Changing Your Mind
Ryan Henry (a pseudonym) comes to see me at the end of the day, practically tiptoeing into the classroom to be sure he's not bothering me. He checks to see if the coast is clear before making eye contact.
"How do you make a point you're trying to make?" His gaze shifts about, as if he's casing the place and we're about to make some kind of secret deal. It's September, the first week of school. A junior already, he's grown tall since last year, and skinny, sinewy, developments that make it more difficult for him to disguise the discomfort I know he feels with personal interactions like this.
"Well…" We lock eyes. He crosses his arms, hovers just beyond my desk. I'm stumped.
How do you make a point...?
He goes on, "I'm working on tone." He's entirely earnest. "I've been reading Joyce.
"You know, there's, like, an Irish early twentieth-century tone." I assume he's into A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. "I'd like to write in that tone," he says.
Me too, I think.
He says, "It's so funny. So great."
"I agree. Don't worry about tone. Let your tone grow out of the story you have to tell. You've got your own voice, your own tone. Remember that story you wrote in ninth grade?" — the last time he was my classroom student. Since then, he's paid me the occasional visit, like this one; shot me the occasional email, attaching some cryptic draft for me to read. I say, "It was funny, warm—but also biting, with a real edge, but not cynical. A real tenderness, I remember, between the teenage son and the parents. He's abroad, right? They visit? He's going through something, but he's really happy to see them."
Ryan nods, absorbed in thought, seemingly mesmerized by my description, perhaps impressed by my memory of his story—but there's something else he's trying to wrap his mind around.
"I don't want to be too cynical," he says. "I feel like I'm too cynical. My stuff lately, I mean. You said it was warm and tender. I wish I could still write like that. Like I did then."
I take in this heartbreaking insight and feel a pang of regret—for the fact of this insight and for having led him to it.
"You can still write like that," I tell him, and I want to believe this is true.
I can read his pained expression. I wish I could be that way again. I offer an understanding smile. I want him to be happy—with who he is becoming. I remember my own son, Christopher, not so long ago, crying on his bed after I scolded him—perhaps too harshly, I thought, until he said, "I used to be good, but now I'm bad." Time stopped, or I wanted it to stop—I wanted to start all over again—as Christopher heaved miserably and I implored him to believe me, "You're good. You're good."
I ask Ryan what he's reading now.
"Saul Bellow. He's a lot like Philip Roth. You told me about Roth. I just finished The Plot Against America."
I nod. What the hell was I thinking? He's just a kid!
"Now I'm into The Adventures of Augie March," he says. "I like it."
"It's great," I agree, and we leave it at that.
There's no turning back, I think, as he exits.
A moment later he reappears in the doorway. "I just sent you a new story."
"I can't wait to read it." Immediately, I check my email and see an attachment entitled "Somebody Please Help Edwin". When I look up again, he's gone.
That night, in lieu of a spoken prayer before dinner, I do my cross—quick fingers to the forehead, belly, shoulders, chest—as does my wife, Vana—and my two young sons ape the ritual with surprising solemnity. Their dutiful imitation, almost sadly curious in their attentiveness, reminds me that I really must commit once and for all to modeling a lifestyle of spiritual consciousness. I want them to grow up feeling whole. The way I felt when I was growing up. I want them to feel complete. Connected. But more than that. Safe. Taken care of. Not just by their parents. But by something even larger than us.
Of course, we missed church again yesterday.
Saturday nights we almost always plan to go to church. Morning comes and no one rushes anyone else to get dressed. Instead, we make French toast. Vana reads the New York Times, taking a break from her doctoral work. I read books I believe do more for me than church does.
Right now, I'm reading Buddhist monk Mattieu Ricard's Happiness. On plasticity of the brain. On expanding and training the mind.
Michael asks for a piece of "tushy paper" (tissue paper, Kleenex), and so now Christopher is singing "tushy paper", delighted by his brother's accidental poetry.
