by Kristen Bealer
"Why couldn't I have been born during an influenza epidemic? Or at the base of a volcano? Why did I survive, grow tall and strong, only to squander all my potential by becoming a teacher?!"
--Anthony DeMartino, from "Is It Fall Yet?"
Tony passed his hand self-consciously over his hair as he watched the students drift into his classroom on the first day of school. He missed his ponytail, but the principal, Angela Li, had insisted he cut his hair before starting his new teaching job. At least I was able to keep my goatee, he thought with a small smile. And besides, he reminded himself, it's 1994. It was about time I let go of the beatnik look.
As the last students trickled in, he addressed the class. "Good mor--"
BRIIIIIIING! He jumped and gripped his desk as the ringing of the school bell tore through the room. I'll have to get used to that, he told himself as he tried to slow his heart rate. Fortunately, none of the students had been paying attention.
"Good morning, students," he tried again. A few kids looked his way, and the noise level in the room dropped slightly. "My name is To--that is, Mr. DeMartino, and I am the new history teacher here at Lawndale High School."
He took attendance and discovered that almost all of the students in the class were there. Only Trent Lane and Thomas Sherman were absent. Next, Tony walked over to his desk and picked up a stack of papers.
"Now I'd like to hand out these quizzes..." The reaction was immediate. Students began groaning, complaining, and staring at him in shock. "No, no, it's not a graded quiz. I just want to get an idea of what you all know and what you need to learn this term. No pressure, and just take your time. After all, I'm here to teach you, not to torment you."
Although Tony noticed some eye rolling and sighs, all of the students completed the quiz and handed it back before the bell rang to signal the end of the period.
During lunch, Tony sat at a table in the teachers' lounge, drinking coffee and looking over the quizzes. "Question 12: What caused the Whiskey Rebellion? Answer: Prohibition." He shook his head with a wry smile. And this is a senior class! I'm almost afraid to see what the underclassmen's quizzes look like!
He rested his chin in his palm and started reading the next quiz. "Tell me what you know about the Gettysburg Address. Answer: It's where the White House is."
Tony set the paper back down on the stack and sighed.
"Having a rough first day?"
Looking up in surprise, he found himself looking into a pair of sympathetic brown eyes. "Oh, uh, a little, I guess," he stammered. "Just finding out how much my students know."
"Or how much they don't know?" she replied with a tired smile. "I know exactly how you feel." She sank into the chair across from him and held out her hand. "Janet Richards. I teach science."
He shook her hand and smiled with relief. "Tony DeMartino. Nice to meet you--seriously. I was starting to think I'd made a mistake!"
Janet laughed. "Oh, you might have." Seeing his startled expression, she asked, "This isn't your first teaching job, is it?"
Tony nodded as he touched a hand to his graying goatee. "I know; 44 years old is a little late in the game, right?"
"A bit. What did you do before this?"
"A little of everything. I've been a cook, a lifeguard, a house painter, a security guard, a gas station attendant, a beatnik..."
"Well, I was born too late for the actual beat culture, but I really got into the writers and the ideals when I was in college and it kind of stuck with me. Unfortunately, I ran into some money problems and I decided that a bohemian philosophy was not going to pay my gambling debts or put food on the table. I had to sell out and get a steady job."
"Wow. Your life sounds a lot more interesting than mine."
"Well, tell me about yours."
Janet looked at the table as her lips twisted into something between a grimace and a scowl. "I got married right after high school, and I've been teaching to support us ever since."
"I'm sure there's more to it than that. Why did you decide to become a teacher?"
Her expression relaxed and she allowed a small smile to form. "I wanted to encourage more girls to go into science. It's a male-dominated field right now, but there's plenty of women out there who could really make a difference if only they got the opportunity." Her smile grew. "Like Jenny. If all my students were as talented as her, well..." She laughed. "...then I'd be out of a job. That girl is going to knock the scientific world on its ass, and I can't wait to help her get started."
Tony smiled back at her. "I think that's admirable."
"Thanks," she replied. "Don't get me wrong; it's not like I'm favoring the girls and failing the boys or anything like that. I just want to make a difference."
"That's why I decided to try teaching, too. I can't think of anything more rewarding than helping young people learn."
"Even if you have your work cut out for you?" Janet asked, indicating the stack of quizzes.
"It will be more of a challenge than I expected, true, but I'm not discouraged." He chuckled. "At least my colleagues are all right."
At that moment a man wearing a suit and tie burst into the teachers' lounge and headed straight for the coffee maker. He spat out a sharp expletive and whirled around to glare at Tony and Janet. Seeing the coffee mug in Tony's hand, he pointed at him and snapped, "You finished the last of the coffee."
After a short pause, Tony blinked. "Oh. Yes, I guess I did. I--"
"Whoever empties the coffee pot is supposed to refill it. That's the rule."
Tony glanced at Janet, who only rolled her eyes. "Well, technically it isn't empty. There are at least eight drops in there. Maybe even nine." He smiled, but the other man only scowled and muttered something under his breath as he stormed out again.
"Okay," amended Tony. "At least some of my colleagues are all right. Who was that?"
"Timothy O'Neill," Janet answered. "The terror of high school English. He likes rules, order, and not much else."
"Sounds like someone needs to learn to relax." Tony glanced at his watch. "It's almost time for my next class. 'Once more unto the breach,' I suppose."
Janet patted his hand as he stood up. "Don't worry. I think you'll do just fine here."
The next day, Tony stood before his first period class with only slightly more courage. The students looked just as bored as before, and one student in the back was even asleep at his desk.
Tony looked at the clock and silently counted down the last few seconds. BRIIIIIIING! He smiled. That'll take care of the napper... Looking in the student's direction again, his smile faltered. Who could sleep through that?
He shook his head as he began to take the roll. When he got to "Lane, Trent," a blond kid (Nick, Tony reminded himself) sitting next to the sleeping student jabbed him hard in the side.
"Here!" mumbled the student--now identified as Trent--as his eyes fluttered open.
Tony finished attendance and pulled out his lecture notes. "Your reading assignment last night was on the American Revolution. Can anyone tell me what the phrase 'taxation without representation' refers to?"
He looked around the classroom. A few students had started taking notes, some were paying attention, but most of them were staring off into space or discreetly passing notes to each other. Trent, he noticed, had gone back to sleep.
"How about you," he said, then paused to remember the student's name. "Curtis?"
Slowly, Curtis tore his eyes away from the clock and blinked at him. "Uh, what?"
"Taxation without representation. Can you tell us what that means?"
Curtis shrugged and looked back at the clock. "Nope."
The hour crawled by and the students only grew more apathetic. When the bell rang, even Tony felt relieved. The room cleared out, except for one student. Trent was still unconscious at his desk. Tony began to wonder if he should take his pulse.
He tapped Trent gently on the shoulder. Trent didn't stir, so he shoved his arm. Nothing. Finally, he began pounding a rapid beat on the top of the desk with his palms. Trent's head flew up and he coughed.
"Nice rhythm," he remarked.
Tony crossed his arms. "Good morning, Mr. Lane."
Looking around him, Trent seemed to finally register that he was in a classroom. "Oh... Uh, sorry about that. My sister's kids kept me up all night. I guess I'm a little tired."
Tony shrugged. "It's all right. You probably learned about as much as the students who were awake, anyway."
"Yeah. Wait. Huh?"
"Never mind." Tony leaned against the desk next to Trent's. "Do you think you could try to stay awake in class from now on?"
Trent stood up and began gathering his things. "Maybe. I don't know. I mean, who cares about history, you know?"
Tony stared at him. "History is more than just what happened in the past, Mr. Lane. 'Those who cannot learn from history are doomed to repeat it.'"
