Authors: R. A. Nelson
It comes past his knees. Not Regulation Issue for Alabama, even in January.
Mr. Mann’s standing in just about the last place I would expect a teacher to stand: outside the gym, where two intimidatingly huge chunks of school wall come together. Kids smoke here. The concrete is a painter’s palette of gum. His presence is a force field driving leering boys away.
The wind is weaving pieces of his hair. He’s waiting for someone.
“Thank you,” he says when I come out.
I don’t know if he’s talking to me or Schuyler.
“You, Carolina.” Mr. Mann comes closer, pulling his coat around his legs. We’re exactly the same height. He’s inside my sphere again, making me feel electrically charged.
“Hi. I wanted to thank you for rescuing me.”
I’m not sure what I should say. “What?”
“The first class is always the most dangerous. Thanks for helping me out like that. I was afraid nobody would answer and I might be thrown to the wolves.”
I smile, embarrassed. Glance nervously at Schuyler, who is frowning, confused.
Mr. Mann sticks his hand out. “And you are?” Schuyler pushes at thick hair self-consciously—today it looks like a thatched Elizabethan roof—but shakes anyway.
My thinking apparatus is temporarily short-circuited.
“I’m sorry,” I say. “This is my friend, Schuyler Green.”
Mom would bust her buttons: Textbook Introduction. But why did I feel it necessary to throw in the playground qualifier? Mr. Mann turns to me again and glares beatifically.
“You spoke up when nobody else would,” he says.
“Except for Kenny.”
“How did you know who he was?”
“Teachers talk. They always tell you about the worst kids first. I wish they would start with the best.”
The crooked way he smiles somehow communicates that by
he means students just like me. His voice is soothing, his eyes hypnotic. It would be so easy to fall into them. In fact, that’s just what I’m doing.
“You were amazing in there,” I say, instantly horrified at my own words. I scramble to recover. “How you got everybody thinking, I mean. I’ve always been heavy into science. I’ve never read much poetry.”
“People in fear for their lives do desperate things,” he says. I wonder, is this supposed to have a double meaning?
“It’s a goddamn trick,” Mr. Mann says. “Pardon my French.”
“Actually, it’s Middle English,” I say automatically, immediately wishing I would shut up. It’s a habit from hanging around with Schuyler. Sometimes his only entry into a conversation is a chance to quietly show off.
“But originally from the Old French,” Schuyler says. See what I mean?
“Dampner. To condemn, inflict loss upon.”
Mr. Mann laughs. “I’ll remember you two the next time I’m on
Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?
” I like his laugh. It’s genuine, trusting. Schuyler doesn’t. His ears sink.
“You said something about a trick?” I say.
“Yeah.” Mr. Mann cups a hand to his mouth in an exaggerated, stagy gesture. “Can you keep a secret? He’s made up.”
“The person you saw in class today. It’s funny—even when you’ve been doing this for years, it never gets any easier. That’s how I survive it. I become Him. So mostly it’s all an act. I’m an INFP—”
“Sure,” I say. “Myers-Briggs. The personality sorter.”
“Right. So you know about it?”
“Yeah. We took the test a couple of years ago. INFP is one of the rarest personalities of all. It means you’re introverted, intuitive. You don’t mind things being open ended.”
“Right. We’re supposed to be loners. Writers. Actors. Artists.”
“Saints. Idealists. Dreamers.”
He grimaces. “Ha. I wouldn’t go that far.”
I can’t believe I’m having a conversation with this man. Normally his looks alone would send me into overload so bad, I’d be unintelligible. “So why do you do it if it bothers you so much?” I say.
“You mean, teach? Because I love it. It’s my second-greatest passion.”
Mr. Mann doesn’t say anything. I’m not sure he heard me. In fact, I’m not even sure I actually said the words. For the first time I notice Schuyler is gone. Force field got him.
“Well, I guess I’d better be going—”
“Wait,” Mr. Mann says.
He reaches into his coat, pulls out a golden envelope, and hands it to me. I blink. My mind is still trying to unhitch itself from the word
“I wanted to give this to you,” he says.
“What is it?”
“Your reward for rescuing me. Someone had to.”
I open the envelope and pull out a piece of stiff, formal-looking paper. A gift certificate for twenty-five dollars to Books-a-Million. It’s made out to
in black Sharpie.
“Oh! Thanks. But I don’t know if—”
Mr. Mann shrugs with his forehead. “I know. Probably against sixteen different school policies. Please accept it anyway. It’s kind of a tradition. I do it every time I start a new class. Besides, I can’t be fired until I see how things turn out.”
I tuck the certificate under my arm, a little afraid somebody else might see. “Turn out?”
“At the risk of triggering your gag reflex, I like to think each class is a book. Full of characters. Twists, surprises, heroes, villains. Growth. That’s the best part. I want to see how they turn out, Carolina. How they grow. Or not, as the case may be.”
“Nine. Everybody calls me Nine.”
“Oh. Where’d you get that?”
