My Children Have Questions in Their Eyes

July 14, 1995|By JUANITA MATHEWS

COLUMBIA — Columbia. -- They are silent in the churchyard in the sun after the service is over. They wring their hands because a boy is dead. The boy is one of their own, Sister Brown's grandson, and it is the drugs that have killed him. Sister Brown is weeping. It is her turn to be comforted for such a loss.

A man opens the gate and leaves the churchyard. He cannot take any more of the dying. His oldest son is dead and his youngest is already in the streets because of the drugs. He puts his hat on only after he closes the gate behind him, for the silence in the churchyard is respect for Sister Brown's weeping, and men do not wear their hats in the presence of it.

Death is no longer a distant, threatening figure -- he is right here among us, picking and choosing the boy and the girl, the man and the woman we love. Death walks among us, laughing behind our backs and in our faces. We feel his breathing down our necks as he singles us out. His foul breath whispers the names of his past victims, our sons and daughters, in our ears.

We wring our hands at the high school in Laurel, where I teach seniors literature and writing. The principal announces on the PA system another boy's death, and the children who need help with his news are told to go to the cafeteria. It is the first thing in the morning on a Monday when there is always much to say about the school day and the week ahead, but today there is only news about a boy who is dead because of a gunshot wound to his head.

I go to be with the children and stop along the way to hold a boy in my arms who is crying. ''He was my friend,'' he says to me. ''He was my friend.''

I do not know what to say to this boy who is crying in my arms. Every day I have said, ''Johnson, open your notebook. Johnson, start your drill. Johnson, give me your late pass.''

I say these things because I am his teacher, and he sits at his desk in front of me. I talk to him about the subject that is English, about the nouns and the pronouns and the verbs. But today he is not sitting at his desk in my class in front of me. Today, he is in my arms crying and saying, ''He was my friend. He was my friend.''

The cafeteria was the saddest place I had ever seen. The children were spread out with four, perhaps six at each table. There was a box of tissues at each group, and I wondered who had been kind enough to place them there, although I know it is a teacher's heart, a teacher's love for students that anticipated this need. Teachers never lose sight of their calling. In a society rapidly changing for young people, teachers continue to act as a buffer between their students and the complex world.

When the second-period bell rings, I must go back to room 246, where I will create order. I will spend a few minutes with the class, acknowledging their loss and listening to their grief. Then, believe it or not, I will teach. I will go on as planned because, for a short while, the other teachers and I are the salt of the earth.

Several students lean against the wall at the door, some inside, ++ some outside. There is weeping and wailing between an ocean of silences. It is a mournful sound, deep and full of pain. There is the feeling in me that I have heard this sound before. It is both ancient and familiar, sad and horrific. It is the sound of my people in the bowels of a ship. It is the sound of my people at an auction in a buyer's town. It is the sound of my people at a protest after the beatings have stopped. If you have never heard this sound before, it will not be unfamiliar to you when you hear it, if you are black. It is always there buried deep within our roots.

I go from one of the children to another, but I do not feel I am much good here because of the ship and the auction and the beatings that have now been replaced by the drugs. It is the weeping that overwhelms me. It is a sound that has accompanied my people from the beginning. We never seem to get free of this kind of suffering. Now it has reached down to the children. The children are wailing, and I cannot bear to hear it.

I fight the tears that threaten to spill onto my face. I am the comforter, after all. I must be strong, for them. Then I hold one of the girls, and she becomes my child, and the dead boy becomes my child, and all the children are mine.

I love these children. So I cry because my children have questions in their eyes, and I have no answers to give them, except the ones that are spiritual, that are forbidden to be talked about in a schoolroom.

The law forbids such answers, and I am bound by the law. Still, the answers are in our roots, in our inner life as a people and as a nation, the spiritual source of our strength. It is the high road we traveled all the way to freedom -- and now we must walk it again, until we have left the scourge of drugs and guns behind.

Juanita Mathews teaches English and writes frequently on education.

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