“I don’t want to get this wrong,” the note I sent to her said. “There is a box for yes and a box for no, but please don’t check. Please fill the box in. I don’t want to get this wrong.”
She was the prettiest girl I had ever seen. I noticed her immediately and had sat all through third grade, in the seat in front of her, turning as often as I could to look at her.
I remember black hair. In no book I have ever written have I compared a woman’s hair to a raven, but this time I will. This was the eighties and her hair was feathered on both sides of her head and so black, so gleaming black it seemed like the oily wings of a raven. Her eyes I don’t remember. Her mouth. The way she smiled. The sound of her voice. I have blocked out almost all of it for fear of the pain it would cause Guardian, but I do remember pale skin and that black hair.
It took months of turning around and looking at her for me to work up the nerve. One day it hit me like a bolt of lightning. I was standing in front of the sink on a chair doing dishes and thinking about her and I realized, for the last five months, every time I turned around to steal one quick glance at her she smiled at me. I almost fell off the chair. And when I fought for sleep that night in a room filled with the squeaking and scratching of mice, it was not that creature I was thinking about. For once, the sound of the mice did not bother me. It was just her. That face. That hair.
The next day I wrote my desperate letter and I folded it up. I realized when I finished folding the letter I was going to have to give it to her. So, I sat there folding it one time after the next until it was tiny. Then I unfolded it and started again. Only the witnesses laughing at me remember how many times I folded and unfolded that letter, but finally I did hand it to her. Right in the middle of class as Mrs. Sherman was talking about multiplication.
Mrs. Sherman was a sweet, strict, and fair teacher I loved. She held my hand once out onto the playground when I thought I was going to get jumped. I remember right now the soft skin and the tight muscle of that hand. Powerful and delicate. It is the perfect moment, the one description needed to understand her impact on my life. There was no one like her but she did not flaunt that fact. She looked normal in every way, but every now and then we would ask her a question, and her answer was so foreign we would sit baffled anyone would think that.
You want an example. See, you need an example of what Mrs. Sherman was in order to understand the magic of this story. In order to understand the little girl with the raven hair who I will call Pristine, you have to understand how special Mrs. Sherman was.
We asked her what her favorite vegetable was once and without pause, without consideration, she spoke a word that was not even a word. The entire class stared at her as if she had suddenly dropped into the German language, a thing she did every now and then when we were not supposed to be listening. We asked her again and she spoke the word one more time.
Alasnadra, havanotra, decanoto. She spoke the word one more time and I finally landed on it. Avocado. Months later I bought her one for Christmas. She thought it was hilarious. She hugged me and said she would make a dip with it. I won’t even try to explain what she called it. To my third-grade mind it was a mess of vowels and consonants that made no sense.
Anyway, she saw me turn in the middle of her lesson and hand Pristine that letter, and Mrs. Sherman stopped class and stared at me.
She saw me sweating, gasping, trembling and damn near crying. And that saint of a woman looked at the little girl and said nothing. She just started her lesson again. Mrs. Sherman was a tender soul. I will love her forever for that one kindness, and for the gift she gave me on the last day of school.
We will stick a pin in that for a moment. First the fight and Guardian’s first real loss.
She did not fill in the box. She took out her big black crayon and Pristine colored that entire section of the paper black. The box yes was colored in as well as two inches on each side of it. She underlined the word yes and she threw in two exclamation marks. She had been waiting for that letter for a long time.
I don’t remember being happy with her, though I am sure we were. I don’t remember any of the things that happened in our relationship at all except the reason she broke up with me. And the last day of the school year.
We were walking on the playground talking and we got jumped. They ran up behind us and one of the guys jumped on her back. They drove her to her knees and when Guardian turned around, he was surrounded. Four guys beat him and stomped on him. I can’t remember why, if there was a reason at all, but they did it and I was on the ground. They spit on me a few times then I looked up to see that the boy who had jumped on her was holding her. She was screaming, crying, and Guardian fought to get to his feet.
He was back in that living room. He was standing in front of that door. He could hear Char’s words again.
There is a monster in that room. Your sister is being hurt by that monster. You have to get to that door. Go!
Guardian fought to get to his feet but it was impossible. He was being held down. He was crying. He was roaring. He saw Char’s fist coming in again and again and he felt the impact of the fists on his body. He sobbed and he wept and he struggled and he fought. He tried to bite the hands that held him. He tried to shake and twist his way free. Nothing could stop him. He was a boy possessed. But they broke him when the boy holding her licked her cheek.
Then they all walked away. The teachers ran in, grabbed them, and took them away. I was taken away, too, but the look on her face as she wiped the lick away is still burned in Guardian’s mind. He has never talked about it. He has never admitted to it, but he thinks about it every now and then. The sight of that boy licking his girlfriend and him unable to do anything about it. Guardian will carry that around with him forever.
