The Tenth Question

“Oh my gawd!  You can see the grounds coming right through!” said one of the secretaries inspecting the coffee maker.

She handed me a styrofoam cup, three quarters full with thick black sludge. “Heah ya gow!  That’ll put hayah on ya chest! Let us know how it tastes! It’s Stawbucks!”

“Oh, he’s cheating! He’s adding milk!”

I took a dramatic sip and thought about the right word. “Earthy.”

“Ha! Earthy! I like that! ‘Earthy’, he says!”

I took another sip. “Yeah that’s strong. Tastes like I just took a hit of a cigarette.”

Retreating back to my side of the office I announced, “I gotta get that kid Larion Leponze in here and let him know he’s about to be suspended if he’s in the halls anymore.”

“Oooh, Mr Winkler hates that kid,” said Alexis, a jovial female dean who ironically wears all black and teaches a course on vampires.  She also has an obsession with touching soft things – usually other deans’ clothing.

“Oh, that looks so soft,” she’ll say, leaning in towards an unremarkable t-shirt or sweater.  She’ll touch it and then disapointedly, “Oh, it’s not that soft.”

“He says he’s evil incarnate,” she continued.

“Hmmm, he’s laid-back whenever I talk to him,” I said.

“Yeah, he says he’s the most evil, f’ed up kid ever. And he never has a problem with kids. Seriously, like, if he could, he would tell him, ‘If I see you on the street, you’re dead!’ That’s how bad it is. I mean, he’s been arrested for armed robbery, that kid.”

“Yikes.”

She whispered, “And he carries a gun. One time, Mr Winkler said he heard him tell one of his buddies, ‘I left my gun in my locker at work.'”

“Just what I needed to hear.”

“Yeah, he almost called the kid’s work to tell them.”

“Let’s get it over with,” I said and picked up the phone to call his class, but he wasn’t there.

Alexis, slyly rubbing the sleeve of my cotton shirt, asked “Hey, did you ever check out those girl-fights from Patriot on YouTube?”

“No, I forgot to look. Can you recognize any of them?”

“No, you can’t see them. They’re just punching each otha, and the faces are obscured. To me, doing that is messed up! I just fwind that to be few-cha serial-killa behavya.”

“I’ll have to check it out I guess.”

The rest of the day was pretty relaxed.  I think it’s because one of the deans left over the summer and I got his desk. Now that I’m further form the door I get less cases because the other deans pick up the problems as they come in, like a Brita.

Also, this year is just calmer than years past. A couple of us in the office got so fed up with the daily trauma we were experiencing last year and the absence of any effective policies coming from above to provide some relief, that we proposed and basically implemented our own changes in how we enforce the rules, with the grudging permission of the bosses, and it seems that they have actually helped a little.

Still, the building was almost locked down at 12:10 when a kid was seen on the security cameras opening a side-exit door and re-entering with a dark object in his hand.  He refused to tell us what it was, but I think it was determined to be a hat in the end.

We also had a boy spit on another kid and demand money from him, and I overheard the usual complaint from a parent about some kids wanting to jump their child. Nothing major. Then at the end of the day, Dean Goodman made a loud theatrical phone call holding up a big empty 40 ounce bottle of St Ides malt liquor with the suds sloshing around the bottom and a kid’s name and phone number taped to the side of it. The kid had been coming in for one of our after-school programs and put a half-full, open 40 ounce bottle of malt liquor in his backpack and then put the bag through the x-ray machine.

“NO MA’AM, GOING TO THE DOCTOR WHEN YOU WAKE UP TOMORROW TO GET HIS BLOOD-ALCOHOL LEVEL CHECKED WON’T DO ANY GOOD.” He spoke slow, loud, and clear. He would later tell us he was talking more to us than to her. “BY THEN HIS ALCOHOL LEVELS WILL BE ZERO. ALCOHOL DOESN’T STAY IN THE SYSTEM THAT LONG MA’AM.”

The conversation went on a little longer as Green covered his mouth and giggled. He finally slammed the phone down and erupted in laughter, “NOW I KNOW WHERE THE OTHER HALF OF THIS BOTTLE WENT!”

