Monday, March 5, 2007

For Karen

I was reading a summary of Joan Didion's The Year of Magical Thinking at Amazon last night to figure out whether I wanted to read it. I suspect that book would turn me into a puddle of tears, but I'd still like to read it--or one of her novels--someday. I've read only a few essays of hers here and there. I started thinking about the first time I heard of Joan Didion, the summer I started graduate school, which inevitably led to thoughts of Karen. She was in my class on Southern women writers, one of the best classes I ever took.

I was a little intimidated by some students in there who had majored in English as undergrads; I'd been a communications major, so although I'd read a wide variety of authors on my own, I wasn't as knowledgeable as they were. Consequently, I kept my mouth shut during most class discussions. Not Karen, though. She had something to say on every topic, and her comments were usually contrary to the general consensus and often involved Joan Didion, her favorite writer (whether Joan was pertinent or not--and she usually wasn't because she isn't a Southern writer).

Neither factor was what made people in the class nervous, however. Karen's contributions to discussions were usually in the form of outbursts: She interrupted, loudly and insistently, and always peppered her remarks with several "fucks" or "fuckings." I've been known to swear like a sailor at times (ahem), but I never thought that was appropriate in a classroom. I wasn't alone, either; you could see other students, and the professor, flinch a little every time Karen let a "fuck" fly out. What made me more uncomfortable, though, were her mannerisms. She was so jittery--constantly twitching and shifting in her seat, jiggling her foot, throwing her hands around while she talked. Sometimes she talked so fast she almost tripped over her own words, and the longer she talked, the louder she got.

The way Karen interacted with people was odd, too. After class, she'd usually run out the door, tossing papers into her backpack and scattering books and pencils in her wake. I overheard her once telling someone she rode her bike five miles to school, but she never looked tired or winded at all when she arrived. On the rare occasions she did hang out with some of us after class, she was given to abrupt announcements that never had anything to do with what we were talking about. Out of nowhere, she'd blurt out "Yeah, I had sex for more than two hours last night!" or "You were so full of shit about that essay." I developed the habit of veering away from groups she was in or making an excuse to get away fast when she approached me. Even when I agreed with her opinions in class--and she did have a good point sometimes, despite her lack of finesse in expressing it--I never spoke up to support her lest I be painted with "The Crazy" brush, too.

Every now and then, I wish I could be 21 again: young, with no real responsibilities but full of possibilities. And then I think about how I treated Karen. I mean, it's clear to me now that she had ADD, hyperactivity, or maybe mild autism. I'm pretty sure that if I met her now, I could react with a little more understanding and sensitivity; I'd like to think I could make the effort, anyway. Back then, I thought I was Miss Open-minded, a model of tolerance for different lifestyles and viewpoints, but I was so full of shit. I couldn't handle someone being the slightest bit different behaviorally, and instead of trying to understand her, I freaked out and avoided her. I don't understand now what I was so afraid of. That her behavior was contagious? That other people would assume I was nuts, too, if I showed her any kindness? I wonder how often she must have felt alone and isolated. How many times was she hurt and bewildered by the way other people treated her? No wonder she usually raced to the door after class was over.

Sure, I'd love being 21 again in some ways. Having my breasts in their original location--very nice. Being able to run up two flights of stairs without breaking a sweat? Great! Not having to worry about bills, empty nests, and gray hairs--yes, yes, and yes. If it meant going back to that level of ignorance and uncertainty, however? No, thank you. I wish I could tell Karen that--and tell her how sorry I am for being so self-involved and afraid that I couldn't put myself in her shoes for one minute.