“Just Short of the Words”

The land just east of the high school covers 22.4 acres, a slab of earth christened University Commons for its catty corner nature to a major, local college. A string of restaurants and retail shops beds itself upon the land once barren and uncultivated by sorority girls looking for a Jamba Juice and mothers desiring to feed their children organic groceries. I park near the Whole Foods on Parent Teacher night. I’ve been teaching at the high school for about a month, and tonight is my first encounter with the parents. I teach their children AP Language Arts and Composition. They are eleventh graders who enjoy kissing each other on the face and touching each other’s parts in the hallway. I often wonder if they are all in love, or if they’re trying to figure out what love is like I did when I was sixteen.

I park in the plaza because there are no spots available at the school. I’ve come too late, it seems, and I must mecca over to the campus just across the way. The sun is going down and I’ve just had dinner. I feel ready to receive the parents. I feel important because I have a job. I am twenty-five and I have a full-time job with a salary and benefits. I carry my collapsible folder in a tote with notes prepared for the evening. I will tell them how I earned my Master’s degree and taught at college level for the last three years prior to my being hired at this school. I will tell the parents their kids are bright, that they impress me everyday and I learn from them. Their children will be prepared for the AP exam, come May. They will all do well. Everyone will be happy and receive good grades and enjoy coming to school because I am young and excited about writing. I am a writer and I will tell them that I am a writer.

In my first period session a father asks why I have yet to update the grades online and I tell him I’m new, I’m still working on it. This answer doesn’t suffice. He clenches his son’s binder that he’s taken tonight as if to signify some sort of genuine concern for his child. He is the parent and he must care for his child and his scholastic endeavors. I wonder if he has a wife, if they kiss and touch each other’s parts. Before I can begin the spiel I’ve prepared, the mother of one of the girls in my class smiles and raises her hand. “When will you be updating Edline,” she asks as her smile turns to a grimace. “Ashley said it’s your first year, but you’re worrying all of us.” I had spent the last few weeks filming and editing a class video of The Great Gatsby to show the parents tonight. I wanted to tackle summer reading in an innovative way and I know the kids loved it, but I can’t help but be crushed that all the parents care about are their children’s’ grades. I don’t know if they have any real interest in who I am or what I do in the classroom. I can’t even get a word out, so I start the video and hope for the best.

I walk back to my car at the end of the evening. The performance has taken a toll on me. I stop for a black and white milkshake at Shake Shack and linger in the parking lot, the space on Glades between the school and my apartment, and I wonder if I’m doing what I’m supposed to be doing. I want to go home and spend time with my lover and rest my head on his chest while he watches football and even though he ignores half of what I’m saying because Florida State is playing he understands and sympathizes and tells me that I am infinite and talented and that this is my time for expansion. “If you’re uncomfortable, you’re growing,” he says with his eyes glued to the screen and his hand around my shoulder.

My boyfriend has just started a full time job as well, also in education. He is a creative coordinator at a rehabilitation facility for troubled youths. I make him lunch every day because he’s never had a full time job before and doesn’t yet know that most everyone brings their own lunches in little plastic bags with all the snacks and such. I encourage him to remember to bring the lunch to school, that it is important to have lunch. He seems to be having a hard time adjusting and adapting to the new situation as well. A part of me wants to take on my role as a teacher, an educator. I wear dresses and tell my students they are unique individuals. I enjoy running scantrons through the machine and giving feedback on papers. I like learning and helping people, just not the school system. Having just graduated from a creative writing program, I feel all my creativity is stifled in the classroom and replaced by learning goals and behavior-management. The next day at school I almost expect my students to apologize to me for their asshole parents. But instead I am greeted with mostly expressionless faces, bored, uninspired, and waiting for something better to come along.

