gillis and her big mouth

Just another site

Month: April, 2013

Our Marathon

I remember watching Johnny Kelly cross the finish line each year. I remember Bill Rogers winning the race – four or five times at least. I remember the amazing Uta Pippig winning nearly as many times as Bill Rogers. I even remember Rosie Ruiz. And who could forget watching the Hoyts each year? Those fixtures of the Marathon symbolize all that is good and right with the world. In our suburban house the small black and white tv in the kitchen was fixed on Channel 5 each Patriot’s Day, with Natalie Jacobson showing just the right amount of awe and respect for the runners as she gave us the updates and then the final results of the race. We learned about their training routines and their lives in faraway countries. And when victory was won, we saw them awkwardly crowned with olive leaf garlands. No one in my family was a serious runner, but it didn’t matter, this was our Marathon, the race was a big deal and the runners were worthy of our attention.

When I left the house for a series of rentals in Dorchester, Cambridge, Brookline, Brighton, and Somerville, I was able to watch the marathon in person and usually I did. One year it flowed past my apartment on Chestnut Hill Ave. and I stood outside for hours until my voice was raw and my hands were numb from clapping. Another year I volunteered to work at the race, past the finish line, and I saw just what 26.2 miles asked of the human body. It was terrifying and awe inspiring as most spiritual things are.

If you have ever watched the Boston Marathon in person, have ever cheered for those of us able to run this race, have ever felt that part of the human spirit that says yes to life so loudly and so brightly up at such close range then you know what someone tried to take away from us yesterday. If you haven’t, I’m not a strong enough writer to convey its beauty to you, but you should know that it truly is beautiful. It will move you to tears – repeatedly – to see tens of thousands of your own doing such a thing. You might believe that anything is possible when you are standing there, handing runners plastic cups filled with water and the eye contact you share with these strangers makes a searing impression on your psyche. These runners will make you believe anything is possible. They will make you believe in the beauty of this imperfect, messy, ridiculous world. They will inspire you to believe that you can achieve the impossible because they have just achieved it. Right before your eyes. And it feels almostĀ  holy to witness.


Beautiful Boy

His mother was still in jail when I was his fourth grade teacher. He was living with his grandmother and his father, who had trouble staying employed. He was one of the brightest, funniest, saddest kids I had ever met. A wise old soul trapped in a large ten year old’s body and dysfunctional life circumstances. We lurched and stumbled through the year together. I made all the wrong moves with him because I cared perhaps a bit too much and had very little control over anything in his life. I sent things home via certified mail in the hopes that someone there might read them. Eventually his father did come in for a meeting. The school psychologist, who had agreed to work with him regularly, and I shared both our concerns and our hopes for him – to graduate high school if not college. He was so bright, and he thought critically about things that most fourth graders didn’t even know mattered. That year, I carried him around with me like a keychain long after the school day had ended, fretted over what he was doing each weekend, who was spending time with him.

Two years later, his mother was out of jail and I was his social studies and English teacher. In the middle school setting I saw him withdraw from an incredibly competitive cohort of classmates who were long on academic strength and short on empathy. When we read Freak the Mighty in class I hoped it would build more empathy for some of the “sharks” in the grade, and I prayed it didn’t hit too close to home for him. I tried to feed him books, but he was deeply in survival mode, trying to navigate an ever-changing home life and looking around for peers at school. I told him whenever I could that he could always come to see me about anything. That I wanted to be someone who wrote a letter of recommendation for him to apply to college. That I knew what it was like to be in a different place than my peers and we probably had more in common than he could imagine. He bobbed along like a cork through the rest of middle school. I would usually see him in the disciplinary space with the ever-changing acronym name in the office. He seemed angry while suspended in the Instructional Support System room and downright morose when the Academic Support Program tried to work with him. I tried to slip him books but he rejected them for the most part. I felt helpless but I never stopped hoping he would find his way.

Fast forward to this year. His senior year of high school. His senior year. He did not drop out. It bears repeating, he did not drop out of high school. I had the extreme pleasure of watching this beautiful boy, young man really, steal the show while playing a character part in the high school musical last week. It was amazing. He owned that space. He was confident, strong, and skilled up there. And I cried like a baby when I realized who it was up there. He made it through middle school and found a home playing music and acting in the high school. This boy, who I feared reading about in the newspaper for all of the wrong reasons, had not only found his way, he made his way with strength and poise.

My heart is still full nearly a week later just thinking about it.