Last week, we kind-of/sort-of touched on the defining problem of my junior year, but in case it wasn’t clear, I’ll just come right out and say it. Public school has not only made me unshakably sure that I’m a Very Good Girl (a paragon of virtue, even), but also that goodness is quantifiable.
I have some theories as to how this happened.
Sad fact: most of my goodness is strictly relative at this point. Simply put, a large chunk of it comes from spending every afternoon in US History, surrounded by people who are much, much worse than me. And they are worse. The truth is, even though I picked the class—walked right up to the office lady and asked to stay—I don’t really belong there.
“Tully’s 4th hour?” I heard Oswald say to Thompson last week, because they couldn’t see me sitting there beside the potted plant, waiting for the guidance counselor. “I wouldn’t teach that crowd for anything. Honestly, look at the attendance sheet. I think they must’ve just Xeroxed the probation roster from [nearby boys’ detention center]!”
And in a way, that might not be unfair. I know that a lot of the kids, especially the boys, have been in trouble, and some have even been in corrections before.
Our class has more D’s and F’s than all the other History sections combined, Tully says, looking sad. He takes his purple marker and draws a line on the rank sheet. Above the purple failing line are my student number and five others. Everyone else is underneath.
The way Oswald talks about Tully’s class is snide and kind of vicious, which doesn’t really surprise me because it’s Oswald. He’s not a nice guy.
Later in the year, this will be proven beyond a shadow of a doubt when my regular counselor goes on vacation. Everyone will be assigned temporary guidance, and I’ll luck into Oswald and then watch in horror as he throws out my proposed schedule and presents me with an academic monstrosity of his own design.* It will include Business Administration and Interior Decorating, because, he says, that way I’ll have something to fall back on if college doesn’t work out. If our school still offered shorthand, I’m sure he would have signed me up for that too.
He won’t take into account my GPA or my test scores, or ask about my extracurriculars. In fact, he won’t even look at my transcript. All those things that defined me so clearly at the beginning of the year—grades and sports and irreproachable deportment? None of them will matter. He’ll study me blandly, and I will be reduced to nothing but torn jeans and battered green shoes. Of no consequence. Hopeless.
At lunch, Jane** will say, “Look on the bright side. At least you didn’t tell him that you hope his head spontaneously combusts.”
“Last week. He wasn’t amused.”
So, Oswald is a complete tool. He talks to me like I’m a little kid, judges me on my appearance, assumes that he knows me.
But we still have to consider all this separately, because in the matter of Mr. Tully’s 4th hour, he isn’t wrong. Tully’s class is easily the most chaotic place I’ve ever been. There’s never a time when people aren’t passing notes and switching seats and having opinions.
I spend most days hunched over my desk, filling up pages and pages of looseleaf paper like I’m taking notes. And I am, just not on the material.
In History class, I sit and copy down everything that Charles and Gatsby and Crystal say, because if I didn’t who would? No one else would, and then it would just get lost. I write how Charles, when he doesn’t know the answer, always makes something up.
“Charles, please tell us, during the depression following WWI, Italy adopted fascism and Germany positioned themselves to take over Europe. How did Spain react?”
“They had the running of the bulls, sir.”
I write how Crystal is always thinking, rapid and disjointed, yelling out answers that turn out to be right, no matter how off-base they sound at first.
“What do you think the major factors in the My Lai Massacre were? Anyone?”
And Crystal is yelling and waving her hand, “Oh, oh! I know it, Mr. Tully! I know it! They were frustrated!”
“Would you care to explain this theory, Miss […]?”
“Well, they’d been in Vietnam so long, and nothing was working, and because of the Viet-whatsums, they couldn’t even tell who their real enemy was, and they just got so angry and frustrated that they took it out on those people in the one village, My Lay, and they just massacred the shit out of them, without really knowing.”
“Language please, Miss […]. Can we maybe say bejeezus?”
“Yeah, right. Massacred the bejeezus. Anyway, for all they know, these people might’ve been just civilians, or they might’ve been some of the Viet-whatsums, they didn’t know.”
“Whatever. The whole point is, they didn’t know, they just did it because they was frustrated and needed to do something.”
Gatsby puts up his hand, but doesn’t wait to get called on. “It isn’t right though, either way.”
Everyone is looking at him and he shrugs. “Well, it isn’t. Maybe they did it ‘cause they were frustrated, and maybe if it was those Viet Cong guys, they had a right to go in like soldiers. After all, it was a war. But that in no way makes it right to go around shooting little babies in the head and raping the women the way they did, and dumping all the bodies in a $%&@ing hole. That shit is never right.”
Then he goes back to scribbling violently in his notebook. He always says things like he knows that they are true, and like he’s angry that no one else will say them. So I try and write down how he always sides with the murdered and the oppressed, when no one else seems to notice them beyond the homework questions.
The problem with Gatsby is, he cares about things. A lot. He’s loud and impulsive and has terrible, terrible judgment, but his emotional rawness is the part of him that seems truly impossible to bear. I have an idea that he’s always trying to blunt it, to tamp it down. He’s trying to stifle it, but it still comes out in little ways every single day, and all his coping mechanisms involve sex, violence, drugs.
