When his wife leaves him and his school descends towards anarchy, a teacher is forced to change his perspective; by James Mulhern.
Kate said that our relationship lacked passion, and if I were honest with myself I would recognize this truth. In order for both of us to grow, she explained, we needed "clarity in our communication process." Meeting Deb was the beginning of a new phase in her life. A process of individuation, she called it, a term Dr. Kelleher, her Jungian psychologist, had used.
"Crisis is good, Jack," she said one morning while we were both getting ready for work. "Both of us have the opportunity for real growth here. I'm sorry that you had to find out this way, but why the hell were you snooping around in my email account?" She looked at me in the mirror as she applied her makeup. Her blue eyes, the first thing that I had noticed about her when we sat across from each other in high school math class, seemed cold and hard.
"The computer geek fixing the hard drive found them. I wasn't looking for anything. I had no reason to be suspicious. I wouldn't invade your personal space." I sat on the edge of the tub, feeling a pit in my stomach, wanting to lash out at her.
She laughed. "Jack, that's just it. You don't even know who I am, what I want. You don't ask me anything. You don't listen. All you ever do is sit in that goddamn chair and read."
"So I read! Jesus, Kate. I'm not a womanizer. I don't drink. I'm home every night with you and the girls. What the fuck did I do wrong?" I could feel my cheeks flush, and my hands were trembling.
She turned and faced me, her hands behind her back, bracing the edge of the sink. "Look, I care about you very much and I don't want to hurt you. But this whole thing isn't working."
"You mean our marriage?"
"Yes. Our marriage."
"You want to end it? Just like that?"
"Jack, I don't want to wake up someday and feel I've wasted my life."
I couldn't believe how cavalier she seemed. "You're saying our marriage has been a waste?" How could this be happening?
"It's nobody's fault. You'll be happier, too. You'll see."
"You can't know that I'll be happier."
"You're right. I can't know." She was suddenly crying. "Because I don't know who you are anymore. You don't talk to me. This is not how I wanted it to be."
"Kate, is it really that bad? I thought it was pretty good."
"Not bad. I just need something different, something more. I'm not happy with things the way they are. I'm sorry, Jack, but life is too short for us to be unhappy.
"I'm not unhappy."
"But I am." Her voice was tight, and the red spot that appeared on her forehead whenever she was upset was obvious. "You never want to do anything," she said, "I've tried. Really, I've tried." She turned back to the mirror, rifling quickly through her makeup bag. A lipstick rolled into the sink. "If you want to spend your life holed up in this house, you can. Not me." She wasn't looking at me, staring directly into her own face, a face that I had loved for over twenty years. My auburn-haired beauty, I would call her, lightly tracing the line of small freckles over her cheeks and the bridge of her nose with my fingertips, as she laughed and said I was tickling her. I couldn't remember the last time I had done that.
I wanted to say so much. Remind her of everything we had been through, that we had two teenage daughters to consider. But I couldn't speak. Shock, I guess. I tried to convince myself that she was just in a horrible mood that day. Maybe she was going through a rough patch in therapy. This, too, would pass, I hoped. Christ! I didn't even give a damn about her lesbian lover. Let her have a fling if it would make her feel any better.
But things didn't improve. Eventually I moved out. The divorce became a reality. Our girls, Danielle and Colleen, were upset of course, running through the gamut of emotions, but they, too, came to terms with the change. Danielle would be moving away to college the next fall, and Colleen, a ninth-grader and never very studious, immersed herself in the social aspects of high school.
I've wasn't one for confrontations or conflict. I gave Kate everything that she wanted in the divorce. Mostly, I just wanted the whole thing over with. I heard that they needed teachers in Florida, and I attended a job fair, where I was offered five jobs in one hour. In August of this past year I began teaching at a school in Fort Lauderdale. I thought a complete change would help me start over, or as Kate would say, "move forward in my spiritual journey."
One day, Deidre Schleppi, a fellow English teacher, and I are walking down the hallway. Someone has smashed the glass front of a vending machine. Bags of Lays potato chips, Doritos, Starbursts, Cheetos, Skittles, and other assorted healthy foods that we provide for our students - lie on the floor in a jumbled mess. Students, laughing and screaming, crouch, dive, slide, and shove each other to get the goods.
"Hey!" I shout. "Get away from there."
When they see Deidre and me, they begin to bolt.
"Fuck you!" a girl in a red dress screams.
Before we even get there, the looters have dispersed. To our amazement, everything is gone except for a ripped bag of skittles, the contents of which are spread across the floor.
"This school is out of control," Deidre says, looking around. "Where the hell is security?"
Ms. Lane comes out of her classroom. "I called the office, guys," she says. "I was eating my lunch in the back of my room when I heard this loud crash. I was scared to death. I didn't dare step outside." She is a beautiful 20-something brunette from El Paso, Texas. Fresh-faced and athletic, she could pass for one of the kids.
In a few moments, Ms. Jackson, our principal, and two maintenance people show up. Cecelia is a demure Latin woman with a broom always in hand, and Carver, a tall, serious man with pale blue eyes and a red stache that he obsessively fingers.
"Did any of you see who did this?" Ms. Jackson's impeccably clean and shiny blond hair glitters like a helmet under the fluorescent light. She's wearing a stylish black business suit and pumps - probably Gucci, Prada, or some other expensive designer.
"Not exactly. Ms. Schleppi and I were just returning from the cafeteria when we saw a crowd of kids making off with the food. It was a free for all. Reminded me of Filene's Basement at Christmas." I laugh.
All business, Ms. Jackson finds no humor in the situation. She squats down to pick up a big piece of glass. To Cecelia and Carver she says, "If a student cuts himself, we could have ourselves a terrible lawsuit." She waves the glass in the air. Cecelia ducks slightly, as though she thinks Ms. Jackson might scratch her with it. "I want this thing moved and the whole area swept thoroughly.
"You English teachers," she says to the rest of us, "need to have more of a presence in the hallway. I'd appreciate it if you dawdled out when you have free time. We all should be extra vigilant."
I look around the dimly lit hall with its pea-green floors and beat-down blue lockers and think, Shit. Another pain-in-the-ass thing to do. When do we get to teach?
"Will that be a problem?"
"Yeah, I have a problem," Deidre says. "Where's security? Why aren't they up here during lunch? It's not the teachers' responsibility to patrol the campus." Her face is red.
"The place is out of control," I say. "Something's gotta be done." I can feel my own anger rising.
"Look. I understand where you guys are coming from. But security can't do it alone. I need the cooperation of my teachers."
Ms. Lane says, "Isn't anybody watching the cameras?" She points to the camera at the end of the hall.
"Well, sure. They're supposed to be. On my way up here, I checked with Ms. Vickman in Security. Evidently, she screwed up. She didn't have the damn thing on, or it's broken, or God knows what's wrong with the system. I promise you I'll check into it. By the end of the week, I'll have this fixed," she says, patting the side of the vending machine, "and I'll be watching the cameras myself."
The period bell rings and students begin to enter the corridor. Ms. Jackson pushes her way through a group of flashy Latin girls who mutter under their breath "bitch" and "fat ass," but Jackson either doesn't hear, or chooses to ignore them.
The next day I begin teaching "Civil Disobedience" to my English Three class.
As always, it takes a while to get the students settled. When I tell them to put their cell phones, iPods, and any other electronic devices away, I always feel like the classroom is about to take off. I'm the flight attendant and they are my passengers.
"Put all book bags underneath your desks and open your textbooks to page 370."
I start to read Thoreau's essay aloud. The kids are talking over me. A few haven't opened their books yet. Eventually though, the class settles down, becomes less frenetic, and some are listening. Mostly, they don't understand the turgid prose, so I have to stop every few sentences and paraphrase. When I get to the sentence, "The only obligation which I have a right to assume is to do at any time what I think right," Trevor, one of the chronic nappers, raises his hand.
"So is he saying we don't have to do what other people tell us?" He leans back in his chair.
"In a way, Trevor. Thoreau is talking about an individual's conscience as being the most important aspect of who we are. You remember Emerson? 'Nothing is at last sacred but the integrity of your own mind.'" He looks clueless, as do most of the others.
Brandi raises her hand. "Isn't he the guy that invented electricity?"
"You're talking about Edison. He invented the light bulb. Good point though." I don't think it's a good point at all, but sometimes you lie because at least they are listening and some semblance of a discussion has begun.
Darren from the back shouts, "What page?"
Sandy, a quiet Pakistani girl next to him, points to the paragraph in his book. Sandy-types are blessings.
Beneatha by the back window says, "I gotta use the bathroom."
"Not now," I say firmly.
"Mr..." She looks around, confused. I hear her say to Reggie under her breath, "What's his name?" I have been her teacher for four months.
"Mr. McCarthy, if you don't let me go, my pussy's gonna burst." This is followed by laughter from the others.
"That would not be a good situation. You better go now then," I say.
Amelia and Brandi are whispering. Then Amelia raises her hand.
"I like this guy," she says. At first I think she is going to tell us about another boyfriend who broke her heart, but I am jubilant to realize she is talking about Thoreau. "It's cool what he says about government and how we don't need one."
Brandi adds, "Yeah, why should we have to follow laws if we don't agree with them? We should only have to listen to our own conscious."
"You both have a point. Thoreau thinks our conscience is very important. An individual, according to him, should have the freedom to disobey a law that his conscience tells him is unjust. He's saying that it is really important for us to speak up if we have decided that something isn't right. What would happen, though, if we all decided to ignore the laws that we disagreed with? And what would happen if we didn't have any laws at all?"
Brandi says, "Everyone could just do what they want. Why should we have to follow all these dumb rules anyway? It's messed up."
"This place is like a prison," Amelia says, and the other members of the class are suddenly very interested.
Someone says, "Yeah. Fuck this place."
"Hey! Watch your language," I say.
"Then bits of black dust begin to spew out of the air conditioning vent next to the American flag.
"What's that?" someone screams.
"Mr! There's black shit all over my desk," Mike says.
"Lily you got some in your hair!" Vega jumps up and points.
Lily pushes her hands through her hair and screams. "Oh my God!"
The fire alarm goes off and I manage to guide my class along the corridor and down the east stairwell to the designated area of lawn behind the school. After accounting for all my students who meet me under a fichus tree, I walk over to Deidre and Ms. Lane, who are leaning against a chain-link fence by a section of dead grass.
"Stupid bastards," Deidre says. "They are working on the roof and they forget to turn off the ventilation system. All of us breathing in that tar. That stuff is so carcinogenic."
"Really?" Lane gasps. "Cancer runs in my family. Like I need any more risk factors." She puts her hand over her mouth, and looks visibly distressed.
"Look at her," Deidre says, pointing to Jackson who is yelling up at two roofers descending a ladder by the auditorium. "I'm sure she's giving them hell. Probably worried about another lawsuit. Forget about the health of the faculty and students." She shakes her head.
"She's not so bad," Lane says. "It's not her fault that they fucked up. Can't blame her for everything. She's got a lot on her plate." Lane looks smug, like she knows something we don't.
"What do you mean?" I ask.
"I was talking to her secretary, Elsa. She said Jackson has a mother at home with dementia and a brother who doesn't do anything but hang out all day. He's unemployed. Never even finished high school. She said Jackson's been getting a lot of calls from neighbors who find her mother wandering around the neighborhood. Her brother is usually stoned in his room. A total loser."
Brandi and Amelia come running over to us.
"Is the school on fire?" Brandi asks excitedly.
"No, but we'll probably all get cancer," Deidre mumbles, then laughs.
I explain to the students about the tar and tell them not to worry. "I'm sure they'll clean it all up."
Carver and Cecelia have joined Jackson and the roofers. Jackson is giving the two of them some directives. They nod their heads, ask a couple questions, and then head into the building. Jackson takes her radio from her waist and says something. A few minutes later, Ms. Vickman and two other security guards make the rounds among the crowd of faculty and students. We are told that we'll be allowed to enter the building in about twenty minutes, once the maintenance crew has had a chance to clean up. The students are disappointed that the school didn't go up in a blaze.
"They don't care about us," Amelia says. "We could get cancer and die."
I explain to the kids that their chances of getting cancer from this one incident are slim.
"Uh-uh," Brandi says. "This ain't right. It's like that guy Walden said."
"You mean Thoreau," I say.
"Yeah him. This is a type of injustice. We should break a law or something." She's smiling and wide-eyed.
"Yeah. We should stage some kinda civil obedience," Amelia adds. "Make a big statement."
"Disobedience. You dumbass," Brandi says.
That afternoon, I stay late to put grades into the computer, which is a rarity for me. I'm usually one of the first to leave. When I exit the building, the parking lot is nearly empty. In the far corner, behind the cafeteria dumpster, I spot Jackson, who waves for me to come over. She's staring at the side of her silver Audi as I approach.
"Look at this."
Someone has keyed her car from front to back on the driver's side.
"Well that sucks," I say, rubbing my hand over a portion of the scratch. Then I see where the vandal etched 'bitch.'
"At least they spelled it right." Jackson laughs.
"You can check the cameras, can't you?" I'm wondering if this is Brandi and Amelia's doing, a bit of civil disobedience. I'm pissed at the monsters I've created.
"Nope. The entire surveillance system is down. I have a service person coming tomorrow. It seems everything's falling apart. Everything's broken. Can't even park in my designated spot because of the burst pipe in front of the school. God knows when they'll be through with that project. I thought my car would be safe over here, off the beaten track."
"Nothing's safe anymore," I say.
"You can say that again." She leans against the hood of the car and takes a cigarette out of her purse. "You want one?"
"Nah. I don't smoke."
"One of my vices. Helps me with the stress." She lights up, then exhales slowly. "I know the kids hate me. Most of the faculty, too. But I'm just trying to do my job. Keep things running smoothly, maybe make a few improvements. Get us the money we need. You understand that, don't you?"
Her cell phone rings and she takes it out of her back pocket, then steps away while holding up her index finger. She speaks softly into the phone. Her expression is strained and serious.
When she's finished, she says, "My mother. She keeps asking for me. That was the aide who looks in on her a couple times a week. Alzheimer's is a horrible disease. Do you have anyone in your family with it?"
"No. Well at least not yet."
"Good." She tamps her cigarette out against the side of the dumpster, then flicks it inside. "I wouldn't wish that on anyone. Watching someone lose their mind is awful, Jack." I'm surprised by her use of my first name.
"It must be very difficult for you."
"My mother isn't who she used to be. She was a strong woman, very independent. I wish I had asked her more questions when she was well. I wish I had taken the time to talk to her. Really talk to her. There is so much I want to know." She is staring at something in the distance. Then she nods her head, not to me, but to something she is thinking. "I miss her. And life is so short." She sighs and looks into my face. "Thank you for coming over here. I needed to vent."
"Hey, we can all use a little of that."
"I'm outta here," she says, opening her car door. "You should go home, too."
Later, I sit by the pool and call Kate.
"I was just thinking of you," she says. "What are you doing for Christmas? I don't want you to be alone."
"Someone from work has invited me for dinner."
"A female friend."
"That's good, Jack. I'm glad. I'm sure the holidays are hard. I know they're hard for me. Dr. Kelleher says it's the worst time of year for anyone dealing with these issues."
"The divorce, Jack. What issues do you think I'm talking about?"
"I don't give a shit what Dr. Kelleher says."
"Why are you swearing?"
"Kate, we could have fixed things. It wasn't right what you did."
She starts to stay something but I talk over her.
"I wish you had given me a chance. You said you didn't know me. That I should have talked more. But I loved you. And I loved my girls. I was a good father. I am a good father. You gave up too damn easily."
"Listen, Jack. We shouldn't talk right now. You're obviously upset. Besides, I'm late for an appointment. We'll discuss all of this later. Okay?"
I think of all the brokenness that surrounds me - the marriage, the ridiculous vending machine, the cameras that do not work, the blast of carcinogenic tar into my classroom, Jackson's failing mother.
"Fuck you. Fuck your girlfriend. And fuck your therapist. Maybe you can all get together and have a threesome. They say that three is a spiritual number."
"Jack, you're angry. I understand how you feel."
"You don't understand jack shit. Hey, that's sorta funny. Don't you think?" I laugh. "Jack shit," I repeat.
"Let's talk another time. You are being inappropriate and rude."
"There will never be another time, Kate. You're a goddamn fool."
The next morning, I am sitting at my desk. Across the street from my classroom, a man picks up after his dog. Two school buses pass by, and an SUV stops at the main gate. A young man emerges. I can hear the bass of someone's car radio. In the distance, someone yells, "What time is it?" The shout reminds me of Kate's closing words: Another time. Then the door to my classroom opens and Brandi walks in, breathless. She is holding Chopin's The Awakening in her hand.
"Have a seat," I say. She plops in the chair beside my desk and throws her head back. Dramatic, even at this hour.
"I don't get this book. The lady wants some booty on the side. And her husband, he don't even seem like he loves her. I ain't finishing it," she says, putting her hand on the cover.
"Don't you want to find out what happens?"
"Nope. I already know the end."
We talk a little more. I try to cajole her into finishing the novel. Then she gets a text message from Amelia, who wants her to come to the cafeteria. When she leaves, I reflect on last night's phone call. I loved Kate once. I don't love her now. And I never will again.