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Guest Posts, Tribe, Truth

The Something-Else

January 17, 2018

By Jennifer Rieger

There are some things that will never just feel like a coincidence.
~ A-Dack[1] Quote of the Day, May 31, 2016

The first day of school, she looked like she wanted to die. She chose the seat front and center, the perfect position for me to genuinely appreciate her major case of RBF[2]. There were moments during my entertaining first day multimedia extravaganza when she thought about smiling. I know she did. With a slight smirk, she’d look out the corner of her eye to her best friend, Dante, but then the seriousness would resume. It was, after all, AP Literature and Composition, and maybe I was particularly frightening that day with all the happiness and love.

However, it didn’t take long for me to win over Anna. The further we delved into the curriculum, the more she enjoyed literature, class discussion, and quietly contemplating life. She was in quite a state when she showed up for her college essay conference, bright red and full of angst. “Ms. Rieger… These people aren’t going to want me. Ms. Rieger… Nothing about me comes out coherently. Ms. Rieger… Maybe I’ll walk into traffic, or just stay here with you.” How I would have loved a world in which the latter was true. It didn’t take long to realize that I never wanted to let go of that RBF hot mess.

I’ve taught my fair share of lovely, awkward girls. I could write an entire book on each one. Chloe Steerman, one of my creative little geniuses, was constantly ripping her tights, covered in paint, and spilling coffee everywhere. Katie Burke regularly injured herself, falling in the middle of the classroom to sharpen a pencil, spilling gasoline all over her clothes trying to get to school on time. “Nobody light a match,” she’d exclaim while storming into my class five minutes late. Alicia-Marie Moore should have come with the label Badass Barbieblonde, blue, ready to embarrass herself AND kick your ass at the very same time. Her classmates loved her, and feared her. Evana Mortezavi would stroll into my room with the aura of the goddess, Athena—strong and exquisite—and then she would share an uncomfortable, although humorous, digression during literary discussion for the entire class to hear. Cracking up at herself, she’d bellow a loud, penetrating burst of laughter heard across the hall. Her friend, Jon, would stare at her in disbelief. “What the hell is the matter with you?” All had the similar quality of being as bright as hell, loving their friends with a beautiful intensity, and not giving a shit what people thought of them. Anna doesn’t know these hot mess pioneers, but she fits in quite nicely. She also doesn’t know that I include myself among them. Merge together their awkwardness, and you have the high school version of Jen Rieger. I too could careen down a flight of stairs with the grace of Melissa McCarthy. I too could acquire a bee sting on my ass while cheering at a homecoming game. I have a special bond with these girls. I sympathize with them and, at the same time, applaud their ability to generate chaos and put smiles on faces whenever they walk, or fall, into a room.

As the year progressed, Anna became my little sidekick—my Quote of the Day girl—sometimes reflecting her humorous nature, sometimes her sentimental heart. She and Dante would stay after school chatting with me about high school life and college decisions, and she and her friend, Alex, would hang out in my room when they had study hall and I had a free period. Sometimes I’d help with their next paper due, sometimes we’d stuff our faces with breakfast junk foods. She embraced our school’s Challenge Day program, becoming one of my facilitators, and we both vehemently scrutinized and abhorred the newest trend in thick, stenciled eyebrows. She also shared with me her growing anxieties about moving on. Anna hated change—feared it. Whether it was rearranging the desks in my room, darkening my hair, or trading in my Jeep Wrangler for a new car, she didn’t want any of it. I guess that’s why when she overheard a conversation with one of my colleagues about my impending sabbatical for my MFA, she looked like she had been punched in the gut. “What do you mean you won’t be here next year? How is that even possible?” I reminded her that she won’t be here either. She will be in college, learning, making new friends, and loving life. “But you’re supposed to stay right here,” she whispered, “where I can find you.”

She did graduate, begrudgingly. She did move onto college, begrudgingly. Anna is wise, very wise, and knows the realities of endings. She spent her senior year growing up, analyzing relationships, and figuring out how to hold on as tightly as possible to everything and everyone she loved until it was time to let go.

