Three weeks ago, Nathan killed one of the other boys at school.
I didn’t mean for it to happen. I tried to raise him right. He’s a good boy who just made a simple mistake, and now I know his life will never be the same. He’s nine years old, his life is ruined, and another nine-year-old boy’s life is over.
It feels like it’s all my fault.
Nathan’s math teacher, who I’ve known since we were both about that age, called me at work that afternoon to tell me what happened. Of course, I was worried when I saw the school’s number appear. The last time I saw that number in my phone, Nathan had to go to the hospital after he twisted an ankle playing soccer. When I answered, the teacher asked, “Are you sitting down?” She wouldn’t tell me the news until I promised I’d taken a seat.
That opening braced me for something horrible happening to my boy. Immediately, I feared he was dead. Or horribly injured. Like every parent in America, I’d grown used to a constant low-level fear of school shootings and violent bullying. I shouldn’t admit this, but part of me perked up when she named the dead boy as “Alvin Johnson.” Just a name I’d seen on the class roster. Not a boy I knew, not one of Nathan’s friends.
Most importantly, not Nathan. Not my wonderful son.
Since Alvin Johnson died, it’s been hard not to think back on moments from the last couple of years, to try to diagnose where I made mistakes. I’m trying my best to hold onto my memories of what Nathan was like before the incident.
Jessica, Nathan’s mother, left us when he was six. If I’m being truthful, I don’t know that she left us so much as she left me, but the end result was the same.
I don’t know because she didn’t even leave a note, and she’s never gotten back in touch. Nathan was staying with my parents over a three-day weekend, when I came home from a double shift on Saturday night to find Jessica had taken her car and driven somewhere. For all I knew, she’d gone to get groceries or to meet a friend unexpectedly, and I didn’t think much of it at first.
Because I fell asleep in the living room while waiting up for her, it wasn’t until the next day that I knew she’d left for good. When I went upstairs to sleep Sunday night, I found her half of the closet mostly empty, her jewelry box gone, and Nathan’s upcoming Christmas present wrapped weeks ahead of schedule. I knew she’d been having an affair, but I never knew who with; I was more concerned about staying together for our son. I made excuses for her. I blamed the double shifts and the financial pressure for my being tired and inattentive. I spent most of my limited home time playing with Nathan, and I tried whenever I could to schedule my break time so that I could read him a story before bed.
“You care more about him than you care about me,” she’d said more than once. I can’t honestly say she was wrong; I still loved her, but I probably did love my son more. I don’t know what I could have done to make her stay, other than find a way to make more money and work fewer hours.
When Jessica left, my parents helped me with my bills so I could afford to raise my son on one income. If I had asked for their help earlier, maybe she wouldn’t have left. If she hadn’t left, maybe I wouldn’t have made so many mistakes. Maybe Alvin Johnson would still be alive.
Even now, I don’t know that I ever gave up on the idea that Jessica would return one day. I never filed for divorce, and I tried hard not to poison Nathan against his mother. The first lie I ever told him was, “Mama leaving had nothing to do with you, and we just have to take care of each other until she’s back. Deal?” He nodded, and I always tried to hold up my end of that deal.
One thing Jessica left behind was her little jar of metal-frame cookie cutters. As soon as Nathan was old enough, I would make his school lunch with him the night before, and let him pick which shape we would use to make his sandwich interesting. Peanut butter and jelly in the outline of a pterodactyl, or cheese and mustard in that of a tow truck; it even got him to eat the crust in a way we never could before.
For the five years since she left, I always did little gestures like that, trying to make the things Jessica left special for Nathan, as if material possessions could somehow fill part of the hole her leaving created. I hung an abstract painting of hers in his room, and left our framed wedding pictures centered on the fireplace mantle. I tried to keep her present; it was as if I knew one parent wouldn’t be enough.
At every annual school conference, Nathan’s teachers would ask me about it. “How is he coping with his mother leaving?” or “Do you have anybody to help you with raising him?” They always sounded concerned, but I told them my parents would “help out” whenever needed, and they never complained about my results.
My father was usually supportive, but being from a different generation, he worried that Nathan would grow up “soft” in the suburbs. That meant whenever I’d let my son stay on the farm for a three-day weekend, my parents would try to teach him outdoor skills. He seemed to enjoy the actual farm work, like husking corn, milking cows, or making nut butters with my mother. My father also taught him how to camp. How to pitch a tent, make a fire, track animals. The one rule on which I insisted was I wouldn’t let Nathan hunt, though my father trained him to effectively take out old soda cans with a pellet gun.
When he was eight, Nathan told me he didn’t want to spend weekends on the farm anymore, though he’s always been happy to see my parents when they come to us. He told me he’d “rather stay inside” most of the time. To be honest, I was relieved about that.
Nathan had always been a little quiet around other children, more likely to read a book at recess than play games with a group, but he never had trouble getting along with any of the others. They invited him to their birthday parties, and we invited them. Just last year, when he wanted his party at the bowling alley, Nathan and I spent a long time trying to figure out which other students to invite without going over the limit on the alley’s party package— not because he couldn’t think of children to invite, but because he didn’t want to leave any classmates out. I ended up borrowing money from my parents so he could invite the whole class.
