Dr. Jacobs sat at the head of the table in the Admin Meeting Room. He was trying to sit still but kept wanting to fidget. Margaret Tanlick was running on and on—again.
Dr. Jacobs didn’t much like staff meetings but felt it better to have them than not—marginally. He had too many teachers under him to meet with each one regularly for more than a few moments, and a few moments wouldn’t accomplish much. He had an open-door policy where any teacher could come see him whenever they wished, so he wasn’t isolated, and neither were they. But for routine school business, advisories and the sharing of benign information, some form of regular meetings had proved useful. Again, marginally so.
In general, he’d felt the meetings had taken too long and were too invasive into people’s lives when the full faculty had assembled. Instead, Dr. Jacobs had decided that if there had to be meetings, it would be more efficient to have them in a reduced environment, and so he’d set them up to include only the department heads and himself. He much preferred meeting his people face-to-face, but for the passing of general information a group staff meeting, held once a month, made the most sense. Even if it had someone like Margaret Tanlick in it.
Margaret was the senior member of the teaching staff. Unless there was a clear-cut reason not to do so, the elder statesman in each academic department was automatically assigned the position of department head. Margaret taught typing. Dr. Jacobs mentally harrumphed: it had been called typing when I went to school, he thought. Today it was called keyboarding. All the kids wound up taking it. So there were three teachers in the department, and Margaret had been at Columbian High School longer than any of the others.
But Margaret loved to talk, to have the floor, and saw nothing amiss with going on and on and on about nothing at all. Dr. Jacobs knew he’d have to stop her soon. She got sore when he did that, however, and sulked; he usually gave her more slack than he knew he should, delaying the inevitable.
In the meantime, besides resisting the urge to fidget, Dr. Jacobs looked around the table, interested in how other staff members were reacting to Margaret’s filibuster.
First there was Karl McMichael. He was not Dr. Jacobs’s favorite staff member. The man was very fixed in his ideas and methods and had no desire to grow or change. He’d been teaching English for 35 years and believed that how it was taught and how students should be treated should be the same today as it had been when he’d begun. He’d rued the removal of corporal punishment from teachers’ hands. He was proud and arrogant—and roundly disliked. He also was a pain in the posterior for not only Dr. Jacobs but former principals as well, making regular complaints to the Teachers’ Union rep—who Dr. Jacobs’s was sure Mr. McMichael had on speed dial—over the most trivial of matters.
Right then, Mr. McMichael was fuming. Dr. Jacobs was certain the man felt that someone of his stature and account should not have to suffer the indignity of listening to blather from what he considered an inferior woman. That in itself seemed a fair reason to allow Margaret to drone on.
Next at the table was the P.E. department head, a man in his first year who was still learning the ropes, the school and the way Dr. Jacobs wanted the gym-class experience to be. The man looked like he might do well. So far, so good.
Next to him was Barbara Hastings, another newer teacher, although not brand new. This was her second year. She was way too pretty to last, which was a shame because she’d turned out to be an excellent teacher. She was the newly assigned head of the languages department, not a post she had earned through seniority but one that was open because of the intractability of the German teacher who should have held the post. He absolutely refused any assignment for which he wasn’t paid extra at his current teacher’s hourly rate. This was fine with Dr. Jacobs; he didn’t want the man in these meetings in any case, and it gave him the chance to get to know Barbara better. Barbara taught French.
Pretty young women tended to get married and move on, in Dr. Jacobs’s experience. Teaching was hard work, demanding work, frustrating work, and it didn’t pay what other professions that demanded personnel of such high character and ability paid. No, if things went as they often did, Barbara would soon find a mate and then a job that took less time and energy and dedication but still paid her better, and she’d enjoy her life, probably start a family. Buy a dog. Too bad; she had so much potential.
She was watching Margaret with a slightly bemused expression on her face. But she was listening and not fidgeting. Another high mark for her. Dr. Jacobs sighed and moved on.
Dramatic Arts, Music, Mathematics, Economics—all different people, of course. All were looking tired, and all of them had stopped listening to Margaret long before. John Brisco, a very fine economics teacher, was working a crossword puzzle surreptitiously, well out of view of Margaret, suspiciously not out of view of Dr. Jacobs. Mr. Brisco liked to challenge the status quo, but with small, safe acts of disobedience. Dr. Jacobs let him. He thought it made John feel better about himself.
Peter Darvin, History, was next. Ah, Peter. Dr. Jacobs had favorites, even if school principals weren’t supposed to have them any more than teachers were supposed to have favorite students. Well, teachers did have favorite students, and he had a favorite teacher; in his case it was Peter.
Peter Darvin was what a teacher should be. He was bright and engaging, and he knew how to teach. He really, truly knew how to teach. He reached his students, even the ones no one else could. He lit a fire under them, made them eager to come to class and learn. He was creative and energetic and always pushing forward with passion and ideas and his own special flair. He connected with his students as no other teacher in the school did. His classes were noisy, raucous, full of fun and activity, but most of all full of learning. Rarely does a principal have such a man under him. Dr. Jacobs was doing all he could possibly do to keep Peter on his faculty and teaching. Not moving on to some administrative position that paid better and did little for the kids in the district. Keeping teachers like Peter Darvin teaching was of utmost importance.
Peter’s way of dealing with Margaret was different from those of the rest of the department heads. He was sitting such that she could see him, and he was industriously taking notes. He’d look up at her quizzically, then jot down what she’d said, then look up at her again, fully enwrapped in what she was saying. No one, not even Dr. Jacobs, had been listening so fully, so alertly.
Margaret was aware of him doing this, of course, and had smiled, at first. But now, after she’d gone on a bit, she had seen him start frowning, and worse. He’d begun going back in his notes and crossing out things he’d already written. There, he just did it again! What was this? Was she contradicting something that she’d already said? Why else would he be doing that?
Suddenly she felt a bit unsure of herself, not something she usually felt. What had she just been saying, anyway? She wasn’t sure. She paused. Just what Dr. Jacobs had been hoping for: a pause.
“All right then. Let’s move on,” he said, and within minutes the meeting was adjourned. Dr. Jacobs walked back to his office, smiling, then chuckling at how cleverly the babble had been ended with no hurt feelings at all, and silently thanked Peter Darvin.
Sebastian Collier sat in Mr. McMichael’s third-period English class listening to the man drone on about pronouns and the difference between ones that were objective and those that were subjective. The example sentences given were boring, but then, so was the rest of the lecture. Then, suddenly Sebastian, having just heard about the predicate nominative, hid a grin and thought to himself, woe is I.
The class wasn’t paying much attention, something Mr. McMichael had to put up with daily. He thought this demeaning, even insulting. Today’s lesson should have been exciting for them. This was good stuff! But his class obviously didn’t think so.
He decided to liven up the program by getting the students involved. Forcing the kids into class participation usually worked. He changed tactics and read them sentences in which he left out the pronoun, then called on students to supply the correct one—he or him, who or whom, they or them—and say whether it was the objective or subjective case.
Most of the boys were looking out the windows by the time he began this part of the lesson. They had no interest at all in what pronouns were or how they were used in sentences, and Mr. McMichael’s pedantic pronouncements certainly didn’t inspire them to pay attention. They would alternate between watching the world pass outside the school and looking at the well-endowed girls in the class. This was the eighth grade, but most of the girls—13- and a few 14-year-olds—already had quite well-developed chests. Something about those chests attracted the eyes of the boys in the class. Not Sebastian’s, but those of most the boys.
Sebastian was daydreaming. He’d already figured out what he needed to learn from Mr. McMichael’s lesson. He’d never had a problem catching on to what any of his teachers were trying to get across to the class, and this lesson didn’t seem all that difficult to him. He was a young 14, had been reading for pleasure since he was nine, and had a pretty decent understanding of how the language worked. So, while the man was droning on and on, Sebastian let his mind drift. It drifted to what he thought about a lot these days.
He knew from the way the other boys talked that he should find girls’ bodies—and especially the way they were changing—as fascinating as all his male classmates did. Some of the girls had started wearing clothes that showed more skin than had been visible when they were younger, and they walked differently as well. Their bodies seemed to swish and sway more than they had before. The girls would move their hands across their bodies a lot, too, sort of unconsciously, but they’d touch this and pat that and straighten their blouse or tweak their hair and it all seemed to be so fascinating to the boys. It drew their attention to the girls and especially to the parts they were touching.
