Wendell LoganItīs 11:12 a.m. but I donīt need to look at the clock in our busy school cafeteria to know this to be a fact. All I have to do is watch her moving towards her favorite spot to enjoy a few minutes of peace and solitude as she seeks to escape the confines of the school that is her home for six hours each day. It is the first of our two lunch periods, and the cafeteria is overflowing with the noise and chatter that a thousand teenagers bring to such a tight and closed space. Excited to be released from classes and eager to catch up with friends they havenīt seen in the last three hours, they move quickly through the lunch line with their backpacks, pizza, hot dogs or whatever other delicacy the kitchen staff has prepared for the day.
No one notices her as she moves toward the door and the brief respite that awaits. None of the loud, boisterous students vying for a choice table stop to invite her to sit with them and join their conversations. She is different, and she knows it. I watch her however, as I do almost every day that I move through the cafeteria to say hello to students and chat for a moment with other faculty members.
She walks slowly, and with what appears to be a great effort, dragging her left leg stiffly behind her. Today she is wearing a wool cap to cover her shaved and now bald head. A heavy sweater and long corduroy pants cover her body even though it is almost eighty degrees outside. It is a beautiful fall day in Colorado, but I think she may be the only one taking time to enjoy it.
She pulls her leg along with a slow motion rhythm due to the side effects of the heavy medication she is taking and the stroke she suffered just a few years ago, even before she was a teenager. She moves painfully through the lunch room avoiding the other students who are almost all too wrapped up in sharing the next thirty minutes of lunch with their friends. They are busy catching up on the latest gossip of who broke up over the weekend and who has a new boy/girlfriend. They are not mean or uncaring young people; they are just doing what teenagers do. They talk about classmates and teachers, not always in the most flattering terms. Concert dates, football games and term papers are a common theme. They are in that delicate period of being somewhere between a child and becoming an adult. Most are in the process of growing up, even though it will take longer and the journey will be more painful for some of them.
She however, may not have that chance like the rest of her classmates. She does not fit into these circles and I think she prefers it that way. I wonder if it is because she realizes that these things may not be as important as the attention given to them by her peers, or is it because what may seem to be of vital importance today may be insignificant tomorrow.
Of course I have no way of knowing this to be true, but watching her I believe it is so.
Awkwardly she passes through the heavy metal cafeteria doors and moves towards her favorite spot outside on the lawn. It is a green, open space where the warm rays of the midday sun must feel good on her ravaged body. The air is sweet with the smell of freshly mowed grass and she seems to take a moment to survey her surroundings before dropping a paper bag that contains her lunch at her feet. No students approach her, although many are now outside enjoying the sunshine. Instinctively, they seem to know that she wants to be alone, and does not want her space invaded.
I watch as she drops first to one knee, and stretches the balky leg outward, so she can place her hand on the ground to position herself comfortably. The effort seems to tire her far too easily. I wonder what it must be like to have to think about doing what is so simple for most people. She leans back with her elbows supporting her, face turned towards the sun, as if she is seeking some sort of energy from it. Her woolen cap, sweater and heavy pants are in stark contrast to other students wearing tee shirts, shorts and sandals. She does not seem to notice the heat, but rather appears to embrace it.
While it seems easy for her to accept her condition, it is not so for me. I wonder who benefits most in our student-counselor relationship.
Her name is Angie, and she has cancer.
It is not the first time she has faced the disease and the terrifying consequences it brings. She was first diagnosed three years ago, and has undergone massive radiation therapy and treatment in an attempt to halt the advance. Her illness has now returned with a vengeance. Now she is facing the prospect of going through it all over again. In a couple of weeks she will leave school and enter the hospital where she will be given a bone marrow transplant. Before that happens there will be more radiation and therapy and more abuse to her frail body I do not know if she will return. I am sure she understands the possibilities. The subject of dying is not something one often thinks about discussing with a fourteen year old. Others are far more qualified than I to do that. I wonder if they have.
For now, she seems to enjoy the moment, as she stretches out on the grassy knoll, where each day, weather permitting, she sits and thinks her private thoughts. I wonder what it is she is thinking, and what she seems to be so deeply contemplating. It is none of my business but still I wonder. I would like to go talk to her, but ask myself, what would I say? Sometimes, even after well over thirty years in this business of counseling, I still find myself at a loss for words. Perhaps, I tell myself halfheartedly, that this time it is a good thing.
The peace and tranquility of the beautiful day is interrupted by the overly loud clanging of the school bell signaling the end of freedom for the next three hours. I watch as she begins the laborious process of rising from her position on the grass and the painful walk back to class. I wonder if she will return tomorrow, or ever.
Angie did not survive her latest battle with cancer. She died the summer following her sophomore year of high school. The grassy knoll where she sat and thought her private thoughts is now covered with snow on a cold and wintry Colorado day.
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