I’ll be damned. This blue mug has another chip. I told Felix I wanted the yellow ones with matching saucers, but he never seems to listen. Most times he doesn’t even clean the table when I ask. Good help is truly hard to find. Well, too late to change everything now. I’ll need to hurry if I want to freshen up before my guests arrive.
“Hey, Mr. King! What’s the good word?” Caught in my clean undershirt, I turn to see Matteo and Jack peeking their heads in the door. These two morons, I tell you. No matter how many times I remind them that Thursday evenings are for visits with my former students, they always pop in uninvited. They’re actually pretty great as neighbors go, friendly and protective, but always under foot.
“Evening, boys. Sorry I can’t chat; I’ve got two very special students stopping in to reminisce.”
“That’s okay, Mr. King.” Jack rubs his close-cropped hair, a nervous habit I always notice when we talk. “We just wanted to check in and see if you need anything before we head to dinner.”
“Thanks, Jack. I think I’m all set. Felix put out the wrong mugs for tea, as usual, but we’ll make do.”
I sigh and turn to grab my sweater from the chair. As I do, I glimpse Felix gliding past the room, eyeing us and raising an eyebrow. For someone who can’t set out the right damn mugs when I’m having company, he sure thinks a lot of himself.
“Which students are coming today, Mr. King?” I see Matteo shoot Jack a sideways look, probably warning him to stop asking questions so they can make way for my guests. But I don’t mind; no reason we can’t shoot the breeze until they get here. And I secretly love talking about my glory days, so I settle into the chair and take myself back.
“I was teaching Government, right? To high school juniors and seniors. Man, what a time. Politics was still a fun subject then. People could disagree without being assholes, and I loved seeing these kids’ faces come alive when they were passionate about something I taught them.
“So this one year, I had these kids in my class, Sylvie and Jared. Sylvie was this shy, book smart little thing whose homework was always as perfect as her manners and her ponytail. Nice kid too, if a little boring. Just the kind of student every teacher loves to see on their roster, right?
“Jared was a year ahead of her, sharp as a tack, but this kid wouldn’t do a damn thing except smart off and comb his hair. I knew he had kind of a rough life, no father at home, that sort of thing. And he was one of the few minority kids in that whole school, so things weren’t easy for him anywhere. I tried to cut him some slack where I could. You know, took him under my wing.”
I check my watch and wonder what’s keeping my guests, but I can tell the boys are engrossed in the story, so I let the memories continue to cradle me.
“Well, besides teaching kids about US Government, past and present, I’d also pair them up to debate important topics as they came up in the curriculum. Oh, they were a hoot. I’d have a couple jocks debate the merits of Ronald Reagan versus Jimmy Carter, or I’d pair a band geek with a pot head and make them argue for and against abortion rights. It was a trip and a half! Oh, the crap these kids would say.
“But every now and then, I’d see real sparks fly between two students. Sylvie and Jared were like that. Hell, it wasn’t even sparks. I don’t know what it was. It was like being in the middle of a forest fire, so smitten by all the glorious shades of orange that all I could do was stand by and watch it burn. These kids were different as oil and water, and they acted like it at first, contempt all over their baby faces when they debated the War on Drugs in front of the class. Sounds silly now, but it was a hot topic back then!” I realize I’ve been waving my arms and pacing the floor, excited by all the remembering, and I pause.
“No, it doesn’t sound silly, Mr. King”, Jack reassures me as he rubs his head. “We’re listening.”
Felix comes around the corner just then, pulling his ugly lips into a sneer as he asks, “No visitors yet, Mr. King?”
Matteo starts to stand, but Jack pulls him back, ever the diplomat. “Can you just leave us be for now, Felix? We’ll keep an eye on Mr. King.” Felix rolls his eyes and wanders off, probably to break more of my mugs.
I settle back into my chair, angered by the interruption and a little dazed. Felix always seems to rattle me with his nasty looks and superior attitude. It’s probably time to get rid of him.
“Where was I? Oh yes, Sylvie and Jared. Man, they had this unbelievable…. shimmer when they debated. It was electric. It was what we teachers always want to invoke in our students. It was goddamn inspiring is what it was. And I knew I wasn’t just watching them learn about their government or watching them start to care about the world around them. I was watching them fall in love.
“You should’ve seen it, boys. Sylvie came alive. She started to lift her chin – this unconscious, captivating habit she developed right before my eyes – every time she spoke up in class. She suddenly started walking around the room as she debated, like she was commanding the attention of every kid who’d ever looked past her. It was magical. And when Jared would argue against every point she’d made, Sylvie’s eyes danced and sparkled like a million stars. She was energized and agitated by his words, yes, but she was also proud of him. The girl adored him. That was obvious.
“Ohh, and Jared. That maddening kid. If I could read the love in Sylvie’s eyes, I could read it all over Jared’s body. He held his breath when Sylvie stood up to speak. He hung on every word she threw at him as if it were a siren song. I saw tears well in his eyes when she was humiliated by a snotty senior who ridiculed Sylvie because she used the phrase ‘penal system’; and then I saw him suspended for three days after he gave the snot a black eye.”