Sebastian didn’t understand why he didn’t find all this as exciting as the other boys did, but he knew the others did from the way they talked to each other and the way they stared. However, there was one thing he did understand very clearly—one thing he knew for sure. He shouldn’t say anything to anyone about his lack of interest in the girls. He knew that from certain snide remarks he’d heard made about some of the softer-seeming boys in school. He didn’t even tell Dylan, his best friend both in and out of school. He was still trying to figure it all out.
Mr. McMichael was getting mad that no one seemed interested or was paying attention. “Tommy,” he finally said in exasperation, his voice showing his anger. “Do this one. It’s very easy. Mary Ann handed the ruler to Britt, (who/whom) needed it for a math assignment (he/him) had to finish? And then tell me whether those are the objective or subjective cases?”
Tommy Showlander had been looking at Sara Brantley’s chest. Sara was wearing a blouse with a scooped, low-cut top hem, and it was a bit big for her, tending to blossom outwards. When she leaned forward it came away from her body far enough that Tommy could clearly see inside it. Way inside.
Sara seemed to lean forward a lot.
Tommy looked up, unhappy at being interrupted from considering what had to be one of the seven wonders of the world that Miss Francis had been talking to them about in World History. “Huh? Me? What was the question again?”
Mr. McMichael almost stamped his foot, but, just in time, realized what that would make him look like and so didn’t. But, he was fed up with boys not paying any attention to him. He’d liked English when he was in school. He couldn’t understand why these boys, the boys of today, didn’t. The girls were bad, too, in general, but not as bad as the boys.
It was his job to teach them, though, and there were standardized tests at the end of the year that would evaluate his students and him as well. (He/him), he thought, and almost chuckled. Then, realizing most of these kids wouldn't have one iota of an idea which of those would be correct, or why, the chuckle became a grimace.
“Norman,” he asked, “which is correct: John asked Margret if he was whom she wanted, or, John asked Margret if he was who she wanted? What is the right word, and why?”
Norman Pensker looked back at him with a dim-bulb, low-wattage, empty-eyed stare and said, “I dunno.”
He was the fourth boy Mr. McMichael had selected to answer one of his test problems, and after getting the same puerile response from all of them, he had had it. He slapped his paper down and said, “Quiz! All of you. Take out a piece of paper; put your name on the top!”
He overwhelmed the expected groan with, “NOW! On your paper number down one through eight. I’ll read a sentence; you write what case the pronoun is. Just the case. If the sentence has two pronouns, write the case for each in the order they appear in the sentence. Put a comma between them. Here we go.”
And he started in.
Sebastian had been paying attention at first. Not because he liked Mr. McMichael. No one liked Mr. McMichael. The man had no sense of humor, was unable to laugh at himself, ever, and was way too stiff and formal in front of the class. His voice droned instead of inspired, and there was never any enthusiasm in it. The kids liked teachers who were human. Mr. McMichael could easily have been a robot—a bad-tempered robot. But Sebastian had listened until he had seen what was what. The reason he’d listened was this was something new, and Mr. McMichael, in his usual manner, was making it about as clear as if he’d been teaching them string theory. But Sebastian liked learning, liked figuring things out, and especially liked puzzles—all sorts of puzzles. Now, he saw that selecting the right word to work in a sentence was just that: a kind of puzzle. So Sebastian had been paying attention and thinking about what Mr. McMichael was saying.
He answered all the questions, and even smiled when they were halfway through. This was kind of fun.
At lunch, Sebastian was sitting with Dylan as usual, and Dylan asked, “How’d you do on that stupid quiz?”
“Piece of cake,” Sebastian answered, chewing on one of the carrot sticks his mother had packed for him, warily eyeing his sandwich which he’d yet to take out of its wrapper. He hoped it wasn’t tuna fish. He kept telling him mother, no tuna fish, but she never could remember anything important.
“Really?” Dylan looked at him for a second, wondering if Sebastian was telling the truth. “I wasn’t sure of some of them. A couple were tricky.”
“I’ve got a system,” Sebastian said. He grinned at Dylan. They were very good friends but, like many boys, very competitive. They both got A’s in most everything, which was one of several reasons why they liked each other so much, and maybe, Sebastian thought, just maybe, he might get a better grade in English this time than Dylan would.
“What is it?” Dylan asked.
“Not so fast. You’ll have to earn it,” Sebastian replied. He began opening the plastic bag holding his sandwich, then looked back up at Dylan and grinned again.
“We’ll see about that!” Dylan retorted, matching Sebastian’s grin with his own. Dylan was a couple of months older than Sebastian and had always been a bit larger. They liked wrestling, and Dylan almost always ended up on top. Except when Sebastian was able to tickle him.
The next day, Mr. McMichael handed back the quiz. “The average score on this was five correct out of eight. That’s about 63%, and is an F. Most of you, more than half of you, failed. Some of you didn’t even get half of them right, and they were easy! Mr. Pensker, Mr. ‘I-dunno’ Pensker, got them all wrong. All of them! If you people don’t pay attention, like most of you weren’t doing yesterday, you’ll fail this class. You have to pass English to graduate and move on to high school. This is the easiest English class you’ll have from now on. They keep getting harder, and each class builds off what we do here. I’m teaching you the building blocks of your own language. I’m very disappointed in you. So, from now on, we’re going to have a lot more daily quizzes, and they’ll count on your final grade. You’d better start paying attention. If you don’t, you’ll not only fail this class, you’ll fail it spectacularly.”
He stared at them, a serious frown on his face. For once, every eye in the room was looking back at him. He let the silence build for a few seconds, then started passing back the papers. He didn’t do what some teachers did; he didn’t place them face down on the desks, affording the kids some privacy, shielding them from potential embarrassment. He set them down face up so kids could see other kids’ scores. Let them be embarrassed, he thought. Serves them right for not listening to me.
Sebastian was leaving with the rest of the class at the end of the period when Mr. McMichael called for him to wait a moment. When the rest of the class was out of the room, he spoke to Sebastian.
“You got all the answers on the quiz right. No one else did. I wanted to congratulate you and ask you how you did that.”
“It was fun,” Sebastian said, smiling. “I figured out a trick, and it worked.”
“Oh?” said Mr. McMichael. He frowned slightly. He didn’t think learning English was based on tricks but on solid erudition.
Sebastian didn’t notice. “Yeah, it was a little confusing at first, but then I realized that ‘I’ and ‘he’ and ‘who’ are always subjective, and ‘me’ and ‘him’ and ‘whom’ are always objective, and if you just compare those words in whatever the sentence is, it’s easy to see what sounds right and what doesn’t. It’s like a puzzle, with an easy answer. Maybe the kids would understand it better if you’d explain it that way.”
Sebastian looked up brightly, thinking he might be helping his teacher out, giving him a way to make his lesson clearer for his classes. He didn’t understand the sour look on Mr. Michaels’s face. But he rarely understood the man, and what came next nearly floored Sebastian.
“You know, Sebastian, maybe you should tell the class tomorrow about your trick. Maybe then they’d understand the lesson I didn’t explain correctly.” Mr. McMichael’s voice had a hard, sarcastic edge to it, but Sebastian didn’t even notice. Instead, he was picturing the utter disaster which would ensue if he were to do what Mr. McMichael was suggesting.
“Uh, sir, well, no, I can’t do that,” Sebastian managed to stutter, at the same time working his way backwards away from the man. “I’d never live it down. A lot of them already think I’m a nerd because I get good grades. If I tried to tell them how to do something like this…” he shuddered, imagining it “…no one would say anything in here, but outside…” He let his voice fade away, but the backward steps he was taking, distancing himself from Mr. McMichael and his horrible idea, were getting bigger.
Mr. McMichael opened his mouth to reply, but Sebastian beat him to the punch. “Uh, got to go. I’ll be late,” and he was out the door.
After school that day, Sebastian waited for Dylan outside the school’s side door as usual. Dylan’s locker was on the other side of the building and Sebastian always waited outside for him to show up.
While waiting, Sebastian heard a ruckus coming from behind the school and walked to the corner of the building to see what was happening. He stopped there, not wanting to go farther when he saw a loose group of kids surrounding two boys. He could just make out the boys in the middle—one large, one smaller. The large one seemed to be talking, the smaller one trying to back away. When he turned to run, the bigger boy reached out, grabbed the smaller boy, spun him around, and hit him in the stomach. The smaller boy collapsed. The crowd got silent. The bigger boy said a few more things to the boy on the ground, then stood up straight and looked at the crowd, a scowl on his face. Rather than walking away where there was a gap in the circle of kids, he instead walked right toward the most congested area. The kids parted for him, and he stalked through them and away.
