By Robert Slentz-Kesler
“Mr. Beaumarchais, are we allowed to use our textbooks?”
“No, Eileen. Just your notes and lab book.”
“Then how come Paul is using his textbook?”
“Because he’s special,” said Lukas Jaichner from the back of the classroom. “He’s ‘disabled’.”
“Shut up,” said Paul.
“Learning disability my ass,” said Lukas.
“Both of you, quiet,” I said. “Get started on your labs.”
All I had to do was get through this last period of the day while my 8th graders finished their density labs. Each pair of students had a large beaker of water and film canisters with small objects: marbles, sand, cotton balls. They were supposed to figure out what floated, suspended, or sank. Density = Mass/Volume, etc. It was Friday and I was ready to leave.
Before Chloe died, we would meet at the Rockwood wine bar on Fridays after work—my favorite time to take pictures of her. She was happy on Friday afternoons, and I always wanted to get that on film. She’d tease me (I admit that before she died I called it nagging) about forever destroying the present moment by trying to capture it.
“Mr. B, can I go to the bathroom?”
“We just got started, Quentin,” I said.
“Yeah, but I gotta go.”
Quentin Shackleford was teetering on the edge of failing 8th grade Science. Missed homework assignments, failed quizzes, you name it. He was in his third foster home—as well as being in and out of the juvenile detention center on Columbia Street, and he showed up for school these days maybe half the time. Last week I’d given him one last chance to pass the third quarter; it was a short and laughably easy textbook assignment on heat and temperature. Today was the deadline, and he didn’t turn it in. I wanted to give up.
“No, Quentin. Do the lab, okay? Just sit there and do it. If you finish the lab, you can go to the bathroom.”
Paul Mansfield sat at his lab bench, picking up and shaking each canister. He was a bright kid, but he could hardly read. For our after-school photography club, Maria Gallegos-Hernandez had snapped a photo of Paul smoking marijuana in the baseball dugout during a rainstorm. In the photo, he was hunched over with a joint pinched between his thumb and forefinger, and casually looking up at the lens. I’d always known about Paul—Christ, all the teachers smelled the pot on him each morning. We’d learned from some of the other students that he often lit up at the bus stop. “Breakfast” he’d called it. I’d told his parents during a conference that if he’s been smoking pot since elementary school (as he claims), it may explain why he failed the 6th and 7th grades. So here he was in the eighth grade at age sixteen. Christine Torrance, his English teacher, put his reading level at about 4th grade. But Paul’s mother wouldn’t hear it.
“He’s a victim of that awful whole-language instruction,” she’d said.
Because when a student underperforms, he must be a victim of something. How I longed to say, “Actually, Mrs. Mansfield, your son is a victim of his own idiocy—idiocy that very closely mirrors your own.”
It was hard watching a native English speaker like Paul slack off and fall farther behind, while Maria Gallegos-Hernandez juggled care for her younger siblings with schoolwork. She was also the top student in the photography club, partly for her camera and darkroom skills, and partly because of her way with people. Hell, Paul Mansfield had let her take his picture, even with a joint in plain view of the camera.
“Uh,” Maria had said that day in the darkroom, “Maybe we shouldn’t develop this one, Mr. B.”
“Why not?” I’d said.
“I mean, is it legal?” She’d pulled the picture from the photo-flo solution tray.
“Why wouldn’t it be legal, Maria?” I’d said, stretching my eyes wide.
“Right,” she’d said. “Okay.”
I now looked up at the wall clock. 2:05 p.m. Just fifteen more minutes and the week would be over, thank God.
Ashley Caine’s copy of Swiss Family Robinson fell to the floor with a smack.
“Ashley, that wouldn’t happen if your bench was clear for the lab.”
“Sorry, sorry.” She stuffed it into her backpack.
English teacher Mildred Henley had assigned Swiss Family Robinson in her ongoing, 34-year effort to steep students in her idea of good literature.
