The door drew the students towards it like the magnets grabbing up the iron tailings in the labs they’d just completed. Mr. Stocker shook his head in quiet bemusement. Most of these kids had expansive, icy personal bubbles more befitting of polar bears than humans, but when the lunch time bell was approaching, they’d crowd together like fans rushing Taylor Swift for an autograph. He wondered if they were even aware of their proximity, or if they were so singularly focused on getting away from each other as quickly as possible, that they didn’t realize how close they’d allowed themselves to become. They were fascinating creatures - high school students. He’d probably never stop believing that to be true. The bell chimed mechanically through the school’s PA system and the students were sucked out of the room like loose dollar bills in a bank’s vacuum tube system.
Mr. Stocker criss-crossed the room, pushing chairs and desks back into place, and tidying up the labs for the afternoon classes. The lesson was enjoyable. The students were engaged and talkative. They liked being able to visualize the magnetic field lines as the iron filings were pulled through the silicon oil to the sides of the glass cylinders. They played with the placement of the magnets, combining magnets, opposing them across the cylinders, and so on, then they created sketches and then made some hypotheses around other hypothetical magnetic situations.
Mr. Stocker looked forward to seeing what they gleaned from the activity, but even more than that, he wanted to see how Wylder might incorporate what he learned into his newest lyrics. He loved seeing how that boy’s brain worked science ideas into poetry. He thought Wylder might go for the low-hanging fruit and write a love song, or a song about attraction, but he also knew that Wylder could easily take it in a curveball direction and go somewhere he couldn’t imagine. He just hoped to see a trace of his fingerprint on Wylder’s incredible music. Sometimes he wasn’t sure if the lyrics weren’t for him. He knew he’d have to exercise self-control not to obsessively check Wylder’s feeds for new content over the weekend. But he would see him either way. There was the show.
Satisfied with his room’s organization, and with his slideshow presentation reset for the next class, he settled into his desk for lunch. Beneath his Billie Eilish and Final Fantasy XVI posters, he removed his bento box from his computer satchel and placed it on his desk. He turned it around and opened it intently. He was still getting a kick from its stylishness. That was something he loved about working around young people, he could pick up on their trends and stay relevant. The bento boxes were a cool new thing that he was happy to have grabbed onto. In fact, both Krista from 4th period and Jordan from 6th had complimented it at different times when he’d purposefully left it on display on his desk over the last couple of weeks. “That bento box is fire, Mr. S,” Jordan had said. Right now, it was neatly compartmentalizing his grilled chicken from his rice pilaf from his steamed broccoli from his dark chocolate truffle. He pulled his fork from his computer satchel and lightly stabbed a soft piece of broccoli. The broccoli was heading for his lips when the principal, Mrs. Dorsey, rounded the doorframe. Her eyes scanned the room, probably checking for stray students to ensure a private conversation. That was normal.
“Hi, Mr. Stocker. Do you have a few minutes?” she said as she entered the classroom.
“Oh hi, Mrs. Dorsey. Of course. Come on in.” Mr. Stocker set the fork and broccoli down. The fork’s tines and the broccoli’s green head balanced over the broccoli compartment, and the end of the fork’s handle touched down on the desk. He hoped she’d notice his bento box. He sat up a little straighter in his chair and offered the chair on the other side of his desk with his outstretched hand. Mrs. Dorsey did not take the chair across from him, but instead half-sat on a student desk near his teacher desk. This choice left her slightly elevated in comparison to him. “What’s new?” he asked.
“Well, I just had a conversation with Wylder Stevens that was pretty strange, and I thought I’d come chat with you directly.” Mrs. Dorsey began. She kept an upright posture perched on the edge of the desk. Her brown hair was neat and stylish. She wore gray trousers and a maroon blouse with a butterscotch blazer. She looked sharp. He appreciated that she looked classy as a principal. She looked like a boss. He unconsciously pulled on the front of his button up shirt to straighten it up.
“How interesting,” Mr. Stocker said. “He was just in here. What a remarkable guy! Did he like the magnet lab?”
“We didn’t talk about that. And yes, he said he’d just come from your classroom,” she said.
“That’s surprising that he didn’t mention it. I know he loved it. He was very attentive, watching me throughout the lesson. It was a great lesson, by the way.”
“I’m sure it was, Mr. Stocker. Look, that was something Wylder mentioned too. He feels you’re being a little strange about how much eye contact and attention you give him. He feels singled out. That was one thing…” Mrs. Dorsey was interrupted.
“I see. I like to keep my students engaged, but I’ll give him a rest next class.”
“That’s not all, Mr. Stocker. Did you keep a piece of his homework?” Mrs. Dorsey watched Mr. Stocker’s face as she delivered the question.
He raised his eyebrows and nodded slowly once. His eyes darted to his desk drawer then back to her face, “I did. In fact,” he said.
“Wylder said that you returned the same homework to the rest of his classmates, but that you kept his. He said you showed him his result and your written comments - glowing he said - but that you refused to return it to him because you wanted it as a keepsake. He said he hasn’t been getting his homework back for weeks. Is this correct?”
