Dear Prof. Luse, This is my revised research paper, as well as my story. I emailed them both to you this morning about 11:30 A.M. I am also turning them into your box just in case they didn't go through. Thanking you, Stephanie.The date on the note was March 25, 2008.
"So," I asked, "how do you die on March 10th and leave me a signed, handwritten note on the 25th?"
I had their attention. A few mouths dropped open.
"She sat right over there," I said, pointing to the spot. Heads turned, and in spite of her erratic attendance, all remembered.
"Yeah, the dirty blonde," said one fellow. Another thought her a strawberry blonde.
"Her name was Stephanie," I said, "and this is her story." I held up the typewritten paper found in my mailbox: "I Should Have Listened to My Parents." I did not read the whole thing, but mostly summarized: about a girl who'd met a guy under apparently auspicious circumstances, how wonderfully they'd hit it off, and how she'd planned to move in with him after graduating high school. She asked her Mom's advice, who didn't like it. Her boyfriend's advice? "You are eighteen years old. You don't have to listen to that. You can just move out."
So she did. After a year there was an argument during which the boyfriend yelled at her and "smacked" her in the mouth. "He had never yelled at me like that before. What did I do wrong?" She called a friend and asked again of her what she might have done "to set him off."
"What you did wrong? What the hell is wrong with you?"
She returns to her parents. The boyfriend later offers a weeping apology. He gets her a puppy to prove his sincerity. She goes back to him. The cycle begins again. The arguing resumes, and eventually he (in her words) "punched me in the eye and busted my lip."
And I told the class how, during the intervening week, after reading the story, the incident had begun driving me to distraction. I called the English department, told the secretary of the date discrepancy, and asked whether, when a student died, they were notified of it. No, was the answer. The secretary, who seemed genuinely concerned, suggested I call the family, which I was reluctant to do. So I googled her name, and found an obituary in the Orlando Sentinel, giving no information but that incongruous death date, March 10th. I also found a couple of MySpace pages, one in which her name was mentioned but lacking any other details, and another which appeared to be a memorial administered by her brother. But still no word of why, or how. I even thought of calling the sheriff's office, for the story she had written was a disturbing one. Surely there was some Source of Information I could contact to find out if someone was really dead. And then, after almost a week, I get an email - from the girl's mother.
Dear Prof, I am Stephanie's Mom...There is much more to the story that we are just now finding out.
I wanted to give you the ending... On Sun March 30, Stephanie passed away in her sleep, with the person she speaks of in her story. Her continued relationship with him cost her her life.
If you want to share her story and my e-mail with her class, that would be great. Because I am going to share it with anyone who will listen. It won't bring my daughter back, but maybe it could change the life of someone else.
So I acceded to the mother's wish. She provided many details Stephanie had left out, which I have time only to summarize here; it involves drugs and alcohol and a girl who knows she should sever her ties with the "man" in her life but keeps going back to him anyway. One night, after deceiving her mother about where she would be spending the night, the worst finally happens. She's already on an anxiety medication, which she supplements with alcohol and, according to the boyfriend, a couple of methadone pills. She goes to sleep in the wee hours of the morning and never wakes up. He was on a methadone program to combat an addiction to pain medication, but claims that she had acquired those pills on her own, not from him. At my last communication with her mother, the investigation into the circumstances of her death is ongoing, though the police claim that it will be very hard to prove that he supplied the pills.
I passed Stephanie's picture around the room. She had seemed to me - in the few conversations I'd had with her - a nice kid, genuinely sweet. She seemed to want to do well, apologizing for her spotty attendance and swearing to do better in the future. It was all just an impression, but I liked her.
As anyone who reads here regularly knows, I don't understand women, even as I find their nature the most fascinating and annoyingly complex thing on the planet. But do I really need to tell you, ladies, (as I told the class) that a man who hits you is not a man, but a barbarian? If he does it once, he'll do it again. If he can hit you, he can kill you. If he can even think of inflicting harm on the one person for whom a tender solicitude should possess his being, there's an evil brewing that love will not cure. You are supposed to be the object of his adoration, not his therapist. Do you think you can change him? You won't. And you don't really love him, either. You love an idea of what he could be if only...he would change, if only that good side you once saw would take control. But that won't happen either. If you think you love him enough, you may end up dying in his presence.
Hell, I don't know what to say. Another young light goes out, and for what? It's been dragging me down for the past couple of weeks. The mother, of course, just wants her daughter remembered, so I did my little bit. Here's Stephanie on a happier day, in her stepmother's embrace (a woman described by her biological mother as "a wonderful person").
The class ended on a suitably somber note that Monday, but by the next week we seemed back to normal. We talked some more about marriage, I expressing surprise (somewhat feigned, actually, having witnessed it for years) at the cynicism students invest in any prospect of matrimonial success.
"You guys are approaching it in a way that never occurred to me when I was your age," I said.
"Well look at the examples we've got to follow," said one fellow, which got laughter all around.
"Well don't look at me," I said, and they laughed some more. Many of them come from broken homes. I can't tell you how many "My Parents' Divorce" papers I've read.
And then I said, "Why don't you just make the world a better place, and stop using others as an excuse?"
But through it all I was keenly aware of the empty seat two rows back against the left wall, and probably will be whenever I'm assigned to that classroom. And maybe some of the students were as well, but simply gave no sign. It's almost understandable that they would rather not think about it, pretend to forget. Almost. That's how it will be for most of us. Except for those closest, the world will forget, and quickly at that, almost as though you were never here.
Maybe some of you can take the trouble to remember Stephanie, for a few days at least, and add her, and her family, to your prayers. Her Mom will thank you.
A couple of weblogs have linked to this post. They are Alicia at Fructus Ventris, and Genevieve Kineke of Feminine Genius. Visit them.
Add to those Opine-editorials. And add to that one of my old favorites, Dale Price.