This excerpt is Chapter 3 from Juggling Kittens. It is also a fairly autobiographical account of my memory of 9/11.
September 11th, 2001, was eventful for both me and one Ruddy Creek seventh grader, but not for any of the reasons you’d expect.
Rachael Marcel’s beagle died on September 10th.
The attacks started on that Tuesday around 8:00 a.m. our time. Ms. Peterman, the math teacher, and I were standing in the hallway talking about her spider bite when Coach Tipton swift-walked down the hallway, elbowing preteens out of his way to brief us on the first plane.
We reacted with a resounding, “Weird,” and filed into class behind our students as the second bell rang.
Coach Tipton wasn’t a coach. He used to be a coach. Somewhere along the way he realized driving a bus before and after school paid almost as much as coaching and required about an eighth of the time. Couldn’t lose the moniker though. He looked the part too much: shaved head, beefy neck, scowl. He was everybody’s favorite guy. Coaches loved him because he was one of their own. Teachers loved him because they viewed him as a coach who would rather teach. Girls loved him because he was 225 pounds of muscle. Boys loved him because he was 225 pounds of muscle.
Other than The Drew, Tipton was the closest to a friend that I made among the teachers at Dan Blocker Junior High. We ate lunch and watched Unsolved Mysteries together once or twice a week. Great guy. Knew how to play the game. Never took work home. Didn’t polish anything he could buff with a sleeve. September 11th, even when it looked like a freak accident to everyone but him, made for some easy-going TV time in the social studies classroom.
But it wasn’t half an hour before he came running back down the hallway, tapping on the glass rectangles in our doorways. It was surreal to see a mist coating those muscular eyes (yes, even his eyes were, in fact, muscular).
“I think you better turn on your TV,” Tipton squinted and nodded at me. I’m not sure if it took more convincing for others, but for me that one statement made me feel like a little kid being told about a death in the family. I fumbled at the remote and turned a little red at the fact that the TV would still be tuned to Lifetime from the Unsolved Mysteries reruns. But no one noticed. Lifetime was doing news coverage of the attacks. I’d never seen anything but sappy movies and crappy reruns on Lifetime. To this day, that’s still one of the most shocking things about the whole ordeal: they even covered it on Lifetime.
The kids were pretty clueless as to how to react. When the first tower collapsed, one kid said “cool”. Cool. They were watching TV—not real life. These events had no real bearing on their video-game reality. Not until years later, when they would sit around sharing “where were you” stories, all far too similar and pedantic, would they even start to understand the gravity of what they had witnessed. And that one kid would remember saying “cool” and would remember how Coach Tipton had jumped his ass and would get twice as embarrassed as he had on September 11th, 2001. But he’d leave that part out of his story—leave it for others to tell so they could divert at least a little attention away from what they sat and watched on a television screen all day long.
Like me, no one would ever forget that kid’s clumsiness, his head-ducked shame, our relief we hadn’t been the one to say anything inappropriate. We would eventually forget the numbers of dead, the order of crashes, the names, the details. We would remember ourselves: I was home sick, I was watching The Today Show, I was talking to Ms. Peterman about her spider bite, I was in a class with this kid who called it “cool”. The important stuff. No one remembers events. They only remember their perspective of events.
By lunch, half the kids in school had been checked out, either in an effort to hide from the moment or out of some fear that Ruddy Creek, Arkansas, would be targeted right after New York and D.C. My fourth period had four people in it. Tipton brought his class of seven down, and we all sat in silent wonder, listening to an anchorman tell us how our lives had changed that day.
Rachael Marcel’s life had already changed plenty the night before. Her sniffles stumbled into sobs, and eventually she dashed to the bathroom. She was in Tipton’s class, but we both taught her. We did “paper, rock, scissors” to see who would catch her on her way back to make sure everything was okay.
I stood outside my door and tried to poke at a scuff on the floor until it went away. The glow of televisions flickered out of the little windows turning the yellowing linoleum varying shades of green and blue. It felt like a hospital in winter. I would have shanked a kid for a cigarette right about then. Finally, Rachael unfolded herself from the bathroom. She was all red-headed lankiness. She would probably be pretty someday, but it could still go either way. At twelve, she was pure giraffe with freckles and an affinity for Pygmalion tales about girls like her who became knockouts and drove all the rebels to put on borrowed ties and take them to prom.
