“This one will be a little different. I usually give you a topic to write about. This time, you’re on your own. But I want you to blow me away. Write something that’ll tell me a little about you, even if it’s fiction. I want color and fireworks, amusement, drama, embarrassment, love, what being a teenager is all about. Write me an epic. No rules other than my skin should prickle when I read it. It should be that good. And anything goes!
“It’ll go no further than me, so write whatever fills your mind. Make me sit up and think, ‘Wow, this kid has so much inside, and I never knew it.’
“No number of pages, no number of words, but if you write about something you care about, fiction or truth, it’ll end up just the length it should be to tell the tale.
“As usual, you have the weekend to write this. But this is more than I usually ask, and I want more from you. So instead of Monday, it’s due Wednesday. Have fun with this. Write from your soul, bare it if that’s what you want to do, press the accelerator and forget the brakes, and you can’t miss. I’ll be the only one who knows what you wrote, and it’ll be safe with me. Forget you’re writing this for a teacher to read. You’re writing for yourself. Make it count.”
Wow, what an assignment. Miss Thornberg was old, at least in her 50s, and usually insipid and blah and a little negative; she was never inspirational. Today she had a light in her eyes, and her voice had color and enthusiasm. I wondered if she’d discovered meth.
She’d been a disappointment to me: an English teacher who didn’t inspire. Her writing assignments were never like this. She’d ask us to write about how we felt about Lady Macbeth after reading the play or if it was correct for the voting age to be lowered to 18 or what we thought about the food served in the cafeteria. Nothing to ever get excited about or that led to spirited, animated writing. But now, this. This was vastly different. This was something to look forward to.
It was so different that I waited while the rest of the class took off after the bell rang and approached her desk.
She looked up and frowned. I didn’t blame her. I was fairly inconspicuous—at 15, I hadn’t matured much and looked more like a freshman than the junior I was. I was nondescript, skinny with spaghetti-thin arms and a personality to match, more of a blah than a person. I also was very much a C student, maybe a C- in her class. She didn’t teach much of anything, and the class was a waste of time. She got from me what I got from her: very little.
This was a great disappointment for me. I liked to read and had even tried writing a story. Twice, actually. I liked doing that and wanted to do more and get better at it. But writing about the topics she chose for us was stifling.
“Did you really mean it? What we write won’t go any further than your desk and we’re free to express ourselves however we want?”
Evidently the meth had worn off. She looked like herself again—not much life in her, stolid and dreary. Easy to understand her Miss label.
“Just like I said.” No emotion at all in her voice.
“And anything goes?”
I thanked her and walked out, feeling excited for the first time when leaving her classroom. I’d never shown her anything of who I was or what I could do. Here was an opportunity, and I was going to take advantage of it. Not for her, but for me. I was going to test myself, push myself, and see what I was capable of.
– 0 –
3rd Period English
Fourteen and never been kissed. That was me. Schoolmates were always talking about their romantic endeavors—at our age, often their awakenings. It was a heady time over the lunch tables, all of us listening as boys revealed their accomplishments to a wide-eyed crowd of enthusiasts and disbelievers and wish-it-were-me’s. I could only listen. I’d never been involved in any of things that were described, often described in graphic detail that made us shift in our seats and rearrange any embarrassments.
But listening made me more desperate. A boy’s body is insisting on things at 14. It’s difficult to think of anything but that insistence. That’s often the case. The body is supposed to be controlled by the mind, not the other way around. But if you’ve ever been a boy—and 14—you understand that the way it’s supposed to work and how it does work aren’t the same.
So I was ready, more than ready, when the unexpected happened. Although I must say, I was not expecting it to be a boy who was to provide my enlightenment. I’d never even considered that.
But Darrel—a boy I knew slightly and only because his locker was next to mine both in gym and the school hallway (alphabetic order by surname being the constant organizing force at this school)—was the unexpected one who made it happen. I was dressing out for gym when I realized I’d left my jockstrap at home. I was standing naked in front of my locker, searching for it in vain, when a voice, Darrel’s voice, interrupted my consternation.