It’s the middle of November and he isn’t doing well. He comes into class looking miserable and sweaty. Sometimes he gets saltines from the cafeteria ladies and eats them in tiny fragments, staring straight ahead. Tully doesn’t usually let us bring food in, but he never says anything about the crackers, or the way Gatsby will sometimes raise his hand with his eyes closed. Ask to be excused in a low, steady voice.
Today, Gatsby was sitting at his desk, arms pressed against his stomach. It was just before the bell, and Valentine was talking softly. She stood over him with her hands in the pockets of her motorcycle jacket. “What’s wrong? Don’t you feel good?”
“$%&@,” he whispered. “No, I don’t feel good.”
“What’s the matter?”
“Can’t $%&@ing puke.” He was taking long measured breaths, keeping his eyes closed. “I been trying all day, but I can’t. I’m so sick though. ” He pressed his forehead against the desktop.
“You messed-up, or what?”
“I was, I was yesterday, but not now. I’m just sick now.”
“Can you drink anything? Some water? It might help.” She smiled a little. “Or, at least make you puke, I guess.”
He laughed without opening his eyes. “That would be nice.”
Her face was gentler than usual. Tired. She said, “You’ve got to stop doing this, Gatsby.”
He nodded, covered his head with his arms.
She moved closer and I thought she was going to touch him. Instead, she let her hand drop to her side, said, “Jesus, Gatsby. I mean, Jesus.”
She looked timid suddenly, and at a loss, like they’ve never had this conversation before when lately it seems like they have it every week.
“You’ll be okay?” she said finally.
He nodded. Put his arms around himself and held on.
This is the thing I remember that I didn’t know how to put into words: she reached for him—she did. Her fingernails were painted a soft shell-pink that seemed out of place with her leather jacket, her dark eye-makeup. The distance between them was like a physical pain, like the distance between Michelangelo’s Adam and the hand of God. Her fingers floated above his head, hovered along the back of his neck, his shoulder blades.
I waited and waited for her to touch him, but she didn’t.
Gatsby and Valentine have a strange relationship. They move in completely different social circles, but still wave to each other in the halls, still look at each other from across the room and laugh. I have a vague impression they might be neighbors, that they’ve known each other since they were little.
Valentine will talk to him in ways no one else will. Maybe because other people are scared, but mostly I think they just assume Gatsby has already achieved some sort of permanent condition and nothing they say will make a difference.
Pixie said, “Gatsby, you are going to be dead before you’re 25!”
Gatsby just looked at her matter-of-factly and said, “It happens.”
“But it doesn’t $%&@ing have to happen to you!” Valentine’s voice was furious and she slammed her book shut.
Gatsby shrugged, tilted his head back. “Fact is, shit happens, okay?”
“No,” said Valentine coldly. “It is not ‘okay,’ Gatsby.”
“People die,” he told her, as if that was an excuse for him to $%&@ himself up.
Valentine looked at him and her eyes were hard. “Gatsby.” She smiled a sharp smile suddenly, shaking her head. “Gatsby . . . I mean . . . Jesus.”
He laughed. “I know it, baby. I know.” He reached out a bruised hand and punched her lightly on the shoulder. She smiled and he flicked his hair out of his eyes. And they are just so easy together. So nice. For some reason, it almost makes me sad.
At first I think he’s just trying to seem tough, jaded, thuggish. But the more I watch, the more I decide that what he’s actually doing is trying to make things easier on people, to make his slow slide easy on Valentine. He’s trying to make her not care.
When people talk about him, it’s often in the bare, chilly terms of what he deserves. Seventeen-year-old Brenna thinks about that word a lot. It seems like such a stupid word, deserves. In class, he puts his arms around himself, closes his eyes. His voice is usually warm and easy, but it was cracking the day we talked about Martin Luther King and the Civil Rights Movement.
He said, “But how could they do that? How could they put them in jail, just for being peaceful?” And it bothered him so much that it wasn’t fair. Like at seventeen, he hasn’t already figured out that nothing’s fair.
When he breathes out, sometimes he sounds wounded.
The thing Mr. Tully simply accepts (and what Oswald will never see) is that no matter what they seem like on the surface, the kids in his class are still kids, and no matter how destructive and damaged they might be, they still need someone to see them for their better parts.
Crystal loves trivia, historical minutia, but mostly, she loves motivation—causality. Gatsby is compassionate and Valentine is strong, and Charles just wants everyone to like him. They’re delinquent and loud and constantly in trouble.
They’re still just people.
No discussion topic today, so I want you to tell me. Anything.
*Don’t worry—my normal counselor returns from vacation and gives me back all my art classes on the condition that I sign up for two semesters with the hard English teacher. Because she’s wise to me and has realized that I’m incredibly lazy.
**Oh, come on. You didn’t really think I was going to introduce a character like Jane and then not have it go anywhere?