Okay, this is a set-up I generally try to stay away from. A lot of times it seems like an easy out, and when I write, I feel this mysterious obligation to portray all my characters as evenhandedly as possible. I tend not to like the set-up in published fiction for the same reasons, the big exception being Frank Portman’s King Dork, because I swear Tom Henderson has the male version of my 10th grade English teacher—weird pronunciations, copious busy-work, and all. What I’m saying is, my real life experience was distinctly lacking in evenhandedness.
I don’t know if this is completely normal, but in tenth grade, I had a spate of really questionable teachers. Later, I went on to have wonderful teachers, but they were younger, took themselves less seriously, and mostly taught the college-prep courses. The unpleasant ones taught general requirements, which could definitely account for their somewhat tyrannical attitudes.
Looking back, I’m much more able to understand what drove them to be angry and jaded, but I still don’t condone it, mostly because they were supposed to be the responsible ones. Their jobs were to mentor, to educate us, and I think it doesn’t matter how rude a fifteen-year-old is, you should never try willfully to hurt them.
In this excerpt, I am almost 16. I’ve only been in school for about a month and already the English teacher, M, is shaping up to be my secret nemesis. Lucas sits directly in front of me. He’s popular and kind of a party boy, but generally articulate, generally kind. When the mood strikes him, he has the decency to notice I exist, and the decency to let me be invisible the rest of the time.
We’re reading Anne Frank in English class. Not The Diary of, but the play. We were talking about the Holocaust and Lucas asked how come no one did anything. I wanted to say that people did do things, but most of the time, it had to be small and dangerous and in secret.
Lucas is so idealistic and so good. I couldn’t see his face, but the back of his neck looked angry. He said, “Well, I wouldn’t have just stood around and done nothing!”
M said, “You don’t know what you would have done.”
“Yes,” he said. “I do.”
“You might feel conflicted, but you wouldn’t sacrifice your own safety or your family. You would serve the state.”
Lucas stood up. “I would rather be dead.”
“You don’t mean that,” she said. But the idea that someone else, someone who doesn’t even know you, can tell you what you mean is so absurd.
Lucas was holding his breath, looking down like he was counting to ten. Then he looked up again and said, “I would rather be dead than kill somebody who never did anything to me, just because their hair’s a different color or they go to a different church.”
“You have no basis to say that. How can you presume to know what you’d do in a situation you’ve never experienced?”
“Why do you think that every person anywhere would rather kill a whole bunch of other people than be dead? If I had to kill someone, a stranger, I wouldn’t be able to live with that. So let them shoot me for not following orders. I’d probably kill myself anyway.”
“Lucas, that is a very inappropriate thing to say.”
The change in him happened so fast. His shoulders got hard and his jaw stood out. “Inappropriate? I’ll tell you what’s [$%&*ing] inappropriate—telling people they’d be [$%&*ing] murderers because someone told them to! That’s inappropriate!”
“Go out in the hall and stay there until you can contain yourself.”
Lucas went out in the hall and paced back and forth. I could see him through the little window beside the door. M stuck to the lesson like nothing had happened, but I was pretty sure that something had.
I could tell she was upset. Instead of waiting for volunteers, she started calling on people to read, but only the people who are shy or functionally illiterate. She made TS read Mrs. Frank, because she knows TS has a hard time reading out loud.
Because Lucas wasn’t in his seat, she could see me, so she called on me to read Margot.
We had to stand at the front of the room, so I looked at the floor and tried to hide behind TS. It’s weird to be shy or nervous. I know I shouldn’t be. I’m good at reading aloud. I’m not ridiculous, no one will laugh at me. There isn’t a consequence. And it’s stupid to be self-conscious about reading someone else’s words, when Lucas cares so much about stuff that he’ll stand up in class, say whatever, like no one else’s opinion of him even matters.
It turned out to be a moot point, though. In the scene she’d picked for us to read, Margot doesn’t have any lines.
I don’t have a lot to say about this. Even now, it gives me feel a slightly surreal feeling. It makes me nostalgic for Lucas, because he had conviction and compassion—far more than most of the boys I met that year, and more than some people ever have. And it makes me feel bad for M that she couldn’t see or appreciate that.
I remember things about the day that I didn’t write down, what she looked like and how she seemed. She kept drawing herself up, sticking out her chin, like the most important thing was putting Lucas in his place. It was so lacking in logic, like all that mattered was winning, which is really the worst part, because it was never a contest.