Inspired by Timothy O’Brien’s The Things They Carried, I wrote my own vignettes.
My bent blue six-inch ruler lies in my pencil box everyday, next to all of my pencils, sticky notes, erasers, highlighters and notebook fringes – remnants and mementos of my time in all of my classes.
Bent ruler. A kind of oxymoron.
Long since rendered useless, it never was used to measure anything and never could be used to draw a straight line now. It feels incomplete – its short length just another reminder of what it lacks.
Still, I keep it with me. Maybe I am just too lazy to throw it out. Maybe I am too sentimental. It’s stuck with me since second grade. Tucked away underneath my notes, books and laptop.
I first brought it with me when I was asked by my principal to go to sixth grade for math class, eager to please my classmates and teacher with my knowledge, love of learning and new school supplies like my protractor, compass and pens.
My bent blue six-inch ruler. An anomaly that doesn’t belong, just like me.
On my first day, a girl named Rebecca commented about the fact that I did not belong in that class, a fact I was painfully aware as I was dwarfed by even the shortest of my classmates, just as my blue six inch ruler was smaller than all of the rulers around it.
But Mr. Czajkowski, my sixth grade math teacher, was happy to take care of me, making sure that my classmates would treat me with respect even if my feet didn’t touch the floor, just as I was happy to take care of my bent blue six-inch ruler even if it didn’t even touch the bottom of my pencil box. My classmate Rebecca eventually became one of my biggest supporters in the class, even asking if I could teach the class as a substitute teacher if Mr. Czajkowski was ever absent. Mr. Czajkowski would always joke and appreciate my second grader quirks, never treating me like I was out of place, but rather as an equal.
I spent three years with these classmates, growing close to them, but painfully separating when they left for high school. Since then, I have grown accustomed to the painful separation of my math classmates leaving me every year, graduating and leaving me behind: a twisted truth, but one I have to bear. After I see them leave, I worry that perhaps I was not straight enough with them and never told them how much they meant to me. Other times, when I reflect back on my time with them, I find it difficult to accurately measure my experiences with them, and wish that I could join them in their next classes for just a little longer.
As the faces, names, memories and classes change, just one constant has remained in my pencil box through my math classes in all these years: my bent blue six inch ruler. My pencil box would not be complete without it.
A pickled appendix lies somewhere in a jar in a hospital or research facility. A part of me, a visitor at some place probably miles away from any part of the country I’ve ever visited. When I was eight, half a lifetime ago, on the other side of the globe, I threw up. Not discreetly in the back of a bathroom, either. Dramatically, in front of everyone, at a banquet in India that my relatives had set up specially as a family reunion in honor of my parents, sister and I visiting from America for a brief vacation. My plate, piled high with food, extravagant sweets and delicacies, lay sadly untouched off to the side. Eyeing all the idlis, dosas, chutneys, mysor pak and other treats, I had grabbed a sample of each when my insides decided to cease to cooperate, throbbing inside me with an unbearable force. I lay in pain for the next two weeks, back hunched over like a certain man from Notre Dame, whenever I tried to walk. I mysteriously recovered, only to face similar pain when I returned to the US a month later. I was admitted to the emergency room, where I was told that my appendix had likely ruptured a month earlier. Miraculously, I had survived and could have surgery in America, where the care would be much better than in India. I recuperated for two weeks in the hospital and when I returned to school, my math classmates and teacher greeted me with much fervor. I had survived a near-death experience and thought I was given a second life, allowing me to properly appreciate my time on Earth. I still had much to learn.
Mr. Czajkowski, my sixth grade math teacher, was finally my actual class teacher when I reached sixth grade. Unfortunately, I had no idea that by the time I reached his class, Mr. Czajkowski would be sick and be forced to take an extended leave of absence. In my seventh grade year, it was announced that Mr. Czajkowski was entering hospice. I had never had to face another person with death before. To me, death wasn’t real. It may have been immaturity, foolishness or unwillingness to face the truth, but despite other people telling me what hospice meant and how it was likely that Mr. Czajkowski was approaching the end, I refused to believe them. I thought that cancer was just a distant six-letter word. It had never touched me, my family, friends or anyone else I had ever cared about. Even when Mr. Czajkowski visited school once at the end of the previous school year and my fellow students commented about how he had aged or how unwell he looked, I still saw the same Mr. Czajkowski, speaking kindly to me, smiling and laughing. The possibility of him not returning to school never occurred to me; it was never a matter of if, but rather when. Our counselors advised us to write cards to him soon, before… Not cards that wished that he would get well soon, either. Just cards that thanked him for being such a great teacher who had touched our lives and who we greatly appreciated.
But I didn’t.
In my mind, writing a card to him became a kind of twisted game. Writing to him would make his imminent death real. It would show that I accepted that it would happen.
But I didn’t.
Until I wrote a letter to him, Mr. Czajkowski would not have my permission to die. And I would withhold my permission. Without me, one of his favorite students writing to him, a student who he said he would have liked to adopt if he ever wanted to have kids, Mr. Czajkowski would not die. Mr. Czajkowski would not die until I had written a letter to him and he had seen it.
So I didn’t.
I didn’t write a letter to him. Not for two weeks.
After two weeks, I thought heavily about the topic. I didn’t want to make a poor decision. I was always a good kid who always made the right decision. I knew in my heart that it was foolish, illogical and a poor decision to make. So I resolved to write a letter the next day.
The next day, our teachers announced to us in class that Mr. Czajkowski had passed.
I wrote a letter to his family that my teachers took to his funeral. I didn’t know any of his family members and didn’t know if he had ever spoken to them of me. I didn’t know what Mr. Czajkowski’s last thoughts were – if he thought of me and noted the fact that I hadn’t written to him. But I wrote a letter to his family to try to make up for the mistake – not exactly the straight path I would have enjoyed taking, but a warped conclusion instead.
As Student Council President the next year, I helped raise enough money to plant a tree and buy a plaque in honor of Mr. Czajkowski. Unfortunately, due to the number of people that needed to sign off on such a thing to get it done, no tree was ever planted. I can accept it, though. I still remember Mr. Czajkowski in my heart, in my dreams and when I read the math book he gifted me. And every time I go to a math class and pull my pencil box out, I know I have my bent blue six inch ruler next to me.