Inclusion and Exclusion in Our Daily Lives PART II: STEADYING GAZES
BERNICE M. FISHER
THE TAMARIX BUSH
Julian Carter came charging down the hall at the end of third period; his red face and clenched fists meant trouble for someone. Not for me, I hoped. Carter was allergic to first-year teachers. Some students gave the principal quick, nervous smiles as he passed; a few walked faster and looked away. He arrived at my end of the hall in time to see a sophomore boy hurtling through a doorway.
"Slow ‘er down there, buddy!" Carter growled, grabbing the boy’s arm. Wincing in the principal’s iron grip, the boy struggled to regain his balance.
"Okay," he said. "Yeah. Okay."
"Miss Gardner—please stop in my office after school today. Three o’clock. Be on time." Carter turned abruptly and walked back down the hall.
I did a quick examination of conscience. He must have seen me leave school early after my last class yesterday for my dental appointment. Or maybe someone saw me uptown at the dentist’s office. Garden City was one of those small towns where everyone knew whose check was good and whose husband wasn’t.
Everyone in town knew Julian Carter—some, because their kids went to school; others, because he was in demand as a speaker. He gave speeches to the Brown County League of Women Voters, the Garden City Chamber of Commerce, the Knights of Columbus, and sometimes, to groups as far away as the P.T.A. at St. Leo's, ten miles down the highway. His emotional reading of the epistle at Sunday Mass at St. Bridget's must have inspired many. At faculty meetings, I admired his vocabulary far more than I admired the content of his speeches; he could wrap an idea in so many layers of verbosity that I had trouble staying awake.
By 1962, most school districts in southern Minnesota had closed their schools and voted to consolidate. With its population of eight thousand people and an imposing downtown area with an "Our Own" Hardware, two restaurants and a bar, Garden City was chosen as the site of the new school. Its main attraction was added to ensure a majority vote for consolidation: a magnificent gymnasium with recessed lighting, three water fountains and a scoreboard that flashed red and white numbers—white for the Garden City Patriots and red for the visiting team. Most important, it was large enough to accommodate basketball tournaments.
The new school board hired Julian Carter as the consolidated school’s first principal. By the time I came to town in1968, right out of college, Carter had a reputation for being a law-and order administrator who knew how to keep students and teachers in line. I was probably in trouble. Was I worried? Not really. Well, maybe a little.
# # #
The only thing in Julian Carter’s office that showed any sign of life besides Carter himself was a dejected-looking fern, its pale green fronds crisp and brown at the edges. By his sixth year at Garden City High, he was good at playing the autocrat, so I was expecting the worst. Dressed like an executive—navy blue suits, white shirts ugly ties—he expected the same formality from his male teachers, who regularly defied his edict by wearing sports jackets and turtlenecks. On the good side of thirty, he had vivid blue eyes, the body of an athlete and a smile out of a toothpaste ad. However, these appealing characteristics were cancelled out by his obnoxious personality. Besides that, he bit his fingernails—passive-aggressive behavior. I knew that from my psych class.
He frowned, and leaned back in his chair. "So. How’s Laurella Shanley doing in your class?"
His question caught me off guard. I didn’t expect to be discussing Laurella Shanley.
"She’s absent a lot, but she always makes up her tests."
He sighed. "We have a problem here, Miss Gardner. Laurella is absent far too often. I’ve contacted Brown County Social Services and explained the situation. Her mother keeps Laurella out of school to babysit that retarded brother of hers. Not good for a brilliant girl like Laurella to miss that much school." He went on and on about how Laurella could be next year’s valedictorian, about her leadership qualities, about how she would miss out on a scholarship if she didn’t get good grades, and I kept thinking, So? What’s your point?
"How many times did she miss your class last month?"
I leafed through my grade book. "Seven."
"We here at Garden City High have an obligation to see to it that Laurella gets a top-notch education. Don’t you agree?"
"Yes, I do." Why else would I be here? Give me a break!
