In the Vale of Tears

by Corrina Carter

Pleasant Valley Elementary School librarian Vera Gorman radiated
misanthropy. She wore her hair in a utilitarian bowl cut as if to defy
the Western beauty ideals she had never been able to achieve. Beneath
her disconcertingly level bangs, bespectacled eyes condemned
the world, settling on children, foot tappers, and noisy eaters with
a special hatred. Even her skin attested to a long-standing grudge
against the human race—she sported a frown line so prominent it
called to mind the “fold here” crease on a paper airplane template.

I didn’t notice these warning signs at five. An adult-fearing girl, I
considered everyone over twenty above reproach. This was especially
true of older females like Ms. Gorman. When the sour-faced bibliophile
visited my kindergarten class in February 1994, I welcomed her
with a smile.

***

“Students,” my teacher, Janet Moore, said on a typical foggy day in
the Bay Area, “it is my pleasure to introduce our school librarian, Ms.
Gorman.”

A woman walked into the room. My peers and I clapped our hands.
She nodded. In retrospect, I should have known not to place my faith
in a person who greets the young with nonverbal gestures.

Ms. Gorman lowered herself onto a plastic stool. Several of my fellows
gazed at her in awe. Like a deposed but still authoritative monarch,
the stranger commanded respect in any setting.

“Presidents’ Day is nearly here, so I’m going to read you the tale of
our nation’s greatest leader: Abraham Lincoln,” she announced.

Ms. Moore modeled the attentive behavior she hoped we would
exhibit. She needn’t have bothered. We loved stories more passionately
and less self-consciously than we ever would again. Besides, the
Lincoln biography was a pop-up book. No child could resist three-dimensional
illustrations.

Ms. Gorman showed us the first page—a picture of little Abraham
at his boyhood home—and began. Her quiet yet carrying voice lulled
us into a waking dream. We entered a glittering realm of log cabins
and top hats and stirring debates. When Ms. Gorman referenced a
certain theater in connection with a certain thespian, we leaned forward.
What inspiring image awaited us? A heroic Union soldier? A
liberated slave?

Ms. Gorman smirked. Ms. Moore gasped. A vision of horror ripped
us from our common reverie. Honest Abe, seated in a red plush chair
on an ivory balcony, slumped like a stringless puppet. His head was
wreathed in gun smoke, his eyes wide with mortal recognition, his
mouth ajar in a dying scream. Behind the stricken president, Mary
Todd Lincoln pulled her hair and John Wilkes Booth cackled, arms
akimbo. Far below, on a wooden stage, the cast of Our American Cousin
ran in all directions.

I don’t recall whether Ms. Gorman continued or Ms. Moore exchanged
words with her or my classmates cried. But I know this without
a doubt: by the time I gathered the courage to peer through my
fingers at the librarian, an expression of fulfillment had softened her
features. Our fear gratified her. Delighted her. Perhaps even thrilled her.

***

For weeks, John Wilkes Booth came to me in the night. He hid in my
closet, behind my curtains, and under my bed. Occasionally, silvered
by moonlight, he played with my toy horses, snapping his tongue to
simulate hoofbeats. I wanted to kick off my covers. To ball my tiny
fists. To pummel that baddest of bad guys until he agreed to resurrect
Lincoln. Yet I was too scared to act on my rage. At last, early
one morning, I released my pent-up fury in an animalistic howl. My
mother rushed to my side and asked what had caused me to scream.
In the parlance of my age, I “told on” Ms. Gorman.

The next PTA meeting arrived. As soon as Principal Susan Fuller
finished her introductory remarks, my mother complained about the
ghoulish storybook. Mrs. Hayes, whose golden-haired daughter April
was the love of my K-5 life, also expressed concern. Emboldened by
the example set for them, several more reticent but equally irate parents
chimed in. When Principal Fuller ordered Ms. Gorman to explain
herself, the librarian snapped, “It’s not my fault they shelter
their kids.”

