Onyx Publications
  • Le Petit, Le Grand, and Le Mal

    Written By: Melissa LaDuc

    © 2021 by Melissa LaDuc
    There is a fishbowl in my therapist’s office. Not really a fishbowl. It is a perfect aquatic environment sprouting a floating flower. I believe it is the Zen aquatic garden kit that comes from Target. I have seen it online for only $39.99. I want one. Have for a while now. I like the perfect division of the hemispheres: water below, green life above, blackish-goldfish with bird-like plumes gently fanning itself as if it didn’t need anything else for life. There is a drowned buddha statue sitting in a yoga pose with his head bowed and eyes closed. He is smiling in his underwater sleep, which I love. The pebbles around the cross-legged golden figure are aqua blue and uniform in size. It speaks peace, perhaps artificial, but peace. All of this in a crystal ball, with a lotus flower praying above the surface. It is my goal. The fish, I mean. The floating, the perfect hemispheres. The balance. I want all that. My therapist says I am getting there. It takes time, she says, but I am getting there.
    My therapist also told me it would help to write things down. At first, I thought she meant for me to flush out ideas and wrestle and come to grips by penning fears and failures that plagued my mind. I was ready for that. I mean, I have a lot of journals. Flowery ones and leathery ones, small pocket size and purse size ones, filled with famous quotes and guiding questions to help reflect and pause. Nevertheless, I dropped my eyes in hesitation and began to protest, doubting the value of what sounded like lost time. But she refined her direction. 
    “Write it all out. Put it all on paper and see if it might help for you to let it go.”
    “All of it?” I questioned. “What do you mean, all of it?”
    When she answered with a flourish of her hands, a casual wink and, “All the things” I cringed right there because I do not like this phrase that women in their forties keep flippantly tossing into the air, as if our lives did not have specificity. I hear it at my daughter’s soccer games, and I hear it in the copy room at work. I used this phrase myself when I scooped up a semi-stale cookie left out on the counter from last week’s parent-teacher conferences. I shrugged at my colleague standing next to me, wondering why I have to eat every chocolate chip cookie that looks at me. 
    My colleague did not blame me. “It was lonely there on the plate. It needed you.” 
    “I know. All the cookies. Love them all.” 
    And in two bites I had gobbled all but the crumbs stuck on my cardigan.
    So when she, my therapist, said, “All the things.” I cringed. But she followed up nicely the way you should round out an argument, with three solid points wrapped in a parallel thesis. Opinion based, but suggesting support will follow. 
    “Write things down. It can help clear your mind, regain focus, and move forward. It does not need to become the thoughts you dwell on, rather, it should be the thoughts you would like to discard.”
    I accepted her almost perfect thesis. All the things. Not the painful past, but the present. 
    “When thoughts start flying at you and you feel you might go under, when you are gasping for air, like you said, try grabbing a pencil. Or you could speak into your phone. Just hit that memo button and state your thoughts and breath. Then see if you can let go. Keep moving.”
    “Keep moving. Okay.”
    “We will see if you can recognize a pattern. Maybe the things overwhelming you so much is really just one thing. Maybe we can get at it better if we watch for patterns and then see how the items relate.”
    “Worth a shot,” I say.
    Before leaving her office, I touch the fishbowl with my finger. When my energy touches glass, the fish does a perfect 360-degree spin. His tail unfurls and beckons, like a flag in summer. It is beautiful. Part of me wishes I could take the fish with me. Like, just stick my hand straight in the bowl and grasp, ever so gently, the whole wet slimy thing, and put it in my pocket and bring it home. Of course I don’t. But I am just saying, a part of me is thinking: All the fishes.
    So the next morning I find a small journal and fondle the attached braided bookmark. I open the journal to write down the first thoughts of the day, the ones I need to remember to let go. I smooth my hand over the clean white pages, pressing into the crease, urging it toward certainty. I consider closing the book to keep it perfect for just a little longer, but with a student’s focus to task, I push words from my brain to my green Inkjoy pen, like someone striving to unclog a drain. I purge my thoughts from bottom up, trying to spit out the worst parts of me:
    I hate getting dressed. I have nothing to wear. Why, oh why have skinny jeans been a thing for so long? And why do teenagers get to dictate fashion trends. Maybe it is me. Shit. What if I am one of those teachers who dresses like she is a teenager even though she is forty. Do I? It’s just, I have a problem with my ankles. I don’t understand where the pant should end and what shoe should go with each ankle length. My daughter says, It’s fine, mom. Whatever you are wearing is fine. Cool kids can wear whatever they want. I begin to protest until I see her wink, insinuating that I, indeed, am one of the cool kids.