“It’s awful, Mr. Beaumarchais,” Ashley had complained to me one day after lunch. “Why does she inflict this on us?”
“Oh, don’t you know, Ashley?” Eileen had said. “It’s a classic.”
“It’s classic crap.”
Mildred Henley should have retired long ago. I didn’t remember how I’d answered Ashley that day—probably with something about how different teachers assign different things or how Mrs. Henley only wanted what was best for her students. I’d love to have been honest with Ashley, to have sympathized and told her what a waste of time Mildred Henley’s books were: Jane Eyre, Wuthering Heights—classic crap was right. The Yellow Journal, Porter Middle School’s underground online magazine, had published a photo-shopped picture of Mildred in a pilgrim costume, summing up the students’ perception of her. But white parents loved Mildred, because her reading list was crammed with titles they recognized from their own schooling. It was no wonder so many of the students were on heroin.
Heroin. Marijuana. I’d wondered these past few days if drugs might have helped me transition back to normal life. Chloe’s funeral had been two weeks ago, and I’d been back at school now for five days.
“Are you sure you’re ready to be back?” Phyllis had asked me last Monday. She was one of the school’s guidance counselors. “Are you sure you’re okay?”
“More than okay, and more than ready,” I’d said. “I’m tired of sitting around the house.”
And tired of looking at Chloe’s things and smelling her on the pillow and the bed sheets.
And then that idiot librarian Mrs. Stockton, who’d been hanging around in the faculty lounge listening to our conversation, had said, “You’re only 33—you’ll find someone else.” I’d felt like grabbing her neck and shoving her face through the glass of the snack machine.
“Mr. B, can I sharpen my pencil?” said Steve Frederickson.
“Mr. Beaumarchais?” It was the front office intercom speaker on the classroom wall.
“What!” I yelled up. “Yes, Steve, yes. Sharpen your pencil.”
“Do you have James Lindenmeyer this period?”
“Okay, sorry.” The intercom clicked off.
“They had my fucking class list in the office; I didn’t know why they couldn’t look at it.”
Richard Dalton raised his hand. “Mr. B, I only have a pen with green ink. Is that okay?”
Well, let’s see, Richard. You’ve got a good home, your parents are still together, you can read, and you’re not on drugs. Why should you give a rip what color your pen ink is?
“It’s fine, Richard,” I said.
Ashley Caine was chewing the tips of her fingers. I could see the bright pink quick at the edge of her nails. Maria had taken a picture of her the same day Ashley had tried to commit suicide at home a few months back. In the picture, Ashley sat on the floor of the library, casually leaning back against the 300s and looking at the camera with a closed-mouth smile. The next morning, with the entire eighth grade buzzing about how Ashley had tried to hang herself in her parents’ bathroom, Maria had come to me in tears.
“I mean, look at this picture Mr. B,” she’d said. “She seems happy, doesn’t she? Look, she’s smiling. The smile’s real. Isn’t she happy?”
“She looks tired, Maria,” I’d said. Come to think of it, I remembered seeing Ashley carrying around a copy of the Cliff’s Notes for Moby Dick. I wasn’t surprised she’d tried to hang herself.
“I don’t get it,” Maria had said. “Her family has so much money. Do you think she was only pretending to be happy?”
“I don’t know.”
And I really didn’t. A photograph conceals more than it shows. At age thirteen, Maria was already a pro. She took pictures at home and developed them here at school. My favorite was a shot of her family—three generations together in one house, her mother and grandmother, two kid brothers and a very pregnant sixteen-year-old sister.
“That’s why I force Alex to use condoms,” she’d said one day to Ashley during photography club, tapping the photo at the point of her sister’s protruding abdomen. “He tries to make me feel guilty, but tough shit.”
The classroom door swung open with a bang. Everyone looked up.
“Hey, Mr. Lofton, alright!” Chris Melekian leaned off his lab stool and gave Phil the high sign. Phil Lofton was the school’s caffeinated computer guru.
