I’ve taught students on both sides of the bell curve. In the mid–1990’s the first crack babies starting showing up in middle school classrooms. Hillary showed up in mine. Hillary stared for long minutes at nothing I could see. She was unable to follow the logic of a paragraph or understand even the simplest directions. She vacillated between peering from under heavy eyelids and shaking in wide-eyed agitation if someone walking by brushed her arm.
A decade later, Jed tested into the gifted class I was teaching. Even in that classroom of smart kids, Jed was on the edge. In math, he jumped three grade levels in a year. When students played the category game SET at lunch, it was Jed against the rest. And Jed could best them. He was an information addict and an artist. He could dissect a poem or a painting, and calculate algebra problems in his head, hard ones. At the end of the day, Jed would leave class along with the other students. But he often came back while I was there working. He’d curl into an ottoman I kept in the corner, his head tucked in and his limbs drawn tight. Sometimes from my desk, I could see him shaking.
It can be lonely on the edges, often harder to find a friend and to be understood. To the kids on the edges, the middle often looks like a happy club, a club to which they haven’t been invited.
Hillary and Jed were two of the most fragile students of my career. I don’t know what has happened with Hillary. Jed came back into town a year ago. I bought him lunch at Bob Evans. He’s living at the bottom of a mountain in Appalachia, along a stream. He paints. He talks to almost no one. And his main worry, he told me, is that he will kill himself.
I’m not sure exactly what, but I’m quite sure I could have done more for Hillary and Jed. I needed more specialized tools and didn’t know how to use all the tools I had. But mostly, I had never lived so far out on the edges, so alone. I had more company than they did, and I didn’t fully understand the different dimensions of their worlds.