Tim Hedges holds degrees from Cornell University, The Ohio State University, and the University of Michigan where he received a Hopwood Award. His fiction has appeared or is forthcoming in the The Gettysburg Review, Harpur Palate, Sycamore Review, Summerset Review, and other journals. He teaches in the Sweetland Center for Writing at the University of Michigan, and he lives near Detroit with his wife and son.
The Things You Can Not Say
In September, five days after the towers have fallen - a time when the world seems to be on roller skates - the gloomy kid in your homeroom burns off his face. You have been a teacher for exactly twelve days. You hear the stories, whispered by sophomores in the back row of English class, muttered in the faculty lounge by teachers using their "kids-today-are-so-stupid" voices. You don't really know the boy, Chris Wildes, age 15, school ID#10255. You can barely recall his voice, his haircut, his frown. He is just one of the 150 who wander in and out of Room D302 every day from 7:25 to 1:51 and occasionally blink in your direction.
It was, as they say in Massachusetts, "a rippah." Parents out of town. Older brothers buying beer. Rumors scattering like the contents of a pinata. Chris was there with his boys, the ones who pull their sweatshirt hoods over their all-black Red Sox caps and try to look stoned even when sober. A few years ago, you crashed these parties looking for girls, swallowed whole by the spectacle of your classmates' revelry. A few years ago, Chris may have hitched a ride in the backseat of your Geo. But on the evening in question, you were at home grading essays while the wrestling team was filling a cool kid's toilet bowl with gasoline and, one by one, bending down to huff the fumes. Around midnight Chris found the upstairs bathroom empty, and, drunk off his ass, failed to notice the odor. He took a cigarette from one pocket and a lighter from the other. He was having a great night.
When the explosion rocked the house, everyone ran: the wrestling team, Chris's best friends, the cheerleader whose bedroom was now in flames. It is something teenagers do. They run. Chris ran, too, stumbling down the stairs, his calls for help unanswered. Everyone was gone. Some were blocks away, already popping mints and preparing the stories they'd tell their parents. A firefighter found Chris, hairless and alone, on the floor by the kitchen sink.
You are here, in this public high school north of Boston, by accident. You are not trained as an educator, but you did pass a state licensing exam that featured, among other challenges, a one-page dictation of a friendly letter. A buddy got you the job because, like half of your graduating class, you have no idea what to do with your life. Your $200,000 Ivy League diploma is in a box in your dirty apartment in Somerville where the rent is $1550 a month. The government wants you to begin repaying your student loans in ninety days. Your commencement speaker's bubbly proclamation was correct: your real life has begun. And you are back in high school.
Or maybe it's no accident. Maybe this has always been the job for you - teaching, a service to the community, a noble rejection of fortune and fame. Or maybe it's just fate that a school would take a chance on an uncertified smart-aleck who impressed the principal during his interview by talking about high school football. Besides, once you get past the uncertainty that strangles you every morning when the bell rings, you recognize the creative opportunities that lie before you like a map that never stops unfolding. You have visions of students dedicating a yearbook in your honor, filming powerful documentaries about their lives, writing sentences that move you to tears, thanking you again and again for showing them that "learning can be fun." You also have visions of Chris, screaming on the kitchen floor, surrounded by smoke.
Chris's desk is empty in homeroom, and the days pull apart like blank sticky-notes, each identical to the one before. Quizzes, homework, scuffles in the halls. "Yo, Evan, you gonna get broke." "Step back, Teacher Man. Get out of my face." Now that you find yourself seated behind the biggest desk in the room, a bridge-less canyon yawns before you. Your students' high school memories (just like your own) will fail to include reports from the opposite side. Glory for some; torture for the rest.
Nicole comes in beaming, flashing her Homecoming pictures for everyone to see, while Jennifer crouches in the back corner, drawing animated characters inside the cover of her geometry book. It is natural to like Nicole, so silly, so happy, so easy to read. Jennifer, bless her heart, remains a mystery. She doesn't laugh at your jokes or raise her hand or look anyone in the eye. She writes well, pays attention in class, gets Bs on her work. But each time you pass her desk, you are afraid to speak because, quite simply, you don't know what to say. She seems so fragile, so aware. The wrong word might shatter her shell. You hand back her essay, and, hating each trite syllable that trips off your tongue, tell her to keep up the good work.
