“Kyle, can you try NOT to get detention today? Just once it’d be nice to have lunch together.”
“I don’t get detention EVERY day, mom.”
“Well, every other day isn’t much better. If at least you used the time to actually study, maybe you’d get more than Ds. You know what your dad always used to say: ‘Stay in school…’”
“…or you’ll end up like me. I know, mom.”
“Alright then, off you go.”
As soon as the door lock clicks, Kyle thinks about ways to get detention. “How much longer can I avoid lunch before she finds out? It’s too much right now.” He takes his usual rear end corner seat on the bus, pulls his hoodie over his head and turns up the music.
An hour later, Kyle is busy blasting Craig with spitballs in first period chemistry. “The specific heat capacity of H2O is…OW! Stop it!”
“Stupid nerd,” Kyle thinks with a grin. “That’s what you get for reading the answer off your book under the table.”
Mr. Tanner doesn’t turn around. Still facing the blackboard, his head turns to the right just enough to glance into the room. “What’s up, Craig?”
“Mr. Tanner, Kyle is shooting spitballs at me!” A long “eeeeeeeeeeew” from the class merges with a slight giggle. HER giggle. Kyle sneaks a peek. Yup. Rena got the joke. “She’s so smart. The smartest. I love her. I wonder if she knows I’m not stupid. Or that I exist.”
“KYLE,” Mr. Tanner roars, apparently for the third time. Kyle is caught off guard. “Not today, PLEASE! I’m really not in the mood for this.” Before he can respond, Mr. Tanner is back to the blackboard, noting down the right answer, this time from Rena.
“That was unusually loud. What’s with him today? Why’s he so grumpy? Well, maybe he has one of my days for once. I should leave him alone. Only to mess with his head, of course! I guess I’ll survive lunch with mom.”
Kyle crosses his arms and leans back in his chair.
We all had a Kyle in our class. The kid who just didn’t care. About anything. Or so it seemed to us at the time. Dumb, stupid, lazy. We left Kyle with those labels and filed him away. A lost cause.
Don’t you think he knew? That he had no shot in the teacher’s eyes. Or Rena’s. Or yours. But what if Kyle wasn’t stupid at all? What if Kyle cared more than everyone else in the room? Way too much. About everything. Like his mom.
Maybe Kyle hoped that if he pretended not to care long enough, he actually wouldn’t. Because he couldn’t deal with it all. And so he was scared to try.
As he turns the knob on the front door, Mr. Tanner pauses. “That’s unusual. Why is there light in the living room?” Alarmed, he quietly opens the door.
“Hello?” Nothing. Suddenly, a wail sounds from afar. Right. The cat. “That stupid, stupid cat. I swear, one day, I’ll snap its neck. She should never have bought the damn thing.”
While Mr. Tanner sets his briefcase down on an empty chair, Dusty hesitatingly inches around the corner. Then, he jumps on the kitchen table. Mr. Tanner sits down and pours himself a glass of whiskey.
“I’m sorry buddy. It’s not your fault. Been a tough day, you know. Another one, actually. The kids wanted me to tell more H2O jokes, but I couldn’t. Not today. It’s her birthday, you know.” The cork pops and Mr. Tanner pours himself another glass.
It’s late now. The clock shows half past eleven. Mr. Tanner hasn’t left the kitchen since he got home. His voice gets louder. “Do you even know what it feels like? Coming back to this empty house every day? This rotten hell hole of a home?” Dusty has long strolled into the living room, but Mr. Tanner doesn’t notice.
He’s screaming now. “NO! OF COURSE YOU DON’T! BECAUSE YOU’RE JUST A STUPID, STUPID CAT! DUSTY IS A GREAT NAME ALRIGHT. THAT’S ALL I’VE GOT LEFT OF HER! FUCKING DUST!”
Then, silence. Mr. Tanner starts weeping. He’s exhausted, but he can’t go into the bedroom. Not yet. The other half of the bed is too scary. Empty.
“I’m not sure how much longer I can do this. I should move out. I really, really should…”
The seal breaks as he opens the second bottle.
Mr. Tanner was our favorite teacher. We loved him for treating the rebels like rebels, the posers like posers and the nerds like nerds. He rewarded performance and respected effort.
The Mr. Tanners of the world make school feel a little more human with their jokes, a little easier to endure with their healthy sense of detachment. But what made you forget you’re in school may have helped Mr. Tanner forget he has to go home.
We used to think our teachers were nothing but teachers. A different species. With schedules to keep, tests to hand out and corny jokes to make. The closer we get to graduation, the more we realize: our teachers are humans.
Disorganized, flawed, scared humans. Like us. Just older. Humans, who have loved other humans. Lost other humans.
We all wear masks and so we don’t always see each others’ faces, but that doesn’t mean they’re not there.
“I should not have sold him that bottle. Shouldn’t’ve done it. No, no, no. That was wrong. I should not have…”
“Cassie! Stop! This is a liquor store. It’s our JOB to sell alcohol.”
“But what if he…? You know. He didn’t look good today.”
“None of them do.”
“Not him, though. He’s only been coming here for a few weeks. I’m telling you he’s not an alcoholic.”
“I don’t care if he’s an alcoholic, shopaholic or the Pope, if he comes in here, shows his ID and puts a twenty on the table, he better get his Jack.”
“Yeah, well, what if he doesn’t?”
“Then I know who to ask why.”
With raised eyebrows and a sigh, Jim turns around and walks out back to storage. Cassie starts biting her nails. “God, please don’t let me screw up this job. Not again. Why can’t I keep my mouth shut? I just wanna help.”
When her boss comes back, Cassie dips a toe into the water. “Jim, what I wanted to ask, is there any chance I could get an…”
“Advance? No way.”
“But Jim, it’s my son. His hoodie, it’s…so old. I’m worried he’ll freeze to death.”
Jim snaps. “If you keep asking for advances, he’ll starve before that happens, because YOU won’t have a job. Are we clear?”
Cassie is furious. “How dare he talk about Kyle like that!” But she knows she’s already in trouble, so the best she can do is press her lips together and nod.
After her shift ends, Cassie steps out into the cold. It’s dark. The sky is clear. The stars are bright.
“I’ve only had this job for six weeks. Let’s hope it lasts. That kid has enough problems as it is right now. The last thing I want for him is to go to school hungry. I hope he’ll tell me what’s up soon.”
As she walks to the bus stop, a thought crosses her mind. She smiles.
“Maybe tomorrow he’s finally ready to get lunch.”
For Mr. Tanner, maybe Cassie cared too little. For her boss, maybe it was too much. But she cares most about her son, which neither of the two ever really get to see.
Does that make her a bad person? Or a good person, whom bad things have happened to? What about Jim? Did he have a bad day? A bad life?
What if everyone’s trying to do the best they can? Maybe it’s just what we think is best that’s different. Not us.
“You think the only people who are people, are the people who look and think like you. But if you walk the footsteps of a stranger, you’ll learn things you never knew you never knew.” — Pocahontas
There are many good reasons to try and be kind. But you need only one:
“Everyone you meet is fighting a battle you know nothing about.” — Ian Maclaren
It doesn’t make yours easier. Just easier to bear. You’re not alone.