"And she won’t get an education if she doesn’t come to school. . ."
Brilliant. A typical Carterism.
"Look, I need you to talk to the social worker and express your concerns. Social Services is likely to take action if more than one person weighs in on this, especially if that person is one of her teachers. Are you willing to talk to the social worker and back me up on this? To tell Mrs. Eldredge—she’s the social worker—that Laurella’s absences are hindering both her scholastic progress and her social development? And all because her mother makes her stay home to care for a brother who should be in an institution?"
"I’m not sure I can—"
"Dammit, Marianne, that brother of hers can’t speak, can’t feed himself or dress himself or—do anything by himself. He’s just a—a thing. A burden to society. He belongs in an institution, and I’m going to see that he gets there." Carter picked up a pen and scribbled a few notes on a pad. "I’ve had some unproductive discussions with Hazel Shanley about Laurella’s absences, but I’m not giving up. Think it over and get back to me by Friday, because the social worker is coming on Monday. Okay?"
I was halfway out the door when he said, "Miss Gardner—"
"The next time you decide to leave early, check in at the office first, will you? We can’t have teachers leaving early. Gives the school a bad image around town. Okay?"
At first I felt a sense of pride about being taken into Carter’s confidence; I was only a first-year teacher, after all, yet he respected my judgment enough to ask for my help. But then, after I thought about it, it didn’t seem right for me to get involved in Carter’s big project without knowing more about Laurella’s brother.
Could I really refuse to help him? Paul Gabriel, the math teacher, told me the story of Carter’s vendetta against Hazel Shanley—how he had argued with Hazel at a parents’ conference and badgered her with phone calls about Laurella’s absences until she had appealed to her parish priest, Father Mulcahy, to speak in her defense. It’s a family matter, the priest told Carter, so buzz off. Not in those exact words, Paul had added hastily, but that’s what it amounted to. And nobody with any sense tangles with Father Mulcahy, so Carter backed off. I don’t think he’ll give up, though. When he gets his teeth in something, he hangs on. Besides, Joe Hofland, the chairman of the school board, is pushing him to do something about Walter, so Carter probably doesn’t have much choice. Or so I’ve heard. Hey, did you really jump off the Osceola bridge into the Mississippi?
Would I lie to you in the faculty room, with half a dozen people listening?
Of course, I did.
Why? Why would you risk breaking your neck by doing a thing like that?
Just to see if I could.
# # #
Laurella Shanley was still sitting at her desk when the bell rang for the end of the third period the next day.
Laurella glanced at the wall clock, picked her test up and put it on my desk. It was unusual for her to linger over a test. She was usually the first one finished.
"Hope I got them all right. That was a hard test."
A look of poverty clung to Laurella, from her gaudy shirt with distorted pink flowers to the faded ribbon in her dark hair. A stranger seeing her for the first time might have mistaken her languid movement and speech as signs of indifference, or even stupidity, but she was one of the most brilliant students in the junior class.
"Hey, Miss Gardner, we’re having a birthday party for Walter this Saturday. Mom said I should ask you, because you’ve been so good about helping me make up work when I’ve been absent. It’s Walter’s eighteenth. Maybe we won’t have him with us much longer."
"What’s wrong with him, Laurella?"
"Nothing, but a social worker called yesterday to tell us that the county might put Walter back in the crazy farm. That would kill Mom. The last time he was there, he just stopped eating. It broke his heart, being away from us. Mom tried to drive there every day, but she just couldn’t keep doing that, she got so tired. He needs to be with us. He’s part of our family. And Mom—well, she’s pretty determined to keep him home. And when Mom decides something should happen, she makes it happen."
"An eighteenth birthday is important. Is there something he’d like?"
Laurella frowned. "You don’t need to give him anything. Mom says you’ll be our special guest."
"Oh, come on, Laurella. There must be something I can bring."
