Students were packing up and heading for the door seconds before the bell rang. There was one student who would have zipped out the door by now, were he not trapped behind some slower kids fighting with their backpack zippers. The young man rolled his eyes but waited. It was annoying but he didn't exactly have anywhere important to be.
He had his backpack slung over one shoulder and a deadpan look on his face. Despite the warmth outside, he had a sweatshirt around his lean frame, with the hood up. To anyone who might be looking in, this boy would look like any regular student. There was nothing remarkable about him judging from appearance alone. His passive, silent attitude in class would only make him all the more forgettable.
But there must have been something worthwhile in him, because his teacher could certainly see it. "Jesse," he called, just as the boy had reached the door.
Jesse sagged and turned around. His face was blank but for a trace of irritation directed at his teacher, Mr. White, who was gazing down at a stack of papers in his hands. Mr. White glanced up with a small, friendly smile. "Got a minute?"
Jesse chewed his lip. "Actually, no, Mr. White," he said, but he didn't dash out the door. He waited, frustrated when he wasn't told he could leave.
"It's the last period, Jesse," Mr. White said, but gently. "I won't keep you long, but I know I've written 'see me' on more than a few quizzes now."
Jesse stared back through half lidded eyes and crossed his arms. "What's the point?" he asked. "You're just gonna yell at me for flunking them."
Mr. White frowned, but he was not angry. He was concerned. "Jesse, I would never 'yell at you,'" he said, searching the boy's face for anything other than that forbidding, sullen wall of an expression. He walked over to his desk to lay the papers out. He spread them, so each paper was visible, the red marks like gashes.
Jesse didn't want to appear in any way interested, but he noticed those marks. They weren't all bad. He sighed and pointedly looked at the clock.
"You were doing so well early in the year. See, two As, a B on your elements worksheet, hmm? But then, this." He slid a test, an important one from a few months ago, across the table. "An F, Jesse? You go from this-" he gestured over the good papers. "To an F?"
Mr. White looked so confused, so concerned, it pissed Jesse off. He didn't get why his teacher should give half a shit, but more than that, seeing his progress, his failings, laid out like this, made him feel pretty crummy. And something in Mr. White's tone of voice wouldn't let him just ignore it.
That only made him angrier at Mr. White.
His teacher leaned against the desk to give Jesse his full attention. "Well, to be fair, we jumped right into the math part for this." He tapped the big red F. "You're not the only one who felt a bit flustered." He laughed good-naturedly, but Jesse rolled his eyes and turned his baleful gaze to the window.
"Look, am I in trouble or what?" Jesse growled, not looking at him.
Jesse turned his sharp gaze back to the older man. "Then what am I doing here?" His look was challenging, punctuated by red-sleeved gestures. "OK, I got some bad grades. I'll study from now on, alright? Is that what you want to hear?"
"That'd be wonderful, if you meant it," Mr. White answered. His calmness, his refusal to rise to the bait left Jesse deflated.
He picked up the marked test. "Look, I think I can see what happened. It was easy at first. You were able to ace the first few quizzes without studying..." he raised a hand to cut off Jesse's attempts to argue. "I get it, really. And that tells me that you're bright enough to get away with that."
Jesse's arms slipped to his sides for a full body groan. His hood slipped off his head in the process, revealing a spiky mess of short light hair.
"No, really," Mr. White protested. "I see a lot of kids in here, of widely varying talents, and you-"
"Lemme guess," Jesse cut in. "I'm special? Huh? I'm some kinda genius, right?" His voice was dripping with sarcasm. He looked positively hateful, but his pained reaction was not meant for Mr. White. Jesse wasn't sure what to think about all this; all he knew was that his parents wouldn't care too much about a few As with that F. Not to mention everything else he was doing wrong.
He thought to himself, in the briefest of moments before Mr. White could respond: Dad wouldn't call me bright.
And if his father wouldn't, then what the hell was Mr. White doing it for? What did he know?
Mr. White waited till the end of that little explosion, just as calm and focused as ever. He answered, "You've got potential," in such a serious, committed tone, Jesse laughed derisively.
"Man, fuck potential!" He smirked at the thrill of getting away with cussing at a teacher, and went on, "Seriously, yo! What the hell does that even mean?"
Mr. White nodded as if considering what to order for lunch. Then he stood up with sudden energy and walked over to the other end of his desk. Jesse shoved his hands in his pockets and watched his teacher pull out a short plastic bucket, some gloves, paper towels, a small, dull knife, and a small Styrofoam cup from the drawers in his desk. Mr. White went into the back for a bit and came out with a small, sealed plastic container.
"Christ," Jesse groaned, leaning with his elbows on the desk, his head against one of his hands. "Lucky me. I get a frikkin' chemistry lesson after school. I'm so excited," he muttered. But he did make any move to leave.
"Just proving a point," his teacher said as he set things up. "This won't take long." He filled the bucket about a quarter full with water from the sink nearby and opened the plastic jar. After putting on the gloves, he plucked out a piece of something dull and gray, shining from the oil it was bathing in. "Remember what this is?" he asked Jesse, eagerly anticipating the correct answer. But when Jesse just stared blankly at him, he frowned. "Come on, yes you do. Second, or maybe third class. We all stood around with safety goggles..." He realized with disappointment he didn't bother to hide. "You skipped that day, I take it."
Jesse thought about gloating or laughing, but he didn't. He just felt guilty. He moved away from the desk a little bit and crossed his arms. "Doesn't it say right on there?" he ventured to ask.
