I still can’t believe
you ended it that way.
You warned me,
But I foolishly thought
I could save you
from the darkness
that became your fate.
I saw your smile
The same blue eyes,
Sun kissed freckles.
But I prayed
His heart does not carry
Those same burdens of pain
that took you away.
He looked at me,
And I remembered
The last time I saw you smile,
The last time I smiled back…
It’s not really my normal style of poetry. I like perfectly paired little verses with rhyme schemes and matching syncopation. But last week, I was working at the junior high (which isn’t my normal beat) and as I stood in the gym taking roll, I found myself face to face with the little brother of a boy I will never forget. I couldn’t choke back the words, I had to type them into my phone while I sat there thinking about him. I had seen him at school assemblies and field days many times, but the first time I really met Justin he was in junior high, patiently waiting for his Tiger spirit hoodie, and I was the PTO president delivering it to him, two weeks after everyone else already had theirs. A little mix-up on my part had caused the delay, so I fully expected to deal with an irritated pre-teen, but instead I got a boy full of smiles, thrilled to meet me after school, not a single complaint. I liked him instantly.
A few weeks later I was shocked when he crossed my path again. This time I was working in ISS. He didn’t seem to fit in there, but hey, every kid has their moments. We shared a pleasant conversation and his obvious adoration for Blondie instantly won me over. As the years went by, we crossed paths many times and he became a good friend to my daughter. Here’s the thing I love most about Blondie. She’s gorgeous, she’s talented, she could easily be that snotty girl at the top of the untouchable clique, but instead she’s down to earth. She roots for the under dog. She befriends the loner. She invites the outcast. Sometimes Justin was just that.
In fact, the more I saw him in ISS, the more I started to think he did things to get sent there because it was an easier place to be. Sitting quietly in ISS beats the heck out of trying to fit in with the crowd. He wasn’t bullied constantly, by any means, but there were moments. Once, in a classroom, a locker room story was being told to bring humiliation to Justin’s face. Not wanting to make things worse for him by intervening in the normal way, I decided to make myself the target of the laughter instead. I shared my embarrassing tale, about the time I tripped and fell down the bleachers, clarinet in hand, wearing my band uniform, back in high school. In no time, the Justin story was forgotten. The redness in his cheeks subsided, and we went on with the day. (His sophomore year, he thanked me for that day. I was surprised he remembered it.)
By his Freshman year, it seemed as though picking at him was winding down. He found the place where he fit in perfectly. He loved being a country boy with his FFA jacket and his hunting adventures. He still made the occasional stop in ISS. Never for anything spectacularly terrible, just average offenses like too many tardies or throwing food in the cafeteria. Of course, there were a few fights, but some say boys will be boys. I often saw Justin as the kid who would take so much, and laugh it off again and again, and then he would hit his limit, and that was that. I figured his little trips to ISS were the break he needed from every day life.
Then in the Spring of 2010 we found ourselves together in ISS again. For some reason he was the only kid in there. Blondie came in to talk to me, she was a freshman and going through one of those “I’m a lost soul” kind of moments. She shared her frustrations with me, and I gave her my standard pep talk, when Justin opened his mouth and poured out his heart. For a moment, I saw tears welling up in his eyes. The conversation is still so vivid in my mind.
Out of respect, I will keep private the things he said to me, but what I learned was that it wasn’t anything at school that was eating this kid. Things at home were stressed. He felt lost. He wasn’t sure there was a way out. I assured him that he had only 2 years left of school, that he was almost to the finish line. Graduation was around the corner. (In fact, I just realized, his class will be graduating this week!) I put some extra pep into my talk, and shared with him some of my similar struggles as a kid. I did my best to help him see that once he was grown, he would be able to create the world he wanted to live in. He would be able to form his own boundaries.
When he told me he had really been thinking of suicide, I knew I had to get help. He promised that he knew better, and that he wasn’t going to go through with it, but I knew in my heart that he was serious, the idea had been part of his plans too often. As soon as the bell rang I high tailed it to the counselor’s office where I was assured that they were aware of his feelings, and working hard to help him through it.
Then May rolled around. One morning my phone rang; it was a Thursday, and I was supposed to be off that day. “How fast can you get here?” The office asked me. Ten minutes, I could be there in ten minutes. “We lost a student last night.”
I knew it was Justin, I just knew it, but then I got to the school, and it wasn’t Justin at all. It was a boy who had sat next to Blondie almost every year since 2nd grade. His name was right before hers alphabetically. They were both learning guitar. They talked about writing songs together. He was the sweetest, kindest soul, who never seemed to have a care in the world. In fact, just days before his death, he had loaded some amplifiers into my car down at Duck’s guitar store. The shock of losing Ben still feels so uneasy in my heart, but that’s another tale for another day.
The halls were eerily silent the rest of that week. The kids were different. Losing Ben changed them. And my thoughts were first, to hold my daughter, wipe her tears. Get her through it. And my niece, she’s only a year ahead of Blondie. She, too, was close to Ben. My heart ached to see the girls hurting, and then I couldn’t shake the feeling that I needed to surround Justin with love, and support. He was in that circle of friends too, and I knew how close he was to falling off that same ledge.
A few weeks later, we were in a classroom. Everyone was talking about what they had taken from the loss of Ben. I took the opportunity to reach out to Justin, I challenged him to look at the devastation left behind, and pleaded with him to never follow that path. He promised me that he had surely seen the light. He added me on Facebook, in case he needed to talk over the summer. I accepted, because that’s me, the Mama of all these kids! I’ve spent so many years being the room mom, substitute teacher, soccer coach, slumber party host, and in that journey, I was part of the village, raising all these children in some way- knowing all of them as well as I could. You see, I have this theory that it’s that quiet kid in the corner, the one capable of all A’s but dragging home C’s, the one in detention twice a week, who needs the most from the village.
Summer came and went. It was the start of Blondie’s sophomore year. I was sitting in the high school gym for “Meet the Tigers”, our first pep rally of the year. I was trying to balance the video camera for Blondie’s dance while secretly hoping my cake was a favorite in the annual auction. I had babies piled all around me and I was a little overwhelmed by additions to my family, and still when I saw Justin walk across the gym floor, my heart was pulled. He looked over at me, and he smiled. I smiled back. It was the last time I remember smiling at him like that.
The last memory I have is a conversation that his parents had deleted his Facebook. I patted his shoulder and told him that wasn’t the end of the world. Heck, I had done the same thing to Blondie. He emailed me some homework, that I corrected and emailed back. It’s been nearly two years, and still, I can’t delete that last message. Just like Ben had done, Justin went for a walk on a Wednesday afternoon, with too many troubles weighing on his mind.
And on a Thursday, in September, I got the call that Justin would not be back in class. Not even 6 months had passed and these kids were going to another funeral. For the rest of the year his name on the roll sheet haunted me. I kept wondering if I had done enough to encourage him. Had I sought enough help for him? Had I really made sure I checked on him every time it weighed on my heart to do so? Or had I made excuses for myself? I’m still not sure. All I know is that the last time I saw him smiling across the gym floor, my mind was spinning with thoughts, wondering if he was truly ok, wondering if he had put the darkest thoughts aside, or if he was painting on a happy face just to fly by on the radar.
I guess I’ll never know, but the other day, when I saw his little brother, looking so much like him, I couldn’t help it, I wanted to hug the kid who was just answering roll in gym class….