4 comments

Creative Nonfiction

You had big plans and dreams. That's why you went into this. You wanted to be someone, to make a difference. And this seemed like the path to do it.

It certainly wasn't for the pay.

Maybe it just seemed like a good idea at the time. You liked learning and reading and didn't care which of your childhood friends knew it. You went from New Jersey to New York whenever you could afford it. It wasn't to drink or get into trouble. You wanted to see opera.

What fourteen-year-old does that?

When did it all begin to end?

When did you start waking up?

Was it the reform school you were assigned to teach at?

You had no choice, but to take that job. Carter was in office and inflation was, well, ballooning. To make matters worse, you live in a town with two horses on a good day and three schools. None of them were hiring and so with a family to feed you took this job. Also, you wanted to go. You figured the boys needed good teachers.

You thought they needed you. So you planned your lessons, gave your pop quizzes on grammar, and kept the class mostly disciplined. You grade papers, accept late assignments and ignore the writing on the wall.

Then one day you took your daughter there.

 It was a Saturday but you needed to get work done. Your wife and son are at a scout meeting. You told her Daddy had to go to his class but afterward you'd get ice cream afterward. She said okay, of course. Who doesn't like Dairy Queen? You drove in your old Buick with the torn fake leather seats and no air conditioning. You played Beethoven on the eight-track and your daughter couldn't believe he was really deaf. Finally, you drove onto what could be a college campus complete with dorms. But it's not. The two of you walk down the silent brown and white halls to your classroom. You are trying to work but you're distracted by how she must see the place. The walls are dingy beige, but you brightened them with posters. One was the periodic table, another was Superman. You and the janitor had done a good job but it still smelled of chalk. And a million bad lunches.

Your little girl is wearing her favorite red and blue sundress. She has long brown hair that hangs to her shoulders and she just got eyeglasses. As you figured she would, she goes to the bookshelf, for like you, she loves to read. You are grading tests when she calls you.

"Daddy?"

You look up to see her at your desk holding a book. Horton Hears a Who.

“Daddy, aren’t you teaching kids my age?”

“A bit older,” you say. “They’re about thirteen.”

“Then why do you have these baby books?”

You sigh, for it is almost summer and the year has gone by fast. And this, this is all there is. This is these kids’ future. More institutions, maybe jail. You don’t know of course. But the writing is on the wall and you can no longer ignore it.

“That’s the level they can read.”

She stares at you as if she’s never heard such a thing before. You figure she probably hasn’t. She once got upset seeing an ad in New Orleans for a strip club of all things. Your daughter doesn’t know these things yet. It's both funny and sad.

“These kids didn’t have families that cared, so they didn’t go to school like you did. This is all they can read, hon. We’ve got to start somewhere.”

She shakes her head and puts the book back gently.

***

It's a year later and you've moved to a job at the local high school. By this time you've learned to speak loudly and with authority. Your wife laughs about it; how you can frighten a whole classroom into behaving just by saying, "Settle down now!" and giving them the look.

If they were really out of control you'd pull your trump card. The ace up your sleeve, the tool you always had ready.

"Okay, class! Pop quiz!" You'd say. "Everyone put your books away..." all the while thinking, you brought this on yourself.

Sometimes you pull out the quizzes because you're just tired. You're getting ground down by the administration, the parents, and the town itself. You complain that the kids don’t care, that their grammar is awful and their handwriting worse. One boy with dark curly hair stands out. His name is James and he's funny-- when he's awake. One day you secretly tie his shoelaces together so when he gets up he nearly falls. The class laughs and he hangs his head. But the next day, he's sleeping again. So, you ask him to stay after class. He sits across from you, this kid that's nearly your height. You look down at your wooden desk and wonder why they're the same in every school. You look back at James.

"Why are you sleeping?" you ask. "Are you up late at night?"

"I dunno," he answers.

"Are you working?" you ask, thinking that's the answer. A McDonald's had opened here and he's working nights. Perhaps he wants pocket money. Maybe it's his family's idea. Unemployment is a problem in a two-horse town. But the boy shakes his head.

"Nah, man."

You run your hands through your hair and contemplate throttling James. Decide against it. "You got to pass this year or you won't graduate."

"Why should I bother?"

You want to ask why he doesn't love learning but you don't. Because you've learned there are a hundred and one reasons. The parents don't care, the child is going hungry, he's just not interested, it's hunting season and he'd rather be in the woods. "Well, I think you should bother," you say. "You don't want to be here next year, do you?"