"Well, he’d love a new set of pastels. His are about used up. And Mom’s budget is kind of tight. Walter’s a good artist. You’ll see."
I made a feeble excuse about checking on an appointment first. I hated the lie, but I needed time to weigh the consequences of socializing with the Shanleys. Carter was expecting my decision on Friday, but the party was on Saturday. Bad timing, for sure.
After a couple days of weighing the pros and cons, I decided to accept Laurella’s invitation so I could meet the Shanleys and draw my own conclusions about Walter. I left a note in Carter’s box on Friday, telling him I’d call him at home over the weekend with my decision.
# # #
The Shanleys lived on the edge of town. I passed a cornfield and stopped to watch a plow throwing up clods of black dirt and dried-up cornstalks, soon buried beneath the newly-turned soil. I walked past ramshackle houses with clapboard siding and peeling paint, and I smelled the musty odor of a pond suffocating beneath a green carpet of algae. A slip of paper in my pocket had Laurella’s address—23 Maple Street.
The number twenty-three was barely visible on the doorframe of an old house with a screened-in front porch—a rented house, one of the other teachers said. A Tamarix bush dominated part of the front yard, its clouds of pink blossoms cascading over the chain link fence enclosing the yard.
A gangly boy wearing overalls was peering at me between the branches of the Tamarix bush. His arms were bent at the elbows, like a baby bird’s wings when it was newly hatched, and he watched me with eyes as large and brown as Laurella’s. This must be Walter, I thought. When I paused at the gate, he ran toward me, an awkward confusion of uncoordinated arms and legs. A thick shock of black hair hung over his forehead, as if someone had put a bowl on his head and cut around it. When he spoke, his words were trapped in a guttural outpouring of sounds.
"Hi, Walter." I stopped at the gate. Would he run off if I opened it? Walter smiled and spoke again.
"I’m sorry. I don’t understand," I said, shaking my head. He stared at me for a few seconds. A single tear ran down his cheek.
"Walter?" Laurella’s voice. Walter turned and, with shuffling, trotting movements, made his way back to the house. I followed him down a sidewalk with crab grass growing through the cracks. Laurella was holding the screen door open.
"Glad you could come."
The Shanleys’ house was small, but immaculate. A well-worn linoleum with blue flowers on a maroon background covered the living room floor. My gaze lingered for a moment on a sagging green sofa; then I walked across the room to examine the picture that hung above it— the Tamarix bush, done in pastels. The feathery blossoms were so finely drawn and shaded that they seemed as real as the bush itself.
"Do you like Walter’s picture, Miss Gardner?" Laurella asked.
"It’s beautiful," I said. Walter smiled and nodded.
"Oh, Miss Gardner. Gee, I’m glad you could come."
I turned to see an attractive woman with dark, shoulder-length hair. Her eyes were as large and wary as Laurella’s, but framed by the tell-tale lines of a hard life. The stubborn set of her jaw suggested that she did not yield easily to misfortune. She reached up to push a few strands of hair away from her forehead, smiled a faint, apologetic smile, and wiped her hands on the flowered apron hanging limply over her well-worn jeans.
"Hey, thanks for all the help you’ve been giving to Laurella—helping her make up the work she missed, I mean. My, you’re as pretty as a picture, Marianne—can I call you Marianne? Such lovely hair. Laurella talks about you all the time. And you brought Walter a gift. That is so cool! That picture you were looking at—the one over the sofa? Our Walter drew that. He’s quite an artist, isn’t he?"
I agreed that he was.
When we had finished the birthday cake and the ice cream, and Walter had managed, after three tries, to blow out his eighteen candles while we cheered him on, Laurella gathered up a few packages wrapped with comic book paper or hand-drawn flowers, laid them on the table in front of Walter and began unwrapping them.
"These are all for your, Walter." There was a picture book, a pair of red suspenders, a blue sweater, but it was my gift of pastels that made Walter laugh. He turned to Laurella, murmured something I couldn’t understand, and sat on the floor.