A working-class Mexican raised in San Francisco’s Mission District,
my mother was intimately acquainted with the hard facts of
existence. By seventeen, she had survived multiple hate crimes, quit
school to provide for her siblings, and witnessed a fatal gang shooting.
These experiences invested her with a keen understanding of the
intersection of race, poverty, and violence in America—an understanding
she transferred to her children from the start. I can only
imagine her ire at Ms. Gorman’s accusation. According to witnesses,
she yelled, “Corrina is in kindergarten! She doesn’t need to see
graphic shit!”

Ms. Gorman despised me from that moment on. Every time we
ran into each other in the halls of Pleasant Valley, her eyes sparkled
with malice. Once, in a case of mistaken identity, she assigned my
twin detention for shouting to a buddy . . . at recess. Pride sealed my
sister’s lips. If our mother had found out, Ms. Gorman may not have
made it to spring break.

The persecution escalated when I turned six. Grades one through
five visited the library on a monthly basis. Ms. Gorman’s domain was
a Spartan affair. A single “poster,” a Very Hungry Caterpillar dust jacket
pinned up like some bizarre hunting trophy, adorned its walls. Yet
my nemesis guarded the place against the abuses of the student body
with over-the-top discipline.

Ms. Gorman explained the laws of her queendom during an orientation
that resembled a Scared Straight episode. She sat on a circulation
desk taller than the average youngster (coincidence or power
move?) as she spoke, flogging her left palm with a ruler to emphasize
her main points. The lecture hinged on a piece of furniture near the
back door: the Tear Table. My peers and I would be exiled to that
four-legged, faux mahogany Siberia if we tracked in mulch from the
playground, used “outside voices,” missed due dates, or damaged library
property. There, we couldn’t utter a sound—except for the requisite
crying—until Ms. Gorman forgave us our trespasses.

The She-Devil was as good as her word. Tear Table deportees included
class clown Ian Mancuso, stir-crazy Spencer Romero, and, to
my nascent lesbian horror, April. Somehow I avoided punishment.
Ms. Gorman compensated for my good behavior with subtle but no
less effective means of torture. She refused to loan me a Spanish language
Golden Book on the grounds that I wouldn’t comprehend it.
A pardonable offense considering my Caucasian father stamped me
if she didn’t know about my mixed-race heritage. Even after I translated
the text to show my proficiency, she dug in her heels with a
sneer. Worse, when I expressed an interest in prehistoric beasts, she
relocated the dinosaur section to a shelf too high for me to reach.
Ryan Boyd, a gangly redhead who fancied himself my boyfriend, took
advantage of his long arms to secure Bella the Brontosaurus. Alas, Ms.
Gorman intercepted him before he could hand me the slender, enticingly
colorful volume.

For the most part, I maintained my composure. My schoolmates
had demonstrated that moist eyes, leaky noses, and quivering chins
increased Ms. Gorman’s joy. Yet, on a memorable afternoon in 1995,
terror overcame me. While walking to the library, I discovered I had
left Balto: The Bravest Dog Ever at home. My insides went washy with
fear. I would be banished to the Tear Table faster than I could
say “Iditarod.”

April, If You Give a Moose a Muffin pressed to her chest, asked,
“What’s the matter?”

“My book,” I said in a strangled voice. “I didn’t bring my book.”
April blanched, then rallied for my benefit. “Oh. Well, she’s not
gonna kill you. She’d be sent to jail.”

My compatriots and I filed into the library. Ms. Gorman sensed my
distress. Without greeting the class as a whole or even acknowledging
our teacher, she bore down on me with predatory excitement. I
ducked behind two large boys. They scattered.

“You look like you forgot something,” Ms. Gorman said.

“Balto,” I squeaked. The low thunder of my blood dizzied me. “Balto’s
on my bed.”

“What a pity. I guess we know where you’ll be sitting.”

Deliverance arrived in the form of a man from Principal Fuller’s
office. My instructor, Mrs. Horton, took an item from him and approached
me.

“Your mother dropped this off for you,” she said, handing me Balto.
I wanted to kiss her—and middle-aged married women weren’t
my type. Fortunately, I limited myself to a hug. The celebration was
short-lived.

