Roman is angry pretty much all the time. On this particular day, he walks into the gym, throws his stuff onto the massive pile of coats and backpacks, and flops on top of them.
“Roman, what’s going on, man?” I ask, looking over at the fifteen other kids playing soccer. Roman grunts, his head buried in someone else’s coat. I walk away from his crumpled body to my co-teacher, Jamie.
“He’s in a mood,” I say. She nods in understanding. We watch the other kids fight for the ball, smiling and laughing.
I have twenty third through fifth graders of whom I am in charge for three hours every day. Those three hours easily turn into four. Those four hours can easily ruin my day because some of those kids are shitty. I love them to pieces, but if they have a bad day, they’re going to bring me down with them.
They all have rough days, but some of them tend to have more than others. And if one is finally able to pull it together, another one loses their mind. It’s like trying to fix a leaking boat that is filled with children wearing track spikes—not going to happen.
Enter Roman. Roman, a third-grade student from Westerville, whose father was absent for the beginning of his life but recently moved back into their home. He also has a transient mother who left him and his two siblings with a housebound grandmother. Of course he’s mad. He’s a great kid if you get him in the right mood, but just about anything can make him flip. I fear for him moving forward—I don’t know if fear is the right word. There are days where the kids are well-behaved and sweet and I hear the terrifying circumstances of their lives and I pray that they will never have to go through anything hard in their lives. But there are also certainly days when the kids are assholes and I care more about getting home and crying alone in my bed than their future safety. The word fear is easier than saying care because while I do care about them, fearing sounds much more active but caring sounds passive.
I fear for all my kids. It’s an urban area so their schools aren’t the best. I worry that one day I will see on the news that one of them was shot. I worry that one day they’ll join gangs and get addicted to drugs. I worry that they’ll get wrongly accused or even rightly accused of crimes. And I worry that it’s my fault for not being enough for them when they were young.
I love my job. I don’t want to make it sound like I don’t love my job because I really love my job. I get paid above minimum wage, I have consistent hours, and I work in a church. Wholesome as wholesome can be.
“So, Sarah,” my dad says, poking a nervous-looking girl’s desk with his sabre, “why does Hamlet agree to duel Laertes?”
Here’s a cliché: my dad is one of the greatest men in the world. Here’s another: not only is he one of the greatest men, he’s one of the greatest teachers of all time. For twenty years, my dad has been working tirelessly to teach Hamlet, Macbeth, Julius Caesar, and many more great, yet painful literary works to high school students. (He also commits evenings to the fencing club, which he has coached for just about as long.) One of my great pleasures in life is to watch him teach. Whenever I had a day off school but his school didn’t, I’d get up at the crack of dawn just to watch my dad try to teach his students something.
Sarah looks at him, terrified. She has no idea what the answer is, I think, shaking my head sympathetically. I turn back to the exam my dad asked me to reformat. My dad looks at her for a minute, his eyebrows taunting her.
As of late, my dad has had inclusion classes—kids with learning disabilities and delinquents. He actually got called the n-word this year. It only made me laugh because he’s painfully white and fully aware of that fact. For twelve years, he had AP students, so switching to kids at the opposite end of the spectrum has been an adjustment, but one he was excited to make.
“Loop,”—the nickname I hold onto very tightly, yet is slightly embarrassing—“my student teaching was at Whetstone High School,” my dad told me once in a car ride. “The girls I had in my class would show pictures of their babies to each other before class started. But they were some of the most engaged girls I’ve ever had, just because I asked the right questions and understood them. It’s about time I got to do something like that again.”
My dad finally relents on poor Sarah. He makes an exaggerated turn, lifting the sabre up in the air. He points it to a boy across the room, a boy who is obviously more willing to share.
“Max, could you help Sarah out?”
He looks over at me as Max starts his answer. Yeah. It is good that my dad is there to teach them.
It was the week before I graduated. My brother had over some friends with whom he had graduated the year before and we were having a good time. We were sitting on our back porch when Annmarie got a text.
“The police escorted a teacher out of school at the end of the day today,” she read from her phone.
We discussed who it could’ve been, wondering if it was the creepy health teacher or perhaps the science teacher who seemed past his prime. All the while, my stomach sank, somehow guessing it was the one teacher I loved most, questioning every move I’d seen her make.