Now Michael is repeating "Mine!" about what I don't know.
The boys are playing Legos on the kitchen floor. I ask Michael to please stop saying "mine". I ask Christopher to please stop doing whatever he's doing that keeps making Michael say "mine".
"I'm not doing anything," Christopher says.
I'm reading about how rats' brains grow in more stimulating environments. Christopher changes his tune. He sings, "Searching for a cup of soup. Searching..."
I ask, "Where's that from?"
He says a word that makes no sense to me.
"What?" I ask, as if hearing the answer again might help.
He says, "It's a show on Nickelodeon"—a riddle inside a riddle now. I sigh.
He continues, "Searching for a cup—"
Michael yells, "Stop!" and smashes a fist wrist-deep into the bin of Legos.
"Jesus Christ," I let out. "Would you guys—?"
I remind myself to be present for all of this, without judgment, in a state of pure awareness. "When thoughts intrude the meditator does not attempt to interfere with them but allows the thoughts to vanish naturally." Ricard writes about EEG and MRI tests of meditators, about evidence of precise localization of cerebral activity—of literal changing of the mind through meditation.
It's October. A Tuesday. Holly Knight, Ryan's English teacher this year, texts me to ask if I've read "Somebody Please Help Edwin". Holly knows that Ryan has shared his writing with me since I taught him as a freshman. I have read it, I tell her. I thought it was brilliant—an opinion I keep to myself, lest she press me to explain. My preference is to reserve my critical analysis for Ryan himself—and also for Neil Gillespie, the school psychologist, who just yesterday told me, "Oh yeah, he's getting a lot of help"—as if to reassure me I'm not the only one on the case. Holly asks, "Is he okay?" as if I possess some expertise on Ryan's state of mind, due to my familiarity with his writing—a delusion I'm happy to indulge.
"I think so," I reply, though I feel more confident than I'm willing to let on. Again, my impressions of Ryan seem like privileged information—not something to be bantered about. Or maybe I'm just afraid to be wrong about him.
Another text comes from Holly, "Is he schizophrenic?" and I scoff at my colleague's assumptions—at her failure to appreciate the liberties Ryan is taking as a fiction writer.
The story is about a schizophrenic, who is smart and self-aware. Last year, as a tenth grader, Ryan disappeared for a month. One afternoon in the library, he told me he'd been hospitalized. This struck me as welcome news, a relief, a confirmation that of course something had been up all along—and if that something could be identified, then perhaps it could be treated, and maybe he really was some kind of genius, or at least extremely creative, and maybe he would be The One to go on to become A Writer—if he could conquer his troubles, which remained a mystery, he told me. Depression? Sure, of course. But there was more to it than that. There had to be.
As a freshman, he'd written lengthy papers with flashes of insight, amidst convoluted sentences that might have been inspired by David Foster Wallace or Jonathan Franzen, whose novels I'd seen him hauling around. "I want to be a writer," he'd told me sincerely, more than once, with a kind of heartbreaking foresight, as if already dreading the life he would face if this fate were not borne out—or if it were borne out. I'd told him he was certainly reading the right books.
For as long as I've been teaching, people have asked me if there are students I can tell are destined to be writers. Or at least who have "it" in them to be writers. I have hesitated to say yes—not because my best students lack the talent, but because they lack a certain quality that marks the writer, a quality I could never quite pinpoint—actually, some of them have a very pinpoint- able, disqualifying quality, like a ken for math or science, that they wisely determine will lead them on a path toward professional and financial satisfaction. Then came Ryan Henry, who as a freshman already appeared to have "it": that need to write despite everything; that sense that if the world conspired to make him go in any other direction, he'd find himself scribbling away, with the full understanding that people out there would never give a damn...but that they should, and they would, eventually, if they had any sense, if he just kept at it, if life had any meaning.