 

I come all the way to West Boca (about a twenty minute drive, which is far for Florida) to teach Bryan how to write an essay and not fuck up his entire college career.  He is taking a business class and knows nothing about writing, says Julie, his mom, who met my mom at the department store where she works and asked for my information. “My daughter can help,” I imagine her saying. “She’s a writer.”  She often emphasizes my experience teaching English Composition for the past three years. I don’t think she realizes that now my love of words merely spreads to 105 high schoolers who will most likely only remember that we played Improv games on assembly days.

This family lives in a gated community, one of many nestled behind the Mission Bay Plaza way West of where I live.  My boyfriend and I live in an apartment made for graduate students who are no longer graduate students.  Our place is close to the highway and there are lots of sandwich shops and gas stations nearby.  The El Rio trail is a stone’s throw.  The guard at the gate asks for my ID and I give him my California one that has not yet been exchanged for a Florida one, even though I’ve been down here almost five years now.  They usually give you 90 days to accomplish such feats.  A part of me is still dreaming of becoming successful soon and moving where I’d just have to renew it all over again, shortly, soon, almost.

 

I hear dogs at the door and prepare myself.  A father figure exits the garage.

“Oh, you must be the English tutor,” he says.

“I don’t do well with dogs,” I say, “Or any other animals you’ve got.”

“We’ll get them locked away,” he says as he shuffles the dog back inside through the front door.  I’m still waiting outside for Bryan.  I’ve only spoken to him on the phone, once, and it didn’t go well.  His mom had set up the meeting between us. I only needed to call him to confirm a time.  When he answered, he said in a low voice that his name was Jake and asked who I was multiple times.

“The English tutor.  I’m going to help you with your paper,” I kept saying into the phone.  He hung up and called back a few minutes later apologizing.

“I thought you were my ex-girlfriend, Katie.  She’s crazy.  Sorry about that.”

“No, I’m Brittany, the tutor.  Is 5:00 o’clock on Monday fine?”

“For sure,” he answered and I knew he was the type of kid that waxes his eyebrows and wears tight pants.  His mom told me he was living at home while he attended a local college, studying business, trying to pass his classes, that whole thing.  His life didn’t matter to me though.  It didn’t matter who Katie was and that she was off her rocker.  It didn’t matter that Bryan had taken weeks to agree to our meeting, probably pressured by his mother’s threats and his father’s disappointment. It didn’t matter that I don’t know anything about business. All that mattered was that I was a good writer and that I was going to help him become one too, or at least give his paper the facade of good writing so he could pass the class and continue living his life.

Most teachers I know subsidize their income by tutoring, doing SAT prep, PSAT, ACT, boot camps of all things listed, and then proctoring those exams on the weekends.  They complain about their jobs but their jobs never end with the amount of time they spend at their school or other schools in other cities doing work that not even that school’s own teachers wanted to do.  We work so hard for our bread only to spend most of it at gas stations. We thrive off cigarettes and packages of M&Ms that remind us of the sweet pleasures in this world.  But it’s almost as if these other teachers have become complacent and lost the air of delusion that I still carry, the one that leads me to believe I’m about to get my big break, that my life is about to start any day now, and this will soon be over.

Bryan and I sit at the dining room table.  It’s a good sign that he has a laptop out with what appears to be the draft of a paper on its screen.

“Would you like anything to drink?” Bryan asks in a way that I know he is offering with the hopes that I will say no.

“A water would be fantastic,” I say remembering I left my Contigo in the car.  I also take this opportunity to ask where the bathroom is so I can inspect it for signs of wealth.  I am directed to the second door on the right, just beyond the kitchen (with marble counter tops).  There is a glass cornucopia on the island with festive decorations strewn about.

