1990 Saving Them: A Tragedy

Written by: Pam Backlund  

The audio of this story is at:  https://youtu.be/6d7g9hpOphE

Setting:  A small town high school in the 1990’s of Georgia.

            Leona sat at her high school science job and reflected.

            She alternately thought of Paul and Gary.

            Paul had been a rambunctious man, full of energy and zeal.  That is, before he passed away.  She missed him.   She had married him five years ago, straight out of high school.  Though he had his flaws, he had made her laugh.   They’d moved in with his mom, Trisha as soon as they’d married.

            Leona, at that time was ambitious.  Many of her friends had set low standards for themselves.  But she got her degree in biology and her teacher certification.  She currently was working successfully at her ‘alma mater’. 

            During ‘her’ college years, Paul had been indecisive. He was a perpetual college student… until three months ago.  He got sent to his maker for his beliefs.  

            Leona contemplated the puzzle of it all while she sat at her teacher’s desk.  The room was quiet since it was 3:50 and no one (including Gary) had come in for tutorials.   Her classroom was in shambles.  A poster was hanging crooked on the door, as was nearly every map, calendar and formula that she had so suspended lovingly last August.  It had been a rough first year of teaching.

            The month of April was a trashy time for all teachers.  Cluttered were her files, ‘her clothes closet at home’ and certainly her mind.  Bad memories clung to the blackboards. ‘Teaching victories’ peeled away from her mind like cheap wallpaper.   Being in the sultry south, Leona fidgeted at her desk.  “Time to go…but for what?” she thought.

            She considered her role with Gary.

            Decidedly she chose to wait for ten more minutes.  Maybe Gary would come in for tutoring after all.  She really wanted to help him.  She hadn’t been able to relieve Paul, but Gary was a different story.  If he didn’t come in, she would definitely talk to him privately tomorrow.

            “It will be a long night between now and tomorrow, for sure,” she thought.

            She graded papers for a while.

            Then she began to set up the lab for the next day.  Actually her coworker, Deidre wouldn’t call it a ‘real lab.’

            “Deidre calls it a ‘dry lab’ because the students use scissors and glue sticks to put together a model.  ‘Real labs’ will always be more of a hassle because of glass, fire, dangerous chemicals or living organisms being used,” remembered Leona. 

            Tomorrow’s lesson on DNA components and formation would be a cinch for both her and Deidre’s classes.  Of course the kids wouldn’t remember any of it when they took their mandatory state test next week. But they would measure and cut pretty paper. They’d think it was better than listening to a boring voice.

            “They’ll require rulers for the lab.” she thought.

            Yes, she would put those out in the morning.  Gary hadn’t come, so she was about ready to go home.  She had a brief insight about needing to buy a few groceries on the way home. She could enjoy the air conditioning of the market.  That idea put a spring in her step as she locked her classroom door.  She resided alone in her deceased mother-in-law’s house.  Trisha had died of pneumonia when Leona got the biology job last August.

            Trisha had never subscribed to air conditioning, and Leona still had that on her list of things to do.  As it was, Paul’s childhood home was where his deathly demise originated and culminated.  The death, a pointless casualty was the last of many poor decisions made during his youthful unrest.  The series of bad judgments began when he and a neighbor friend had a disagreement about the need for doctors. 

            Paul was of the Christian Science denomination. He felt that the Lord could heal anything if sufficiently pleased by intentions and good deeds. 

            Paul’s friend, Arthur believed in modern medicine and God.  When eight, both boys contracted strep throat.  This was the first of their conflicts.  Arthur took antibiotics and recovered.  Paul did not and therefore ended up with “strep-throat-induced” heart damage.  Why didn’t Trisha use medicine on her son, one asks?  Guess from whom Paul learned to be a Christian Scientist!

            So starting at the age of eight, a theological rivalry ensued between the boys.  Pranks flew back and forth between them until this year.  That’s when Paul died of infections brought on by the bite of a fiddle-back spider.  He was certain that Arthur had mischievously “planted the venomous spider” in his open window. Regardless of the spider’s origins, Paul’s five inch diameter rotted flesh could have been remedied.

             Paul looked at the possible joke with animosity.  He didn’t take steroids, antibiotics and skin grafts that were required for that kind of flesh rotting bite.  She’d tried to steer him right.  A preventable death…Paul had no health insurance for a reason.

            “I must remember to put out the rulers in the morning.  Ah, I wish Gary had come for tutoring,” Leona distracted herself.  The classes would use the metric side of the ruler, as the instructions state, if she was lucky.  “If they use inches to measure, they’ll use too much paper leaving none for the afternoon classes.  That would be inconvenient,” she thought.

            She kept rehearsing ‘tomorrow’ as she went to the store.  She then went home, wrote in her journal and went to bed.

            The following morning was Leona’s typical since her man had passed on. She’d awakened in a sweat, unable to breathe and fearful of most ridiculous things.

            “Dreams are just a scrambling of useless information you had during your previous day.”  Deidre consoled her that morning.   Deidre frequently commented on Leona’s pointless dreams.

            The sprint between their cubbyhole mailboxes and their classrooms was about the only time that the friends could swap stories while guzzling coffee before the first bell.

            “You are so lucky that you don’t remember your dreams.” Leona said.  She shuffled her mail and memos while opening the door to their wing.

            “You shouldn’t take your dreams so seriously.  Then you won’t have nightmares anymore.” Deidre ordered back.  “The nightmares started when Paul died and you are not over the grieving yet.  Give it time and you’ll have good dreams again.”

            “The doctor said that by taking Prozac I’ll not have these incredulous stories ravaging my mind.  But I’ve been taking the pills religiously for 3 months now and I don’t see any difference,” stated Leona.

