Reach Out And…
Abraham Lincoln was fifty-six-years-old when the violence of civil war knocked on the back of his skull. The last words he heard before the bullet tore through his brain was a line in the play he was watching: “You sockdologizing old man-trap.”
It’s fascinating that Lincoln’s assassin, John Wilkes Booth, had planned for those to be the last words his victim heard. It was the punchline of a joke, one of the funniest parts of the play. Laughter was perfect for drowning out the sound of a single gunshot, and there’s delicious mockery in dying while the room around you convulses in laughter. But it also meant that Abraham Lincoln’s last conscious moment was spent laughing.
You used to say that the details make the history.
You were the one who taught me about the life and death of Abraham Lincoln. In 2010, when I was thirteen, acne-ridden, and painfully self-conscious, you were my American history teacher.
After forty-two years of teaching, you were a living legend. Every morning you stood at the end of the hall, a softly smiling sentinel in a crisply pressed dress shirt, white hair combed over neatly. Everyone in the school district knew that you were the best—teacher, basketball coach, person. You could transfix twenty-five eighth graders for ninety minutes with nothing more than a faded legal pad full of notes.
On the days you lectured about Lincoln, the other eighth grade history teachers surrendered their students to you willingly. Your class tripled in size. When I close my eyes, I can still see it: students and teachers sitting at desks, lined up against the walls, sprawled across the floors. Everyone scribbling furiously in notebooks and craning their necks to see a master storyteller in action.
So infectious was your spirit—and so rabid my need to please—that I borrowed dozens of your books on Lincoln. Over the school year, I memorized the president’s life, and every carefully recorded detail of his death.
When I was seventeen, you died. I remember that I didn’t cry. I did plenty of other things: write and wander around the cemetery and talk about you constantly. But I was planning for my senior year, college, and everything after. I didn’t have time to cry.
To be honest, I hadn’t thought about you in years. My life was a whirlwind of college, graduate school, moving, job searches. And then it was ground to a halt by the pandemic, working from home, and trying to stay alive despite it all.
I’m twenty-five now, working a salaried job that has nothing to do with history. Living in D.C., far from the corner of Ohio where our lives briefly intersected. I’m a lot of things you could have foreseen: confident, happy, still an avid reader. And things that you, more than a little conservative, could not have foreseen: queer, heavily tattooed, decidedly liberal.
I’m dipping my toes into the kind of future that could not be imagined in a middle school hallway. That’s when you come back.
Despite starting my job in July 2020, the pandemic kept me working from home until May 2021. On my first day ever in the office, I went out for lunch.
As I rounded the corner swinging my takeout bag, I froze. A block from my office, sandwiched between a Hard Rock Cafe and a store selling Peruvian sweaters, a familiar three-story red brick building was waiting for me. Ford’s Theater, the site of Lincoln’s assassination.
There on the sidewalk, a dam of memories gave way in my brain.
You sockdologizing old man-trap.
These words wake me up at 7 a.m. sharp every day for the next week, the most bizarre of alarm clocks. I recognize your voice doing a dramatic reading in my brain.
“Oh,” I say to the morning light slipping through my curtains.
You sockdologizing old man-trap.
“Oh no,” I say.
Nearly eight years after your death, I am grieving you again.
I was packing my notes into a folder at the end of class when you called me over to your desk.
“I have a book for you to read,” you said.
I’m sure I grinned, lapsing into wide-eyed confusion as you reached into the bottom drawer and retrieved a small brown book. My nose filled with the scent of aged paper and ink. It was the oldest book I had ever seen.
“Have you read Uncle Tom’s Cabin?” you asked, as if it were a thing thirteen-year-olds often read.
“No,” I said, dumbfounded, and you pressed the book into my hand.
I don’t remember well enough to declare it was a first edition. But it couldn’t have been printed more than a few years after 1852. The pages were translucent and stuck together. Cover to cover, it had been browned by time.
“I can’t read this,” I protested. “It’s an artifact.”
I didn’t want to touch it, let alone take it home. I’d heard museum curators talk about how the oils in our hands ruin old and precious things. As my fingertips nervously skimmed the cover, I sensed that the whole thing was capable of dissolving at a moment’s notice.
