Mark has to write a short story. A 3,500 word short story.
He’s on the JV water polo team, so he writes about that.
But in doing so, he has an agenda.
My English teacher is always telling us we have to write more. She wants us writing every day. She gives us daily assignments, short ones she says, only 300 words! Only! Yeah, right, only. And then weekly ones on top of those that have to be a lot longer and say more, too. I hate writing! I don’t mind talking, talking works really well for me, but writing? No way. It sucks. It takes too much effort. Everything has to be just so, not a bit like speaking where I can say anything I want, not worrying about word order or matching verbs and nouns or any of the other rules she’s always having us pay attention to. Like not ending sentences with propositions! What a silly rule to have to deal with! If that’s how a sentence wants to end, let it. That’s my opinion. She makes us think about those things, though, and marks us down when we don’t get ’em right. See why I hate writing?!
So anyways she’s always having us write something. And my griping about it just makes her get this funny looking smile on her face. She’ll look me in the eye and say, “Mark, complaining about it won’t get it done any quicker.” And she just keeps looking at me till I have to turn away. I don’t like her at all, but the feeling’s mutual: she doesn’t like me a whole lot either!
Now about these papers. Most of the time, she tells us what to write, the topic I mean, especially in the weekly papers, which is at least a little better than what she did last week. Then, she told us to write about whatever we wanted to! That sucked bad! I had to think something up all on my own, and didn’t have a clue. Not the foggiest! Thinking up what to write about was harder than the actual writing. I mean, she didn’t just say to write about anything we wanted; that wouldn’t have been all that difficult. It wouldn’t have been easy, but I could have come up with something. How about, say, something like helping my dad paint the house last summer. Choosing the paint, covering the bushes with drop cloths, scraping the old paint off, getting brushes and rollers and ladders and such all ready for the job, starting to paint—hey, I could have made that last four or five pages easy and it would have been a piece of cake doing it, but no. We could write about whatever we wanted, she said, and then she threw in the kicker, like she does. We could choose the topic, yes, but it had to be interesting, grab her attention, and say something about us.
Interesting! Writing about painting a house would have been about as boring as the painting had been, and my dad wouldn’t even pay me for it! So that wouldn’t have worked at all. ‘I dipped the brush in the paint, then dragged it to the right along the board, then back to the left, then to the right again. Then to the left. Then came the exciting part: I got to dip the brush in the paint again!’ Yeah, exciting. And then there was that ‘say something about yourself’ part.
Heck, there isn’t much about me to say. I’m just an ordinary 15-year-old guy living in an average house on an average street in an average and boring Southern California city with a couple of friends when I’m not mad at them or they’re not mad at me, a dumb sister who’s mostly a pain in the ass and talks all the time, and parents who bug me about things like keeping my room clean, getting my homework done, keeping my grades up, not drinking out of the orange juice or milk carton, and say to ‘turn the damn music down!’ all the time. (That’s my dad.) Are you bored yet? I’m bored just writing this! But that’s me, Mr. Average, Mr. Normal, so what can I write about that’s interesting and still says something about me? You can see why I had to think about it. Having to think about things isn’t who I am.
I couldn’t for the life of me come up with anything. I guess I should add ‘stupid’ or at least ‘unimaginative’ to the list describing me. Because I couldn’t think of anything, and since it was getting so the paper had to be turned in pretty soon, I went back to Mrs. Martinez again.
I caught her at her desk as all the other kids were leaving class. She looked up at me, and I’d swear I saw a pained expression on her face. Yeah, well, I love you too, Teach!
“Mrs. Martinez,” I said, “I can’t think what to write about. And I was wondering, maybe I can just sit this one out? When I get a sprained wrist or a cramp in my calf muscle, my water polo coach lets me sit out practice. Why don’t we just say I have a brain sprain this week, and I’ll sit on the bench.”
Teachers love it when we go all humorous on them. It makes them like us, makes them think we like them, that we’re in this together. So I took my best shot. But Mrs. Martinez wouldn’t know funny if it slapped her on the ass. When I finished, she didn’t try to hide her opinion of what I was saying. I could read it on her face.
“Mark,” she said, and sighed. She looked at me a moment, and then I sort of saw something flash in her eyes. I’m not real good at interpreting things, especially not coming from adults. Adults are different, you know? Not like regular people. But, I saw something. And then she said, “All right. You want me to tell you what to write, something that will satisfy the requirements of the assignment?”
Well, no, that wasn’t what I wanted. I wanted a ‘get out of jail free’ card; I wanted her to say I didn’t have to do the assignment. However, I hadn’t really expected that much out of her. She was one of the tough ones, one of the ones who wouldn’t give an inch, the ones we all hope we don’t get put in their class. So I answered her with, “Yeah.” When I said it, I didn’t have any problem controlling my enthusiasm; I didn’t have any to control.
“All right then, I’ll tell you what to write about. But you have to agree to do it. OK? You’ll do it and no quibbling. Whatever I come up with, you’ll do it. With none of your famous whines. Your Hall-of-Fame eyeball rolling. You’ll write what I tell you this time, and make it good, your best work. Which I almost never see, but which you’re as capable of as anyone in this class. More capable, actually. That’s what I need to get for letting you off the hook here.” She stopped and raised her eyebrows. Letting me off the hook. Sure she was. Not!
Damn, I didn’t need a lecture, I simply wanted her to save me from having to write anything in the first place, and if not that, at least from trying to figure out what to write about. OK, OK, I can read your mind from here. You’re thinking I should add something else to that list about me up above. You’re thinking I forgot to add ‘lazy’. Just because I didn’t want to think up something to write about. Well, screw you, too. So I don’t bother to spend much time thinking about school assignments! Big frigging deal! I’m a kid with a lot more important things going on in my life than schoolwork. Jeeze!
She sort of had me up against a wall here. If I refused, I could just guess what kind of a grade I’d get on what I turned in, writing about something I’d figured out on my own after turning down her suggestion, whatever it was going to be. And, even worse, I was kind of being forced to tell her I’d really work on this one. I hated that! Usually I just did the papers at the last minute and didn’t really think about them. If I agreed to take her suggestion, I’d have to actually work on this one. Damn! This wasn’t going like I wanted it to at all. I was getting pissed at her, big time. Why’d she have to be a bitch about this?
She was looking at me, waiting. I could tell, it didn’t matter much to her which way I went.
So I said to myself, the hell with it, and to her, “OK. Tell me what to write.” At least this way, she was being put out a little too, and I didn’t have to think of everything myself.
“And you’ll go along with the rest of what I said?”
Man, she really was being a bitch! “Yeah, OK. I’ll really work on it this time. I’ll do my best.”
She looked at me for a while, looked seriously at me, letting me know she was taking that promise seriously and that I should too, and then smiled. Didn’t make her any prettier or anything, but she did smile. I guess she was happy about me having to work hard. About having her way with me. Man!
“All right, Mark. This is what I want you to write about. Think about your life, and think about when you’ve been really embarrassed about something. Then write about it. What happened to embarrass you, how the embarrassment was resolved, how you felt about it. Be really expressive. Let me feel your embarrassment vicariously. Make me feel what you felt.”
She was looking hard at me, and her eyes seemed to be penetrating into my head. I looked back as long as I could. Then I opened my mouth to complain that that was too hard, that writing about being embarrassed would be embarrassing, that I didn’t have enough time, that this wasn’t fair, all sorts of things, but I remembered, I wasn’t supposed to do that this time. This wasn’t fair; I was really good at complaining and making excuses. But, I’d agreed not to in advance.
I don’t like giving up, so I tried one last thing.
“I get to make it just about the embarrassment, huh? Just write that, and I don’t have to use the full thirty-five hundred words? You know, sort of like a compromise?”
She laughed. “At least thirty-five hundred. Just like every weekly paper. You know the rules.”
I started to get angry. She’d tricked me with the assignment, and now she wasn’t cutting me any slack at all! But I couldn’t let her know I was getting pissed. All I could do was what I did. I just turned and walked out, not saying another word. That’d show her how I felt at least. But I don’t think I made the dramatic impression I was trying to; I’d swear I heard a chuckle as I left the room.
So, what to write about? There was something I’d been embarrassed about, really embarrassed about, that had happened recently, but I couldn’t write about that. It still was too painful to think about, and I tried not to. Whenever it popped into my head, I forced myself to think about something else. No, not that. I couldn’t.
I spent some time thinking how angry I was with Mrs. Martinez for getting me into this, and wondering what I could do to get back at her. I really wanted to do that, but it’s difficult getting back at a teacher if you don’t want to get into more trouble than it’s worth. But still . . .