The bathroom is done in shades of gold and brown and is equipped with a shower, in case a guest would like to have a shower during their visit.  I wash my hands in the deep, scalloped-edged sink.  The soap is lavender scented and makes my hands soft like I’m wearing some sort of rich, invisible mittens.  I see myself in the mirror and remember when my family moved to Boca, just east of here, when I was eight years old. We lived in a similar gated community in a two-story home with a pool in the backyard. My adolescence was spent in that home with leather couches and the gaudy bronze leopard statue that overlooked the kitchen from above, and it made me believe that success was inevitable. I too was once just a kid living in a Boca mansion of my own and I was under the impression that there would always be scalloped sinks wherever I went, that there would always be fathers with money and expensive cars in the driveway. I had this idea that my life would always be improving, and somewhere along the way that all changed for me when I decided I wanted to be a writer. Now I wasn’t so sure if I’d be able to make the next payment on my Elantra.

I return to the table and there is a bottle of water next to my things, my school bag, my notes for his paper, the purple pen I used to “correct” it by hand.

He waits for me to start.  He wants me to deliver a monologue that will incite a spark within him to write the proper paper, the perfect researched thing that will allow him to get an “A,” to get his mom off his ass because he is twenty-one and can handle it on his own, with the help of a tutor.  I unscrew the lid off the bottle and take an obligatory sip to clear my throat.

“I’ve made some notes,” I say.

His essay is organized but lacks content; it does a good job of using resources as evidence but is spattered with grammatical errors, mostly comma splices, and Bryan does have pencil thin eyebrows, but he is also a sweet kid that probably just hates writing.

“You’re just short 900 words, Bryan.”

He only has to write 900 more words to move forward and push onto the rest of his life. How many words do I have to write before someone notices me? At the high school I teach at I received an anonymous letter that I should take down the blog I’ve had for over six years. I never even thought anyone read the damn thing and now all of a sudden I have a real person telling me my writing is “inappropriate” and “unacceptable” for a high school teacher’s. My boyfriend says its sexism. Administration says to leave it up, freedom of speech and all that, so I do. I constantly send out my writing in hopes that someone will be affected by it and it turns out all it took was teaching at a high school with a bunch of prude pilgrims.

Bryan can’t write this Business paper to save his life, but he will be successful without having to show any signs of real success. He will take over the family business and live in a Boca palace like his parents and have holiday parties with catered food and he will always have an abundance of bottled water. When it’s obvious that he’s had enough of my monologue, he walks me to the door and we await his mother.

“Sorry the house is a mess,” Julie says. “We’re getting ready for a Halloween party.” She hands me a folded check. Bryan escorts me outside and the door slams behind me, probably from the wind of the storm brewing, but in my writerly mind I like to think of it as the final push, the being kicked out of the Boca mansion where I don’t belong. I wait until I get in the car to open the check and see how much I’m worth. I start the car and unfold to see $75.00 written. Immediately I know that means two contest submissions and a fellowship application.

 

I have become close with a student in my 6th hour, Adam. He rarely turns in any work and refuses to sit down in his seat most days, but he is one of my favorites because he is always honest. I notice how most everyone I work with comes to school to pretend, to put on a façade about their knowledge and understanding and attempt to change the kids, change the world. Likewise, there are students who come to school everyday immersed in whatever lies they have been told by their parents, their peers, themselves, and it shows.

Recently we had a speaker come to the school, a pretty famous one, who spoke on the hot topic of bullying. Normally I’d be pleased with anyone who expressed a desire to speak against that subject, but this presentation quickly went awry. The speaker was born without any appendages, and rather than presenting on the way he overcame his difficulties, the harsh bullying he faced that has led him to become an influential speaker, he decided to spew religious jargon at a group of 2,000 students. He identified what he thought was inappropriate, “sinful,” behavior such as using curse words, engaging in sexual relations before marriage, engaging in homosexual activity, and lastly the disgust and pointlessness of pornography and masturbation. I heard the “oohs” and “ahhs” all around me as he talked about God in a roundabout way, a God who wanted us to be pure and virginal so our someday significant others wouldn’t be “tainted” or “tarnished.” Everyone loved it. The girl next to me was quietly praising “amen” the whole time and slapping her knees when she heard the speaker hit a note that resonated with her. I felt like everything I had been teaching in my own classroom (or really the one I share with three other teachers) had been negated by the preaching of the speaker. Where I vouched for uniqueness and understanding and acceptance, he vied for a barrier between right and wrong, good and evil, love and fear, sin and freedom of sin. I wanted to throw up. It reminded me of nights I had mistakenly spent at a youth group some years ago before I redefined myself as Jewish. I started to feel bad for things I’ve done and mistakes I’ve made, and the assembly wasn’t even for me.

