I thought I really wanted a new job. The community college I teach for is 25 miles of back roads away, and I also teach college-level classes at a high school 45 miles of slightly nicer back roads away. Budget cuts and faculty layoffs the previous year were making things even tougher. I knew I wanted to be done with driving, and I thought I wanted to be done with teaching high school students.
I was teaching freshman composition and creative writing. For nine months, I’d had the same kids in both classes. There were just 13 students, so by the third or fourth week, I knew their writing styles and was beginning to know their senses of humor and work ethics. After 32 weeks, I thought I knew them quite well. Then one day, I found out just how much they trust me and maybe even look to me for advice. It was, and still is, rather scary.
During the 10-minute writing session that we have each class, there was scuffling in the back. The kids are pretty good at hushing up once I tell them, but this kept happening every few minutes: slightly raised—and hurt—voices, a few students talking over each other. It settled down a bit as we moved on to peer review. The class split into four groups, and then the chattering started again. Amanda was sitting with three other young women who were trying to read and critique each other’s work, but their eyes kept darting over to Eric and Joe.
“Does this have anything to do with class?” I asked.
“Nope,” a few voices said.
I knew I wanted to be done with driving, and I thought I wanted to be done with teaching high school students.
“Good. Then keep it out of here. Keep reading.”
I headed back to the front of the room and tried to figure out who still owed me papers as the semester drew to a close. After a bit, I told the students they had five more minutes for peer review, and then something in the back started up again. Someone was very upset.
“Do we need to talk about this?” I said as I stood up, fully expecting them to say no and hush up again. Instead, first Amanda and then her entire group said, “Yeah, can we? Let’s talk about it.”
Out it came. Amanda began. Her big brown eyes, rimmed with a bit of liner and a bit of red from holding back, looked at me, then away. “Last week, Eric asked me to prom,” she said. “And then three days later, he tells so-and-so"—I missed the name—"that maybe he shouldn’t have asked me, that I am too boring, and that he would have a better time without me. So I asked him and he said, ‘Yeah, I said that.’”
“Boring? He said you were boring? Did you say that?” I asked Eric.
“Yeah, I did,” he replied. “But you see, I went home the night I asked her, and I was thinking about it and I thought I might not have as good a time as if I went by myself. And if I don’t have a good time, she won’t have a good time.”
“Oh, that’s real selfless of you.” I couldn’t help but dig. Eric started to suspect that I might not be on his side. He’s a wrestler—red hair, adorable, not too tall, but charming and lazy. The kind of boy girls fall for because he’s clueless and seems to need help.
“She can go with someone she’ll have a better time with,” Eric continued.
“I waited for you to ask me—I waited for you,” Amanda said, hinting that she might have turned down a few guys, or at least heartily discouraged them, because of Eric. I was definitely in Mom mode at that point; it was all I could do not to emulate my mother and say, “Shame on you.”
“So now all her friends are running around calling me an asshole,” Eric said, whining.
“Well, you are an asshole,” I said. “I thought you were a stand-up guy. Is this what a stand-up guy does?”
“But if I don’t have a good time...”
“Please,” I interrupted. “You asked her, you should have sucked it up, then go and have whatever time you have. You asked her and you backed out.”
Amanda wasn’t looking our way right then, but her girls were. I was wondering whether I’d get in trouble for calling Eric what I’d called him.
“Well, I guess I’m not a stand-up guy, then,” he said sarcastically, but with a certain tone. I have four pretty much grown-up kids, two boys and two girls, and I knew that tone. It meant that Eric was hurt and feeling stupid and not ready to admit it.
“But it’s been a week, and they’re still calling me names,” he said.
“You can ask every girlfriend and every wife and every mother you ever have if this was a bad thing to do,” I suggested, “and they will tell you that it was a bad thing to do. Who here thinks people will still be talking about it at their five-year reunion?”
I raised my hand. So did everyone else, except Eric and Joe. “Maybe, if you’re lucky, they won’t remember at your 10th. A week is nothing.”
Eric wasn’t looking too good. He was confused and, I assumed, sorry that he thought he’d had a very good reason, five minutes ago, for telling someone he’d changed his mind. I thought about it later, and I should have told him that line from the movie Moonstruck: “What you don’t know about women is a lot.”
“Everybody does these kinds of things, Eric. Take your licks and get over it,” I said. “It’ll work out.”
“Yeah,” said Justin. “I’ve done some really dumb things before.”
“Everyone has done dumb things before,” I said.
The rest of the class hadn’t said much until then. There were murmurs of support for both sides, and we tried to get back to work. Eric was quiet the remainder of the period.
We ran through assignments, and all the while I wondered if I could, or should, try to take Eric aside and soften the blow a bit. He was hurt by my reaction and dazed by how wrong everyone thought he was; I could feel it. I let class out a bit early, but when I looked up, he was already gone. Amanda’s posse nodded to me as they left.
I don’t worry about the Amandas of the world. I worry about the Erics. Amanda will have this story to tell forever. She will have been wronged, and people will dash about her during the prom, and she’ll have a great time with whomever she accompanies. Eric will forever wonder what the hell happened. He’ll slink around the prom floor unable to avoid the whispers or outright glares of Amanda’s posse.
What’s 45 miles of sort-of back roads compared with teaching 13 almost-grown people how to love words and writing, and maybe themselves?
And if he fails to learn from his mistake, he won’t understand why his new wife is upset by his playing the slots on their honeymoon, or he won’t get how hurt his mom is when he teases her too much about her gray hair. Maybe when he’s 40, or 53, he will get it. His daughter will come home, hurt by a boy, and then he’ll get it. He may still not understand why women get hurt, but he will understand that they do. Then, maybe, he’ll avoid doing the hurting himself.
So now I don’t know if I can give this up—teaching high school students. I am sorry I had to be rough on Eric, but I think he’ll forgive me, and I am honored that my students confided in me. Next year, my last child goes off to college, so maybe I should keep teaching high school. How else am I going to keep up with clothes styles, rap artists, and whether clear or red toenail polish is in this year? How else am I going to remember how hard and wonderful it is to grow up? What’s 45 miles of sort-of back roads compared with teaching 13 almost-grown people how to love words and writing, and maybe themselves?