Twelve years after the most horrific night I can remember, I teach kids who are the age now that I was then – on New Year’s Day, 1998. Occasionally, I tell my students the story of Bob to illustrate a point – to capitalize on a teachable moment. It’s an effective story. The details will quiet a room of distractible teenagers almost instantly. The first time I shared this bit of my past was during a review of Golding’s Lord of the Flies. Does evil exist in all of us? I asked.
My students looked at me, some out of interest, others out of obligation.
“Come on,” I urge them, “Golding said that he wrote this story to illustrate what he learned about humanity from his experience in Second World War. The worst of us, that’s what he put into these pages. Do you agree with him? Do we have a penchant for destruction?”
My voice caught and the students could see that this was not a question from a review section in a textbook – this was a life question. I took a breath and told them about the moment that enables me to question Golding’s Lord of the Flies message.
“Ryan was a normal guy. There was nothing unusual about him; he drank on the weekends, like most kids did. He experimented with drugs, as most kids did. He sometimes felt angry at the world, as many kids did. And yet, despite all his normalcy, Ryan left the imprint of his boot on a man’s skull.”
At this point, each student is still, quiet, looking at me. Everyone wants the story. So I give it to them.
The most horrific event I can remember wasn’t really an event at all, but a moment in the snow, standing at the end of my family’s driveway, watching individual snowflakes drift down from blackness and waiting for my dad to pick me up. While I was standing there with my bare feet shoved into my snow boots and a jacket pulled tight around my pajamas I wasn’t thinking about bad things or violence; I was recalling my first New Year’s Eve spent with friends. So I felt warm and happy as I stood there in the pre-dawn hours. The sound of my dad’s truck engine, however, triggered my curiosity: why was he coming to pick me up and where was he planning to take me?
My dad rolled to a stop, and I got in. We turned out of the cul-de-sac and over the crest of the hill leading towards town. He hadn’t said a word yet, but I was aware that something was different: his eyes were half shut and he hadn’t looked at me.
“Brooke,” he said. “Something happened. Bob’s dead. I need you to pick up the kids and bring them home, put them to bed. Your mom and I will come home in a bit. There’s uh, there’s some things we, uh, we need to…do.”
“What?” I turned in my seat to look at him, my right shoulder pushing against the seat belt. Bob and his family had been spending New Year’s Eve celebrating with my family and a few others. They lived just a few blocks away. They were part of our everyday lives.
“Bob and I went to check on the party at the Cudmore’s house and uh, well, someone, well, Bob was killed. Some kid at the party killed him.”
Numb. Like numb pressure, like invisible walls, like I am in a cube with invisible walls and the walls are moving in on me, pressing down on me, blocking out sound and air and I can’t breathe and I’m just staring out the windshield and my dad is driving. My throat closes in on itself, but I’m not crying; I’m just looking at the snowflakes slam into our headlights and I’m numb.
It is almost seven in the morning but I am not asleep yet. The house is quiet, buried in snow and sorrow. I hear a sound in the living room. It’s a quiet sound, a soft whisper and then the squeak of my father’s chair. He is sitting there in the almost dark. When I turn on the light I see his face is red and shining with his crying. I have never seen my father cry, so I curl up in the chair opposite him, and we are silent together. Eventually he looks at me, and the emptiness is gone, replaced with a brokenness, a bewilderment.
I don’t remember what he said. It was something that expressed his helplessness, something like how could this happen, or why – just why? But I do remember his face, crumpling in on itself. The grimace of pain contorting his face. The quick movement of his body contracting, like he’d been punched in the stomach. The sound, that animal sound of suffering.
Bob and my dad had gone to that “unsupervised, teenager party” to make sure it was under control. Clearly, it wasn’t. They got split up in the masses of drunk youth. Unfortunately for Bob, he ran into a heavily intoxicated Ryan, the boy who beat him to death.
“Is it despite his normalcy or because of it that Ryan was able to kill?” I ask. “This is the question that Golding asks us in his story of marooned school boys.”
Literature – when it’s good, changes us.
At one point during the years it took me to attain my literature degree, I asked one of my professors about the importance of literature. I had been feeling disillusioned. Why spend all these years studying stories, I wondered. It’s not like we’re doing something worthwhile, like curing cancer. I wanted to know the point of it all – as many students often do during our lessons.
“We don’t analyze the great works,” he said. “They analyze us.” He stood in a professorly way, by his bookshelf, in his cramped campus office, his glasses slipping to the tip of his nose. “That’s why it’s important.
Golding had something to say. Every author does. Learning occurs when students question that message.