After the presentation some kids went to the cafeteria for an ice cream party for getting high grades on their report cards. Adam came back to my room early before the period ended and wanted to discuss what he had heard. He stood for a while at my desk before he spoke.

“I feel like he’s trying to shame me,” he spoke holding a cup of half-melted ice cream with sprinkles haphazardly scattered on top. “Because I’m bisexual and Jewish and I watch porn. But I don’t think I’m a bad person. I know I’m not a bad person. But I don’t get why the school would bring someone here that wants to make me feel that way? What did you think of the presentation?”

I hated it, but I knew I couldn’t tell a student that I felt (strongly) that something the school did was wrong. I told him it didn’t matter what I thought about it, but that he was right to question things that were happening, not simply accept the system as the norm. He went on though, and another student that had returned from the ice cream social joined in as well, and they began to rant and rave about different things they felt unfair about the school.

Adam went on about how he hosts the Jewish club and Film club at school and when funding got cut, he offered to make coffee in the mornings for a small fee just so that during lunch when the club met, he could provide some food for its members and guests. He said he woke up every day at 5:00AM and got to school early to make coffee and change out all the Keurig machines, but the administration never gave him anything.

“They spend all their money that WE earn through taking tests on speakers that degrade us. I…I don’t understand. I just want my friends to have a place to go where they feel accepted and can have a slice of pizza.”

I felt the genuine nature of his heart. It was often hard getting Adam to sit down and turn in work and concentrate on my lessons, but I could finally see why. He was burdened by so many other pressing issues that other students didn’t think twice about. To most other kids, that assembly was a chance to skip class and check Instagram, but for Adam, it was an opportunity to be broken down and therefore challenge himself and his school to do better. He cared, and it made me really sad to know he was hurting. A few weeks later, the school printed a paper with the speaker’s image on the front cover, and a long article following. The article, well-written and properly punctuated, was another hit on Adam’s soul, as it mentioned the speaker’s ascent above sin coupled with student testimonials. Adam ran into 6th hour holding up the paper. He was angry but he had also written a deep and personal poem about his experiences. He told me he knew that he was missing some work the last few weeks and asked if I would count the poem as one of the assignments. I said sure and began marking it with comments for him as he waited at my desk, eager for what I would say.

 

I’m at a local pizza place, my favorite because they have Sicilian slices, thick pizza pie squares, and I overhear the man next to me talking about promoting someone to Principal. He’s half talking to himself and half talking to the waitress. For whatever reason, I decide to get involved. As it turns out, he’s the Superintendent for the area and is pleased to have met me, one of “his” teachers. He asks me where I work and he is beyond excited to hear my response. He then asks if I love my job, I pause.

“I know the kids can be rough, but they’re great! You’ll grow into you role. You’re going to be great. I just know it. You’re changing the world.”

Every word comes out with strings of saliva hanging from his lips and attaching to his meaty pizza. It’s obvious to me that this guy is either hitting the sauce or the worse prospect that he actually believes his own shit. I finish my slice and leave the restaurant once again uncertain of the career I’ve gotten myself into.

I think back to my interview in June. The principal sat me down, my body of work in front of me, my legs kicking anxiously under the table. He offered me the job on the spot and I remember wanting to ask for a few days to think about it, but knowing he needed an answer right away. I didn’t have anything else on my horizon at the time, nor do I now, but I tried to believe that I could be a teacher, that it would all work out and maybe I could be happy at the school teaching 11th graders. I’d be an English writing teacher, and that sounded pretty good, didn’t it? I didn’t know what I was getting myself into, but I knew it was better than nothing, so I accepted. I remember getting into the car and envisioning coming there every morning at 8:00AM, what it would be like to see all their faces, all the kids every day, holding a binder and reading papers, drawing on the board, being in charge, the fake authority that comes with the performance of being a teacher, and I convinced myself that everything would be okay. I’d be a teacher after the summer was over, and that was all I knew.

