What I remember most about being eleven is that I spent an inordinate amount of time pondering whether anyone would notice or care if I were dead.
My suicidal fascination wasn’t so much born from a desire to die as out of a desire to make the world around me understand how deeply I was hurting and how misunderstood I felt. Years later, I discovered that these seasons of feeling like I was “treading a bog,” as I called it in my journal, were cycles of clinical depression. Middle school was my first truly dark season. At eleven, I lacked the foresight to see the futility in carrying out the ideas I’d played with, thoughts of taking a bottle of pills and going to sleep.
Another thing I remember is listening to old records on the old record player my aunt gave me—a latched beige box with a brown lid. I listened mostly to folk music—that was all my parents really had—and Simon and Garfunkel was a favorite of mine. I loved a lot of their songs, but the ones I listened to the most were the ones with palpable sadness: “I Am a Rock,” “Dangling Conversation,” and “A Most Peculiar Man.” Mom and Dad’s copy of Sounds of Silence had the lyrics on the back so I could read along.
The one song that fascinated me more than all the others, though, was “Richard Cory.” Though I wasn’t aware of its poetic origins until high school English and the social justice angle was just beyond me, it mesmerized me. The line that stuck in my head was that last verse of the song: “Richard Cory went home last night and put a bullet through his head.”
I felt the shock of that final line of Richard Cory, the attention it demanded. That was the kind of response I wanted. The music I was listening to on that old record player gave another perspective to what I was already dwelling on—music from before my time, dealing with issues that were years beyond my full comprehension, yet connecting with my emotional state in that current moment.
In sixth grade, things settled a little, and I rose out of my somewhat suicidal funk into ordinary pre-adolescent desperation and apathy. The mocking of my classmates became more of a white noise than a constant irritation, and I learned if not to let things slide off of me, to grow a thicker skin and pretend I didn’t care.
That year, the entire sixth grade class moved back across town to the school where we’d spent third and fourth grade, and that meant music class with Miss Uehling again.
Miss U., as she preferred to be called, was tall. She bent down to stop me after music class about three months into the school year and asked me to audition for the sixth grade special chorus. For whatever reason, I didn’t bother auditioning in August (see also: “apathy”), but she insisted that I come in and give it a try. Miss U. was not the kind of person that you could ignore. So, I gave it a try. She had me come in after school and sing through a couple parts of that year’s selection of songs. I thought I did okay. She gave me a place in the alto section, and I went along with it.
One afternoon after practice, she caught up with me on the way out. “I have to tell you about this dream I had about you last night. . . . So, there was this play going on, and you were on stage in a chipmunk costume and everyone was doing their own lines, but completely ignoring yours. They were talking right through your lines, and you were so frustrated, just standing there in that silly chipmunk suit, trying to get them to listen to you.” I laughed with her over the idea of me in a chipmunk suit, not so much from the image, but because her laugh was so contagious.
Later, I realized that her dream was a perfect metaphor for how I felt at least once every single day in middle school. She knew how I felt. I knew how I felt, but I wasn’t able to put it into words, even if I had someone who was a close enough friend to talk to back then. At the time, though, I didn’t acknowledge or maybe even realize that the reason she made a point of telling me about that dream was that she did really understand.
That year, she gave me a solo in one of the songs our chorus was singing. I hadn’t really thought of myself as a solo-quality singer, but, taking a risk, she let me do it. I never asked for the privilege, just as I hadn’t made any attempt to audition. Practices went well enough, but our first performance—at Glenwood State Hospital-School, the local institution for mentally challenged and developmentally disabled kids—was a disaster.
My mind raced the whole performance. Surveying the audience, obviously in various states of consciousness, I was overwhelmed. I sang my part. I finished. It was horrible.
“You just lost your confidence,” Miss U. said to me afterward as we climbed aboard the bus back to school, but her words didn’t make any sense to me at the time. But I knew she cared about me.
Sixth grade was also the year I bested my second-place performance from the previous year and won the county spelling bee. Another girl in my class (the only girl in our class shorter than me) came in second place that year. Miss U. took us both out on a Saturday afternoon to see the movie Amadeus and afterward for ice cream to celebrate. In our experience, this just wasn’t something that teachers did, giving up a Saturday to willingly spend it with two sixth grade girls, but then, Miss U. wasn’t an ordinary teacher.
By the end of sixth grade, my dad had taken another job and we moved out of the little town that I associated with the darkest time in my life and with the light of Miss U. After I left Glenwood, Miss U. got married and became the head of the talented and gifted program at Northeast Elementary. She was gone the day I went back to visit my old school during a visit to my grandma, who still lived in town there. I never got another chance to give her a hug and thank her for being a bright spot in such a tough time.
Years after I graduated high school and had children of my own, I learned from my grandma that Miss U. had cancer when she was my teacher. Back when I was in third or fourth grade, Miss U. was gone for several weeks. She’d had an operation—but she never explained the details, and we were old enough to know we shouldn’t ask about it. She came back after her surgery wearing a bright pink U-shaped scar in the folds of skin at the base of her neck, and after that surgery, the more astute of us might have noticed that she had lost some weight. I wish I’d have paid more attention. Maybe I’d have known she had cancer.
My grandma mailed me the clipping of her obituary from the Glenwood Opinion-Tribune when she died in 2002. Miss U.—Mrs. Miller—never had children . . . but, really, she had hundreds. I couldn’t make it to her funeral, but I have no doubt that day as they gathered, there were others like me whose lives took a turn for the brighter because Miss U. took the time to help them see themselves in a different light. She helped me in a time of darkness and depression. And for that, I owe her my life.