Walking to the subway after school, I tried to avoid the crowds of students as usual. Ever since I became a dean, my relationship with the shadier element in the school has obviously grown more strained. Thoughts of Larion’s gun, and the the side-street fist-fights, and all the jumpings that go down around there sloshed around in my skull.  I thought of all the gang-members I’d lost my temper with, shouted at, or whose beads I’d had to confiscate.

I imagined a group of hooded youths waiting for me on my usual route. One, I might be able to deal with. But I know how it goes down. I’ve seen it happen to many a kid. They bring a pipe. They bring a knife. Or they just overwhelm you with fists and feet.

In my imagination, I felt the blackout touch of a pipe on my head. Then I saw the lights of the hospital room. I was almost wishing for it to happen, so I wouldn’t have to go back. Surely I would qualify for some kind of post-traumatic work-exemption pension after something like that.

I turned down an empty lane. It was lined with weeds and dark garages with car parts strewn about.  A Rottweiler in one of the garages sensed me. It stood up abruptly and lunged, but came to an abrupt halt when the huge chain around his neck yanked against the vice it was tied to.

I was starving. I went to a pizzeria by the station to get a slice for the ride home. I and another lady converged on the door at the same time. I paused.

“GO!” She barked.

It’s a tough town. Living here, you have to lose some of your sensitivity, and other outward signs of weakness.  I don’t use “Please” and “Thank You” like I did back home. In the pizzeria, I just slapped my two dollars on the counter and said what I wanted. “One slice.”

Up on the train platform, eating my slice, I scan the faces, just taking it in, like a cop. Sometimes it’s difficult for me to break out of dean mode, and I find myself wanting to snatch a kid’s hat off his head, or giving a tough stare to an adult on the train like I would to a kid walking the halls.

I see a former student on the opposite platform, a graduate. He does a double take, and then gives me a hearty wave. Then he tries to tell me something with his hands but I don’t understand. The train comes and severs the communication.

This is my stop, my train. Yet I stand out here.  The only other people who look like me at this stop are people who have to switch trains on their long ride out to the airport.  Often foreigners in funny pants, they stand close together, wordless, uneasy, maybe wishing they could afford a taxi or cursing themselves for not splurging on one.

“I’m not you,” I think when I see them. “I am comfortable here.” To the people around me, I emote,  “I am not them.” Yet, I wish I were heading to the airport too, like them, to catch my flight back home.

On the train, I sense someone staring at me as I look at the floor, eating my slice.  I finish it and take out the last of a batch of quizzes I need to check. I hate grading, but I promised myself I would use my commute time productively. I ignored my procrastinating urges and started in on the monotony.

I was giving myself away. I’m a teacher. I’m a geek. I’m a do-gooder, here to save your children, your community, you.

I finished the pile, and as the train screeched toward an approaching station I heard a voice like boulders tumbling down a canyon. “Excuse me. Can I ax eyou a question?” He spoke with exaggerated gentleness. It was the guy who had been sitting across from me.

“Sure,” I said.

“What was question number ten?”

Impressed with his observation, excited to have a friendly interaction on the subway, and relieved to hear someone actually interested in my course material for a change, I chuckled. “Why? Did you notice a pattern there? They all got it wrong or something?”

“Just every time you got to the tenth question, it was like..” he drew an ‘X’ in the air. “I just wanted to know what that question was.” His eyes gleamed. He seemed proud. I wondered if he regretted not paying attention in school when he was a kid, or if he was just a perennially curious guy.

“It was..” I spoke slowly as if I were dictating to my class, “What was one negative effect of the Industrial Revolution?”

He nodded vaguely.

I rambled on for a second more about what the correct answers should have been – pollution, over-crowded cities, etc., and how most of the students had mistakenly listed positive effects of the Industrial Revolution instead.

“Yeah, I just really wondered what that tenth question was,” he said once more. And seeming a bit energized by the interaction, as I was, he exited the train, the doors hissing shut behind him.

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One Response to The Tenth Question

  1. G Bob says:

    I have a feeling that might be the actual one, referring to the photo.

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