"I know; if I don't pass the class I have to take it over, right?"
"I mean, history informs and directs the future. Look, I know you probably hear this all the time, but someday you'll be glad you learned these things."
"Someday, maybe, but why should I care right now?" Trent shouldered his bag and walked out of the room as students began to arrive for the next period.
So they need motivation, Tony mused. Fine, but how do I do that?
At lunch time, Tony walked into the teachers' lounge to see Timothy sitting at a table in a corner of the room. Timothy saw him, looked pointedly at the coffee maker, and then went back to grading papers with a large red pen.
Tony sat down at another table to eat his sandwich, staring at a nearby wall in thought. I need to inspire them, but how? Cash bribes? Puppet shows? Threats of bodily harm?
"You've got that 'in over my head' look again," Janet commented from the doorway. She walked over to sit next to him.
"That's because I am in over my head," Tony replied. From his table, Timothy scowled at them, annoyed at the break in his concentration. They ignored him.
"What's the problem?" Janet asked.
Tony took another bite, chewed it, and swallowed before answering. "My students just don't care. Most of them just sit in their seats and ignore me. How do you motivate someone who won't even listen to you?"
Janet laughed, but it sounded forced. "Let me know when you figure that out, would you?" she asked. "I keep asking my husband Noel to look for a job, but he seems happy to sit on the couch, watching football and drinking beer." She blushed. "I'm sorry; that was probably more than you wanted to know."
He smiled at her. "It's all right. How long has he been out of work?"
He nearly choked on his food. "Twenty--" he started to exclaim, then stopped and just shook his head. "I think it's time you stopped asking and started insisting."
She shrugged. "Maybe. But hearing about my home life isn't going to help solve your problem."
Tony finished his sandwich and rested his arms on the table as he leaned forward. "I think I just need to try harder. I was talking to one of my students, Trent Lane, this morning, and he--"
"Trent Lane?" Tony and Janet turned to see Timothy staring at them with an expression of absolute contempt. "That slacker moron? Don't bother trying harder with him. There's something...abnormal about that one."
Frowning slightly, Tony turned to face Timothy. "I know he has trouble staying awake in class, and he's a little unfocused, but--"
"Unfocused?" Timothy snorted. "I don't think I've ever given him anything higher than a 'D' since he started at this school. Trust me on this; that bum should consider himself lucky if he even graduates."
"But that's just it," said Tony. "I want to encourage students like him to do better, but first they need to want to learn."
"'Want to learn?'" Timothy responded derisively. "Look, save yourself a bunch of trouble and forget it. If students won't pay attention and can't be bothered to do their homework right, then it's their own fault if they fail." Sneering, he turned back to his papers and began marking them with renewed vigor.
Tony looked back at Janet. She just shook her head and smirked. "So," he resumed. "Any ideas?"
"Sorry," she replied. "I'm stumped."
"Stumped..." he repeated to himself as an idea began to form.
"All right, class," Tony announced the following morning. "We're going to try something new today."
A few eyes turned his way. He was pleased to see that Trent's were among them. Trent had arrived late, but at least he was making an effort to stay awake.
"At the beginning of every class, we're going to play a game called 'Stump the Teacher.' You can ask me about anything you find in the previous night's reading, no matter how obscure." He paused for effect. "Anyone who manages to stump me gets one hundred points of extra credit."
At the words "extra credit," the entire room went silent as the class considered the offer. One student raised her hand. "Seriously?" she asked. "A hundred points?"
Tony nodded. "But it has to be a history question. If you ask me what font the text uses, not only will it not count, but I just might put a question about margin size on your next test." He winked at the class, and a few students chuckled.
"Go ahead," he said. "I figure most of you haven't done last night's reading, so open up your books now and see if you can find something I don't know." Seeing several hands go up, he added, "And those of you who didn't bring their books can share with those who did."
After a minute of page-flipping and whispered conversations, a few students tentatively volunteered their questions.
"Who wrote Common Sense?"
"When was the Battle of Lexington and Concord?"
"What were the Intolerable Acts?"
Tony answered every question easily, and elaborated on his answers to give the students extra information about each topic. After about five minutes, he held up a hand. "That's enough for today. I suggest that you all actually read the assigned chapter tonight and come in with more questions tomorrow."
Because the students were already involved in the class and knew a little about the topic, it was much easier to hold their attention during the lecture. A few students still kept an eye on the clock, but even they looked his way at least occasionally.
By the end of the period, Tony's new strategy had proven successful. He watched the students leave with a smile on his face. Trent hesitated at the door, then waved Nick on and turned back. "Uh, Mr. DeMartino?"
"Yes, Mr. Lane?"
"That was pretty cool."
"Thank you. I took your advice about giving students a reason to care about this class. I hope this means you're at least a little interested in learning now."
"Maybe. I'm just not that into school, I guess."
Tony sat on the edge of his desk. "Okay, then, what are you into?"
Trent smiled. "Music." He rubbed the back of his neck with an almost embarrassed smile. "A couple of my friends and I are thinking about getting a band together. Nick's learning to play the bass, but we haven't found a drummer yet."
"I used to play the bongos. Does that count?" Tony joked. Seeing Trent's surprised stare, he explained, "It was during my beatnik days."
"Your what days?"
"Beatnik." The stare continued. "As in, the Beat Generation?" Trent just shook his head. "Bohemians who valued anti-materialism and creativity?"
Although Trent still looked confused, his eyes lit up at this last explanation. Looking at the clock, Tony told him, "You only have about a minute to get to your next class. Come by after school and I'll tell you all about it."
Trent nodded and headed for the door. "Cool."
At the end of the week, Tony was humming as he walked through the faculty parking lot toward his car. Not only were his students learning, but he'd just loaned an enthusiastic (for him) Trent his copy of Ginsberg's Howl. Not a bad first week, he thought with satisfaction.
Then he heard the sniffling, followed by a choked sob. He looked around and spotted Janet, standing next to her car a few spots away. She was facing away from him, but he could see that her back and shoulders were shaking violently.
He walked over and gently placed a hand on her arm. She whirled around, saw him, and immediately began to wipe her face.
"What's wrong?" he asked.
"Nothing!" she answered, too quickly. "I just, um, I..."
"You're crying, Janet. Why?"
She turned to the side, glaring off into the distance. "It's not as bad as it looks. It's just that, well..." She bit her lip and looked at the asphalt. "Sometimes I really dread going home. I already know what to expect this weekend. Noel's going to sit on the couch watching football all night, then drink beer until he passes out."
Tony stood there, feeling useless. He could think of nothing to say.
She pounded her fist against her car. "Dammit!" she shrieked. "I pay the bills. I work to support us. I clean the house. What do I have to do to get him to lift a damn finger?" Her anger spent, her eyes filled with tears again. Tony put an arm around her shoulders and let her cry for a few minutes. Finally, she took a gasping breath and said, "I think the only thing that keeps me sane is my students--I look at some of those girls and I know I'm making a difference. I just don't want them to end up...to end up like me."
"Janet," Tony began tentatively. "It's not too late. I admit I've only known you for a week, and I have never met your husband. But don't you think it might be time--long past time, really--to put your foot down?"
She sighed. "I know. I guess I keep hoping he'll change on his own."
He put a hand on each of her shoulders and looked her in the eyes. "You have been waiting too long. It's time for you to start being more assertive."
Taking a deep breath, she nodded. "You're right. And I'll try." She smiled weakly at him as she got into her car. "Thanks."
Tony watched as she drove away. What a week.
Tony was pleased to see that every student was in class the following Monday, even the long-absent Thomas Sherman, whom some of the other students called "Tommy." From what Tony had gathered, he was the school quarterback.
