birds in a barrel's mission is to release creative nonfiction into the wild.

40 Days & 40 Writes is its first project.

Knowing Why

Most eighth graders couldn’t wait to leave school when the final bell rang. Instead of heading for the exits, I headed for the library—excuse me, Media Center. It was an open area, no doors, located in the center of Lauderdale Lakes Middle School.

Next to the checkout area was Mrs. Jackson’s office. She was the Occupational Specialist, hired when I was in eighth grade. Before Mrs. Jackson, the position didn’t exist. Any student could avail themselves of her services. She sought out students that were recommended to her by the deans and guidance counselors. I don’t know what she did with those kids. Twice that year I went through her month-long program, researching careers I though I might be interested in (lawyer, which I had zero interest in, but my parents seemed to think I’d be good at) and radio disc jockey.

She seemed to have thousands of resources in her office. Information on what lawyers and DJs did for a living, how much you could expect to earn, how much schooling was required for that kind of job. The very last thing you did as part of the Career Counseling was a day of job shadowing. Mrs. Jackson arranged for me to spend the day with a lawyer (no school!). For the first half of the day I was with a defense attorney at the Broward County courthouse. After lunch I spent time with a prosecutor. I even got to talk to a defendant during court recess. He asked what I was doing in court. I told him, and he surprised me by encouraging me to stick with it (I was shadowing the district attorney then).

When I shadowed the DJ I did it at night, spending time with him at the radio station, so didn’t get to miss school, dammit.

I loved Mrs. Jackson, a young, pretty, black woman. She wore her hair pulled back in a ponytail. I missed being with her when I wasn’t participating in one of the month-long career counseling programs, but I had used up my quota of two per school year. I took to hanging out with her after school. I offered to help her in her office, but she didn’t need any help. She was too kind to shoo me away and let me stay with her for an hour after school talking about whatever entered my mind.

She kept packets of Lipton cup-of-soup mix in her desk drawer. She heated water on a contraband hotplate and fixed both of us cups of awful tasting tomato soup or not quite awful tasting chicken noodle soup when I showed up after my final class. We sipped soup and she listened while I talked, feeling very grown up.
I can’t remember now just what we talked about most days. But I remember I often talked about other students. I was a precocious child, smarter than most kids my age, but not always the most compassionate person. I made snap judgments. I didn’t realize then how much that disappointed her. She was quick to challenge me when I made disparaging comments about classmates. If she didn’t know the person I was talking about, I let it pass. “She doesn’t know Scott,” I reasoned, “so she doesn’t know that I’m right.”
But if she did know the kid I was mocking, I protested when she tried to shut me down. “Mrs. Jackson, you know I’m right! He does act that way! He does talk like that! She does dress funny! He is stupid! He does (fill in the blank)!”

“It doesn’t matter. You don’t know why he acts that way/talks like that/dresses the way he does/ isn’t as smart as you/fill in the blank. Until you know why, you have no business commenting on it.”

Usually she said this conversationally. Sometimes she said it as a teacher to a student, as if she were imparting a lesson. Rarely, she raised her voice and her caramel colored skin flushed. Even when I’d made her angry I was too arrogant to feel ashamed, but I at least had the sense to feel remorse. I truly adored her and hated having her disappointed in me.

In middle school I was making the transition from being Bobby to being Bob, though I was having a hard time getting my family to accept the change. Mrs. Jackson’s first name was Bobby. I asked her if it was short for Barbara. “No. My name is Bobby. My daddy wanted a boy. He got me instead.” She laughed when she told me this. I knew then that I was gay, thought I’d rather die than admit it. I didn’t lisp or mince, but I sucked at sports. I couldn’t catch or throw a ball if you tossed it to me from two feet away (no lie). Little League or pee wee football, or whatever it’s called, were never discussed. I’m named after my dad I know he was disappointed in not having a son who could play sports, which he enjoyed, even though he never said so. When Mrs. Jackson told me that her dad wanted a boy and got her instead, I wondered if my dad ever felt the same way.

