Several girls and guys who sat near Alice observed her reticence and tried often to start a conversation, but their kindness was usually rewarded with only a respectful smile.
Alice made straight A’s. Her compositions were stellar, her every assignment impeccable. Because of the quality of her work, I attributed her quiet ways to a strong case of shyness.
On a Friday just before Christmas holidays, Alice entered the classroom with a totally different countenance. As she passed my desk, she smiled genuinely, not her usual, obligatory smile that gave evidence of pain. Ah! Christmas has wrought a change, I thought to myself.
It was final exam day with no chance to engage Alice in conversation; however, when the test period ended, she lingered. I could tell she was waiting so that she could say something. As she stood holding her test, I noted that she was uncharacteristically friendly to other students as they passed by.
Finally, approaching my desk, she beamed with joy as she spoke these exact words: “Mr. Hines, my mother is coming home from prison tomorrow, and my little brother and I haven’t seen her for five years.”
Like a rocket leaving a launch pad, emotions welled up from somewhere in my chest, almost totally denying me of self-control. Luckily I almost heard my own voice say, “Get hold of yourself. She doesn’t need your tears right now.” Alice seemed not to notice that I was struggling emotionally. She simply chirped on about her plans for meeting her mother the next day. After I mumbled how happy I was for her, she bounced from the room into the hallway.
I headed to the back of the room to collect myself before the next class entered. My chest heaved with both joy and sadness. My head ached severely because I didn’t have time to allow the release of tears.
Alice’s qualitative work and high grades had deceived me. I should have noticed how she so often gazed outside the window beside her desk instead of looking at the teacher or at her classmates. I should have wondered how all of her work could display such excellence while neither the teacher’s jokes, nor the positive spirit of her classmates registered a whit on her face.
After Christmas, Alice failed to return for her final semester of high school. I ran into her at a restaurant where she worked as a waitress. She said she had to quit school to support her mother who couldn’t get a job. When I asked how her little brother was doing, she said his father, who was not her father, had snatched him and that she and her mother didn’t know where either of them were. A lawyer from her church was trying to help her find them.
The joy that had splashed from Alice’s face and voice only a month earlier was gone. Still beautiful, she looked tired and defeated but possessed the character to praise the school, her teachers and “all the fun kids” who were kind to her.
Saddened that Alice’s life was not going as well as she had hoped, I was encouraged when she asked me if I remembered teaching Thomas Wolfe’s short story, “The Far and the Near.” It is a story of a railroad engineer who passes a certain small cottage every day for 30 years, waving to two women who live there, but never meeting them or knowing them up close.
When he retires, he goes to meet them, presuming them to have been his 30-year “friends.” However, the women receive him suspiciously and rudely, thus destroying the vision he had built around them.
“My mother is not who I thought she would be,” Alice said, “but I’m not going to let her destroy my happiness any more like the women did to that old engineer in the story.”
Neither, I thought, will I ever again presume that a student is OK just because her work is excellent.
I’m afraid that Alice never finished school, but no one has ever provided me a better example of quiet strength than she. No one has better taught me to be more observant of both the far and the near.
As my wife and I left and drove along in front of the restaurant, Alice was standing just outside the front door, taking a smoke break. Without smiling, she waved good-by.
Roger Hines is a retired high school English teacher in Kennesaw.