I thought some more. The incident I’d just gone through kept coming back to me, and it bothered me, and thinking about Mrs. Martinez’ chuckling did too, and I thought about that, and then, then, I had the wickedest thought. Just the worst idea I’d ever had. I couldn’t do it, of course, I wasn’t brave enough to do it. Or was I? No, I couldn’t. But, well, maybe? Could I? Really?
She deserved it. But I couldn’t do it. No way. And even if I thought I could, I’d have to think about it way hard because what I’d have to do would be subtle, and I’m not really a subtle sort of guy. I’m not. I’m just me. She’d told me more than once that I was smart and there was more to me than I ever let anyone see, and I should just try, but that’s only talk; I mostly don’t even listen when she’s going on like that. But, this, this . . .
Yeah, I’d really be revealing some of that more of me if I could do what I was thinking. This would take some real thought, and I really didn’t like to think much. Not as hard as I’d have to if I was going to do this. It made me sort of shaky, just imagining my doing it.
There are some things you write for a school paper and some you don’t. You just don’t tell teachers much about how life really is for a teenager. They probably knew once, but for most of them it was so long ago they’ve probably forgotten, and their lives were different back then anyway. Didn’t they listen to the Beetles, and watch Little House on the Prairie, and have black and white TV’s? Some of them, maybe most of them, milked cows, didn’t they? I mean, those old days were strange. Do they remember having crushes on other kids, and what those feel like? What it’s like to try to hide them when you don’t want anyone to know? Do they know what kids think about during the day? Do they know what sometimes goes on when they’re out and another kid comes over? Do they have even a clue of the condition a teenage boy is in when he wakes up in the morning? And needs the john really bad? And has a younger sister who hogs the bathroom and when she comes out after you’ve been pounding on door, she looks down at your middle while you’re doing the pee dance and giggles? I don’t think so!
Everything that was a kid in me shouted I couldn’t write what I was considering. But what if I did? And if I did it right, wouldn’t it be a perfect revenge? It would. It certainly would.
I did a lot of thinking, but the feeling of anger I had, mostly toward Mrs. Martinez, was always in the background, and I think that was what motivated me even when common sense and a sense of self-preservation should have stopped me. Neither did, though. I got more and more excited, just thinking about it. The challenge of it. What she’d think. How I’d feel. And then, I did it.
Damn, it took a lot of work! I had to do it just right. For this to work, I had to come across really sure of myself. I had to sound that way. If I didn’t, it would look stupid and silly and, well, I needed to sound very confident and a little naive. Even if I wasn’t either.
This is what I wrote.
April 7, 2018
An Embarrassing Moment
By Mark Shaeffer
I play water polo on my high school junior varsity team. It’s a lot of fun, but it’s also really hard. We spend a lot of time in the water practicing just to build up our stamina and our legs because when we’re playing we have to stay upright in water that’s over our heads, guarding an opponent or staying in position to score. It’s tough.
I’m not big enough to play football or tall enough to play basketball, but I want to be in some sport, and I’ve always liked swimming. A guy I know played water polo last year, and he talked me into going out this year. I’m glad he did because I really like it.
Just being on the team is sort of embarrassing, but that’s not the embarrassing thing this paper is being written about. But being on the team is embarrassing.
It’s the suit we have to wear. Everybody wears it, even all our opponents, so there’s no point complaining. If you want to be on the team, you have to wear the suit.
They’re very tiny, these suits. They’re tiny and thin. When you wear them, everyone can see what you’ve got. And that’s embarrassing for most 15-year-old guys. When you put that thing on, it’s almost like going out onto the pool deck naked, and it feels that way the first few times. You see all your teammates feel the same way, although most of them try to hide it. You do get used to it eventually. Mostly used to it. Your teammates do too. Or pretend they do. There’s a lot of pretending going on playing water polo.
You know, though. You know they’re thinking about it all the time. Whenever they get out of the pool, they adjust their suits, first thing. They want to make sure nothing is sticking out in front, which is what happens when you’re swimming. No, not because of the really embarrassing thing that can happen. I’m not talking about that. That sometimes happens, but usually doesn’t. It’s more about gravity and physics and physiology, what I’m talking about. It’s just that swimming, and then getting out, your . . . well, you need to pull on your suit a little when you get out of the water so things are where they’re supposed to be, as best as you can, and not sticking out quite so much.
But as I say, while that’s embarrassing and something you have to get used to and not think about all the time if you’re going to be a water polo player, that’s not what this paper is about. This is about what happened two weeks ago.
I’m kind of skinny with a chest just starting to get broader and some long but not very developed muscles in my arms. I look like the majority of other guys on the team. There are a few heavier guys, and a few who do have big muscles, but most of us look sort of like me. Except I have blondish hair and most of the guys have brownish hair. I think it’s probably the hair that makes all the girls who come to our matches look at me way more than they look at the other guys, but you know what? I asked my friend, and he says all the girls are looking at him most of the time! What’s up with that? Anyway, most of us are skinny, and all the swimming we do keeps us that way. I’m hoping I look like the varsity players next year, with a really broad chest that vees down to a narrow waist and strong thighs and shoulders, and a bathing suit that looks a lot fuller than mine does now, but I have a long way to go to reach that point. Those guys are really built.
We do notice how each other looks. You can’t help it, seeing as how you’re right next to them and walking past them and talking to them and they’re all practically naked, and the not naked part might as well be, the way the suit doesn’t really hide anything. I know we all notice because water polo players have to be careful with their eyes. There’s this tendency I noticed right off, the first time I put that tiny suit on. My eyes kept dropping when I was talking to my teammates, and I saw their eyes did the same thing. You have to be careful where you look. It’s just another thing that makes water polo hard.
I know, I know, I need to get to the point here. I think I’m going on and on because what I’m going to be talking about here, the point of all this, is embarrassing, and a little difficult to write about. But putting it off is just wasting time, so, here goes.
A couple of weeks ago we were having practice like we do every afternoon. We practice after school, right after school. We have our last period class, then go to the pool, which is located outdoors in a park next to the school property. It’s just a short walk, and a lot of us go together. We enter the locker room, where it’s always loud, kids yelling at each other and the room echoing it all back at us. Spirits tend to be high, probably because school is out for the day, and we’re all happy about that, mostly about having no more dictatorial teachers to deal with, only a coach, and he’s nice as long as we don’t screw around.
At first, when practices had just begun this year, there was some tension in the locker room because we all had to get naked together. Most of us who were new this year like I was hadn’t done that before. So we were worried about it, but then we found out it wasn’t nearly as bad as we’d thought it would be. Most of the guys strip off standing facing their lockers, sometimes standing real close to their lockers, and have their suit right there ready to pull on so they’re only naked for a second or two, and no one can see them anyway because of the facing the locker thing and all. It’s the same getting dressed afterwards, too. We take showers with our suits still on, pulling them out in front so we get water on those parts, then dry off that way too, meaning with our suits still on. We only take off the suits when we’re back in the locker room standing the same way we do when we put them on. And we do it in a hurry.
Some of the guys take off their suits to shower, but this isn’t about that, and the normal guys like me sort of wonder about them, anyway.
So, a couple of weeks ago, we’re having a practice. When we practice, there can be lots of balls in the water, because one thing we do is get a partner, then pass the ball back and forth, treading water and using mostly only our legs to stay up. Being able to catch the ball one handed and throw it so your partner can catch it one handed as well are essential skills for water polo. Staying upright in the water only using your legs is the main skill. It takes a long time to get good at it.
The coach blew his whistle and said we could take a break. A lot of the guys just swam to the edge and stayed in the water, but I got out. The last ball from my partner had skipped off my hand and gone onto the deck and I wanted to get it.
I jumped out of the pool, did the suit tug that I hardly even thought about by now, and was running after the ball when I heard the coach say, “All balls to the far side of the pool.” That means we were supposed to throw them over to the other pool edge where the team managers would collect them into a huge container they have. It sits on wheels so they can take all the balls in after practice all in one trip.
I guess I have to explain something else that’s embarrassing here, again something that isn’t what this is about but needs to be mentioned so what I did next will make some sense. See, I sometimes do things without thinking them through. Like the time I was 11 and wanted to drive so badly and just couldn’t wait till I was 16. That was too far off. I was dreaming of driving all the time, and then one day my mom was pulling into the driveway and heard the phone ringing in the house. She was so eager to get the call that she left the car in park, still running, and took off for the phone. I decided this was my chance, the perfect time for me to drive. I was feeling really sure of myself, and I slid over into the driver’s seat, yanked the gearshift lever into D like I’d seen my parents do, and started up that driveway, planning to park in the garage, which would be helpful, show how well I could drive and make my mom proud of me. It was the same thing as on that pool deck, me feeling good about myself and not thinking beyond what seemed a great idea at the time.
