Write On!

Hard Lessons

In Responses on February 10, 2012 at 2:34 pm

By Jen Gregory

Inside the box of stale breakfast cereal tan clumps tumbled out, crinkling past the cellophane bag and dinging into the large brown bowl. Marissa grabbed her carton of organic milk and poured it over the top of the organic cereal which was past its prime because she had bought it, tasted it and gotten some Frosted Flakes instead. Now, out of Frosted Flakes, she was forced to eat her grains. They tasted far more like fried Styrofoam drizzled in honey than anything good for her. Spoonful by spoonful she crammed the lackluster breakfast in to her mouth so that she could get to work. After all, it was the first day of school.

Marissa tapped her heels through the drab brown hallway. As she turned into her classroom the cool blue and green colors on the walls warmed and energized her. The shiny white acrylic bookshelves were lined with textbooks and plastic bins for storage. She had painted clouds on the ceiling so pale one could not tell for sure if they were actually there. Her yellow shirt dress and bright orange heels shone like the sun in that room, just as she had intended. The principal stuck her head in, complimented Marissa and went on down the hallway. She glanced at the clock on the wall, ten more minutes.

She walked to each desk and placed a neat stack of papers on top just under their vinyl lettered names. Five minutes before the children were to arrive she applied some lip gloss and straightened the already straight papers on her desk. She grabbed a mirror and checked her hair, not ready to fall victim to a child’s cruel humor their very first day together. Her blonde hair hung straight and limp over her shoulders, her turquoise blue eyes the brightest thing on her clear pale face. She said a quick prayer for herself and her students then walked to the door, one minute left.

The rest happened so fast, so alarmingly fast that Marissa was not able to recount the day at all to her mother or her sister that evening. She had planned for this day, prepared and been absolutely ready for anything. She had not been ready for freckles and dimples or floppy dishwater hair. She had not been ready for his laughter that bubbled up like an underground spring or the sound of her voice, sharp and acerbic poured over his antics like dirty water on a warm fire. Nothing she said had gotten to him, nothing slowed him down nor deterred him from his love of laughter and life. He couldn’t sit still, he would not listen. He was the wrench in her otherwise perfect first day. That wasn’t what upset her though.

“All right class, let’s go over our list and what you will take home to your parents today.”
He had coughed and sputtered what she was sure was a curse word. The class had nervously giggled, eyeing Marissa to see how she would handle it. She knew she had to get it under control the first time if she wanted her class to listen to her at all. She sent the young boy, Adam, to the corner in a spare desk where he adamantly denied anything but coughing. At lunch he had walked up, placed his arm on her shoulder and said, “Ms. H, you’re the hottest teacher at this whole school.” With that he had walked away, but not before turning and winking, giving full press to the deep dimples on both sides of his freckled cheeks and the brilliant grin of either a future movie star or a nefarious criminal. Time would tell. Time would tell.

They were all in the pool, his floppy blonde hair clinging to his forehead, soft swollen freckles dancing on top of his cheeks and nose, dimples set just so. He would sneeze and say a bad word with it, swim under the water and grab the girls bottoms, the entire time those eight children were there, Kevin was the center of their attention and every time his giant blue eyes fell on Marissa her heart swelled just before she looked back to see if her dad was watching. Kevin laughed and evaded the lifeguard, flipping him off but not so that anyone but the lifeguard could see it. The lifeguard knew him by name but just like everyone else surrounding Kevin, he let it all slide.

Marissa had known only one person that had disliked Kevin and that was her father. Kevin’s house was maybe twenty houses down the road from her own and as Marissa invited friends over for slumber parties, played more in the yard with the other kids, Kevin would always instinctively come rolling by on his skateboard playing chicken with the cars of the elderly neighbors. As they veered left so would he, they would turn right and so would he, until eventually they would just stop, honk their horns and roll down the window to scream at him. Marissa would hear his laughter bubbling up, skipping through the breeze, announcing his arrival. Her father quickly made it clear that like an outside dog, Kevin was clearly an outdoor friend. He was not welcome in their house.

One time Marissa picked up the phone to answer it and he was singing Stevie Wonder.
“I just called to say I love you, Uuuuuuuuuu. Hey Marissa-issa, I’d come over but I’m not allowed to! Want to meet me down the street in a few minutes?”

Yes, forever yes, she did and would. They talked about nothing and everything. He sat close, attentive, still and quiet. She wrote poems about him. He kissed her two best friends. It never mattered, near him was enough. He got held back a grade. He was always in trouble, but the Kevin Marissa saw was just a young boy, a normal young boy with life all wrapped up to go. Her father told her, “That boy won’t live to see sixteen. He thinks he is invincible.”

When they were sixteen Marissa started hanging out with new friends at their new high school. Kevin was a grade behind now, still stuck in Middle School. She saw him all of the time but not like when they were twelve to fourteen. He quit skateboarding to drive. He was the only eighth grader with a license. It wouldn’t matter what he did or didn’t do. As reckless as he was with his life, Marissa was equally as reckless with her adoration of him but life has a way of pulling things apart.

“Ms. H! Can I go to my locker?”
“No Adam, you can’t.”
“Ms. H, I don’t know the answer to that question but you look pretty in blue, you know that?”
“Thank you Adam.”