“Can I help?” was what I heard, my head in my locker, my frustration heavy. If Coach did a jock inspection and I didn’t have mine, it would mean embarrassment and laps, and I found both extremely unpleasant. So I wasn’t expecting anything at all when I pulled my head out and turned to face the voice.
What I found was Darrel, a boy my age, just as naked as I was and half aroused.
Now an explanation of boyhood should be added here. At our age, sex is something that’s appeared on the horizon only recently and something we’re still getting a grip on—and no, that isn’t meant as a pun. One of the manifestations of this is that, if we see another boy aroused, or in Darrel’s case one moving rapidly in that direction, we respond accordingly. It’s no one’s fault, and there’s no one to be faulted. It’s a force of nature and not to be denied. So I did what any red-blooded boy would do. I joined in.
He grinned. So did I. I think it was the recognition that we were sharing a space and time where there was a connection, an unexpected and totally accidental connection, that neither of us had felt before.
So there was a pause in the time clock of life, a short one, and then, ignoring the obvious—what’s it called? Oh, yes, the elephant in the room—I said, “Must have left my jock at home.”
And he said, “I only have one,” and grinned even harder.
“Have to go without, I guess,” I said, and then he followed with the most amazing thing ever.
“Can’t have you doing it alone. I’ll join you.”
I opened my eyes wider, and he giggled, then pulled on his gym shorts over what was now a sizeable protuberance. The shorts made it very obvious where his thoughts were running, and it wasn’t his grandmother’s Bible lessons.
I put on my shorts, too. Gym shorts are thin and short, baggy at the leg openings, and don’t hide the condition we two young boys were in. It was nearing the time we had to be on the floor. Looking at him didn’t help my situation, nor did looking at me help his.
“Let’s go,” he said, “and let’s be brave about this.”
He turned and marched for the door. Shaking my head, I followed.
I think it was the fear of being seen and ridiculed, or maybe worse, maybe being pantsed, that solved my problem. I was at least deflated enough not to show much at all by the time I’d reached the gym floor. There are some aspects of not being overly mature at 15 that, while generally rued, can at times be a blessing.
Darrel wasn’t that lucky. He was still obvious, and he was noticed right away. Boys do notice things like that, which says something about where their eyes often focus. Rude comments were called out, and Coach heard them. He came over. His appearance did for Darrel what fear had done for me. By the time he arrived, Darrel’s shorts showed only quiescence.
The Coach was no dummy. “Jock check,” he demanded. This meant pulling down the side of the shorts far enough to show the giveaway sight of the straps of the jockstrap. In Darrel’s case, this would mean showing a bare hip.
Darrel didn’t pull. Instead, he said, “Sorry, Coach. Forgot it at home.”
“Laps till the class is over. Move it.”
Darrel never even looked at me. I thought that incredibly decent of him. And I was inspired. “Me, too, Coach,” I said, and without even waiting to be told, jogged after Darrel and joined him.
As we ran side by side, we got to know each other. We’d already seen what we’d seen, and Darrel, much bolder than I, started discussing that. He asked questions, and I answered them. In the end, I went over to his house after school, met his mother, and spent quite some time in his bedroom. The gym class was not the only time that day I saw his arousal, and it wasn’t a half-mast exhibit the next time.
We’ve been together since then. As I said earlier, I had no idea I would find a boy the focal point of my budding sexuality. Live and learn is an expression old as the hills. For Darrel and me, it perfectly fits youngsters. We’re definitely living and happily learning. Man, are we learning!
– 0 –
I was quite proud of what I wrote. It was exactly what she had asked for. Though I’d never got one from her before, I expected an A. I didn’t expect what transpired.
On Thursday morning, she passed back the papers. There were no grades on any of them, which was unusual for her. Maybe she hadn’t even read them. But a sudden uneasiness invaded my stomach.
“I scanned all of your pages and found them remarkable. Much more lively and colorful than what I usually get from you.”
Hah! Perhaps I wasn’t the only one who felt her teaching wasn’t setting a fire under us.
“I thought they were so good, in fact, that they needed to be shared. I’ll have some of you come up and read yours to the class. You’re in for a treat. Maggie, why don’t you go first. We’ll have time for three of them today. Chris, you can follow Maggie, and Mark will finish up.”
