She Will Come Back
I was driving past the high school yesterday when I thought maybe I saw her. The white sweatshirt with the navy logo was what caught my eye – it was identical to the one she was wearing the last time I saw her - before she ran away.
The last time I saw her I also saw dozens of other high school students wearing that same white sweatshirt, standing quietly in straight rows against the lockers in the hallway. I work at multiple high schools, each one somehow a microcosm of society and its archetypes, but none reveal the true nature of humanity more than The Learning Center – the optimistic name given to the place where kids are sent when they’re suspended.
At The Learning Center the staff and administration are surprisingly friendly, the walls are surprisingly colorful, and the windows let in a surprising amount of sunlight. Someone told me The Learning Center actually used to be a high school from the Jim Crow days, when segregation was still around.
I think the best word to describe the kids at The Learning Center is waiting. They stand in rows wearing the same white sweatshirt, some silently and some whispering quietly to one another. Some find it hilarious that they’re here, like they’ve figured out the system and never have to go to real school again, and some have a look of defeat, almost like they’re wondering if there will ever be a way out.
That was the look she had in her eyes the last time I saw her. We met in the cafeteria of The Learning Center. She was fidgeting, and pulling at the sleeves of her sweatshirt. It made me think of the first time I met her, a year ago when school first started. It was August in Texas but she was pulling at the sleeves of the wool jacket she was wearing, avoiding my eyes. I remember seeing the scars that ran up and down her arms for the first time, and here that day in the Learning Center the same feeling filled my chest, like something inside me was broken.
“How’ve you liked it here?” I asked as we sat down, smiling at her from across the table.
“It’s really not that bad,” she said, looking past me. Her words didn’t match her eyes.
Last summer her grandmother had passed away, leaving her with a grief that had rooted itself deep inside her chest, then reached up and slowly choked her, closing in on her voice. She had been closer to her grandma than any other family member and when she lost her, she only knew to numb herself from the pain. TV, her sister once told me. And games on the phone.
We saw in the cafeteria and talked a bit – about the learning center, about the dress code, about life. We didn’t talk about why she’d gotten suspended from school, and we didn’t talk about her grandma.
She once told me she loved to write. That was the first time I felt a sense of hope that we would be able to have a connection (that, and the fact that we both loved One Direction).
I reached into my bag and pulled out a pen and notebook of paper.
“I know you love to write,” I said, pushing the notebook across the table. I thought about the classes I’d taken on the power of writing, and its ability to bring healing. I paused a moment before speaking.
“Writing is a type of art therapy; it can help you process your pain,” I said earnestly. “Writing can help you have an outlet.”
I handed her the pen.
“Write a letter to yourself from the summer. Write down your thoughts.”
She picked up the pen, and I stared out the window and watched as the window pane bent the rays of sunlight reaching into the room. She wrote furiously for a while, and I thought about the scars on her arms and imagined what her grandma must’ve been like.
When she was done I told her she could keep the letter. She got her stuff and walked away.
When she left I saw for a minute and thought about how when I’d started my job, I thought I knew what I was going to do – I thought I could change the system and help restore beauty in the most broken places – I thought I could show my kids how much I really care and help them change all that despair and hurt and brokenness into love and redemption and hope.
But hope is the thing with feathers. It’s not an idea, not an intangible concept, but it’s in the details – sun rays bent through windowpanes, words bled onto a page. The details of people and stories and tears and real words coming from real mouths. All the rest is kind of a blur.
On the day she was released from the Learning Center to return to her high school, I went to meet with her in the guidance office. She wasn’t there. I asked the counselor, who sent me to the attendance office, who sent me to the registrar until I found myself sitting in the office of the high school drop-out-prevention-specialist.
The woman was on the phone when I entered her office and she motioned for me to come in and sit down. She was heavyset with dark wavy hair, and it took effort for her to swivel back and forth in her chair from the computer to the papers sitting in piles around her.
When she hung up the phone she turned to me and said, “Who are you looking for?”
I told her, and she gave a snort, shaking her head. “That girl hangs around with the wrong crowd.”
She continued to shake her head and began rummaging through papers as she was speaking to me, and I felt the frustration rising in my throat as she said things like ‘these kids don’t want to change,’ and ‘she probably won’t come back.’
So I stopped listening and began to look around the office. I noticed that she was wearing sneakers with bright purple laces. I noticed that she had sock monkeys strewn all across her cabinets, along with thank you cards and pictures of her grandchildren. There were little Precious Moments statues perched gently on the surface of her desk, and I focused on them, as if at any moment they would fly or twirl or do a little dance.
I left the school that day, not sure how to feel. Her mom called us later that afternoon and told us she’d run away – and she was probably with friends. The police had been informed, but her mom wasn’t worried. ‘She does this sometimes,’ she said. ‘She will come back.’
I slowed down as I drove past the high school, to see if the girl walking on the sidewalk was her. She was wearing a white sweatshirt, but when she turned her head – it wasn’t her. I sped up again and continued my drive home, thinking about sunlight, words, and how hope is the thing with feathers