February 9, 2012 Failing

The blood spatter.  Tiny drops of blood spattered all over my over-sized white t-shirt.  Particles of this man’s life clinging to my t-shirt.  Twenty years later and that’s what I remember.

It was kindergarten graduation day and I had picked up balloons for the principal for that evening’s festivities.  I felt good, confident, young and strong.  My shorts were long and white with thin vertical, teal stripes.  I had just finished my second year of teaching at a Catholic school in West Philly.  Except for just telling one of my student’s guardians he would fail the year, I felt good.

As I walked down the steps of the large, stone, school I heard a bang.  Whatever it was came from over the hedges separating the schoolyard from the street.  Some of the witnesses told me later they saw the motorcylclist fly two stories high before landing in the intersection.

I ran over and saw this crumpled form in the street.  Blood was everywhere.  Limbs skewed at odd angles like a figure in a Klimt painting.   Jaw three inches to the left of where it should have been.  I could see some of his teeth had been knocked out.  His torso looked so flat, like someone had let half of the air out of him.  His eyes were wide as saucers.

Squatting as close to him as I could I said, “Don’t move, just lay still.  You’re going to be all right.  You’re going to be okay.  Help is on the way.”  As he gurgled the blood sprayed in a fine mist and settled in a thin veil on me.

A woman ran toward us screaming, “Gerald!  Oh my God, Gerald!”  I intercepted her a few yards away and held her tightly.  “Tell him he’s going to be okay.  Don’t let him see you upset.”

She pulled it together to some extent and went over and said to him in a too loud voice.  “It’s going to be okay, Gerald.  I’m here.  Everything’s going to be okay.”

Other people started to gather and began arguing over who had the most medical training.  Watching, I didn’t get involved but made sure nobody tried to move him.  To some it seemed more important that they be recognized for their expertise than actually help the broken man lying in the street.

The paramedics came and put the man on a stretcher after immobilizing his head.  .  There was blood and gasoline pooled on the ground.  I couldn’t tell which was which.  I remember seeing Aleem, the student who had flunked the year, watching the whole thing on his bike.  That night, he would get the news from his aunt that he would be repeating fourth grade.

They tell me he died on the way to the hospital which was two blocks away.  It turns out he was the brother of our school speech therapist.

Upon returning home to my grandmother’s apartment, I told her what had happened.  She said something about the dangers of motorcycles and I became defensive.  “He didn’t deserve to die,” I spat angrily.

I don’t know why but I didn’t wash my t-shirt right away.


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