She caught sight of me and started jabbing at her eyes. I studied the last little trail of scuff mark until she got close enough.
“You all right?” I didn’t look at her, but I could tell she was nodding, and the tears were coming back in force.
I winced at her silence, willing myself to find a way to say something—anything. “Is it—is it all this on the news?”
I was still a little scared to look up at her, so I wasn’t sure if she nodded or shook or cried. She squeaked out a mumble, “Lucy.”
I gave her a look. “Lucy? Is that like, an aunt or something?”
She held her fists together under her nose and shook her head. “Dog.”
I nodded. “Your dog?”
We stared for a moment at a banner across the hallway which counted down the days until school was out.
“Was your dog—Lucy—was she in—New York?”
She gave me a puzzled look that melted into some form of tearful laughter. And I shared it with her, if for no other reason than because I found it hard to feel awkward when laughing about the same thing. After we both took time to appreciate the chance to laugh about something again, she wiped her nose with a sleeve and sniffed. “Lucy died last night. She was twelve. I’ve had her my whole life.” The last sentence had a well-rehearsed rhythm to it, but it still made her cry all over again.
I reached out then, felt my hand freeze in that horrible no-man’s-land, and then patted her on the shoulder as if she were a touch-lamp. She leaned into it hungrily as I swallowed at the beginnings of five different things I should have said. I groped at words until a lump formed in my throat and my eyes glazed with inexplicable tears.
I left my hand on her shoulder as I spoke, “When I was in the eleventh grade I had a psychology teacher who I really liked. One day we were talking about—I don’t remember what—and she stopped at my desk to ask me if I ever had pets growing up. I told her no, and she said, ‘Hmm, yeah that explains a lot.’ I never could get her to tell me what that meant other than to say it had to do with death and loss. I think I understand her now.”
We both looked at each other and cried for a minute. Then I thought about Tipton and nutted up so we could go back in the room. Later in the year, I brought her pictures of my beagles, which made her cry all over again. But she still thanked me. And in a Christmas card she gave me, she thanked me for the talk I gave her. Although I can’t imagine what good it could have done.
September 12th was a Wednesday. On Wednesdays in Ruddy Creek, this old lady named Sharon would roll around an old projector cart with a “soup of the week.” She dished it up out of a dingy-looking plastic bucket, and it tasted like God himself had cum in your mouth. I don’t even like soup. But this was some sort of other-worldly concoction of goodness. And in flavors that didn’t even make sense: Meatloaf with Peas, Turkey and Dressing, Cauliflower and Broccoli with Ranch Dip. How do you make that into a soup? Whatever she made, every Wednesday, no matter who you were, you showed up in the lounge and shelled out three dollars a bowl.
That day, Sharon sported a shirt with an eagle on the front and had a red, white, and blue bow in her hair which looked like she had swiped it off a four-year-old. She made a soup called The American Dream. It tasted like spicy barbecue ribs and cold beer, somehow. I bought two bowls.
The lounge was packed. It’s the worst place in any school, the teachers’ lounge. I’m a big teacher advocate and teacher apologist and all that, but Jesus—if a person’s only experience with teachers was sitting in the lounge for an hour or two and listening to them talk, said person would think teachers are the most bitter, judgmental, hateful, spiteful bag of dicks in the world. The eighth-grade history teacher named Mr. Smith (I don’t know his first name; I don’t think he had one. He was boring as hell. I once heard him sing along to “Margaritaville” and he replaced the damns with darns.) had brought cornbread from home and was warming it up in the nasty-ass microwave. I didn’t hear the first part of the conversation, but I saw him shake his head while he spat, “I think we should put all the towel heads in a camp of some sort until this blows over.”
The man wouldn’t use the word damn, but he would throw out towel head in casual conversation.
A math teacher threw a finger in the air. “Thank you! Did it with the Japanese. They got over it.”
Mr. Smith nodded at that. “I hate to admit it, but I’ve been looking at little Enrique Diaz in the hallway all day. And you know…” He shook his head.
Tipton had a mouthful of soup, but he frowned at me and said, “He’s Mexican.”
Mr. Smith furrowed his brow at him. “Are you sure?”
Tipton laughed. “The kids call him Beaner.”
Mr. Smith shrugged. “I thought they called him that because he’s lazy.”
Most everyone laughed. I closed my eyes and tried to pretend I didn’t understand why anyone would hate us while I enjoyed my second bowl of The American Dream.