Indeed, the story he sent me a month ago is an intricate, hilarious, heartbreaking representation of a brilliant mind aware of its own decline—a story about a teenage boy with a crush on a girl—the simplest of premises, taking shape in the most ordinary of settings—biology class, a bus ride home, a Friday-night party; but while the boy freezes up at the girl's every friendly gesture, his mind implodes in a chorus of voices, neither encouraging nor discouraging—obsessive scrutinies of the inadequacies of language, rationalizations that spiral into philosophical reveries, deconstructions of the very words used to express them—wave after mental wave sweeping the boy away from the demands of the world around him—all conveyed so enthrallingly that the reader, along with Edwin himself, loses track of the scene—of the story taking place—where the girl is standing there waiting for the boy to offer any kind of normal response to whatever she may have said, until, in the end, after the last wave crashes and recedes, he wakes to discover himself surrounded by nothing but infinite white space, "into which, after an endless breath, and without direction, he takes a step—a kind of progress," he writes.
Here is a kid staring his own demons straight in the eye and writing them out—and sharing them with me. Now a junior, he is once again not my classroom student, and yet the prospect of working with Ryan Henry on our own time lights me up . The moment after he vanished into the hallway that afternoon a month ago, I printed out the story and dashed off an email, telling him how excited I was to talk with him about the pages he'd just shared with me—deep down hoping this plan might help his chances of avoiding another extended break this year.
Today I have an appointment with Ryan after school. We're finally going to discuss "Somebody Please Help Edwin". I'm taking a pencil to my margin notes, sharpening the handwriting to make sure Ryan can make sense of it all after he takes this marked-up copy home with him, not that I'll let him just walk off with the pages before I get a chance to talk.
I'm waiting at my desk for him when I finally get an email: "I hate to say this but I can't make it today. It was really important to me, but I forgot I have an appointment in Philly this afternoon."
I see Neil Gillespie in the hallway on my way out. I tell him of the canceled meeting. Neil grins. "Yup, Tuesday and Thursday, he sees his psychiatrist."
I nod, oblivious. "You have to read the story he sent me," I say. "About a schizophrenic. Fourteen pages, single-spaced. It's amazing."
"I'll bet it is," he says.
Downstairs, Vana thanks me for cleaning up the kitchen, before she'll return to the bedroom, where she does her doctoral work. "I enjoy it," I say. She chuckles, but I'm not kidding. I tell her how I've come to like these domestic chores. How they give me a sense of accomplishment, not only in the physical, but also in the psychic, effects. She says she's familiar with that sense of calm while washing dishes. I remind her that I've been meditating every morning and lately seizing every opportunity to enter that state of heightened consciousness, of luminous awareness—driving in the car, folding laundry, washing dishes. I recall the first time my psychiatrist-friend described how the brain can literally, physically change—or be changed, by the subject's altering of his own thoughts and behaviors. That possibility of permanence—or, rather, impermanence—inspired me. "I think I've actually changed my mind," I say.
"How can you tell?" Vana asks.
I shrug, not sure how to prove it—or if proving it matters.
I wonder if she, or anyone, actually recognizes the cooling-out I've undergone. Six months ago, on the night I told her I'd been meditating downstairs for an hour every morning before anyone else woke up, she told me, "I love you for what you're doing." She seemed genuinely moved by my commitment, as if I were demonstrating an unprecedented level of devotion to our collective well-being.
Now she asks, "How do you know if it's the meditation?"
I say, "How would I know if it's not?"
"Well, if you can just change your mind..." She seems to be considering this question—or some other question. "How do you know who you really are? How do you know what's really you."
"I don't know." I smile. "How do you know what's really you?"
She answers with a roll of the eyes, then heads upstairs to do her work.
