Home > My Name Is Lucy Barton(11)

My Name Is Lucy Barton(11)
Elizabeth Strout

When I was in the sixth grade a teacher arrived from the East. His name was Mr. Haley and he was a young man; he taught us social studies. There are two things I remember about him: The first is that one day I had to go to the bathroom, which I hated to do because it called attention to me. He gave me the pass, nodding once, smiling. When I returned to the room and approached him to return the pass—it was a large block of wood that we were required to hold in the corridor to prove that we had permission to be out of the classroom—when I handed him back the pass, I saw Carol Darr, a popular girl, do something—a kind of hand gesture or something that I knew from experience was making fun of me, and she was doing it toward her friends so they could make fun of me as well. And I remember that Mr. Haley’s face became red, and he said: Do not ever think you are better than someone, I will not tolerate that in my classroom, there is no one here who is better than someone else, I have just witnessed expressions on the faces of some of you that indicate you think you are better than someone else, and I will not tolerate that in my classroom, I will not.

I glanced at Carol Darr. In my memory she was chastened, she felt bad.

I fell silently, absolutely, immediately in love with this man. I have no idea where he is, if he is still alive, but I still love this man.

The other thing about Mr. Haley was that he taught us about the Indians. Until then I hadn’t known that we took their land from them with a deception that caused Black Hawk to rebel. I didn’t know that the whites gave them whiskey, that the whites killed their women in their own cornfields. I felt that I loved Black Hawk as I did Mr. Haley, that these were brave and wonderful men, and I could not believe how Black Hawk was taken on a tour of cities after his capture. I read his autobiography as soon as I could. And I remembered the line he said: “How smooth must be the language of the whites, when they can make right look like wrong, and wrong like right.” I worried too that his autobiography, which had been transcribed by an interpreter, would not be accurate, and so I wondered, Who is Black Hawk, really? And I got a sense of him as strong, and bewildered, and when he spoke of “our Great Father, the President,” he used nice terms, and that made me sad.

All of this, I am saying, made a huge impression on me, the indignities that we had forced onto these people. And when I came home from school one day after we learned how the Indian women planted a field of corn and the white men came and plowed it up, my mother was in front of our garage-home, which we had only recently moved out of, she may have been trying to fix something, I don’t recall, but she was squatting by the front door, and I said to her, “Mommy, do you know what we did to the Indians?” I said this slowly and with awe.

My mother wiped at her hair with the back of her hand. “I don’t give a damn what we did to the Indians,” she said.

Mr. Haley left at the end of the year. In my memory he was going into the service, and this could only have been Vietnam, since it was during that time. I have since looked up his name on the Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C., and it isn’t there. I don’t know anything more about him, but in my memory Carol Darr was all right to me—in his class—after that. We all liked him, is what I mean. We all respected him. This is no small feat for a man with a classroom of twelve-year-olds to accomplish, but he did.

Over the years I have thought about the books that my mother said my brother was reading. I’d read them too; they hadn’t touched me too deeply. As I said, my heart was with Black Hawk and not with these white people who lived on the prairie. And so I have thought about these books: What was it in them that my brother liked? The family of this series was a nice family. They made their way across the prairie, they were sometimes in trouble, but always the mother was kind and the father loved them very much.

My daughter Chrissie has turned out to love these books as well.

When Chrissie turned eight, I bought her the book about Tilly that had meant so much to me. Chrissie loved to read; I was happy to have her unwrap this book. She unwrapped it at a birthday party I had for her, and her friend whose father was a musician was there. When he came to pick his daughter up after the party, he stayed and talked, and he mentioned the artist I had known in college. The artist had moved to New York not long after I had. I said that I knew him. The musician said, You’re prettier than his wife. No, he said, when I asked. The artist had no children.

A few days later, Chrissie said to me about the book with Tilly in it, “Mom, it’s kind of a dumb book.”

But the books my brother loved about the girl on the prairie, Chrissie still loves those books too.

On the third day that my mother sat at the foot of my bed, I could see the fatigue on her face. I didn’t want her to leave, but she seemed unable to accept the nurses’ offer to bring in a cot, and I felt she would leave soon. As has often been the case with me, I began to dread this in advance. I remember my first dreading-in-advance as having to do with the dentist of my childhood. Because we had little dental care in our youth, and because genetically we were thought to have “soft teeth,” any trip to the dentist was quite naturally filled with dread. The dentist provided free care in a manner that was ungenerous, both in time and manner, as though he hated us for being who we were, and I worried the entire time once I heard I would have to see him. It was not often that I saw him. But early on I saw this: You are wasting time by suffering twice. I mention this only to show how many things the mind cannot will itself to do, even if it wants to.

It was Serious Child who came for me in the middle of the next night, saying that blood tests had come back from the lab and I needed a CAT scan immediately. “But it’s the middle of the night,” my mother said. Serious Child said I had to go. And so I said, “Let’s go, then,” and soon some orderlies showed up and put me on a gurney and I waved my fingers at my mother and they took me into one large elevator after another. It was dark in the hallways, and in the elevators; everything seemed very dim. I had not left my room at night before, I had not seen that night was different than day even in the hospital. After a very long trip and many turns I was pushed into a room and someone put a small tube into my arm and another small tube down my throat. “Hold still,” they said. I couldn’t even nod.

After a long time—but what I mean by that, I don’t know in real time or terms—I was pushed into the CAT scan circle and there were some clicks and then it went dead. “Shit,” said a voice behind me. For another long time I lay there. “The machine’s broken,” the voice said, “but we need this scan or the doctor will kill us.” I lay there a long time, and I was very cold. I learned that hospitals are often cold. I was shivering, but no one noticed; I’m sure they would have brought me a blanket. They only wanted the machine to work, and I understood that.

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