He’s not the coolest boy or the richest boy, but his brown bag is packed with bargaining power. The sandwich is roast beef from Leo & Sons Big M deli with muenster and honey Dijon, served on marbled bread with lettuce. His mother packed the tomato slices separately to keep the bread from getting soggy. This is a legendary sandwich, half to keep, half to trade for practically anything in the cafeteria.
He misses haggling with his friends. For four months, the boy has taken lunch in his classroom, seated at his desk. The students are finally old enough to find their own way through the halls, but the Teacher walks the boy to the cafeteria and back, keeping him from his classmates the whole trip. He purchases a half pint of whole milk, speaking only to the cashier before returning to his desk.
The boy lays the tomato slices in place. He takes slow, meditative bites of his sandwich as he stares at the Teacher. The overhead lights are off so he can’t read. She uses her desk lamp. She shuffles papers around, opens and closes drawers, and pretends he’s not staring. He can tell his stare unnerves her. When she sees him doing it in class – which he has been doing in lieu of work more and more – the Teacher tells him to stop.
On some level he knows the sandwich is delicious, but it’s hard to taste past the bile rising in his throat.
The Teacher has a pinched face and a sharp nose. Her hair is chalky black, with a white stripe down the middle where she parts it. Ethan, who the boy used to sit with in the cafeteria, said it’s because her hair is really white but she dyes it black. The boy isn’t sure if that’s true; her stripe always looks the same.
Some of his classmates call her Skunkhead, or Zipperhead, or, more mysteriously, Mrs. Hammerhead. Mark Polaski, who already has muscles, stubble, and a deep voice, calls her Miss Z. When he does this, she presses her lips together so hard they turn white, but she doesn’t scold him.
The boy never calls her anything except Mrs. Zimmerman. Or rather, he never called her anything except Mrs. Zimmerman before she began bullying him. Now he uses all the nicknames. On the bus ride to and from school, he talks about the way Zipperhead begins every lunch by pulling a tin of tiny mints from her purse and washing one down with water, how she stares for twenty minutes with her mouth opening and closing like a fish, then breathes deeply and closes her eyes before she finally starts working. He talks about lunch in Skunkhead’s room, silent apart from the sighs and creaks of her chair, the rattling of her mint tin, the whip of her shh if he makes noise of any kind. He talks about lunch in Hammerhead’s room, how her hands flutter around her head like moths before twitching to rest, one at her neck, one holding her bowed head, the way her lips pucker when she reads to keep them from moving.
His friends – the ones he used to sit with at lunch – are sick of hearing about her. He uses new nicknames, Batface, Farthead, Madam Bitchface, but even his vehement use of punishable language doesn’t hold their interest.
The boy doesn’t know what social capital is. If he did, he would understand the Teacher is destroying his. The boy only knows she is mean, messing up his life for no reason.
The boy has four older brothers and one older sister, clustered together, one after the next. He’s a surprise separated by a gulf of years. Three of them dropped out before graduating. In the school system, his siblings are known for intelligence, disregard for authority, and some legendary infractions. The teacher knows the stories, but the boy doesn’t. If his siblings are the reason for her bullying, he wouldn’t know.
The boy’s skin tone doesn’t match his classmates. They are young enough to be only dimly aware of this. If his skin is the reason the teacher bullies him, the boy doesn’t know.
If the Teacher is addicted to prescription painkillers, the boy doesn’t know. If bitter loneliness explains her erratic behavior, the boy doesn’t know. If this boy, so much smarter and so much more ignorant than she is, reminds her of her own boy, of her failures raising him, of her boy she lost to an inherited weakness for drugs, if she hates herself more each day for victimizing the boy yet can’t seem to stop, the boy doesn’t know. If scraping him raw makes it easier for her to be sweet toward his classmates, the boy doesn’t know.
The boy only knows she is hateful. First, she snapped at him in class when he answered questions, whether he was correct or not. Then she punished him for things everyone did – like getting up to sharpen his pencil without permission to leave his seat, or reading a book while waiting for the rest of the class to finish an assignment. He reacted. He became another Mark Polaski, a back-talker, a loafer, a snide remark-maker. She punished him more.
The boy wants revenge. So far, his only weapon is his stare, and he uses it as much as he can. Every day, he sits at his desk and stares at his teacher until she tells him to stop. For the first time in his life, the boy is not getting A’s. He rushes through each assignment so he can get back to his real work as quickly as possible. He contributes nothing to group work. He doesn’t put his head down during games of Thumbs Up until specifically directed.
The sandwich is gone. The carrots were purchased whole, but the boy’s mother has taken the time to peel them and cut them into uniform sticks. Much tastier than baby carrots, they’re swappable for a V-8 or Wheat Thins, if he could get into the cafeteria. Still staring, he eats the carrot sticks as slowly as the youngest of six siblings can. The clock moves like a turtle.