"All right, let's start today's round of 'Stump the Teacher.'"
"Excuse me?" drawled a deep, arrogant voice from the back. It was Tommy.
"Ah, Mr. Sherman, you were not here last week when I--"
"I was busy." This was spoken as a challenge.
"Okay, but last week I introduced a game in which you students try to come up with questions from the text that I can't answer. Whoever succeeds gets one hundred points of extra credit."
Tommy rolled his eyes. "Lame."
The game began. A few students glanced in Tommy's direction, then timidly raised their hands to ask questions. Just as Tony began to think the class would progress as normal, Tommy's voice rose up again, interrupting a student in mid-sentence.
"What's the first word on page 174?"
Tony massaged his right temple, where a headache was beginning to form. "Actually, the questions have to be history-related."
"It's a history book," he replied with a smirk. "So it's history related." Some of the guys sitting near him, members of the football team, laughed and gave him high-fives.
Tony tried to continue the game, but the rest of the students had either lost interest or were afraid of attracting Tommy's contempt. Trent stared at the top of his desk, never looking up. He gave up and began the lecture, trying to ignore the headache that was steadily growing worse.
After the bell rang, Tony watched with relief as the students streamed out of the room. He closed his eyes and took a few deep breaths. One bad lesson doesn't make me a failure, he told himself firmly. I can overcome this. I just need to--
"Mr. DeMartino?" Tony opened his eyes to see Trent watching him. "Are you okay?"
"Yes, Mr. Lane. Just...resting my eyes."
Trent smiled. "Yeah." He handed Tony the copy of Howl he'd borrowed, then hesitated. "Uh, that was pretty cool."
Pushing aside the memory of Tommy Sherman, Tony leaned forward to smile back at Trent. "You liked it?"
He nodded. "I really liked the, uh, way he described stuff."
"Yeah. Some of it was kind of confusing, but it, you know, spoke to me." Trent's smile faded. "Man, if I could write songs like that, it might bring the band together."
"Ah, so you and your friends have started that band you were telling me about last week?"
"Yeah. We mostly do covers right now, but I want to write something new."
"You could see if your English teacher will help you work on writing lyrics," Tony suggested.
Trent scowled. "Not O'Neill." He quoted, "'A band is a waste of time. You need to get a normal job if you want to make any money.'"
Tony sighed. "I suppose I shouldn't be surprised. All right, if you would like, you could come in some days after school and I could try to help you out. I will warn you, though: I have always been terrible at writing poetry."
"That'd be cool." Trent paused. "Oh. I might not be able to. My parents are out of town, so I have to pick up my little sister from middle school."
"Maybe after your parents return, then?"
"I guess. Don't know when they'll be back. Why don't we leave it loose?"
By the afternoon, the climate of Tony's classes had changed radically. Word of Tommy's defiance had spread, first to the other football players and the cheerleaders but then quickly to the rest of the students.
"Does anyone have a question today?" Tony asked his last class of the day without hope.
"Yeah!" called out one of the junior varsity football players. "Is it true Tommy shot you down this morning?"
"That is not--" Tony began, but was drowned out by laughter. Fine, he decided. Time for a new approach. Thinking back to his days in military school, he summoned up his best drill sergeant impression and sharply barked, "Now!"
The class fell silent, mostly due to shock.
"Now," he repeated, less loudly but just as authoritatively, "Who can describe at least three weaknesses of the Articles of Confederation?" Pausing only briefly to wait for a volunteer, Tony thrust out his arm to point at the student who had just mocked him. "Andrew!"
Watching the student's expression shift immediately from contempt to panic, Tony felt a grim sense of satisfaction. That got their attention for the moment, at least, but I need a more long-term solution.
After school, Tony trudged to his car, completely exhausted. Keys in hand, he stood and stared at his reflection in the car window. Tommy has been in my class for only one day, but it feels like eternity. How am I going to last a whole year?
He'd been standing there for almost five minutes when he snapped out of his thoughts and looked up to see Janet hurrying his way. "Tony!" she cried. "I've been trying to find you all day."
Mustering a weary smile, Tony shrugged. "I skipped lunch and I have been spending most of the day beating my head against my desk."
Janet didn't seem to hear him. Instead, she continued, "I took your advice about Noel and I really put my foot down this time. I told him if he didn't start doing more either by helping out around the house or getting out there and finding work, then he could forget about playing that game where we--" Janet blushed slightly, realizing she was about to give away far too much information about her personal life.
"That's great," Tony replied, turning the conversation back on track. "So what did he say?"
"He said he's going to look for a job! I know it's too soon to get my hopes up, but he's never even agreed to try before now. It's just so--so--great!" she exclaimed, throwing her arms around Tony in a huge hug. "Thank you!"
"It was nothing, Janet," he replied as he finally pulled out of the hug. "I'm certain you would have done this on your own sooner or later."
"Not likely," she said with a short laugh. "Oh, I can't wait to get home and see how the job search went!" She practically ran to her car, giving Tony a wave as she left.
So at least the day has not been a total loss, he consoled himself as he entered his own car. And really, maybe tomorrow will be better than today was. I can always hope.
That hope didn't last long. By the end of the week, Tony still had not solved the problem of Tommy Sherman. He felt even more relieved than the students that it was Friday as he watched his last class of the day leave.
In spite of his best efforts, he had failed to regain his students' respect, let alone their interest. Tommy always found a way to draw the students' attention toward himself, and his scorn was spreading to the rest of Tony's classes. Although he hated to admit defeat, it was time to appeal to a higher authority. I've only been here for a couple of weeks, he worried. I just hope Principal Li doesn't assume this means I am an incompetent teacher.
Tony braced himself and marched out the classroom door...and ran directly into Trent. "Mr. Lane?" he asked in surprise, losing his momentum. "Did you need something?"
"Uh, I was hoping you could look at a song I'm working on. You said I could come in after school--"
"Right, right," Tony replied, stepping back into the classroom. "I would be happy to look at it."
"Cool." Trent handed him a battered sheet of notebook paper. Tony began reading it, ignoring the scratched-out and half-erased words.
We're trapped in this family of spinsters, sychos, and sluts
We're trapped with the flakes and fakes and floosies
We're trapped with these wierdos and wannabes and wacked-out-dope-heads
The druggie-deserters who sell out their imaginations
The airheads who blow in and out pretending to care when all they want is to be victemized again and again
over and over
We've heard the worst that this world can offer
Lovers turn to haters
Protectors to victemizers
Truth to lies
And we're still suprised with every new story
or maybe not
These people have trampled you down
stifled your voice
locked your heart
Can you learn to fly like you did as a kid
when you're imagination flew free as a bird
Can you make new what has been aged before its time?
After taking some time to let the poem sink in, Tony carefully answered, "This poem seems very personal. I assume Janey is your sister?"
Trent nodded. "She's in middle school."
Looking back at the poem, Tony continued, "I see you were very inspired by Howl, but I hope you strive to develop your own unique style, as well."
"You don't like it?"
"Oh, no, I do like it. You conveyed an excellent picture of your world and given me a real insight into your frustration. I just mean you don't need to use the same topics or even the same images that Ginsberg used. Use your imagination and explore ways to make words say what you want them to say."
"Oh, I get it. Yeah, I'm still kind of finding my voice. Thanks."
"I'm glad I could help, Mr. Lane. I hope you can come back again soon, now that your parents have come home."
"They're home now?" Trent asked in confusion. "I didn't know that."
"I had assumed they were; you said you couldn't come in after school because you had to pick up your younger sister from..." Tony stopped and watched Trent's face, counting down the seconds until the young man made the connection.