I didn’t get hurt too badly, but we did have to have the garage rebuilt.
So you see what I mean that I sometimes let my exuberance at just being me take control instead of my head being in control. This was one of those times. Coach said to toss the balls to the far edge of the pool. I was chasing mine, and it bounced off the pole holding up an awning that was there so the coaches didn’t have to stand in the hot sun all the time. It bounced and was rolling sort of diagonally across the deck in front of me, back toward the pool, and instead of just grabbing it, instead of doing what would have been so much better, I let that exuberance sort of take over, and I kicked it towards the managers. Except I guess I was really exuberant because I really kicked it, kicked it way, way too hard.
It soared high in the air, went over the pool, and hit the top of the awning on the other side, the awning covering the few bleachers we had for people who liked to come to our matches, or people who liked to come to see guys in suits like the ones we wore, but that’s a subject for another paper.
The ball bounced off the top of that awning and kept going. The problem with that is, the awning and bleachers were right at the edge of the pool area. There was a wrought iron fence surrounding the pool area and the awning came up against that. When the ball bounced off the top of the awning, it bounced right over the fence, out of the pool enclosure, down the grassy hill that the pool was built on, and then rolled into some trees farther on.
I was sort of shocked. I hadn’t meant to do that. The coach didn’t like us messing with the balls. You weren’t supposed to use them for anything but water polo. Not to peg other kids with, or play volleyball with, or, especially, to kick. I’d not only kicked it, I’d kicked it into the next county.
A little guiltily, I looked toward the coach. He was looking at me.
“Go get it,” he said, and the way he said it, he meant right now! So I sheepishly turned and walked to the gate, then out of the pool enclosure, and across the grass, down the hill and toward the trees.
There was nobody around, which was a good thing because I suddenly realized how I was dressed. I almost wasn’t. It had come to feel natural to be like this with all the other guys around me, standing next to or swimming in the pool. Here, I was away from all that, and was wearing about an ounce of cloth, and nothing else.
It’s very normal for 15-year-old guys to be kind of shy about their bodies. As I said earlier, I’m very normal.
I walked toward the trees, hoping it hadn’t rolled in there. It was what I’ve read is called a copse, which is another way of saying a small woods. Why they have words like that is beyond me. What’s wrong with just saying ‘small woods?’ This one was at the edge of the park and also at the edge of the school grounds. It wasn’t very big, probably something like 100 feet by 100 feet, but that was big enough so that once you were in it you were hidden from the outside. I wasn’t worried about that. I was worried about the fact I didn’t have any shoes on and there could be pebbles and broken twigs and who knew what on the ground, and there were some pricker bushes in there as well.
I couldn’t see the ball, so had no choice. I walked in among the trees.
I kept moving farther in and kept looking for the ball at the same time. The balls were all bright yellow, so it wouldn’t be hard to see, I thought.
I was well into the woods, and getting a little miffed, when I heard a voice, and looked up. Sitting against the trees, cigarettes in their fingers, were three guys. I knew two of them. Those two were guys that when we were freshmen, we were told to stay away from. They were the kind of kids who were usually in trouble for something, like stealing a car or robbing a bank or something like that. I’d heard about them beating up some kids. All of them looked to be 17 or 18, all were tough looking, and all three were suddenly looking at me.
“Well, look at this,” said one I knew, one whose name was Willy. Willy Throneman. He took a drag on his cigarette, a long drag, then slowly let it all trickle out.
The other kid I knew, Bob Landers, snorted. “Doesn’t seem to have much on, does he?” Then he laughed.
The third one didn’t say anything at all. He was just staring at me, like he was seeing something he’d never seen before.
I didn’t know what to do. Turning around and running seemed, well, I didn’t want to do that even though that was the first thought I had. Nothing came to mind that seemed like something I wanted to do more, however. They looked at me, I looked at them, and then I said, “Hey, guys, you see a ball come in here?”
OK, I admit, it seems a little weak now and sounded even weaker then, and I was sort of sorry I’d said it, but I had.
None of them answered right away, but then Willy slowly stood up. And I saw the ball. It had been behind his back, cushioning him against the tree.
“Something like this one?” he asked, and moved the cigarette to his lips again.
I tried to smile, but I’m sure it looked forced. There was something about the three of them being there that was scary. My heart was beating fast. The entire circumstance just seemed menacing to me.
“Yeah, that’s it,” I said, and wasn’t sure what to do next. Finally, I just extended an arm, my hand palm up, sort of hoping he’d toss me the ball.
He didn’t. He looked at me, then sat back down and leaned back against it again.
I couldn’t see any point in staying any longer. I turned around and took my first step, meaning to walk out, but then thought of the coach. I stopped and turned back. “The coach sent me to get the ball,” I said, not liking the tremor in my voice but feeling good I’d had the courage to say it.
Willy looked at me, then at Bob and sort of nodded his head at me. Bob stood up and walked around me, then stopped behind me.
“Shouldn’t have done that, kid,” Willy said. “Should have just left when we allowed you to. Shouldn’t have stopped and come back. Going to have to pay for that. Matter of respect.”
Now my heart was really pounding. I turned and Bob was standing there with a grin on his face.
I turned back, and Willy was on his feet. The ball was still against the tree.
“What should we do with him, Al?” I guessed Willy was including the third guy. Al stood up, walked over next to me and looked me up and down. Up close, I could see he was a little older than the other two. He grinned at Willy.
“What is he, some sort of nudist? I’ve heard of them. They run around stark naked, just for the fun of it. You think he’s like that?”
Willy grinned too. “Does look like it. He wants the ball. I know what to do. Let’s trade him, the ball for the bathing suit. He gets the better of the deal because the ball sure as hell is bigger than the suit.”
I started to move to the side, hoping I could run, knowing trying to do so with bare feet wouldn’t work very well, but Al grabbed my arm so I couldn’t anyway. He squeezed, and it hurt. I stood still.
“Take off his suit,” Al told Bob, and Bob did. He came up behind me, grabbed the suit at both sides, and yanked. Down it came, my hips being too narrow to hold the suit in place even with the drawstring tightened as it was.
I think I was too scared to be embarrassed at first. Even with these guys being the only people to see me naked in years, other than the doctor who gave the team physicals. All three of them looked, and laughed. I won’t write what they said.
I said I was too scared to be embarrassed. But they kept looking, especially Al, who I could see was very enthusiastic about what was happening. They looked, and having to hear what they said, I did get embarrassed, then. Very embarrassed. I tried to cover myself up, but Al still had one arm, and Bob grabbed the other, and they all kept looking. My embarrassment turned to humiliation, but that isn’t the topic here, so I won’t say any more about that, either.
When they got tired of gawking, Willy handed me the ball. Then he picked up my bathing suit and threw it high up into a pine tree. It caught on a branch and hung there. They all laughed.
Willy stepped on his cigarette and said, “We’re outa here. You tell anyone it was us, tell anyone at all, you’ll be really sorry you made that decision. This way, all you get is embarrassed. That way, you get hurt. Up to you.” Then the three of them walked off through the trees, although Al did keep looking back. I don’t think he really wanted to leave without doing more than just looking at me.
Well, there I was. Naked with only a water polo ball. I’d been gone long enough that Coach was probably ready to send someone to find me. Should I stay here for that, or try to go back? I waited a bit, waited for my heart to slow down some, then walked to the edge of the little woods and looked out. No one was around. I could hear my teammates’ shouts coming from the pool. I held the ball in front of me and took a step out into the sunlight.
A feeling of embarrassment swept over me, different from before but the same, too. I stopped and thought, not at all eager to cross those 50 yards in front of me. What would I say to people about why I was naked? What could I say about having lost my bathing suit? Would whatever I said end up with me being teased so badly I might have to quit the team? I could avoid being teased at all if I told about meeting Willy and Bob and Al, but would that be something I should do? Would it be better to merely be embarrassed? What would the other guys think if they heard what had happened and that I’d just stood there?
I had a lot to think about.
OK, I’ve done it. I’ve written it. Now I have to have the courage to hand it in. That’s tricky. Before I do it, I have to talk to Mrs. Martinez. So, on the day the paper is due, I wait till the class is over. All the other kids file out, dropping their papers on the desk as we always do.