In a way our relationship is better than ever because our roles and expectations are so exquisitely defined. Tomorrow after school I will rush to get the boys to the dentist by 5:30. But first I will stop at Lowe's to pick up a gas tank for the grill. I'll purchase biodegradable paper bags to replace the twelve unacceptable plastic bags stuffed with leaves still sitting on the curb, which have been rejected by the garbage men. I'll swing by Whole Foods, pick up Christopher at school, drop off the groceries at home, pick up Michael at day care, drive into the city to the dentist's office, and afterward take the boys out to dinner in the old neighborhood. All while Vana is home doing her doctoral work. I will bring her a burger and fries.
It is satisfying—clarifying—to perform all of these tasks for my family without the distraction of my own unmet expectations.
It's already November. Ryan Henry pops in seventh period while I'm hunkered down at my desk, as usual, reading my students' short stories. We still haven't discussed his story.
"I'm working on something new," he says. "I'm almost done."
"We still have to talk about your other story," I say. "'Somebody Please Help Edwin'. It's great. I wrote notes, but we should look at it together so I can make sense of my comments for you, and my handwriting."
He says, "Can I stay?"
Now, he means. I don't hesitate. "Sure."
He settles in at a nearby desk, opens his laptop, and gets to work. Apparently, producing new material is more important to him right now than revising.
At the end of the period, I ask, "How'd it go?"
He says, "Good. I want to keep working on this before I send it to you."
"Okay," I say. "You're welcome to write here anytime, and then we can meet and talk whenever."
"Can we meet next week?"
I nod. "Take your time. We're here all year."
Even as he gathers his things, there's a sense of urgency in him, suggesting that we've already wasted too much time, that the clock is ticking faster for him than it is for the rest of us.
The Volvo's sunroof is open on the driveway. It rained last night. The Volvo is Vana's baby, her dream car, which we bought two years ago—our first car purchased together—for more than we could afford. On the passenger side I discover pink construction paper melded to the seat. Pink patches and patterns of flowers appear on the leather when I peel off the paper— Michael's art project. I give the tan leather a rub, and it appears that the pink is permanent.
I take a deep breath, and I'm surprised to find myself thinking about Ryan Henry, imagining him paralyzed at the site of this stained leather, losing himself in the seeming imperfection or in some perfection I'm unable to see.
Michael is dunking a ball into the Little Tykes hoop on the porch. He leaps past an invisible defender. I feel a depthless gratitude for his transparent and uncomplicated happiness. I understand that Ryan Henry's parents must remember their son in such moments as this and that such memories are evidence of some essential, immutable self that must exist.
I show Michael the remains of his pink paper project.
"What happened?" He peeks into the car. He's curious but not disappointed.
I want to inform Vana of this misfortune without seeming accusatory. You left the sunroof open last night... Not quite. Try the passive voice: The sunroof was left open last night... I see this moment as an opportunity to practice the kind of enlightened mindfulness I've been reading about in the book Happiness. I want to project the same calmness, compassion, patience, joy—those zen virtues of love and non-judgment that the Buddhist-monk author deems accessible at all moments—and that seem especially incongruous with such moments as this. Behold, dear, the pink paper and cream leather upholstery that are one.
"Want to give this to Mommy and tell her the seat is pink now?"
"K." Michael takes the scraps into his hands, and I follow him into the kitchen, where Vana is washing a dish. Michael takes Vana's hand and says, "Come."
"What is it?"
"It's pink... The car..."
I grab a roll of paper towels from under the sink. I find the Armor All on a shelf in the mud room, just as Vana is already returning from outside, fuming, "Oh my God, I can't even—" She cuts herself off and in a rush exits again, this time with a Mr. Clean white sponge.
"Good idea," I say, joining her.
But Mr. Clean lightens the stain only slightly. I follow up with the Armor All, which does no good. Vana bears down again with the Mr. Clean pad, really muscling her thumb into it, as if to drive the pink particles into the subsurface of the leather forever. I wince.
I say, "I think maybe in time it'll fade. You know, just naturally, with the sunlight — "
"What about an SOS pad?"