At last the light went on, and Trent squinted at the classroom clock. "I, uh, guess I'd better head out, huh?" he commented without concern.
Tony shook his head in wonder as he watched Trent amble out of the room, unhurried. Then, gathering his resolve once again, he headed for Ms. Li's office.
"...And since then, I have been unable to recapture the students' attention for more than a few seconds at a time. It has only been a couple of weeks, but Thomas's grades are already plummeting from 'D' range toward 'F'. I strongly suggest that this boy be placed on academic probation and perhaps given some form of disciplinary action, as well."
Confident that he had made his case firmly and succinctly, Tony sat back in his chair to await Li's response. It was immediate.
"No." Li shook her head briskly. "It is out of the question."
What the hell? "Surely if you took a moment to consider this problem--"
"Negative, Mr. DeMartino. I expect you to be capable of handling this situation yourself--without detriment to Mr. Sherman's duties as quarterback of Lawndale High."
Who talks like that? he asked himself in frustration. "Ms. Li, I don't believe this student should be treated differently just because he is on the football team. With all due resp--"
"'On the football team'?" Ms Li quoted with a derisive snort. "Mr. Sherman is the football team. His skill on the field has brought in not only much-needed funding, but also honor and glory beyond my--this school's wildest dreams! I absolutely cannot jeopardize that."
Tony stared at her in shock. This woman is insane. "But it's hardly fair to the rest of the students! If any other student were to disrupt class and earn such poor grades, surely you agree disciplinary action would be necessary."
"I think that if Mr. Sherman is getting bad grades, it's most likely because you are failing to teach him properly."
At this, Tony leaped out of his seat and leaned over Li's desk. Fists clenched, he growled, "Am I to understand that you choose to side with a problem student over a member of your own faculty? You should be supporting me in this situation, not blaming me and making excuses for him!"
Ms. Li looked up at him, unmoved. "Calm yourself, Mr. DeMartino. I realize that you're new here and that you don't understand how things work yet. I have already given you my answer. I suggest you let this matter go. Immediately. I would hate to see such a promising teacher's career end after only a few weeks here."
Shaken by the threat, Tony stepped back and forced himself under control. "I...see. Since I cannot count on your assistance, I will deal with Tommy Sherman myself."
"Without negatively affecting his football responsibilities," Li reminded him.
Grinding his teeth, Tony nodded and left her office. Well, that was a spectacular failure. There appears to be no way to reason with her. Better luck next time.
"...but he says he'll never stop, no matter how long it takes!"
Tony looked up, startled, as Janet reached a shrill crescendo in her speech. She had cornered him in the teacher's lounge before school that Monday morning and had been talking nonstop ever since. "I apologize, Janet, what were you saying?"
Janet chuckled and shook her head. "I don't know what it is about men and not being able to pay attention. I was telling you that Noel spent all weekend out on job searches, interviews, and all that. He says no luck yet, but he'll keep it up for as long as he has to."
"Oh. Well, congratulations, then." He tried to summon up some enthusiasm, but his mind was still on Tommy Sherman. He was dreading his classes, especially the first one.
"Don't congratulate me yet. Wait until the slow-moving bastard actually finds a job!"
"I have no doubt it will be any day now," he reassured her. "No one can expect anything to happen overnight."
Janet's mouth twisted into a wry smile. "After twenty damn years, I guess I'm a little impatient. You were right, Tony. I needed to get aggressive about this. Don't worry; I'm keeping on him. I'll be all over his ass the second he starts slacking off!"
Tony stared at her for a moment in surprise at the hostility in her voice. "I...see," he finally replied. Janet nodded proudly and crossed her arms.
After a long, thoughtful silence, Tony turned to Janet again. "On the other hand, if your husband is really giving this his best effort, perhaps you should give him a little--"
They both spun in their chairs to look at the wall clock, confirming that they were late for their morning classes. "Crap!" Janet exclaimed. Snatching his briefcase, Tony dashed out of the teachers' lounge with Janet hurrying behind.
As he neared his classroom, Tony forced himself to slow down and take a few deep breaths. Steady, now, he told himself. There's no need to make a bad situation worse by walking in flustered and out of breath. Relax.
Bracing himself, he prepared for the worst and stepped into the room, feeling ready to take on one more class with Tommy.
He wasn't there. Tony felt ashamed of the relief washing over him, but he believed the day was improving already.
For the rest of that first trimester, Tommy missed class about as often as he showed up, when he seemed to attend only because he had nothing better to do. He never gave an explanation for his absences, which were reported as unexcused without result, but occasionally he brought a note from the football coach.
Tony didn't care, though; he learned to make the most of Tommy's frequent absences to teach an obedient, but indifferent, class. However, aside from the time during playoffs when Tommy knocked himself unconscious for one blissful week, Tony still found it difficult to maintain order in his classes thanks to Tommy's influence over the students.
"That's all right, Mr. Sherman. I realize that you cannot be expected to answer all--or any--of my questions correctly, as this really is not your ideal learning environment," Tony told the student soothingly. As Tommy relaxed and leaned back with a triumphant smirk, Tony went for the kill. "Perhaps if I were to write the material on that goalpost you seem so fond of, you would be able to remember it. Assuming your nose survived the process, of course."
Several students looked up at him with awe and, in some cases, respect. A few even risked giggling. Tommy flinched slightly in his seat and put his hand self-consciously to his nose, which was still in a splint thanks to his antics at the football game the previous weekend.
While Tommy tried and failed to think of a clever comeback, Tony moved on with the lesson. Three weeks into the winter trimester and I think I've finally got that boy tamed, he thought with satisfaction.
That afternoon, Tony shivered in his threadbare coat as he stepped out of his car and hurried toward "Nothing but Books" in the Lawndale shopping district.
I hate using mockery to keep students in check, he thought as he jogged through the snow-covered parking lot. Unfortunately, it seems to be the only tactic that works. Anyway, it shouldn't last too much longer. Tommy will graduate in a few months, I'll get a clean start next year, and I can go back to being the same laid-back person I was before.
Entering the bookstore, he shook off the day's spiteful thoughts and began browsing. His fingers hovered briefly over a book on poker, but he shuddered and mentally scolded himself. After a moment's thought, he decided to take a look at the books on addictions.
He stepped into the self-help section and almost immediately stepped back out again when he saw Timothy there, looking through a copy of The Road Less Traveled: A New Psychology of Love, Traditional Values and Spiritual Growth by M. Scott Peck. Seeing Tony, he shoved the book back onto the shelf.
"Oh! Hello, Anthony," he said with a forced smile. "I was just, um, looking for a gift. For a friend of mine."
Tony nodded. What friends? Wait, could Mr. Judgmental actually be considering a new philosophy?
"So what brings you here?" Timothy asked, indicating the self-help sign. "Looking for tips to help you teach your unteachable student?"
Tony frowned, but politely replied, "Tommy might be a bit defiant, but I'm sure that given time I can--"
"Tommy?" Timothy snorted. "That loudmouth jerk won't last long once he's out of high school, but at least he's doing something while he's there. I'm talking about Lawndale High's resident waste of space. Trent Lane."
Feeling his control over his temper slipping, Tony clenched his fists and tried to keep his voice even. "Actually, I think Trent has a great deal of aptitude. I have seen what he is capable of and I believe with a little hard work he could go very far indeed."
Timothy smirked and grabbed his briefcase from where it sat in the floor nearby. "You think so? Take a look at this, then." He opened the case and flipped through some papers, finally retrieving a ragged-looking page and holding it out to Tony.
Taking the paper, Tony saw Trent's name at the top of the page--the only part of the paper not covered with red pen. Ignoring the marks, he read it.
