My parents made me go to school that day even though I felt as if I couldn’t stand to be around anyone. Where can you get away from people in a schoolhouse?
Finally I wandered into the room where I have English because no one was there except Mrs. Markle, and she was busy grading papers. I sat down across the desk from her. She just looked up at me and smiled as if there was nothing strange about a kid coming to the English room when he didn’t have to.
“He’s dead,” I said in a strangled voice. “John?” I nodded. “He was my best friend.”
“Yes, I know, Kirk.” She walked over and closed the door, then came back to her desk.
“I miss him;’ I said.
“I know,” she said again, “and that hurts. When something really hurts, it’s all right to cry.” She put a box of tissue in front of me and went on grading papers while I broke down and bawled. I was relieved that she didn’t look at me.
“Nothing like this ever happened to me before,” I said. “I don’t know how to handle it.”
“You don’t have much choice,” she told me. “John is gone and he won’t be back.”
“But what do I do?”
“Just keep on hurting until you begin to heal a little.”
“I don’t think I’ll ever get over his death.”
“You will someday, even though right now you can’t believe you ever will.”
“That’s because we know with our minds,” Mrs. Markle said, “but we believe with our feelings.”
I sat and thought about that for a while. “You might make things easier for John’s family by visiting them,” Mrs. Markle gently suggested.
I hadn’t thought about John’s family until now. If this was rough on me, what must it be for them?
“John’s parents don’t like me,’ I explained. “They think I was bad news for John.”
“And probably your folks weren’t wild about your running around with John.”
“That’s right.” I was surprised at how much Mrs. Markle seemed to know. Just a plain old English teacher.
“That’s how it is with parents,” she said. “Young people together do things they wouldn’t have the nerve to do by themselves. So parents get the idea that their sons and daughters are being led astray by their friends.”
“Hey, that’s about it.”
“Go see John’s family, Kirk. They’ll change their minds about you now. You’ll see. And if they don’t, you will have at least given it a try.”
“I feel guilty about some of the things John and I did,” I said. “The guilt feels like a punishment.”
Mrs. Markle shook her head. “That’s your conscience. We have consciences so we can ask forgiveness, and so we can profit from our mistakes. That’s how we grow into better human beings.”
That seemed to make good sense, but I didn’t know how to quit feeling guilty. Mrs. Markle seemed to know what I was thinking. She said, “Guilt can be a crutch, you know.”
“Yes, indeed. Guilt is a sort of self-punishment. If you feel guilty enough, you don’t have to do anything about yourself.”
“‘Anything about yourself’?”
“Like improving your behavior, for instance.” The first bell rang. I stood up to go.
“By the way,” Mrs. Markle said, “I’m glad you weren’t with John in that car when it crashed.”
“That’s something else I feel guilty about,” I admitted. “About John getting killed and not me.”
Mrs. Markle said, “That’s one thing you should not feel guilty about—being alive when someone else dies.”
“Oh,” I said. “Well, thanks for helping me. My folks didn’t understand how I felt.”
“How do you know?”
“They made me come to school.”
“Perhaps that’s because they did understand. They probably figured you’d be better off at school with classmates to share your grief.”
“Oh. I didn’t think about that. I wonder …”
The thought of going to see John’s family was the hardest thing I can remember having to do. I wanted to talk to my parents about it, but I was afraid they wouldn’t understand. Still, Mrs. Markle had said they might be more understanding than I realized.
At dinnertime Mom said, “We know you feel bad about John. Is there anything you’d like to talk about?”
That gave me the opening I needed. “I ought to go see John’s family, but they probably don’t want to see me.”
“Why not?” Dad asked.
“On account of how John and I got into trouble sometimes.”
“Sorrow sometimes brings people closer together,” my mother said. “If I were John’s parent, I’m sure I’d appreciate your coming.”
So I forced my legs to take me to John’s house. A lady I didn’t know opened the door and took me to the living room. John’s mother, father and sister sat there like broken dolls, staring into space. I didn’t know what to do, but I tried to imagine they were my parents instead of John’s. Then it seemed natural to go over and put my arm across Mrs. Roper’s shoulder.
When I did that, she began to cry. She put her arm around my waist and her head against my shoulder. “Forgive me for breaking down;’ she said. “I thought I was all cried out.”
“It’s all right to cry,” I told her. And all of a sudden I was crying, too. John’s sister, Adele, was only eleven, but she came over then and put her arms around her mother and me. I began to feel sorry for John’s dad, sitting there all by himself. After a little while I went over to him and put my hand on his arm.
“I’m glad to hear you say it’s all right to cry,” he told me. “I keep wanting to do that.”
Some other people came into the room about that time, so I said I guessed I’d better go.
Mrs. Roper walked to the door with me. “Kirk, it was so comforting to see you.”
“I was afraid you didn’t like me too much,” I said.
“We love you because John loved you. And Kirk, don’t fret about the past. You and John weren’t perfect; you were just acting like teenage boys, that’s all. It’s no one’s fault John is dead.”
“I’ll come again,” I promised.
“Oh, Kirk, will you? It would mean so much to us.”
I walked home feeling better than I had since that end-of-the-world minute when I heard that my best friend was dead. Tomorrow I would tell Mrs. Markle about the visit to John’s family.
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