One person, another small boy, stayed, and while the crowd was dispersing, rushed to the boy on the ground and crouched down next to him.
“What’s going on?”
Sebastian jumped. He turned to see Dylan standing behind him looking over his shoulder at the two boys about twenty yards in front of the two of them.
“Don’t scare me like that!” said Sebastian. His heart was still racing.
“Sorry.” Dylan grinned at him. “I didn’t know you hadn’t heard me come up. But what was going on over there?”
“Grady Morris just hit Bobby Jenks. Everybody just stood and watched and then walked away.”
Dylan took a closer look at Sebastian. His voice was almost breathless, as though he’d been running, but he obviously hadn’t been. His face looked pale, too. And he seemed to be trembling.
“What’s the matter?” Dylan took hold of Sebastian’s arm.
Sebastian looked up at him, then shook his head. “I’m OK,” he said.
Dylan didn’t think so. “Come on. Let’s go back inside, get a drink of water. Then we’ll walk home. When you feel like it, you can tell me what this is all about.”
They left the school grounds and began the trip home. They walked through a mostly residential area with modest homes, for the most part well-kept. It was fall, early in the school year, and they were both wearing jackets. The leaves on the abundant maple trees lining the street had already turned color and were starting to bespeckle the lawns. There were other kids walking home, too, a ways in front and behind them, but the two of them were by themselves on the sidewalk.
When they were halfway home, having walked that far in silence, Sebastian finally spoke.
“Can I tell you something, a secret?”
“Sure. You know that.”
“But this is something…” Sebastian stopped then, and Dylan stopped, too. Sebastian looked up into the taller boy’s eyes. “This is hard. But I want to tell someone, and you’re the only one I can.” He paused, looking very unsure of himself, making Dylan feel for him. Then Sebastian just blurted out, trying to get it said before he faltered: “You wouldn’t stop being my friend, would you, just because I told you something bad about me?”
The farther they’d walked, the more obvious it had become that the area they were passing through was changing. They were still in a residential area, but here the houses were larger, the lawns greener, lusher and better cared for. A little farther down the street was a small park with playground equipment for younger kids. It was almost always deserted.
Dylan could hear the stress in Sebastian’s voice and said, “Let’s go to the park up ahead. We can sit down there and talk.” His eyes and voice were both intentionally comforting. Sebastian didn’t give any sign that he noticed.
There were a few benches where parents would sit to watch their kids playing on the usual playground equipment. Today, as was usual at this time of day, the place was empty. Dylan sat down on a bench. Sebastian joined him, and Dylan half-turned so he was looking at Sebastian.
Sebastian was quiet for a few moments. He didn’t look at Dylan, just kept his eyes staring out over the park. Dylan knew it would be best to wait; whatever was troubling Sebastian, Dylan would let him say it at his own pace.
Eventually, Sebastian looked back at Dylan. “This is difficult. Boys aren’t supposed to say this to anyone, especially not to other boys.”
Dylan kept his face empty but did reach out and laid a hand briefly on Sebastian’s shoulder before pulling it away.
“But I need to talk about this. I’d better just say it.” He took a deep breath, then said, “I think I’m a coward.”
Dylan sat up straighter. This was not what he’d been expecting to hear. “A coward? Why do you think that?”
Sebastian seemed to shrink in on himself, to actually become smaller. His voice dropped lower when he answered. “You saw how I was, watching Grady hit Bobby. I was scared. Even though I wasn’t part of it, I was scared. I always get that way when I see a fight.”
Dylan started to say something, but then stopped. He had been going to say something to calm Sebastian down but thought better of it. He could see that Sebastian was having trouble getting through this and thought it best not to interrupt.
“I’ve been like this for a long time. Fighting really bothers me. I get real scared—even start to have a hard time breathing. Then I always wonder about what if I got confronted like that. What if someone like Grady challenged me?”
He stopped, and Dylan could see Sebastian had started to tremble again.
They sat silently for a minute or so, then Dylan asked, “Have you ever been in a fight?”
“Yeah. I was. When I was eight—just before you moved in. A kid I was sort of friends with. We were playing tag with a bunch of other kids. He got mad when I tagged him. I didn’t tag him any different from what everyone was doing. You’re running away from the guy who’s It, he’s chasing you, and he tags you when he can. Lots of times, the tag causes the kid to fall down because he’s running and dodging and off-balance. That’s what happened—he fell down.
“A couple of the other kids laughed because when he fell down, he looked a little awkward. They laughed, and he got mad. He jumped up and yelled at me, ‘You did that on purpose.’ Then he shoved me.”
Dylan reached out but then pulled his hand back. Let him get through this, he thought.
Sebastian’s voice got even smaller, ever further away. “I didn’t fall down when he pushed me, just took a couple steps backward to keep my balance. But I was looking at him and saw something in his eyes. He was mad, but I saw something else, something that looked, well, eager. And then he started coming toward me with his fists clenched.”
Sebastian took a deep breath, then sank his head. “I ran away. I was scared, I’d never been in that situation, I’d never been in a fight, and, well, I did. I ran away.”
He stopped then, refusing to look up. Dylan waited and then, when the silence had grown uncomfortable, reached over and put his hand on Sebastian’s shoulder.
“Sebastian,” he said.
Sebastian kept looking down and remained silent.
“Sebastian,” Dylan said, a little louder, a little firmer.
Sebastian looked up.
“Sebastian, lots of boys would have done that. You were eight! You didn’t know anything about fighting, and then all of a sudden some boy who’s your friend gets angry and he’s going to fight you, probably hurt you, and there are a lot of other boys watching; you are completely unprepared for any of this, and you just do what’s natural. He’s angry, and he’s sort of showing off to the other boys, and so you run away. There’s nothing strange or unusual about that at all!”
Sebastian looked up. “You don’t think I was a coward?”
“No! You were just caught off-balance, everything happened all of a sudden, and you did what came natural to you. You shouldn’t beat yourself up over it!”
“But, ever since, when I see there’s going to be a fight or someone doing what Grady did, I get real nervous. Scared. Even if I’m not in any danger. Just the thought of a fight terrifies me! Doesn’t that mean I’m a coward?”
Dylan didn’t answer right away. He was thinking. Finally, he stood up and walked over to the swings. He sat down on one, but it was too low to the ground. So he stood up again and walked over to the teeter-totters. “Come over here. Let’s see if we can do this,” he called out to Sebastian.
Sebastian got a slight grin on his face, which was what Dylan had been hoping for. Sebastian came over, and Dylan held the teeter totter level. Sebastian got on, Dylan got on too, closer to the middle than Sebastian because he was a little heavier, and they found the balance point. Then Dylan pushed off with his legs and rose as Sebastian dropped all the way to the ground. Sebastian then pushed off with his feet, and they began alternating, up and down. Sebastian’s grin got a little wider.
While they were moving up and down, Dylan said, “I don’t think running away from a fight when you’re eight means you’re a coward. And I don’t think getting upset when you see a fight about to happen means that, either. A fight is scary. Someone will probably get hurt. Everything is a little out of control. But it sounds to me like you aren’t scared as much as you’re having a panic attack. Or an anxiety attack, which is pretty much the same thing, I’d guess. I have an aunt who has those. She has to take medication. It’s not something you can control, so it doesn’t mean you’re a coward. Anyway, I don’t think you’re a coward. But even if you were, you’d still be my friend.”
They stopped then and got off the teeter-totter, and Sebastian walked over to Dylan and gave him a very brief hug. Much as he’d have liked to make it last longer, he knew hugging other boys wasn’t something he should do. So, he let go right away and then said, “Thanks, Dylan.”
They started walking home again. They hadn’t gone far when Dylan broke the silence. “You know what’s the worst thing about being a coward?”
“That everyone thinks you’re a chicken? Or a sissy?”
“No. Well, maybe, some people. But even the ones that do think that, they’re not the problem. No, the worst thing is yourself.”
“Look at you. For the last five years, because of what you did on the spur of the moment when you were eight years old and scared, you’ve thought that you were a sissy, a scaredy-cat. That you weren’t brave, that there was something wrong with you. That you were a coward. No boy wants to think that.”
