Drama High School Fiction

Excerpt from What He Said

Tuesday, October 5

At my desk, I flip open my teacher’s manual—thank God it has all the answers—to last night’s set of problems to remind myself of the correct responses to the odd numbers 1-9. I lift the manual off my desk and glance back and forth from the page to my students. We’re only fifteen minutes into the period and some heads are already down on their desktops. Others work feverishly to finish their homework, and the rest simply peer surreptitiously at their phones. Today, most are decked out in shirts with floral prints for Beach Day. So am I. I’m wearing a yellow button down and a lei I bought for a dollar at the student council table this morning. 

            “Get to know your students,” Henry Glassman, the superintendent, told us at the August staff meeting. “Form a relationship with them . . . a rapport. That’s the key to getting the best out of them. Engage them, get them into the lesson, and don’t stop until the bell chimes to end the period.” If I knew their cellphone numbers I could absolutely form a relationship with them. In college, however, my educational psych professor explained, no, keep your distance. Yes, be friendly, but better yet, be firm. I’ve seen Stand and Deliver. I’ve seen Dead Poets Society and The Great Debaters. Those students eventually loved their teachers. I want to be like those guys. But dammit, that ed psych professor never taught me how.

            I straighten up. Maybe I need to smile more. I try channeling Robin Williams in Dead Poets Society. “Hey, everyone, let’s pause for a minute . . . How was your weekend?” I wonder how my smile appears to them. I sense it’s crooked; the muscles in both cheeks feel disjointed. 

            They don’t respond to me; instead, heads go up, and they tell each other what they did. The noise level gets loud, and I realize my inquiry is a mistake. Some of them start laughing. The boys in the back push at each other’s shoulders as they loudly recall a Saturday night party where someone got drunk, went outside, and threw up on the hood of a car.

            I drop the smile and make my voice sound like a television newscaster. “Well, then, okay . . . Never mind. Let’s get back to the problems.”

            “What about you, Miller?” The question comes from Alex Sutton who sits near the door. “Did you have a hot date this weekend? Maybe hang out with a buddy?” He grins at me and then exchanges a look with Jimmy, his football lineman teammate who always wears his red and white letter jacket.

            I smile again. You know, friendly, although Alex and I certainly are not friends. At Tremont High, or hormone hell, Alex is the king. “No date,” I lie. 

            No way am I telling Alex Sutton about my personal life or about Mary Jo, my girlfriend. I wouldn’t tell him even if I didn’t have a date. Then, like a freight train, the shutdown urge charges through my body, starting in my stomach, racing up my chest, pushing into my throat. A part of my brain that I’ve always depended on pushes on the breaks, but the momentum is too strong. “An episode,” my mom called it when I was a kid. I lean against my desk. I pretend to be busy with the teacher’s manual. Focus on my breathing. Wait for the shutdown surge to recede.

            We’re seven weeks away from Thanksgiving vacation, I remind myself. Ten weeks before Christmas vacation. Time away from disrespectful kids like Alex Sutton.

            I should get out of Tremont, Ohio during the holiday. I glance out the window at gray clouds and dying leaves. Go somewhere warm. A beach with white sand. Maybe Mary Jo will join me.

            Deep breaths help.

            So does reviewing the sequence of numbers on the page.

            Today we’re covering polynomials.

            Steve Peplin eyes me, waiting patiently, a pencil poised in his right hand. Shauna Lange also stares. Her eyes show curiosity. 

            I exhale.

            I wish I knew some awesome jokes about polynomials. I have already told the one about the math plant with square roots. I always thought numbers were cool, like the way Jamie Escalante taught calculus in Stand and Deliver. And algebra also has this fascinate-ing history, going back all the way to the ancient Persians.

            Maybe the West Coast. California and the Pacific Ocean. Waves splashing against my legs.

            I take a final deep breath, push myself off my desk, and move down the aisles to check homework and to help anyone who needs it. I stop at Shauna Lange’s desk. She’s the only Black student in the class and wears today what I think are pajama bottoms. For some reason Shauna grimaces and squirms in her seat like she’s just learned the cellphone in her hand is going to explode. Then she catches me staring at her pajamas. “Let it go, Miller,” she warns. “Everything else was in the wash . . . Hey, are you okay?”

            “I’m fine, Shauna. Thank you.” I look away and move on. I also have laundry piled up in the bedroom closet in my apartment.

            I’m supposed to write a referral when a student uses a cellphone in class—a form in triplicate, and I have a bunch of them stacked neatly in my desk drawer. They’ve been stacked there since August. But I pretend I never saw her cellphone. In fact, I’m pretending I don’t see any cellphones.

            Here’s the truth:  I’m sick of paperwork. There’s too much of it in teaching. And that includes all the homework. The shutdown urge recedes into my stomach. My legs are moving. Thirty-two minutes are left in second period.

            “If you’re finished with the odds, do the evens two to eight,” I announce to the class. I smile again, like I’m truly looking forward to seeing messy algebra equations on folded, crinkly notebook paper.

            They lean down and pull papers from their book bags. Chromebooks are plopped on desktops, sounding like gunshots, making me cringe for a moment. Some students grumble. 

            This is algebra. It’s supposed to be difficult.

            Their pencils start scratching on their papers, and I continue sliding up and down the aisles, hunching over to check one student’s paper after another to point out errors and then guide their corrections. I need a new system. These kids undoubtedly hate smelling my stale toothpaste breath as I lean over them. But this is all I know—it’s how I was taught in high school.

            Polynomials today, polynomials tomorrow, polynomials next week . . .

