It’s gotten to the point where my eyes skim over the faces in the room as I walk in, rather than charge any of them with an invitation to dive into the class. I place my laptop on the bare blond desk and drop my backpack to the floor with a rattling thud, then busy myself taking folders out and shuffling papers while they sit at their desks, waiting. Waiting for the boredom to officially start, perhaps. Sometimes I chat with my two semi-buds in the front row—Kevin, who struggles with spelling and punctuation, and Lainey, sincere yet scattered, wishing she could complete the homework but tortured by some unspeakable inability. They are the ones who pull a desk into place for me when I ask everyone to circle up, the students who side with my perspectives, often against their peers, without really brown-nosing. They are the ones I feel sorry for when the others fire me into a boil.
Anyway, the period begins predictably with Aron’s orangutan entrance from the hallway. He explodes into our space, growls and pumps his fists and leaps instead of walks, sometimes bounding up onto a chair and down again before he plunks down his butt and collects himself. He’s either hyperactively jazzed or leaning his head against the back wall with his eyes closed; there’s not much in between. Oddly enough, he always does his work, and offers fairly insightful observations during our class discussions, when he’s not tapping the head of a heavy-chested girl named Nicki in front of him, or suddenly jumping up, twirling around and sitting back down, or taking a little rest behind those closed lids. He’s got this voice that trips out of his mouth too fast, a way of jutting out his jaw when he talks as though his picket-fence-like bottom teeth want to be noticed first, and dark, curly hair. He reminds me of the kind of slick Italian boy I might have pursued on Revere Beach when I was fifteen.
The aforementioned Nicki used to try so utterly hard. She would raise her hand to every single question I posed. She would say hello to me jauntily each time she saw me during passing times, even unabashedly, in front of her friends (the ones who saw little value in making nice-nice with teachers who were just going to screw you over, anyway), sometimes multiple times per day. Her mom gushed over what a good girl she was at our first PTA meeting, particularly since she and her husband had divorced and now it was “just Nicki and me against the world” in a Hallmark Hall of Fame Monday Night Movie sort of way, and I actually had to agree because at the time, Nicki was a good girl. But lately, she has stopped talking except in the form of whispery side comments to her neighbors on either side of her. I want to huck a book at her head just as much as I want to huck a book at Jeremiah’s when he snickers at the gall (or the stupidity or the laziness or the incompetence) I display in handing back papers that they passed in two months earlier.
So today I go in with my whole body already quivering with tense anticipation. I know that I am going to flip over something, and that it is going to happen early on. Yesterday, ten students were unable to show me completed exercises in acquiring four to six secondary source quotations for their Great Gatsby research papers. Out of the seven that did show me their sorry-ass miserable pencil scratches on pieces of rumpled notebook paper, five gave me only two quotations, or no inferences, or just page numbers, claiming that they had the important passages underlined in their books, which, of course, they happened not to actually have with them, as, naturally, they had been reading the novel right before going to sleep the night previous, and, unfortunately, had left it on their bedside table, to be, certainly, picked right up in the morning and perused even more before they did anything like brush their teeth or eat. So I don’t waste any time today flipping open my gradebook and holding it tightly against my chest in pure hardcore, no-nonsense teacher fashion. “Take out your thesis statements and outlines,” I request, and give them about a minute to reach into their bags (because, you know, they would never just take the initiative to figure out that I might be asking to see their homework at the beginning of class, just like I do every day, and get ahead of the game by having it already on their desks before the bell has rung).
I start down Row One. Vanessa, as usual, mid-rummage, looks up at me and says, “I don’t have it,” in a tone that also says, “Did you expect anything different?” Benny has a few lines done, though his handwriting is so miniscule that he could have written a grocery list and I wouldn’t know. A few encouraging samples ensue—one of them from Aron, one from Nicki. From there, the path I follow up and down the remaining columns of desks leads right into a cavern of brainless woe. They have coughed up only pathetic carnage…letters, question marks, bullets, dashes, as though each and every one of them found themselves unprepared to wrestle violently with this task. They have lost the battle and are left with the dribs and drabs of outline excrement.
“These aren’t outlines,” I complain. “You are writing a seven-to-eight-page paper. How can your outline be only four sentences long?”
“But you didn’t give us any directions for outlining,” Charles pipes up.
I just look at him. A guffaw escapes my throat before I can stop it. “Okay…so you don’t know how to write an outline?”
“You told me to look on the class website and I’d find directions on what to do,” he continues, “and I did, and there wasn’t anything.”
“I told you to look at the agenda sheet on the class website to find out due dates,” I say. “I didn’t tell you that there would be extensive directions on outline-writing.”
“But if we have no directions, how are we supposed to do it?”
I survey the seventeen bodies slumping in their chairs. One or two others nod or speak up in agreement with Charles. Per usual, when it comes time to kvetch, they have no trouble vocalizing their thoughts; if they invested that much interest and verve in their assignments, they wouldn’t be failing the course.
“So not one of you has ever heard of an outline before?” I stand with my feet apart, arms crossed. Everything is trembling. I can feel the electric charge of irrepressible irritation prickling under my skin. Nobody answers me. “Okay. Raise your hand if you have never heard of an outline before.” Again, nobody budges. “So I’m right when I assume that, in your eleven years of grade school, you have had experience with outlines at some point?” Wide eyes, focused on mine. “Okay, then,” I say, “so I don’t understand the problem.”
“Probably because you’re the problem.” Charles’s lips press together smugly with the arrow he’s just shot, straight at my apparently enormous ego.
The floor tilts beneath my feet and I find myself sliding. My torso sways. I drop my pen. The faces before me melt into a flat beige landscape. This room full of students is as bland as a sea of white bread.
“You’re absolutely right,” I say to Charles in the mystified voice I usually save for reading fairy tales to my two four-year-old nieces. “You’ve nailed it. I am foolish enough to believe in you and your capacity for independent thinking. I am foolish enough to assume that you would take initiative and draw on prior knowledge to complete an assignment on your own. I am foolish enough to have faith that we are all here because we want to challenge one another and learn from one another.”
Faces start to bleed into focus, like reflections in a bathroom mirror hidden by steam then slowly revealed with every windshield-wiping hand across the glass. I’m feeling pretty good, after all.
“Since I’m the problem, I’m just going to go over here, now,” I say, “and take a little rest.” I travel around the desk and descend into the 1970s orange cushion that spits tufts of yellowed stuffing. I place my head on the desk. Its veneered surface feels cold and cruel against my left cheek, but it’ll do.
“If you’ll excuse me,” I add, “being a troublemaker is totally exhausting.”