He shrugs. You're suddenly fed up. This kid doesn't care; nothing's going to change. And you need to go to the store, pick up the kids, and get home. Your son has boy scouts tonight. You come out from behind the desk and say, "You can do the work, you know. You're nearly to the door but James speaks and you stop.

"The book you have us reading is dumb."

The book is Romeo and Juliet. You aren't surprised the boys don't like it. But the school required teaching it so here you are. You want to explain what Shakespeare was trying to say but what comes out is, "Why do you think it's dumb?"

He shrugs again.

"I really want to know. Why don't you like it?"

He looks surprised as if no one ever asked for his opinion before. He mutters something about the stupid language and stupid love affairs. All the while you look at his clothes. His shoes look as if he came off the back forty. His jeans are torn and not because it's hipster. You come back to your desk. "Maybe it's about making bad decisions," you say. When he looks surprised, you smile. "Let's talk some more about the play. You don't have to like it. But you need to understand it."

James shrugs, head hung low. You decide you'll take it. And you begin.

Soon, you're tutoring him after school. You even accept his late assignments which you hate doing. Everyone needs a chance, you think. And it pays off. James stays awake in class. He still clowns around but at least he's participating, you think. He improves enough to pass with a C-. You sign his yearbook, watch him graduate, and disappear into a sea of faces. You hear he's working at the local pawn shop. It's not much, you think but at least he's got a job. It's enough.

Time goes by. The town adds another horse and you're still here, thinking about the kids. The girls who marry young and the boys who aspire to work at the local paper mill. If they want anything more you don't know. You want your Ph.D., to move on but you don’t because you don’t have the time. And can’t afford it anyway. Besides there are your students and teachers are hard to come by.

What is their life going to be like?

What is yours going to be?

****

Extremes are best avoided. Neglect will break a child. Everyone knows what abuse can do.

No one tells you what privilege can do. You found that out when you taught at that high-end private school in a big city 60 miles away from your home and family. You took it because it paid more and you hoped the students there would be interested in learning about Shakespeare, Hemingway, and opera.

You hoped they would care. But you were wrong.

At least at reform schools, the children might have good reasons to be entitled. To be stubborn, act out, not want to learn, to do the work. They might have had parents who didn’t care or couldn’t care. Maybe they were working two or three jobs just to survive. Perhaps these children went to bed hungry, who knows? Certainly, the teenagers made their own choices and shared responsibility for their actions. You tried to teach them that. Be responsible, take pride in your work, do your best. Unfortunately, everyone wants the easy way out. That's only human nature. And the parents are enabling it.

****

One cold night you can't find your car keys. They're not in your pockets, desk drawer, or your leather man purse. You even check your car hoping they're not locked in there. Your wife rides with you to her job. She'll kill you if you were this careless.

The keys aren't there. And now you're panicking.

 You tear your classroom apart looking. 

Where can they be? The car’s still here.

You wonder if someone took them by accident. And then it hits you.

That kid!

Short blond hair, everyone knows the type. He wears ironed button-down shirts and pressed khaki pants. The girls are always around him. He can charm everyone including you. Then you caught him plagiarizing his term paper and failed him. He begged and pleaded. But you don’t believe in cheating and you told him as much. You said you’d do no favors if you changed his grade. He threatened to get his father involved. You told him and your principal the grade stands. Even if he may not have the credits to graduate. In that paneled conference room, he slammed his fists down and said you would pay for what you did. Which you brushed off.

He wouldn’t…

Yeah? Then where the fuck is your keys, idiot?

You call your wife and explain the situation, then call your house. Your daughter has her driver’s license. She can drive the spare car to get you. Hopefully, it will start. That's been tricky lately. There's her car but it's old and tends to overheat.

If it was him heads are going to roll.

Your son answers. You ask where his sister is.

“I think she went to the beach. Should be back soon,” he says.

Great. It’s 1982, she took her stupid car and you have no way to reach her. Didn't you teach her anything? Your son asks what’s the matter.

“Someone stole or hid my car keys.”

“What was that, Dad?”

Can’t the boy hear? “Someone stole my goddamn car keys.” You find yourself yelling. Take a deep breath, calm down. This isn’t your kid’s fault. “Sorry. Look…”

“They stole your car?”

“No, just my damned car keys. Stupid prank. Look, just tell your sister to come to get us.” You give directions to this stupid school that you were dumb enough to take a job at. And you pray she gets home safely.

Two hours later your sixteen-year-old daughter shows up to take you home. You're pleased to see her brother is with her. It’s now eight PM and you still have another hour’s drive. Dinner is at a McDonald’s and your french fries are cold. You're too hungry to care.

