“Is that you, Ms. Boody? You really standin’ out there on my door step?” Donald, my most despondent sixth grade student, coos though the closed door.
I’m standing next to a bench press held together with duct tape. I imagine Rodney, from the picture I saw in the paper, lifting weights here days earlier. I wonder if the duct tape holding the windowsills together comes from the same roll as the tape wound around the barbell. Malt liquor cans are splayed across the porch.
“You really came to my house? Drove all this way to my house?”
Donald’s voice shifts its direction toward the inside of the house.
“Ma, I said it’s my teacher!”
The door unlocks, and Donald peers through.
“Well I’ll be damned, a teacher come up on in my house. Well come on in,” he says, gesturing for me to enter.
Six months earlier, I remember six months earlier, complaining about how much fog covered the bay of my college town in the springtime. I would grapple with the intellectual dilemmas that we discussed in class — I studied metaphorical extremes existing in texts, good vs. bad, light vs. dark. I was searching for some sort of middle ground, a way to subvert the divergent dichotomies.
It was these kind of musings that made me an ideal candidate for Teach for America. I was a forward thinker, well versed in obtuse theories, likely able to thrust open the doors of opportunity to America’s impoverished youth. A keen intellect, coupled with a steel work ethic and brawny resume can, when applied correctly, solve the pervasive problems of poverty. So Teach for America says.
The door opens into the living room. In front of me is a coffee table; behind that, a leather couch covered in woven blankets. Donald, chin up, has changed out of his school uniform and is wearing saggy sweatpants and white socks. He smiles, tilts his head back, “Ma, I told you my teacher was comin’. She’s here!”
Mrs. Williams emerges from the back of the house, holding a plate. She mumbles a scratchy hello, and delivers the baked chicken and green bean dinner upstairs to an invisible husband and father.
She returns to the couch, dressed in faded leggings and an oversized sweat shirt, legs crossed, a Kool appears lit on her lips, and she smokes while looking blankly at me.
“I’m Ms. Boody, Donald’s teacher.”
She nods, “Yes, of course. Make yourself at home. Donald’s always been a good boy. It’s just been hard lately.”
We speak in vague terms — in sweeping euphemisms, really — about Donald’s erratic behavior.
“He’s still having trouble making it through classes,” is code for Donald screaming “Shut the fuck up” and flipping over a desk after I introduced the concept of a number line.
“I think he might need some extra support,” becomes a nice way of conveying Donald’s insistent calls of “Everyone is fucking dead to me.”
Donald keeps things light hearted during the conversation.
“We really shoulda had you over for dinner, Ms. Boody.”
“Do you watch football?” Donald asks, off hand.
Mrs. Williams points a narrow finger to a mantle behind the big screen television. She looks considerably older than I imagined Donald’s mother would look, almost a grandmother.
“Those was my babies,” she says, pointing at pictures on the mantle.
Past more windows tethered together with duct tape is an erected shrine atop the mantle. Pictures of Rodney are surrounded by candles and “sending our condolences” cards. A handmade collage of photos, tagged with “Rodney, R.I.P.”, acts as the backdrop.
“You know, the first one was hard enough, but two? I’ve lost two babies now. It’s hard to know how to go on somedays.” She lights a second cigarette.
I notice, propped on the shrine, several pictures of a baby girl. Donald proceeds as if his mother is not there.
“I had a baby sister. She died in her sleep last year. In her crib upstairs. You know what SIDS is?”
The way he asks is both curious and malicious. He says SIDS with a particular over-pronunciation of the s.
We go on talking. According to Mrs. Williams, Donald listens to his older sister. Maybe I should call her, she suggests.
The whole thing ends in an even emptier conversation.
“Let’s keep in touch,” are the hollow words we exchange as Donald lets me out of the door.
I’m mortified he’ll see my own mother in the Nissan across the street. She has insisted on following me. I am embarrassed of my mother’s unwavering support. I’m embarrassed by our Japanese sedans. They seem to be taunting Donald’s family with their middle-class reliability; no matter what happens in the universe, we will be alright. We will be fine.
“You never know what kind of situation you could end up in, you know, over here,” she had cautioned when I objected to her tailing me.
I remember my mom picking up second jobs to pay for ballet lessons and, later, my college tuition. She helped pay for studying abroad, an out-of-state education. I would email term papers home for my dad to edit. He would make generic corrections for spelling and grammar. As the years went on, his comments on the content became limited; he would say, “I don’t understand half of what you write about anymore.” I would continue to write, anyway, proving or disproving theories in textualities.
Outside, it is typical of late fall Midwestern days. The sky is overcast. My car’s iPod is reeling through my school week playlist — TV On The Radio, PJ Harvey, MIA.
I think of college. I remember six months earlier, my preoccupation with finding liminal spaces in every text. Liminal translates roughly in Latin as “threshold.” In laymen’s terms, it’s simply what sways in between extremes. It’s not undefined, like a straight line dissecting an axis; instead it’s less static, more vague. It’s that fragile point that simultaneously refuses the extremes of white and black, while inhabiting the middle.
Liminal is the median — the space that lingers with intentions of subverting absolutes, instead ends up defining them.
In beautiful Bellingham, the sleepy town where I went to college, I wrote frivolous papers on liminal spaces. Perhaps today in Kansas City, I found it — this fragile thing we experience between life and death, and in between words that carry any meaning.
Photo by Yuma Hori