Halfway through her first year of teaching Adam got in trouble with the police. She heard him bragging about it to his followers and she saw the secret fascination, the worship set in their eyes. His mother conferenced with her to discuss his medicine and doctor’s visits. She was strained and tired but when Adam walked up her face softened. He was her baby, it was obvious to Marissa the poor woman was at a loss and totally in love with her son regardless.

Her shiny white cabinets had graffiti on them by April. The books no longer neatly lined but tossed in upside down and sideways, the vinyl lettered names tattered and torn. She was grading papers. Was that an “a” or a “c”? Adam specialized in writing down two letters, erasing and repeating until it arguably could be both. Adam specialized in blurring the lines.

“Marissa! What are you doing here?”
“Hey Kevin, Michael brought me, said I had to try this place out.”
“It’s not your kind of place. I’ll see you later.”
She had smiled, patted his arm which he had jerked away and then walked over to Michael and told him Kevin was there. Michael went over and spoke to him, shook his hand and returned so that they could dance. He leaned in and whispered, “He’s dealing. I heard he was a cop and here he is selling me stuff!”
A few hours later Michael told her, it was bunk. Kevin’s stuff hadn’t done a thing. They left. Marissa drove Michael home and then went to her boyfriend’s house to visit. She was nineteen. All of that night as Colin talked or tried to kiss her, she was trying to reconcile Kevin before and Kevin after. “What happened?” she wondered distractedly.

Somehow he had become her due North and she became lost without him. She didn’t want to marry him, she just desperately yearned to run into him at the store and hug him, message him on Facebook, drive by his mom’s house and see Kevin’s kids in the yard playing one day. Adam could have been his son for all the similarities. With that realization her eyes flooded up with tears. She choked them back quietly and blinked it all away noticing the blurred lines of sky and sun. The yellow gold warmth poured over her shoulders while the powder blue sky’s wind exhaled soft sighs, leaving chill bumps over her.
Kevin. Adam. Adam. Kevin. For an entire school year the parallels had consumed her. Marissa began to wonder, if she talked to Kevin, what would he tell her to do with Adam? What advice would he have?

“Marissa-issa!”
“Kevin? Are you drunk?”
“In a manner of speaking, yes.”
“How did you get my number?”
“Your dad gave it to me.”
“Really? My dad gave you my number?”
“Yes ma’m, told him I was Michael.” The laughter erupted, except it didn’t bubble up anymore. It was a stuttering laugh, unsure of itself.
“How are you, Kevin?”
“Not so very good but I wanted to tell you something important.”
“Okay.”
“I think I might have loved you a lot. I think, I wish I would have kissed you.” There was total silence. No punch line. No laughter.
“Kevin, I would have liked that, a kiss, but…”
“Don’t say it. I’ve never been good enough for you. I’ve known that the whole time, I’m a mess. I just needed to say it, okay?”
“You were plenty good enough. I always thought I wasn’t good enough for you.”
“Marissa-issa, you are smarter than that. He slurred. You are the only good thing I was ever attracted to.”
“Kevin, are you okay?”
He blurted out a short, terse laugh and cursed under his breath. “I’ve got to go Marissa. I’m as okay as I was ever going to get, I guess. I love you Issa, always will. Don’t believe everything you hear about me, okay?”

She laughed softly, “I’ve never been able to believe anything but the best. That’s why my dad hated you Kev.”

“I know and that’s why I loved you, Issa. Take care of yourself. I’ve got an appointment, I’ve got to go.”

He hung up after that.

Two days later Michael’s mom had called. She said that Kevin had overdosed night before last and that the funeral would be the next day. Marissa stood in shock and did everything she was supposed to do. Sent a card to his parents, went to the funeral and to this day she lay one flower on his grave every year on top of this hill, nestled under a giant oak tree. All the facts aside there were some days that she thought he’d show up around some corner, freckles and dimples, floppy hair.

“Kevin, he’s just like you. What can I do?” She said out loud over his grave.
There was no answer of course and no whisper in the wind to tell her.
May came, and as it went, her students had matured by almost a year. The girls were prepubescent and the boys pretended to be. Kayli still cried over everything, Angela would always know the right answers, Devon would always find a way to scrape, cut, twist or break some part of his body and Chandler would always be the quiet one that never spoke out loud. Adam would always be a thief. He stole hearts, collected them and never brought them back, just like Kevin. She met with his mom one last time, they brought Adam in at the end of the meeting and she told him looking him in his eyes,

“Adam, despite the trouble you have been in I want you to know that I have loved being your teacher, more than you could ever know. I’m always here for you.” To which he replied with an enormous smile,

“I know that Ms. H, that’s why you are everybody’s favorite teacher, you are nice.”

“I’m not being nice Adam and I’m not just everybody’s teacher I am your teacher. You have problems, you come tell me, got it?”

“Yes, ma’m. Thank you.”

“Thank you Adam, for being you.”

His laughter gurgled up and around the room, padding the rough cinderblock walls and Marisssa finally understood why. He didn’t believe her.

“I mean it Adam, I’m glad you are you. I wouldn’t want you any other way.” she said staring him directly in the eye.

His laughter stopped abruptly. He looked at her and a shy smile that only allowed a glimmer of silver braces to be seen held back the dimples.

“Thank you Ms. H. Ditto.”

And then he was gone. She sighed and packed up her stuff. She turned to look at her room, she loved it more this day than she ever had on the first day. She had come in here ready to teach and fix these kids. They had taught and fixed her instead.

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