My seventh-grade teacher was murdered. It was a random mugging, less than a mile from my house the summer before eighth grade. I don’t remember how I found out. This was before the internet let tragedy spread like a brush fire. What I remember most is her funeral. I had a hand-me-down suit from my brother because mine no longer fit me. It was itchy and tight. I sat in the third or fourth pew with my friend, Quentin.
At one point, I looked at Quentin and he was close to sobbing. His eyes were red and wet, tears spilling out onto his face. His crying made me cry, neither of us hardened yet to the stoic coldness expected of men. We were sad boys. What happened next wasn’t on purpose. I swear. But it was the best/worst thing that could’ve happened. I farted.
I was steeling myself to hold off the tears but there was an obvious oversight. It wasn’t loud, just a quick toot, but Quentin heard it. His sobbing shifted to suppressed laughter. I followed suit and soon we both tried not to laugh or cry, and failed miserably at both. We huddled together, draped our arms over each other and ducked our heads. Those around us assumed we were hiding our pain, which was partially true.
Life is balance, and amidst the heavy drama, comedy pushes through. It wasn’t the first time I had learned this, but it remains the easiest example.
Miss Wierzbicki wasn’t my favorite teacher. She could be antagonistic and challenging. She was a harsh grader. And she wasn’t always nice. But she had a wicked sense of humor. The best kind. I remember her telling a truly awful joke about the Challenger explosion (some years after the fact) and still taking the time to explain it to me when I didn’t get it. I’ve always been naïve beyond my years.
I remember after she was killed talking to some classmates about it. Friends who had, just days before, talked about how terrible Miss Wierzbicki was, were now talking about how great she was and how sad they were that she was gone. It was sad, but even then I knew that didn’t suddenly make her the greatest teacher ever.
I do credit her with teaching me about the balance. She would’ve appreciated the juxtaposition of the fart with the heaviness of the funeral, I’m sure of it. But then, she was the one who taught me the word juxtaposition in the first place.
“Mr. Murnane, the juxtaposition of your A average with how disruptive you’re being in class is troublesome.”
See what I mean?
People are complicated. Complex, and messy. So is life. It’s heavy, sometimes. And extremely difficult. And dark. So, so dark. But there’s always light. Somewhere. You just have to know where to look. Sometimes it’s in a familiar face, a stranger’s smile, or a loved one’s touch. And sometimes, it’s just a fart in a church.