We sat down inside my house and started watching The Big Lebowski, a movie my father had deemed essential. As more and more information poured in from kids who stayed after school and speculation from kids of police officers, the fact was almost solidified: it was her. It was Jennifer.
My Opa, my dad’s dad, immigrated to Canada from the Dutch West Indies after World War II and met his second wife, my Oma, in Toronto. He was an alcoholic. He started drinking during the War. A lot of people started drinking during the War. Opa was a part of the Dutch Resistance against the Nazis when he was twenty. After the War, his wife urged him to take a job in the Dutch West Indies to support her and their two kids. Eventually, Opa got a divorce and moved to Canada. From my dad’s understanding, she was also a shrew. (I originally wanted to say “bitch” because that’s how she sounded to me but my dad insisted that I use shrew because she is kind of related to him). He met my Oma and they tried for years to get custody of his boys from the Netherlands rather than have their own. Five failed birth control methods later, they ended up with five kids in the United States. Two foreigners with five unplanned kids sounds like the perfect recipe for an alcoholic.
He wasn’t abusive as an alcoholic, but he wasn’t exactly the nicest person. Mostly he would yell. Sometimes it wasn’t even yelling, just his normal voice a bit louder. He often complained about the “fucking krauts” in any context.
My dad was the only one of his siblings who saw his father mostly sober. My dad was the youngest; his closest sibling graduated high school when he was in eighth grade. Once most of his kids left, he cut his drinking down. My dad was able to talk to him, learn about him, and understand his motivations. His siblings only saw the man who claimed to love God but got drunk and yelled at his kids.
The thing was, my Opa did love God. But Christians make mistakes and sometimes those mistakes hurt other people. Even though I never knew him, I know my Opa loved all his children and would never want them to think that God wasn’t real because he made mistakes. Yet, that’s the route some of my dad’s siblings went.
My dad’s different than his siblings, and I think getting to know his dad was a major contribution to that. He’s the only one of his siblings to still be married. He’s also the only one of his siblings to still be a regular church attender like his parents were.
I love him for that. For being a man who didn’t just make assumptions about what his father was, but waited to see what the truth was.
Roman walked up the stairs slowly, taking his time on each step. I had asked him a couple times to speed up, but he decided he didn’t want to. Typical.
We got to the top of the stairs and I stopped him.
“Roman, what is wrong?”
“I couldn’t get my glasses again.”
Roman, among all his other issues, has terrible vision. His glasses broke a year ago and he couldn’t get them fixed. I sighed back at him.
“What did the doctor say?”
“It’s going to cost too much money. My mom said she was going to call them, but it’s going to be pocket money so I won’t get them.”
I looked at his little face. His jaw was already less jutted out, and his skin relaxed. He just needed someone to hear him.
“Ok, buddy. I’m sorry.”
He shrugged and walked into the classroom.
Jennifer was my favorite English teacher in high school and she had sex with one of my classmates. They did it in our classroom at least once, if not more than that. She was obviously fired. It was the day before my graduation party. She promised she would be there. I understand why she couldn’t make it—everyone would’ve flipped out, but that day will always remind me of disappointment.
I think the worst part about that last week of school is everyone looking at me with pity. Everyone, including my parents, knew how much she meant to me. How close we were. I got a lot of texts saying that they were sorry, but I got a great deal more that asked for the inside scoop. Who would know better than Jennifer’s favorite student?
I still get surges of questions. The trial took place this summer and I painfully read every comment on her sentencing on a Facebook post. Was the judge too easy on her? She would’ve gotten more time if she were male, a lot of comments claimed. I read comment after comment from people who didn’t know her as the woman who sang “Two Hour Delay” to the tune of “Raspberry Beret” when we had a delay. The woman who would put smiley faces on damn near everything. The woman who encouraged me to sing out loud and wear what I wanted and be who I was because not only was I beautiful, I was wanted.
Why would she do that? She ruined everything. Every word she said to me is tainted by the fact that she was fucking a child. Every encouragement, every piece of advice, every hug, every text, every little thing she ever did for me is ruined. I have a hard time not thinking of it selfishly. Why did she do that to me? She did it to her husband too. To the boy and to his parents. To the boy’s girlfriend. To herself.
