Cat Salt and Pepper Shakers


Salt & Pepper Shakers

Maribel gave me these salt and pepper shakers for a Christmas gift in 1993. Teachers often get interesting gifts from their students. I boast a rather large collection of free disks distributed by America On Line which the kids in the school I teach all bring to me. These are actually very useful items for those of us who work in public education where budgets are minimal. So when Maribel gave me these salt and pepper shakers, I felt it a rather tasteful and extravagant gift.

Maribel was one of my favorite students. She was thirteen years old and a very pretty girl. She lived in what is referred to as a "project" and walked just under two miles each way to get to school. Maribel and are got along well together for a couple of reasons. One being is that I teach computers and Maribel showed a special cognitive ability to grasp just about anything I could hand her regarding technology. In grade 8 she was already adept at PageMaker and was an expert in creating graphs. She was one of my reliable students I could count on for anything.

Maribel also had a no nonsense attitude that I adored, and didn't mind telling people what she thought about things, no matter what the consequences. Some of these thoughts came out in her writings, others were direct and verbal, at times much to this dismay of her friends. The combination of her determined personality, her sense of independence and her cognitive ability made me feel confident that I was working with a college bound student. This pleased me, because some part of me felt I had contributed to her sense of a role model, especially being a woman working in technology.

Another reason Maribel and I had a bond is the day she tried to commit suicide. All teenagers experience depression, I believe, and the existential feeling of being along in the world is part of it too, at times. One day a small group of Maribel's friends came rushing up to me to let me know she needed to speak to me. I could tell this was real concern, not a ploy, so I agreed. The girls told me in hushed tones that Maribel was sad and had "taken something." This information alarmed me. It turned out she had taken a dozen aspirin, and was incredibly depressed about friends, boyfriends, home and school; all the usual teenage traumas. She cried and we talked, waiting for the nurse to attend to her and call her mother. People have said that a dozen apirin is no death wish, and its true in one sense, yet it can damange the body and is certainly a ritual expression of the deed itself.

So Maribel and I were connected, in a sense, and when she graduated in 1993 and headed toward high school I had the highest expectations for her. This was a kid, I thought, with a future to look forward to. For three years I never saw Maribel, nor heard of her, other than from one of my colleagues who would cross paths with her now and then. Then, last June, our class of 1996 was "graduating" or "stepping-up" as the city likes to call it from the middle school to the high school.

My friend and colleague Rebecca smokes, and after the ceremony ended we stepped outside of the cafeteria where the reception was being held. Because this event offered limited seating, by ticket only, the grounds had lots of people enjoying the early summer evening, waiting for friends and family members. Here, we saw some of our former students, many almost unrecognizable, as the years had made them lose the pre-pubescent look by which we remembered them. We chatted with a few and then we saw a kid named Jason we hadn't seen for three years. Jason had left us to attend the local vocational school. He had a big family and we had also taught a few of his brothers in addition to a number of his cousins.

Jason was pushing a baby carriage and Rebecca asked him who he was waiting for.

"Just my cousins," Jason answered.

"Babysitting?" asked Rebecca.

"Yes." answered Jason.

"Who's baby?" asked Rebecca, always attempting to keep family connections straight, something I have had difficulty with.

"Oh, no," answered Jason. "I'm babysitting him," he said, pointing to a toddler. "This is my baby."

"Your baby??" Rebecca asked, startled. She looked at Jason sternly. "You know," she commented, "I can't tell you I am happy about this, Jason. We expected much more from you."

"I know," Jason admitted.

"Are you still in school?" Rebecca inquired.

"Yes," Jason answered. "We both work and are in school. It's gonna work out ok."

"Do we know the mother?" Rebecca asked.

"Sure," said Jason, "Maribel."

I blanched, as did Rebecca, who had also taught Maribel.

"Where is Maribel tonight?" Rebecca wanted to know, "Why isn't she here?"

"Working at Sears," answered Jason.

"Jason," Rebecca said, "You better see to it that she gets to college. That girl is smart and she deserves to go to college. I hold you personally responsible for that, it better happen."

"I know, I know," answered Jason. "She'll get to go, I know she's smart. Things will work out for us."

Rebecca and I walked away, shattered. Parents at age 16, I couldn't imagine it. We both felt a tremendous sense of sadness, the disappointment anyone might feel when high hopes are lost. The worst part being that we know it happens a lot in our city, and with few solutions available.

So looking at the gift from Maribel, sitting there on my kitchen shelf, my symbol of the student with high hopes has changed considerably. Instead now, I look at it and see the needs and human frailty that influence decisions that might not be good, decisions that might have long term consequences. Good or bad, it represents the seasoning of what becomes our life.

Names in this essay have been changed to respect the privacy of others.
© Laurel O'Donnell, 1995-8, all rights reserved
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