    It feels good to exhale, letting thoughts go that I do not need to carry. I am enjoying the cleanse until I realize I liked that thought about my daughter and wondered if maybe I don’t want to discard it. I read again and cherish her words as she reminds me I am valuable. In a frustrated attempt to erase and start over, I forget my Inkjoy is not a pencil and therefore cannot be erased, so my scratch makes a slight tear through the paper. I fight the urge to tear the whole page out, but consider my therapist might give better advice if she has all the drafts. Plus, it would show her I am not crazy, but actually a good mom if my fourteen-year-old daughter knows how to parent already. I keep it.
    At school, my inbox unfolds with a screen full of unread messages. I quickly scan and delete through the pile and only have two notes to jot down in my little book. I click the x in the corner of the screen and close the email window, feeling steady when it zips shut so tightly.
    1. Dylan’s mom just passed away from cancer. The viewing is this Friday. I ache for him.
2.Jessica has left school for the next six weeks. She is going to Florida for a treatment because she has an eating disorder. Gather all her work and send it to the office. Jessica is tall and thin. I am ashamedly jealous of her legs. And the idea that she gets to go away for six weeks. That would be gross of me to say aloud, which is why I wrote it. I already like this exercise. 
    I close the journal and print the test I made last night. Three-page test. Ninety-five copies. Good to go. This will ensure silence for at least twenty minutes.
    Here is a tip I tell young teachers: always make your test at least three pages. There is just something in a staple which makes students dig in a little bit more and really try on a test. There is authenticity. Plus, it decreases the opportunity to cheat by quite a bit because you might be on different pages. It is just a theory, but I go with it.
    By lunch time I have sixty-two tests to grade, and several more entries in the journal. I stop numbering the entries for sake of time, but love the feeling that someone else might read this and take note of these children’s lives and their importance. I feel a sense of pride in knowing I know my kids. Tucking my journal under my arm, I bring it to the copy room during lunch. I know this exercise is supposed to be personal, but for some reason I have to fight the urge not to share. Luckily, by the time I make it to the copy room I only have seventeen minutes for lunch anyway. I hide my journal under my tests and realize that sharing was a dumb idea.
Deshawn needs nutrition. Why does he always have Doritos for breakfast? 
*Bring apples and bananas. 
Robert is still hiding things behind the bookshelf. I am afraid to see what it is.
Tori has lice. I can see them. I can literally see them. Jumping. I send her to the nurse and the nurse sends her back. Yes, lice, she says. Uh...okay. So stay in my room? I am tired of people pushing their problems into my classroom and my microspace. Without paying me well. I literally just diagnosed an infestation and received no compensation for it. Just an increased gross factor for my daily life. It reminds me of when the school system voted that we should have seven classes a day instead of six. I received an extra class period for which I had to plan, thirty five extra names to remember, thirty five extra papers to grade, and no pay raise for it. Just simply this: do more with less. Sure. Whatever. 
    I see myself digress and wonder if it is the point of this writing assignment or if I am doing it wrong. I continue because I am not done.
Jessie smells like cat pee, which makes me want to vomit. I want to stop monitoring that corner of the room due to the cat pee and lice, but I know those are the two lovelies who are close to failing and who need my attention (and love?). I wander back in that direction and suggest they discuss their answers as a team. There. They can help each other. 
Oh my gosh, am I a bitch? It’s like when I let my inner voice out, it is all the shitty things I never want to say and I usually pretend I don’t even feel. I don’t want to be like this. Refocus.
Anna needs work for next week because she is going to Disney with her family. Lucky her.
Jamal is absent for the third day in a row and I need to tell a counselor. 
A few kids are entering the room and they see me scribbling feverishly. I look up and nod, pretending I am checking attendance. Then I add Anna P., Chris, and Alexander - with nothing else. The bell is about to ring, and I am sure I will remember what they need because, frankly, it’s my job. 
    During my ritual restroom break at 1:27, I have time to open the journal and notice the pattern. It is people. Students. Too many students. Too many names. I decide I am kind of proud for discovering my pattern while I am in the teacher restroom. And, it should be noted, on the first day of the exercise. It suggests a certain ability to multi-task of which only a high school teacher would be proud. In fact, many an insightful thought has sprung from my four-wall sanctuary of silence. There are solid white bricks and no decorations at all in this restroom. But there is a quote of a Bible verse right above the soap dispenser. Not in a frame or anything. Just a piece of paper torn from another worn out teacher’s journal with the phrase, “Peace, my child, I am with you in every moment.” It has been tucked behind the dispenser for at least a year. I remember being super glad when I returned from summer break and saw the paper had not been removed. I think the teacher who put it there quit last year, but part of the beauty of the note is not knowing from where it came. 