“Chris, sit down, and don’t knock over your beaker,” I said.
“Is this an okay time?” Phil asked.
“Well, they’re doing a lab.”
Phil looked back over his shoulder at my door.
“What’s wrong?” I said.
“Mr. Hand’s been on my case because I was like 30 seconds late to my duty station this morning,” said Phil. “So do you want me to come back? I can come back later. You look kind of busy. Are you busy? I can—”
“No, no,” I said. “This is a good time.” If I didn’t let him in now, I wouldn’t see him for another three weeks. I didn’t even know why he was here. Usually he would come to fix things or upgrade them or whatever.
“Excuse me,” he said. “If I could just get in here.” I scooted out of my chair to make room for him at my computer.
“Man, it’s cold in here, isn’t it?” He rubbed his bare arms. “It’s like ninety-six degrees over on Fine Arts.”
I looked up across the room. “Eric, write in your lab book, not on a separate piece of paper.”
“You said your login doesn’t work?” said Phil.
“Your login,” said Phil. “It doesn’t work?”
“No, I don’t think so. I mean I think it works okay. Do you mean my e-mail?”
“Well, which one isn’t working—your network login or your e-mail login?”
“They’re both fine, I think.”
He flipped pages on his clipboard. “I thought I had a ticket for this room. Was it this room? Maybe it wasn’t this room. Maybe it was over on C Hall. Sorry. I’ll check C Hall. I gotta get over there anyway because that leaking roof totally fried Collyer’s monitor.” He hopped up and scurried out the door.
Ashley Caine raised her hand. “Mr. B, in number one, what do they mean by ‘the mass of an empty film canister’?”
“It means just what the lab book says, Ashley.”
“Mr. Beaumarchais?” It was the office intercom again.
“Yes?” I yelled up at the wall.
“Do you have Eileen Bramble this period?”
“Please have her come to the office to sign out.”
“She’s in the middle of a lab,” I yelled at the wall speaker, but the intercom had already clicked off. Eileen cheerfully packed her bag and sauntered up to my desk.
She handed me her lab book. “I guess I’ll have to make this up, huh?”
“Yeah,” I said, taking the lab book. “Yeah, I guess you will.” Out she walked.
Quentin Shackleford’s hand went up again. “Mr. B?”
“No, Quentin. Hold it in. You can wait.”
“It’s not that, Mr. B. It’s just that Edgardo there doesn’t even have his lab book. I thought you might wanna know.”
“What?” I said. I walked over to Edgardo’s desk. Sure enough, he was just sitting there looking around. “Edgardo, why didn’t you tell me—” but I stopped myself. Jesus Christ. “Gordon, you’re his lab partner. Why aren’t you helping him?” But Gordon just shrugged his shoulders, not even taking his eyes off the canister of marbles he was lowering down into his beaker of water.
“You — need — a — lab — book,” Paul Mansfield said to Edgardo, over-enunciating and pointing at his own book.
I waved Paul’s hands down. “Don’t be a jerk, Paul.” Edgardo smiled and shrugged his shoulders.
“Dude’s more ‘disabled’ than you, Mansfield,” said Lukas. “Put him on Ritalin.”
“It ain’t gonna do no good anyway,” said Quentin Shackleford. “How’s he gonna write in English if he can’t even talk?”
Maria Gallegos-Hernandez whipped around in her seat. “Man, shut up. You don’t know shit.”
“Okay, everyone zip it,” I said. “Edgardo, here. Just use this paper for now and transfer your notes later. Gordon, help him.” Gordon shook his head.
I walked back to my desk, leaving Edgardo staring down at the paper in front of him.
My door opened and Mr. Hand strode in, a walkie-talkie strapped to the side of his belt. His tie and white shirt were crisp, even at the tail end of Friday. He scanned the room and then pointed at Lukas Jaichner.
“Let’s go,” said Mr. Hand.
Lukas shook his head slowly. “Maaaan.”