The teacher never tells him to stop staring.
Stop that, is all she says. As though what he’s doing is so loathsome she can’t soil her mouth naming it.
The teacher can only ignore the boy’s gaze so long, and her tolerance is slipping. She tells him stop that eight times a day now, with a series of inflections the boy has cataloged like varieties of potato chips.
He discovered the stare by accident. He had been looking at her, trying to think of something, anything, to make her feel for one moment as bad as she made him feel every minute of every day. His head dipped. His eyes narrowed. His stomach seethed. He had nothing. You mean old bat-faced bitch, he thought.
He didn’t know how long he stared, racking his brain for a plan, before the room began to swirl. Everything in his peripheral vision blurred into nothing. All he could see was his teacher’s face. He had never stared at anything so hard in his life, so he had no way of knowing if this was normal. His thoughts flattened to a single line, repeated like a mantra. Mean old bitch, mean old bitch, mean old bitch, mean old bitch, mean old bitch, Meanoldbitchmeanoldbitchmeanold-
The boy felt like he’d been startled awake. The classroom came rushing back. Beneath the teacher’s authoritarian mask, he saw a moment of hesitation. She couldn’t have pointed to her weak spot more clearly.
The boy was not stupid (and in his naivety he didn’t wonder if he’d have an easier time being the Teacher’s student if he was). Her reaction could be fake, a way to get him out on another limb so she could humiliate him again.
Over time, he came to believe her upset was real. She wore half-glasses on a cord around her neck, and she acquired the habit of pinching the arms of her glasses while he stared. She also donned and removed the glasses more often. She scratched her nose. She shifted her weight. Her hand trembled over her shoulders like a hamster, rubbing her collarbone, her shoulder, then the small knot at the top of her spine. That was usually the last gesture she made before slapping her arm to her side and setting her jaw, acknowledging him at last.
The carrots are gone. The boy opens his milk. Thinking of the half of an ice cream sandwich that five Double Stuff Oreos might have gotten him, watching the teacher’s condescending little smile, it’s difficult to enjoy his cookies. He tries making each Oreo last six bites.
The boy had tried tacks and chewed gum on her chair, notes written in block letters on her desk, unscrewing the bulb in her lamp to make it flicker.
“Gee,” the teacher said. “I wonder how this gum got on my chair.”
She called half a dozen suspects to line up in front of her desk. One by one she leaned down and smelled their breath, saving the boy for last. He was unaccustomed to lying. The smell of peppermint tagged two weeks on his lunchroom sentence. Two weeks would have been worth it, if she had sat in the gum.
When the teacher pulled out her chair and looked at the tacks, her eyes went dark. The boy entertained a stupid hope that she was in a far off place, thinking deep thoughts, about to sit at any moment. Then she looked up and barked his name, making him start. She used his guilty jump as a wedge to drive another confession from him, and add another three weeks to his sentence. Three weeks would have been worth it, if she’d sat on a tack.
The notes she collected for a week.
“Class, I have a special question.”
When the Teacher dubbed something “special,” trouble generally followed.
She rose from her desk, a few loose pieces of lavender notebook paper in her hand. The boy recognized the paper, each sheet ripped from his sister’s Hello Kitty pad. He had thought himself clever, throwing the Teacher off the trail with girly paper he didn’t carry.
“How do I feel about passing notes in class?”
This was not the special question, this was drawing a line for Gallows. Dawn Peterson raising her hand was a second line drawn. The Teacher nodding for Dawn to speak was another line. Dawn saying note passing is a low practice which detracts from lessons and disrupts the peace of the class was a fourth line. The teacher would draw with questions and calculated gestures, and then she’d hang the boy.
“That’s exactly correct, Dawn.”
The teacher moved to the blackboard, erased the notes from the prior lesson, and picked up a piece of chalk. She took a moment to select the proper length of chalk for maximum impact, not so short she’d need another piece to finish, not so long it might break. She wrote four phrases on the board.
A few in the class tittered, but not because it was funny. Most, like the boy, were shocked. He recognized the phrases. If asked, he could not have recalled what he’d written, but seeing them on the blackboard brought back the hatred coming from his pen.
You will die tomorrow at noon, with a knife.
You have stupid hair.
You suck and are so dumb.
Fuck you. Hell.
In the teacher’s precise print, the words he’d felt powerful writing looked stupid and juvenile. The boy’s face burned. He squirmed in his chair. He may as well have waved his hand in the air like Dawn Peterson, who always had the correct answer to everything and looked like she’d pee herself if she didn’t get to say it.
The teacher put her chalk down, turned, and grinned at the class.
“Fuck you hell,” she said. The boy heard gasps but didn’t gasp himself. Each word landed like a slap.