"Walter says he wants to draw a picture for you, Miss Gardner," Laurella laid the box of pastels on the floor beside him. "What do you want him to draw?"
"The Tamarix bush. If he doesn’t mind."
"That’s Walter’s favorite thing to draw. You can do that—can’t you, Walter."
Walter smiled and nodded. He reached out with his foot and lifted one of the pastels out of the box by grasping it between his toes—longer than most people’s toes, I thought, then sketched an outline on the sheet of paper Laurella laid on the floor beside him. I drank coffee out of a white mug and watched the Tamarix bush take shape beneath Walter’s careful strokes.
"Mom’s really worried," Laurella said in a low voice, after her mother had vanished into the kitchen with the ice cream dishes. "The social worker is coming on Monday, and we’re going to try really hard to talk her out of, well—what she wants to do." She nodded toward Walter and put a finger to her lips. "He understands most everything," she whispered, "so we have to be careful that he doesn’t hear us. We don’t want to get him worried."
I watched, fascinated, as the Tamarix bush grew more distinct on the sheet of paper—the feathery leaves, the spidery pink blossoms, the green haze of foliage.
"Want to see some more of Walter’s pictures?" Laurella rummaged through some papers in a kitchen drawer and handed them to me. "Walter spends a lot of time drawing."
I looked at the pictures, admired each one, but what I wanted was to talk to Laurella’s mother. I picked up my mug, excused myself and walked out to the kitchen.
Hazel Shanley was standing in front of a sink filled with soapy water. I found a clean towel and began drying dishes as she rinsed them.
"I imagine Laurella told you about Walter—and about the social worker," Hazel sighed.
"I’m so discouraged about this whole thing. I’m sure if that Carter guy understood about Walter, he wouldn’t try to take him away from us." She picked up some dry plates and lifted them to a shelf in the cupboard. "If they put Walter in that place again, he won’t live through it. I know he won’t. He’ll starve himself like he did last time. Those people up at the school—they don’t understand.
"It’s not like we don’t take care of Walter, Miss Gardner. Janie—my oldest daughter—she’s taking time off from work to be here so she can help me explain to the social worker that everyone in our family takes turns taking care of Walter. Janie comes on Fridays if I have to work an extra shift. And my son Larry—he has a farm down the road near Lyle—he comes when he’s done with his chores, on Mondays and Fridays. He lives only two miles away, but he’s really busy this time of year, so it’s hard for him to come sometimes.
"I don’t keep Laurella out of school unless someone can’t come to take care of Walter, and that’s not very damned often. That social worker can’t say we don’t take good care of him, either, because we do. He’s part of our family. Is there anything you can do to help us, Miss Gardner? We can’t let Social Services just dump Walter in an institution again. He’s a human being. He must have some rights. And he’s a good artist. That should be worth something."
But how about Laurella, I kept thinking. Are you thinking about her rights?
"I’ll try," I said, feeling like a hypocrite. "I really will try to make Mr. Carter understand what’s happening here." It could cost me my job when he found out that I had come here today, I thought. He would surely see my presence at the Shanleys’ as a betrayal. But it was something I had to do. I had to see Walter for myself.
I followed Hazel back to the living room. She leaned over to pick up the picture Walter had drawn. "Hey, you drew this for Miss Gardner? Nice job, Walter. Yeah, that’s great."
I was disappointed. It was only a rough copy of the picture above the sofa, not at all what I expected. I took the picture from Hazel’s hand, and thanked Walter.
"Walter loves that bush—stands out there sometimes and watches the wind blow through the branches. It’s so fragile looking. Each picture he draws of the Tamarix bush is a bit different. From a different angle. That’s what good artists do, don’t they, Miss Gardner? That’s what my older son—Larry—says. He’s a good artist, too.
"I’m so proud of my children. They know that a family has to stick together. It’s a tough old world out there."