"That's just steel wool and soap," I say. She's already inside. I'm right behind her. "You definitely don't want steel wool on leather. It doesn't make any sense. And the soap isn't as strong as Mr. Clean."
"What if I try it on just a little part?" She plucks a gray-blue pad from the yellow box under the sink.
I say, "No, I don't think so."
She's determined. "Just a little corner."
I stand in her path. "But why? Just—please explain to me how an SOS pad could possibly be better than Mr. Clean?"
"I can't, but I'm going to find out." She steps around me.
"I really don't see—"
"Why do you keep talking?"
I follow her onto the porch. What am I supposed to do, get between her and the Volvo? Wrestle the thing from her? She's about to make it worse. I know this. But the more certain I am, the more certain she is to challenge my certainty. Permanent damage is inevitable. "Vana, please— You're upset. Just— Don't get emotional about this and lose all sense— You're gonna— "
At the car she sneers, "I'm going to try it no matter what you say."
I nod. It's well past the time for me to shut up. "Well, okay." I can't watch. And I don't want to be standing here on the porch when she realizes the damage she—or, the SOS pad—has done.
I go inside. I put away the paper towels and the Armor All.
"What's the latest with Ryan?" I ask Neil Gillespie in the hallway. "I never see him."
"You might not see him for a while."
"Don't even tell me..."
I shake my head. "Not schizophrenia." I may owe my colleague Holly Knight an apology.
"No, not schizophrenia. His parents want him to go to an institution. Gone for a month last year. This year it might be eight weeks or more. But Ryan's resisting. He wants to stay here."
"What's the matter with him?" I have no idea.
"Psychosis and OCD."
"Flip a coin. If you treat the psychosis, you get intensified OCD. If you treat the OCD, you get the psychosis. They've been treating the OCD for years. It's the psychosis that's new." Neil explains that the treated psychosis has intensified the OCD, resulting in eating disorders, anxiety, rigid behavior and attitude. On the other hand, when being treated for the OCD, he's manic, erratic, obsessive. "Adolescence certainly isn't helping matters, nor is his father, who asks, 'How's he going to go to college, get a job, live on his own?'"
All I can think to say is, "You have to read the story he wrote." I tell him about it, with a sense of regret mixed with shame—not that I failed to see that the story's pain was Ryan's (I hadn't), but that I believed that as long as Ryan had the ability to render his pain so artfully on the page, then he couldn't be defeated by it. On the contrary, I believed his writing was evidence that he was defeating it. I tell Neil how this latest fictional work reminds me of his writing freshman year, but only in the most positive ways. All that sweetness he feared he'd lost to age was now mixed with sorrow, laced with a wit that must have been his secret weapon. Those serpentine sentences. Those flashes of brilliance. Extragalactic confusion—shot through with a newfound lucidity that made me imagine a teenage David Foster Wallace. I thought maybe Ryan's brain was going through some kind of adolescent explosion and it would find its way toward, and settle into, creative genius, and he would thrive—any other darker fate be damned.
Neil says he'll keep me updated, and splits. I stand there alone in the hallway, thinking of Ryan's mother, who called me several times his freshman year. She said she'd managed, despite Ryan's protestations, to get her hands on some of his writings. She asked if I thought he was actually good. She said she couldn't tell. I admitted that I couldn't tell for sure, either. That the writing could seem a bit complicated. She was worried about him. I said I was too. She didn't want to say what I believed we were both thinking—that he might be some kind of genius and, no thanks to this gift, or curse, that he might also be prematurely losing his mind. I said I was genuinely interested to see how he would develop in the next four years, how he might reel in all of this intellectual energy and channel it, express it, in, say, a more coherent way.
Then, all of a sudden, he was a junior, and he'd done it. He was a writer. I believed it. Something had clicked in his brain.
Vana returns from the driveway, strangely smiling. "How'd it go?" I try.
She seems curiously at ease. "It's what you said."