A handful of my peers still hang out with her. A few went to her hearing. Someone even hosted a faux graduation in their backyard so anyone interested could still get pictures of Jennifer handing them their diplomas. I wanted to get to that point of acceptance and forgiveness. But I couldn’t. Images of her with my classmate in our classroom fill my mind instead. That classroom I called a second home, that had my senior picture, a note I wrote to her, and a Valentine I made hanging on the wall. All her mementos thrown in the trash after her removal. A year’s worth of love from her students gone.
She was escorted out of the building on a Friday. She was signing a copy of Oh the Places You’ll Go my mom gave to her for her to sign for my graduation when they cuffed her.
She never got to finish signing.
From time to time, my dad’s students email him asking for reminders on the Rules of Engagement, of which he gives every year in class. He forwarded an email to me from I student even I remembered with the small message, “☺.”
I called him to check the rules for myself, wanting to remember them clearly. Each story so meticulously described, no new detail from the year before. I also just love hearing my dad’s proposal to my mom, which is how the Rules always end.
“Rule 1: It matters,” he began. “The girl will eventually need a story to tell. People will ask and if she doesn’t have a story, you suck.
“Rule 2: The rock, which means the ring,” my father condescended to me, “must cost at least one month’s wages, which should just be calculated by how much you make. There’s no set number. Girls will often say ‘Mr. Birkhoff, the ring is supposed to be three month’s wages,’ and I will say those are the girls you’re supposed to avoid.
“Rule 3: You must ask the father or the surrogate father. This is the most powerful and integral part of it. If her family hates you, yes, love can win out, but statistics are not on your side. Family will win out in the long run.
“Rule 4: Do it well. No billboards, no food, no drinks. You’re going to take a $2,000 ring and stick it in some food? That’s just gross. Be creative, clever, and thoughtful. It doesn’t have to be expensive, just know it’s about the girl and not about you.
“Rule 5: Take a knee.”
My dad put up signs on telephone poles down my mom’s road. They seemed to be advertising the crops, but eventually, it became clear that they were not. My parents have always called each other Punky, short for Punkin (gross, I know), and the last sign before “Marry Me?” said “Punkin?” He still has the signs in his closet.
My dad’s an English teacher. He has no place telling kids how to propose five or ten years down the line. But he does it anyway because he doesn’t know what those kids know. He doesn’t know how much they’re going through and he doesn’t know how telling the story of how he proposed to my mom will help. But I guess it does.
“I’m sorry to do this, but since your teacher is no longer employed here, you need to pick someone new to hand you your diploma,” the principal told me, shifting uncomfortably. Mrs. Boylan, one of my rocks in high school, stood next to me, having just given me the English Department Excellence award moments ago.
“I’ll do it,” she said, looking over at me. I smiled at her, tears in my eyes.
Boylan is a different kind of English teacher, more of a realist, grounded by her husband and kids. Looking back, I see she was more mature than Jennifer, more logial and less emotional. She was my yearbook advisor and my drama teacher and stood by me when Jennifer failed us all. Jennifer was her friend, too. I imagine Boylan was hurt just as much—if not more—than I was.
The day of graduation, I sat, listening to the speeches. I felt excited, ready to be done. But, as soon as my name was called, I felt like running away. How could I do this, finish high school, without Jennifer?
Boylan smiled at me as I walked across the stage. I smiled for the camera, wishing the whole time that Jennifer had been there. I took pictures with my grandparents, my parents, my friends, other teachers and staff and I never once dropped my smile.
Roman had a better day. He tends to, once he talks about what is bothering him. I texted my boss to let her know about the glasses. She responded, saying she’ll buy them with the church credit card.
Jamie and I walked to her car after we clocked out and she handed me her keys.
“The kids were pretty good today,” Jamie said as she sat in the passenger’s seat.
I didn’t hesitate with my answer because what matters at six o’clock is how things ended. Not how they began.
“They were. What’re we thinking we’ll do tomorrow?”
Lizz Birkhoff is from Columbus, Ohio. She graduated from Ohio State University with a BA in Creative Writing.
This is Lizz’s first published essay.