The teacher paced the aisles between students’ desks, hands clasped loosely at her waist. Her heels clacked like nails knocking into wood.
“‘Fuck you hell,’” she repeated. “I was wondering, who would write ‘fuck you hell’ on a note and place it on my desk?”
The boy fairly leapt from his seat to stop his Teacher from saying the phrase again.
“Me, I did it, it was me.”
“You?” Her astonishment was as genuine as Sweet n’ Low, and about as palatable. “I won’t believe you, of all my students, could write something so vile, to me.”
“Yes.” He wasn’t sure what he was agreeing to. The boy opened his desk. Inside was that day’s note, a doozy he’d been saving for the end of the day so the Teacher’s weekend could start in the manner she deserved.
“Oh.” She shook her head in pity, her white stripe waving at him. Then she perked up. “I have an idea. Maybe you’d like to read your note in front of the class?”
“No, Mrs. Zimmerman.”
“Don’t be modest. Work of this magnitude deserves a much wider audience.”
“I don’t get what you mean.” The boy knew; he was just stalling.
“I mean that your notes are so good, it’s a waste that I’m the only one who gets to read them.”
The boy swallowed. He ran a hand over his forehead, rubbing at his hairline. The boy doesn’t know it, but he’s started a nervous gesture he’ll take with him to the grave.
“Come on, you’ve never been shy during Show and Tell. Show us the note.”
The boy moved in a circle, holding the note in front of him like a shield. He didn’t look at his classmates. He watched his shoes turning on the tile.
“Very good. Now tell us what it says.”
The boy licked his lips. His mouth felt like sandpaper.
“‘You are… a… mean old bat-faced bitch who should die.'”
She took great delight in repeating the phrase.
“‘A mean, old, bat-faced, bitch. . . who should die.’ Well done. Now tell me you’re sorry.” Her face was as content as a cat bathing after a meal.
“Are you? Are you very, very sorry?”
“And I’ll never do it again.”
She told the boy he’d be enjoying lunch with her until Spring Break, and it wasn’t even Thanksgiving. It was an unfathomable stretch, but with a nice side-effect; the Teacher had to apologize.
“Class. On Friday, I used language that is unsuitable for the classroom. How can I expect you to avoid using inappropriate language, if I use it myself? If I offended anyone by using those nasty words, I’m very, very sorry.”
And? the boy screamed in his head. And? And? And? Having to say “I’ll never do it again” was the cherry on top of his misery that she always forced him to say. Still, hearing the Teacher apologize was quite something. He only wished he had thought of telling his parents about the Teacher swearing, so it would be because of him that she was forced to humble herself.
The boy never tells his parents what happens in school. He’s the good son, and doesn’t want to disappoint them.
The Macintosh is arguably the most delicious hand fruit available. It’s certainly top two in the apple world, neck and neck with the Royal Gala. The Macintosh could be traded for a banana or a fruit roll-up, but the boy probably wouldn’t. Since his mom taught him that the apple is nature’s toothbrush, he finishes every lunch with one. Misery dulls the crispy sweet memory of autumn in his mouth but at least he’s managed not to cry.
Today’s lunch is especially trying because of the Vulcan Death Grip.
There is no such thing as the Vulcan Death Grip, but the boy doesn’t know this. He doesn’t pay full attention when his dad watches re-runs of this old show, he just thinks it would be cool to thwart his foes with a single touch. He gives Ethan the Vulcan Death Grip twice, once in gym, and once in the advanced math class they take with a different teacher. Ethan used to be his best friend, and he tolerates the action well enough. In art class, the boy gives Renee Costanza the Vulcan Death Grip, also twice. Renee looks very uncomfortable when the boy touches her, but he can’t stop himself. In his opinion, Renee Costanza is the prettiest girl in his class.
These acts are unsatisfying because they don’t work. The boy much prefers announcing his intention to perform the Vulcan Death Grip, then shuffling toward his victim, one hand stretched out in a claw. He never catches anyone; the anticipation is the thing, the idea that it could actually render someone unconscious, just this once.
Yesterday he forgot which class he was in. As he reached toward Scott Eggert’s retreating back, a waist bunched with pink flowers on stiff white cotton blocked his vision. He looked up and saw the Teacher’s angry face.
“What do you think you’re doing?”
“The Vulcan Death Grip,” he said.
She loomed above him, hands on his shoulders, thumbs digging beneath his collarbones. The pain was exquisite. His eyes filled with tears.
“Vulcan Death Grip.”
He was never afraid of her before. It doesn’t occur to him that he might have an easier time as her student if he was.
“How many students have you done this to?”
The boy shrugged as best he could with the Teacher performing her own version of a double-death-grip on him. She commissioned Dawn Peterson to go from class to class and make a list.