    Michelle, Jared, Phillip.
    I head down to my IEP meeting with a swing in my step, thinking about how my therapist will be proud of me, solving the challenge and all. The conference room is smaller than it should be, but we fit a parent, a student named Stephanie, the school nurse, and two principals. I am not sure if I have been summoned here about grades or behavior, but I bring my gradebook, bulging, with disorganized stacks from my desk I meant to sort this morning. 
    The room smells of yesterday’s onions, exuding from the undumped garbage can in the corner. I am slightly envious of the lunch wrapper waste, which suggests time to at least order out. I wonder if the others do not smell it, or if we are all just pretending the room doesn’t stink. I smile with a practiced Zen calm and note this table needs a centerpiece. I consider buying the counselors an aquatic Zen environment with a fish and some plug-in Glade. I wonder about global warming for a minute and if fish affect the ozone in any possible way, or if they simply receive side effects. 
    The nurse clears her throat and begins the meeting, while the principals turn their walkie-talkies to mute the fuzz and interruptions. I wonder what my voice would sound like through the bubbles if we did have a fishbowl here. I pick up a pen and start taking notes, for the meeting I mean. Apparently, this student has a physical condition which requires some special requests and I was the teacher asked to be present to sign off on the document. In other words, it is my planning period and I am “free.” I nod and write SPECIAL REQUEST at the top of my page and prepare to bullet the items of concern below.
    The nurse explains to me what epilepsy is and asks if I am aware of grand and petit mal seizures. I nod having watched enough medical television shows to know. But then she says, “to help stop the seizures, this student has an implanted vagus nerve stimulator in her chest. Are you aware of what this is?” 
    I shake my head and realize everyone else at the meeting had already been informed of the forthcoming events. I glance at the clock to see if I am late. I am not. When time unfreezes and I realize it is my turn to speak, I ask, “Could you please repeat that?”
    “A vagus nerve stimulator. It delivers nerve therapy through a generator in her chest that provides stimulation on its own. Stephanie is fully capable of monitoring her condition, and she knows when the seizures are about to happen.” I glance at the fourteen-year-old and doubt her medical expertise, but she is smiling. “What this means in the classroom is when Stephanie is about to have a seizure, she may need to be stimulated by the magnet she wears on her wrist. She will raise her hand or get your attention. If she does this, then just call me and I will send a wheelchair to your room. Ask the rest of your class to put their heads down while you wait.”
    I am still back at the word “generator”, which conjures Frankenstein-like images, but a glance at Stephanie and I see only “teenager.” I can’t help but think of the burden she seems to be carrying so well. I am proud of Stephanie. I make a mental note to make her student of the day.  I want to hug her, but I pull myself back to the pool I am in and hate feeling like I am the only one swimming. I remind myself I have two master’s degrees and twenty years’ experience. Plus, I am a mother. I can do this. “Um, okay. So, what do I do while, I mean, if she actually has the seizure before you arrive?”
    “She usually has five minutes or so where she can tell something might happen. You will want to cushion her head and make space around her, but mostly wait for me to arrive. I should be there quite quickly.”
    I feel like this meeting needs a thesis. I jump in to redirect. “Okay, so if she does have a seizure, should I lay her on the ground? Please explain the magnet to me.” I see she has a bracelet on that must house the magnet.
    “Yes, you can lay her on the ground. You may want to swipe the magnet across her chest and count to one-one thousand-one. It will give her heart a little shock. If you need to repeat, you may do it again.”
    “Okay,” I say, but I am feeling like this training is not near as thorough as the suicide prevention and infectious disease training we do every year. “A magnet to her heart.”
    “But we will be on our way,” finishes the nurse, as if she has closed the case.
    I continue with a few follow-up questions. “Okay, should she be on her side?” 
    “Yes, you can roll her on her side.”
Stephanie was still smiling. She interjected that usually she just stays in her seat. I nod and am relieved. I think.
    “If she tells you she had a grand mal seizure, then you should know.”
    In my head I think-all the things. I should know all the things–with a sarcastic flare and a wink.