The next day she cried when she broke up with me. I cried, too. She said she had told her father what happened and about the lick. Her father had been furious and told her if I could not protect her, she was not allowed to be my girlfriend. He was making her break up with me, forcing her to walk away, and Guardian will forever blame himself for that. He will never forget the father he let down, the girl he let be shamed.
It was the last day of third grade and Mrs. Sherman told us all the day before that we were going to make homemade peanut butter.
“Where?” I asked.
“Right over there.” She pointed to the corner of the room. I swung my gaze over to it and kinda stared as if there was some contraption I had never seen before sitting there. A peanut butter machine.
So many kids had so many questions but Mrs. Sherman would answer none of them. And that was not the only bomb she dropped on us that day. She was also going to make homemade ice cream.
The idea of homemade ice cream was lunacy. Could never happen. If a person could make their own ice cream, then how would anything ever get done? How were people convincing themselves to do anything else? The world would grind to a halt if just anyone could make ice cream. This odd woman claimed to be able to do the impossible.
That night I laid in bed trying to imagine a world where I could make my own ice cream and my own peanut butter and I realized Mrs. Sherman was indeed a magical woman. If she could pull it off.
Well the next day, when I got to school, I saw she had a bucket filled with peanuts in their shells and a meat grinder clamped onto a desk in the corner. She had tiny paper cups near it and a big bowl on a chair beside the table with the grinder.
In the other corner she had ice, salt, a bucket as odd as she was with a huge crank handle on it.
Now before you start asking questions, I am going to jump ahead and answer this before we get distracted with anything else. I learned that day you can make your own peanut butter if you have the nuts and a bit of oil. And I hope you are sitting. It is possible to make homemade ice cream. Don’t put the book down. Don’t close out the screen. Finish the rest of the story. And please do not let this information ruin your life. I can say though with some authority that both of these things are possible. What you do with this information is out of my hands. I will remind you, before I go on, about your responsibilities. Go with God.
We made the ice cream. We made the peanut butter. She brought crackers. And we feasted.
Now the magic. Now Mrs. Sherman. She needed a form taken to the office. A small slip of paper, no bigger than a post it note, although those were not around yet. She pulled me aside and handed me the paper.
“Jesse, I want you to take this to the office.”
I nodded and stood up to do just that when she added, “Take Pristine with you.”
Pristine heard and stood. This part is burned in Guardian’s memory.
She was wearing a white dress. She was wearing white shoes. White socks. Her neck was framed by a bouquet of ruffles. And when she heard we were going to the office together she smiled.
The office was about a ten-minute walk away if you were going slow. I took the slip of paper, she took the hall pass, and we left. We did not get far before Guardian broke down.
He stopped in the hall and started crying. “I’m sorry, I’m so sorry.” He sobbed. “I tried, I really tried to save you.” Nothing made him so miserable as not being able to save a victimized girl. He dropped to his knees and she did, too. She took his head in her arms and she hugged it to her chest. She shushed him and told him it was okay.
“I let your father down. He told me to save you. Your father told me to save you but I couldn’t get in the door and there was a monster and I let your dad down and I’m so sorry.” His mind was snapping in on itself. Folding and messing facts and pain. His mind was rubbing wrong. It was as if he had silly putty and had captured an image but that image was stretching and peeling. The image was folding as the boy’s mind was kneaded and pressed together.
She wept. She hugged him and let him cry, and no one walked out into the hallway. No one bothered us. No one heard Guardian crying or her consoling him. In that moment I was alone with the Pristine and she soothed me.
“My father is,” she heaved a deep breath. “He is so—” She grabbed my face and pulled it back to look at me. I wish I could summon up the image of her face when she finally broke and spoke her mind. “He is an asshole.”
The tears rolled back and disappeared. We laughed.
“Asshole, huh?” I snorted.
“Yeah, he is pretty bad.” She shook her head.
“Mine is an asshole, too,” I said.
She told me she loved me. We were far too young to know what that word meant or the responsibility that came along with it, but it was an emotion as pure as her dress. A feeling that would not go away in me for years. She had said the words. I said them back.
She held my hand as we walked to the office. It was the first time Guardian ever held a girl’s hand. He thinks to this day that he did it wrong.
I handed the slip of paper to the office worker and she read it. She looked at me, then to Pristine.
“I see,” was all she said. “You can go back now.” She smiled. “You two have a long walk back.”
When we got back to the class, Mrs. Sherman was lining the other kids up to leave for the day. Third grade was over. Pristine was over, too. I walked her to her bus and she told me she was moving out of the city, and this was the last time I would ever see her again.
I kissed her hand. Just like Giant had taught me to.
So, this is a story about failure. It’s a story about an alter breaking.
It is also the story of the love of one teacher for two kids. And it is the story of Guardian and the Pristine. Maybe the most important story you will ever hear about Guardian.
Because he would suffer for decades, but he never lost again.