I just sit in my seat. When everyone is out, Mrs. Martinez looks at me.
Now most teachers, they’d have asked what the hell I thought I was doing, just sitting there. One way or another, they’d have asked. She doesn’t; she sits down and looks at me, and then raises her eyebrows.
Damn! Nothing comes easy with this woman. I seem to be able to, I don’t know, I guess the word is ‘charm’. I seem to be able to charm some of the teachers, especially some of the female ones, and can get a break now and then from them. I’ll smile at them or joke with them and act just a bit like a little boy and they usually give me what I want or let me get away with something they shouldn’t. Not with this one. I can’t get anywhere with her!
Here I am trying to get the upper hand for what comes next, and she isn’t letting me. Damn her anyway!
So I get up and lose the advantage I was planning to get by making her ask me what I was doing, just sitting there. That would have given me a little control of how things went, would have allowed me to set the tone. I walk to her desk. I have the paper in my hand. All 3,500 words of it, which of course includes everything. I make it a habit to meet her word count requirements exactly. I count every word, which includes the heading she asks for and even the ‘The End’ when I’m done. Hey, I wrote those words, didn’t I? They should count. No point in writing anything extra when I hate writing as much as I do. I keep waiting for her to announce to the class that only the words in the essay itself count, but she won’t do that. I think she knows I’d take it as a personal triumph, and so she never says a word, robbing me of that satisfaction. Have I told you she’s a bitch? There’s no love lost between the two of us, and you can take that to the bank.
So I get to her desk, and I say, “I got the paper here.”
She looks at me, and at the paper in my hand, and she says, “So?”
How can she put me on the defensive so easily, that’s what I want to know. No one else does that.
I just ignore that because what else can I do, and I forge ahead. I go, “Well, I have to say something here. I did what you wanted. I wrote something about being embarrassed, and I made it interesting, and I wrote it so you could feel the same thing I felt, and something that tells you something about me. So, here it is.” I show her the paper, but keep it in my hand. “And it’s good. I worked hard on it. You’ll see that. It’s probably the best thing I’ve ever written. But, here’s the deal. You have to promise me you’ll just grade it and then forget about it. You can’t show it to anyone else, you can’t talk about it, you can’t ask me about it. You read it and grade it and forget it. If you won’t promise me that, then I won’t hand it in and I’ll take the zero.”
I say that, and then stare at her, promising myself that this time, for once, she’ll be the one who looks away first. It’ll be like, Mrs. Martinez: 2,468; Mark: 1. But that 1 will mean something! It’ll be important to me.
She looks at me, and she sees the challenge in my eyes. She smiles. The bitch! This isn’t some dumb ass game! I’m serious here! But she smiles. I decide that means she isn’t playing this time. She’s changing the rules we have between us, tacit rules but ones I’m sure she knows as well as I do. I keep staring and she looks away, but I have no sense of having won. The smile diffused all that.
She looks back at me and in a softer tone of voice than she usually uses, she goes, “Mark, I have to say something here. My job has certain responsibilities. I take them seriously. My job is important to me, so I have to do what I have to do. So let me tell you about my responsibilities.”
She stops and stares at me some more and I start feeling self-conscious. Why did I ever think I’d have the upper hand with her even once?
“It’s a little tricky with a written paper, because in person, when someone tells me something, I have strict rules to follow, and they’re pretty specific, pretty cut and dried rules. With a paper, I have to decide if what I’m reading is the truth, or if someone is writing fiction. It makes a difference. If I decide they’re not making it up, and they write about wanting to kill themselves, or child abuse, or a few other things, I have to report it. If I decide what I’m reading is simply creative fiction, then I don’t have to report it.
“Mark, I’m telling you this because I can’t make you the promise you’re asking me to make unless you tell me this is make-believe stuff you’ve written. If it is, then I can make that promise. But if it’s real, then I can’t. So we’ve got a problem here because this assignment was for you to write about something that embarrassed you. You weren’t supposed to make something up. You knew that. So what you wrote is probably real. If you followed the assignment, then it is real. So, I can’t make that promise because I don’t know what you wrote in the paper.”
She stops and looks at me, and I look at her. And I feel something I hadn’t expected to feel. I feel a loss. A huge disappointment. Because I suddenly realize, more than anything, I want her to read that paper.
I’d written it to get revenge. She had forced me to write something I didn’t want to write and hadn’t let me off the hook when I’d asked.
And then, she had tricked me into writing about a personal embarrassment I’d suffered through. What I wanted to do, because of all that, was to embarrass her. As revenge. And what I’d done had been perfect because she’d specifically asked me to make her feel what I’d felt. I’d figured out how to use her own assignment against her! She had to feel some embarrassment, reading things about one of her students, like that pee dance business and all that stuff about our swimsuits.
The really cool part was, I knew what she wanted, because she’d told me when we’d talked. She’d said she wanted me to make her feel vicariously what embarrassment I’d felt. She wanted me to write about that embarrassment and bring it to life for her. When she was teaching us about writing like this, she used the words ‘visceral’ and ‘electric’ and said we had to involve her in what we were writing about so her emotions were as excited as those of the character we were writing about, and in the same way. That’s what she’d meant when she said she wanted to feel what I’d felt.
But I’d taken it a step farther. Yeah, maybe she’d felt my embarrassment when I wrote about what happened in the woods. But she hadn’t only felt that. I hadn’t only let her feel my embarrassment; what I’d tried to do was also embarrass her. How could she read all that stuff that came earlier, stuff that mostly concentrated on a 15-year-old boy’s personal equipment, and not be embarrassed?
I also thought I’d gotten away with murder, writing a paper like that for a teacher, but how could she complain? She’d asked for it. Anything she said, I could say I’d just been following her instructions. What I wouldn’t say is I knew I’d written something entirely inappropriate to hand in to a teacher, and gotten away with it. Revenge!
I’d felt really funny, writing all that stuff in the beginning, knowing she’d be reading it. But it had felt really good, too, because I was finally putting something over on her, and she’d asked me to do it! Actually, she’d commanded me to. But there was more, as well. This was the subtle part. She’d want to know what happened. What decision did I make, standing in those trees? What did I do? And how did it work out? She’d have to want to know. So I ended the paper without telling her, leaving her hanging. And then, as part of it, I was going to have her promise not to talk to me about it, not to ask me anything, and to promise that before reading the paper. So, afterwards, she’d be dying to know what had happened and she’d have no way to find out. Revenge!
There was more, too, but that part was just for me. I hadn’t realized it when I’d started writing the paper. Then, I’d only been trying to make her as unhappy reading it as I was at having to write it, and maybe there was just a little feeling of trying to show her how smart I could be, because she would figure out what I had done, how I’d followed her instructions but at the same time hadn’t, too. She was really good at looking inside the words we wrote in our papers to figure out what we had in our heads. She’d know. And I’d enjoy that. So that was what I’d set out to do when I began writing the paper. It was when I was part way through I discovered there was something else, something I hadn’t even been aware of.
See, what had happened that day had been bothering me ever since, and I’d been dying to tell someone about it. I’d had this bad feeling about myself ever since it happened, and it felt like if I could let someone else know about it, it might help. I needed to get rid of that feeling, and hoped this was a way to do that. I wanted to tell someone about it, but only that. I didn’t think I wanted to discuss it. I wasn’t sure why, but I simply wanted to share the burden of what had happened, thinking I’d feel it less that way.
If I could get Mrs. Martinez to promise not to say anything to anyone after reading about it, it would be perfect. I could let her know what had happened, I could even tell who had done what, something I really, really, really wanted to do, and this way there would be no repercussions for doing it. So, while I started out simply looking for vengeance, I ended up also looking to get something else out of the paper, something that didn’t involve her, but was just for me.
I’d lost something in that little woods. I’d gone into them feeling a little cocky, a little bit like I was getting pretty close to being all grown up. When those guys were holding my arms and looking at me, I started feeling things I didn’t want to feel, and some of that hadn’t gone away afterwards. I’d felt impotent, weak, helpless, scared. Embarrassment was part of that, but it quickly became humiliation when they were saying things and I knew there was nothing I could do. They were in control of me, and I hated that feeling. I felt like I was five years old again and helpless. All the self-confidence that had been growing in me the past few years seemed to have evaporated in that one little moment in the woods. I’d felt less, diminished, after that.