It wasn’t only at school where that part of his personality showed.
I remember taking him to an Ohio State game last year. We were walking around the perimeter of the stadium, on our way to pick up our tickets. A homeless man approached Nathan, shaking a plastic cup with a few coins in it, and mumbling, “Help me get something to eat.” I worked in the city for years before Nathan was born, and had grown so used to panhandlers that I stopped noticing them. “Dad, he doesn’t have any money,” Nathan said, pointing at the other man and, before I could even respond, giving him the brown bag we’d packed with sandwiches and chips.
“Why didn’t you want your lunch?” I asked Nathan later, when we were inside the stadium and I was overpaying for concession nachos and soda.
“You always tell me to share,” he said. That’s the boy I raised.
Now, he eats his lunch sitting by himself, and the other children are afraid to talk to him.
I held Nathan out of school for three days after Alvin Johnson died, listening to him explain repeatedly that “it was an accident” and that he “didn’t want it to happen.” The day it did, after Nathan had spent the afternoon talking to a succession of counselors and officials and I brought him home, he went straight to his room and cried most of the night.
I didn’t want to push him to talk after he’d done nothing but, so I just sat in the bathroom across the hall from his room, pretending to read but listening for any sign of what he needed. I’ve never felt less prepared. The phone rang most of the night; I found out the next day that the local news had aired a long segment on the incident.
Even in my shock, I knew better than to answer the calls. All it took was listening to the first anonymous message, promising the caller would “get some justice” against my nine-year-old boy, for me to erase the rest without listening.
Nathan was willing to talk the next day, and all he wanted was to go back to school with his friends. He was old enough to understand that Alvin Johnson “isn’t going back forever,” in his words, and told me over and over how sorry he was about it. Nathan didn’t know Alvin very well, since his family had just moved to town a few weeks before, but he liked him well enough.
I was less sure about the idea, but I went along with it once the school counselor said it would be okay. Maybe if I’d thought about it more, or taken more time, Nathan could have put the whole thing behind him.
The other kids in school were less enthusiastic about the idea of Nathan’s return. Alvin Johnson’s brother didn’t care that Nathan insisted it was an accident, and my son came home with half his face bruised from where the older boy had repeatedly punched him before a teacher intervened.
None of the others carried out that kind of retribution, but they still wanted nothing to do with Nathan. In the way that boys his age do, some took to calling him “Killer Natey” in a teasing voice. Because only those sitting near Nathan and Alvin at lunch saw what happened, others believed the gossip spread about it. There were rumors that Nathan planned the whole thing, or that Alvin had a chance to survive but Nathan choked him to guarantee his death.
I still believe that some of the children didn’t blame him, but shunned him anyway to avoid a fight with those who did. I don’t think it matters much to Nathan why they won’t play with him or talk to him.
If I had the resources to do it, I’d pull him out of that school and move somewhere else, but Jessica and I bought a house we could barely afford when there were two of us and I was working two shifts. Now it’s underwater, and nobody will buy it in this market. Besides, I don’t know that I can find a new job somewhere else without a college degree. I wish I could take more time off and keep Nathan home, but we need my paycheck to get by, and I won’t get unemployment if I quit. I’m stuck for the moment.
There’s a chance that we can move in with my parents for a while, and I might be able to enroll Nathan at the school about twenty miles from the farm. I worry that it’s still close enough that the families around there will know about Alvin Johnson, but I don’t think they’ll have the same anger as the ones who knew the boy or his parents. With how fast the world moves now, maybe the ones who heard about it won’t even remember by August.
For now, the school counselor has Nathan eating lunch in her office, to keep him from feeling so alone and to “give him a safe space to talk about what happened.” I doubt it will fix anything. Teachers say he’s still getting answers right in class, doing his homework and acting normally around them. On the other hand, they tell me Nathan doesn’t even try to talk to other children anymore, wanting to just read and sit by himself. After school, I’ve been letting him watch cartoons as much as he wants, though he doesn’t laugh at them anymore. I used to limit him to an hour a day, but nobody invites him over or to play outside anymore.
He’s started staying late at school to do homework until I can pick him up on my drive home from work. He doesn’t say it, but I know he wants to avoid the taunts of “Killer Natey” on the bus, and the way people stare at him when he walks around the neighborhood.
I just have to get him through the last few weeks of school. Somehow.
All because of a misunderstanding. There were so many little things that could have kept Alvin Johnson alive. The school could have told the other parents about his food allergies. If he hadn’t transferred in during the semester, that information would have been in the back-to-school newsletter. I could have better explained to Nathan that not all the nut butters my mother made at the farm were regular peanut butter, and that the type he liked the most was a mix with a few kinds of tree nuts. The type he innocently shared with a boy who forgot his lunch at home. I could have taught him, if not to be selfish exactly, to share less often.
He’s a good boy who made a simple mistake, and now his life is ruined. I’m doing my best, but I don’t know how to fix it. Probably because it can’t be fixed.