Ms. Gorman wrenched Balto from my grasp. For a whole minute,
she glowered at me in silence. I watched, mesmerized despite—or
perhaps because of—my trepidation, as her pallid skin reddened,
stabilizing at puce. The air around her gathered heat, thickened, and
sparked. An electrical storm might have fizzed to life in the middle of
the library. I wanted to run for cover. There was nowhere to go.

Blindsided by my reprieve, Ms. Gorman could only muster a single
sentence. Yet what a sentence! She said, each word marinated in bitterness,
“Mommy saved your skin, didn’t she?”

Twenty years older, I laugh at Ms. Gorman’s unabashed rudeness.
But I also wonder why the Pleasant Valley staff tolerated the cranky
librarian. Maybe she was more civil to adults. Maybe the faculty just
didn’t care. The school, located in the blue-collar section of the otherwise
affluent Marin County, couldn’t afford to pay its employees
a fair wage. As a result, the majority refused to expend any more
energy than necessary. Whatever the reason, we children faced Ms.
Gorman alone. Most of us never even mentioned her to our parents.
To do so would have been to admit defeat. To scurry home like frightened
puppies. To surrender the precious agency we had acquired as
semi-literate, semi-independent “big kids.”

In the end, Ms. Gorman destroyed herself—with help from me, my
mother, my friend Liliana Martinez, and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

***

Like me, Liliana was Mexican (full-blood in her case). Unlike me, she
lacked passing privilege, a mother with the free time to attend PTA
meetings, and a comfortable home. She lived in a repurposed barn
on the outskirts of a local horse farm; the owner rented the property
to Señor Martinez in exchange for labor. The “house,” too small for
an entire family, was impossible to keep clean. A week before she had
to complete a writing exercise on the Civil Rights Movement, Liliana
lost an illustrated biography of Martin Luther King Jr. in a mass of
domestic rubble. When she reported the book missing, Ms. Gorman
suspended her library privileges.

Unable to locate or pay for the item, Liliana became a regular at
the Tear Table. She failed her assignment . . . and every other project
with a reading component. I looked on in disgust, incensed at my
fellow Latina’s situation yet muzzled by my terror of Ms. Gorman.
Then Mrs. Horton, either oblivious to the librarian’s machinations
or reluctant to get involved, informed Liliana that she would be held
back a grade. I had to take action. I had to talk to someone.

Principal Fuller intimidated me—her dyed hair and artificially
tanned skin were matching shades of orange. The Pleasant Valley
teachers couldn’t be roused from their low-income stupor. My father,
though committed to social justice, operated at a slow pace. Liliana
needed a champion who would run to her aid in an instant. A champion
who understood the challenges Mexican-American children
confront each day. A champion who had already met Ms. Gorman in
battle and lived to tell the tale. In other words, she needed the Carter
family matriarch.

My mother listened to my story with the tight-jawed anger of the
underfed, undervalued, and undereducated. She saw herself in Liliana.
In her black hair and toffee skin and appetite for the luxuries
white people consider rights. To a pale halfie, such hunger was a mystery.
A bizarre yearning that strained the heart. But I didn’t have to
experience deprivation to recognize that Ms. Gorman had earned a
verbal drubbing.

Not present for the altercation between my mother and the librarian,
I must reconstruct the scene:

Parent accosted bookmarm after school on a blustery autumn
afternoon. The two women locked eyes, the younger in the library
doorway, the older at her enormous circulation desk. It was so quiet
they could hear everything from the scritch of leaves against pavement
to the tattoo of a basketball on an asphalt court to the clack of
a janitor’s trash tongs. Somebody had to blink. To speak first. To unleash
her fury and let it whip through the room like the wind outside.

My mother stepped forward and said, “Corrina tells me Liliana
Martinez isn’t allowed to borrow books here anymore. Is that true?”

“Yes. Liliana lost and did not replace a very valuable biography of
Reverend King,” Ms. Gorman replied.

My mother retrieved her wallet from her purse, breath shallow
with anger. “How much does she owe you? I’ll cover the fee.”

