The Bad Class

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.”

“Did you?”

“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.”

“Viet Cong.”


“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?

11 thoughts on “The Bad Class

  1. Gatsby breaks my heart. You know how certain characters bury into your soul until they become a part of you? Gatsby has done that. I sometimes worry about him. Which is ridicules. Somehow, it’s more ridicules because he isn’t even fictional. Worrying will do nothing because he has already lived this part of his life, assuming he survived it.

    This is what I’m telling you:
    I love being at college. Did you like it? I couldn’t stand living in the dorms, so I’ve rented an apartment, and I love it.
    But, I’m in a special college, that’s a part of a larger university. It’s for intelligent, slightly insane, nonconformists called Fairhaven. Which is lovely. But it’s interesting being part of what the rest of the university calls “that hippie school”
    This is what my anthropologie professor said to a girl who told a story about a scraggly looking guy.
    Girl: … And he was all dirty and messy and wearing this big long coat…
    Prof: Fairhaven?
    Rest of class: Hahahaha!
    I told the girl next to me that I was offended (jokingly), and she was totally shocked that the blond, in jeans a tee shirt and a cardigan, with the big smile was a Fairhaven hippie. I adore being a nonconformist among the nonconformists.

    But, I miss the kind of people who don’t go to university.

    • Worrying will do nothing because he has already lived this part of his life

      I think it’s okay to worry retroactively, though—I mean, worrying doesn’t accomplish anything in the here-and-now either, so I think it’s just a very human response. It seems like empathy, not action, I guess is what I’m saying.

      love being at college. Did you like it?

      You know, I really, really did. The first two years were a very strange time in my life, almost like a holding pattern. For those two years, I dated some, but didn’t really have boyfriends. It was like I could just sense how all the boys (even ones who might turn out to be wonderful later) weren’t what I was looking for just then. What I did have was friends—the kind who’d read the books I’d read and liked to talk about the things I liked to talk about. It was unbelievably exciting.

      I adore being a nonconformist among the nonconformists.

      I take such a perverse delight in this, and I don’t even know why. One of my favorite things sometimes is to just put on a frilly dress and high heels and drive around listening to really loud gangster rap. I’m easily amused. Also, I have a very hard time explaining my sense of humor. To anyone.

  2. Thanks for this. Reading your high school stories, I think about how beautiful it is that you *saw* these people, which is exactly what I most wanted when I was that age (doesn’t everyone?). When I was in high school, I was like Gatsby in the sense that I cared about things, mostly historical-type things, so much that I couldn’t contain it and that I had a hard time dealing with the fact that other people didn’t care. I remember thinking about how I always seemed to have too much emotion and not enough places to put it. Maybe this was partly my fault, because as much as I wanted to be close to other people, getting to that place of trust and opening up was (and is) hard for me. I like to think that I’m better now and being honest with myself, and other people, about what I want :)

    • which is exactly what I most wanted when I was that age (doesn’t everyone?)

      The funny thing is, for a long time, I thought I didn’t. (I’m pretty sure I was wrong.) Now I think I just wanted to be seen on my own terms, not as a mystery or an introvert or a 17-year-old girl, or whatever it was that I seemed to be on the surface.

      I remember thinking about how I always seemed to have too much emotion and not enough places to put it.

      A year after this, I had a very good friend who had a lot of the same visceral reactions to a lot of the same historical atrocities, but he was a good communicator and we could always talk about it—sometimes for hours. It was just much more balanced than Gatsby, much more livable. I think that was really the first time I consciously understood how big a difference talking could make.

      I like to think that I’m better now and being honest with myself, and other people, about what I want

      Even today, I think this is one of my biggest challenges. Even though I totally understand the benefits of communication, sometimes it just seems very hard!

  3. It’s so interesting that when you’re young, context makes you who you are. The entire time, you believed that you were the good girl because you were different from the people in your history class. While this was happening, Oswald thought that you were a bad kid–simply because of what you were wearing on one particular day. It makes you wonder what ‘the good kids’ were wearing to these meetings. Suits and ties? Choir robes? Nothing but bumper stickers that say ‘my child is an honors student?’ It makes you wonder if people like Oswald are actually capable of believing in a good teenager.

    Also, Gatsby’s world view makes me want to kick him. There’s no sense in hurting yourself because other people suck. It makes me mad and it makes me think that he was extremely selfish if he honestly believed that he was compelled to launch himself into an early grave because the world is a dark place. That’s probably very judgmental of me. But I feel really bad for Valentine because she was probably trying her best make up centuries of war and poverty and starvation. I wonder how many times she wondered why her friendship wasn’t enough to sustain him. If I were in her shoes, I think I could see myself hating him after a while.

    • It’s so interesting that when you’re young, context makes you who you are.

      This has always fascinated me *so* much. Even the times when it’s frightened or bothered me, I’ve always been interested in the way a person’s identity can seem very fluid, especially when it’s still developing in the first place.

      The clothing issue was one that I stubbornly refused to understand at the time and although I get it just fine now, I still think it’s stupid. My sister and I didn’t really dress like anyone else in school (largely because all our clothes were thrift-store DIY, so there was never even the chance of someone showing up in the same shirt). It was a very . . . neutral era. The palette of everything was earth tones and I look awful in beige, so while everyone else was wearing faded-wash jeans, tucked-in T-shirts, and brown Doc Marten oxfords, we rambling around in dark 1970s denim and camis made from old-lady blouses and cut-up negligees. Suffice it to say, we Looked Like Trouble.

      And yeah, Gatsby was pretty much a mess. He was amazingly selfish, even though I don’t think he would have viewed himself that way at all. He came from a really chaotic household, and maybe as a result, he had this way of seeming most comfortable when he was in physical pain—like the parameters had been defined and now he knew exactly what he was dealing with. I don’t think he and Valentine were actually that close, but they seemed familiar with each other in the way that comes from knowing someone a long time, like a permanent fixture. She had this way of visibly disengaging from him, even while they were still having a conversation. It was like she could just step back and detach herself.

  4. You were right: Gatsby continues to break my heart. As do your careful and quiet observations about him. I admit to getting teared up about him…again.

    Thank you for seeing people as people that matter, both then and now.

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