           “Give them more time. They say that it takes up to six months for that stuff to kick in. Grief takes even longer.”

            “Maybe so,” remarked Leona. Separating in their hall, she added, “I hope you have a nice morning!”

            “You, too,” Deidre waved back before grimacing at a student running with scissors.

            Leona quickly scanned her mail for things she needed to do immediately.  She looked for notes to students that she would have to deliver to them, during homeroom. 

            There was a message for Gary, the boy she planned to save from poverty’s traps.   Sneaking a peak within the barely taped trifold she saw that he was to report to ‘On Campus Suspension,’ (OCS) after second period and remain there during school hours for three days.

            Later during homeroom, she asked as she handed Gary his note, “What did you do this time?”

            Gary looked older than his 18 years of maturity. He was still classified as a sophomore because of attendance problems.  He was taller than her, though she was five years older.

            She suspected abuse at home which led to the absenteeism, but she couldn’t bring herself to ask him why he hated school so much. (Gary was prone to just suddenly walking to the back of the room and standing there with arms crossed at any time of a presentation or book work.)

            “It keeps me from falling asleep at my desk.” he would say when asked to explain. 

Leona didn’t care if he stood on his head or lay on the floor as long as he passed the class; and the state test given soon.   Besides being a data statistic for her portfolio he was like a brother she never had.  She sincerely cared for his wellbeing.

            But she had heard rumors of his being used by a bisexual “uncle” whom his mom had taken a liking to.  Leona just couldn’t bring herself to ask him if he’d been the recipient of unwanted anal sex.

            However, she was still going to rescue him.  This was her destiny in life and even though she had failed miserably in saving Paul, she would salvage Gary.

            Gary took a moment to look at his note, and then said, “Miss, you know I didn’t serve my principal detentions, so I got OCS for three days.  Shit!”  He recanted as if embarrassed, “Sorry, Miss.”

            Leona nudged his elbow toward his desk, “Why did you have principal detentions?”

            “I had ‘Tardies’ to first period.  But I can’t serve the detentions because of my job after school.  You know how it is, Miss.”

            “‘Tardies’ because of that uncle,” she supposed.  She made a mental note to call Gary’s school counselor and maybe his mom (assuming the telephone hadn’t been disconnected.)  “He just can’t pass his classes when he is in OCS,” she thought.

            Gary raved, “I hate OCS because of those damn wooden stools.  We can’t go to sleep in there, we can’t listen to music.  We can’t stand or lean back or lay down.  We have to beg to piss and we have to bring our own lunches.  Forget my free lunch from the cafeteria.  They don’t make deliveries to OCS.  And my drunken old lady ain’t gonna put together lunch for me in this life or the next.”

            “I’m sorry, Gary…I’ll ask your principal to review the case…considering your special circumstances.” Leona patted his shoulder quietly. Fellow students had arrived and resolved to sitting at the sound of the bell.

            She knew that the principal had compassion.  This would be a decision similar to the judgment to let Gary use the teachers’ bathroom…when he had to take a dump.  You see, he has Crohn’s Disease.

            “Some leeway has already been given to Gary because he is genuinely courteous and Hispanic… a subgroup of the school which cannot afford even one more drop-out.  The state has its standards, by golly and our school is always teetering on the edge of the correct statistics.” she told Deidre between 3rd period and 4th periods. 

          “Those hard seats in the OCS room will destroy Gary.  I wish I could do something about it.” Leona thought.

            So during her conference period, she called Gary’s counselor.  She remarked that Gary was so close to breaking the poverty and health trap…if he could only catch a few breaks. 

            The counselor would not divulge any particulars, but rather said that Gary ‘is basically homeless now’ and that because of confidentiality, he could say no more.  He alleged he would ‘look into what he could do.’

            “I don’t like the attitude of Gary’s counselor.” she wrote in her journal that night.  Ironically, it was the very journal that this same counselor had advised her to begin when Paul died. 

            The counselor had said, “Write down your feelings and it will be good ‘talk therapy’ for you.  Paul’s death was so sudden and unexpected that you are going through a type of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder.  Keep writing, Leona.  You will feel better.”

            She did feel improved, upon daily writing.  But this counselor was not helping her assist Gary!

            That night after a failed call to Gary’s mom, she could only think of being destitute once again.  She would talk to Gary in private and beg him to speak of his problems. How else could she evaluate the big picture?  She could protect him, she knew.

            So the next day during her conference period, she had Gary pulled from OCS for a talk.

            He looked at her cautiously when he arrived with his hall pass.

           “Gary.  Tell me about your life, please.” she attempted to get him to talk in the privacy of the teachers’ lounge.  They let him out of OCS prison for fifteen minutes. 

            Standing by the picture window of the lounge, he stared and clammed up.  He shrugged his shoulders and quizzically started looking like a spy having been caught red handed.

             “What do you want, Miss?”

             “I just want to aid you out of the trap you’re in, Gary.  Let me into your life.  Let me lend you a hand.”  

            He nodded his head respectfully and silently left the lounge. Going back to his prison of three days, to him, was better than admitting a seemingly botched life.

            Leona gaped in misbelief.  She had begged with Gary as she had with Paul…to no avail.

            The next day the news was quietly murmured all over the school. 

            A ‘hit and run’ driver had killed a student last night.

            Now it looked as though ‘Gary dropping out of school’ was the least of anyone’s worries.

            For Leona, it was another blow to her heart.  Three deaths (in less than a year) were more than she could bear. 

            Leona sat at her high school job and wept.

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1 thought on “1990 Saving Them: A Tragedy”

  1. I taught for 23 years but the Leona in the story… is not me. All the characters are composites of people (I’ve taught over 2500 students and worked with several hundred faculty).

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