            I should have expected the boys—Alex and his fellow football players—by the door in the front of the room to get obnoxious when my back is turned. Especially Alex, the all-conference, junior running back. He can’t sit still. Phone calls to the parents have done no good—Dad thinks he’ll play in the National Football League one day, and Mom defers to Dad. Out of the corner of my eye, I see Alex showing the two other boys some image on his phone, and then they break away laughing. 

            Cellphones I can tolerate. Not their noise. Maybe not even the hot date / buddy teasing, now that I think about it. All of it makes my forehead throb. So instead of checking a student’s homework, I straighten up, square my shoulders to Alex and his football buddies, and try to make my 5’ 9” height appear taller. “Cool it,” I demand. “Work on numbers two to eight, gentlemen. Those are the directions!”

            Like they care. Who am I kidding?

            When I turn back, a third of the class are also on their phones, probably texting friends in other classes about some drama they’ve heard or asking for a ride home after school. Their faces are always in their phones.

            Not Steve Peplin, however. Nor Dana Phillips. Those two will run their own companies one day or get elected to Congress. Their heads are down; they’re solving the problems and checking their answers. If Cameron Sloane was in class today, he’d be doing the same thing. All three are great students.

            Shauna Lange is ignoring two through eight. Her eyes are on the doorway—or is it the football players? If she was given a superpower, she’d probably want laser vision so she could disintegrate me with her eyes. Right now, the way she’s glaring at him, I think she’s trying to melt Alex Sutton. 

            I pause at Courtney Jeraci’s desk, and she politely moves her paper to the side of her desktop so I can get a better view of her homework. She looks up, her face showing pride and expectation beneath shampoo commercial blond hair. I almost feel guilty when I underline a five on the answer she’s written for number one. “Not five,” I tell her. “Ten is the solution.”

            “Ten?” Her eyes go first to the paper and then to me. She frowns. “How do you get ten?”

            “What’s outside the parentheses?” I’m hoping she will realize how the two outside the parentheses affects the result. Courtney turns back to her paper and studies it like she’s reading Egyptian hieroglyphics.

            And when the period comes to an end, I suspect most of my students won’t have finished the evens two through eight, so I’ll assign those problems for homework, like I did for one through nine yesterday. Like I do every day. I’m doing something wrong here, but I can’t figure out what I should be doing differently. The anxiety rumbles in my stomach again. My pulse pounds in my eardrums.            

            What about Hawaii? No, not on my teacher’s salary . . . Clearwater, Florida most likely. My parents took me there once when I was a kid.

            Courtney taps my arm. I’ve been looking out the window again.

            “What do you mean, ‘What’s outside the parentheses’?”

            I stare at her paper. I breathe and refocus.  Parentheses? Then: “Do you see the two and the x?  The multiplication factor? You need to distribute first.” 

            “Did you teach us that?”

            Did I teach then that? If Cameron were here, he could tell me. I tap my green pen on the paper, stalling, because suddenly I can’t remember what I taught last week. Nevertheless, I eventually say, “Don’t worry about it, Courtney. Ask Dana about that one while I help the others.” My classroom needs Alexa or Siri. Courtney could ask one of them because they would probably do a better job than I’m doing. I give one more tap with my pen and move on to the next student. 

            Second period Algebra 2 is in a holding pattern. I’m not connecting with the kids here. I’m not teaching them. I make a mental note:  Talk to Keith, my department chair. He’s helped me before. No, better yet, ask him about Florida. If he’s ever been to Ft. Lauderdale.

            “Mr. Miller?” Mike Franklin’s voice comes at me from the hallway like the jarring ringing of a phone at three in the morning. Why is my name a question? I’ve taught here for nearly two months, and Mike Franklin, the principal, certainly knows my name. I look to the door. Standing stiff and erect behind Franklin are two police officers, one of whom is the school’s resource officer, Philip Reeves. My students obviously see them, too, and get immediately quiet. 

            “Mr. Miller, will you please come out here?” Franklin hunches a little in his gray suit, scoops the air in front of him with his hand, and steps back from the doorway. Although his voice framed a question, it isn’t one.

            I walk toward them and take another glance at my students. Their eyes shift from me to Franklin and the police officers. Some lean left or right to whisper to each other. 

            Is there going to be a lockdown? Is one of my students in trouble? Why do Phil and the other officer look so grim?When I join Franklin and the officers in the dim, stuffy hallway, I whisper, “What’s going on?” The way the officer’s eyes study me, I can tell he’s confused. I’m wearing a Hawaiian lei made with red ribbons that our student council was selling for Spirit Week. I suddenly feel very silly.

            Above his rumpled suit and loose red tie Mike Franklin, fidgets, purses his lips, and clenches his jaw as he glances at Phil and the Tremont officer. Then he rests his eyes on me. “You have to come with me to my office, and you might want to ask your union rep to join us.”

            A chuckle pours out before I can stop it. “I didn’t rob any bank, Mike.” Then I raise my arms in mock surrender. “I’m sorry I didn’t confiscate any cellphones or make those boys take off their hats, but—” 

            “This is more serious, Mr. Miller.”

            I peer at Franklin and the cop. This isn’t a lockdown. They’re not here for a student. “Am I under arrest?” I whisper. “For what?” I yank off the lei. Heat rises into my face like a flood. Blood stampedes through my veins like horses at a racetrack. I gesture with my thumb to the students. “What about my class? I can’t leave them alone.”

            Franklin glances past me into the classroom. “I’ll get coverage for you, Brad. You have to come with me now.”

            My Algebra 2 students stare wide-eyed at the four of us at the door. All of them, that is, except Alex Sutton. He’s smirking and slowly nodding his head.

August 28, 2021 02:47

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