I remember the care I took with the book, tucking it into my backpack and cradling it on my bus ride home. Once at home, I slipped it onto the highest shelf of my bookcase and calmly asked my mom to take me to buy a copy of a 19th century bestseller.
Your copy safely stored away, I read the Barnes and Noble Classics version of Uncle Tom’s Cabin instead. Normally, I would finish any book you loaned me in a night, but this book proved more of a challenge. Years later I’d learn that James Baldwin decried it as “a very bad novel” and “a catalogue of violence.” But at thirteen, I felt everything Harriet Beecher Stowe meant for me to feel, which is to say that I cried a lot. An unwitting historical reenactor, I’d occasionally feel brave enough to pick up the antique version and gently leaf through a few pages. It buzzed in my hands, a thing of strange wonder.
When I returned your copy a few days later, you had me give an impromptu book report to the class. Perched on a desk in the back of the room, you asked me if I liked it. I told you I did. It was a dark and vivid story with interesting characters. I understood why it was an effective anti-slavery message for (white) 19th century audiences.
“Really?” you said, completely deadpan. “I hated it.”
I’m sure my eyes widened into saucer plates, and after a dramatic moment you added, “Turns out it’s not a history book. It’s something called fiction!”
The class giggled. Cracking a smile, I returned to my desk.
You had a habit of tapping your knuckles on objects as you passed. Desks. Chalkboards. It was a gesture both absentminded and methodical. You did it while you were giving quizzes, while you were waiting for a student to answer a question. When you used your left hand, your wedding band made this satisfying metallic thwack.
You are knocking on the inside of my brain now, asking to be let out.
Vaccinated and bold, I get drunk in a crowded bar for the first time since the pandemic began. As I close my bleary eyes and sway against the mass of bodies, I feel suddenly like I am back in middle school on a rainy day. In the gray-tinted haze of memory, I see you writing on your chalkboard.
As I stumble home with friends and a giant slice of pizza, minor characters in Lincoln’s assassination crackle like lightning in my brain.
John Parker, the security guard who got a drink and left the president unguarded.
Charles Leale, a young doctor who spent the rest of the night picking blood clots from the president’s brain.
Fanny Seward, tending to the wounded after a simultaneous assassination attempt on her father, Secretary of State William Seward.
Boston Corbett, who shot Booth in the head on April 26th because he had a gun and could.
I wouldn’t know about these people if you hadn’t taught me about them.
I book a tour of Ford’s Theater on June 12th, 2021, the eighth anniversary of your death.
The museum in the theater’s basement feels like a haunted house, low lit, where melancholy 19th century politicians stare out from the walls. Tourists in masks are following (and brazenly not following) little COVID-era path markers across the floor.
Breezing through the placards, I realize I know all of this. Or rather, I knew it once.
You once quizzed me about the Lincoln assassination in front of the entire class. I knew every detail, from the time he died (7:22:10 a.m.) to the lead actress in the play he was attending (Laura Keene). It must have looked ridiculous to my classmates, but you just smiled. When you signed my yearbook, you called me one of the brightest stars of your career.
Towards the end of the museum, I stand in front of a display case with relics from the assassination. My eyes find a little white pillow with brown stains across the corner. One of the pillows that was under Lincoln’s head while he was dying.
“Note the bloodstains,” the placard reads, as if it's possible not to.
The museum picks up quickly from that point on, as I wander down a hallway flanked by parallel timelines, showing the course of Lincoln’s day on April 14th, 1865... and his assassin’s. They give the sense that a collision of lives is inevitable, and that time is running out. I trudge up a flight of fifty stairs and stare out over the theater, winded from climbing. When I approach the Presidential Box—actually, boxes 7 and 8— I feel equal parts excitement and dread.
In the last weeks of eighth grade, I wrote a letter to thank you for being the best teacher I’d ever had. It was a culmination of the greatest lessons you taught me, so naturally I gave it to you on April 14th. I found a draft of it recently, tucked away in a box of my old school things. My eyes glazed over as I read the words, Given the chance, I would be standing in front of boxes 7 and 8 with you.
