Sophomore year was the year of Learn by Watching, and this worked out, because watching was what I was good at. I learned about rules very quickly, mostly because I have always had an unhealthy obsession with them. And what I learned was this: even though they told us that the rules applied to everyone, it was not actually true.
That fall, I went through an ill-advised phase where I borrowed my dad’s clothes a lot—especially this one particular T-shirt from Flying Dog Brewery, with a Ralph Steadman drawing advertising Road Dog Porter. Due to the shirt’s alcohol related message, coupled with Flying Dog’s PG-13 marketing slogan, the dress-code violation was twofold, but I was never once told that I needed to cover the shirt or turn it inside out, or even to stop wearing it in the future.
So yes, I’d begun to suspect that rules did not apply equally, but I didn’t know it for a fact until this happened:
The scene – As with most of the more dramatic scenes that first semester, it takes place in English class.
The star – A boy who sits at the back of the room and typically sleeps through class. Apart from spotty attendance and a general lack of involvement, he’s remarkably well-behaved. He rarely does the work, but is never unruly or impolite. He holds doors for people. He never draws attention to himself, which is something that sophomore Brenna identifies with to an excessive degree. The class is the last one of the day, and is basically an exercise in chaos.
Other players in the drama –
- Nick has the desk directly behind our reluctant star. Nick is very tall, very loud, and can usually be counted on to be the one instigating the chaos.
- TS sits next to me. She likes Punky Colour hair-dye, Vans skate shoes, and Kevin Smith movies, and is the closest thing I have to a real friend.
- Lucas, who early on cemented his role as resident humanitarian and classroom advocate, is unable to resist getting involved, and in a misguided attempt to secure justice, kind of makes things worse.
- M is still M, but becoming more so every day.
She stopped right in the middle of a sentence and said, “Brian Number Four,* what is that on your shirt?”
It was one of those graphic T-shirts, with all the stuff on it—snake-eyes dice and eight balls and playing cards. It took me a minute to even see what she was talking about.
“It’s a tomato plant,” said TS. Not loud, but not a whisper either.
In front of me, Lucas made a strangled sound.
“Take it off,” said M.
And this happens. It’s normal. It happened two weeks ago in Geometry. Watch-Thief’s shirt had a Hennessy ad on it and the Hobgoblin told him to turn it inside out and Watch-Thief did. But I can’t even list all the ways it was different. I think he liked it. Not in a getting-pleasure-from-it way, exactly, but liked it the way he liked taking my watch. A personal-satisfaction way. It made him show his teeth in that @#$%ing not-smile. It made him flex his muscles and prove without having to say anything, that he’s the lead-dog and the Hobgoblin is just nothing.
With #4, it was different. He didn’t look angry. Or, he did, but not a normal way. Sometimes it’s really hard to tell how people are feeling just from their expressions. He was red all the way down his neck. His ears looked like they might catch fire, but he didn’t do anything. He was clenching his jaw and it made him look like he was getting ready for someone to hit him.
“Take it off,” M said again, and people starting laughing because it took that long to realize she really wasn’t joking.
She said, “You may take off your shirt and reverse it.”
Lucas stared at her, leaning way back in his seat. “Wait, you want him to put it on backwards?”
She got much angrier then, like it was filling her up. “You may remove your shirt and turn it inside-out, or you may go to the office. Now, mister.”
Nick leaned on his elbows and whispered, “Jesus, would you just do it?” Which sounds mean, but he meant get it over with and then she’ll let it go and we can all stop being embarrassed for you, but #4 just stared at his desk, and Lucas was shaking his head like he knew it wasn’t that easy.
M kept telling #4 to take the shirt off and turn it inside out, and he didn’t move, and TS was kicking me across the aisle, giving me looks and humming a stripper theme-song. “Dude, what a pedophile,” she whispered. “She just wants to see him get naked.” And then she switched to “Pour Some Sugar on Me.” I didn’t want to laugh, but I did it anyway.
#4 was just sitting there, not looking at anybody. He asked if he could change in the bathrooms, but she told him no. She told him that if he absolutely must he could go out in the hall.
When he didn’t come back, M said, “Lucas, please see what’s keeping him.”
Lucas went out into the hall, and came back in alone. “He’s just sitting out there. He says he won’t take it off unless he can go down to the bathrooms. Ma’am, why won’t you just let him do it?”
“Dude,” TS whispered. “That kid is my new @#$%ing hero.”
And I know she didn’t mean it, but it is brave to sit on the floor and not give in or do what she says. That’s brave in a different way than Watch-Thief. Braver, because #4 is really shy and Watch-Thief’s eighteen. It’s easier [for Watch-Thief], I think. The boys in my grade all wear two T-shirts, like to cover up how skinny they are. They just layer on so many clothes. Except #4. Maybe after this, he will.
As I recall, #4 was eventually allowed to go down to the bathrooms to change. I don’t remember if he came back. I think now that he didn’t. When I try to recall the details I didn’t write down, it gives me an anxious feeling and I catch myself wincing, even though when it happened, I only sat at my desk, wide-eyed and fascinated.
Later, I told my mom about it and the look she gave me was incredulous, like she was more shocked than I was, and she hadn’t even been there. I told her about #4, how he was red-faced, embarrassed, but he still wouldn’t take his shirt off in front of the class.
“Good for him,” she said, and it was comforting to know that she would forgive me if I ever got in trouble for standing up to a teacher. That she maybe even expected it.
At the time, I was scared of M. She seemed like a gorgon, a dragon, much scarier than she seems now, but also more distant. The whole scene was vaguely appalling, but like something appalling that happened on TV. I thought she was so mean, that she liked seeing the bad kids squirm.
I think now that she didn’t. I think she was jaded and tired—that bone-tired that comes from working diligently for years and never seeing a real result. Even the very best students didn’t reveal their best until they got out of her class and moved on to more challenging work. I tell myself now that she didn’t understand what she was doing to him or what it meant to be fifteen. How easily one can be mortified.
Mostly, I’m glad that remembering this makes my heart beat too fast, my face get hot in sympathy. It seems a shame to forget the things that shock and trouble you at fifteen, when those are so often the things that shape you.
*There were so many Brians in the class that she made us alphabetize them and then refer to them by their numerical rank in the alphabetization.