 

For the last few weeks, Ben, a kid in my 5th hour has been asking me to go to brunch with the class. He even conducted a class vote between IHOP, Denny’s, and Tom Sawyer’s. Tom Sawyer’s won by an overwhelming number of hands. After our midterm exam, Ben holds out an index card and tells me he doesn’t want to email back and forth about brunch plans through the district’s email. I stare at him, his round glasses comical and perfect for his face, a handsome kid of a good build, a boy who probably has already started to like girls but won’t admit it freely just yet because he’d rather be funny than anything else, a kid who turns in free-writes late every single time. One time he wrote about how anxious he was at his fifth birthday party and how his mother yelled at him and told him to dance and have fun but he felt awkward and uncertain of himself. He wrote a reflection in that voice, a child’s voice that will stay with me long after I sign my resignation papers.

He, like Adam, like myself, is at least honest with where he’s at. Adam is not the perfect student because he doesn’t turn in assignments, he questions his teachers, and doesn’t respect everyone he is told to respect. He wants to know why the system is the way it is and how he can make it more fair for his peers. Fellowship, I tell him, is what he’s looking for. And of course I tell him to keep moving forward with that desire. Ben stacks pennies on his neighbor’s head during the midterm exam so he can’t move without the pennies falling, making a loud crash in the middle of the test, and he laughs silently because this is what he enjoys: having a good time. Ben aces every test he takes, the scantron kind that I enjoy for its ease, never marking any red letters over his penciled responses, and when he does turn in writing, it is clever and “A” level. He is smart in the conventional sense, but his honesty overrides his desire to be a “good student.” I often call him up first to the front of the room to play Improv games when we have shorter class periods on assembly days. I give him and another student a letter of the alphabet and watch them speak to each other only using the next letter in succession. His smile is so big as he holds back abundant laughter, so difficult to do he can barely make it through the scene.

I write my personal email address on the index card and tell him I know how to block emails. He tells me no one has ever blocked him before, and he doesn’t plan on making this a first time occurrence. I do this because after I sign the resignation papers, the district will remove my email address from the server. I’ve seen it happen before, and so quickly does it happen. Another English teacher walked out during class on the second day of school and her email account was deleted by the end of the day. A math teacher was fired because he stopped showing up on time to his first period, and he was forgotten and replaced by an elderly substitute right away, then shortly after that a permanent replacement was introduced to the class. I know I am not that important, and in the scheme of things, the kids will be able to move on. But I am torn about whether or not I mean anything to my students. I wonder what will happen when they sit at their desks and see that it is not me in front of the room, but someone else, someone who is more willing, someone who maybe has more experience, maybe even someone who knows what they’re doing, hopefully someone who cares.

 

Teachers have been rude to me, even ones that are on my “team,” the group of people who are in my department and are supposed to help me because I’m new. They comment on how I dress, the assignments I give, the way I manage my classroom and deal with behavioral issues (or lack of those things). I never ask for any of this criticism, as it doesn’t come in the form of care or concern, but an attack of character. I stopped showing up at meetings because I was scared of what they would say next that would make me feel bad about myself. I always considered myself a confident person. When I was six years old I used to put on pink Lisa Frank lipstick and dance around my room to “Cool Rider,” the song Stephanie Zinone of the Pink Ladies sings when she yearns for a motorcycle driver to sweep her off her feet. Ever since then I’d say I “feel myself” and am proud of who I am and where I’ve been. Teaching at the high school has lowered my confidence in a way that only mirrors how my confidence was tried during my own high school years. My boyfriend will occasionally glance over at me while we eat dinner and ask, “Are you okay?” I’ve never felt so down on myself and I know I need to get out. The other day a teacher I’m not too fond of told me that my latest assignment was “bullshit” and that if I want to get fired I should go ahead and give it to my students. I’m all for constructive criticism, but the shear aggression and anger with which some of these teachers speak to me and to each other does not read as a place of positivity, learning and growing, the environment one would want to be a part of, the one that I could call my career. I wanted to tell her I was sorry her boyfriend didn’t go down on her enough, or that she herself is a bad teacher, and more so a bad person. She was the one who encouraged me to leave early when I took a grading day. “No one will notice,” she had said at the start of 6th hour. We walked to our cars and went home early.

