The first day of school started out just like any other first day. Freddie and Vinnie stood outside the men's room waiting for Horshack to arrive. Horshack, however, was attempting to hide from them in the hallways. This attempt to hide didn't turn out too well once Vinnie snagged him by the lockers. Vinnie dragged Horshack by the scarf down the hall, towards the men's room.
"Come along, Horshack. We gotta get this over with."
"But Vinnie. Couldn't we just skip this year? Just this once."
"No we can't skip it. Now get in the bathroom."
They entered the bathroom where they found Freddie standing in front of a stall with a frown.
"Ok Washington. Let's do this."
"No dice, man." said Freddie, waving them off
"But we gotta! It's been the tradition since sixth grade!" Vinnie complained. "We gotta keep up the tradition or else the school year won't go right. Every year on the first day of school, we always give Horshack a swirly."
"As much as I dislike the swirlys I have never been one to go against tradition." Horshack replied, slightly reluctantly
"I'm telling you, we can't do the tradition today." Freddie insisted. "Epstein ain't shown up yet."
Vinnie looked a little disappointed. "Well then we'll just wait 'till he gets here."
"Maybe we should wait 'till tomorrow." Horshack suggested
"No! It's always been on the first day of school. That's why we call it the first day swirly. That's the way it's always been and that's the way it's going to be."
"It's no big deal." Freddie said coolly "Epstein will show up. We'll do it then."
Vinnie placed his hands on his hips and looked down with a slight frown. "Alright." He pointed a finger at Horshack. "You're off the hook for now. But as soon as Epstein shows up, you're gettin' that swirly."
"Oh good!" Horshack clapped his hands together. "Just what I was not hoping for."
Vinnie shoved Horshack forward and the three of them left the bathroom. Coincidently, as soon as they stepped into the hall, the first period bell rang. They strolled into the classroom, walking right past Gabe.
"Ah yes!" said Gabe with a smile, stopping them in their tracks. "The school year is already off to a good start! You boys are tardy as usual." He watched as they took to their seats. "But Arnold! You're not soaking wet. I thought this was the first day of school."
Vinnie looked at Horshack and Freddie, holding one arm out toward Gabe. "See! Even Mr. Kotter knows the tradition!" he slapped his hands on top of his desk. "That's it, I change my mind. We're giving the swirly without Epstein." He stood up and started to go over to Horshack's desk. Gabe stepped forward and stopped him.
"Barbarino, sit down. There will be no swirlys when class has not even started yet."
"But Mr. Kotter! The tradition!"
"But nothing, Barbarino." Gabe tried not to laugh. "Sit down. You can have your tradition later." As he watched Vinnie sit back down, he looked around the room. "Wait a minute here. We seem to be one Sweathog short. Has anyone seen Epstein?"
"Nah Mr. Kah-tare. We ain't seen him." Freddie informed, "Come to think about it we haven't seen him since the first day of summer."
"Oh no." said Horshack in mock disappointment "Little Juan has gone missing? Oh, it is such a shame. Looks like I won't be getting my swirly today."
"Well somebody's had to of seen him." Gabe said, ignoring Horshack's comment. "Vinnie what about you?"
"Have you seen Epstein?"
"Vinnie I don't have time for this. Have you seen Epstein?" Right as he asked that, Epstein entered the classroom and stood behind him.
"Yeah I seen him." said Vinnie, grinning
Vinnie pointed behind Gabe. "I seen him right there."
As Gabe turned around to face Epstein, Epstein started walking to his desk. "Hey sorry I'm late Mr. Kotter." He sank down into his chair, looking forlorn.
"What? No note today, Juan?" Epstein, looking down, shook his head. "Juan Epstein does not have an excuse? What kind of universe did I wake up into where Juan Epstein does not have an excuse?"
"Sorry to disappoint you, Mr. Kotter. Haven't exactly been myself lately."
"Epstein I can't help but get the idear that something is bothering you." Epstein remained silent, almost refusing to look up at him. "Epstein," Gabe walked over to Epstein's desk. "What's going on?"
This time Epstein did look up. The expression on his face was far from happy. "Nothing Mr. Kotter. Nothing that I need to talk about."
Gabe stepped away from the desk. "If you insist, Epstein."
"Hey Epstein!" Vinnie exclaimed, ignoring the previous interaction between his friend and teacher.
"Where were you? We was s'posed to give Horshack his swirly. It's the first day!"
"Oh yeah, sorry, Barbarino. Guess I forgot."
"How could you forget? We do this every year!"
"I don't mind if you forgot, Epstein." said Horshack "Really. You can forget next year too."
"I just have a lot of stuff on my mind, alright?" Epstein said, defensively "Now get off my case, will ya?"
"Alright, alright!" Vinnie sat back, crossing his arms and brooding slightly. "Guess we'll just do it later."
"If I may have everyone's attention," said Gabe, standing in front of the class. "Here's a kooky idear. I know it's a little unorthodox, but how about we actually try starting class. Everybody take out your books and get ready to take notes. We'll discuss Arnold's swirly and other outside issues later."