Sebastian stopped walking and stared at Dylan. Then he asked, “How’d you know that? That’s exactly right. I’ve felt bad about myself ever since then. I try not to remember what I did, but every time I see two guys ready to fight, or actually fighting, I do remember.”
Dylan nodded. “Let me tell you something. You’re going to think I’m making this up, but I’m not. It’s real. When I was eight, just like you, I had a kid challenge me, too. And I backed away from him. I don’t think he wanted to fight any more than I did because he let me go. But he called me names. Fraidy-cat. Pussy. Wimp. And I hated that. I hated myself, too.
“Then, the next day, I guess he’d told his friends because he met me in the schoolyard, and they were all there, egging him on. This time, though, I’d had a whole day and night to think about it. And I’d made a decision. If I was challenged again, I wasn’t going to back down, unless the guy was a lot older or bigger than I was. And this kid wasn’t. He was my size. So, instead of backing away, I just stood there and put my fists up and said, ‘Let’s go.’
“Well, I could see on his face—this wasn’t what he was expecting. He thought I’d run away again, and he’d look good to his friends. But I wasn’t running, and his friends were watching, so he probably decided he didn’t have any choice. So we fought.
“Eight-year-olds aren’t much good at fighting. He took a swing at me, a clumsy one, and I backed away from it and then rushed him and we held onto each other and eventually fell on the ground. We were trying to hit each other but mostly hitting just backs, rolling around, and not doing much damage. Then he got lucky and managed to hit my cheek. It hurt, but by then some bigger boys had shown up and were pulling us apart. The guy I was fighting looked just as happy as I did that we’d been stopped. Even though I could feel it where I was hit, it didn’t hurt so much that I was crying or anything. When the bigger kid holding me let me go I just turned around and walked away. And you know what?”
Dylan smiled. “As soon as my back was turned, even with my face sore, I got the biggest grin on my face. I realized, even right then, that my face wouldn’t hurt for very long, but feeling bad about myself for running away would have lasted a long, long time. I didn’t know if it would last five years, but I guess it would have. Maybe even longer.”
Sebastian was quiet. They’d almost reached where Dylan lived by then, four houses from his own house. When they reached Dylan’s driveway, Dylan asked him if he was coming in, as usual. Sebastian nodded.
They went up to Dylan’s room. Sebastian sat on the bed and watched Dylan change out of his school clothes. He was always torn, watching Dylan do this. He’d seen it probably hundreds of times, and it always excited him, but he knew he had to keep that a secret. Sometimes it was more difficult than other times as his body reacted to what he was seeing. Today was one of those times. He kept his hands in his lap and kept pressing down.
Dylan finished, then came and sat on the bed next to Sebastian. Sebastian so wished he had the nerve to tell Dylan what he felt. But then he’d have to admit how he felt about all the boys he was attracted to and all the girls he wasn’t. And he couldn’t. That he liked boys, and especially Dylan, was the one secret he kept from Dylan, and there was no way he could risk telling him. He just couldn’t.
That was when he realized that this was part of the same thing Dylan had been talking about earlier—having the nerve to do what scared you—and that there were consequences both ways, whether he did or he didn’t do it.
But, if he did tell Dylan, this could be much worse than his face being bruised for a day or two. He might lose his best friend. The pain from that wouldn’t last only a short time. He wasn’t sure how long it would last, but he knew it wouldn’t go away quickly. And then what would he do if Dylan told people at school?
No, he couldn’t tell him. Even if that made him all those names they’d mentioned earlier.
So, he asked something else. “Dylan, are you saying if someone challenges me to a fight, I shouldn’t back down?”
Before Dylan could answer, his cell phone rang. He looked apologetically at Sebastian.
Sebastian grinned. “That’s your mom, right on time, checking that you made it home OK.”
Dylan answered, told his mom he was fine and with Sebastian, then hung up and turned to his friend, having had a few seconds to think what he wanted to say. “What I’m telling you is what I learned from what happened to me. I learned that getting hit wasn’t that bad, and the pain didn’t last very long. You said that you’ve been thinking about what happened since you were eight. It sounds like what that made you feel was much worse than if you hadn’t run and that boy had hit you.”
“You’re saying that even if I’m scared to death, I should still fight?”
“Not necessarily fight, but not run away. If you do stand there and face whoever it is, you might not be so scared the next time because you’ll have done it once already. And look, right now you’re telling me you have all these bad feelings about yourself. I think facing up to the problem instead of running away from it, even if you’re scared, would be better than that. But you have to do what feels right to you.”
“You did it. Weren’t you scared?”
“Well, yeah. But it happened pretty quick, and it was over pretty quick, too. I was scared, but I was still able to fight, if that’s what you’d call it. You probably would be able to fight, too, no matter how scared you were. He’d come at you, you’d defend yourself, you’d probably get mad, you’d fight back. Or maybe you wouldn’t. It doesn’t really matter if you do or don’t. It matters that you don’t run away from it. Fight or don’t fight—either way it’ll be over quickly, and no matter what, you probably won’t think you’re a coward any more if you don’t run. I think that’s what’s important.”
Sebastian sighed. It all sounded so easy. But it wasn’t. He knew it wouldn't be. He’d be scared. Really scared. He didn’t know if he could do it or not.
At school the next day, after the class was seated and quiet, Mr. McMichael said, “Class, Sebastian has something to tell you. He got one hundred on the quiz and is an expert with pronouns, better than anyone else in the class. Please pay attention to him. Sebastian, come up in front here and tell the class about using subjective or objective pronouns in a sentence.”
Sebastian felt his blood race to his face. Why was Mr. McMichael doing this? He’d told him he couldn’t. No way could he do this.
“Sebastian? Come up here. Now.”
Mr. McMichael’s face was starting to show his impatience. He became impatient quite easily. He was a man who angered easily, too, and what caused that to happen quickest was when a student was defiant. He watched Sebastian dithering and delaying, interpreted it as defiance, and as the seconds ticked off, grew closer and closer to exploding.
Sebastian never had been in trouble with his teachers. He was totally unprepared for Mr. McMichael being mad at him. Mr. McMichael was definitely mad, and Sebastian could clearly see it. He had no choice. He stood up and walked to the front of the room.
“All right, Sebastian, turn and face the room and tell them all about pronouns. You thought you could do it better than I. Show me. Go ahead.”
Sebastian turned to face his classmates. He saw them all looking at him and wished he could disappear.
“We’re waiting, Sebastian!” Mr. McMichael started tapping his foot.
Without any choice at all, Sebastian began talking, telling the class what he’d figured out, and how well it had worked in the quiz they’d taken. When he finished, there was silence. A few of the kids looked like they’d understood and appreciated what he’d said. The majority looked bored. A few of the boys in the back looked disgusted.
“You may sit down now,” said Mr. Michaels. He’d been watching the class, too, and managed to suppress a grin.
Sebastian went outside for lunch with all the other kids. No one ate in the cafeteria unless the weather was bad. The school had outdoor tables and benches scattered around and for most of the school year the kids ate outside.
The eating area was in a sunken, paved area about two feet below the school lawns surrounding it. A low stone wall edged the lawns and contained the eating area.
Dylan had a meeting with the choir director, so Sebastian looked for a place he could eat by himself. He decided to sit on the low wall under a shade tree. He set his tray down there, sat down and picked up his milk carton. Then he was bumped on his shoulder, hard.
He almost dropped his milk but was able to fumble it back onto his tray. He looked up to find Norman Pensker standing over him, glaring down.
“So the class-pet dweeb asshole is going to show us how to do English? You’re a little fairy, you know that? You sucking McMichael’s cock, huh?” And without warning, he socked Sebastian in his shoulder.
It hurt! And it was a shock, coming out of nowhere as it did. If Sebastian had been scared in class, having to give a speech he knew would mark him forever as a nerdy brainiac, that was nothing compared to how scared he was now. This wasn’t promising to be the fight he’d always been afraid of; this was going to be slaughter.
He stood up. He knew he had to do that. The first thing he thought of was trying to run. But there wasn’t much room to do that with his legs back near the low wall and Norman directly in front of him. In any case, what Dylan had said to him had been playing in his head. He had felt badly about himself ever since he’d run away from his first fight. He did wonder if getting hit a couple of times would hurt less in the long run than the acid that had been dripping on his self-esteem for five years.
Instead of running, screwing up what resolve he had but still scared to the point of shaking, he simply stood in front of Norman, looking at him, and slowly raised his hands in fists.