After my visit with the Shanleys, I knew that I couldn’t help Carter put Walter in an institution. He was not "a thing," not like the cornstalks in that field I passed—rejects, to be buried and kept forever out of sight. He was a sentient being whose thoughts were trapped in a confusion of sounds unintelligible to the uncaring world. He was part of a family, and their efforts to take care of him had drawn them closer together. What right did Carter or I have to interfere? Or the state, either? Yet I couldn’t dismiss a nagging question: How about Laurella?
When I dialed Carter’s phone number, his answering machine recorded my call. He would be out of town until Tuesday. The social worker was coming to visit the Shanleys on Monday evening, so I would have to make my own decision. I had already risked my job by visiting the Shanleys; I would cut my own throat if I told the social worker that Walter should stay with his family. But that was what I really believed.
I expected to get a "See me" note from Carter in my box on Tuesday, but nothing happened. He must certainly have heard of the social worker’s decision; A jubilant Laurella had bounced into class on Tuesday morning to let me know that Social Services had agreed to let Walter live at home. On Friday, I couldn’t stand the suspense any longer, so I decided to precipitate the crisis and have done with it. When I stopped in the office after my last class, Carter’s secretary said he had left school early, and he wouldn’t be back until Monday.
# # #
Garden City had a maze of walking trails that circled the town and followed the county road out to Silver Lake and beyond. On Saturday morning I set out for my usual three-mile jog. It was one of those days with puffy clouds floating in an azure blue sky, an unseasonably warm day for late October in southern Minnesota, so warm I took my fleece jacket off and tied the sleeves around my waist.
I was on my way back to town when I saw a man standing near the shoreline, just about even with a small picnic area with benches, where I had planned to stop for a snack. No one else was in sight. Not a good place to stop, I thought, so I kept running.
"Hey, Marianne!" Julian Carter was wearing a dark blue suede jacket and jeans. I had never seen him in anything except a suit and a tie before, which was the reason I didn’t recognize him from a distance. I couldn’t tell from his expression whether he was about to chew me out for going to the birthday party, or for screwing up his chances of putting Walter in an institution. He walked up to one of the picnic tables, sat down on a bench, and watched me running toward him. He didn’t look happy to see me—or sorry, either, for that matter.
"Sit here," he said, "and let’s talk." I sat on the other side of the table, pulled out my water bottle and took a drink, probably my last before Carter led me to the guillotine. I felt the warm embrace of the sun across my shoulders and heard the muted harmony of goldfinches invisible beneath clusters of green and gold leaves and braced myself for an unpleasant encounter.
"So—I hear you visited the Shanleys last Saturday," Carter said. He didn’t even look at me. He leaned back against the table and stared out at the lake where some Canada geese were flying south in a V-formation. At least they had sense enough to leave before the snow came.
"I did. Laurella invited me to Walter’s birthday party."
"And what you learned there made you change your mind about telling the social worker that Walter should be in an institution. Is that correct?"
"Well, yes, but—"
"I spoke to Mrs. Eldredge on Tuesday morning. She called to tell me that she had decided to let Walter stay at home."
"I know. Laurella told me. She was so excited."
He didn’t say anything for what seemed like a long time. Just sat there, staring at the lake.
"After talking to the lady, I had the impression that she was more swayed by her admiration for Walter’s artistic talents than she was by Hazel Shanley’s hysterics or your plea for Walter’s human rights. Do you have that impression?"
I didn’t miss the edge of sarcasm in Carter’s voice. I had expected bombastic recriminations, not this quiet, deadly questioning. "Well maybe she said she thought that Walter’s drawing of the Tamarix bush was quite a remarkable achievement, given the challenges he faces. And I agreed."
"There’s one thing about this whole business that bothers me."
Here it comes, I thought.