Maybe life is just a series of meeting people that you may or may not have an impact on. I will not be able to forget when on the first day of school a certain teacher told me my spaghetti straps were inappropriate and I needed to “cover up” when I was already flustered and trying to make copies of my syllabus. I will always remember when Adam wrote about the first time he kissed a girl and how he realized after later kissing a boy that he liked both things and wanted to be able to enjoy both. I will always remember when Ben asked me if I would have my own room next year so him and his friends could eat lunch with me. I will not be able to forget the feeling of wanting to stay but knowing I had to leave because of how unhappy it was making me. I will not be able to forget how bad I felt leaving the kids in the middle of the year, but also feeling bad that they had to accept me as their teacher with all my “bullshit.” I hope they can understand that I wanted better for myself, and like I always tell them, they should never stop working towards what they deserve. I want to be a successful writer and I want to make a difference with my words. I couldn’t do that with teaching because although I may have been helping a few students, I couldn’t help myself. When I leave, I hope they aim to be their best selves and wish that it is something they can continue to do without me in the room. Maybe though, hopefully, if I’m at all lucky and fortunate in this life, no one will notice.

 

I heard a story about the school where I teach. There was a carnival for the seniors at the end of the year (Grease-style, I imagine). They even had a Ferris wheel in that old abandoned land across the way. In the story, I was told that one year, just as the celebration was coming to an end, two carnies got in a fight. The scuffle migrated to the school’s parking lot where most of the students had already gone home to prepare for their graduation ceremony. One of the men pulled out a knife and the battle became fatal for both. The next day, the bodies of the men were outlined in chalk in the parking lot as kids pulled up in their cars. The friend who told me this story, a graduate from the school who was present on this day, said he wondered about the white chalk body next to his parking spot and the second marking a few feet away. Everything had been so wonderful at the carnival, and he couldn’t understand what went wrong. Something real had happened though. Emotions took over, people got angry, and tragedy took place because room was made for such. The carnies had been putting on a show all day, and then they became men just short of their time.

That land would later be transformed into something better for the kids, the profitable patch of land it is today. I think about this as I walk to my car after signing the 1176 form required for resignation in the secretary’s office. I also think about my boyfriend who recently said he needed space from me to figure out what it is he truly wants. I realize that I’m not where I want to be, where I’m supposed to end up. I am stuck in the stagnancy of trying to make things work. I picture myself at my next gig, teaching creative writing part-time to another group of high schoolers, but this time at an arts school. I hope it will be more, that I will find my place and make an impact, receive a universal reward. I think we all need to live in a fantasy in order to get through the day, and my job at the school has clouded that dream. It kept coming up short, it was always less, and I’m ready to become more.

About Brittany Ackerman

Brittany Ackerman is a graduate of Florida Atlantic University's MFA program in Creative Writing.  In 2016 she completed a residency at the Wellstone Center in the Redwoods, as well as the Mont Blanc Workshop in Chamonix, France under the instruction of Alan Heathcock.  She recently attended the Writing by Writers Methow Valley Workshop in May of 2017 under the leadership of Ross Gay.  She currently lives in Los Angeles  with her forthcoming collection of essays entitled The Perpetual Motion Machine to be released by Red Hen Press in the fall of 2018. More of her work can be found at brittanyackerman.com