Norman sneered at that. “Hey, fag,” he said, and slapped at Sebastian’s fists, knocking them aside. “I asked you a question, fag. I’m calling you a fag. What are you going to do about it? Huh? You think you’re smarter than the rest of us, do you? Let’s see how smart you are, fag.”
Norman then reached out and shoved Sebastian hard, pushing him so he stepped back and almost tripped over the low wall.
While Sebastian tried to catch and right himself, Norman took the opportunity to take a swing at him. Sebastian just barely saw it coming and pulled his head back. The fist just grazed his cheek.
“I’ll show you what we think of teachers’ pet faggots around here,” Norman said, and then swung at Sebastian again. This time he hit Sebastian squarely in the side of his face, high on his cheekbone near his left eye.
Sebastian fell back, tripping over the wall and landing sprawled on the lawn on the other side. Norman stepped forward, looked down at him, then picked up Sebastian’s lunch tray and dumped its contents on him.
Sebastian’s face hurt, and he felt a sense of humiliation, but he managed to get up off the lawn. Surprisingly, very few kids seemed to have noticed what had happened; very few were looking at him. Perhaps it had all happened so fast and without a lot of commotion that no one had noticed. At least, that was something he didn’t have to feel badly about.
He put his hand to his face. There wasn’t any blood, just pain and a slight mushy feeling that he figured was the beginning of swelling. He thought he should put some cold water on it; they always put cold water or ice on it when people were hit in the movies. He looked down at his lunch, lying in the grass, and decided to leave it there.
He was still holding the side of his face when he pushed through the door into the school hallway. He walked toward the boys’ restroom. Just before getting there he passed Mr. McMichael’s classroom. He glanced inside and saw the man sitting at his desk. Mr. McMichael saw Sebastian, too.
“Sebastian!” he called out.
Reluctantly, Sebastian stopped, then, seeing Mr. McMichael looking at him expectantly, stepped inside the classroom.
“What’s wrong with your face,” Mr. McMichael asked, making a point to sound solicitous, but allowing an edge of sarcasm to be heard.
“I got hit,” answered Sebastian. He felt conflicting emotions facing Mr. McMichael. He always had respected his teachers. They’d always seemed to like him, too. He was friendly and always received great grades, usually A’s, the kind of kid he knew they liked to have in their classes. Now he was facing a teacher who had caused him to get hit by making that awful speech, and the man didn’t sound very disturbed that Sebastian was hurt.
“Well,” said Mr. McMichael, and now his voice became very brittle, “perhaps that’s taught you something valuable. Perhaps you’ve learned not to stick your nose where it doesn’t belong and not to tell your teachers how to best instruct their classes. I think that’s a lesson you needed to learn.” He gave a Sebastian a knowing smile. Then his attitude changed back to hard again. “Now go; I’m busy.” And he turned in his chair so his back was to Sebastian.
Sebastian felt stunned. Could he believe this? Had Mr. McMichael implied that he was pleased this had happened? Or even worse, was he aware of the part he’d played in the ‘lesson’ Sebastian had been taught, and not troubled by it?
His head was spinning, trying to understand and not doing so; Sebastian, feeling very upset, left the classroom, heading toward the boys’ room almost unconsciously. However, before reaching it, he was stopped in the hallway by another teacher he knew, Mr. Darvin.
Sebastian had been in Mr. Darvin’s history classes for the previous two years and had been disappointed he’d been assigned to another history teacher’s class this year. He’d always liked Mr. Darvin.
Mr. Darvin took one look at Sebastian and gasped. “Sebastian! What happened to you? My lord, man, were you in a fight? Are you hurt? Come on; I’ll take you to the teachers’ lounge and get you some ice. Maybe we can keep the swelling down. We can’t let one of our very best students and one of the very nicest kids in the school walk around looking like a hooligan!” And he smiled his warmest, most caring smile and put a gentle hand on Sebastian’s shoulder.
It was too much. It was just too much. Sebastian liked Mr. Darvin more than any other teacher, and the man was being especially nice to him now, just when Sebastian was at his lowest ebb. His face was hurting, and Mr. McMichael had implied that maybe he was happy Sebastian had been hurt in a fight, and that the man might have had some responsibility for. It was just too much to deal with. Pain, meanness, and then kindness, seemingly all at once. It was the kindness that caused him to lose his composure. Sebastian broke out in tears.
Mr. Darvin was a tall man, towering over Sebastian. When he saw the tears, he sank to his knees and wrapped his arms around the boy. He wasn’t supposed to touch his students, but there were rules and there was dumb, and when they became one and the same, he went by instinct. Sebastian needed comforting, and Mr. Darvin was going to provide that.
The stark contrast between Mr. McMichael’s meanness and Mr. Darvin’s kindness had been too much for Sebastian. Now, he was feeling embarrassed, yet he didn’t pull away from Mr. Darvin’s arm. He cried for a while longer, feeling stupid but not able to stop.
When the tears slowed and the trembling ceased, Mr. Darvin stood back up and in a soft, concerned voice, said, “Let’s go to the lounge. The quicker we get some ice on that, the better. Then we can talk. And when we’ve done that, afterwards, well, you read a lot. Who said, ‘Off with their heads!’?”
It worked. Sebastian was distracted. “I know,” he said. “The queen in Alice in Wonderland.”
“Which queen?” asked Mr. Darvin, looking puzzled.
“The Queen of Hearts!” said Sebastian excitedly.
“You know, I think you’re right! Well done, Sebastian! Well, after I’ve heard your story, I think we might just have to be dodging those offed heads that will be rolling down the corridors here. What do you think?” Mr. Darwin laughed, and Sebastian couldn’t help doing the same, and discovered that it cheered him up quite amazingly.
In the lounge, Mr. Darvin put some ice in a plastic ziplock bag, and Sebastian held it to his face with a paper towel between the bag and his skin. His face started feeling better quickly. Mr. Darvin was very good with students, and before he knew it, Sebastian was telling him everything that had happened: the English lesson, all his discussions with Mr. McMichael, and what had happened outside at lunch.
Mr. Darvin listened without saying much, then told Sebastian it would probably be best if he skipped the remaining classes that day because he needed to keep ice on his face, and doing that in class would simply draw attention to him.
It was arranged that he would go home with a note for his mother and that Mr. Darvin would contact his teachers, excuse his absence, then find out what homework assignments he would have and call him with them. This was fine with Sebastian; he hated the idea of going to class with a swollen face and an eye that was probably turning black.
“Oh, one thing,” said Mr. Darvin, standing with Sebastian at his locker as Sebastian collected his things. “Don’t worry about either Norman or Mr. McMichael. These things have a way of working themselves out. If you begin worrying, just say to yourself, ‘Off with their heads!’ That ought to cheer you up.”
Sebastian smiled. It was hard not to smile when he was with Mr. Darvin. Sebastian was turning to walk away after closing his locker when suddenly he swung around and gave the man a quick hug.
“Thank you, Mr. Darvin. You’ve made me feel a whole lot better. And, could you get a message to Dylan Spencer saying I went home? He’ll be looking for me.”
Mr. Darvin was sitting with Dr. Jacobs in the principal’s office. He was pissed and making no effort to hide it.
“Mason, this is crap. We have to do something!”
Dr. Jacobs had come from behind his desk and was sitting in an easy chair at right angles to Mr. Darvin’s. The office was small and cluttered, somewhat like the man himself. It did have a small couch and two upholstered chairs, however, for the principal to use when meeting with parents.
“I agree, Peter, you know I do, but what can be done? I can’t fire him—can’t even discipline him—unless there’s some proof. Karl McMichael uses the teachers’ union like a shield. We’ve had battles before.”
“I know,” Mr. Darvin agreed, “I know. But, damn! Setting a student up to get beaten? And why? Because the student had learned something and was excited about it and wanted to share his excitement with his teacher? Damn, Mason, he’s a monster. He has no business working with kids.”
Dr. Jacobs nodded. “You know I agree with you, Peter. But he’s smart and has managed to hang on by using the union to hide behind in the past.”
Peter Darvin scoffed. “Smart is one word for him. I’d use others, like shrewd and devious. Underhanded, too. Reprehensible. Look at what he just did. He used his knowledge of how kids behave against Sebastian to punish him because the man managed to get his monumental ego bruised. We have to get rid of him!”
“Yep. You’re right. But I’m not going to try and fail. Get me some proof, Peter. Get me some proof, and he’s gone.”