When I picked her up at St. Joe’s University one warm September night, she knew the moment of truth had arrived. It was just the two of us—no Dante or Alex to hide behind when I pelted her with questions. She wasn’t embracing school. She was going home on the weekends, travelling to Penn State to visit her high school friends, mourning a past she was forced to relinquish. We sat at the bar in Chili’s on City Line Avenue, inhaling bottomless chips and salsa.

“Riegs… I can pass for 21. A margarita would be great with these chips.”

I laughed. “Child, did you just meet me? Plus, you can barely pass for fifteen, and you know it.”

She sipped her water, I sipped my Diet Coke, and we discussed classes, roommates, and my new schedule. “Okay, spill it,” I finally said. “Imagine it’s period 2 study hall.” Similar to my own, her brown eyes take on a shade of green when they fill with tears. It happens to her quite often when she’s sad, but also when she encounters beautiful poetry, beautiful moments, and beautiful people. We sat at that bar for hours discussing everything, right down to the meaning of life. Growing up is hard. Really hard. I know she had hoped that going to school in Philadelphia would mean not completely leaving home. But it does. Home isn’t necessarily a place, nor is it necessarily people. It’s a feeling that evolves as we do, hopefully into a renewed sense of self. But that evolution isn’t seamless, and it isn’t quick.

When I drove her back to her dorm, she said she wouldn’t cry anymore. “I know Riegs. I won’t. For now. And I’ll try to accept your ugly new car, even though you’re supposed to be driving a cool Jeep Wrangler.” With a heavy eye-roll, I nodded, understanding her need for a nostalgic constant. As she trekked across the pavement to her building, I saw my 18-year-old self in the shadow moving across the ground. And I willed that girl to be strong. I willed her to make me proud.

So she did.

On January 20th, as I packed for my journey to the Women’s March for Freedom in Washington, DC, I sent a text to Anna. She spent winter break having the time of her life with her high school friends, and while I was thrilled for her, I was also worried about her. “How was your week back? Please tell me you’re going out and doing something fun tonight.” She sent back a video of painted t-shirts and posters with messages of peace and empowerment. She was going to the march. “I’m doing something much more fun than going out.” With laughter and chatter of all her new friends in the background of the video, indeed she was. And it wasn’t just this. She made the leap we all have to make during difficult transitions—she made a decision to be the heroine of her own life.

I’m not a mom to this girl. I’m not a friend. I’m not a teacher anymore either. I’m a something-else; she’s a something-else. I can’t define it, but then again, the majority of the most beautiful, important concepts in life can’t be defined. Quality, love, peace, God—we use these words on a daily basis, not really understanding their encompassing magic when our lives appear to revolve around them. The undefinable is a mystery. I know whatever I have with this child has to do with energy, connection, and family. I feel her pain, even when she thinks she hides it. I feel her joy, even when she thinks she’s containing it. It’s like we all have these little kindred spirits roaming the world, and it’s our job to find them and recognize their purpose in our lives. Maybe it sounds overly New-Agey, but Anna sees it too. For Christmas she bought me a little pin—a grape jelly jar. She has the other one that came with it—a peanut butter jar. And maybe that’s what we are since I’m not the mom, the friend, or the teacher. Maybe I’m the jelly. I’ll take it.

[1] Twitter handle and Quote of the Day handle for Anna Lendacky.

[2] From Urban Dictionary-Resting Bitch Face: a person, usually a girl, who naturally looks mean when her face is expressionless, without meaning to. Nah, she’s just got a resting bitch face, she’s actually really sweet.

Jennifer Rieger is the English Department Chair at Upper Merion Area High School in King of Prussia, Pennsylvania and teaches 12th grade Advanced Placement and creative writing courses. An advocate for her students, she dedicates her time to empowering young people through reading, writing, and acts of love. Jen holds a BA in English, an MA in English Literature, and an MFA in Creative Writing. She has been published in BUST Magazine, The Sigh Press, Role Reboot Magazine, The Manifest-Station, and Philadelphia Stories. Jen recently finished her first book, Burning Sage, a collection of personal essays reflecting on unconventional motherhood, unconventional teacherhood, and her accidental, and quite flawed, role-model existence. Jen lives in Philadelphia with her husband and two tiny dogs.


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