The Media Center had been a refuge for me all during Middle School, not just after school in eighth grade. I was a favorite target of bullies and had long ago grown familiar with words like Fairy and Faggot, despite not mincing and lisping. For the first time I considered Mrs. Jackson's frequent lectures about knowing why people act the way they do before judging them. Oh, I wasn’t feeling any empathy toward my bullies, but wondering if they ever bothered feeling any toward me.

The moment was fleeting. Mrs. Jackson emptied an envelope of red powder into my mug (I had my own coffee mug now, with my name on it), added simmering water to it, and handed me a spoon. She asked about my day and told me a little about hers.

She was always careful never to mention any students’ names or identify them, but lately she’d started telling me about different kids—their backgrounds, what they thought they’d be “stuck” doing, and what they now hoped they could do. Some days she’d say, "I’m worried about a student. She wants so much, but she’s got no support at home.” That’s all she’d say about it. But I could see she really was worried. Other times she’d say, “I finally convinced a boy he isn’t defined by where he comes from!”

One day after she’d been especially exasperated with me. The next day she said, “I’ve got a student I’m really worried about. He’s so smart, but so arrogant. He could go far if he’d stop being so judgmental. He doesn’t think other people know how poorly he sees himself. I worry that he puts others down so that he doesn’t have to put himself down so much. I just wish he valued himself as much as I do.” She rummaged through her desk drawer looking for soup, avoiding looking at me. “Doesn’t he know I wouldn’t let him take up so much of my time if I didn’t value him?”

I avoided looking at her, too.

Yearbooks came out a week or so before the end of school. My friends and I signed our photos for each other. I asked my teachers to sign their photos, too. There was little variation in their signatures: To a fine student, Mr. Slichter. To a fine boy, Mrs. Stegar. Have a nice summer, Mrs. Poole.

The exception was Mrs. Jackson. I handed her my yearbook while we sipped our mugs of soup after school. “Will you sign my yearbook?” I asked her. I knew she’d have more to say than “to a fine boy” or “have a nice summer.” I expected a tome extolling my virtues, predicting lofty things.

“I’ve been looking forward to this all day.” She uncapped her pen. I handed her my yearbook and prepared to wait, but she handed it back to me after only a couple of seconds. Beneath the photo of her sitting at her desk she’d written, “Bob, knowing why will take you far. Love, Bobby Jackson.” She was smiling when I looked back at her.

I was such a jerk back then. I’m happy to say that I’ve taken Mrs. Jackson’s advice to heart, and I know why I was such a jerk back then, and I forgive myself. I even forgive my bullies. And I know why Scott acted the way he did, and why Maria dressed the way she did, and why I thought James was stupid, and why and why and why and why. I came to that understanding when I was in my twenties and finally felt the shame I should have felt in eighth grade when Mrs. Jackson first tried to teach me that important lesson. I wished I could go back in time and apologize to those children, but instead took comfort in knowing I’d never said those unkind things to them, only about them.

Then I wished I could apologize to the person I’d said those unkind things to, and thank her for the advice she’d given me, and tell her she was right, and that I finally understood. But this was pre-Internet. I couldn’t simply Google “Bobby Jackson”. I called Lauderdale Lakes Middle School, but she was no longer teaching there. I asked if anyone there knew where I could find her. Either they didn’t know, of they knew but found it easier to lie about it rather than admit they knew but weren’t going to tell some stranger on the phone. The phone book was another dead end. I gave up, not knowing she’d divorced and remarried, and I was looking for her under the wrong name.

Several years later I needed something, I don’t remember what, from the drugstore. I stopped at Eckerd Drugs and picked up what I needed and got in line to pay for it. In front of me was an attractive, middle aged black lady with caramel colored skin, her hair pulled back in a ponytail. That’s certainly not unique and I didn’t give her a second look until she happened to turn around.

“Mrs. Jackson!” I yelled.

The last time she saw me I was 13 years old, not quite five feet tall, and had all my hair. Now I was thirty-one, five ten, and bald. Still after a brief confused look she said, “Bob Byrd!”
We hugged and without preamble I said, “I know why!”

She laughed and hugged me again and said, “And I bet it’s taken you far.”

What Shall We Do Today?

Remember Who You Are