It was an inside joke about your desire to go back in time and prevent the assassination. It was also an offer of absurd friendship, or at least, comradery in the fight against a common foe. Just picture: a thirteen-year-old nerd and her sixty-four-year-old American history teacher, dressed in all black, guarding the President’s box. Armed with baseball bats. Just waiting to beat the crap out of John Wilkes Booth.
I blush. Linger for a few more moments at the site of our last stand.
No one ever told me that grief can come back when you least expect it to. Just wrap itself in new clothes and manifest itself fully formed, fresh as the day it first appeared.
You sockdologizing old man-trap.
I listen to a YouTube meditation that asks me to describe the shape and color of my grief. I decide that it is a blue so washed out it’s almost gray, about the width of my chest, and circular. I begin writing about you. The more I write, the heavier the grief becomes.
I text a few of my classmates, searching for anything that will make my decade-too-late mourning make sense. They don’t respond. Why would they? We haven’t talked in years. I suspect that I have become a bullet, busting through the confines of mourning and time, into a kind of grief that isn’t expected or even allowed.
A few friends politely ask if I had a crush on you. “No,” I say firmly, but then my powers of explanation fail. Mourning a long-dead teacher with this intensity feels wrong. I didn’t even mourn my grandmother’s death this way.
“I get it,” my wisest friend says. “When you were awkward and anxious and shy, he saw you. Who you were, but also who you could be. That’s special and rare.”
Through happenstance and the virtues of small-town Ohio life, we also went to the same Methodist church.
One day when I was in high school, you stopped me on my way out of the sanctuary. You were clutching a yellowed newspaper in a plastic sleeve. My stomach did a flip as you placed it in my hands.
“Found this and thought of you,” you said with a smile. “For whenever you can use the smell of history in your lungs.”
I’m sure that I stared at you, confused. Looked at the cover. The Presbyterian Messenger. The date. 1894. Another historical treasure I was afraid to touch.
“It’s pretty interesting,” you said with twinkling eyes, “even though it’s Presbyterian.”
When I got home that day, I slipped it out of the sleeve and pressed it to my nose. Old ink. Old paper. Instead of reading it, I put it in my bookcase for safekeeping.
In 2021, I find The Presbyterian Messenger still stowed away on the bookshelf in my childhood home. For the first time, I take it in my hands and read it. I’m looking for messages I missed back when you gave it to me.
There’s an op-ed on the Columbian Exposition that extols the virtues and the promises to come in the 20th century. It’s full of hope, oblivious to the wars and disease to come. It concludes:
Let the memories of the past stimulate, let the God of history and revelation guide and direct. With strengthened faith and wonderful enthusiasm, let us face the future.
Compelled by my strange summer grief, I walk by Ford’s Theater every day I’m in the office.
The morning is my favorite time to visit, especially because the tourists have not returned to pre-pandemic levels. I occasionally encounter a couple asking for directions, but the street is otherwise deserted.
One morning in early July, I pause on the sidewalk outside the theater. I glance around the empty street. Seeing no one, I make a choice. Quickly, deliberately, I step forward and press my palm against the white stone at the base of the building.
I know I tend to be overly sentimental, but I swear it pulses beneath my fingertips.
Every morning after that one, I touch Ford’s Theater on my way into work. I suspect this is not allowed. D.C. is full of historic things you can’t touch: marble facades with their own security guards, artifacts sealed behind glass panes.
A few weeks in, I’m certain that I’m on some kind of National Park Service watch list. But warm satisfaction spreads in my stomach as I discover that I don’t care. The oils in my hands didn’t immediately disintegrate The Presbyterian Messenger, or Uncle Tom’s Cabin, and won’t destroy a building. I’m allowed this sliver of our shared past.
I’m not sure I will ever learn enough from your life or my delayed grieving of it. But at some point, I realize that I am embodying one of your most cherished principles of teaching: History, whether personal or political, is tangible. It begs to be remembered, engaged with, wrestled with.
In fact, it begs to be held.