Consider the Fuzzy Duckling

The high school where I teach is undergoing a total HVAC renovation this year. The workmen, like shoemaker’s elves, appeared when the students left and then removed ceiling tiles, ductwork, and vents. On each wing of the school, there was one classroom that was Grand Central–every ceiling tile came down. The intricacies of light fixtures, the red stenciled signage for firewalls, all of the trusswork–in one classroom, everything was visible. On our hall, mine was that room.

Because my mother raised me to speak to everyone (and she did a darn fine job of that) and because I work late, I had built a rapport with the workmen. Before they came to our wing, they knew I really wanted my room left in order. And, every day, it was. 

After about two weeks, their work was finished. All of my ceiling tiles matched–a satisfying, pristine white. Still, the grit from the ceiling, a fine dust, coated my desk and bookshelf, my Fisher-Price Little People collection and every student-given cat figurine. It was even in my microwave. Too, I’d moved things to accommodate the workers. A few vacant student desks were piled with stacks of folders, bins of markers, and piles of workbooks. 

People who, like me, have suffered repeated trauma need order and symmetry in their environments. Because of this, my classroom has been essentially unchanged for seventeen years. (In fact, my desk is from my previous, now-closed school. Forced to abandon it, I left a plaintive note; months later, maintenance men snuck it over.) The mild mess of my classroom bothered me–a lot.

Finally, last Friday, eleven days after my second Moderna vaccine, I felt well enough to begin reclaiming my room. We cleaned the bookshelves. We scrubbed the counters. We threw a lot of folders away and returned books to the book room. We tossed out old markers and eraserless pencils–and used an entire bottle of 409. I stayed late that afternoon–though it was Friday–to make my room mine once more.

This morning, I walked into my classroom, and my desk was neat. My bookshelf was orderly. Only the stacks of folders and a jumble of papers remained. The rest of my room was as it should be.

It was a typical pre-Spring-Break Monday. The kids were tired, their brains already at the nearby sunny Florida beaches. We talked about Greek drama, about the death penalty, about parents who turn in their criminal children. After school, I tutored a student for an hour.  

When I came home, for the first time in months, I worked in the yard, trimming the yellowed and broken cast iron plants as the puppy bounded through them. I chatted with a friend on the phone, then came inside and made two different batches of Mexican rice so my daughter and I could have a taste test.

As I looked out the kitchen window at the dragonflies and I took in the purple Wandering Jew, I thought about how much I had accomplished, how good it felt. I was fully vaccinated, finally free of side effects, and I had a clean classroom.

Two things–one, the vaccine, certainly major. The other, a clean classroom, decidedly minor. Combined, they left me a satisfaction, a new starting point.

One gift of repeated trauma is simple appreciation. I appreciate Clean classrooms. Hot water. A chocolate-covered frozen raspberry. Clean sheets. The green leaves of the pecan tree against the bright blue sky. When you’ve been traumatized, when your treasures have been stripped away, forever lost, you must reorient. Look again.

If you are to get out of bed in the morning, to do anything, to help anyone, you have to try again to see.

And at first, it is impossible. At first, there is no good. There is only the black hole of your loss. And then, one day, you notice the light on the lake. You hear the lilt in Luke Combs’ voice, and in your core, for the briefest of instants, there is a glimmer. An insight. A reminder that there is more than your loss.

Today at lunch, I checked Snapchat. My friend recently lost his daughter after her eight-year battle with cancer, and the pain is still knee-buckling, fresh,  and forever raw, but Snapchat doesn’t require words, which is handy when there are none.

His younger daughter has gotten two Easter ducks, Farmer and Princess, and his Snapchat story has been full of the pair waddling through the grass, floating idly in the birdbath. They were again in his story. Trailing behind him, beginning to imprint. So adorable.

And then, I clicked on my direct messages. Staring at me was a duck. Dark-billed. Yellow and tan fuzz. There was a sequence of Farmer, steadily gazing at the camera. I took in the duck for the longest time. Those eyes, the fluff, and feathers–handiwork that speaks of God, that demands acknowledgment of His power to create beauty. 

Even from the blackest of holes, there is such beauty in a baby duck.

I called Ross tonight. He sounded weary, his heart sharded. 

I asked if I could write about him, about the video of the duck. 

“I thought you would appreciate that,” he said, his voice tight and tired, acknowledging the code, the solace found in webbed feet and yellow fuzz.

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