I’d thought, if I could tell someone, I’d be doing something, not just accepting what had happened. I’d been warned not to tell. If I did tell, I’d be standing up for myself, and I desperately needed to do that to win back some of what I’d lost. But that warning kept coming back, and the look in Willy’s eyes when he’d said it. It wasn’t an idle threat. If I told, I was sure I’d end up getting hurt, just like he’d promised.
So I really want Mrs. Martinez to read that paper. But I need her to promise that what is in it won’t go any further than just her reading it.
I have to find a way to get her to read it. I think for a moment, then ask, “Can you make the promise if I tell you there’s nothing in it about suicide, or about my parents abusing me at all?”
I don’t like my voice. It sounds like I’m pleading.
She stops and thinks. I decide about then that she really is smart, and since she isn’t blowing it off, maybe she doesn’t hate me as much as I thought. She looks at me, then away, then at me. This is difficult for her. I like that, at least.
She looks at me, doesn’t look away, and goes, “You want me to read this, don’t you?”
I told you she was a bitch! And smart, too. Neither one of those things have changed.
What can I do? “Yes,” I say.
She looks some more. Then she goes, “Let me have it.”
And I go, “You promise?
And she goes, “I won’t say anything to anyone without talking to you first. That’s the best I can do.”
I don’t like that. But she won’t budge, I know that. So I have a choice to make. I can let her read it—I hadn’t realized just how badly I wanted her to do that till there was the chance she wouldn’t—or I can just throw the thing away. And I want to do that as badly as I want to poke a pencil in my eye.
I don’t know what to do. I drop my eyes, and a moment later she puts her hand on my arm. She’s never touched me before. She holds it there, and all at once I feel tears in my eyes. I can’t let her see them. I drop the paper on her desk and walk out.
Um, well, OK. Maybe it’s not the end yet.
See, I wanted this to be a story about me and Mrs. Martinez. That was the point of it, to show what a bitch she was, how abusively she treated me and all, and how I got the better of her. But I sort of have discovered since then that she isn’t. Not so much. I found out she cares about me, and my feeling that we were having a contest of wills or something like that turned out to be just me misinterpreting things, maybe because I was a little too wrapped up in myself. And so I can’t just leave the story ending like this. It gives the wrong impression about her. So I have to go on with this a little.
Which I don’t want to do because I hate writing and it isn’t why I started in the first place. Except something else I’ve learned is I don’t hate writing quite as much as I used to. But, even if I did, what choice do I have? Even if I did still hate writing as much as before, letting everyone think Mrs. Martinez is a bitch wouldn’t be fair. So, here goes again. Jeez!
Mrs. Martinez had me stay after class the next day, and when the other kids were gone, asked if I could skip water polo practice that night and come talk to her.
“Uh, I’d have to ask my coach. He doesn’t like us to miss. I’m sort of hoping I’ll start our next game. I’m usually just a sub, but I scored a goal in our last game. If I miss practice, I don’t think he’ll start me.” I was feeling nervous. I guessed she wanted to talk about the paper. Maybe she was pissed that I’d put all that sexy stuff in there. She didn’t look pissed, but I could never tell with her.
“I’ve already spoken to Mr. Montgomery. He said it would be fine, and if I was done with you in under a half hour, I should send you to the pool for the rest of practice, but otherwise not to bother.”
“But I wanted to start....” Well, I did. And I was pretty sure I didn’t want to talk to her about the paper. I figured I was going to get reamed for it. But I was curious at the same time.
You ever do something you think is kind of good, maybe even special, and then want to know what someone else thinks of it? That’s sort of how I was. I didn’t want her to know I was feeling that way, however.
“He didn’t say anything about that. But since he gave permission for you to miss the practice, I’d guess he won’t hold it against you. He’s a teacher. He knows your education comes first.” She was using her adult, teacher-knows-all voice that I hate so much.
“OK. OK. I’ll come see you. Is it about the paper?”
She smiled, but it quickly faded and she was wearing her usual face, which wasn’t really a scowl but almost. It was her don’t-mess-with-me face. “Yes it is. I’ll see you after school then.” And she looked at me a moment longer, then turned back to what was on her desk. She wasn’t giving me a clue of what she was going to say when we met after school. She was going to let me sweat it out all day. See what I meant about her? I wasn’t just making that up!
I walked into her classroom at 3:30. She was sitting at her desk, and we were alone. She looked up at me with very little expression on her face and only inquisitiveness in her eyes. She pointed at a desk in the first row, and I slumped into it, not knowing what to expect but ready for anything.
She got up and walked over to me, then dragged another student desk up so when she sat down, we were facing each other. When she was seated, she raised her eyes to mine and seemed to study me for a moment. I don’t know why, but I started feeling like one of those mice a cobra will hypnotize with terror before eating.
I was expecting anger when she spoke, expecting a bombardment, a broadside of indignation for handing her such a paper. But that wasn’t what I got.
“Mark,” she finally said, “are you really that angry with me?”
She had me pinned with her eyes. I tried to say something, but couldn’t without looking down first. How could she make me feel so small with only a few words?
Should I try to lie? Something inside of me rebelled at the idea. I hadn’t stood up to Willy and Bob and Al, and had been upset ever since. Now I had sort of the same thing happening again. I could lie about what I did, or I could stand up for myself. Facing her was just as hard as facing them. I wasn’t about to blow my second chance.
“I guess I was,” I said, speaking to the desk. I was going to stand up for myself, but meeting her eyes wasn’t necessarily part of the deal.
She was quiet, digesting that, then asked, “Was, or still are?”
“I don’t know.” OK, that was chickening out a little, but I didn’t feel angry with her right then, so it was also the truth.
“Can you tell me why?” she asked in a very soft voice.
I thought for a moment. “Maybe not. Maybe I’m just angry.” I was starting to understand I didn’t really know why I’d written that paper, or why I’d been so mad at her.
I glanced up at her, and her eyes were wider open. “Ah,” she said, as though something had just happened that had caught her by surprise. “And I was safe, was I? As a target for your anger, I think?”
I didn’t respond, because I was starting to feel embarrassed.
There were a few moments of silence, and then she said, “Mark, the paper. It was wonderful. Rarely does a student write from his heart with no filters between them and me. You did that, and I loved that. There were problems, too. It was inappropriate, it had too many incomplete sentences—although, the way you used them was quite effective—you could have chosen better words in places, sometimes you repeated yourself unnecessarily, you ended a sentence with a preposition when you didn’t have to and were probably doing that to show me you could—but that’s all trivial. The paper sang. It told me what your thoughts were, I could feel your anger, your inner angst, and the overall effect was startling and delightful. You wrote in a teenager’s voice, with all sorts of non sequitur asides that were comical and insightful, and you weren’t trying to sound like an adult but like who you are. Your enthusiasms, your dislikes, your world, they were there on display. And the writing was cogent, paced well, and told a story. It was one of the best papers I’ve ever received from a student.”
She was looking at me with admiration in her eyes, the last thing I ever expected to see from her.
“But I could tell how angry you were, and wondered if it was because of something I’d done. Now I think maybe not. Now I see, you’ve been angry about what you described in the paper. You haven’t known how to get rid of that anger, and you’ve been wanting to tell someone about it, but been reluctant to do so.”
She stood up and got the paper off her desk, then sat down again in front of me where she’d been before.
“You probably would like to talk about it, too. If you were brave enough to write that paper, then hand it to me to read, you’re surely brave enough to talk to me about it.”
She was looking hard at me again, but it wasn’t the hardness I’d seen before. It was a compelling look. She wanted me to listen and hear what she was saying, and to think about it.
“You wanted me to read that paper, and the reason for that probably was so someone would know what happened to you. Well, now I know. I think you want to talk about it, too, even though you said you didn’t. I think you said that because you didn’t know how I’d react, and didn’t want to be told something you didn’t want to hear and feel even worse than you already do.”
She paused, and I didn’t say anything, not knowing what to say. Wanting to get things off my chest, and then doing it with someone I didn’t know very well, were two different things entirely.
When I didn’t speak, she went on. “If you want, I can talk first. I have some things to say about what you wrote if you want to listen, and I’m here to listen to what you might want to say, too.”
I still didn’t say anything, mainly because I still didn’t know what to say. I squirmed in my seat, and she saw it.
“Why don’t I begin?” she said. “With what I saw and felt.”
I still didn’t speak, but I nodded, and she went ahead.