"Yes, it does, as a matter of fact," Mr. White said, letting that moment pass. He inspected the label and grunted with satisfaction, then turned it to show Jesse. "Sodium. In its pure metal form." Putting the jar down, he cut off a piece of the lump on the desk. "See that silvery shine?" he said, just glowing with admiration for the oily lump. Jesse looked at the clock again.
He put the cut off piece in the cup and paused to look at Jesse. "Look," he said.
Jesse shrugged, his arms stiff around his ribcage. "Yeah, man, I saw it. Sodium."
"No, really. Go on. Really look at it."
Jesse sighed in exasperation, but he did it. He stepped closer to peer inside the cup. "Am I supposed to be seeing something interesting?"
"It might not seem like it now, but what I'm holding in my hand, in this cup, actually, is the potential for so much more."
Jesse sighed, "God."
"You, uh, might want to take a step back," Mr. White said. He reached the cup over and let the lump fall into the water. Jesse watched with mild amusement as it started hissing and zipping back and forth on the surface of the water, as if run by its own little motor. It bounced off the plastic walls faster and faster until the first of the sparks shot off the melting, now spherical, lump. He watched, silently, and with almost no obvious reaction as the piece of metal was suddenly engulfed with a furious, intense flame that sputtered out in a few seconds.
But his eyes widened a fraction for a brief moment, when that flume of light burst from that ugly little lump. He was too busy watching the tiny fireworks show to notice that his teacher was watching him.
He shrugged when it was over. "'S'at it?"
Mr. White shrugged in return. "Not exciting enough for you?" He started cleaning up and putting things away, saving the sodium for last. "Well, Jesse, I can assure you that was just a taste. Maybe next time I'll break out the potassium." He grinned at Jesse, who at least did not roll his eyes too hard.
He thought about bringing Jesse into the storage room with him to basically show off all the equipment and things, but decided that wasn't appropriate. He put the sodium away and came back out, where Jesse was still waiting, this time sitting on his desk. Mr. White chose not to scold him for that and went over to lean on his desk beside the boy.
"Jesse," he said, and paused. He wasn't a counselor, he wasn't the school shrink. It really wasn't his job to worry about his students, and certainly not to try to fix anything. But he wanted to, and so far, Jesse wasn't trying to stop him.
"This isn't about you passing my class."
"That's a relief," Jesse muttered.
Mr. White let it slide. "Although there's no reason why you couldn't not only pass but get an A. You might think all this is 'lame,' or whatever. But you-"
"Mr. White," Jesse broke in softly. "Don't. Please."
Mr. White nodded and gripped the edge of the table. Then he stood up, grabbed the papers off the desk, and headed for the door. Jesse followed, but wasn't in any rush to head out just yet. He took the papers handed to him mechanically, his eyes never quite reaching his teacher's.
Mr. White debated what to say. Offer to be there if Jesse needed anyone to talk to? That didn't seem like the best idea right now. And he had a feeling Jesse already knew. So instead he got back into teacher mode, serious but approachable. "Now I want you to go home and redo that test."
Jesse looked up, brows knitted. "The whole thing?"
"Yes, the whole thing. I'll give you till Friday. Get something higher than this, and I'll enter that in for your grade. Deal?"
Jesse looked deflated. "Mr. White, that's real nice and all, but I seriously doubt I can do any better."
Mr. White took the test and looked it over. He thought for a second, debated something, and then was pleased at his decision. "What have you got going the rest of the day?"
Mr. White had spent the rest of that afternoon tutoring Jesse. The teacher had been proud to tell his wife that was the reason for him coming home late, while the student had realized with some shock that the experience wasn't so awful. He even lost track of time. But when he came home, he said he'd been out with friends instead of cramming in about a semester's worth of learning into a few hours. And to this day, Jesse wasn't sure why he felt like he had to lie. Maybe it was something he wanted to hide, to selfishly keep to himself.
In any case, it wouldn't have mattered. After that one-on-one session, he did better in class, but that didn't last long. He never went to Mr. White for help, but he did stay after when he was told to. But then he started skipping class so he wouldn't even have to face his teacher, and the days he did show up, he would sneak out before Mr. White could breathe a word to him. He didn't know why, and he never spent a second trying to figure it out. He just wanted to avoid that class and everything connected to it.
Eventually, Mr. White began to give up. He stopped trying to get Jesse to stay after. He stopped calling on him in class, even when he was obviously sleeping or otherwise not paying attention. Jesse would do a few assignments here and there in the half-hearted hope to at least get a D in the class, but he already knew it was too late. He felt guilty and ashamed whenever he accidently met his teacher's eyes, and that only made him resentful towards Mr. White, as if blaming him. It was easy to forget about this one stupid class outside of school, but impossible when he met those eyes.
So for the rest of the year, Jesse silently took his marked up papers and tossed them, sometimes immediately after getting them, right in the classroom trash bin. But there was one he kept, the first one in a while that had something other than a big red letter on it.
"Ridiculous! Apply yourself!"
Jesse had waited till class was over to abuse his locker door (and his knuckles), and he crammed the test under some books and trash in his locker to hide it. He didn't even want to touch it again in order to throw it away. If there was another reason he kept it, he never took the time, or the risk, to try to figure out what it was.
But here it was again, years and a lifetime later. That furious message, scrawled in red marker, yelling at him in that voice he knew only too well. Mr. White wasn't his teacher anymore, but for a second, that didn't matter. It still stung like hell.
So he put it away. Out of sight, out of mind. For now.