She was staring directly at me when she said that, and I thought I could read her eyes. They showed two things. The first thing I saw when she said my name was disgust. And that was quickly followed by triumph.
Maggie’s story was a fairy tale. It wasn’t bad—it was quite creative, in fact—which was no surprise because Margie was a smart girl, in the top five of our class. She was also very prim and proper and the kind of girl that would never break a rule, never be in trouble, and probably never even kiss a boy till after she had a Master’s degree in nuclear physics. Or kiss a girl, either, if that was her wont.
Chris was a nerd. I was surprised at what he read. His story was about two soldiers in WWII who shared a foxhole and spoke to each other about their fears. He made the fear sound real enough, enough in fact to make me wonder if maybe he was putting some of his own daily fears into a different setting. The emotions could have come from inside and be very real. I was impressed with his writing.
That left me to go next. And I wasn’t going to do it. I’d had two stories’ time to figure that out. I didn’t know what sort of game Miss Thornberg was playing, but I wasn’t going to play it with her. I wasn’t sure how that would end up. I wasn’t a troublemaker. I didn’t stand out at all—just one of the background crowd. I doubted half the kids in class even knew my name. That’s how deep under the radar I flew. Knowing I was going to confront her scared the bejesus out of me. But I wasn’t reading that story.
But being a meek and mild kid with no taste for rebellion, making a spectacle of myself was anathema. But what choice did I have? When it was my turn, Miss Thornberg looked at me and said in a very icy voice, “Your turn, Mark.”
“No.” I said it. I used the same tone she did, the same volume, the same brevity. She smiled. There was something ugly about it. This was probably what she was hoping for. She’d probably planned what to do if I refused, what the consequences for me would be. I had no idea why she was so angry with me, but she was. She opened her mouth, but the bell rang. It was a short, staccato, repeated sound, and we all knew what it meant: a fire drill.
Everyone was up out of their seats in a flash. Me too. Talk about saved by the bell. By the time the fire drill was over, so would be this class. As I pushed out the door with the others, Miss Thornberg was standing right there, and she said to me in passing, “Tomorrow. First thing.” She hadn’t a smile, not even the ugly one, when she said it.
– 0 –
All I had was that afternoon and evening to figure out what to do. I couldn’t read that story to the class. Even calling it fiction wouldn’t help. I was already something of an outsider. Anyone hearing it would assume I was gay, and I didn’t have the personality to shrug off the comments and jibes, even just the looks that would follow. How could I even read some of the words in that story without stuttering and blushing and, well, I couldn’t do it. I wouldn’t.
So what could I do? I sat in front of my computer and thought, and I tried to make lists of possible ways out of this. Calling in sick in the morning. Running away. Jumping off a bridge. Having my vocal chords surgically excised. I know. I know. None of them were a bit practical. I needed something better.
So I thought and thought and late after dinner, it came to me. Whew!
I didn’t get to bed till after midnight.
– 0 –
The next day, I came into the classroom nervous as hell, not a great way to feel when having to read in front of the class. I hated speaking in class, and having to stand in front with everyone looking at me while doing it? Awful. Dreadful. It would be worse to do it feeling as shaky as I did, but sometimes you have to suck it up and go with the flow. How’s that for mixing trite clichés? And being redundant!
When the class was seated, Miss Thornberg looked at me and said, “Mark, up front and read your story now.”
I got up and made my way to the front carrying my story. I folded back the title page and began.
“Betrayal, by Mark Hastings. I walked into class, confident, happy and proud. I’d written a great story. I knew it. It’s very unlike me to feel that way. I’m rarely confident about anything I do, but this time, I was aware I’d exceeded my own expectations. This was probably the best, the most honest thing I’d ever written. But it wasn’t something I wished to share. It was too private for that.”
I didn’t stop then because I was finished. I was barely getting started. I’d written an entirely different story last night and that was the one I was reading. I was laying bare Miss Thornberg’s betrayal of me, how she’d promised us when giving the assignment that no one but she would ever know what we’d written. There were no rules to follow and we were to forget she was a teacher; we were to write for ourselves. This new piece I was reading wouldn’t reveal what was so private for me, simply that I’d been promised that the writing would remain sacrosanct and now she was reneging on that promise and in the process betraying me.