You end up calling a locksmith and having another set made. You don't press charges because nothing can be proven. Every time you see that kid, he smirks at you.

And every day something inside you dies a little more.

****

You can't leave teaching.

You've tried. You worked as a caseworker for a halfway house. You also sold life insurance to people just like you. But you still come back to teaching, and you don’t know why. You assume either you like punishment or you're too damned stubborn for your own good.

The truth is, you can't sell insurance, social work is heartbreaking, and teaching is all you know. So when your daughter goes to college, you take a placement at Job Corp, teaching math. Your wife thinks it must be hard, but you like the work. The teenagers are just as entitled but at least they saw their future. Jail, prison, the streets. Single motherhood on welfare. These kids know this is their one shot and they mostly take it. You teach them enough math so they can balance a checkbook and read a bank statement. Work a cash register in a grocery store and maybe become a manager someday.

You figure that is good enough. It is something.

****

You're sixty-five now.

Your kids move away. Your daughter goes to Miami, and your son is in North Carolina. Your son gets married, then your daughter divorces. Soon you have grandchildren. Your daughter writes stories and you correct her grammar. She comes home and drinks whiskey with you. You think she might be doing it to be polite, but you appreciate it anyway. She says she can’t get the hang of commas. Then adds they aren't always necessary in dialogue.

“I speak with commas,” you say. “I think with semicolons. Because I’m so used to it. But, you are probably correct.”

****

You’re just thinking about retiring when a colleague tells you the local community college needs adjunct teachers. When you go they ask you the usual questions.

“Where do you see yourself in five years?” the interviewer says.

 Stupid question, you think, given your age. How tired you are of hearing them. “Hopefully not dead,” you say. With that, you get the job.

***

It’s Thanksgiving and your grandson is home for the holidays. You tell him he probably can write better essays at 16 than your students. Your son hears.

“It’s a community college, Dad,” he says. “You’re not getting Rhode scholars here.”

You think about that Ph.D. and opportunities missed. You've seen Dead's Poet Society and secretly wish that had been you. But somehow you ended up on this road, how you don't know. And now here you are in the same town you started in, which now has five horses. Retired people from Miami are coming here. If they can’t find peace, they’ll settle for quiet. You’ve settled for the same thing. You grade essays by non-Rhode scholars and get decent grades on ratemyprofessor.com. You sit at the head of the table and toast to your family. You think this has to be good enough.

The next day your wife is restless, so you take her to see the Black Friday specials. You end up in the local Walmart looking at the 64-inch TVs. Your daughter-in-law is asking why anyone would want such a monstrosity when someone calls your name. You turn to see a man in his thirties, maybe forties with thinning brown hair. He has a boy with him about fifteen years old. The lad has dark brown curly hair and an eyebrow piercing. They look familiar but you don't know how. The man speaks hesitantly.

"Mr. Pitco, you probably don't remember me, but-"

"James? James Black? Well, what a surprise," you say. "I hope you had a good Thanksgiving."

He nods and smiles. "Yes, I did, thanks. How are you?"

"I'm doing well. Is this your son? Fine young man." You address the boy. "I had your dad in my classroom a long time ago. Perhaps one day I'll see you at the college." You turn back to James. "You appear to be doing well."

"I'm working at the hospital," he says. "As an X-ray tech. Listen," and here he looks away from you. Rubs his eyes. "I've been...I want to thank you."

"Me? For what?"

"You believed in me. Not..." James rubbed his eyes again. "many people in my life had before. So..." He holds out his hand to you. "I appreciated it."

"You were someone worth believing in," you say, thinking, yes this is enough.

He would not be the last student you meet.




May 20, 2023 03:46

You must sign up or log in to submit a comment.

4 comments

Levi Michael
19:13 May 26, 2023

Really great story. The grind of broken systems wears us down until we don't care and then a small victory with the right timing to pull us out of it and give us a sense of fulfillment can make all the difference. This story is a very slow burn. as I was reading it, I thought that slow pacing might be an issue, but when I reached the end, I realized the slow pace was actually a nice representation of life wearing the main character down. Another thing you did really well was where you chose to introduce James. it was a perfect distance fr...

Reply

Michele Duess
00:02 May 27, 2023

Thank you for your comments! I'm glad you enjoyed the story.

Reply

Show 0 replies
Show 1 reply
Mary Bendickson
02:14 May 26, 2023

It's the little things that keep us going. Touching story.

Reply

Michele Duess
01:11 May 27, 2023

Thank you.

Reply

Show 0 replies
Show 1 reply