Matteo chuckles at this last bit, and I do too for a moment, but my emotions quickly turn darker. I’m fighting my own tears, just like Jared did that day, though I can’t be sure just why.
“Oh my God, boys, they were the talk of the school! And so was I. Other teachers were clapping me on the back, asking me how I’d nurtured and grown these two unlikely specimens into such bright, mature students. Jared made such a drastic turn in his study habits and test scores that he was accepted by U of M! And Sylvie had plans to follow him there a year later. The future was looking very, very bright indeed for these two. And all my hard work was finally being acknowledged! My colleagues weren’t giving me nervous sideways looks and shuffling out of the lounge when I walked in. They LIKED me!”
Out of breath, trembling, I feel a tear slide down my cheek and rush to compose myself. Why the hell do I get so emotional every time I remember old students? I’m lucky these boys put up with my storytelling.
Jack reaches his arm around my shoulders to comfort me, but of course Felix appears out of nowhere (his feet are like silent snakes!) and performs his favorite move, what the boys and I call the Phlegmy Cough of Judgment. “UggghhAhem!” We three roll our eyes as Felix slithers back out of the room.
“So Mr. King, what happened to Sylvie and Jared? Did they stay together? Did they go to college? I bet you inspired at least one of them to become a teacher.” Jack is always so kind, so genuinely interested in my students and my stories, even though I obviously make him anxious. Probably the generation gap.
“Well, I’ll tell you, Jack. The little tart got herself pregnant.” My voice is a hoarse growl. Though I’m willing them not to, my hands keep trembling. More tears will escape soon, and I feel a vague foreboding whose reason I can’t quite place. Oh, how I despise this familiar confusion.
I look to Jack and Matteo to ground myself, to help me shake off this hazy, slippery threat. Jack is reliably running his fingers across the top of his head, but his eyes are on the floor now. Matteo is watching the door as if dreaming of his escape. I hurry to reassure them, to make things light again.
“They were so beautiful! They had it all! My colleagues even saw it. They were both coming alive with this new confidence in themselves and each other. Remember, this was the eighties. There was a lot of judgment and ignorance about interracial dating. These kids scoffed at it and rolled unbothered toward a bright, blazing future. In each other, they’d found the fortitude to become leaders and examples among their peers. It was like witnessing some grand coming-of-age, some spiritual awakening! Sylvie and Jared were unstoppable! And it happened because of MY guidance, MY teaching! Everyone said so!”
I suddenly hear my own voice, both thunderous and pleading. I see that Jack has rested both hands atop his head and Matteo is inching toward the door.
I make my voice a whisper now, so they won’t leave, but I can hear that I’m still pleading. I hate it when people make me do that. “You boys have to understand. Please. I gave those two beautiful kids everything I had, and it put all three of us on top of the world …. until they ruined it. Once Jared got Sylvie pregnant, we were all laughingstocks. The other students were brutal in their teasing, their name-calling, their goddamn judging. But the adults were worse. My fellow teachers and even my boss…. they made snide jokes about my “influence” and went back to avoiding me instead of congratulating me. And I could not bear to go back to that. Oh, no.”
“Mr. King, we do understand. Please don’t feel like you have to explain.” Matteo is so sweet, so compassionate. I can’t understand why I’m so angry with him.
“I HAVE TO EXPLAIN!!!” I’ve gone back to pacing the room; inexplicably, I pick up the chair and begin to pull it above my head. My chest is bursting and I’m shaking head to toe, and for the life of me I can’t remember why. I just need to explain, and then I’ll feel much better.
I notice Jack and Matteo are both standing in the doorway now. I’ve done it again. I’ve made them afraid, and now they won’t want to visit. I see Jack gesture to someone down the way. Sylvie and Jared must be arriving. Finally. That will set me right. I slowly put the chair back in its place, straighten my sweater and the mug I didn’t realize I’d knocked over. Damn. Breathing deeply, I prepare to greet my guests.
But it’s that goddamn Felix.
“All right, King. Enough. You’re done for the night.”
“What? Where are Sylvie and Jared? Get out!” I’m humiliated that Felix has noticed my trembling. My tears.
“Waters, Hernandez, let’s go. You can still make chow if you hurry. Then I want you back in your cells ahead of lights out.”
I don’t understand why Jack and Matteo always scurry to do Felix’s bidding, and I hate my confusion as much as the fact. Always so damned confused.
And I also don’t understand who they’re whispering about as they go, or why they always have to exclude me from their conversations.
“Felix, how many years ago did Mr. King kill those two kids?”
“Which two? Way I heard it, there were at least two every year. Came to about a dozen by the time cops realized it was him, picking off every kid who let him down.”
As the cell door clangs shut, I hear the boys gasp and barely catch a glimpse of Jack’s nervous hand rubbing his head while Matteo throws me a look of contempt and utters “Freak”.
Those boys have disappointed me. I had such high hopes for them, but now they’ve made me look bad. Made a fool of me. We can’t have that.