For Students D. and N.

He is of average build, broad shouldered, dark skinned, with hair so closely shaved you can see the creases in his skull, where the skin folds around his ears and neck, like a newborn’s.  When he wears his military khakis he is the picture of order, pants tucked perfectly into his black laced-up boots, every inch of him washed and pressed and buttoned, not a stitch out of place.  He wears two oblong disks around his neck–dog tags, of course.  On one is etched his mother’s name, on the other his military identification numbers. His mother passed away seven years ago from cancer, but he wears her name close to his chest.  When he runs during training days, boots thudding into the dry ground, he feels the dog tags thump against his chest, like twin heartbeats, reminding him of what he has to live for, to do, to achieve, all in her name.

He is, like so many others, serving his country so he may serve himself; so he may one day walk across a stage and receive his diploma, and keep on walking, into his future, lying before him so glorious and filled with possibilities.  Everything he does, he does for his mother.  He misses seeing her face every day, and hearing her call his name; when she first passed he couldn’t imagine not having her in the world.  He is respectful, and motivated, and determined.  He will set his jaw and head off and fight in a war he says he doesn’t really understand.  He talks of his mother watching him, and feeling proud.  I think: please keep him safe, bring him back home again.

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She is the type of tall, tall woman who seems almost ashamed of her own height.  She must be 6″2 or 6″3 and she hunches her shoulders to hide herself.  But she’s beautiful, long legs and arms, big eyes, and soft, curving lips.  She has come here all the way from a small town in Africa, to run track, but her heart is back in the country she left and, when she speaks about it, her voice quiets, and grows small and shy, trying to hide itself in her words.  She was raised entirely by her grandfather, after her mother abandoned her and her two small brothers.  Her grandfather was all anger and scolding one minute, and then gentle, rough hands smoothing away tears the next.  He had a low voice, and skin like leather.

When she was a young teenager she awoke one night to smoke and fire.  Everything was burning: the house, the things inside of it, the bushes outside.  She grabbed some things and ran, with her brothers, to the outside, where it was safe.  They hadn’t thought to find their grandfather–or they couldn’t get to him, she doesn’t remember exactly the way it happened.  But later, when help arrived and the smoke hung thick in the air and rose in gray columns from the charred remains of their house, they discovered that he had died in the fire.  No one had saved him; no one could have saved him.  She lives with the guilt, and has only one small picture of him left, this man who raised her and her spirited brothers, who was all hard words on the outside, but gentle heart inside, where it counts.

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