by Christopher Lyke
The students didn’t listen. Sometimes they couldn’t listen. Their little hormone engines birred and whizzed so loudly that even while staring at the teacher they weren’t listening. This understanding of the students’ station in life didn’t help the teacher with compassion. He hated them. He pretended to like them, but he hated them for reminding the teacher at every turn that he was a teacher. The common, and patronizing, take on this career path was that it was noble, and that it was difficult. But he knew better and had worked with his back, and had fought, and had experienced what real work was and knew all that “teachers fight the good fight” stuff was bunk. The hard part was continuing to stand there in front of his students, screaming into the ether.
He began having waking fantasies of burning the building down. He realized that sounded kooky, or like perhaps he shouldn’t be teaching at all, but there it was, he wanted to burn that fucking building down. The last time he taught he had the same reaction. Actually it had been worse, with vomiting in the mornings. Puking in the trash can and then hiding it in the bathroom just before the students got there. The last time a national tragedy had come along and he’d joined the army and had gotten away from it. He had ideas about doing something new after getting out, but, as his life’s goals all rested with the artistic- and that is to say, goals that rarely paid a dime- he went back to teaching after doing seven years on the gun.
So there he was. Wind the top up and keep it spinning, screaming, as the steam escapes. Put walls around it and you’re dead.
When he called Stanley, “a fat bastard” in front of the kid’s peers he didn’t feel bad. He kind of laughed. But then he realized what that would mean to his boss and knew enough to apologize before any parents could be called in. If the kid had been a better athlete, or a better student, he may have treated him better. But Stanley was neither a good athlete, he was a fat bastard after all, nor a good student. He regularly scored slightly below “imbecile” on his standardized tests. If that kid decided to disrupt the teacher’s delivery of useless information then he’d better be having a stroke. This wasn’t the case. The spotty, burr-headed bumpkin had been trying to impress a girl and had spoken disrespectfully. Hence, all of the “fat bastard” talk.
This is how the days went for a long time. Years even. He’d been home from the war for seven years now and almost everyone he knew was tired of hearing about it. He stared at forty-five and another year in the classroom, and knew that some transmogrification had to take place or this would be it. A slow, stale crawl towards a death hastened by alcoholism, immobility, and strife.
“You know, I heard she was sleeping with him when he was still a student here.”
“Sleeping with him?”
“In her classroom?”
She laughed. “Yes. It’s gross.”
He didn’t think it was all that gross. The kid was seventeen and Ms. Duncan had been twenty-two.
“The age doesn’t bother me. It’s not like she’s a pedophile. I mean, the kid wasn’t ten or anything.”
“Still. It’s fucked up though, isn’t it?” She wasn’t really asking.
“Yeah, it’s worse that she crossed the line.”
“Twenty-two year olds have zero mileage. I’m sure she didn’t understand the dynamic. Or maybe she just didn’t care. Maybe she was enlightened.”
“Yeah, well she’s gone now.”
The teachers kind of chuckled to one another.
“Jesus Christ, if I’d done it I would be in jail.”
“No kidding,” she said.
The job was punctuated by these little office flair ups. Many of the teachers had only been teachers, professionally speaking, and had been doing it since they were in their twenties. They’d left high school for Bowling Green or Purdue and four years later had gone right back to high school and began to mimic what they saw every day. They fit back into the hallways and arguments they’d left just four years before. Hierarchies and ideas of what’s attractive, or desirable, or noble were hung on them like a cape. Sometimes it’s hard to see what’s really going on.
A year or so after he’d gotten back from the war he waited for ten minutes to use the copier because two middle-aged guys were fighting the same fight they’d had for ten years in front of it, over paper, or over order of preference, or just because they hated their lives and were striking out like drowning people for a rope thrown from shore. At first he thought it was funny. Then he saw that this was it. This is what life is to become, he told himself. A world utterly without chaos, a world so rigid, and so preplanned, that the hours of the day were punctuated by an actual bell telling him when he could move. Confrontations were over copy paper and shared fridge space. And it began to eat away at him.
“I need you to run for union rep.” The principal said.
“What? Why?” The teacher didn’t care about the union at all.