“Mark, for the last couple of weeks, I’ve thought something was bothering you. You’re never very noisy, but you’ve been even quieter than usual, and I see you frowning all the time. So I thought there was something on your mind. I would have asked, but I’ve been doing this a long time, working with kids. I knew if it got to where you had to talk to someone, you’d initiate it. If you chose to talk to me, then I’d know what was wrong. If you didn’t, it probably wasn’t any of my business anyway.”
She stopped, and then looked away from me and what she said next sort of sounded like she was talking to herself more than me. She said, “We always wonder. It’s hard for us when students seem troubled and withdraw into themselves. We want to help, and we often feel we should speak up because of what they might do, but we don’t want to be intrusive, either. We don’t always know what to do, and have to operate on experience, and even intuition. But we always worry about whether we’re making the right decision, to speak, or to hold off.”
She stopped for a moment, then looked at me, and it seemed she was back with me, just me, again.
“OK, Mark, now I have an idea what was troubling you. We can talk about that in a minute. Right now, I want to talk more about why you were angry with me. Because even if you were mostly angry about what was in the paper, you had to have transferred some of that anger to me. To justify it to yourself. So tell me what you were mad at me about. I won’t bite your head off. You were brave enough to let me read that paper. Be brave and talk to me about this.”
So, I did.
“Mrs. Martinez, I was sure you didn’t like me.” I stopped and cleared my throat. “Maybe I was reading things wrong. But little things just made me think you didn’t like me, and so I started not liking you, too.”
She smiled at me, showing there were no hard feelings, I guess. “Can you give me an example? Don’t worry, I have a thick skin. You have to, to teach high school.” She laughed. I would have too, but didn’t feel like it. I had started sweating, and was suddenly feeling very nervous.
“Well, OK, this might sound silly, but it’s the sort of thing I mean. I kept expecting you to call me on the fact I do your writing assignments to the exact word count you demand, the exact minimum, and I include everything in the count, stuff I know I shouldn’t include. When you never said anything, I thought it was because you were showing me up, that you weren’t even going to bother saying anything about it. I guess, well, I felt that I wasn’t important enough for you to get on me about it.”
I looked down. I couldn’t meet her eyes. Thinking it, I could be mad about it. Saying it, it just sounded stupid.
When she didn’t respond to that, I had to look up. I saw compassion in her eyes. I hate it when someone does that. It always makes my stomach feel funny and then sometimes I have to wipe my eyes.
“Mark, I didn’t know. I never count the words. I look at how many pages are written and can tell if it’s in the ballpark, and that’s all I want. It’s the ideas you write and how you express yourself that are important. The number of words simply gives you a target and gives you an idea of how you’ll need to set up the paper, how many thoughts you’re going to have to give me, and how well you’re going to have to develop them.”
She stopped, then said softly, “I know what you’re saying. You wanted me to notice you. You did something you thought I’d notice, and I didn’t. But Mark, I do notice you! I notice you every time you’re in my class. You’re smart. And you don’t push yourself. The work you turn in is less than you’re capable of. The paper you just wrote tells me you’re even more capable than I ever imagined. I knew you were special, just not how special. I did know you think about things and feel them. All along I’ve wanted to know what you thought, what you felt. I’ve been trying to reach you. I’ve been trying to help you to get who you are on paper. Now you’ve done that. Now both of us know you can.”
Wow. I didn’t know how to take that. But I knew how it felt. It felt good. I hadn’t known I wanted her to pay more attention to me, but now she’d said it, I realized it was true. It fit. I wanted her praise, which she was giving me now. I was soaking it up.
“Thank you for telling me that, Mark, in your writing. Now I know you better. Now, let’s talk about the paper.”
I’d begun to sweat before and now did so in earnest. I even felt a little lightheaded. I wasn’t sure I could do this.
I didn’t need to because she was going on.
“I could tell you were trying to embarrass me, and I wondered why. I remembered what I’d asked you to write, and how to write it, and decided you were getting back at me, using my own words against me. It was one reason I knew you were angry with me. But let me surprise you a little. It didn’t embarrass me at all. It was cute, and fun, and told me something about being a boy at 15, what a boy thinks about. I really enjoyed it, and it made me sad that I don’t get more papers like that, papers that are real, that are full of real life. I don’t get to meet the kids I teach on the level you let me get to know you. It was a good paper, Mark. A very good paper.”
“But weren’t you, uh, offended or angry or something about all the, about, well, you know the stuff about boys’ suits and, and . . . ”
I was blushing. I could feel it. I couldn’t look at her.
She laughed, and I could tell it wasn’t fake. She really laughed. “Mark, I’m an adult. I know about boys. I’ve been teaching them for 30 years. You’d be amazed at some of the things I’ve seen in that time. Even in my own classroom. You were a bit graphic, I admit, but I could feel both your embarrassment writing it and the challenge of it, too.
“It was inappropriate, but it was fun and exciting and I’ve never seen anything like it, but you took care not to cross the line too far. You were careful, and I could see it. But I felt the anger underneath it all, and then understood part of why you felt that way when I got to what happened in the woods.
“That’s what I think you need to talk about. To get rid of some of the anger, and maybe some confusion you might be feeling. You don’t need to talk to me about it, if you don’t want to, but you should to talk to someone. I think you want to. I think that’s why you wrote the paper, so I’d ask you to talk about it, and you could.”
She looked into my eyes again, and I managed to look back. This was hard, but it felt right, too.
“How’d you get so smart?” I asked.
She laughed, then said, “You’re pretty smart, too. I know that, and you know it, too. Now, tell me what you want to say.”
“I don’t know how.”
“Just start talking, Mark. Start talking about what you were feeling, what you’ve been so upset about since then. What you need to say will just come out, if you let it. I’m sure of it.”
So I did. I just started talking. “OK. Ever since that happened in those trees, it’s bothered me. I’m not sure why. Sure, those guys saw me naked, but I see a few guys naked in the showers both before and after practice, and it’s no big deal. No one had seen me naked before, and so it was embarrassing when they did that, but that was all it was. Just embarrassing. I don’t know why I was so upset afterwards.”
I stopped because I could start feeling some of that anger coming back, and now that I was sitting talking about it, I felt something else, too. I felt like I wanted to cry.
I couldn’t, of course. I was talking to a teacher. I simply wouldn’t let myself cry in front of a teacher.
But I felt like it, and had to stop for a moment.
Mrs. Martinez chose that moment to get up and walk to the classroom door and close it. I was glad she happened to do that right then. It gave me time to regain my composure.
When she was sitting in front of me again, I said, “Ever since, though, I’ve been upset. Little things get me mad. Things that don’t have anything to do with what happened. I’ve never been like that before. But when I get angry, I seem to think about what happened with those guys, so I kinda think there might be some connection. You know?”
She nodded. “Actually, I think I do know. The way you wrote it in your paper, you made having your suit stripped off and being looked at the focus of your story. But what you’re saying now is being naked in front of those guys didn’t really bother you. And I think you’re being honest. I don’t think that’s what upset you. I think it was something else.” She paused, as if thinking how to say what she wanted to say, then said, “Mark, look at me.”
I did. I raised my eyes to hers. “Mark, think about what you were feeling then, when that was happening. Picture it. Put yourself back in those woods.”
She stopped, but didn’t drop her eyes. I had to drop mine. But I started remembering. It didn’t make me feel good, but I remembered what had happened, and the emotions I’d had. I started squirming a little. I was uncomfortable as hell.
“OK,” she said, breaking into my memory, “now tell me what is most upsetting about what you’re remembering. Figure it out, and tell me.”
And I knew. I knew right away what it was. I didn’t even hesitate telling her. “It wasn’t that they yanked my suit off, or that I was naked. It wasn’t even the remarks they made. It wasn’t anything they did. It was me! I was upset with me! I didn’t do anything to stop them!”
I was on a roll now. “I should have. I should have fought, or tried to run, or done something. I didn’t. I just let them do what they did.”
She smiled at me. Not a happy smile. It was a warm, compassionate smile, a very supportive one, and I could see in her eyes how much she cared. “I think that’s right, Mark. I think that’s exactly right. You haven’t been angry ever since because of what they did. You’ve been angry that you lost some of your self-respect. You haven’t known what to do about it, and so you’ve been acting out. You did it with me, and I think you were calling for help.”
Man, did that ever sound right. That’s just what it was. I’d had a healthy dose of cockiness before. Now, I was pretty down on myself. Ever since, I felt like I’d lost something. Now I knew what it was. She’d hit the nail on the head.
“So what do I do about it?” I asked.
“I can think of a couple of things.” She reached over and put her hand on mine where it was lying on the desk. “It would be better, though, if you figured it out for yourself. Can you try?”
