“Out of the darkness, came a small voice…
‘I’ll be a friend to you.’
‘But I can’t see you,’ said Wilbur.
‘I’m right up here.’”
It’s the end of August, and I’m standing in a circle of teachers. At our principal’s direction, we are to share one word that expresses how we’re feeling. I feel troubled. I feel overwhelmed. I feel haunted. If I say these words out loud, I believe I will crumble.
Things are happening too fast. There’s too much to do, too much I don’t understand. My turn is coming up, and everyone else’s word jabs at me like a dead leaf blowing in a fall wind. “Satisfied.” “Ready.” “Complete.” I feel none of the words my colleagues are saying. Something is wrong. Something is wrong with me.
The last person to speak is standing directly across from me. Her hair is in long braids, and the sides of her head are shaved. She’s leaning against the wall, subtly outside the circle so that she almost looks like a shadow, the hallway behind her dark.
“Hopeful,” she says.
I’ve never heard hopeful spoken this way. There was a blunt, matter-of-fact assurance in her voice when she said it. She made hope sound sturdy, but also like the kind of hope you find in the dark.
Her name is Angela.
“‘But I’m not terrific, Charlotte.’
‘You’re terrific as far as I’m concerned,’ replied Charlotte sweetly.”
It’s the middle of October on a Friday afternoon. I’m standing in my school’s parking lot as students leave the building, checking phones, ripping open bags of chips, making their way off school grounds.
Angela walks outside and toward me. There’s a little swish and pep in her step, and she’s smiling when she says, “It’s Friiiiiday!”
I like this part of the day. Standing outside is nice. I like to watch the students interact with one another outside of the classroom, but mostly I love talking with Angela. She is funny and wise, cunning, and articulate. She says her words the same way she said, “hopeful” that first day I met her. Her inflections are slight, her voice rarely raises, and if she uses body language, it is perfectly measured. She will lift an arm, point a thin finger in the air, and her royal blue nail polish shines in the sun. “Let me tell you somethin’,” she’ll begin.
Today Angela and I learn that we both love the book Charlotte’s Web, a revelation I think is as funny as the fact that Angela and I are friends. I would’ve never read E. B. White’s tale had it not been for my daughters. It’s about nature and animals, two things I have little interest in. However, returning to the story day after day, I was charmed by that blunt old lamb and sneaky rat Templeton. I got a kick out of the excitable goose and her goslings that spoke their first words three times before sharing the rest of the sentence. I loved the subtle shift in Fern’s attention from Wilbur the pig to Henry Fussy.
As Angela and I talk, I wonder about the improbable friendship between a spider and a pig. What could a pig and a spider possibly have in common? They are different in physical appearance, color, appetite, and behavior. Still, Charlotte tells Wilbur she thinks he’s terrific and Wilbur searches for Charlotte every day, waiting for her company. Angela tells me a story about reading Charlotte’s Web to a class of fifth graders, and as I listen, I wonder how I suspended my logic and willingly walked inside the Zuckermans’ farm. I wonder how Angela did too.
Every day I look for Angela like Wilbur looks for Charlotte. Every day I turn over “hopeful,” as Wilbur did with “terrific,” and “radiant,” and even “humble,” trying to fit into the words his friend spun for him in the dark.
“‘We don’t know what it means yet, but perhaps if I give thought to it, I can explain it in my sermon next Sunday.’” —the minister
“‘I don’t understand how those words got into the web. I don’t understand it, and I don’t like what I can’t understand.’” —Mrs. Arable
It is a Wednesday in December, and it’s so cold you feel as though you’ve done something amazing with the day just walking out of the door and getting into the car. The forecast calls for snow squalls, specifically across I-94, the road I take to get from Detroit to Ann Arbor. I’m afraid I won’t make it home.
It seems I am afraid of a lot these days. Or maybe it’s that I’m worried about a lot. There is so much I can’t figure out, so much I don’t understand, and this makes me afraid.
This is my last week at this school; I will not return after Christmas break. I can’t make this job work. I don’t know what I’ll do next. I don’t know what I can do next. Teaching has always been my thing. I found a piece of myself teaching, and I love whom I found. She is gone, though. I don’t know where she went, but standing in the classroom, I feel a shell of who I was. I am afraid I will always feel this way.
Today we have a Christmas party at a club in downtown Detroit. The music’s loud; all songs I love and grew up with. Rob Bass introduces himself and declares he’s come to get down, and Angela and I join in. “I’m not internationally known, but I’m known to rock the microphone.” We laugh, and she takes out her phone to take a picture of us. She looks at the picture, and then at me. “We cute!” she says, showing me what she took. I laugh. “We really are,” I agree.
The picture of us is dark because the club is dark, but it’s easy to see the difference between Angela and me. She has this cool new haircut and a crisp white blazer with a gray flowery design on it that shows off her silver jewelry. I’m wearing a Gryffindor T-shirt and my hair is straight with a barrette pulling back one side, the same style it’s been since I was twenty-six.
Angela uploads the picture to Facebook and tags me. “One of my faves at work,” she writes, and I take more joy than I should about Angela admitting she’s friends with me.
We talk with the other teachers at the table, and I laugh again at the picture Angela took. Our friendship makes no sense, and I wonder how it’ll continue once I’m gone, which makes me worry about how strong it is.
When we were talking about Charlotte’s Web, I admitted to Angela that I wasn’t too interested in reading the book because spiders in particular freak me out. “They’re sneaky,” I said, “and their webs are way stronger than they look.”
“Mmm, hmm,” Angela agreed. “Those damn things don’t ever break.”
A text from Angela: Callie…it’s going to be really weird at work tomorrow without you!
Me: I miss you! I wish you and I could’ve shared a classroom together.
Angela: We would’ve been a dynamic duo! Please let’s make sure we keep in touch!
The sun rises at 8:05 this morning. I notice it standing at the kitchen sink as I rinse out my coffee cup. Rose and pink blend to white and blue and the crooked brown outlines of the branches of the oak tree in the backyard are sharp against the sky.
If I were at school, I’d be standing outside my classroom, holding a thermos of coffee and greeting students. I’d find a reason to walk over to Angela and chat. She’d have some hilarious observation to share.
I think about these parallels all day while I go for a run, while I write, while I look for a new job, while I pick up my girls: What do I notice in Ann Arbor, and what should I have been doing in Detroit? I wonder how Angela is doing.
I wonder what the point of friendship is, and I’m relieved I don’t have to decide on intentions or goals for what a friendship should be or look like—or worse, what one gets out of friendship.
Wilbur worried. He worried he wasn’t good enough, or that Charlotte was a tad too ferocious in her hunting and eating habits. He worried she’d done everything for him, and he’d done nothing for her. “I like you,” was her reply. That’s all there was to it.
Friendship has no boundaries. It has no timeline, no rules, no color. It cannot tell between a snout and a curly tail or eight legs and a web dripping with dew as it stitches sturdy patches of hope in the dark. It just takes the courage to suspend logic and willingly walk into the farm and say hi.