“Well, really it’s like a union liaison. Between the rep and the rest of the staff. You seem to get along with most of the people and I’d like to know what the hell’s going on.”
“You want me to be the Tribune of the Plebs!” He’d gotten excited.
The principal stared at him.
“The Tribune of the Plebs. You know, like Marc Antony when the senate tried to rough him up. The Gracchi Brothers. Sticking up for the little guy and all.”
“What? Sure. Look, I’d really like it if you went and put your name in. Today.”
“Okay. Okay.” And so it went.
He went to meetings to listen to the complaints from worker bees about incidents that should be brought up with administration. The biggest take away was that Mrs. So-and-So really hated it when Mr. So-and-So, the Dean of Students, sent “bossy” emails that didn’t contain a salutation. Later, the problems became real, and hard to solve, with questions about pay and pension and quality of life. But Chicago was gutted, and Illinois was broke. They all should have run.
The students often interacted with each other sexually. It was appropriate for their age, but it made him uncomfortable. He remembered being like that as a kid and shuddered. They’d poke and prod one another, clumsily touching breasts with out of place stretches, or leans from one desk to another. In Afghanistan he’d watched a guy fuck a dog through an infrared scope. He had trouble believing it, the dog-fucking, but once Donny called him up to the look-out platform, above the sandbagged hut with the Mark 19, they sat laughing awkwardly and taking turns watching the scene through the device. The teacher wasn’t ready to compare any of his students to dogs, they were just adolescents after all, but the feeling was the same. He was watching something so clumsy, and so honest. He was watching something so human that acknowledging it would be embarrassing. He was a voyeur and a passenger who sat behind his desk at the back of the room.
At some point in late fall the head coach of the football team was shouldered out. He was bad at his job and boasted seasons that usually amounted to two or three haphazard wins. When the new coach came, and the teacher met him, and liked him, he decided to help out and start coaching. The teacher had come up in Ohio, with the football religion, and had played, and done well. Now, working with the young players, away from their girlfriends and away from their classrooms, he got to know them as young men. He felt at home with the players and could push them physically, and train them to do the right thing. They were honest in everything on the field. Off the field they played and pawed at each other in a way that made the coaches feel like they were doing something worth a damn.
He tried to instill the fundamentals and a sense of toughness. The teacher knew that if they could tackle that much better, and block more aggressively, and play to the whistle, they could beat the other city teams their size.
These boys were as rattled as his soldiers overseas. They were only a year or two younger than infantry privates, and had lived with a threat of violence their whole lives. It could spike at any time and one’s neighbor could have his brains blown out on the sidewalk with no warning. When it wasn’t kinetic it would simmer, and it would hum, low and in the background and this hum kept everyone in a state of flinching and scanning the crowd for danger. This lasted from April to January in a real way, and then died down because of the bitter cold in the winter. The winter, too cold to do anything outside for very long, was the safest season of the year.
At any rate, the teacher had his favorites. Derique was smart. His girlfriend was smart too. When the teacher talked to him about using condoms the cornerback said, “Come on, Coach. Of course! We’re going to college.” As a junior Derique asked the teacher if he could switch into his Advanced Placement class. He did, and loved writing papers and reading essays by Aristotle and Cicero.
At the end of his junior year Derique came to the coaches and told them he couldn’t play his senior year. His Dad was dying. Derique was going to miss all of summer practice and at least the first few games. He needed a job to help his mom pay for things. He needed to become a man, for real, and earlier than was expected. He said all of this with a resolution and an acceptance that this was simply the way things had to be.
Getting from his parents’ house in the Austin neighborhood to work in Lincoln Park was fraught with the kind of dangers and pitfalls that the Greeks adored. The least of which was a long bus ride. It went through several neighborhoods, each one patrolled by different and competing groups of young men with very little hope. Derique was safe walking from his block to the corner, but then it was often a foot race to Cicero and Madison where he’d get the bus north to Armitage and then that bus east before it hit Kedzie and the white boys who didn’t shoot. Sometimes he took the blue line by the highway, but that had to head all the way to the loop before he could switch and head up the shoreline to Lincoln Park. He liked the bus more. This was his seventeen-year-old life.