I did that. I sat and just thought, and it took almost no time at all before I knew what I had to do.
“I need to earn back my self-respect back,” I told her, “and the way I have to do that is to face up to what happened.”
She nodded. “And how are you going to do that?”
I knew. I knew how! “I could go tell the vice principal what happened, and that would work, but that isn’t the best way. I know what to do, and I’m going to do it. I’m going to go talk to Willy Throneman!”
Her eyebrows wrinkled and she sat up a little straighter. “Is that safe? I don’t want you getting hurt. Talking to Mr. Rollins would be better, wouldn’t it?”
“It would be safer, and it would get Willy in trouble, but it would be letting someone else fight my battles. My problem is I let those guys get away with messing with me without doing anything. I have to face Willy. Then I’ll feel OK about myself again. I’m going to do it.”
She shook her head, and was going to say something else, but I stood up before she could speak. “Thanks, Mrs. Martinez. I’ll let you know how it went. Or, you can visit me in the hospital.”
She looked startled, then started to say something, and I laughed and interrupted her. “It won’t come to that, I’m sure. I’ve figured out how to do it. But it has to be me, and my way. Thanks. I wouldn’t have figured this out without your help.”
The next day, I saw Willy in the hall. He was slouching against the lockers, laughing with one of his cronies. I thought how much I didn’t want to do this, especially when he wasn’t alone, and then thought how much trouble giving in to my fears had caused. I walked up to him.
He hadn’t seen me, so I interrupted him. “Willy,” I said.
He turned to look at me, then got a grin on his face. “Hey, Water Polo Boy. What’s hanging?” Then he laughed. The guy he was talking to just looked at the two of us with a puzzled expression on his face.
I made sure my voice sounded right when I spoke. “I just wanted to tell you. I told someone. You told me not to, and I did. I wanted you to hear that from me.”
He stood up, pushing himself off the lockers. He wasn’t smiling now. “Shouldn’t have done that, kid.” There was menace in his voice.
I just stared at him, not moving away like my body seemed to think it should be doing. I was able to keep my voice steady, too. “So you say. But I did it. So, if anything happens to me, you’ll be who they come looking for. Right now, nothing’s going to happen. If you want it to, that’s your choice. Just like I had a choice. Up to you. Just wanted you to know.” I paused, but then had to be sure he understood. “That I’m not afraid of you.”
I still stood there, about two feet away from him, and didn’t move. He looked at me, looked at me hard, and then, I saw him begin to smile. It wasn’t much of a smile, but his lips did a little wrinkle. It was there in his eyes, too.
“OK, kid. You told me.” And he turned to walk off. He walked a couple steps, then turned back. I hadn’t moved an inch. “You got some balls, kid,” he said. “Some balls.” And then he was walking again.
It was a couple of days later when I figured out how to thank Mrs. Martinez. I’d wanted to, but just saying thanks wasn’t enough. But I needed to, because I was me again. I wasn’t angry a bit. I was happy. She’d been the reason for the change, and I needed to let her know that some way other than just telling her that. It was a big deal, to me. Important, you know?
What I decided was, I was going to write another paper for her. I knew now that what made her happy was seeing me write like I was capable of. Wait. No. She’d frown, seeing that sentence. I should have said, ‘seeing me write like I could.’ That was better.
I also knew it made me happy as well, writing with some thought behind it. It had felt different to me, writing that first paper. I won’t say I’d loved doing it, but there had been a lot of satisfaction involved in doing it. I’d worked hard on it, had taken the time to go over it a few times, correcting errors, making it say just what I wanted it to say, expressing just what I’d been feeling, and after it was written I’d been proud of it.
It wasn‘t just that I’d been proud that I’d tried to embarrass her and found a way to pull that off. There had been that, of course, but there’d been more, too. I’d liked writing the thing for its own sake, because for once I’d been honest and written from my heart. So, if I wrote like that again, writing another one would please us both. I would like the . . . the what? The balance I guess. I would like the balance that resulted from that. It would be something like a beginning and then an end. There’s probably a word for that, there seems to be a word for everything—hell, they even have unnecessary words like copse—but I don’t know what it was.
I had to think about how to write it, because now she would expect anything I wrote to be good. I couldn’t do a half-assed job like I usually did with her any more, and especially not if I was writing it as a thank you sort of thingie. And if I wanted to make her proud of me, a second rate effort wouldn’t work.
I wasn’t sure where that had come from, but it was true. I did want her to be proud of me.
So I took my time, and this is what I wrote.
May 9, 2018
An Embarrassing Moment
By Mark Shaeffer
I stood at the edge of the woods, holding the ball in front of me. I couldn’t work up the courage to walk back to the pool the way I was.
I turned back into the trees, not knowing what to do. First I made my way back to where Willy’d thrown my suit up into the tree. It was hanging about 20 feet up in that pine tree. I wondered about throwing the ball up to dislodge it, and started to do that, but just before I let go of the ball a picture flashed through my head. I could see the ball going up, missing the suit, then nestling into the branches of the tree, and I’d be looking up at it, completely naked, and having nothing to cover myself with. The thought was horrifying. I didn’t throw the ball.
Next I wandered a bit, looking for a stone or anything else I could throw, but there simply wasn’t anything there. Someone, probably one of the park maintenance guys, kept the place pretty cleaned up. A lot of school kids walked through here going to school, so maybe that was why they kept it picked up.
I was getting pretty worried, wondering what to do, conscious of time passing, when I heard a noise. Where I was, the trees were pretty small. They weren’t big enough to hide behind. There were only a few large trees and they were all in the center, where Willy and his friends had been.
The noise turned into a guy. He was walking from the school into the woods, and I was off to the side a bit. I hoped he wouldn’t see me, but there was no way he wouldn’t. As soon as I saw him, I knew who he was. He played basketball on the school team. He was a junior, and pretty popular. I knew his name, but had never talked to him.
He was getting nearer, and I stood as still as I could, but it didn’t help. He saw me.
“What the—?” He stopped and stared at me. I was standing wearing only my water polo ball.
“Uh, hi,” I said. Brilliant.
He continued walking, but toward me. When he was next to me, he looked me up and down, and got a huge smile on his face. “I thought so. You’re naked! What’s going on? Some sort of team initiation or something?” He began to laugh.
What should I say? Willy had just warned me not to tell. I wasn’t about to with someone I didn’t know. I had no idea how he’d react. But I had to say something.
Usually my brain works pretty well. Right then, it wasn’t working at all. Maybe standing naked in the woods with a guy about twice my size towering over me and laughing, maybe at the situation but maybe at me, tends to do that.
He stopped laughing but kept looking at me expectantly, waiting for an explanation, so I had to say something. And the only thing I could come up with was some of the truth.
“Well, this is what happened. I accidentally kicked the water polo ball down here and came to get it. When I did, there were some guys here and they took off my suit and threw it up into a tree. I’m kind of stuck here.”
He stopped laughing then, but was still grinning. He looked upward, so I walked over to the tree with my suit in it and pointed it out to him.
He stared at it a moment, and I did too. Then he looked back at me and shrugged. “I guess you’re f...ed, aren’t you?” he said.
“Uh, do you think you could help me out?”
“What, you mean like go get you a towel or something?”
“That would be great, man! Thanks!”
He looked at me before replying, then said, “Nah, I can’t do that. I’m meeting someone, and then we’ve got to book. We’re kind of late already.” His face showed me he was enjoying my predicament.
As quickly as I’d got it, I lost all the enthusiasm I’d gained just a moment before. I looked at him, he returned it and, looking down at the ball I was still holding strategically in front of me, got a goofy grin on his face. I guess empathy for fellow creatures in distress wasn’t part of his life’s game plan. Well, he was a basketball jock. Members of the basketball team were idols at our school. I should have expected this attitude from him.
We were still standing like that, him staring at my ball, moving his head a little trying to get a better angle on it, and I was wondering what I was going to do, when I heard a voice.
“Hey, babe, you in here?”
The jock’s grin disappeared like lightning, to be replaced by a worried look that made more sense to me when the next thing the voice said was, “Hey, sweetie, you here?”
Then I heard someone coming through the trees, and a guy came into view. I knew him, too. Better than I knew the jock. This kid was in a couple of classes with me, in the tenth grade, too. He was what a lot of the guys called a geek. Glasses, messy hair that wasn’t stylishly messy, just messy, and a sort of vacant look on his face much of the time. He was a little awkward, a little shy, and what in the world was he doing calling this big, popular jock ‘sweetie’?