Welcome to high school hell
Where sex is sold to the cheapest bidder
Payment up front is only time
but you'll be paying with your life all your life
Each new punch of the dance card is just another nail
that will never lance the boils
Instead, you trade the diseeses
destroying you're life for a youthful pastime
Where death is raging only under the covers, hoping and biding his time
Patient, waiting for the next victem--the naive and unsuspecting who stumble out of obscurity
All the fear
All the private tears
Emerge and explode
In the age old human pastime.
When he looked up, he saw Timothy was still smirking. "You see? I told the class to write a poem, and this is what that boy turned in today. I was so amazed to see him show up to class, let alone complete an assignment on time, that I graded it right after he left."
Tony looked back at the page, reading the comments in red. He saw mostly spelling and grammar corrections, as well as harsh criticisms regarding meter and lack of punctuation. "I think that aside from some minor errors, this is actually quite good."
"Shows what you know," Timothy responded. "That...thing doesn't even rhyme! And those images..." He shuddered. "They're just weird. He can't even learn to write a normal poem, for God's sake."
Gripping the paper tightly in his hand, Tony bit back his initial reply and formed a more civil one. "This poem reminds me of the Beat poets, particularly Ginsberg. In fact, I myself--"
Timothy groaned. "Don't even get me started on those deviants." Tony opened his mouth to speak but was interrupted again. "Look, if the kid isn't going to take this stuff seriously, he can just forget about passing my class. I think I preferred it when he didn't even try."
He snatched the poem back from Tony and returned it to his briefcase. As he walked away, he called over his shoulder, "Like I told you before, don't bother. He comes from a long line of failures--just take a look at his family, if you can find them. I seriously doubt he'll even graduate."
So much for that new philosophy, Tony fumed. He forced himself to take a few deep breaths to calm down. The whole exchange had given him another throbbing headache behind his right eye, but he decided to put the conversation out of his thoughts and finish his shopping.
He rounded the next aisle to browse the next section and stopped dead when he saw Trent. "Mr. Lane? Did you overhear..." He trailed off. It was obvious that Trent had heard every word Timothy said about him. His eyebrows were drawn into a deep scowl and he was glaring in the direction Timothy had gone. "I am so very sorry, Trent."
Trent suddenly noticed Tony standing there. "What? Oh." His expression relaxed a little, but the anger was still visible. "Don't worry about it."
"But--" Trent shook his head sharply, and Tony dropped the subject. "All right. So are you here to get a particular book or is 'Nothing but Books' becoming the new 'in' place for teenagers?"
Ignoring the attempt at humor, Trent held up the book he'd been holding--Howl. "I thought I'd get my own copy. You know, for inspiration."
He smiled encouragingly. "I'm glad you found it helpful." Trent just stared at the cover of the book, not responding. Finally, Tony shrugged and said, "Well, I suppose I'll see you in class."
As Tony turned to leave, Trent looked up. "Did you mean it?" he asked.
"You think my poem was good?"
Tony nodded. "I do."
"Um...thanks." Trent walked away toward the checkout counter, leaving Tony to wander through the store, looking blankly at various books before finally leaving without a purchase.
The next day, Tony slipped quickly into his classroom and stayed there the entire morning, avoiding any other potential incidents with Timothy. He had no desire to continue the previous day's conversation, and he wasn't entirely sure he could trust himself to remain polite around him for long.
During the winter term Trent and Tommy were in Tony's history class just before lunch, which meant the students were less tired but more hungry. It was a trade-off he was willing to accept, however, because it at least meant more of the students made it to class on time. As usual, Tommy was absent. However, Tony was pleased to see that Trent not only showed up, but even took notes during class.
Delight gave way to confusion, however, when Trent continued to scribble notes at his desk even after the bell rang for lunch. Nick nudged him as he stood to leave, then shrugged and followed the rest of the students out of the room.
Approaching Trent's desk, Tony looked over his shoulder to see what he was writing. It was another poem. Unlike his previous works, however, this had no vivid imagery or raw emotion. Each line was bland, with a strict meter and rhyme scheme. Trent had even scrawled several would-be rhyming words for each line in the margins and was in the process of painstakingly constructing each rhyme without using too many syllables.
"Mr. Lane?" he asked tentatively. Trent glanced up, looked around, and sheepishly put down his pencil. "I noticed that you have adopted a...new style of writing."
"Yeah," Trent replied, staring at the poem. "I just want to prove I can do this."
"Write a normal poem. Get a passing grade. Graduate." Trent shrugged. "Whatever."
Tony hesitated. "Does this have anything to do with what happened at the bookstore yesterday?"
Trent frowned slightly. "I don't really want to talk about it."
Tony protested, "I can see that you are incorporating rhyme and meter into your work to please Mr. O'Neill, but I hope you don't lose your own unique style in the process. A few harsh comments should not stifle your--"
"I said I don't want to talk about it." Trent glared at him as he spoke, but it was the faint tremor in his voice that told Tony to stop.
Backing off, he changed the subject slightly. "Well, if you're worried about your grades in history, I could tutor you." He smiled. "You come in often enough to talk about Ginsberg; surely we could work some Gettysburg in, too."
"Maybe. Mostly I've gotta work on my grades in English. I'm doing okay in science, but only because of my lab partner. And I'm actually pretty good at math. I'm really tanking in English, though." He glared at the sheet of paper in front of him. "But for once a Lane is going to follow through on something. I'm gonna graduate." His voice left no room for uncertainty--he meant it.
"Okay," Tony replied. "Just...keep in mind what I said about your poetry, all right?"
Trent shrugged and began to pick his pencil up again, but Tony pointed to the clock. "It's time for lunch, Mr. Lane. Perhaps you can finish your latest effort while you eat."
"Sure." Stuffing the paper into his pocket, Trent gathered his things and walked out.
Still slightly worried, Tony walked into the teachers' lounge to see Janet waiting for him with a huge smile on her face. "Good news?" he asked.
"Great news!" she exclaimed. "Noel found a job last night!"
"Congratulations!" Tony patted her on the shoulder as he went to the staff refrigerator for his lunch.
Janet followed him. "I'm thinking about baking him a cake to celebrate. I haven't baked in years, though. Maybe I should just buy him one after school. What do you think?"
Turning, Tony began to answer but stopped when he saw a man wearing a uniform of the Carter County sheriff's office walk into the room. Following his gaze, Janet turned to see the man approach. "Janet Richards?" he asked. Janet nodded, and he handed her an envelope. "You've been served."
Stomach knotted, Tony watched her open the envelope and read the papers inside. "Petition for divorce?" she squeaked. "There has to be a mistake."
"I'm afraid not, ma'am," the uniformed man replied. "Please sign here."
After he left, Janet dropped into a chair as the papers fell from her hand. Tony finally realized that he was still holding the refrigerator door open, and closed it before taking her hand. "Janet, I...I don't know what to say," he finished weakly.
She looked up at him, eyes wide and unfocused. "Why would he...?" she asked. "I had no idea...He seemed..." Covering her mouth with her free hand, she began sobbing. Tony awkwardly put an arm around her shoulders, unsure what to do next.
At that moment, Timothy walked into the lounge, took in the scene before him, and promptly walked out again.
Pulling herself together, Janet let go of Tony's hand and stood up. "I'm all right," she told him, shrugging off his arm. "Really. I have to go get ready for my next class." She took one step toward the door before she froze and then dropped back into the chair, shaking.
"Janet?" he asked. Her mouth moved, but only unintelligible whimpers came out. He sighed. "You are not teaching any more classes today. Come on. I'll drive you home."
Janet stood and followed Tony out of the school with a blank expression on her face. She sniffled occasionally, but otherwise stared at nothing all the way to his car.