Peter Darvin stood up, then forced a grin. “Are you saying heads will roll?”
Dr. Jacobs didn’t even break a smile, showing how seriously he took this. “I’m saying one will roll. And I’ll be delighted to be the one doing the detaching.”
Mr. Darvin thought about how badly Sebastian had been served and about a long list of problems the school had faced with Karl McMichael. Monumental ego, indeed. The guy was a menace to education and the students he was supposed to be teaching.
That thought simmered, and eventually an idea occurred to him. Maybe, well, maybe… It would have to be done delicately. Hmmm…
The cafeteria was a zoo at lunchtime. It wasn’t often like this, but today it was raining, and because there’d been a school assembly, the staggered lunch periods had been compressed into only one. Today, there weren’t enough tables to seat everyone, so kids had to stand and then vie for seats as they emptied. Some kids just sat on the floor. The noise level made talking difficult, so shouting became the usual mode of conversation, which naturally increased the noise level to near the point of pain. The kids didn’t seem to mind. The serving ladies behind the counter wore earplugs.
In contrast, the teachers’ lounge where the faculty ate, usually bringing their own lunches and when appropriate using the microwave to heat things, was a bastion of calm. The teachers had been able to maintain their lunchtime staggers, and there was room enough for everyone. But it was just enough room, and teachers had to sit together at the available tables. Every seat was taken.
Where people sat depended on their order of arrival in the room and which seats were available; the end result was that teachers ended up on different days eating next to and across from a mix of other teachers, and in that way the group became more integrated than it would have been otherwise.
It so happened that within a few days of Mr. Darvin’s meeting with Sebastian, Mr. Darvin found himself sitting at lunch across the table from Mr. McMichael. Mr. McMichael normally didn’t talk to anyone at lunch. He wasn’t a popular teacher with his colleagues any more than he was with his students and the rest of the faculty tended to talk around him without being too obvious about it. Mr. McMichael was aware of not being included but thought the coolness he felt was probably due to the others feeling a certain discomfort in his presence, somewhat like he’d expect a college janitor to feel in the presence of Albert Einstein: they both worked in the same venue, but there were essential differences in the levels of their performance. He didn’t think it was anything more than that. Respect, jealousy, maybe some slight intimidation—these were things he could take pride in, if nothing else. So he ate in the teachers’ lounge instead of isolating himself in his classroom. It was a matter of what he felt was his duty. The younger teachers could learn something from his behavior.
Peter Darvin was speaking to the teacher sitting next to Mr. McMichael, complaining. “He just doesn’t want to learn, Barb. And he doesn’t seem to like it that other kids pay attention and raise their hands, and are involved in what we’re doing. I’ve tried all sorts of ways to get him interested, and it hasn’t worked. I’ve never had a kid like this before!”
Barbara Hastings, a close friend of Peter Darvin, had been recruited. She said, “I’ve got one of those. They’re always a headache. Thank God, we’ve got so many others who do care about what we’re teaching them or at the very least aren’t disruptive.”
“Hmph,” grouched Peter. “I just wish there was a way to get through to him. Even if he doesn’t want to get with the program, it’s the fact he’s disturbing the class and attacking my authority that hurts. I’ve sent him to the office, but that makes me feel like a failure. I should be able to reach him myself and not rely on others to do that. There has to be a way to get him to behave. I just haven’t thought of it yet.”
Barbara shook her head. “Some kids are simply incorrigible. You just have to live with them for the year, then pass them on to someone else. Just like someone passed this kid on to you. There’s nothing you can do. None of us can with a kid like that.”
Mr. McMichael smiled, thinking how little these younger teachers knew, thinking of all the ways he’d got kids to toe the line, and how no one knew anything about it. Age did have its advantages. Experience and know-how to put what you’d learned to use—he was very satisfied with himself for having both.
“Mr. McMichael! You’re smiling.” Peter Darvin was looking at him with curiosity, and a little bit of something that looked like respect. He rarely spoke to Mr. McMichael, but now Mr. Darvin seemed to not to be able keep himself from doing so.
“You’re the one I should be talking to, Karl! I’ll bet you have an idea or two how to get a recalcitrant student back into the fold. If it’s possible to do that, I’ll bet you’d be the one to know.” Peter Darvin spoke very sincerely, keeping any trace of guile out of his voice.
Mr. McMichael sat up a little straighter. He never liked these people using his first name but never called any of them on it. He realized they’d think it was churlish of him. They didn’t seem to appreciate the simple dignity and respect he knew he’d earned and was due him.
“Well, I do have methods that have worked in the past.”
“Oh, that’s super.” Peter smiled at him. Then he glanced around him before leaning forward and speaking in a much lower voice. “I should have thought of you right off—should have come to you. You’re the pro around here. Maybe we could talk after lunch? When’s your free period? See, I can tell you some of the things I’ve tried, and, well, some of them aren’t things Dr. Jacobs would approve of, I’m sure. We should find some privacy.”
Mr. McMichael nodded. Actually, in the week since he’d found a way to show Sebastian the error of his ways, he’d become more and more eager to share his achievement. Being able to pull off something like that was reward in itself, but then to have someone else, a young admirer perhaps, be aware of his success, well, who could resist something like that? And this was a colleague who was having problems similar to what he’d just solved. The guy hadn’t been able to figure out how to correct the situation, but he himself knew. Yes, the urge was strong. Maybe he could pass on some of his wisdom.
They met in Mr. Darvin’s classroom after school was out the next day, the earliest their schedules had permitted. Peter was putting away an overhead projector in his closet. “Come on in, Karl. Just tidying up. I can finish up with this later.”
Instead of sitting behind his desk, he pulled his chair out and placed it next to his visitor’s chair and they both sat down.
“I’ll sit here so we can talk softer,” Peter said. “See, this kid I’ve got, he not only doesn’t get with the program but when I call on him, he has started being sarcastic with me. It makes me look bad in front of the class. He’s taking away some of my pizzazz, you know? But when I call him on it, he just acts really innocent and then gives me this smug smile. Sometimes I get so angry I’d like to hit him, but that would cost me my job.”
Mr. McMichael nodded knowingly, but Peter kept speaking.
“Last week I probably went too far, but I was so mad. He’d mouthed off to me in class, and I’d had it. I had the kid stay after class, and when everyone was gone, I grabbed his arm and squeezed it and told him any more of that sort of nonsense and he’d be in deep trouble. He’d not only fail my class, but after I spoke to some friends here, he might well fail other classes, too.
“You know what he did? He looked me in the eyes and said, ‘You’d better hope I don’t have any bruises. If I do, I’ll go to the police. My dad’ll swear out a complaint. Then you’ll be the one in trouble’. I couldn’t believe it. I’ve been worried since then, but nothing’s happened, so I must not have squeezed him hard enough to cause bruising.
“I know I shouldn’t have done that, but I’ve got so I dread that class! I don’t know what to do. If even physical intimidation doesn’t work on a kid, then nothing will.”
Mr. McMichael nodded, and said, “Yes, I’ve dealt with some like that. Very sure of themselves. Very insolent. I recently had a kid come up and tell me he had a better way to teach the lesson I’d just taught! Can you imagine that? How many years I’ve been teaching, and some kid thinks he can do it better?”
“What did you do?” Peter asked, edging closer in his seat.
“What I did,” said Mr. McMichael, “was use the knowledge I’ve gained in teaching for 35 years. You learn about kids in that time. Do you know what’s most important to them?”
Peter managed to look puzzled. “Well, maybe they want us to think they’re smart and that they like us?”
“Hah! They don’t care about us at all! Your student doesn’t care if he passes or fails. But they do care about something. They care about each other, Mr. Darvin. Each other. They try to fit in. They wear the same clothes, the same hairstyles, the same shoes. They do everything they can to look just like everyone else looks and to behave just as everyone else behaves. And do you know why they do that?”
“Well, I guess, as you say, they’re trying to fit in.”
“Exactly!” Mr. McMichael sat back in his chair. “And they have good reason to, because they’ve seen what happens if they don’t fit in. It happens in elementary school, middle school, and in high school. If they’re different in any meaningful way from the group, they have a problem. Different, and other kids don’t trust them. Different, they become loners. Different, they become targets. Kids pick on ones that are different. Like wolves, culling the weak from the heard. Let a kid wear a hearing aid or walk with a limp or not be able to afford the current clothing fashion or show he likes school and the teachers—he gets ostracized, separated out, and picked on.”