During lunch period, you sit at your desk and slowly chew your turkey sandwich as the motion-sensitive overhead lights go dark. The things you cannot say are beginning to eat you alive.
Every day, your mind fills with millions of unspoken thoughts. "I'm sorry you are medicated, Lauren, but that doesn't give you the right to treat everyone like crap." Or, "Leave Jimmy alone, you little pricks; his mom is dying; he's allowed to be weird." When the seniors graffiti your Pakistani student's locker with signs that say "Little Osama," you want to slam them into the wall and scream until their ears bleed.
How nice it would be to speak their language: "Hey, Savannah, you fat piece of shit, next time you come to class 15 minutes late, why don't you just skip it and go fuck yourself instead." Your actual routine ("Savannah, you owe me a detention. Talk to me after class.") makes you feel unreal, a bad actor in a poorly-scripted play.
You see kids struggling every day, summoning the courage to ignore the venom, to choose a seat in the cafeteria and cling to it until graduation. "Who are we?" they say with their eyes. "What are we doing here?" You want to reassure them that life gets easier, that one day they will find their place. But their ambivalence is your own. Your answers would be lies.
One of Chris's friends is in your fourth period study hall. You want to ask him how Chris is doing. You've heard about the skin grafts, the hopeless eyebrows. You know Chris is alive. You want to say the right thing, be the kind of teacher who can put the world back together for kids even as it crumbles around their feet in a cloud of dust. You wait for the magic words that will rearrange the marbles in their heads. But no angel appears and tells you what to say. You stare at a shelf of workbooks and realize you're the one lacking in vocabulary. Your concern will never sound sincere to an audience whose diet is heavy on apathetic sarcasm and video clips of people stapling their hands to coffee tables. Besides, no one has mentioned Chris in months. Talk has turned to pep rallies and SATs and, by the way, did you know Matty is throwing a rippah this weekend? Everyone will be there.
Because there are so many things you can not say to your students, you have developed a habit of speaking to their essays. Kenny Green's response to "The Raven" announces: "The narater should get a gun and shoot that bird down if it bugs him so much." This is Kenny's third straight assignment that has mentioned gunplay. "What is wrong with you?" you say to his sloppily typed pages. "Why do you want to shoot everything?" In the right-hand margin you write: This is a fair reaction, Kenny, but can you think about why the narrator doesn't take this kind of action? What's bothering him?
"What's bothering you, Kenny?" you say to the essay and put it in the wire basket marked 6thPeriod.
According to state officials, the Hispanic students are performing below the school's average on standardized tests. "What can we do about this?" Dr. Nelson says at a department meeting in March. A veteran teacher grumbles that it's hard to get them to do their work because they are coming from a culture that promotes laziness. "It's not like that with the other foreigners," she says. "My Indian kids are great." You slide lower in your seat as other teachers agree. Sirens swirl behind your eyes, but you say nothing. You are the last hired. You don't need enemies; you need a job.
When Dr. Nelson asks why the students with learning disabilities also are performing below standards, you take out the packet of test results she has given you, and you write: Let's Blame God.
In May, before you hit your sophomores with Animal Farm, you bring in a bag of chocolate bars and try to recreate the Russian Revolution by distributing the candy unevenly. Jennifer is in the back row, biting a fingernail, as you channel Lenin and preach the values of a society where wealth spreads beyond the rich and the powerful, where everyone's voice is heard. Nicole gets the hint and rallies the class to hand over their treats so everyone will get an equal share. You pass out plastic weapons to three of the loudest boys and appoint them "Community Officers."
You are distributing the "membership cards" you made last night at 1 a.m. when there is a commotion in the back of the room. Jennifer, surrounded by boys, is clutching her purse to her chest. Looking in your direction as if for a sign, she slowly denounces Nicole's plan as an outrageous act of socialism and refuses to join the community. Carter, one of your "Officers," shoots her in the head with a water pistol and takes her candy. You watch, horrified and amused, as they drag Jennifer's desk into a corner and label it the Graveyard of Traitors. The Revolution, you announce, is complete.