Tony walked Janet to her front door, feeling anxious. Aside from brief directions to guide him to her house, Janet had said nothing since leaving Lawndale High. He began to wonder if he should have taken her to Mrs. Manson's office instead.
As he followed her inside the house, he stopped in shock at the state of her home. There were piles of dirty laundry everywhere, a large stack of empty beer cans near the television, and a line of muddy footprints going through the living room and out the door.
Janet appeared oblivious to all of this. She stepped over the laundry with practiced ease and walked through the house before coming back to Tony. "He isn't here," she told him unnecessarily. Taking a few calming breaths, she added, "Thanks for bringing me home. I think I'll be--"
She was cut off by the doorbell. Tony stepped aside so she could answer the door, and saw a twenty-something blond woman wearing too much makeup standing outside.
"Hi!" the woman chirped with a little wave of her fingers. "I think I left something here this morning and..." She trailed off as something suddenly occurred to her. "Omigod! It's you, right? You're home early!"
Tony quickly moved to stand in front of Janet in the doorway. "I really think you should come back some other time," he told the young woman.
"But it's important," she exclaimed. "I forgot my..." She switched to an exaggerated whisper to say, "underpants!"
Tony groaned. Who forgets their underwear he wondered. Eyeing the woman's clothing, he mentally answered, I suppose the same kind of person who wears a halter top in the middle of winter.
Hearing a noise, he turned and saw Janet digging vigorously through one of the piles of clothing. Expressionless, she finally held out a gaudy--and tiny--pair of panties. He grabbed them and pushed them into the woman's hands, saying, "There. Now please go."
Frowning, she protested, "But these aren't mine!"
"Then let's call it a trade!" he called out as he shut the door in her face and spun around to face Janet. This time, he didn't even try to think of anything to say. There simply weren't any words.
Janet stared at the room around her as realization dawned. She took a few steps, exploring her home as though she were only just recognizing the mess. Finally she stopped, drew in a deep breath, and swung both arms into the pile of beer cans to scatter them across the already messy carpet with a shrill "Yah!"
Startled, Tony reached an arm toward her. "Are you all right?"
"Fine," she snapped. "Perfect."
"Janet, I know this is--"
Turning to glare at him, she growled, "No, you don't. You don't know what this is like, so don't even try. Just leave me alone."
"Are you sure?"
Without another word, Tony let himself out and returned to the high school to inform Ms. Li that someone would have to cover Janet's classes for the rest of the day--if not longer.
After the previous day's outburst, Tony was more than shocked to see Janet walk into the building the next morning, perfectly calm and ready to teach. He fell into step beside her as she marched toward her classroom.
"It's great to see you back already, but are you sure you don't want to take a day or two to, um, to..."
"To lick my wounds?" she finished with a sneer. "Hide at home like a weak, defeated animal? I wouldn't give that man the satisfaction."
"Good for you," Tony replied. I think.
"Besides," she continued as they neared the science lab, "my girls need me. I'm going to show them that a woman can be just as strong--no, stronger--without a man."
Tony noticed that her hand was shaking as she reached for the doorknob, but he said nothing.
As she walked into the room, Janet turned to smirk at Tony. "Especially Jenny. One day she'll take on the scientific community and smash that glass ceiling. You'll see."
"I--" Tony began, but she had already closed the door behind her. Rubbing his goatee thoughtfully, he turned and headed down the hallway to his own classroom. I guess she's dealing with it. Or something.
For the rest of the winter trimester, Janet rarely said a word to Tony. She would mumble a "hello" as they passed in the hallway or give him a brief nod if they met in the teachers' lounge, but for the most part she maintained a wary distance from him--as well as from every other male teacher at Lawndale High School.
She wasn't the only one who seemed to be avoiding Tony. After their last conversation, Trent had stopped approaching him after school to share his poems with him. It was therefore with pleasant surprise that Tony saw Trent walk into his classroom one morning early in the spring term.
"Hey, Mr. DeMartino," Trent said uncomfortably. "My friend needs to talk to you." Before Tony could respond, he ducked back into the hallway for a moment and then re-emerged, pulling Nick into the room by the arm.
As Nick stared blankly at the floor, Trent shrugged. "See ya," he said on his way back out the door.
Turning to Nick, Tony cleared his throat. "So, what do you--" His voice faltered as he saw Nick collapse into a desk and bury his head in his arms on top of it. Sobs shook his body, and Tony warily placed a hand on his back and tried to think of something to say.
After a few minutes, Nick took a few deep, shuddering breaths and sat up. "Sorry," he said hoarsely. "It's just, uh...I..."
He was starting to shake. Tony leaned over the desk, making eye contact with Nick to keep him focused. "Just tell me what's wrong," he said gently.
"She's pregnant!" he burst out. Putting his head in his hands, he took a few breaths to steady himself.
Tony straightened up. "Your girlfriend?" he guessed.
Nick nodded. "She's gonna have a..." Unable to finish, he turned desperate eyes toward Tony. "I'm not ready for--I can't be a--I don't know how!"
Tony took a step back, feeling uncomfortable. "I'm not sure I'm really the right person to--"
"I don't have anyone else to talk to! My parents'll kill me and my friends are all freaked out. Trent said you're good at helping people with stuff; what do I do now?"
Taking a deep breath, Tony considered carefully before answering. "Nick, do you care about this girl?"
Nick nodded, and a small smile even slipped through his panicked expression. "Oh, yeah. I, uh, you know..." His voice softened as he said, "love her."
"Then right now you have to make sure she knows that. Above all else, she needs your love and support, and she needs to know you'll be there for her. Can you do that?"
Nick stared at the top of his desk, thinking. Finally, his face relaxed and he answered, "Yeah. Yeah, I think I get it." Before Tony could say anything more, Nick stood up. "I'm going to go find her right now. Thanks, Mr. DeMartino."
Still nervous but now much steadier, Nick walked out of the room just as Tony's first period students began to drift in.
By lunchtime, Tony had pushed the conversation out of his mind. As he entered the teachers' lounge, he stopped dead when he saw Janet pacing the room in a rage. Seeing him, she erupted immediately into a rant, and Tony was relieved to see it was not actually directed at him.
"I can't believe it!" she screeched. "My best student! She's gotten every science honor this school can offer, she's been accepted to every college she applied to, and dammit, she was going to be the best scientist the world has ever seen!"
"What happened?" Tony asked with a nagging doubt in the back of his mind.
"Some stupid boy got Jenny pregnant!" she exploded.
Uh oh. He opened his mouth to speak, but Janet's tirade was just gathering momentum.
"And of course it isn't bad enough that he's ruined her life; then he has the nerve to come into my classroom this morning and," she paused, shaking with anger, before continuing, "propose to her!"
Tony gasped. "Wait, Nick proposed?"
Janet frowned. "How did you--were you involved in this?"
"I never told him he should propose," he replied defensively. "All I said was that she needed his love and support."
"She doesn't 'need' anything from any man," Janet snarled. "And she definitely doesn't need some deadweight husband to leech off her for the rest of her life!"
"It might not turn out that way," he protested. "At the very least, don't you think that Jenny should be the one to decide that?"
"She already decided. We had a nice, educational talk about men, and I convinced her to kick that loser out of her life before it's too late."
Tony stared at Janet in shock. "You can't--but surely Nick has some right to be involved with taking care of his own child!"
"Oh, he will. Jenny and I will see to it that bastard pays child support."
Frustrated and feeling a major headache approaching, Tony responded, "But what if he wants to be a part of their lives?"
Janet snorted. "Don't be ridiculous. He got what he wanted from Jenny already; now it's just a matter of time before he goes after someone new--if he isn't screwing around behind her back already."
