“Nothing?” several of the high school students ask. An air of festivity surrounds the classroom. This is supposed to be a difficult course. The teacher is known for being very serious about his subject, giving tough tests and even tougher reading assignments. Yet here he is, telling them to close their eyes and think of nothing.
The disabled student I tutor in the classroom gazes at me with his crooked grin, a light lit from within. He’s a good student, despite his severe disabilities from cerebral palsy, and he pushes himself in every class for A’s or B’s, struggling valiantly despite the fact that he can’t read or write. His eyes roam too much for such focus; his tutors tape all of his reading and homework assignments.
It’s hot in the room. Indian summer. The leaves are still green and happy, as though oblivious to their impending doom. Nothing. Do leaves end in nothingness? Well, no. Their crunch underfoot leads to a sodden mess once the November rains begin, and then they decompose into mulch to aid the fresh sprouts that begin in spring.
But I am thinking of fall and spring, of death and life, and I’m supposed to be thinking of nothing.
“Mrs. Wight. Mrs. Wight!” my student calls me in a staged whisper, and I open one eye, then the next, seeing him wave his frozen arms toward me as he sits in his motorized wheelchair.
“Yes?” I whisper back.
“Can you close my eyelids? I can’t.” He says it matter-of-factly, and at first I don’t understand. I’ve gotten used to the fact that he can’t walk or watch a movie or go to the bathroom by himself, but the thought of going to bed every night without being able to close his eyes burns my chest with anguish. I gulp, not allowing him to see my distress, and reach over to close his eyes.
I touch his eyelids gently, lovingly, and wonder how this 16-year-old puts up with a middle-aged woman like me, following him along to every class, writing his words as he dictates his homework, closing his eyelids as he thinks of nothing.
He smiles his thanks, and I watch him swallow hard, trying desperately to think of nothing. I keep my mouth shut, not letting him know it’s impossible. As my arm muscles twitch from fatigue, held aloft, softly keeping my student’s eyes closed, I think of a Paul Valéry quote I learned from a psychology teacher in my college days:
“God made everything out of nothing, but the nothingness shows through.”
Back then we discussed Valery’s meaning ad nauseum, the existential students agreeing that life was empty and meaningless, the idealists arguing that God filled the nothingness with light and hope.
As I watch my student struggle, eyes roving like a machine underneath my fingers, I realize the truth: nothing does not exist. Each of us is full of everything.
I let go of his eyes and he looks at me in surprise as I shrug and laugh. Then he exclaims to his fellow students: “Nothing is impossible!”