It’s two in the afternoon when I hear the banging. The loud clash of flesh pounding on metal underscores the tension that permeates the hallways. Each strike adds to the feeling that the academic veneer that has been crumpling off the walls for weeks is about to explode. I’m used to noise by now, though. The hallways have long since lost any association with the forgotten memories of silence that had previously characterized them. Unfortunately for us, the constant murmur of children’s voices is not comforting like the sounds of a chaotic recess used to be. Even their laughter holds no mirth in it. It’s nervous laughter, it’s cruel, it’s scarred and it is certainly not learning.
As the clamor grows louder and more familiar I begin to feel uneasy. Certainly we are not at this point? Certainly, it hasn’t gotten so bad that this level of disruption is not the sign of a fight or something dangerous. This can’t be the new normal. I push back the anger at leaving the calm of the break room to enter into the hallways yet again. I push back the voice in my head that whispers that this is not my job. I push back the part of me that fears what will happen if the noise is just another sign of chaos reigning over education and step into the fourth floor hallway.
As I begin to turn the corner the sound is almost deafening. This can’t be good. Once I clear the corner and see what’s happening I forget to breathe. Suddenly, I’m on the ground, crying. The floor is cold but it has carpet now. I’m rocking back in forth in my bed room as I hear my father screaming at my sister. I don’t know what they are fighting about. In my head my sister is crying and screaming “Tell me you love me!” but through the fear, and the doubt and the insecurity my father can’t hear her. See, my father was fatherless and learned to be man through the strength of his mother. All he knows is that strength. All is knows is that he’s losing the daughter he loves more than life itself and that terrifies him. He converts that fear into power and shouts louder than she does “I love you too much to let you do this.” Yet, through the fear and the hurt my sister doesn’t hear the response. Instead, she shouts “I hate you.” The first and only words I could make out for what seemed like hours.
As my sister slams the door I begin to rock back and forth violently hoping that the sound of my head hitting the door will drown out my mother’s silent tears. I’m too scared to scream for my other sister but I know that the banging will bring her to come and check on me. When Alexis comes and opens the door she’s only ten but her eyes look wiser to me. It’s too dark and I’m too frightened to notice that she’s been crying too. Through the wisdom reflected in her dark brown eyes I can see the frightened child in hallway staring back me. She knew he was hoping that if he banged loud enough, someone would come. She falls to her knees and places her hand on my forehead. She doesn’t try to stop me from shaking, but takes the pain as her own because, like my father, she is strength.
Alexis only said three words to me all night but those three words echoed in my head for years to come. Those three told me everything I needed to hear, everything I needed to know about my family. When she told me “she’ll be back,” she said it the way my grandmother would have. As if to say, “she’ll be back because we’re family. She’ll be back because she loves us and we love her. She’ll be back Aaron, Grandma loves you.”
I don’t know how long we sat there that night crying. I don’t know how long my sister had to convert her pain to my strength. When I remembered to breathe again I saw that his eyes were screaming “just tell me you love me!” Instinctively, silently, I reached my hand out to convert my pain into his strength. The sound of flesh pounding on metal was muffled now that it was my hand hitting the locker. As I began the process of my family, that of getting strength through pain, I remembered the night I called to say good bye to my father.
It was the middle of the night and yesterday’s manic euphoria had turned into an eternity of depression. I was too bleary eyed to see clearly and thus unable to write a note. Instead I reached into my pocket and pressed two for home. I don’t remember what I said. I don’t remember if I heard his voice and tried to channel his ancestral strength and said nothing or remembered my mother’s way with words. I don’t know what he said in that moment that stopped me from going to the roof that time. I don’t know whether he learned to say I love you or I learned to hear it. All I know is that what he said caused me to pause long enough after I hung up on him for Alexis to call. I didn’t answer her call. I just fell against my door with my hand on my forehead.
I focused on the pain. I focused how my grandmother’s journey through sorrow taught my father strength. I focused on each time my hand hit the door and how my sister’s hand must have felt after 18 years of converting pain into strength. I focused on how much this student’s wild eyes communicated without saying a word and I accepted his pain. I turned to this student whose father had written him from prison and silently said “he’ll be back.”