    The school nurse straightens her institutional frock and passes me a paper with a bulleted list of details as if she sees my focus drifting. The room seems to undulate and I cannot find my notebook. I move my stack of papers in my gradebook as I readjust. I am unfurling, but not at all like a flag or a goldfish would.
    “Wait. Will I get shocked too, or just her?”
    “Just her.” 
    I feel myself wanting to have a way to review this information. “So, wait, where do I move her hand to?”
    “This conversation is just to inform you of the family’s special requests, it isn’t to alarm you. The seizures have been under control for quite some time now.” 
    “When was the last time she had one?” I pick up my pen and make my first bulleted note, pulling my professionalism back together. I wish I was wearing a blazer.
    Her parents shocked to life right then and entered the conversation telling me it is rare and usually happens every few years. When it does happen, though, it may happen a few times in a row, like a little window of rain during an otherwise sunny period.
    I feel like I am swimming in fast circles as they continue on with information. I try to determine how many years she might be in my classroom, since I am the only French teacher, and calculate the length of time since her last episode. I factor in the kind of luck I have been having recently and figure it is likely to happen at some point in my classroom. I interrupt.
    “What about her other teachers? Do they know this?” 
    My principal assures me, “You are the representing teacher needed to sign-off the document, but the others will receive an email.”
    “Okay.” I sign the paper, wondering if it means I am the one who could be sued or the one who could not be sued. I shake hands and extricate myself from the conference room. I swing by the bathroom before returning to class. There is a perpetual, heavy lilac potpourri scent. It almost suffocates me, but the white walls offer a space to sigh without judgement. I take a moment to pause in the mirror. I forget to write Stephanie’s name in my journal.
    At this point I know I will never return to the therapist. A teacher does not have time for self-actualization if she is focusing on survival. It is Maslow’s hierarchy. We learn this in ED 101: survival before thrival. Plus, her office is far away, and the traffic is awful because I can only get appointments during rush hour. My therapist was nice, but if it causes anxiety to just get to her office, then it is probably better to just not go. Besides, I think I was doing the assignment wrong. 
    I know I need to get back to my classroom, but I want the chance to unravel. I search my reflection for signs that I already have. Imagining I have a nerve stimulator in my own chest, I lift two hands to my sternum. I pump rhythmically three times, knowing it is not the direction I received from the nurse a minute ago. I fake a few epileptic convulsions in my reflection and begin to wave a magic hand over my heart. But I give up my resuscitation to clench my fists and let out a silent, but mouth wide open, scream. The walls, after all, may be white, but they are not sound proof. In a final gesture of release and rebellion, I pick up a new roll of toilet paper and throw it at the door as hard as I can. With a thud it flops to the tile. It is still wrapped in its hygienic paper, so it doesn’t even come unrolled. I am about to try it again from further away when another teacher knocks at the door. So much for my moment of release. I quickly flush and place the new roll of toilet paper back on the handicap safety bar.
    I walk down the hall, straightening my skirt. When I get to my room, I shove the rosey journal into the bottom of my desk behind the smiley stickers I never use.
    That night at home, while propped up in bed, I google petit and grand mal seizures. I am shocked to find there are some other side effects I should have been informed of before signing the document. Among other things, Wikipedia lists screaming out and loss of bladder control as two possible and common results. I feel angry at the nurse – she did not tell me all the things. A few more clicks and I discover a link between screen-time and seizures. I follow the links and end up contemplating the likeliness of adult-onset epilepsy. I consider purchasing a new nasal spray, just to have on hand, that studies show is effective in seizure recovery. I draft an email to the nurse informing her of my discovery and am about to hit send when I realize it is past midnight. I force myself to set down my phone and roll over in bed.
    I dream of a goldfish, trapped in the roots of the flower in its aquatic environment. The goldfish screams from the bowl and although it is a muted cry, I can hear it. Suddenly my principal is giving me paper after paper to sign, and I try to interrupt, because I can see my goldfish needs me. I try to tell my principal, but he is not hearing me. Then the school nurse is there and she is talking to me too, but I cannot get my voice to be heard. My fish keeps making noises only I can hear. I wake up with a sweat, and the thought that my goldfish has drowned, only before I have a chance to tell my husband, I realize fish cannot drown. I am comforted enough to get out of bed and begin another day.