“From my dad. He’s an engineer out at NASA. Insane about numbers.”
He smiles. His bottom teeth are slightly crooked too.
“Integer chic,” Mr. Mann says. “It fits you.” I can feel him watching me, thinking. “Also the auditory suggestion of a Teutonic refusal. Who knows, might start a trend.”
I’m afraid I’m actually blushing. I decide to risk it.
“How’d you know where to find me?”
He puts a finger to his lips. “Shhh. Trade secret. I looked up your schedule on the school LAN. So which do you prefer? Carolina or Nine?”
I think about it, feeling a ridiculous warmth rising through my chest. “I don’t know. Either is fine. Anything but Amazon Woman. Hair Girl. Basketball Chick.”
“Do you play basketball?”
“Teachers really call you those things?”
“Some. The ones who think they’re funny.”
“No shit. What about the other ones?”
“Other who?” Did Mr. Mann just say
I think about it. “They don’t notice me.”
He puts his thumb to his chin, fingers resting on his full lips.
“Which is worse.”
I’m not sure it’s a question. “You mean being noticed or not being noticed?”
He doesn’t say anything, just looks at me.
I think about my answer for a week.
Each minute in his class is a sanctuary.
There is no suction today. There may never be again.
Even Harold’s neck is suddenly more interesting. As if I could look at anything else but Him.
As the days go by, I’m opening like a bud. Just in time for spring.
In spite of ourselves, we cram Emily’s new science into our heads complete with a foreign vocabulary:
variable feet, assonant rhyme, negative capability
This morning he pounds his fist so hard, the transparency on the projector jumps, throwing the image out of square.
He straightens the slide and we read:
BECAUSE I could not stop for Death,
He kindly stopped for me;
The carriage held but just ourselves
We slowly drove, he knew no haste,
And I had put away
My labor, and my leisure too,
For his civility.
We passed the school where children played,
Their lessons scarcely done;
We passed the fields of gazing grain,
We passed the setting sun.
We paused before a house that seemed
A swelling of the ground;
The roof was scarcely visible,
The cornice but a mound.
Since then ’t is centuries; but each
Feels shorter than the day
I first surmised the horses’ heads
Were toward eternity.
But everything is quiet.
Britton shifts in her seat. The henna bar code has given way to a metal crack ring. Ouch. “What are we supposed to hear?” she says.
“Read it again. Do you hear the hooves galloping to the beat of her words?”
Mr. Mann slaps his hands rhythmically on his desk, making a drumming sound:
He attacks the blackboard:
Havisham is waving her arm.
“Mr. Mann! My book is different.” She holds up a white paperback with a subluxated spine. “It doesn’t say lessons; it’s talking about wrestling.”
“There are different versions of many of Emily’s poems, depending on how old your book is, who did the editing, even the punctuation. Some of the multiple versions came from Emily herself. She was complex, changeable, amazingly ahead of her time.” He glances at me. I’m sure of it.
“So.” He moves fluidly across the room, hands clasped behind him. I’m stone drunk on his every gesture. Watching him walk does something supernatural to me. “What does the speaker figure out by the time she gets to the end of the poem?”
“That her ass is dead, man.” Kenny laughs.
“Bingo. And doesn’t that just make you want to scream?”
“When you think about it. All the things out there in the world that piss you off. The injustice. The stupidity. Sometimes in the middle of the night, it makes me need to scream. So that’s what I want everybody in the room to do right now. Scream.”
“No shit?” Britton says.
“How loud?” Kenny says.
“Jetliner crash. Make my ears bleed. Think about something that really drives you crazy and let it all out.”
You, I say to myself. What is happening to me? You really drive me crazy. Wackers. Bonko. Gone.
You make me need to scream.
“Okay, I’ll give you a countdown.” He ticks off numbers with his fingers. “Five, four, three, two, one—”
We scream, all twenty-two of us.
I pour my everlasting soul into the scream. I haven’t yelled this loud since grade school. I had forgotten how good it feels. It’s almost like a twisted kind of singing.
The yowling in the closed space is cleansing and horrifying. How thick are these walls? I notice Mr. Mann doesn’t scream. Maybe it would be too much. Something important might break inside us.
He cuts us off with a throat-slashing gesture. It takes a few heartbeats for things to completely stop. A few people are coughing from the effort. We’re waiting for him to say something, make the room okay again. He stares.
“So?” Matt the Jesus Phreak says.
“So now we wait,” Mr. Mann says. “Quietly.”
Thirty seconds pass. A whole minute. I’m watching him as much as the clock. Two. Are we listening for something? Whether we are or not, something comes.
The door swings open. It’s our principal, Zeb Greasy.
That’s not his real name, just what everybody calls him. He’s large, has dark, allergic eyes, a big head, thinning hair. A good old Alabama boy. He should be coaching a football team somewhere; in fact, he has. That’s the quickest way to zoom up the ranks in the Heart of Dixie.
“Is everything okay in here, Mr. Mann?” Zeb Greasy says, scowling.