“You know, you’re right,” said Peter, as if in surprise. “I’ve seen that happen.”
Mr. McMichael smiled and was unable to keep it from looking smug. “So if you know that, you should realize you can use it. If one of your students is giving you a problem, you can make that kid somehow seem to be different, to look different from the other kids. If you spotlight what makes him different, sooner or later, and probably sooner, the bullies will have a new target.”
Peter managed to look confused. “You mean I should, well, I should…?” He tapered off. “I guess I don’t see how I’d go about doing that.”
Mr. Michaels grimaced, annoyed Mr. Darvin was so slow. “You just have to make him look like someone who is outside the mores, the ethos of the tribe. The case I had recently, I just made him stand up in front of the class and spout out something I knew would make the rest of the class think he was showing off, think he felt superior to them. That’s all it takes.”
“But would that work? Could that really make a difference?”
“It did for me. The kid came back from lunch that day with a black eye. Didn’t take more than a couple hours, and he’d been taught not to think he was better than his teacher!” Mr. McMichael said, and smiled.
“Wait a minute! I know… you’re talking about Sebastian, that really smart kid who’s always raising his hand. He can certainly be annoying, interrupting like that. You mean you got him… got him hit!?”
“Yes! With a little ingenuity, well… I know how to work kids, and they learn not to screw around with me! It wasn’t that tough to make it work.”
Peter smiled. It wasn’t a kind smile. When he spoke, his countenance, posture and attitude had all changed. All vestiges of obsequious respect had disappeared. He spoke with authority. “Thank you,” he said. “Thank you, Karl. That will be all.”
“You may go now. And it might be a good idea for you to start boxing up your things. You’ll be called to Dr. Jacobs’s office early tomorrow.”
“What do you mean?” He stopped and thought about what he’d just been saying. Realization dawned, but he only showed momentary distress. Then he noticeably relaxed. “What we just said was in private. And of course I was only speaking speculatively. Even if you wished to press the matter, it would be your word against mine. With my seniority and record, my voice would prevail.”
“Yeah, possibly, if what you say were true: if we were speaking privately.” He stopped and waited, and Barbara Hastings stepped out of his closet. She just stood there, held up her cell phone—and smiled.
Peter turned to Mr. McMichael. His voice was hard when he repeated, “You may go now.”
Mr. McMichael was indeed called to Dr. Jacobs’s office before homeroom the following day. He left his classroom and saw a substitute teacher he knew walk into his classroom as he vacated it.
When he went to Dr. Jacobs’s office, the secretary told him he was to go to the administrative meeting room. When he entered, he found the principal wasn’t alone. Also there were Barbara Hastings, Peter Darvin and the union representative, along with a stenographer.
Dr. Jacobs had him sit, then informed him he was being terminated for cause. His union rep then told him he had the right to file a grievance but that the union was powerless to help anyone who could be shown to have broken basic tenets in their union contract, and if the story he’d heard was true—which it seemed to be as it was backed by not only two witnesses but a cell phone video as well—then Mr. McMichael had certainly done that and it could be proved. He asked Mr. McMichael if he’d like to go the grievance route but warned him that there certainly would be publicity if he fought the termination, and that calling attention to what he’d done might not be in his best interests.
Mr. McMichael had spent the night thinking about what had happened. He’d been set up, and he was furious about that. But realistically, he saw he was in a very poor position. He also thought maybe this wasn’t a school where he wished to continue teaching. Dr. Jacobs was a member of the younger school of educational thinking. He believed in pampering students instead of taking a hard line on discipline while Mr. McMichael was firmly in the opposite camp. He had thought about it and had decided it might be best for him to move on to a school where his abilities would be more appreciated.
“No,” he said to the union rep. He sat up straighter. “I have decided to resign.”
The union rep turned to Dr. Jacobs. “Will you accept that?”
Dr. Jacobs didn’t answer immediately. He looked at Mr. McMichael for a few moments. Then he said, “What you did, Karl, was contemptible. But you’ve spent many years here, and I need to consider that. And I’d like to think that you’ve learned something here. So I will accept your resignation rather than taking harsher measures. Yesterday was your last day of work. At the end of today you may come back and collect your things. For now, please leave the building.”
Mr. McMichael stood, turned, and without a word, walked away. If his head wasn’t held quite as high as when he walked in, who was there to notice, anyway?
Dylan and Sebastian were walking home. Sebastian’s face was nearly healed, only a faint discoloration remaining around his left eye. He wasn’t silent today, as he often was. Dylan was accustomed to carrying the conversational load. Today, however, Dylan seemed to be somewhere else entirely, and Sebastian was rattling on. He was rehashing his fight for the umpteenth time.
“You were right, you know?”
Dylan didn’t reply, and Sebastian plunged ahead. “It hurt when he did it, and for a couple of hours it was sore. And the black eye was embarrassing, at first. But then it wasn’t. Then, somehow, it was like an advertisement. It said, ‘This is Sebastian. He got hit. But he didn’t run away.’ And ever since, that’s exactly what I’ve been thinking. I didn’t run away.
“And that’s really what it’s all about, isn’t it? Not running away. Standing there. Not giving in. Maintaining something important. You said I’d feel better about myself if I did that, and you were right. I do feel better about myself now. The difference is night and day, and it’s because of you. Now I can hold my head up. I don’t have to think of myself as a coward any longer, and I don’t. I feel great.”
Dylan didn’t reply. Finally, Sebastian noticed.
He stopped walking. Dylan walked on, in a world of his own.
Sebastian stood still, a bemused expression on his face, just watching his friend.
Dylan walked on until, gradually, he became aware that something was different. He looked around and found himself alone.
He stopped and turned around and saw Sebastian thirty feet behind him, laughing.
Dylan blushed, then walked back to Sebastian. “I guess I wasn’t paying much attention,” he said sheepishly.
“And I was gushing away. What were you thinking about?”
Dylan gave Sebastian a quick glance, then looked away. “Uh, well, can we talk about it later? Maybe at my house?”
They didn’t speak again till they were in Dylan’s bedroom. Sebastian sat on the bed, as usual, and Dylan began changing out of his school gear, as usual.
“So, what was it?” Sebastian asked. Dylan had his shirt and pants off by now and was only wearing his briefs. Sebastian put his hands in his lap.
Dylan stopped, turned to look at Sebastian, then walked over and sat on the bed next to him.
“I need to tell you something. Do you remember when we were walking home after that fight you saw at school?”
“Do you remember what you said?”
“Well, sure; I told you I was a coward.”
“No, what you said before that.”
“Uh, no,” said Sebastian, wrinkling his brow. “Not really.”
“I do,” said Dylan. “I remember all of it. You asked if you could tell me a secret, said you needed to tell it to someone, and wanted it to be me. And then you said you didn’t want me to stop liking you, and you were afraid I would because it was something bad. But that wasn’t all. Then you said boys weren’t supposed to say what you had to say to other boys.”
“Yeah, I remember. That was just before I told you I was a coward. And that was when you convinced me that standing up for myself was better than running away, and you were right.”
Dylan shook his head. “But you said all of that, and when you said it, I was thinking you were going to tell me something else. Something different. I was hoping you were going to say something else, but you didn’t.”
Sebastian wriggled a little farther away from Dylan so he could see him better without having to crane his neck so sharply.
“What didn’t I say?”
Dylan took a deep breath. “I’ve decided to tell you. Just like you, I’m scared. But I told you to stand up for yourself, and I can see how good you feel about yourself now, and if you can take a risk like that, well, I can, too. But you have to promise me something first.”
Sebastian had no idea where this was going, but nodded. “OK, what?”
“You have to let me say and do what I want to without interrupting. If at any time you want me to stop talking or whatever, you say, “No,” and I’ll just stop. Otherwise, you’ll just let me go on. OK?”
Sebastian shook his head. “That’s weird. But I trust you. You’re upset, like I was when I told you my secret. And telling you helped me, and it’ll probably help you, so sure, I promise.”
“OK.” Dylan sighed, then sat up straighter. “No talking, remember. This is it.” He gulped. “See, I’ve seen you watching me when you didn’t think I noticed. And I’ve even seen you sitting here, watching me change clothes, and seen you put your hands in your lap and press down, and I know what that means.”