"That is not fair to Nick," Tony objected, his voice growing louder. "He genuinely cares about Jenny!"
"Oh, grow up. He may say that now, but he's just going to abandon her in the end." Janet glared at him. "His kind always ends up leaving."
As his temple began to throb, Tony snapped, "It may have happened to you, but that does not mean it will happen to everyone!"
Her voice growing shrill, Janet called out, "Oh, really? Why do you think they'll be any different?"
"Because maybe Jenny won't drive Nick away!" Tony shouted, pain shooting through his eye. There was a long silence as he realized what he'd said and watched her face grow pale. Where did that come from? "Janet, I'm so--"
"Shut up!" she cried. "You men are all alike, aren't you? Well, I'm not taking any more crap from any of you. Just leave me the hell alone!"
She pushed past him and out of the teachers' lounge, storming through the crowd of teachers and students who had been drawn to the doorway out of curiosity. Among them was Timothy, who hesitated before stepping into the lounge with a hint of concern on his face.
"Anthony," he remarked. "Don't you think that was a little, um, insensitive?" He glanced back at the crowd in the doorway, now beginning to leave, and cleared his throat. "I mean, not that she didn't deserve it, but maybe you could have--"
"Oh, shut up," Tony snarled. "You're the last person who should be giving anyone advice on tact." Timothy closed his mouth, frowned, and stormed out. Slumping into a chair, Tony began to rub his temples.
As they neared the end of spring term, Tony had never felt lonelier. Trent wouldn't even look him in the eye, Janet only glared at him when she couldn't avoid him altogether, and Timothy--thankfully--was keeping his distance. Sometimes it seemed the only person at Lawndale High School who would speak to him was Tommy Sherman, and Tony wished he wouldn't.
Tommy had become almost impossible to deal with now that he was nearly finished with his senior year--if indeed he was finished. As Tony reviewed his grades one day after school, he discovered that because of his many absences, incomplete assignments, and abysmal test scores, Tommy wasn't even close to a passing grade.
"He'll probably have to retake the entire school year," Tony muttered. "He certainly deserves to, but don't I deserve better than having that jerk in my class for yet another year?"
Tommy's smug attitude had not diminished, in spite of Tony's increasingly more aggressive approach. His drill sergeant imitation was barely holding his other classes in check, but it seemed that with every class Tommy attended--few as they were--Tony's job became that much harder. He could swear that the football team was actually getting dumber.
Letting the papers in his hand fall onto the desk, he put his face in his hands and sighed. What choice do I have? Pulling out a sheet of paper, he began to write his recommendation for Tommy Sherman to repeat his senior year.
Recommendation in hand, Tony reached for Ms. Li's doorknob just in time for the door to fly open. He jumped out of the way and saw Janet stride out.
Clearing his throat, he politely offered, "Hello, Ms. Richards."
Seeing him, she hesitated warily before taking on an expression of scorn. "Not that you'd care, but I just finished telling Ms. Li that I've gone back to using my maiden name. I'm now Janet Barch again. The divorce is final, and I refuse to answer to that scumbag's last name anymore."
Tony simply nodded. "I see." Unsure whether it was appropriate to congratulate her or not, he added weakly, "Have a nice evening." Janet only snorted and stalked away.
After he knocked lightly on the door, Ms. Li sang out, "Come in!"
Tony entered, braced himself, and placed the recommendation on her desk. "I have examined Thomas Sherman's grades for this year and I am afraid there is no other option but for him to retake his senior year."
Li glanced at the sheet of paper on her desk, then pushed it back toward Tony. "That is not acceptable."
Not again. Narrowing his eyes, he argued, "This isn't a matter of opinion. He is failing history and, from what I can tell, every other class as well. There is absolutely no way he can graduate with those grades."
"I have no doubt that some arrangement can be made. I will speak with Coach Gibson and--"
"No!" Tony slammed his fist on the desk. Li blinked, but otherwise did not react. "This is unbelievable. First you refused to support me when I attempted to discipline this student, and you have done nothing while he and the rest of the football team turn my classes into chaos. Now you tell me I should just stand aside and let him graduate, knowing he did not learn a damn thing all year?"
Li smiled coldly. "Surely you exaggerate. Between his participation on the football team and his standing in this community, he has a very bright future ahead of him. A few bad test scores do not matter when you consider everything he has done for this school."
Gritting his teeth, Tony persisted. "Then you have not seen his transcript lately. Look, Ms. Li, I have tried as hard as I can to reach this boy, but nothing has worked. If you let him slide, then all of my efforts will have been wasted. He is not ready to graduate."
"And failing him will leave a black mark on Lawndale High that I simply cannot allow." Li leaned back in her chair and gazed levelly at him. "You will have to learn to deal with your students on your own, Mr. DeMartino. Do whatever you must to teach them, but I will not do anything to that might dishonor this school."
He said nothing, only glared.
"Are we finished?" she asked calmly.
He stood there, frozen, for a while before finally answering, "For now." As he turned to leave, he berated himself, Li two, Tony zero. Another utter failure. Standing in the empty hallway, he closed his eyes and exhaled. One day...
"All right, students," Tony addressed his class on the last day of school. "I wish you all the best of luck in your future endeavors, whether you pursue higher education, or embark on a career, or--"
"Or something that isn't lame, like get picked for the best damn college football team in the country!" Tommy bellowed from the back of the room. He was answered by the cheers and applause of the football players and cheerleaders.
Tony shuddered. He had thought it strange that Tommy even bothered to show up that day, but he was starting to believe it was to have one last shot at making his life miserable.
"Congratulations," he answered as the celebration quieted down. "No doubt you will be just as successful there as you have been here."
"Hell, anything beats teaching high school history," Tommy taunted with a sneer.
Tony swallowed his anger as his temples started to throb. I just have to get through today, he reminded himself. Just grin and bear it for a couple more hours, and then you will have a fresh start next year.
"Or maybe I should say, failing at teaching high school history!" A few snickers rippled through the classroom.
And next year I will have a fresh new quarterback, too. He groaned quietly. Why should next year be any different from this one? Or the year after that?
"I mean, come on! Who freaking cares about any of this crap?"
Still ignoring him, Tony began to erase the notes on the blackboard as his headache spread to his eyes. "You will have to learn to deal with your students on your own," Ms. Li said. If she refuses to get involved, then I suppose that means I have total freedom in this classroom.
"Hey, I've got a question for that stupid 'Stump the Teacher' game: Don't you have better things to do than bore people to death every day?" Several of his teammates slapped him on the back and high-fived him.
Total freedom, Tony reflected as he dropped the eraser onto the tray. Pain was stabbing through his eye so hard, he could barely think.
"God, what a loser."
Finally, Tony whirled to face the class. "Enough!"
The room became instantly quiet. Although the smirk was still frozen onto Tommy's face, he'd finally stopped talking.
Tony stood at the front of the room, holding himself perfectly rigid. "Most of you have been reasonably good students, or at least managed not to be completely worthless. As for the rest of you..." His voice began to rise and he stared at each football player in turn as he continued, "I suppose it's too much to ask that any of you come to class with any regularity, let alone attempt to think while you're here."
Now he had the full attention of a classroom full of silent, wide-eyed students.
He clenched his fists as his voice grew louder. "I realize, of course, that despite a total failure to use your brains for anything but battering rams all year, you will be graduating in a few days. Most of you no doubt have already been accepted to colleges based entirely on your athletic ability, where you will be pummeled even further into your respective states of obliviousness!"
The football players were exchanging uneasy glances.