With some collective grumblings coming from around the classroom, the class officially began. As Gabe gave his lecture, Epstein sank even deeper into his desk, becoming even more reserved as time went on. The closest he ever came to participating in the class work, was picking up his pencil and repeatedly rotating it from led tip to eraser on the top of his desk. Occasionally, Gabe attempted to get Epstein's attention. When this occurred, Epstein would turn his eyes up toward the teacher before either rolling his eye back downward or staring into outer space.
Eventually, the bell rang to announce the end of the class. Quickly announcing the sure to be ignored homework assignment to the leaving students, Gabe then turned to the blackboard to erase the chalk marks. When he turned back around, he saw that Epstein remained in his chair.
"Epstein, in case you didn't notice, the bell rang." The quiet, downcast student did not budge. "That means class is over. You can leave now." This time, Epstein turned his eyes in his direction. "Okay, Epstein, something's bothering you, so what's wrong?"
"Nothing." He slid out of his chair, taking to his feet. Starting to walk to the door, he stopped suddenly and turned back around to Gabe. "Actually, Mr. Kotter, I um, I could talk to somebody."
"Ok Epstein, you need to talk, I'm here for you right now. Why don't you pull up a desk here and we'll talk."
Epstein nodded "Thanks Mr. Kotter." He paused "Hey you mind if the door's closed? I knida need this to be private."
"Go ahead, Epstein."
Gabe sat behind his desk while Epstein closed the door. Then, Epstein walked over to the desks and scooted one in front of the teacher's desk. As he sat down with a sigh, he reverted to his previous withdrawn state. After a couple minutes of excruciating silence, Gabe cleared his throat to get the boy's attention. Epstein looked up at him, almost with a timid expression in his eyes.
"Epstein, in order to talk to someone, you have to actually open your mouth and let words come out."
"Sorry Mr. Kotter. But this turned out to be a lot harder to talk about than I thought it would be."
"It's ok, Epstein. Just take your time."
At first, Epstein hesitated to speak. As he made quiet attempts to speak, he nearly trembled. He fidgeted a little before looking at Gabe. Finally, after countless false starts, he was able to begin speaking his mind.
"Mr. Kotter this is tough for me because I've been keeping it inside for so long. Ever since middle school, I've kept this secret with me. But I've always tried to forget about it. Guess I've been in denial about it." He stopped and turned his head away. "I can't do this."
"Sure you can. You've got a good start, just keep going."
"Well if I'm gonna keep goin' then you're gonna hafta not look at me."
"Ok, Epstein, if that'll make things easier for you; I'll just turn my chair around and look at the bulletin board." He said, while doing just that. "Hello bulletin board. Please continue. I believe you were telling me about some sort of problem."
"Mr. Kotter this is serious. I can't handle you bein' funny right now."
"Ok I'm sorry, Epstein. No jokes, I promise."
Epstein shook his head and stood up. "Actually, forget it." He walked over to the other desks and stood there for a moment with his head down. "Mr. Kotter…" he said softly. "I never admitted this before and I don't plan to admit this ever again. At least not out loud." He paused. "I'm scared."
Gabe turned his chair around, prompting Epstein to throw his hands up to the side of his face and shout, "Don't look at me!" Gabe then turned his chair a little so he wouldn't be looking directly at him. "What are you scared of, Epstein?"
"What people might do if they found out. Especially my mother."
"Found out about what? Did you kill somebody when you were in middle school?"
"No!" Epstein shook his head then quietly walked back over to the desk. He hunched over, placed both hands on the desk and looked Gabe in the eyes. "Ok Mr. Kotter, I'll tell ya. But keep in mind that I'm only telling you about this because you're the only one I can trust not to say anything."
"Thank you, Epstein, for trusting me. I promise I won't say a word."
Epstein nodded, looking down slightly. "Ok good." He sat down on top of the smaller desk. "Mr. Kotter, like I was saying before, I've been in denial about this for a while. I guess now, I realized that I can't run from the truth anymore." He paused "The thing is, I've recently been trying to come to terms with this. In fact, I spent all summer in my room thinking about it. You know I only left my room at mealtimes, just so nobody could claim my share of the food?"
"Epstein you've been beating around the bush the entire time. Just get to the point already."
"Ok, ok. You're not gonna believe this, Mr. Kotter. Hell I didn't even want to believe it for a while. Still don't. Nobody could believe it if they tried." He sighed "Mr. Kotter this is something that would kill my mother if she found out. It'd kill me if she found out." He looked back up; his demeanor was softer and much more timid. "Mr. Kotter… I… I'm gay."
Gabe's eyes widened. He stuck his finger in his ear, wiggling it a little. "Epstein I think I must have misheard you. Please repeat that last part, because I thought you said that you were gay."
"I did." Epstein said softly. "Look, I never wanted to be like this. I've been having a real hard time trying to deal with it lately. I can't let nobody find out about it. Mr. Kotter I told ya already that I trust you." He pointed a finger at him. "You better not let me down."
"Don't worry, Epstein. I keep my promises."
"Good." He stood up and headed for the door. Stopping, he turned back to look at him. "Thanks Mr. Kotter."
"No problem, Epstein. Any time you feel you need to talk to me, you know where you can find me."
Epstein nodded his head, quietly leaving the room. As he walked down the hallway, he felt much better, having gotten his secret off his chest. However, what he and the teacher did not know was, at the worst possible moment during their conversation, someone walked by the classroom, overhearing his secret.