    A few nights later I dream of the fish again, only this time I am unpacking the fishbowl from a box. I am in the therapist’s office, behind the desk as if it is my office, and I am apparently moving in. I open the box and am pulling out the bowl. I remove the items inside and set them in neat piles on my desk. Aqua blue stones. Drowned Buddha. I pull the flowering lotus and its roots from the tank and it goes limp in my hands. I carefully lay it down on the desk, aware of the need to preserve life. Then I reach for the fish. I hold him cold and wet in my hand, but I look on my desk and do not know where to place the fish. For the rest of the dream I am searching for a place to put the fish while it gasps in my hands. It never occurs to me in my dream to place it back, exactly where it belongs: in the water.  When awake there is an easy fix, a clear right answer. But in the bubble of the dream, I am doing everything wrong. My intelligence comforts me as I rise to begin the day. I know I am better than the bubbles.
    Not even three weeks later, I am at the white board conjugating verbs. “Respirer: To breathe. In the Je form, drop the r,” when Stephanie raises her hand. 
    “Madame,” she says as I make eye contact and nod, “I think I just had a seizure.” 
    “Répétez, s’il vous plait,” I respond magnetically. And then the world speeds up. “A seizure?” I repeat, and although in my mind I run to the back of the room and begin CPR, I remember I have been trained for this. 
    I ask her if it was grand or mal and when she says she thinks petit, I ask if I should move her wrist to her heart. She says, sort of trance-like, “No I don’t think so.” I calmly ask a student to call the front office and send a nurse. The rest of the class, confused by the shift of energy in the room, adheres to my odd request: “Please put your heads down at this time.” 
    I touch Stephanie’s shoulder and worry only slightly about shock. I touch my hand to the back of her head and cradle it, even though she is still sitting up. Unsure of myself and my training, I kneel down and feel as if I must stay connected. As if letting go of her will cause the seizure to erupt. Still touching her head, I walk in a 180-degree arc to her other side. I kneel again. I am undulating. Her head bounces several times, but I am steady.
    And then the nurse is there outside my door with a wheelchair. It was all very smooth, like floating time. The nurse asked a few questions, and I reviewed the conversation. She affirmed my neglect to shock her heart was a good decision. We transferred her to the wheelchair and she was gone from class. When I remembered the other students were present, we talked for a moment about challenges. They were soothed to know I had been trained for such a time as this. I nodded. We continued to conjugate verbs for fifteen more minutes.
    At home I told my family about the magnetic heart with seizures as we ate dinner in front of the television. My husband assured me I was making more of the situation than was necessary. My daughter thought it sounded like science fiction, then the conversation covered over all my points. As I wiped down the counter and filled the dishwasher, my daughter retold her day. It included names and details that sounded like a muffled song, as if her voice were traveling through water. 
    And in bed hours later, my heart ached, knowing the part of my day that I could not remember was the names of my daughter’s friends. I found myself wishing there was a magnet in her wrist that I could touch to my heart on days like this. 
    The next day was Saturday and the smell of coffee woke me from a dream, which is impossible because I have a one cup Keurig and I am the only one who brews my cup. Nevertheless, it called to me and I stumbled out of bed. 
    I found my daughter in the kitchen trying to make a cup of hot chocolate. I knew I had heard the Keurig. I helped her refill the water tank and asked her if she thought we should get a goldfish. 
    “Like a real one?”
    “Of course, a real one. I just thought it would be soothing to have one on the counter, here in the kitchen. It would be there when we wake up, everyday. Swimming.” 
    “Nah,” she said. “Then ya’ gotta clean the bowl and we have a lot to do already.” 
    “True true,” I said. We sipped our warm drinks and leaned on the counter staring where the bowl might have been.
    “Mom,” she said. “You just gotta chill.” And she started to tell me about a time in running camp. “There is a technique I learned. Close your eyes and imagine a river. The river is small, with rocks in it and fish. It is flowing at a gentle pace, but always flowing. Now imagine a tree along its shore. It is fall and the leaves are orangish-brown. With each leaf that falls, give it a thought.” 
    I do. Stephanie. Damian. Samah
    “As the leaves fall, don’t count them, just name them.”
    Justice. Paul. Alyssa
    “And then allow your eyes to let them drift by, and out of sight as they move down the river.”
    Alexis. Katelyn. Mitchell. Tyree and Jamal.
    “Allow the water and the leaves to flow. The banks of the river are friendly with life and a breeze welcomes the movement.” 
    I like the exercise even more than the goldfish. It is organic more than it is zen. I am not drowning, not even a bit. I hug my child and then I whisper her name, but this time I draw the leaf to my heart and hold it there, as if magnetic.