"You took a huge risk here. High stakes, too—Laurella’s future, Walter’s future, your future. Not like jumping off the Osceola bridge, when you only had to worry about breaking your own neck. Oh, don’t look so surprised. Stories get around, you know. The bottom line is, you took it upon yourself to countermand my plan to help Laurella. So, what do you suggest we do to help her graduate, now that nothing will change in her life? Walter is still there for her to feed, babysit, whatever, when she should be in school. The ball is in your court, Marianne."
"I told Mrs. Eldredge that we were doing everything we could to help Laurella—that I was helping her with work she missed, and that one of the girls in her geometry class is helping her with that, though she doesn’t need much help. She’s doing very well in geometry."
"And you’ll continue giving her special help all year?"
"As long as she needs it."
"Right. Well, we’ve done our best, haven’t we, and we’ll continue to do what we can to help Laurella graduate."
He sat there for so long that I was thinking of walking away. "So—is it safe to say that, if it hadn’t been for that picture in the Shanleys’ living room, Mrs. Eldredge might not have agreed to let Walter continue to lives at home."
"What else does he draw? Draws with his feet, you said? That’s amazing."
"I saw just a few of his pictures."
"So? Were they well done?"
"Oh, yes. Quite well done."
"Pictures of people? Flowers? What?"
"The Tamarix bush. It’s his favorite subject."
"All of the pictures he drew were of the Tamarix bush?"
"I think so. But—Julian—does it matter what he draws? I mean, that’s not the point."
"No, I suppose not. Well, maybe we’d better be getting back." He stood up, smiled and held his hand out. I hesitated, then took his hand and stood up. "You’ve been took. You know that, don’t you?" He smiled—a humorless, patronizing smile.
"The Shanleys inviting you to the birthday party—showing you the picture over the sofa—telling you Walter drew it—they set you up. Hazel Shanley has outwitted us both. Can’t you see that?"
"No, I can’t."
"Think about it. I’m sure you’ll figure it out eventually."
We walked back to town, past the row of grain terminals that stood like sullen sentries on the south side of Main Street, past the Our Own Hardware with its shiny green tractor in the window. I thought of Walter, sitting on the bare linoleum, the pastels spread out beside him, the Tamarix bush slowly taking shape, and I remembered Hazel Shanley’s worried look when she reached for Walter’s picture:
Each picture he draws of the Tamarix bush is a bit different. From a different angle. That’s what good artists do, don’t they, Miss Gardner? That’s what my older son—Larry—says. He’s a good artist, too.
As she listens to Mrs. Shanley talk about her son Walter's rights, the narrator, Marianne, wonders about Mrs. Shanley's daughter Laurella's rights as well. As you read this story where do your loyalties lie? Why?
Was Marianne "took" as the principal tells her?
What might you make to the social worker if you were in her place?
Do you think the stand she took was courageous?
My first year of teaching brought me to a small town high school. The principal was upset about one of our brighter students who was frequently absent, and he said he thought it was unfair that the girl's mother kept her out of school to take care of her retarded brother. I had seen the brother out in his yard on my way to school, and he always waved at me. These people were quite poor, and one day I got the bright idea of buying steaks and inviting myself to dinner. They were quite surprised but happy to have me. While I was there, I saw how they treated the retarded brother--how they talked to him and praised him, and he seemed quite happy. The family members took turns taking care of him at home, because he had been starving himself to death in an institution. I realized then that this boy was the unifying force that held the family members together, because they were taking turns to take care of him.
I understood that a retarded person can be the catalyst to family unity, and that, unlike the principal, I began to understand that every human being has value and is able to contribute something to society, even the small part of society that encompasses his own family members.
BERNICE M. FISHERis a graduate of St. Catherine’s College in St. Paul, Minnesota, She
has taught literature and creative writing at Hill-Murray High School
in Maplewood, Minnesota, for twenty-five years. Her short stories have appeared in The Young Judean. The Baltimore Times, and in a previous anthology entitled Love after 70. She has also published non-fiction articles in Ramsey County History Magazine, (Spring 2004 and 2006 issues) and The Catholic Digest, (August 1985).