No, I stopped because she was talking to me. Well, yelling was more like it. “Mark! That isn’t your story. Read the one you submitted. Not this, whatever it is. Read the other one. Now!”
I forced a smile. “But that’s what I’m doing, Miss Thornberg! This is the story I gave you. Now I’m reading it to the class, as you insisted I do. Shall I go on?”
I’d thought it very unlikely that she’d made a copy of my story. That was possible, and if so, I might be in trouble, but probably not. If she took it to the principal and complained, I’d hand him the story I was now reading to support that first story, and anyone in the class could confirm her promises to us. I could imagine her complaining to him that what I’d written was inappropriate, perhaps even that I’d written it to embarrass her, or it was disrespectful . But her instructions to us had made it clear that we were writing for ourselves, and ‘anything goes’ were her exact words.
She was looking at me with fury in her eyes. I faced her with no expression at all, though I was trembling. We stood like that for almost a minute in silence, and then she said, “Go sit down. You’ll get an F on this assignment.”
I didn’t sit down; not then. Before that, shaky as I felt, I stood my ground and said in rebuttal, my heart beating wildly, “In that case, I’ll take this up with the principal. He can read everything I wrote, and he’ll probably then ask other kids here what instructions you gave us, and I’ll let him decide what mark I should get.”
I saw her face fall. I returned to my seat. I couldn’t believe it: I’d stood up to a teacher. Me! And I’d won! But I couldn’t exalt in my victory. She was still the teacher. I was still the student. As the class continued, I sat, getting more and more worried. When the bell rang and we all got up to leave and were filing out, I chanced a glance at her. She was glaring at me. Not good. Not at all.
– 0 –
The next day, Miss Thornberg never looked at me in class. It was as though I was invisible. Just as I liked it. It was a trait I’d worked hard to develop. The more invisible I was, the more comfortable I became.
That ended abruptly as I was leaving. As I passed her desk at the front of the room, she said, “Mark, I checked your schedule. You have study hall 5th period. I arranged to have that period free today. Please come see me here. I’ve told the study-hall teacher where you’ll be.”
I watched her saying this, looking for a hint what this was about. My stomach let me to know it didn’t like this at all. She didn’t look angry like she had the day before. She just looked like she always did, rather unpleasant, like perhaps she had stomach issues herself.
“Uh, what’s this about?” I asked.
“We’ll discuss it during 5th period,” she said and dropped her eyes to some papers on her desk, quite deliberately dismissing me.
I fretted the next period, watching the clock nearing the dreaded time. The bell for 5th period finally rang, and I reluctantly headed for her classroom. I was going to defend myself, but she was an adult and I wasn’t. This wouldn’t go well.
– 0 –
At her request, I sat at a desk in the front row, right in front of her. In turn, she moved to the front of her desk, half-standing and half-perched on its front edge. She looked at me for a moment, then spoke.
“Mark, I’m going to speak honestly to you here and hope if you choose to speak, you can do the same. I won’t say I’ll speak openly. We all have a need for privacy in our lives. I have things I want to hold inside, just like I know you do. And I realize now I had no right to ask you to forfeit your privacy by reading your story to the class. Everyone has that need for privacy. No one wants to be forced to open themselves up, to lay bare their secrets. So I won’t speak openly any more than I expect you to. But what I will say to you now will be the truth.
“I owe you an apology, Mark. I’ve never had to apologize to a student before. It feels very strange to do so now, but I must; I do apologize for how I acted. I’ve given a lot of thought to what happened yesterday and done a little research as well. I recognize how much I was in the wrong with how I handled things. As much as I owed you an apology, I owe you an explanation. That’s why I asked you here—so I could give you both.”
She was focused on my eyes, and I was having a problem meeting hers. But I was trying. Difficult as it was, I was trying.