He rushed on before Sebastian could protest. “So when you said those things to me the other day, I was pretty sure what it was you were going to tell me, what was so secret that you weren’t supposed to say. You were going to tell me you were gay.” He paused for a breath, then said, almost whispered, “I was hoping you were going to tell me that.”
Sebastian sat up straighter and opened his mouth, but Dylan said, “You promised!”
Sebastian closed his mouth.
“I was hoping you were going to tell me that because, well, I’m gay, and I really like you. I have from almost since we first met. But just like you—I hope just like you—I didn’t have the courage to tell you, or that I like you as you seem to—I hope you—like me. As your hands in your lap make me think you might like me. Anyway, I think you do, but I’m not sure. And I’m afraid maybe you don’t, and if that’s the case, well, I need to do something about it.”
He stopped to take another deep breath. He was encouraged. Sebastian hadn’t given him any reason to think this wasn’t working.
“So,” he said, after the breath, “what I’m going to do, right now, is I’m going to seduce you.”
Sebastian’s eyes opened wide. He looked into Dylan’s eyes, then pressed his hands harder into his lap.
Dylan was watching—and waiting. Waiting to hear, “No.” He didn’t hear it; it was the most beautiful and welcome sound he’d never heard, and because he didn’t hear it, his hope grew as did the movement in his briefs. While that was happening, his confidence was doing a sharp rebound from the state it had been in just seconds earlier. He suddenly felt on top of the world.
“OK. Now I don’t know how good at this I’ll be. I haven’t seduced all that many boys before. Well, come to think of it, not any. Yeah, that’s closer to the truth. No, that is the truth. Sorry, I’m a little nervous here. So you’ll have to bear with me. I might not get this right. But it seems to me that the first step in a seduction should be this.”
He scooted closer, then put his hand on Sebastian’s ankle. He scooched up his friend’s pant leg and gently brushed his bare ankle with his fingertips. Sebastian shivered.
Dylan reached up as far as he could go with his fingers, always just brushing Sebastian’s leg, tickling the scant hairs there, moving up and down the ankle.
Sebastian’s hands were still in his lap. They seemed to be having more trouble holding their position. Nothing was holding Dylan’s crotch in check. The cloth seemed to be stretched to its limit.
Dylan changed his point of attack. He slipped his hand out of Sebastian’s pant leg, shrugged up higher in the bed next to Sebastian, and, reaching for the hem of Sebastian’s shirt, gently lifted it and pulled it over Sebastian’s head.
Sebastian blushed and opened his mouth, and Dylan laid a finger across his lips, again barely touching them, and shook his head. Then, liking the feel of those soft lips, he let his fingertip trace them from corner to corner—first the top, then the lower one.
Sebastian squirmed. He had been squirming before, but now he squirmed in earnest. He opened his mouth again, and this time Dylan quickly put his lips against Sebastian’s. Again, he just touched them, then slid his own lightly across Sebastian’s, feeling their contours with his own.
Sebastian made a guttural groan. Dylan reached down and found the culprit. It would have been hard not to locate it. He deliberately squeezed it through Sebastian’s pants and held it with no movement at all for a good thirty seconds. Then he slowly relaxed his hand, meanwhile whispering in Sebastian’s ear, “Not yet, my love. Not yet.”
Sebastian was sweating. Dylan saw that and worked his way down his shirtless torso, puffing air on Sebastian’s skin. Just little puffs. Up and down and across. Puffs of air. Sebastian moaned again, shivering with each puff.
Dylan started augmenting the puffs. He blew a gentle stream of air on Sebastian’s skin, then softly caressed it with a fingertip. When he reached one of Sebastian’s nipples and barely brushed it, Sebastian’s whole body seemed to tighten, his back arched, and he almost lifted his entire body off the bed.
“Oops!” Dylan cooed. “Have to be careful there!” Then he leaned down and gently soothed the nipple with a kiss.
Sebastian was wriggling and moaning again. Dylan wasn’t ready to stop but knew the end was coming. But he didn’t want the end to come while Sebastian was still dressed. He had to figure out how, without spoiling the moment, to achieve the desired nakedness. And he knew he didn’t have long to figure it out.
He was saved by the bell. That was the exact moment his cell phone rang.
Dylan smiled. He leaned over Sebastian and whispered in his ear, “My mom. Take off your clothes.” Then he chuckled, realizing that was probably something that he’d never say again in his lifetime.
He jumped off the bed, got his phone out of his pants pocket, told her he was OK and he’d see her in two hours’ time when she came home. Then, without turning around, he quickly slipped out of his briefs. He stepped back to the bed to find Sebastian naked, hard, and blushing. Dylan took a moment to appreciate the glorious sight. Although already hard, looking at Sebastian’s nakedness made him harder still.
Sebastian broke his promise. “Hurry,” he said, sounding desperate.
Dylan did. His objective was to seduce and pleasure, not to torture. He lay next to Sebastian, reached down for him, and very lightly began to stroke him. Even with a very loose grip, it took less than a minute.
It took some time for Sebastian to recover. When he did, he found Dylan hovering above him, looking down on his face. Sebastian smiled.
“Lie down next to me,” he said, and Dylan complied.
“I’ve always dreamed of doing this,” Sebastian whispered in Dylan’s ear, pushing Dylan over so he was lying on his side. Then Sebastian snuggled up against Dylan’s back so their bodies were touching all over. Chest to back, thighs to thighs, knees to knees, calves to calves. And of course Sebastian’s groin against Dylan’s buttocks.
Sebastian gave a soft moan. It was glorious.
He reached over Dylan’s hip and found what he wanted, and soon Dylan was panting as Sebastian had been only minutes before, breathing deeply, groaning, and then reaching fulfillment.
They snuggled even closer after that, though it hadn’t seemed possible. Both were incredibly happy. Then Dylan asked a question.
“So, I guess the seduction worked? Are you thoroughly seduced?”
Sebastian giggled, and Dylan could feel the rhythmic muscle contractions from the giggle in Sebastian’s stomach before he pulled away far enough so they could see each other’s face, and their eyes met. Sebastian made a great effort and frowned. “I don’t know,” he said, shaking his head. “If we want to be sure, I think you’ll have to do it again.”
The next day at school, Mr. Darvin went looking for Sebastian. He found him at his locker standing with Dylan Spencer. He stood and watched the two boys for a moment. To his surprise, he saw that Sebastian was smiling broadly. His smile was radiant and the boy looked happier and more relaxed than Mr. Darvin had ever seen him. Sebastian had always seemed so closed in before. He was a boy who took things seriously and didn’t smile much. He’d seemed, well, cautious and not very comfortable. It had been that look that had encouraged Mr. Darvin to try to befriend him. What Mr. Darvin was seeing now was something quite different. He smiled and thought that how Sebastian appeared at that moment was how he’d like every kid in the school to look.
When Dylan turned and left, touching Sebastian’s arm as he did so, Mr. Darvin stepped forward.
“Sebastian,” he said, his smile never having left his face.
“Oh, hi, Mr. Darvin!”
“I just wanted you to know that you’re safe.”
Mr. Darvin laughed. “Safe. The heads are done rolling for now. Norman Pensker no longer attends this school, as I’m sure you’ve heard, and now Mr. McMichael happened to be the one whose head has rolled. So you’re safe—you don’t need to be worried about having to jump over or around that head when he comes rolling down the halls. We’re all done with rolling heads around here.”
Sebastian looked surprised, then more serious. “Because of me?” he asked.
“They’re both done because of what they did. You were involved, but they were responsible for what they did, and it was that that got them dismissed. I just thought you should know. You should know this school stands for what’s right and stands behind you.”
“OK. Well, uh, I don’t know what to say. Thank you.”
“And Sebastian, so you know, I got you transferred to my History class, and if you ever see how I can improve my lessons, please tell me. I’d appreciate all the help I can get.”
Sebastian laughed. “Yeah! OK.” He impulsively reached up and high fived Mr. Darvin. Then an impish smile lit his face. “About the advice? I’ll be watching—I’ll let you know.”
Much thanks to the many editors who make my stories sing, if they do sing, on key. And to Mike for hosting my efforts. He’s the unsung hero behind the scenes. You the readers can help him and us stay afloat with your contributions. They do make a great difference.
The cover drawing was produced by an extraordinary young artist. Paco has assisted me before, and I hope he will again. He’s a busy young man, however. I’d list what he does, but it would embarrass him. He’d tell you his main job is keeping his boyfriend happy. Perhaps it is. But, thanks, Paco, from the bottom of my heart.