The jock’s face had become a confused mixture of embarrassment, fear and anger. The geeky kid, whose name was Ron, reached us and stopped. He looked at both of us but mostly at me, and the expression on his face had me suddenly laughing when I’d been feeling like I’d never laugh again.
When I stopped, I explained to him why I was dressed as I was, and then, then, I looked at the jock and back at Ron with a knowing smirk on my face and asked Ron if the two of them were boyfriends. The jock yelled no, and Ron nodded. Then he turned to the bigger guy and my mouth literally fell open when he said, “And if you’re not man enough to admit it, I’m about through with you. We’ve talked before about not hiding who we are!”
Ron was giving this guy hell! And the way the jock was reacting, this was the way things were with them. Ron was the boss, the alpha dog!
Ron turned to me and asked what they could do to help. And just like that, my brain started working again.
“I need to get out of here, and don’t want to explain to anyone what happened. I need to do it right now, too, because I’m sure my coach will be sending someone after me. I think I know how to do it, too, if you guys would do me a favor.”
“Sure,” Ron said. “We’d like a favor too, because he,” and he pointed to the suddenly sheep-like jock, “doesn’t want anyone to know he’s gay. So if you could not spread that around, we’d appreciate it.”
“No problem. I might write about it, but I’d keep your names out of it, and only my English teacher would read it anyway.”
He gave me a look, then asked, “You’ve got Martinez, don’t you?”
“That’s OK then. She already knows. She’s cool.”
Man! The things you don’t know! I’d have to think about that later. Now, I needed to get out of the woods. It seemed I’d been there for hours. I was surprised Coach hadn’t already sent someone to get me.
So I told Ron what I needed, and he told the jock, who swore but stopped and looked at the ground when Ron glared at him.
It was a good thing I’d asked them to hurry because, just as I stepped out of the woods, heading back for the pool, I saw two of my teammates halfway down the hill, coming my way.
When we were together and on our way back, one of them, Michael, asked me, “Hey man, where were you?”
“Couldn’t find the ball.”
The other one, Tim, was looking at me. “Where’d you get the shirt?” he asked.
I was ready. “Got it from Johnny Parkhurst. He had an extra in his gym bag and let me borrow it. I was hunting all over looking for the ball, and he was crossing through the woods and ended up helping me look. He loaned me the shirt when I started getting goose bumps. Chilly, you know?”
Tim gave a funny look, then said, “Goose bumps? Why? Why’d ya need a shirt for anyway? It’s got to be over 90 out here.”
“Yeah,” I agreed, “out here. Go stand in the woods for a few minutes in just your suit. It’s got to be 15 degrees cooler in there and after being in the sun, it gets to feeling chilly.”
We walked a few more steps, and I saw Tim eying me with a look on his face like he didn’t believe me. I had to say something fast to get him off that, and so he’d stop thinking about the shirt. I said, “Well, there was another reason, too, but it’s a little embarrassing.”
I knew that would get their attention, and it did. People like hearing about embarrassment. Michael grinned and asked, “What was that?” and both looked at me, waiting.
“Well,” I said, sounding reluctant to talk about it, “some girls walked through there, when Johnny and I were looking, and, well, you know how they are when we have these suits on. Johnny saw them looking, and saw I was embarrassed as well as having goose bumps, so volunteered the shirt.” I sort of did a twirl in front of them, the sort of thing girls do when they’re showing off a new dress, but was careful not to turn so fast the bottom of the shirt would swing up and out. “The shirt hangs low enough to cover my suit.”
“Yeah, like you have anything you need to cover!” That was Michael again, and when he said that, I knew I was safe. We all teased each other the rest of the way back to the pool about things guys my age tease each other about.
I felt sort of nervous and exposed, being naked under that shirt which only fell to half way down my thighs, but I thought I could get away with it and didn’t have any choice anyway. The coach asked me what had taken so long when we got back to the pool. Practice had finished and the boys were just heading to the showers. I was glad of that; I’d been worried about how much the boys in the pool would be able to see, looking up at me from in the water down below.
I told the coach I’d had a hard time finding the ball and about having to walk in the woods with bare feet. He nodded, and that was that.
I headed into the locker room. When the others were all in the showers, I just slipped my clothes on and left. No one was the wiser. As I was walking home, I was thinking about Johnny, sitting against the same tree Willy had been leaning on when I’d first seen him. Johnny’d been naked from the waist up and scowling at me. I’d grinned at him.
In the distance, I’d been able to see Ron headed back to the school, to get Johnny a spare shirt from his gym locker.
Note: This paper is 1,969 words long, but the total, including the headings and all, along with this note, is 1,988 words. This is equal to more than six daily assignments, almost seven, actually. Accordingly, I’ll skip writing all of next week, which is only five days so you’re getting the better of the deal. Fair is fair.
OK, I like her now. I wrote that last bit to be funny; I have my sense of humor back, too, and now know she also has one. I realize I kind of enjoyed having a war with her, and I think maybe I’ll try this on for size, see if she’d like to play. If she doesn’t, maybe we’ll at least talk about it. I know she won’t get mad. She likes me. She won’t mind my challenging her. Maybe she’ll get a kick out of it. As I said, maybe we’ll talk about it.
I like talking to her. I know something else, too. We both respect each other, which is different from liking each other. It makes a lot of difference. It makes me feel I can say what I want to say to her.
I’ve talked to her several times since I stood up to Willy and wrote the second paper. One of those times was special.
We talked about a lot of things, but that time, she’d brought up the paper again. She said there was a lot in it that made her think, and she’d read some parts a couple of times, and seen things she hadn’t seen the first time. She said good writers do that, make you read the work more than once. That made me feel good.
Then she said something that I wasn’t expecting. She said reading the paper one last time made her want to ask me something.
“You know, Mark, a lot of kids your age are a little confused about themselves. I got a glimpse of that in your paper. The things you said, and the way you said them. You don’t have to talk about this if you don’t want to, but, if you do, you can. I just wonder if you’re questioning whether you’re gay, if you felt confused at all about that and would like to, well, just talk about that. Maybe you wished you had someone you could talk to about that.”
Man, talk about being hit by a two by four out of the blue! But I knew by then she liked me, and cared about me, and respected me, and that she was safe. I was comfortable talking to her about things I couldn’t with anyone else, which made it possible not to hold back when I responded. I answered her as frankly as I could.
“Mrs. Martinez,” I said, “if you’d asked me that last year, well, I probably wouldn’t have answered at all, but the thing is, last year, I thought I might be, because I was more interested in guys than girls, a little bit at least. Yeah, it was pretty confusing. But lately, I don’t know. I think I’m starting to feel different about it all. Things don’t feel the same now, at least not so much. It’s just that, well, girls are starting to seem a lot more interesting.”
I paused, then blushed, and said, “But, well, I do like looking at guys. Still. So maybe I’m a little gay. Can you be a little gay?”
Before she could answer, I kept on talking. I guess maybe I didn’t want to hear her say no, you’re either gay or you’re not. I didn’t want to talk about that, and so I rushed on. “Can I tell you something?” And then I continued, not giving her a chance to speak. “I can’t believe I’m telling you this, but, see, just last week, at a water polo match, this guy came up to me just after we’d won. Hey, did you know? I’m starting now, and I scored two goals!” I stopped and she smiled at me. I could see she was pleased for me. Then I said, “But this guy came up and we started to talk, and he was looking at me, and his eyes were mostly on mine but not all the time, like what happens when someone talks to a water polo player, and I was noticing how really cute he was and thinking about that, and he kept glancing down, and I suddenly wondered if maybe he liked me, if maybe he was gay and liked me, and then, real quick, I sort of had to fall back into the pool again, like it was an accident. Before he saw. I couldn’t get out for a while, either.”
Mrs. Martinez laughed, really laughed, and I just blushed harder. But she didn’t ask about my being gay again. I think I’d explained it really well. I’m not even wondering myself now, not any more.
So that’s about it. Except for one more thing. Since I talk to Mrs. Martinez a lot now, and since I talked to Willy, I feel so much better about myself. Coach really did make me a starter, and that’s helped me feel good about myself too. I’m happy again. So I’m going to end this by saying something, and you can believe it because it’s true. I think the reason I do this, what I’m going to tell you, is because I have my self-respect back. But, what I want to say is this. Now, when I get out of the pool, I don’t yank on my suit any more. Screw it. I just don’t. If people want to look, let ‘em.
As always, my sincere thanks to my editors.
You do a marvelous and mostly unsung job.
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