“Fine,” Mr. Mann says. “We’re fine. Just working on a little drama.”
“Well,” Zeb says without smiling, “maybe next time don’t make it quite so . . . dramatic.” And he’s gone.
I look at Mr. Mann. We’re fine. I’m fine. I’ve never been so—
The days sail through winter into March.
I’m driving in Wilkie Collins with Schuyler.
The road ahead is partly flooded with spring rain. The ground is low here, but the water isn’t deep. Wilkie cleaves through with barely a twinkle.
Mr. Mann’s apartment complex is next to a swamp clotted with cypress trees. It’s an orange-brick place called Sunlake. Architectural style: Pretend It’s a House.
Today there is no sun and the only sign of the lake is a disemboweled beaver, intestines red as a can of Dad’s Old Spice deodorant.
His apartment is on the second floor. Building 9. What a perfect number. As we circle the complex a third time, I’m totaling up what I know.
“We talk nearly every day. He’s from Massachusetts. I think his parents might be dead. He never mentions them. He taught somewhere in Huntsville before he came here. Likes to wear three-button pullover shirts and Dockers. No jewelry. Wallet in his left rear pocket—”
Schuyler makes a face as if he’s about to puke and scratches at mustard on Wilkie’s dash. “I can’t believe you’re hung up on this cretin. I thought you were the Girl With the X-ray Eyes?”
Schuyler has called me that since at least the sixth grade, says I can see through anybody. What’s inside their hearts, their minds.
“Don’t worry. I am,” I say. “I’ve had crushes on teachers before. Ninth grade, remember? Something about the way Mr. Jennings said the word
“Horny Howard. Yeah, I remember. Something about the way he slobbered all over Lacey Carver, too.”
“Shut up! But this isn’t a crush. This is Napoleon and Josephine.”
“So which one are you?”
I poke him in the ribs and Wilkie Collins swerves, nearly clipping a newspaper rack. My first official act as Incorrigible Teen. We pass Mr. Mann’s building a fifth time and circle again. Schuyler emits an Empire State Building top-of-the-stairs groan.
“Come on, Nine, I’m starving.”
I bump open Wilkie’s glove box, pull out a pulverized packet from Wendy’s. Schuyler tears it open, dumps cracker dust down his throat.
Now he’s spitting out the window.
“Hey!” I yell. “At least wait till you get out of the car, you— you Aborigine!”
Crap—how long has that been in there? It’s a plot! You’re trying to poison me! Just so you can spend all your time stalking that organ-grinder.”
“Sorry.” I laugh.
He spits again. “And I’ll have you know the Pintudjara are a dang fastidious people.”
The first one.”
“Man. You’re too good. Bleh. Come on, let’s get out of here. Now I’m thirsty too.”
“But he might be coming back soon.”
“So? What’re you going to do, knock him on the head and drag him off in the bushes?”
“I just want to look.”
Atomic sigh. “I won’t say he’s ugly, but—”
“But you can’t ‘cause you know he’s gorgeous. Nose just the right shape. Amazing eyes. Broad shoulders. Perfect butt.”
“He’s not that old!”
“You’re making me sick, Nine.”
I giggle maliciously. “Sorry. But it’s too much fun.”
“But is he smart? In the right way, I mean.”
“Snob. Elitist. You need to take his class.”
Schuyler closes his eyes wearily and lays his head back. “I’m already two language arts ahead of you.”
“At the expense of your scientific education.”
“So call me well rounded.”
I touch his shoulder; Wilkie swerves again. “Kind of bony, actually.”
“See? You want me to get any bonier?”
“Don’t worry. You’re not going to blow away anytime soon.”
He starts tickling me in the side until I have to pull over.
“Cut it out!”
I’m laughing, trying not to squeal or pee my pants. Schuyler never used to do this. These days he’s constantly touching. Tickling the back of my neck, grabbing my head.
“Stop it! Come on, Schuyler, please!”
He lets up. “You ready to leave?”
“Okay. Okay!” I’m wiping at tears. “But at least let me call. Give me Mom’s cell.”
I find the number on the torn-out phone book page and dial. On the fourth ring Mr. Mann’s beautiful recorded baritone picks up. His message is loud; I have to hold it away from my ear:
“Man is the only animal that blushes. Or needs to.
Schuyler burps just as I’m hanging up.
“Cut it out! He probably heard you!”
“I hope he did. What a pretentious weenie roaster—”
“Uh-oh. Call Nostradoofus. The Last Days are upon us. You just used the word
.” Schuyler moans and turns on the radio. The Radio Guy immediately mentions the time.
“I knew it!”
We’re late for work at the Ground-Up Cow Face Burgers.
“Keep your war girdle on, Hippolyte,” I say. “We’ll get there.”
“Mythological Amazonian queen who battled Hercules,” Schuyler says. “Go!”
But I have to look one more time.
His building. Number 9.
His door. Number 220.
This number is destiny, too. It’s the same number of the abrasive used to polish telescope mirrors:
Number 220 Grit.
It makes me think of a word: