“…and Adams, you’ll work with Crawley.”
Great. Just fucking great. Crawley was the biggest asshole in the school. Why did Mr. Tabler do this to me?
“You can all spend the rest of the class getting with your partners and working out how you’ll merge your time and talents for this assignment. Term paper, people. Twenty pages, researched, annotated, bibliography—everything we’ve been studying this term. You have all this time over the holidays to get it done. Good luck. Half the points that determine your grade that are possible to earn this term will come from this project.”
The noise in the room rose as kids got up and started moving around, getting with each other. I just sat, looking at my desk. Crawley. I couldn’t believe it.
“You Adams?” The voice rang with veiled menace, the veil leaking around its edges. It was low-pitched, much lower-pitched than mine. I looked up. The guy needed a shave, for crying out loud! I shaved once a week, sometimes just to be able to say I did.
Crawley glared down at me. “OK, here’s the deal. Get the paper to me a couple of days before our first class next year so’s I can read it before turning it in. He might ask me something about it. This way I can answer. I don’t have it by then, well…just have it to me. Mail it to me, and expect the mail delivery to be slow just after Christmas. So it’ll be best if you get it done before Christmas. You understand?” He reached out and squeezed my shoulder, digging his fingers into the soft tissues. It’s not very manly to scream in class, so I didn’t. That was the only reason I didn’t. It hurt!
He let go and waited till I looked up at him again. He didn’t bother looking for a response from me, just said, “Any problems come from this, anything at all, you’ll go down hard. I mean hard.” He kept up his glare till I looked down, then dropped a piece of paper on my desk. I saw it was an address.
I looked up, and he was gone. Out the classroom door. Still a half hour of class time. Mr. Tabler didn’t even notice.
I was still at my desk when everyone else had left. Mr. Tabler was at his, up front. He saw me. “Reid? Do you need something?”
He only used our first names when he was alone with one of us.
Mr. Tabler was a first-year teacher. He was one of those small men who dress exceedingly neatly. He was very fussy about his appearance and everything else. He had a small mustache, weird-looking in someone so young, and he kept it very trim. His hair was always parted in exactly the same place, which looked odd because no one under the age of 40 parted their hair these days. Had they ever in this century? Well, yes, he had. He wore button-up, starched and pressed shirts and very conservative, narrow ties always tight to his collar. He was very precise in his pronunciation when speaking to us and stood up very straight. This was perhaps out of vanity, because he was only five-foot six, but I thought it was more because he just felt it was right and orderly that way. Like his desk: never a misaligned paper or out-of-place paperclip on it.
I looked at him and wasn’t sure how to answer. Then I thought, the hell with it, and said, “Yeah, I need to know: why Crawley?”
Mr. Tabler wrinkled his forehead. “I don’t understand. Why not? And I don’t like your aggressive tone, Mr. Adams.”
I didn’t modify my tone at all. I was angry and saw no point in trying to conceal it. “You do know, don’t you, that Crawley is the biggest criminal in school, he gets D’s in most everything, and that’s mostly because the teachers don’t want to deal with him repeating their classes if they fail him. He does no schoolwork at all—anything he turns in has been coerced from someone else—he bullies weaker kids all the time, he has a police record, he’s spent time in juvie for beating up kids and malicious mischief, and he’s only in school because he isn’t old enough to be out. So, why me? Why make me deal with him? What did I do to piss you off?”
The wrinkle turned to a frown. “Mr. Adams, you know that sort of language is forbidden
in here. I should report you. I’ll let it go this time, but never again. Is that
I didn’t answer him. I stood up and gathered my books. I had to pass his desk on the way out. When I reached it, I stopped. “You know I’ll do this entire paper myself, don’t you? I need the grade; he doesn’t. Of course you know that, unless you’re entirely naïve about how things work here. As you’ve assigned this for over the holidays, it means I have to spend more than just a good portion of that time, a time that should be available to us for family things, working on this. It means I’ll do all the work, and Crawley will get a decent grade without even thinking about the paper once. It means you’ve just fucked up my entire Christmas. I hope you’re getting your jollies out of that. Merry Christmas.”
“Mr. Adams! How dare you?! I’m going to have to give you detention for—”
That was all I heard before I slammed the door leaving his classroom.
≈ ≈ ≈ ≈ ≈ ≈
My sister, Francine, and her husband, Mike, were coming for Christmas. They lived in the next state over and we didn’t see them much. Mike was busy building his career. He was a manufacturing engineer with hopes for an upper-management position with his nationally diverse company. To move up, he had to make himself known, and that meant putting in the time. Francine was teaching school and expecting their first child in June. I missed having Francine around to talk to. We’d been close, even though she was a few years older than I was. She’d been the first one in the family to figure out I was gay. Maybe even before I did.
Dad and I had already found a tree, cut it down, and it was now standing decorated in the living room. I’d helped him hang lights outside, too.
Christmas vacation should have been a happy time. Instead, I stormed into the house, dropped my backpack on the floor just inside the front door, and yelled, “AAAAARRRRRGGGG!”
“Reid? What in the world?!”
My mother came through the entry hallway and confronted me. I stooped to pick up my backpack and said, “I’m not in the mood.”
“I can see that. But why not? Come on into the kitchen. I’ve got a sandwich made for you.”
I followed her there, then sat at the table while she poured me a glass of milk and set it and the sandwich in front of me.
“So what’s the deal?” she asked. I told her. She listened. She did that—was good at it, in fact. When I was done, she asked, a non sequitur if there ever was one, “Is Cory coming to dinner?”
“Do tree branches have bird poop on them?”
“No more so than the frequency of Cory coming to dinner.”
“What, you suddenly don’t like him?” Just that fast, my stomach felt fuzzy inside.
“No, I’m just joshing. You know that. But he could eat at his house every now and then. His dad might like to see him occasionally.”
“I doubt it. His father rarely even looks at him and tends to cook out of boxes, using the microwave. Cory likes your cooking.”
“Well, that just shows he has good taste.”
I stood up. “In boyfriends, too. I’m going up to do homework.” And I did. I hadn’t expected her to have solutions for my problems. My parents liked to let me handle my own shit. They’d help if asked but thought at my age I should be resourceful.
≈ ≈ ≈ ≈ ≈ ≈
After dinner, and after we’d made out on my bed for a time, Cory said, “Hey, your heart and soul aren’t in this—barely your lips—and I’m working hard here. This is about as good as I can do.”
“What, you haven’t been practicing again by yourself? Practice makes perfect, you know.”
He laughed. “Every day. Just like you.”
“And it isn’t working for you? You aren’t getting any better?”
“Hey, you should know if I am. Anyway, what’s going on?”
I sat up against the headboard. He wriggled around and did the same. “It’s just what we talked about at dinner. Mr. Tabler gave us a major assignment that’s going to take hours and hours of work. He expects us to do it all and be finished during our holiday. It’s supposed to be a holiday! There should be a law against this.”
“Sure. Something to protect us from this sort of tyranny. Isn’t this why we fought the Revolutionary War? We need laws against this sort of exploitation. This is why they threw tea into Boston harbor. This is—” I stopped. Talking about American history, a subject we’d had a quiz on earlier that day, I’d just had a brilliant idea.
Cory was looking at me. I could see in his eyes—eyes I could read like my own handwriting—that this discussion was something just to get through, so he could get me in the mood again. He was always in the mood. A wonderful trait for a boyfriend to have, by the way.
“So there’s that, the Mr. Tabler-assignment situation, and then there’s the Crawley problem. I don’t see why I should do all the work and he get equal credit for it, I don’t see why I should have to be so intimidated by him, but I don’t see any way around it. Those are what have my mind on something other than your hot bod and the rather enthusiastic wiggling around you were doing.”
Cory flexed his eyebrows and laughed. He has nice eyebrows. He’s blond, just a bit smaller than me in all ways except for one important one, handsome rather than cute, and athletic where I’m sort of klutzy. He’s also, I hate to say, as smart or smarter than I am. I get mostly all A’s, and where I don’t, it’s mostly laziness. I don’t love school like some kids. But my parents expect me to excel in everything I do, and so I try, which is what they want more than the excelling. I just don’t try to the max like I could. Hey, everyone has to be something. I’m lazy. Well, lazyish.
Cory tries a little harder than I do in school, which explains his record. He’s gotten nothing lower than an A since sixth grade. Hardworking, handsome and horny. The three H’s. All good.
When I came out in my freshman year in high school, it felt awfully lonely at first. Cory changed that. He had an irrepressible personality and charm out the wazoo. I knew who he was, just as everyone knows who most everyone is in a school with about 1,200 students; ours isn’t one of those ginormous ones where most kids are strangers. But I’d never spoken to him. He came over to me where I was sitting alone for lunch and asked if he could sit down. Notably, he asked after he’d sat and started eating and then grinned. I couldn’t help but grin back.
We hit it off, and after a week of eating lunch together, he told me he’d heard I was gay. I nodded, looking down at the table. “That’s cool,” he said, “so am I. You want to mess around?”
I looked up at him, sort of shocked, and he laughed.
We didn’t mess around. Not till a whole week later.
Now, we’d been boyfriends for two years and a little more. It was December of our junior year. We fit together really well. We’d even discussed going to the same university. We both thought that a splendid idea. It was also why I worked as hard as I did at school. He enjoyed school and the work involved. I enjoyed Cory, and so I did the work involved. Seemed a fair trade-off to me. My dad always said that everything costs something. I figured Cory was worth a little hard work.
He sat up straighter in bed. “You stopped a moment ago when talking about Mr. Tabler’s assignment. Did you get an idea?”
“Yeah, but it’s sort of crazy. A fantasy, really.”
“Well, why don’t you work on that, and I’ll take care of your problem with Crawley.”
I quickly looked at him. “Hey, you can’t mess with him. If anyone’s going to get hurt here, I don’t want it to be you.”
“I certainly agree with that!” he said, and we both grinned.
“But,” I continued, “if I can make my crazy idea work, maybe I can kill two birds with one stone. At least wound one. Maybe Crawley won’t be a problem.”
“Maybe,” he answered, sounding doubtful. But then his face cleared. Ah,” he said, wriggling lower in the bed, “so that’s that. No problemo any more-o. Come ‘ere.”
≈ ≈ ≈ ≈ ≈ ≈
With that horribly unfair assignment, I was very busy for the next week. We’d gotten off two weeks before Christmas this year. We’d have three weeks in all, the two prior and the one after. That was a lot more generous than we usually had, but we’d started school a week earlier than usual to make it possible. Everyone had been in favor of that.
I was busy but worked hard and had some success. I didn’t think I’d have much chance of pulling this off, but dogged determination and Cory’s help—some of that charm of his and the fact he was a star wide receiver on the football team didn’t hurt a thing—paid off big time. I knew by a couple of days before Christmas that I’d been successful.
Which allowed me to spend some time with the family, do some shopping, and enjoy the season.
That’s not to say I didn’t enjoy time with Cory, too, but that wasn’t a seasonal deal. That was always.
≈ ≈ ≈ ≈ ≈ ≈
Mr. Tabler asked for our papers first thing when the class was settled in our seats the first day back. We all just looked at him.
He looked confused, then asked a person in the front row of seats if she had her paper done.
“No, Mr. Tabler. I didn’t do it.”
I was glad he’d called on her. Her name was Tracy Cummings, and she was not only a good student, but one who didn’t take crap from anyone. Spunky girl. Just the one to be called on.
“You didn’t? That isn’t like you, Ms. Cummings. You know your grade will go down further every day it’s late. What about you, Ms. Dolan?”
Amanda Dolan was a girl whose aim in life was to please. She was one of the ones I’d had a really, really hard time convincing not to write a paper. It tore her up not to do so. But I got Cory to help me, and her best friend was in the class, too, and with her help, Amanda had caved. But it wasn’t easy, and now she was on the hot seat.
“No, Mr. Tabler. Sorry, but I was busy with Christmas. I had to watch my three brothers and sister while my parents were shopping and decorating and going to parties and cooking and wrapping and all that, and I didn’t have anywhere near enough time to do the kind of paper you wanted. Sorry.”
Amanda looked like she was about to cry. Wow, Amanda! That was really good. It probably wasn’t acting either, but still…
“Sorry?! Sorry!” Amanda’s being about to cry obviously didn’t faze him. He turned to scan the room. “How about the rest of you. Any of the rest of you decide to blow this off and fail this course?”
I put up my hand. Seeing this, the kids around me did the same, and then the entire class had their hands up.
Mr. Tabler looked shocked and then started turning red. I’d never seen anyone’s face get that red before. He gritted his teeth, formed his hands into fists, then started pacing back and forth in front of the class: a short man, frustrated, challenged, with no idea how to deal with this. Finally, trying to control his voice, he said, “Who’s responsible for this…this…this outrage?!”
I stood up. “It’s not an outrage, Mr. Tabler. It’s a revolt. A rebellion. A democratic rebellion. We decided, all of us decided, that you had no right to dictate to us that we’d get no Christmas vacation this year. No teacher does that. In all the years we’ve been in school, no teacher ever has. But you decided you would ruin the holidays for all of us. It was our time, and you usurped it. And so we revolted and decided you wouldn’t get away with it.”
His face remained red, and I could see him seething as I spoke. When I finished, I stayed on my feet. I knew this wasn’t over. No point in standing, sitting, standing, sitting. It would have been silly.
“Mr. Adams.” His voice was barely controlled. “This was your doing, was it? Well, when I fail every one of you, how do you think your classmates will like that, huh? HUH?! Every one of you! Zeroes for all of you! I told you that paper was worth half your total possible points, and I’m a man of my word. You’ll all fail because the highest grade you can get now is a 50, and a 50 is failing, no matter what the grading system!”
I was nodding. “Yes, Mr. Tabler, that’s what we were counting on—that you are a man of your word. We believe that. And that’s why we don’t think any of us will fail. We all will do the paper, now that school is back in session. We’ll take the three weeks you were giving us and hand our work in at the end of that time. And you, being a man of your word, will give us the grades we earn. You have to. You told us you graded on the curve. So, if you give us all a zero on this assignment, all it’ll mean is the curve is lowered. That means it won’t be a curve from zero to one hundred, but one from zero to fifty. It won’t affect our final grades at all. You, being a man of your word, honorable and smart, will realize if you plan to do as you just said, give us all zeroes, we won’t have to write the papers at all because zeroes for all of us mean the papers won’t count, won’t matter. So you’ll recant, and give us the three weeks. You’ll do that when you’ve calmed down and seen we’re right and that your assignment was ill-advised, inappropriate and, well, tyrannical. We, your students, do have rights. We live in a democracy. And I think Principal Staton would be very unhappy if you failed all of us. Most of us in here are taking several advanced-placement classes. We’ve never failed anything. She might have cause to talk to you about what happened here. And maybe talk to some of us, too.”
He was staring at me and seemed at a loss for words, so I slowly sat down. Then, remembering, stood up again. “Oh, and we talked it over. We want to pick our own partners so we can team up with someone who is interested in the same topic we choose. This isn’t negotiable. I’m going to be working with Rusty Baker. He’s got some good ideas, and I’ve already done some research.”
≈ ≈ ≈ ≈ ≈ ≈
I’d made other arrangements, too, besides getting the entire class to cooperate on not doing the paper. A few, chicken shits that they were, had done their papers over Christmas break and had only agreed not to turn them in if the rest of us got away with it. But I had got them to hold up on turning them in, and it had worked a charm.
The other thing I’d done was to take up Cory’s offer to help with Crawley. When I left class after that rather that amazing session where I’d stated our case with Mr. Tabler, I was immediately grabbed and pushed against some lockers by Crawley.
“You’re still writing my paper for me, asswipe.” He had his forearm pressed into my throat, and I couldn’t breathe.
“What’s going on here?” asked a soft voice from behind Crawley.
“Fuck off,” said Crawley, then looked back to see who’d spoken.
“Fuck off? Really?” And then our 275 pound, six-foot three-inch right tackle, Roy Tutwell, probably Cory’s best friend on the football team, reached out and grabbed Crawley, and I could breathe again.
Roy had him by the front of his shirt and lifted him off the floor using only one hand. He used the other to slap him across the face a few times, then threw him into the lockers on the other side of the hall. Crawley sort of lay there, dazed, and Roy yanked him to his feet, then patted him down.
“Hey, looky here!” he said. I always was amazed how Roy, such a huge guy, had such a soft, high voice. I suspected steroids, but Cory said Roy’s whole family was big, and they all sounded like that.
Roy reached into Crawley’s pocket and pulled out a switchblade. Just then a couple of teachers showed up. Roy handed the knife to one of them and Crawley to the other. That was the last time I ever saw Crawley, and believe me, I looked.
I did have to serve a day’s after-school detention for saying ‘fucked’ and ‘pissed’ in his classroom. As Dad says, nothing’s free.