"I would like to ask each of you just one thing, though." Pausing to take a deep breath, he continued, "What happens after that?" Blank stares greeted him. "So you graduate from high school, deserved or not. Maybe you will play football for some third-rate college for a few years. What will you do when that free ride runs out?"
Tommy and several of his friends were now fidgeting uncomfortably in their seats, trying to avoid eye contact with him.
"I can tell you what you will do then. You will slink back here, long past your prime. Clinging to whatever glory you might have left in this town, you will surrender to a dead-end job you hate, and spend the rest of your pointless lives reminiscing about 'the good old days' until you die."
Grinning at the horror-struck faces before him, Tony looked Tommy directly in the eye and finished with, "In other words, congratulations. You have just reached the end of the best years of your life!"
BRIIIIIIING! As if on cue, the bell rang at just that moment, punctuating his words. Shaken, Tommy bolted for the door while the rest of the students followed at a more leisurely pace. As they left, Tony overheard one student whisper to another, "Did you see his eye? That was freaky!"
From his place next to the bleachers, Tony listened as each graduate's name was called. As he waited, he rubbed his newly-smooth chin, where he'd shaved his goatee the previous night. Several students looked his way warily from time to time, and he knew his outburst a few days before was still on everyone's mind. Ignoring them, he turned his attention back to the stage.
Tony smiled; Trent had really done it. He hoped Timothy was watching this.
"Trent Lane!" The name was repeated, but Trent still did not appear. Tony looked around to see if he was anywhere nearby. Perhaps he was going to stroll in at the last minute, as he had done so many times in class.
Curious and even a little worried, Tony watched the rest of the ceremony progress. When everything was over, he turned to leave just in time to see Trent approach.
"Well, Trent, congratulations on graduating--even if you were not there to celebrate it. Let me guess; you overslept?"
Trent shook his head. "Nah, I had some other stuff to take care of."
Tony coughed awkwardly. "I don't understand. I had assumed you were looking forward to this."
Hands in his pockets, Trent shrugged. "I was, but then I figured it wasn't as important as I thought. You know, 'what happens after that,' right?"
"Ah. I hope you realize that I was not referring to you when I said those things."
"I know, but you were right. I thought about it, and I decided to stay in Lawndale and focus on my music. That's more important to me than a diploma."
"You still have a right to feel proud of graduating."
"Yeah." Trent smiled. "I guess I just wanted to show, uh, people that I could finish what I started."
"And you did that, but are you sure you want to live here? I would think there must be better opportunities for a musician in other places than this."
"Maybe, but I'd rather stay. See, there's my little sister, Janey."
"You need to stay to watch out for her while your parents are...elsewhere?"
"Kind of. Looking toward the dais, which was being dismantled, he said, "She's the only person in my family that I really know, you know? Everyone else is always gone." Rubbing the back of his neck, he added, "Maybe she needs me. Maybe I need her. I dunno. Just seems like I should stay."
Tony smiled. "I understand. Still, this is your day. I am certain your family would be proud, wherever they are."
Trent nodded. "Prob'ly. But you were here when I needed someone to help me, and I wanted to say thanks. And, uh, sorry about blowing you off before. I guess I just needed to find my own style by myself, or something like that."
"I am glad I could help, even a little. Good luck, Trent."
"Thanks." Running a hand through his hair, Trent added thoughtfully, "My parents and my older sisters and brother are kind of flakes. Maybe I am, too, but I can still do one thing they couldn't."
"And what is that?"
Trent smirked. "Stick around for awhile."
With a brief laugh, Tony reached out and shook his hand. "But tell me, Trent. You missed graduation because it wasn't important enough to you. Why show up now?"
"I had to set up for the show."
"Hey, Trent! He's coming!" Nick was running across from the school parking lot, yelling. "Hurry up!"
Trent began walking quickly in his direction, and Tony followed out of curiosity. As they neared the lot, Tony suddenly heard Timothy wail, "My car!"
Reaching the parking lot, Tony took in the scene before him. A furious Timothy was staring at his car, which had "Down with the man" scrawled in soap across every window in large letters. Tony turned toward Trent, who tossed him the bar of soap he'd been holding in his hand--he hadn't noticed it before--and headed over to join his friends.
A short distance away from Timothy's car sat a drum set with a student sitting behind it. Nick was also there, holding a bass, and another student held two guitars. He handed one to Trent as he approached, who immediately began to strum a tune.
"Who shot the hippies?
Who locked them in a zoo?
Who gagged the beatniks?
Who filled their mouths with glue?
Who crushed the bohos?
Who turned their work to poo?
Hey, Mr. Normal, it was you!"
As they sang the word "you," the boys pointed at Timothy, who looked more horrified with each note as the song continued. By the end of the song, a large group of students had gathered to listen. As the band finished, the crowd erupted into applause.
"Take that, 'Mr. Normal'!" one student yelled in Timothy's direction.
"Yeah, serves you right, you jerk!" called out another.
Trent caught Tony's eye and winked as the band began packing their things into a van parked nearby. Waving back, Tony turned to Timothy as the crowd began to disperse.
"They all hate me," he whispered, looking at the car with wide eyes. "I always thought there was something wrong with my students, but it's been me all along. I'm the misfit. I'm a monster."
"You are not a monster," Tony said. "They were angry with you because you pushed them too hard to conform. You can't expect them all to write in one particular way, and your harsh approach made them lose confidence in themselves."
"But I just wanted them to do well!" he cried.
"No, Timothy, you wanted them to be exactly like you. With such a narrow definition of 'well,' can you blame them for feeling frustrated?"
"I see..." Timothy mused. "So, you're saying that those students weren't mad at me; they were upset with themselves."
"Of course!" Timothy interrupted. "It all makes sense now! My students couldn't handle criticism, and they mistakenly turned that anger on me instead."
"Perhaps, but I think--"
"So the best way to reach them is to show them I can be compassionate. Once they feel that I actually care about them, they'll finally respect me and start improving their skills. I can help them unlock their real potential!"
"Unlock their real potential?" What the hell does that mean? "Sounds like you have a new strategy in the works."
"Oh, yes," replied Timothy enthusiastically. "The trick isn't pushing them to do better; it's getting them to see that they can push themselves to do better." He frowned slightly. "Or something like that. I'll figure it out over the summer. What do you think?"
Tony shrugged. "It could work, I suppose." Whatever makes you feel better.
Breathing a sigh of relief as a thoughtful-looking Timothy finally drove away, Tony headed to his car and pulled his keys out of his pocket. He nearly dropped them when he heard a shrill voice cry out, "What the hell happened here?!"
Turning to see Ms. Li standing nearby, he answered, "Just an impromptu student demonstration. Order has returned, and the honor of Lawndale High remains untarnished."
"Do not be flippant with me, Mr. DeMartino. Did you have anything to do with today's disturbance?"
"Not at all. I only witnessed it."
Ms. Li frowned suspiciously as he unlocked his car. "Good. It would be unfortunate if I discovered you were provoking any kind of unrest, especially after such a rough first year here."
Tony bristled. I know I shouldn't make waves, but that woman is going to keep me under her thumb for the rest of my career if I let her. Time to show her I will not be intimidated any longer.
"I would never dream of it." Observing Ms. Li's smug expression, he paused to open his car door before his next statement. "On an unrelated note, I hear the Lawndale Teachers' Union is looking for a new president. Perhaps I will look into it." Without turning to see her reaction, he got into his car and drove away.
Looking back on his first year as a teacher, Tony mused, I have come a long way since I started here, including a brand-new way to teach my students. It is not quite the laid-back style I was used to, but it does appear to work.
An odd smile formed as he considered this. And besides, maybe it's about time to let go of the beatnik attitude.
Poems written by my husband, Bryan.
Thank you to RLobinske for beta reading.