Like you were a pot smoker? Vera guesses.

I feign shock. What? No.

Sorry, she replied, and I rolled my eyes, told her there was no need to apologize.

I got my shit together eventually, I explained, somewhat unconvincingly. The people who never really pulled themselves together are starting to die now – every other day, on Facebook, I see “RIP-someone-I-knew-in-high-school.” They never got it together, stayed in our hometown, carried on the way we did when we were teenagers, and now they’re dying at forty—

You’re forty? Vera blurts, causing a few students to poke their heads up from their worksheets.

No, I say, embarrassed. I’m not forty. I’m almost forty.

Grubs, you’re older than my mom, Vera whispers in shock.

Dude, I’m not forty, I laugh.

In less than two months, I would be forty.

On at least two occasions, middle school girls have called me “mom.” Both times, this happened as they were leaving class, their backpacks slung over their shoulders. Bye, mom! They said, and in both cases became excruciatingly embarrassed, falling all over themselves to apologize.

A week before I turn forty, I visit my friend Erin in Los Angeles. We drink too much red wine and smoke pot on her balcony. I tell her about my middle-schoolers calling me “mom.”

Aww, Erin said. You love those kids.

In our Chicago days, I was known as a woman who loathed the presence of children. I was the dyke who began a public reading by leaning into the microphone and announcing, “I don’t give a fuck about gay marriage.”

I prided myself on being unconventional.

And there I was, nearly forty, married and expressing my fondness for kids.

Yeah, I shrug. They’re all right.

Erin flicked her eyebrows, cynically. You’ve changed.

At this, I grew defensive. Well, we do evolve a little. I guess that’s how we prevent ourselves from becoming an RIP post on Facebook.

Erin lit a cigarette, Eventually, everyone becomes an RIP post on Facebook.

***

The “to be or not to be” soliloquy, I tell my students, always seems to come out of nowhere, as though I’ve turned the corner in an art gallery and there’s The Vitruvian Man, The Mona Lisa, or The Scream – so iconic and intractable that it seems out-of-place, and strangely disappointing.

We discuss, in AP, how lines from the play have been coopted in popular culture.

“To kill myself or not kill myself,” is not exactly the sort of thing you’d really want on a coffee mug or a t-shirt, but . . .

They laugh.

When we arrive at the equally iconic graveyard scene, I tell them about Andre Tchaikowsky, the Polish composer, who bequeathed his skull to the Royal Shakespeare Company so that he might always play Yorick.

We carefully dissect Hamlet’s musings: What else is there to us, but this fragile, mortal, body? Where do we go? What’s the goddamn point?

A student starts crying at her desk.

It sucks, I empathize. Hamlet knows it; we know it. It absolutely blows that we have to die.

They laugh at my use of “blows” – even the crying student.

A male student’s hand darts into the air.

This isn’t related, he says, shiftily. But I just wanted to point out that the mountain has disappeared.

But for one classroom, when I was an adjunct, where the windows faced out over Lake Michigan, I have never had a view so spectacular. The windows in my room faced onto a meadow that, depending on the season, was full of sunflowers, snow, or horses; above this meadow loomed the San Francisco Peaks.

When we turned our heads to the window, at the student’s observation, we noticed that indeed, the mountain was gone – entirely, shockingly obscured by a raincloud.

Get up, I told them. Get up and look.

Shakespeare would have to wait.

The illusion of absence was startlingly magnificent.

***

Crying is good, I told Carly when she stayed after class to talk with me. I didn’t suggest she stay after; she asked if she could.

She sat on a stool beside my desk, her hands clasped in her lap, head bent, tears falling down her round, red face.

Though the fact of our litigious society discourages it, I reached out and put a hand across hers. The absence of touch, in this situation, seemed cruel.

Carly let out a wet sigh.

I squeezed her hands. They were small and hot.

“God, it just fucking sucks,” I want to say, but she’s twelve, and I’m her teacher. I must be wiser, more eloquent than I feel.

The situation is peculiar, the territory mean and uncharted. Plus, the fact of her return to my class, when she should have taken the whole day off, suggested that she believed I knew something.

Ms. Gruber, can I stay and talk to you? She asked with all the reservation a student might summon when staying to talk about a missing assignment.

Carly was deep in one of many experiences that would shape her humanity. Throughout the course of her life, she would revisit this day, maybe even this moment, and attempt to understand how it defined her. I knew this much.

As a teacher, I always fear the “wrong response.” I fear the misspoken figure or fact, the misleading piece of advice, especially when I was working with teenagers, adolescents who sometimes seemed confounded when I confessed to not knowing some detail: I don’t know who the current Prime Minister of Egypt is; I don’t know why the Chinese government is opposed to depictions of time travel; I don’t know exactly how old Ophelia is supposed to be.

Carly and I sat wordlessly for a few minutes. Finally, she, not I, broke the silence.

So I guess I’ll never see him again?

This, I suppose, was the main of her desire to speak with me, the hope that I could confirm or deny the possibility that she would “see” her father again.

Of course this is what we all want to know about death—“what dreams may come.”

I opened and then closed my mouth – I was weighted by the sense that whatever I said would be lodged forever in her memory as something that either comforted or completely crushed her.

Finally, carefully, I ventured, No, probably not in this life. And that really hurts, doesn’t it.

The following week, after her father had been buried, I bought her a leather bound journal and an expensive pen.

Write through it, I advised because this, of course, was what I myself had done in the wake of every tragedy.  

For the rest of the year, she wrote nothing but poems about her father.

Three weeks after Carly’s father committed suicide, a high school acquaintance of mine went missing. He left the house to take out the trash and never returned. His wife pleaded on Facebook, if anyone knows anything . . .

People suspected foul play, but three days later he and his car turned up in the forest preserve we used to haunt as teenagers, a single gunshot wound to the head.

Two weeks after that, another high school friend, with whom I’d been in touch, was found dead in his bathroom after hitting his head on the toilet in a drunken stupor.

Senseless, our mutual friends said of both deaths, but I couldn’t determine which was either or more so.

Despite personally knowing two of the men who died that month, it was the death of Carly’s father, a man I only met once in passing, that affected me most deeply. I was thousands of miles away from the mourning for my deceased high school peers, but Carly’s grief was with me every other afternoon in Creative Writing.

Do you think this is too sad? She sometimes asked me about a poem she’d written, until, one day, in a conversation I generally reserved for my high-schoolers, my college freshmen, I explained to Carly that poetry was often predicated on sadness. I held her handwritten poem in my hands and told her that sadness is hard to figure out.

Sadness is hard to explain. We write poetry about things that are hard to explain. That’s what we’re supposed to do.

When I was her age, I never had anything so sad to write. My own poetry was overwritten, full of vivid, common, melodrama. What I didn’t tell her was that, for a writer, there are few better experiences than a tragic death, that the fact of death is probably what begets great art.

If she kept writing, she would figure this out in time.

I handed the poem back to Carly.

If you want, you could make it a lot more sad. 

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Allison Gruber is an essayist and educator whose work has appeared in The Literary Review, The Huffington Post, Gravel, Foliate Oak, and in the anthology Windy City Queer: Dispatches from the Third Coast, among many others.  Her debut collection of essays, You’re Not Edith (George Braziller, 2015) was a finalist for a Lambda Literary Award. A native Chicagoan, Gruber now lives with her wife in Flagstaff, Arizona, where she teaches creative writing and literature to young people.