“What?” I said. “What’s going on?”
“Lukas had a three-day suspension,” said Mr. Hand. “He wasn’t supposed to be here today.”
I held my palms out. “Well, it would have been nice if someone had—”
“I sent out an e-mail.”
Mr. Hand dragged Lukas from the room.
“That’s messed up, man,” I heard Quentin say. “Dude needs his education.”
The bell in the hallway rang – an old fashioned metal clanger that startled me every time.
“We’re outta here.”
“Language, Chris,” I said.
“Sorry, Mr. B.”
Paul jumped up and went around to each bench with the supply bucket, and everyone tossed their canisters in. Beaker water poured into the sinks, notebooks closed, backpacks zipped, lab stools screeched. The students streamed toward my desk, dropping their lab books into the document tray on their way out the door.
Everyone was gone except Maria. She slung her backpack over one shoulder and walked toward my desk.
“Here, Mr. B,” she said, pulling a black and white photo out of her notebook. “I haven’t shown you this yet. It was that day she stopped by during photography club.”
I stared down at the picture. The day Chloe had come to the school was the same day she had died. Maria must have taken this picture just hours before Chloe’s aneurysm had ruptured and she’d collapsed in front of Chet’s Clothing on Water Street.
“I think it’s a pretty good picture,” said Maria. “It’s a great smile, isn’t it? I didn’t have time to use a spot meter to check the light. She was so beautiful that day, I wanted to get the picture fast.”
“It’s amazing,” I whispered.
And it was. Chloe was right in the middle of the photograph. She had just turned toward Maria before Maria’s finger had tapped the shutter. She was smiling into the lens with a kind-hearted smirk, almost accusing Maria of being sneaky. Chloe’s eyes smiled right into me, and my chest tightened. I couldn’t break apart here, in front of Maria.
“It’s a good picture, Maria. It’s simple, you focused on your subject, and the light really is good. I mean, it could be right out of the New York Institute guidebook.”
And then I was silent, still leaned over the picture. Maria was silent too. She must have been thinking I was about to cry. Where had a 13-year-old child learned such deep sympathy? I could handle this. I looked again at the technical details—the focus, the shading, the light from the overcast sky through the hallway window. Maria had used a 20mm lens, so when I looked in the background, I could only barely see Todd Moran against the wall reading a book—Swiss Family Robinson maybe. And over Chloe’s other shoulder was a water fountain with no spout and a “#1 Cheerleader” sticker on a locker door. The grayscales of Chloe’s burgundy sweater and plum lipstick seemed saturated. Or was that only because I missed her so badly?
“Maria, it’s— Your lighting’s good, you kept it simple, and there’s—”
“It’s okay, Mr. B,” said Maria. She touched my forearm with her hand. “It’s for you. I want you to keep it.”
Maria turned and walked out. The door closed behind her, and I was left alone with the picture.
Fuck. Why? Why, Chloe? Pools flooded my lower eyelids. We were going to start trying to have a baby. Why did you have to—
“Excuse me, Mr. Beaumarchais?” Mildred Henley had poked her head into my room. “Mr. Hand would like to know why you’re not at your hallway duty station.”
“Tell Mr. Hand to fuck himself.”
Mildred gasped. She slinked back into the hallway and clicked the door closed.
“And fuck you too. Goddamn motherfucking Swiss Family fucking Goddamn Robin—”
“Uh, Mr. B?”
I spun around. Shit. Quentin Shackleford hadn’t left the room yet. He was standing in front of my desk, holding out a sheet of paper.
“Here,” he said. “I made the deadline. I did the assignment.”
“Oh.” I stared down at his answer sheet labeled Heat and Temperature. “Yes. Good.” I wiped my eyes with the back of my wrist. I pointed at the door with my thumb. “Sorry about the—”
“It’s cool, Mr. B,” Quentin said. “You take care of yourself.”
He did a short punch in the air over my desk with his fist and then walked out of the room.