“Oh no, you don’t,” Ms. Gorman said. “I can only accept money
from Liliana or her parents. How else will she learn responsibility?”
My mother stiffened. “Do you want Liliana to fall behind her classmates?
Do you want her to be the next Mexican casualty of the public
school system?”

“I want her to grow into a productive member of society.”

“Denying her the opportunity to finish her homework will accomplish
that?”

“Rules are rules. No exceptions.”

My mother glared. Ms. Gorman glared. The wind intensified, sending
leaves bouncing past the library window like russet tumbleweeds.

“If you don’t budge, I’ll report you to Principal Fuller—and the
Board of Education,” my mother said.

Ms. Gorman, who had remained sitting throughout the exchange,
rose. “How dare you threaten me?” she asked.

“I don’t make threats. I lay my cards on the table. That’s how we
roll in the Mission.”

“Fine. You win. . . for the moment.”

Ms. Gorman thumbed through a binder listing the price of each
book in Pleasant Valley’s collection. When she found the correct
page, she used her ruler to match the volume to its value. Finally, she
straightened slowly, deliberately, vertebra by vertebra, and said, “The
item costs five dollars and fifty cents.”

Silence bewitched the room. Ms. Gorman had jeopardized Liliana’s
education over the cheapest paperback imaginable. The fact that the
misplaced book chronicled the life of a man who died for equal opportunity
simply increased the perversity of the situation. Simply
generated a tempest of Latina pride that would not wane until it blew
itself out.

Language foul enough to apply to Ms. Gorman had yet to be invented.
Bruja was generous, puta callejera inadequate, racista too on
the nose. A gesture would have to suffice. My mother searched her
purse for a five-dollar bill and two quarters, then dropped them on
the circulation desk. The coins rolled across the wooden surface. By
the time they capsized, reverberated, and stilled, she had exited
the library.

***

Ms. Gorman left Pleasant Valley the following year. Rumors that
Principal Fuller had fired her over the Liliana Martinez incident—my
mother did indeed file a complaint—spread but could not be confirmed.
To this day, the truth eludes me. I only know that, one morning,
the old misanthrope navigated her domain with the assured
strides of a person in control of her small corner of the universe. The
next, a stranger occupied her desk.

The new hire, a plump, red-faced woman, redecorated the library.
Posters, actual posters, injected life into the walls. My favorite depicted
an anthropomorphic golden retriever setting off on an adventure,
his possessions bundled into a checkered knapsack and slung across
his shoulder. A sanguine, tongue-lolling smile split his muzzle.
The red-faced woman also replaced the furniture. Chairs with
cushions supplanted plastic stools. More importantly, a big yellow
couch ousted the Tear Table. I hope somebody burned that wicked
piece of fake wood, that as it crumbled, the phantom sobs of Ian and
Spencer, April and Liliana, also disintegrated.

My relationship with books evolved, too. During Ms. Gorman’s
reign, I couldn’t read with abandon; I was too busy monitoring the
librarian’s movements to frolic through a Truffula forest with the Lorax
or hang upside down beside Stellaluna. Now I immersed myself in
fictional world after fictional world. The red-faced woman often had
to shake me out of a literary trance. I would emerge from the story in
question unable to separate the real and the imagined.

Yet I experienced no closure. No lasting jubilation. Ms. Gorman
was the first person to make me feel hated. To make me question the
justice of the cosmos. Her absence haunted me. Each time I looked
at the red-faced woman, I pictured her soft, offensively inoffensive
features withering like a salted snail. Withering until they revealed
the much sharper visage of Ms. Gorman. And, while I browsed the
dinosaur section, the hair on my nape bristled. My adversary stood
behind me. I could feel it. But when I spun around, she wasn’t there.
She wasn’t anywhere.

Of course, nobody just disappears. Ms. Gorman had relocated to
a wind-battered hamlet off the Pacific Ocean. I wouldn’t learn her
whereabouts until I was a young woman.

***

Fifteen years later, my sister and I visited Bodega Bay, the coastal setting
of Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds. Our objective: to see the school
where crows attack a dozen besweatered, knee-socked children an
hour into the movie. As we strolled through town, our spirits quickened.
The northern California fog had dissipated, the sea glittered in
the distance, and the air smelled like taffy.