Before lunch, Dawn handed the Teacher three neatly printed pages. The Teacher showed them to the boy before they left to buy milk. According to Dawn’s list, the boy has given the Vulcan Death Grip to all of his classmates at least once. Most claim he’s done it four to six times. Ethan, Renee Costanza, and Dawn herself top the list, with claims of eighteen Death Grips each.
The boy’s fingers trembled as he flipped the pages of lies. The Teacher might have thought the boy was afraid, but his hatred had crystallized into pain and rage.
“What are we going to do about this?”
He held proof of his classmates’ disdain for him, and it was the Teacher’s fault.
“If we show Principal Hyatt, all the parents will find out. There will be phone calls. Everyone will know you’ve been assaulting your classmates. Does that sound like fun?”
The boy shook his head. How had she done it? And why did his classmates go along?
“If you apologize to everyone in class, I’m sure you’ll learn your lesson.”
Did they think he enjoyed her company, that he liked eating lunch in the classroom? Had her harsh treatment invited them to be equally harsh? Were they that sick of hearing him complain about her? Or did they lie about him just because they could?
His lunch is gone. The boy raises his hand and asks for permission to leave his seat and dispose of the trash. The teacher nods like a queen bestowing some great favor.
He has nearly fifteen minutes to stare at the Teacher until lunch ends. He stares until her face in the desk lamp is all he sees, but the effects are minimal. She seems barely aware she’s at her desk at all. She broke a second mint in half and washed it down with the first, never a sign of good things after lunch. It meant she’d be especially giddy with his classmates, but more openly antagonistic toward him.
He stares even as his classmates trickle back to the room, but the contented little smile never leaves her face.
“Class,” the Teacher says once everyone is settled, “we have a special presentation.” She calls the boy’s name.
“Would you like to get it out of the way?”
The boy certainly does not want to get it out of the way, but it wasn’t really a question. His classmates eye him as he walks to the front of the room. Once there, he stands, whittled smaller and smaller the longer they look at him.
“I just wanted to say…”
His classmates hear his voice crack and their eyes grow hungry. A lump forms in his throat. He hates the Teacher for putting the lump there. He hates himself for letting this hurt him.
“I just wanted to say…”
If he continues, he won’t be able to hold his tears any longer.
“Please hurry. Afternoon lessons won’t wait forever, and we have a lot of classrooms after this one.”
The boy looks at the Teacher. She looks back with the same avid interest as his peers. Humiliating him here isn’t enough; she wants to bring him from room to room for her own Show and Tell. Class, this is what a bad boy looks like, and he’s got something to tell you…
The boy feels like he’s choking on the hurtful lump in his throat.
“I wanted to say I’m sorry,” he whispers.
“You’re sorry for what?”
The teacher’s voice is soft. The boy thinks of his mother, soothing him to sleep when a nightmare wakes him. His feet on the tiles blur.
“I’m sorry for giving you all the Vulcan Death Grip.” He doesn’t look at them. Tears roll down his face.
The word is little more than a whisper. When the boy speaks, it’s like an explosion.
“I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I’ll never, ever do it again.” He’s wailing, crying. He can barely keep his feet. A few of this classmates seem embarrassed but none of them look away.
The teacher rushes to the front of the class. Her body shakes like she’s just risen from a cold lake. Her lips tremble, her brow is knotted. Concern, disgust, anger, it’s all there as she reaches for the boy. She grabs his arm.
The teacher looks around, as if seeing her students for the first time. Her lips spasm but no sound emerges. Her hand hurts. She looks down, sees her fingers digging into the boy’s arm, and snatches her hand back like she’s been burned.
“Dawn, would you mind keeping an eye on things while we’re away?”
Dawn nods smugly. She looks at the boy, at his classmates.
The Teacher leads the boy from the room, practically dragging him. He’s resigned to his fate, but crying makes walking difficult. The Teacher opens the door to the neighboring classroom, leans insides, and asks “Can I borrow your class for a moment?”
Mrs. De Los Rios looks like she’s smelled something bad, but she nods agreement. The teacher tells the boy to apologize for his alleged misdeeds.
Again, there is the shameful walk to the front of the class. Again, his classmate’s hungry eyes whittle him down. His tears burn. The words are like vomiting pieces of lead.
By the time they reach the last classroom, it’s become both easier and harder to make the trip, to stand in front of the class, to make his mouth say he’s sorry. He cries in front of everyone but no one stops the Teacher, not his classmates and not the other teachers. They all watch his misery like a TV show. It felt like when you bend small piece of wood back and forth for fun and before you know it, you’re holding two pieces.
If this is the reason he becomes the person he is, the boy doesn’t know. Looking at the things he has done, I think it’s as good of a starting point as anywhere.