You look at the clock, already plotting what you will say tomorrow, how you will attempt to explain what just happened. Your room is full of giddy teenagers, munching on chocolate, shooting streams of pistol water into each other's mouths. Jennifer sits in her graveyard, empty-handed, but with a satisfied grin. When the bell rings, she shuffles past your desk, and, for the first time ever, doesn't look away when you tell her you'll see her tomorrow. "Thanks, Mr. H," she says. "That was fun."
During your monthly conference with Mr. Cooper, your assigned "Mentor," you tell him about Jennifer and the chocolate bars. "Good for you," he says. "Next year, you'll perfect the activity, and it will be even better." Next year, you repeat in your head. This man has been so generous, how can you tell him you're not sure there will be a next year?
Mr. Cooper has parked his Chevy in the same spot for thirty Septembers. On a cork strip above his chalkboard, he proudly displays report cards from when he was a C student in this very building. During the Spring Talent Show, he busts out his guitar and hops around the stage playing Nirvana. He has found a way to survive. For months, you've been sitting at his feet and holding out your hands, ready to receive the precious words that will, at last, unfreeze your tongue.
On his desk, beneath eight layers of masking tape, is a sheet of paper containing a single quote. He listens to you complain about David, the junior who wrote his official literature response - a state requirement for graduation - about The Fast and the Furious, and then taps at the sheet with a single bony finger. "Never try to teach a pig to sing; it wastes your time and annoys the pig."
You laugh politely, but it feels as if an elevator cable has snapped somewhere inside. That can't be the answer. A choir of pigs was never your goal. "We can't save them all," Mr. Cooper says, looking away. "Unless you enjoy banging your head against a wall every day, you've got to be prepared to leave some of them behind."
After an eight-month hospital stay, Chris Wildes returns for an abbreviated schedule. The entire school attends an assembly on how to reduce health risks for victims of severe burns. "What can YOU do to help?" reads one slide during the PowerPoint presentation. At a staff meeting Principal James announces that Chris will be allowed to violate the school's No Hats policy. Driving home that day you notice Chris sitting on some crates outside a garage on Winter Street. He is with his friends, the same ones who fled when he burst into flames. He is holding a lit cigarette, and, though his face is textured and discolored like the Scarecrow's and he no longer seems to have any lips, you swear that he is smiling.
You drive home in silence and think of what to say to Chris in homeroom. How will you manage to look him in the remains of his face? Will you pretend that everything's normal? Will you say what you really think, that you pity him, that you want to shake him until he snaps, that deep down you're beginning to believe that maybe boys like Chris get what they deserve? This terrible thought triggers another: What have I become?
You imagine pulling up a desk and giving Chris some tough love. You conjure scraps of movie scripts and tell him the future is wide open. He can study harder, find new friends. "Chris," says the tape in your head, "you're heading down a dangerous road." Chris stares back, saying nothing, and you wonder who is most at risk for throwing his life away? Chris or you?
But you know this conversation will never happen. Chris's return is sadly predictable. He will sit in the back row, and no one, including you, will look at him. You will all carry on your routines, pretending that nothing has happened, each of you ashamed of the things you can not say.
In June you receive good news. Your contract has been extended. All you have to do is sign.
That night you lie in bed thinking of all the things you could do with your life. Law school, Peace Corps, public relations. Chris Wildes's face shows up inside your eyelids, and you fight the irrational feeling that you are somehow responsible for its deformity. No matter what you say to Chris or to any of your students, you know it won't be long before the next kid ruins his own life. Your mind fills with images of scorched skin, twisted metal, blades digging into flesh.
You are faced with a choice. You can give up the 5:30 alarms, the crippling sensation that you have lost your voice. This job was a filler. Why not join the thousand other teachers who, according to the Alliance for Excellent Education, leave the profession every day? Just like Chris, you still have time to be anything you want to be. How easy it would be to race into the night, ignoring the flames that you've left behind.
Even teenagers understand: sometimes the only way to avoid trouble is to run.
Your first year is over. You have survived the explosion. You promise yourself that if you return, you won't be so afraid to act, so reluctant to say what needs to be said. Words of inclusion, encouragement, scorn. Your options are simple. You can rely on someone else to heed the echoing cries for help, or you can refuse to remain silent amidst the chaos.
You can stay.