Morning Thanks

Garrison Keillor once said we'd all be better off if we all started the day by giving thanks for just one thing. I'll try.

Saturday, October 06, 2012

The Whiz--IV (a story)

The next period most of those math students came downstairs to my room for sixth period English. I didn't know what had happened, but I could tell the moment they came in that something had occured which left them speechless.

One of the guys who'd helped him told my class very respectfully how Mr. Friedli's arms were shaking when he held them. He explained how what the man had said earlier, yelled really, didn't make any sense to anybody, and how he'd aimed it all at Melinda, and how horrible it must have been to be the kid who caught all that screaming. It was about the worst experience he'd ever had, he said, to see someone blow a fuse that way, just lose it right in public. "And Friedli too," he told the others. "Geez, I mean, who'd have ever thought it would be Friedli, you know?—I mean, I thought he was already crazy."

Melinda went home. Friedli did too, the principal driving him. He stayed out of school for almost five weeks, until the school board thought it was safe to let him finish the year, psychologists indicating that it would be okay, even therapeutic for him to return to the classroom.

When he came back, everyone asked him how it was going—maybe it was the first time in all those years he'd been at Arrowhead that anyone had paid much attention to him, in or out of the teachers' lounge.

Melinda never told anyone what he'd said or done the night before.

I was the only one who knew what was going on, and I didn't say a thing. Melinda never spilled a word to Templeton either. It was something only the two of us knew—the three of us, Friedli too.

That was years ago. Today, Wilson Friedli might have gone to jail if the whole truth were ever told. Certainly, he would have lost his job. As far as I know, he's still there at Arrowhead.

I could have told Templeton everything Mel told me—and if I would have, he certainly would have pressed her for every little detail. She could have told him too, but she didn't. She was powerless, really, and maybe it's taken me all this time to understand that. Maybe that's why she never told the principal anything more than that Mr. Friedli just had a nervous breakdown.

Maybe I didn't tell Templeton because I was already starting to know Friedli's loneliness. Maybe I didn't tell because I was a teacher, or because I'm a man.

Maybe I didn't tell because I wanted to protect Melinda from the public slime of being Friedli's victim, to keep a young woman already short in self-esteem from the ignominy of a kinky association with a tall, gangly psycho, old enough to be her father, a man who was, by and large, a decent teacher, but like so many of us, starved, I suppose, for love.

Maybe I still can't see the whole thing objectively.

I got a card from her today. She sends something at Christmas every five years or so. This one came more than a month before the holiday season, along with a letter she sent out to dozens of friends.

It says she changed jobs now-and addresses-and that she loves the new job, writing software for banks, because it allows her to stay home more often and brings in even more money than the high-pressured sales job she had with some Fortune 500 company.

The stationary's corners are decorated by little holly wreaths she drew in by hand, and she slipped in a snapshot of her kids, three of them, the oldest getting to high school age himself now. She knows it's early for Christmas, she says, but she knocked off two birds with one stone by announcing her address change and giving holiday wishes all in the same envelope, all with the same stamp.

"That's just like me, I know you're saying," she writes in the letter.

"I don't know where in my life I've picked up all the frugality, but it seems to get worse with age."

It's hard to imagine that Mel Drost is thinking about aging.

She signed the card with a fountain pen, but what is conspicuous by its absence is her husband's name. "Love," it says, "Mel, Brittany, Stephen, and Zack." No Burt this year. No more husband.

There has been a divorce, it seems. It's obvious that she's suffered again, and I can't help but think I may be at least partially responsible for whatever travail she's not documented here. I'm the one who kept quiet as to what really happened between her and Wilson Friedli--protecting her, I thought, and him, and even me, I suppose, when what she likely needed back then, more than anything, was her own innocence. I know that now.

She came back to me a week after Wilson Friedli lost it, came back to my room, and told me, without a tear, that it would be best if I not tell a soul what she'd told me in the cemetery. I never did.

On the picture, her auburn hair is cut short and neat, like an ex­ecutive's. Zack's in a surf shirt, like every other kid in junior high. Stephen is leaning just far enough for you to see three little stripes shaved in above his ear. A long-haired cat flops uncomfortably over little Brit­tany's arm. The picture was taken on a redwood deck, and there's a lake somewhere beyond the pines. She's got a better job now, she says, and from the looks on the faces of her kids, they're not as starved for love as she was—or Friedli, for that matter.

I know this-to me, the joy on those children's faces says that we all have to get up and move—Melinda Drost, Wilson Friedli, and even me too, I guess. I ask myself this, as a Christian: isn't the great lesson of the gospel simply this, that there is hope?

But I'm sorry, Melinda. I think I let you down.

Maybe it's not necessary for you anymore, but it is for me—it’s time I tell the story.


Anonymous said...

As the "story" goes, how did you let her down? Why tell such a story? A social worker could, but can't tell stories, and it's OK.

Anonymous said...

Gee, "Whiz" ?