Saturday, July 24, 2010

Saturday Musings, 24 July 2010

Good morning,

Darkness soothes me as I struggle to pull myself back to consciousness this morning, on a day when I had intended to sleep well past the dawn. Instead I nurse my first cup of coffee before the sun rises, and I see its soft light behind the stained glass lighthouse and the china angels which perch beside the picture of my son at 5, playing on the Easter rabbit statues on the Country Club Plaza. His mischievous look beckons me; his smile warms me.

Beside the frame that houses his picture squats a sweet angel holding a star. Under her, the word "Hope" appears". Hope. This word, too, sends an invigorating sensation through me.

I found myself in an uncharacteristic quarrel with a colleague via e-mail this week. I am perplexed by the bitter passion that seems to choke her when she deals with the parties involved in the case we currently have together. I try to tell her this: try to find out why she raves and chortles over the rise and fall of the sobriety of the parents whose children's lives she controls. She shrugs away my query and disdains to address what lies beneath her ardor. My efforts to neutralize her anger fail. I grow discouraged.

Late yesterday, I appeared before a judge and listened as he telephoned my opposing counsel to query as to the reason for his absence. We stood in the courtroom during the exchange, the judge on the bench, the parties and I flanking the rail in front of him. I heard the querulous tremble of the elderly lawyer explaining his infirmities and inability to bring himself to court and I thought, Please, God, do not let that be me, twenty years hence. The Court left the resolution of our dilemma to me, and I found our collective way to a happy ending. Doing so ultimately served both justice and my client. I could not bring myself to take advantage of the other party, whose lawyer could not appear; who stood alone, unprotected, before the bar.

I went home in the stifling heat, nibbling a protein bar, wondering how my world had come to this. Shuffling papers; applying some strained combination of good sense and legal precedent; searching for the humanity behind the enumerated paragraphs; closing the file; sending my bill.

I never meant to be an attorney. I planned to teach kindergarten and write. I majored in psychology because my university did not offer a special education degree and I wanted to teach mentally retarded children. In the first semester of my second year, I did a pre-teaching lab, which sent me into an inner-city program for disabled children.

On the first day, a small huddle of children whose bodies and minds had been smudged by some cruel genetic accident crowded around me. They touched my hair, and the cloth of my skirt, and pulled at my earrings. I reached down and held a dozen hands at once, small hands, with tiny fingers, some of them twisted, all of them tugging urgently for attention.

A few feet away, the classroom teacher watched the melee for a few minutes, then turned away. She began to lay paper on the picnic tables that stood in a ring around the large room. I tried to steer the circling mass of energy towards the table and became further entangled in their frenzy. I stared at the teacher, helpless, until she took pity on me and pulled the outer layer of children towards her, distributing them amongst the benches to start their morning finger-painting session.

I seated myself in a small chair at the end of one of the tables, beside a small brown boy with a shaved head. He turned staring eyes toward me and clutched more tightly at a rolled towel, thrusting the thumb of the hand which held the towel into his mouth. I smiled at him and he responded by collapsing onto the table in tears.

It proved to be a long day.

On the second day, I wore blue jeans and a plain white shirt. I exchanged my dangly earrings for simple studs and braided my long hair, wrapping it around my head, securing it with large brass pins. I left nothing free; nothing to fascinate and lure that cluster of desperate, reaching curiosity. When the body of children made for me, I extended my arms and grabbed the outer hands of the group, and pulled. The ball of children unwound itself and I sorted them out into their individual beings. The teacher's eyebrows raised but she said nothing. We headed for the pots of paints and started into an earnest session of smearing primary colors on smocks, and newsprint, and the floor.

The little boy with the towel edged towards me, shifting his eyes sideways to see if I noticed. I continued painting with the girl whom I had been helping, but scooted over a bit on the bench, to give him more room. He sucked furiously on his thumb and swiftly tore his gaze from me, wild eyes glancing around at the other children, his free hand banging on the table. But at nap time, he pulled his mat close to where I sat reading a book, and fell asleep with one hand on my foot, the other close to his face, holding his grubby cloth, sucking his thumb. I gazed down at his small body; the painfully frail legs; the thin arms; the sunken stomach. I closed my own eyes, trying to imagine what might have happened to this child, in utero or after, to bring him to this state -- where he took comfort from an unwashed bit of toweling and the sandal-clad foot of a stranger.

On the third day, I brought a Polaroid camera. I had to document my work at this center in order to get a grade in the pre-teaching lab. During my six weeks there, I was to keep notes to accompany the pictures, and write a paper about my experiences.

The teacher pulled a folder of permits down from a crowded shelf, to identify the children whom I would be allowed to photograph. My little boy with the towel fell in the group, and I gathered him and the other children towards me. I'm going to take your picture, I said. They stared at me. I showed them the camera. I took a snapshot of the teacher, and held it for them as it developed. They gasped as the ghost image solidified into the familiar face. Then I formed them into a crooked line, and took each of their photographs, setting the small squares in a row on a table. They stood in silence, each before their own picture, as their images emerged. Their faces grew radiant as they recognized themselves, and they giggled, and raised the small squares, and ran around the room to show everybody. Look! Look! It's me!

The boy with the towel was last. As his frail form appeared, one hand near his chin holding his towel, the other twisting an ear, he fell back, away from the table on which the photograph rested. He clutched at my legs, drawing me towards the image, pulling at my hand. I bent beside him and he wrapped his arm around me. I felt the small, fierce beat of his heart; the long draw of each breath; the shudder as he sank against me. I stood, and he held more tightly onto me. I carried him over to a rocking chair and sat down, snuggling him against me. I sang whatever song I could think to sing, the songs of my childhood, the songs my mother sang to me, the songs my grandfather sang as we crowded around him, in the cool of an Illinois night, long ago, when I was young.

I did not return to the pre-school. In fact, I did not return to the class; as far as I know, I still have an Incomplete in the pre-teaching lab at St. Louis University. I finished my degree in psychology but never took another education class, and never returned to teaching. My first poem was published that spring, and I harbored, for a few years, the hope that I could write. Eventually, by some road that I can no longer see when I turn around, I came to this, to this place, to leather attache cases and courtroom attire; to pages and pages of complicated drivel; to clients who complain about my bill and beg me not to quit, even though they cannot pay me. To eating a protein bar, stuck in traffic, on I-70, on a Friday afternoon, wondering if I will be making excuses for failing to come to court, when I am 82.

The sun's light is fuller now, outside my dirt-streaked window. The warmed-over coffee in my cup has grown cold, and I should make a new pot. I'm sure the paper delivery person has come and gone; and my neighbor, whose car got hit yesterday morning, has already photographed the delivery truck's bumper and gone back inside to write a letter to the Star's circulation department. The black cat probably waits patiently on the porch, to be let into the house, so he can drink water from his special dish, and curl up on my chair at the table.

Mugwumpishly tendered,

Corinne Corley

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The Missouri Mugwump™

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I've been many things in my life: A child, a daughter, a friend; a wife, a mother, a lawyer and a pet-owner. I've given my best to many things and my worst to a few. I live in Brookside, in an airplane bungalow. I'm an eternal optimist and a sometime-poet. If I ever got a poem published in The New Yorker, I would die a happy woman. I'm a proud supporter of the Arts in Kansas City. I vote Democrat, fly the American flag, cry at Hallmark commercials, and recycle.