“Carolyn Park Elementary” by Louis Bourgeois

Being in a public school for the first time is like being at the bottom of a lake; no nuns and priests, no Holy Water or Catechism, or Crucifixion—just a herd of confused children, everywhere, and not a single person knows your name on this first day, or wants to know your name; there are black kids twice as tall as you who lick their lips as you walk by and teachers as petrified as the solid green concrete walls, and there are rows and rows of yellow buses sitting idle like so many train cars shuffling you off to an inane destiny. You’ve never been on a school bus before but now you’ve been assigned one and even told to sit in a certain seat for the rest of the school year. Styx blares away through the scratchy sounding speakers at both extremes of the bus. You still can hear the song as if you’d just heard it yesterday,

Come sail away, come sail away, come sail away with me
Come sail away, come sail away, come sail away with me
Come sail away, come sail away, come sail away with me

and the music makes you feel quite unlike you’ve ever felt before, some ultra identification with some schoolgirl’s face you’ve never quite known before and you are somehow made sad by the morning rays that penetrate the thick school bus windows and the strange whispers of the other elementary school children cover your mind with darkness you’ve never experienced before.

At the school, which is a brand new school, just opened by the State of Louisiana for mostly working class children, you try to piece the puzzle together in your little second-grade mind. You can’t but help to wonder why Mother took you out of Catholic school in the middle of the year; there was talk of debt and bills that you remember hearing vaguely at the kitchen table this morning. Already you’re being persecuted for some unnamable reason. It is X-mas time and you are enjoying a small fold-out box lined with various
flavored Life Savers. The cherry ones nearly take your feet off the ground, but on the degrading minimalist state-made playground which has no character at all and only a lone swing set and a set of monkey bars to play on, you become frightened because something is not right here, your child/animal intuition tells you so; you run away from the other children who seem to appear all at once as cardboard figures and you try to escape the school ground by opening the latch on the aluminum gate, but some ugly teacher sees you and catches you before you can make your escape and grabs you at the back of the neck and punishes you by making you sit on one of the new metal benches that are too cold to sit on this time of year.  Everyone stares at you with their vacant un-human eyes because you are the only one who is alone.

Frightened by your own loneliness, you somehow gather the courage to ask the teacher if you can play with the other children and after a rather severe admonishment she concedes, but as soon as you try to kick the ball around like everyone else a tall fourth grader, Lisa, you’ll never forget her dreadful personage and the name that was attached to it, tells the other children not to play with you because you’re new and your hair is too long and somehow she found out you’re parents are getting divorced and all at once you become as rancid to them as rotten meat.

In utter confusion, you enter the cafeteria and the first person you see is your future step-grandmother who stands suspiciously behind a plane of plastic glass where she works serving food—a deep embarrassment nestles down in the pit of your stomach although you’re not sure why.  Is it because she’s practically a stranger yet knows you so well and already expects you to call her grandma?  Are you embarrassed because she works in the cafeteria where she has to serve everyone, no matter who?  Is it already that class-consciousness is sweeping its evilness across your brain, destroying you by degrees?

You have the strength to cry in your disarray and you sort of circle the cafeteria hoping no one will notice you, but at the same time hoping someone will tell you what do with yourself, and then, as if awakening from one nightmare to another, a long line of Down’s Syndrome children from the special school down the road are all lined up to eat in the cafeteria. Your step-grandmother-to-be glances at you pensively as if she knew this was doing you great harm, and then she anxiously prepares her place in the line where she administers the mash potatoes and gravy. You’ve never seen such expressions of idiocy before, you’ve never seen such strange and pure fear and blissfulness before, but even at this age you know it’s wrong to be embarrassed by their presence, but you can’t help it, you stand in the cafeteria with your back against the wall where you now are suspected by the authorities of wrongdoing undoubtedly. You dare not get in line with the retarded children nor can you bring yourself to be served by quasi-grandmother and you are impossibly hungry, so very hungry that you faint, and before long strange faces above you tell you to get off the floor and get into line and you do, and you sit with the Down’s Syndrome children and eat in the worst silence you have ever known in your too young life.

By day’s end, you’re nearly insane, and you want to go home to Momma-Daddy which can’t ever happen again, or to be quite dead, but they’re loading up the buses and to your internal horror, you can’t at all remember which bus you came in on. You panic deep inside and you know quite well there’s a perfectly good chance you’ll never get home again, wherever home may be for you now. With Momma you just moved to a strange part of town near a bayou, but you don’t know how to tell anyone which bayou and even if you did you wouldn’t know how to pronounce St. Genevieve, even though your very life depends on it. You pant and pant because not only do you not remember where you live but you can’t at all remember the number of your bus, because you didn’t know you had to remember the number of the bus because Momma-Daddy always did everything for you and wanted to do everything for you, but now there is no more Momma-Daddy, just Momma and Daddy in separate horrible intervals. Some enormous adult catches sight of you finally seeing your real tears flowing from your immaculate eyes where you are half-pacing under the bus alcove and she asks you what is the problem, but what the adult doesn’t understand and what you couldn’t possibly tell her, is that for the first time you know what death is and death is not knowing what to do next. You think you will disappear forever, you would like to tell her this, to describe it, but you have no words, to describe it, you open your mouth but nothing at all comes out.

She catches on and says without shame, and you think she should feel shame because you feel shame, she asks you with the utmost confidence and certainty in her words, and it’s like an echo in an empty school hallway deep in the afternoon, she says, Where do you live? In a hopeless manner, you mutter something, words falling out of your mouth not even in fragments, and suddenly the expression on her face changes and then you are brought to even a greater level of horror because you realize this teacher feels your shame of not knowing where home is,  at least for the moment, and she is stunned that you could affect her this way, yet you do, you are falling, in a state of collapse, and death now seems kind to you, so very kind. She asks, regaining her composure, somewhat, What’s the number of your bus? This of course is the same thing as asking you where you live, which for you, no longer exists. You don’t even have a good concept of what numbers are and only a vague comprehension of words, and even if you knew numbers one through ten, that still wouldn’t help you much as the bus’s number was two numbers set side by side, it was a double digit number which for you might as well be the Quadratic Equation.

The teacher presses on and asks you again, What is the number of your bus? You couldn’t possibly say, nor would you want to say because you do not like numbers neither thinking of them nor saying them out loud, but somewhere in the farthest reaches of your mind, something like God is issuing forth two numbers side by side, He is working out a miracle of sorts, numbers you’ve never seen before begin to form themselves in your mouth, against your will even, and the teacher asks you once more, What is the number of your bus? and the numbers are going through you like blood; this is an act of God and finally the numbers appear to be piercing your skin, as if your body was still fighting the numbers off yet considering to accept them for your survival, because it’s your body, not your mind that wants to be saved on this afternoon. Without the least bit of difficulty, you hear yourself; the number 52 leaves your tongue. Suddenly, everything stops and just a few minutes later you’re on the same bus that brought you to this place so very long ago, some seven hours ago, and indeed the bus takes you right up to the front steps of that rented warehouse of a house on Bayou St. Genevieve where you do not live and will never live with Momma-Daddy ever again.


Louis Bourgeois is the Executive Director of VOX PRESS, INC. His latest book, Hosanna, is a collection of aphorisms published by Xenos Press. Currently, he lives and writes in Oxford, Mississippi.