Derique didn’t show throughout August two-a-days. He wasn’t there to mentor the pudgy underclassman, or to sweat with his peers, to deal with the headaches and sore body that come from those long, glorious days. Before the third game of the year Derique came to the coaches and asked to get back on the team. The coaches said of course and he hugged them for it. He started that next game. By October he was excellent.
The weekend before the homecoming game saw twenty-three shootings. It was considered a manageable number. Two days before the game the team’s best lineman got assaulted by a woman with a bowie knife at the bus stop. He broke her jaw and then set her unconscious body gingerly on the bus stop bench and called 911. They were good boys.
After the homecoming game Derique was on his way home when a couple of kids who he knew from the neighborhood tried to rob him at the bus stop. When he told them to fuck off one of the boys pulled a knife and slashed his forearm. The blade cut through his shirt and through the tendon and he couldn’t lift his hand any longer. He’d gotten to play five games. He’d played well, too. A couple interceptions and good tackles and really just being there emanating confidence and modeling what the others were supposed to do. It was important. But now it was over. He spent the next couple months in bandages. The doctors reattached the tendon and he regained use of his hand, but it left a big scar that showed when he cuffed his shirts bagging groceries at the Mariano’s in Lincoln Park.
It was enough to make the teacher sick. The little ball of unease that rolled around in his chest heated up. Put walls around it and you’re dead. But the teacher knew about obligation, he’d worked with his back and he’d fought. He needed his kids, his own children, to have insurance, and the fine things his students didn’t have.
He realized that what most people called “real life” was only a narrow passageway. They were horses in stable stalls, tricked into thinking that the stalls were the prairies out west. They’d been convinced that this is how they wanted it to be, that this life is the best life. But it was a lie, and a construct, and he realized that they were too big for the stable. They were too tall and couldn’t look up or down without falling over. They were standing on a pin. They couldn’t really even turn around. A little to the left or a little to the right. That was it. Those were the choices. Just continue to stand there and eat and shit and wait to keel over in a couple years. It’s what kept him from buying into the job, or other people for that matter. He waited and planned to get his kids out, and move them somewhere without the hordes of people shuffling through intersections staring at their phones oblivious of the traffic and death speeding by them.
The boys won most of their games. Most of the teams they played could barely snap the ball. But it still meant something to them. And therefore, it meant something to the teacher. During the season the little things stopped bothering him so much. Arguments over copiers became nothing. Arguments over political opinions no longer bothered him either. Any deviation invited wrath and ostracism anyway. He simply didn’t care now and thought only about how to help these young men become realized, and hopeful, and to win at something that brought them confidence. In their regular lives they were almost always told to dial back any version of masculinity that came naturally. They were told that who-they-are, on the inside, is obvious, and aggressive, and that what they feel naturally is passé and brutish. At least on the field these boys were giving everything for a chance to win out in some measure. Many of the boys didn’t have much else.
And then he went home for a reunion. And he saw the kids play in Northeast Ohio. The rich white kids, in stadiums, and new gear. He’d played there in high school and whenever he tried to explain what it was like, the size of it, even the other coaches didn’t get it. And he knew that the team he was coaching was shit. They were terrible. And if it were a movie maybe an emotional director would have the poor kids win. But in reality, if they played one another his boys would probably get hurt. They might get a first down, might. Those white boys with the sixty-five man teams and the weight rooms and ten years of preparation and, most importantly, the belief that they were going to win and that losing was a fucking sin, would beat those city boys by sixty or seventy points. Really, they’d beat them by as many points as the clock would allow. He didn’t blame the white boys, they weren’t racist or anything, they didn’t hate the city boys, they just knew they’d beat them to death and wanted to, because they wanted to beat everyone down. That’s what they were trained to do, and bred to do, and would do. It wasn’t malice so much as inertia. They’d smile and help our boys up after cracking their ribs.
So the teacher quit coaching and went back to the classroom. He no longer wanted to lie to his players, it weighed too much. He rejoined the conversations in the copy room and attended the union meetings. He went back to the stable stall and shut the barn door himself. He’d worked with his back, and fought, and knew the smoke getting blown up the teachers’ asses was all bunk. But it paid, and it got insurance for his kids, so he doubled down and got the mortgage and the car note and worried about election cycles as though any of that mattered at all.