There had been thousands of students. After calculating the plus or minus nine hundred each week for the final fifteen, and the two high schools prior, there were at least four. Four thousand children. In twenty five years. All of them, calling me by my name.
Statistically, I would not know how many people we recall vividly, as we pass through life. I do know that there are always stand outs. In my life, Justin was one of them.
The classroom right next to mine, in the basement level at Perry, was for Emotional Support – a fairly new designation, since I’d been alive, for children who, for one reason or another, needed help with coping skills. Looking back, I probably should have used my energy, if I were to spend any of it in public education, as an Emotional Support teacher; as it stood, I was next door, in the music room.
Thankfully, the E.S. students, so called, were mainstreamed for their “specials”. This meant that Justin would enter my classroom whenever his age group was scheduled to have music class. And, this was how I got to know Justin.
Unlike some of the children who joined other groups for music, Justin was never disruptive in my classroom. He spoke little. When he did, there was a certain urgency in his quiet delivery, a purpose, as if driven by a need. Justin always knew what he wanted, and what he needed to do. I often wonder now how many people ever asked Justin what he needed.
Perry School had several percussion instruments. Made small enough for children, there were hand drums and shakers and woodblocks, and at least two rosewood xylophones available for use. Here was where Justin found his love; every time he had the chance, Justin would get the mallets and play the xylophone.
In fact, I began to notice how much Justin needed to play the xylophone.
The day he could be heard, on the floor of the hallway, held down by a muscular instructor, screaming intensely, I determined that Justin, whenever he needed to, would play his xylophone.
And, during the lunch hour, I would let him sneak across from the cafeteria to play. I’d told him that, whenever he needed to, he could come on over.
Speaking to the instructor about Justin’s need to play, I’d been met with the customary reminder that there was protocol involving “these children” that should be followed. This was why I told him he could come over whenever he wanted to play; I’d sought official permission, but was out of my league in this regard within the American public school system.
Nobody could get Justin to private percussion lessons, either. According to my memory, he’d been a resident of the local home for such children and, apparently, there was nobody on staff who could either transport him or cover the cost.
But, there was something else, as well. At one of the music classes during a day when Justin was present, he seemed agitated. I walked over to him, and his words as they sprang forth were startling; he expressed the desire to end his life. I recall sitting down, right then, hearing him out, persuading him regarding his value, trying to show love and understanding. After several minutes, we came to terms about this – he, deciding to dispense with his desire as expressed, and me telling him to always remember that he was cared about and valued.
I remember this happening on a Friday. Saturday, both the memory of the exchange and concern for Justin troubled me; I contacted the school principal at his home, and told him what had happened. Amazingly, my boss reprimanded me for failing to immediately bring this to the attention of the school administrators, while it was unfolding. In fact, he would raise this issue at my subsequent evaluation, giving me a low numerical score.
But, Justin continued on after that day, and I recalled no further expressions of such desperation from him. He played his xylophone until the time came when I no longer saw him at school. I can’t remember when that was, but I did eventually move to a different building – albeit reluctantly – when the site pairings changed, and Justin moved on to middle school.
Two years ago, I was pulling up to the curb from one of my frequent trips to the whole foods co-op. The renting families across the street in the flat had several older boys this season, often outside working on cars, and I noticed one of them whom I hadn’t seen before on a skateboard. Lifting my groceries out of the car, I greeted him. In a moment whose effect cannot be carried by words alone, he spoke to me. He said: “Aren’t you Miss Scanzillo?”
It was Justin.
He was visiting his cousins, who had moved in across the street!
We threw our arms around each other. He was tall, in his twenties now, and told me he was doing fine. He’d been working. I assured him he could come visit me, anytime. And, I might have cried a little.
There had been so many former students, since, with whom I had reconnected. I’d watched them, via social media, getting married, raising families, becoming successful adults. This past Thursday, while perusing the local online newspaper, I saw it. Justin’s name – in the obituaries.
In a rush, I was weeping. Reading that he’d reached the age of 27, that he loved music first of all, and that he’d passed as the result of an accident, I made note, the date of his death having been a month prior, to attend his memorial service scheduled for today.
Entering the funeral home, I was confused. The undertakers did not meet me at the door. The viewing rooms were shut. A gentlemen saw me, and approached. No; there was no viewing today for Justin. The newspaper, inexplicably, had printed the announcement a week late, and I had missed his memorial; it had taken place last Saturday.
My emotions could not be identified. What was I feeling? Had there been a time warp, and I’d missed the memo?
Today is the day we mourn the horror of the terrorist attack on Paris. Today, we have visceral disturbances in our vision of hope for the future. We fight images of blood, and body parts, our consciousness pummeled by massive screams amidst explosive chaos.
In addition to his music, Justin loved extreme sports. The undertaker’d said his accident had happened out of town. I hope Justin flew into the air on a skateboard, his body releasing his soul to the heavens before it fell to the earth. I hope he escaped this life swiftly and painlessly, without assault, without anguish, without terror. While we all must die, I am thankful that Justin lived, even for a little while. Unlike the monsters who seek to horrify our better selves, Justin was an earnest, sweet, caring, gentle, and compassionate human being. Dare I say he deserved to live.
© Ruth Ann Scanzillo 11/14/15
All rights those of the author, whose name appears above this line; sharing permitted by written request.