“What you wrote embarrassed me, and I felt it was terribly disrespectful. I was angry because of that. But later on, when I took the time to think more critically about it, I did remember what I’d said to the class. When I’d given the assignment, I simply hadn’t thought that I’d get anything like what you wrote, certainly not from a student. But that was my problem, not yours. You even asked me to be clear about what I wanted, giving me the opportunity to impose limits, and I repeated that you were free to write anything at all. In hindsight, I should have added a few words: write anything you want, but of course staying within the bounds of propriety. But I didn’t do that, and so you were within your rights to step outside those bounds.
“When I read your story, I misinterpreted it. I was sure I was reading a factual account of something that had occurred here at the school. I was appalled by that and livid that you’d tell me about it, bringing me down to the level of a lascivious Peeping Tom. But then I began to wonder. Was this fact you were shoving in my face—or fiction? That, of course, made a difference. I decided to find out. So I checked the sheet in the admin office of school locker assignments and found the student with a hallway locker next to you is Trisha Rodgers. The one on the other side is empty. Then I asked Coach Taylor who had gym lockers next to yours. He looked at me funny, but I stood firm and told him I needed to know without saying why. He shook his head but told me it was James Kirkwood and Andy Reassoner.
“I know those three students. I’ve had them all in my classes. I’m absolutely positive none of them are the Darrel in your story. Neither of the boys fits Darrel’s profile, and neither does Trisha. To be sure, I asked Coach Taylor if he’d ever had you running laps for failure to have a jockstrap, and he gave me an even more incredulous look but said no.
“So the story was fiction. I don’t have a copy of it so could only go by what I remembered, but I have a good memory. I thought about it, what it was about. It was about two things: sexual awakening during puberty and embarrassing erections. I could understand why you’d write about those topics; they’re probably both things you’re either experiencing now or just have recently experienced first hand. They’d certainly be on your mind. They’d be something you’d enjoy writing about if you were permitted to; writing is cathartic. And I gave you that permission.”
She stopped, and I took it as her giving me an opportunity to speak. I didn’t have anything to say; I was still absorbing what she was saying. So I remained mute, and she nodded and continued.
“A boy your age and with your personality writing about budding sexuality should be celebrated for being that adventurous, not excoriated. But I was angry and didn’t see it for what it was. Now I do, which is why I’m apologizing. As for erections . . . Mark, I’ve been teaching high school for over 20 years. Do you think I’m not aware of boys your age getting erections, or the various creative ways they have of hiding them? Of course I know about them. What high school teacher doesn’t?
“The way you wrote about them, carefully using language that was discreet and clever—that was surprising and effective and not what I expected from you. Again in hindsight, your paper was excellent. You will get an A for that assignment. And I’ll try harder in the future to restrain my first-blush reactions to what students write, especially what you write.
“You’re much brighter and more talented than I imagined. I misread you as much as I misread your story. I’ll expect more from you from now on.”
She smiled when she said that. I’d never seen her do that before. It had a remarkable effect. As much as her amazing speech had.
– 0 –
I was at my locker after the last bell, getting what books I’d need for my homework, leaving the ones I didn’t need behind and slipping on my jacket when I heard a very tentative voice say, “Mark?”
I turned around to find Chris Remmings looking at me, appearing as nervous as his voice sounded. He was definitely a nerd, as mentioned earlier. I also hadn’t mentioned it before, but that was a classification I fit into as snugly as he did. We were a pair of undersized juniors who didn’t fit in with the mainstream students at school. Perhaps it was shyness, perhaps it was a number of things, but I tried hard to be invisible. He was much the same. He was as nondescript as I was; I didn’t know him at all, even though we’d been in school together for years. He didn’t know me at all, either. Few of the kids at school did.
“Hi, Chris,” I said as a way to respond to his saying my name.
“Uh, I wanted to ask you something. But you don’t have to do it. If it’s imposing . . .” He paused. “I probably should just forget it.”
He looked like he was going to turn and walk away. I usually would have let him. But I was still feeling something from my talk with Miss Thornberg. Well, her talk with me. I’d said almost nothing, even when she’d finished.
I’d been too surprised, I think. I did manage to thank her. I’d felt a glow afterward. I’d seldom felt it before so had to figure out what it was, and I realized it was pride. For me to be proud of myself for any reason was almost unreal.