Mr. Stocker glanced down at his bento box and repositioned himself in his chair. “Well,” he paused, looking for the right words. “Wylder is a remarkable student, well human really, so I have been keeping some of his work as exemplars for future use.”
Mrs. Dorsey was blunt, “He believes you’re keeping them as a fan.” She said the word slowly, like she wanted him to grasp its meaning. “He thinks you’re keeping them like autographed memorabilia.”
“Hmmm,” said Mr. Stocker. He shifted in his chair again. “That’s funny.”
“Not really actually, Mr. Stocker.” The principal pulled out her phone and sent a message. “Wylder also told me that you’ve been seeing him outside of school. Is that true?”
“Well, yes. But just in a supportive teacher role. I support many of our students' extracurricular activities. You know that because I see you at the basketball and volleyball games.” Mr. Stocker was beginning to feel worried and defensive.
“So you have been attending his concerts?” Mrs. Dorsey asked.
“Yes, I’ve been to his concerts,” he conceded snappishly.
“Wylder says you’ve been to every one of his concerts. That you’re sometimes at the venues hours early, and that you always put yourself in the front row, right in front of the stage, during his performances. He says your behavior is making other fans, our students and their teenage friends, Mr. Stocker, feel uncomfortable. It’s making Wylder uncomfortable.” She was speaking very selectively. He could sense her deliberate movements through her vocabulary. It felt lawyerly.
“Well, it’s not like he’s selling out venues and I’m crowding people out. There’s plenty of room. Typically it’s me, a handful of his friends, perhaps his parents, and a dozen other teens,” he said.
“He says you hang around the parking lot after his shows to get his autograph and to ask questions about his lyrics.”
“Well, I’m just being engaged. Of course, I want him to see me so he knows that I support him,” As Mr. Stocker talked faster, Mrs. Dorsey chose her words more ploddingly.
“So, you’re saying these accusations are credible?” Mrs. Dorsey had her phone out again. She was composing another message.
“Look. Mrs. Dorsey. I do believe there’s a misunderstanding. I think you’ve misunderstood Wylder. I don’t know why he didn’t talk to me. I can give back some of his homework. I’m probably Wylder’s favorite teacher. He’s constantly writing my lessons into his lyrics. I can show you. I’ve deciphered countless instances. Wylder likes to keep me in suspense, so he hasn’t confirmed my hunches, but I’m sure of it. Let me pull up his songs. I’ll show you.” Mr. Stocker leaned toward his keyboard and started to type in a web address.
“Do you follow Wylder on his social media, Mr. Stocker?” Mrs. Dorsey asked.
Mr. Stocker flinched and paused his typing. “I like to listen to his music, so I do keep track of it on YouTube and TikTok and stuff, yes. It’s important to be relevant and to keep rapport with our students, don’t you think? It’s not like he has a huge following. I’m an early believer, so I’m kind of helping to push him out there by engaging with his content. Don’t you think that’s important?”
“I think boundaries are important.” Mrs. Dorsey’s phone chimed. She checked the incoming message.
“Mr. Stocker, I’m going to ask you to take the rest of the day off. I just got confirmation that a sub is here to cover your afternoon classes. You will be on administrative leave while we investigate this issue further. I’ll escort you from the building once you’ve collected your things.” Mrs. Dorsey indicated his computer satchel and bento box with her eyes. She scanned the desk for other essential items. She noticed the posters behind him, seemingly for the first time, with an involuntary shake of her head. “You can email me a list of other items from your classroom that come to mind after you’ve left and I can make sure they’re delivered to you,” she said.
Mr. Stocker was speechless. He was in shock. He was embarrassed, but he knew an injustice was being performed. Wylder would save him. Maybe he’d write a song about this? The misunderstanding. The martyrdom of his supportive teacher. He lightly scraped the broccoli head from his fork’s tines back into its proper compartment and lightly closed his bento box. He placed it back into his computer satchel. Mrs. Dorsey stood from the edge of the student desk that she’d been half-perched upon. Mr. Stocker looked at her out of the corner of his eye while he opened one of his desk drawers. He lowered his computer satchel to the floor and tried to stealthily slide the papers into it.
Mrs. Dorsey was hovering closer. She cleared her throat and said, “Mr. Stocker, place those on the desk and leave them there.” He shamefully put Wylder’s stack of unreturned homework down. Tears sprang from his eyes.
The plastic caster wheels of his office chair screeched as he pushed it back and stood defiantly at his teacher’s desk. “You can’t take him from me,” he said, immediately realizing how foolish he sounded. He continued nonetheless, “I’m his biggest fan. Artists need their fans. As a musician and artist, he’s as much mine as anyone’s.” He stomped towards the door where students were beginning to congregate on the outside. The lunch period was nearly over, but the presence of the principal, not to mention the electrically charged negative exchange between these two faculty members, had repelled them and held them from entering. As Mr. Stocker exited, clearly upset and seemingly being forced from his own classroom simply by Mrs. Dorsey’s body language, they parted in energetic waves to let the adults pass and then recoiled as they flowed in to fill the empty space.