Saturday, March 14, 2009

`A Bullet in the Side'

In the high-school library I sat beside a girl whose job was to push a large yellow disk on the table in front of her. That activated a hose clamped to the side of the table, shooting a quick shot of water from the nozzle. A colleague across from us sat beside another girl whose job was to hold a library book beneath the water and wipe the cover with a terry-cloth rag. In practice, I held the hand of the girl beside me and pressed it on the disk while my colleague cupped the other girl’s hand around the book and wiped the water off the cover for her. We cleaned up the “S” section of biographies – Socrates, Spielberg, Stalin.

Later, I pushed the same girl, helmeted and strapped in her wheel chair, around the basketball court while another 15 special-ed. kids ran, skipped and walked flat-footed around us, howling, moaning and laughing. We moved to the sports field. I pulled a 16-year-old boy seated on an oversized tricycle around the quarter-mile running track. Other kids walked with us or sat on the track’s plastic surface, baffled by so much open space and sunshine after half a day indoors. I remembered Augie March and his retarded brother Georgie who “ran dragfooted with his stiff idiot’s trot,” and the time Augie and his mother institutionalized Georgie:

“We were about an hour getting to the Home – wired windows, dog-proof cyclone fence, asphalt yard, great gloom.”

Two girls who will never read a book washed books in the library. The whole class, none of whom will play football or run a relay, moved slowly down the numbered lanes of the track. Flannery O’Connor’s father died of lupus erythematosus when the writer was 16 years old. She was diagnosed with the disease 10 years later and died at 39. Biographer Brad Gooch shows that such a life can serve as an inspiration to those of us smug with good health. In Flannery: A Life of Flannery O’Connor he writes:

“When her father died, she had compared God’s grace to a bullet in the side. Faced with that same daunting grace, she developed a narrative to explain her situation. For this dedicated writer there was no surer sign of grace than writing as good story, and she had just written several. So when she broke the news of her lupus to Robert Lowell, in March 1953, she wrote that `I can with one eye squinted eye take it all as a blessing.’”

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