But I still felt that glow, and I think that’s what made me do what I did. I spoke before Chris could leave.
“What did you want to ask me?”
“Well . . .” He paused, then seemed to gather some nerve. “I had to read my story. I didn’t want to, but what could I do? She told me to come up and read it, and I did.” He looked down, but then recovered. “She asked you to do the same, and you stood up to her.”
“Not exactly,” I countered. “The bell saved me, and that gave me time to figure out how not to read what I’d written. I couldn’t. My story is, well, there was no way I was reading it in front of the class.”
“I couldn’t either. But I did. It said too much. A lot of kids wouldn’t get that, but some would.” He raised his eyes to mine. “I’ll bet you did.”
It was my turn to drop my eyes. He was telling me he thought I was smart. How would he know that? But then, I thought he was, too, and I’d picked that up just by seeing him in various classes. He was a lot like me; he hid who he was.
He hadn’t made that statement a question, but his pause made it clear he wanted a response.
“Well, yeah, I guess. I thought you were talking about yourself, how you feel scared. Sometimes.”
He nodded. “That’s why I didn’t want to read it. You found a way not to read yours. But you told us the reason why before she interrupted you; you said what you wrote was too private to share. Exactly what I felt about mine.
“But I was forced to read mine. I had to share. This is why I’m here. It’s not fair that I had to share some of my privacy, and you get to keep yours.”
He tried to smile, to make that into a joke. It wasn’t much of a smile. He seemed as nervous as I usually was when talking to someone.
He rushed on when I didn’t laugh. “I was hoping you’d let me read yours.”
“Oh. Oh!” I didn’t know what to say other than no, and for some reason I didn’t want to do that. Well, I did, but I didn’t, too. It was scary, thinking of doing it. But then, this was Chris, and somehow I doubted he’d run around telling other kids what I wrote. He didn’t run around gossiping to others any more than I did. He was as invisible as I was. We were like two peas in a pod.
I hesitated. He was looking at me hopefully.
“Why do you want to read it?”
I saw something in his eyes. Something. “You don’t buy the unfairness ruse?” His voice was a little less tentative, too.
I smiled. “No.”
He smiled, too, very quickly, and then it disappeared. “Well, how about this? I had to give away some of my privacy. You understood what I was saying; I was pretty sure you did, and you’ve verified that. I’m curious about what you want to keep private. I have an active imagination. I want to see if what I’m thinking might be correct.”
“What are you thinking?”
He didn’t tell me. I was watching him, and after saying what he had, he met my eyes. I realized that brave that was for him. I also thought getting to know him was something I’d like to do.
He wasn’t going to answer me. I could see that. So I said, “If I let you read it, will you keep it to yourself?”
He rolled his eyes, the most aggressive thing I’d ever seen him do. “Like who would I tell?”
I nodded. I had my paper in my locker. I took it out and handed it to him. “Read it at home. Give it back tomorrow. Whether you want to talk to me about it is up to you. It’s fiction.”
He looked down at the floor again. Maybe he’d used up his courage. “Thanks,” he said, and walked off.
– 0 –
I was nervous going to school the next day. I wanted to know what Chris thought of my story, but more than that, I wanted him to tell me he liked it. It was important that he like it. Miss Thornberg was a teacher, and how she read my writing was much different from how a kid my age would read it. I wanted to have written something a peer would like, would get into and feel what the characters were feeling.
Maybe there was more to it than just that, but that’s what I was telling myself to explain why it was important to me that he liked it.
I lingered at my locker, hoping he’d come there and I wouldn’t have to wait till 3rd period. He didn’t show up, so I went to my homeroom, knowing I’d see him in a couple of hours. I’d just have to suck it up till then.
When I entered Miss Thornberg’s room, Chris was there, waiting for me. He was expressionless but had my paper in his hand.
“What did you think?” I asked, now very nervous.
He didn’t answer the question. Instead, he asked me one. “You know Jim Kirkwood, don’t you?”
“Not really. We’ve never spoken to each other, even though he has a gym locker next to mine.”
Chris grinned and handed me my story. “Not anymore. I just traded lockers with him.”
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