My sister posed a question our sexual orientations turned into a
debate. Which Hitchcock trope is more attractive, the Everyman or
the Cool Blonde? She praised Jimmy Stewart’s downhearted eyes,
crooked smile, and “Oh, golly!” drawl. I countered with Grace Kelly’s
lion-colored tresses, symmetrical bone structure, and elegant wardrobe.
The argument intensified. Determined to win one for the distaff,
I barely noticed when we stepped into the Main Street–Bodega
Lane crosswalk. Yet, despite my preoccupation, something caused
me to glance to the right. It may have been the cry of a gull or the
laugh of a pedestrian or the rumble of a motorcycle. That detail is
lost to history.

This is not. At the wheel of an old Volvo, her gaze emitting waves
of scorn below her now gray hair-bowl, sat Ms. Gorman. I propped
like a horse that has spied a snake. Lincoln sagged in his red plush
chair. Booth emerged from my closet. “Mommy saved your skin,
didn’t she?” played on loop in a dark cubby of my brain. What would
Ms. Gorman do? Accost me through her open window? Leave her car
and charge with her ruler drawn?

She didn’t recognize me. I should have expected as much. Age
modifies the mature, plaiting their faces with wrinkles, letting out
their guts, and weakening their bones. But it overhauls the young.
Pounds them into a biotic putty and molds a brand-new human
being. I no longer resembled the girl who attended Pleasant Valley a
decade and a half earlier. Only my parents could still spot her in the
curve of my ear or the shape of my upper lip. Even in my memories,
she lacked definition. Survived as a generic figure whose sole purpose
was to lend my past a first-person narrator.

Time had also introduced me to grief. Real, adult-sized grief. By
twenty-one, I had weathered the pinch of anxiety, the bite of hate
speech, the ache of depression, and the hitched-breath, seared-lung
panic of an aborted suicide attempt. Such experiences taught me that
life chips away at people from birth to death, that if this erosion exceeds
the normal rate, dispositions sour, then curdle, then blacken.

The lesson recast Ms. Gorman. Frozen in the intersection, I viewed
the librarian as an individual who had suffered. Who had suffered
and fought her suffering with the sole weapon in her arsenal—cruelty.
I didn’t know what happened to her. Perhaps her temperament
robbed her of friendship, her homeliness of love. Perhaps her upbringing
prevented her from developing empathy, the prerequisite
for true joy. Maybe she dreamed of success merely to achieve anonymity.
Merely to learn that her aspirations had always and would
always outpace her talents. The source of her rancor was irrelevant.
We all start life with potential, with basic decency. Our circumstances
pervert us. Warp us. Distort us. In ten, twenty, or thirty years, I,
too, might grow bitter. I, too, might wound anyone who strays into
my path. For an instant, tears watercolored my vision.

The instant passed. As soon as I imagined myself becoming Ms.
Gorman, I dismissed the possibility. Even at my worst, when despair
convinced me everybody I met occupied a brighter, happier sphere, I
seldom lashed out. Seldom spread my sorrow. Besides, the fact that
most victimizers were once victims does not excuse their conduct.
Does not entitle them to forgiveness. Until the librarian removed the
mental scar tissue she had inflicted on me and freed the pain trapped
beneath it, I couldn’t absolve her. I could simply put her behind me.
And so, a split second before Ms. Gorman laid on her horn to hurry
me across the street, I shrugged off my melancholy.

Ascribing my paralysis to Grace Kelly-induced attention blindness,
my twin placed her hands on her hips in cliché disapproval.
We grinned, continued our mock fight, and scaled the hill that led to
the school. I didn’t reflect on the chance nature of my reunion with
the librarian or the irony that it had occurred near the filming location
of an assault on children. Those connections would crystallize
during the ride home. Instead, as my sister extolled Jimmy Stewart’s
string-bean frame, I thought, Ms. Gorman, Mistress of the Tear Table,
Archrival of my Mother, Oppressor of Liliana Martinez, rotten woman at
the end of a rotten existence, goodbye forever.