"Damaged the leather?"
"Only if you really look."
I'm nodding again. Maybe that's the trick. Don't look, not so critically, anyway. Or look away. Why not? There's only so much you can do. And sometimes there's nothing at all you can do but let nature take its course. Be a mindful, compassionate witness to it all.
Standing there in the kitchen, I think of Ryan Henry again—how he's only a junior, how there's still time for us to do the work that remains for us to do together. As if I'm the kid's last chance at conquering his demons—at least through fiction. It's a delusion I choose not to relinquish. Next year he'll be a senior, and we'll forge on, make up for lost time—assuming that he signs up for Creative Writing, and that salvation, or at least sanity, lies in telling the stories we have to tell.
After Vana goes upstairs a few minutes later, I gather the Armor All and paper towels and go back outside. Of course, the steel-wool marks and scuffs are here to stay, appearing as a tuft of black hairs embedded into the surface of the cream upholstery. But, I tell myself, from a more enlightened angle, nothing bad has been added to the leather, only good removed—or, moved. The seeming black hairs were there all along, hidden under the cream surface. These scuffs are merely evidence of the absence of what was once present, of the cream coloring that has been scrubbed off, like the pink, the faint remains of which in time will fade from the leather—not ceasing to exist, but simply relocating.
I take a deep breath. The challenge of mindfulness remains. I say nothing. Let go. Begin again. Be here in the present moment. But I know there must be more to it than this. So now what? Michael is back to his slam-dunking. I sweep the porch. I carry the unused firewood from the porch to the roofed pile at the edge of the backyard. I clip shrubs. I take out the trash.
I blink, and it's May. I see Ryan Henry in the hallway, on his way back to class from the bathroom. I'm stunned. He's back. I was not expecting to see him again this year. Six months have passed since the last time he stayed after school to work in my classroom—the Wednesday before Thanksgiving. He has grown, filled out. He's muscular in a way that seems suited to his frame—in a way that makes me realize how the old body was insufficient in ways perhaps only his parents really understood. He lowers his head, as if to hide the boyish face that remains, under blond curls. There's the hint of a hardened scowl, which I expect to vanish when I say, "Ryan!" but when he looks up, his expression hardly changes. I say, "I was so excited about the story you shared with me back in the fall, and then I blinked and you were gone for so long. I want to talk to you about it. I have notes for you and so many thoughts."
"Okay," he says, barely audibly. I'm waiting for more. The scowl is gone, but the impassive non-expression that lingers seems somehow more disconcerting. I can't help thinking of McMurphy in Cuckoo's Nest, post-lobotomy, hoping Ryan hasn't endured the pharmaceutical equivalent of such a procedure, despite his reentry into society and the beefed-up physique. I've stopped cold in the hallway, but he has shuffled on, maintaining what isn't exactly eye contact. "I have to go take a test," he says, aiming his thumb in the direction of the silent classrooms, from which I, too, just came, already having forgotten about the normal school-day business at hand.
"Oh, I'm sorry," I say.
"I'll stop by."
A moment later I'm alone, with no memory of what I was doing or where I was heading before seeing Ryan.
For a time, I make no move, consumed by the feeling that I've failed him. If only I'd tracked him down to talk about his story, before things got so dire his parents had to send him away to some institution in the midwest. Maybe I could have prevented their need to resort to such dramatic measures. The short story he'd shared with me was more than a poetic revelation of his genius and his sadness and his madness—it was a volcanic manifesto, his signal, to me, I believed. And I waited casually for him to come back to see me, instead of snagging him urgently in the hallway and saying, "Ryan, I've read your story and it's brilliant and we need to talk about it now," as if in this discourse there would have been healing and clarity and meaning and purpose and everything he needed to be made whole and healthy again.
I take a deep breath and, with no direction in mind, step into the space outside the one I've been occupying—a kind of progress, I tell myself—before returning to my classroom.