You may have met Langston Hughes, like I did, in a dark middle school classroom where your eraser shook your desk and your feet smoldered in tennis shoes. "What happens to a dream deferred?" asked Langston, poking his head out of the page.
Perhaps like me you had just learned something about the word disappointment (that it has two p's and its reality comes for all of us). Maybe you wondered with Langston if deferred dreams wreaked unsightly similes inside you. Could you dry up like a raisin in the sun, or sag like a heavy load? Even in the eighth grade the idea fascinated me, like a loose tooth I had to wriggle.
Some kids came to books back then like camels come to water. For others, reading demanded four rusty nails and a hard library chair. In both cases it helped to have writers like Langston Hughes, who chewed life like a pomegranate, bursting into songs both about its fruitiness and its seediness.
No one compelled us, back then, to break our heads against Keats, and none of us saw Shakespeare until the ninth grade. We had to go slow: Jack London, Edgar Allan Poe, and the beginnings of Steinbeck. We scoffed that each distinguished writer murdered his characters. Good grief, Steinbeck couldn't even wait till the second chapter to kill his red pony.
In so many stories stingrays mangled men or icy mountains nearly crushed them. Why should everybody die, and why should we have to read about it? We sat hot in our tennis shoes dreaming of the 2:14 release bell. The contemplation of death did not belong with us.
This winter I stood outside a funeral for a classmate and former friend who, with the rest of us, had writhed through all those books. She was a small sandy-headed girl who had her own beauty and amiability and the unique difficulty of chronic illness. She died that week, at 21, of cystic fibrosis.
The line of people wormed over the sidewalk to the funeral home that was palpable with heat and floral scents. Many different faces clustered like fruit all the way up the sidewalk.
Like any funeral house it opened directly upon a carpeted stair. A false tree with pink flowers stood at the landing. A sob burst from the next room.
"It is better to go to the house of mourning," said Solomon, "for that is the end of all men." The outside cold had whipped me so hard that I even felt at home here. Through the service I stood in the back of the room beside the guest book that folded out of the wall. Which of the faces among us was not a potential funeral service?
That week, like every week, I was dreaming of someday sweating through a monogamous marriage, half-a-dozen children, and millions of magnificent meals. I seldom stopped to think that deferment-much less outright termination-threatened my many dreams.
Having no choice, I chewed life like a pomegranate, and swallowed.