Monday, December 10, 2012

The Guilty and the Damned

The following is a work of fiction. Mostly.

I am a teacher. I work in the public school system. For the past seven years, I’ve had my dream job: teaching band in the middle school I attended 25 years ago. Well, that was my job until last week. Now I’m unemployed.

The school has changed a little since I was a student. More free lunch kids. A little bit more racial diversity, but still mostly white. Tons more kids from single-parent households.

My parents were fine. They weren’t, like, The Best. But they were fine. They both worked, and they worked a lot, and when they weren’t working, they weren’t spending their free time to taxi me around or play chess with me. By the time I was 12, I was pretty much expected to take care of myself. I rode my bike to my music lessons. I fixed my own breakfast and dinner and packed my own lunch. All that stuff. None of this was a big deal; it just was what it was, right? This didn’t make my parents bad. I didn’t suffer from, like, neglect.

Still, having a couple of teachers take a special interest in me when I was growing up was a big deal. I mean, these adults, they don’t know you. They’re not family, and they seem super-smart or talented. And they see something in you, something they connect to and want to grow, like you’re a special flower in their own little greenhouse. Were they more important than my parents? Of course not. My parents were, like, the concrete foundation, and you can’t build anything without that. But these teachers built rooms in me, and it was like a total Extreme Makeover kind of thing, and I know how much better I am because of them.

So of course I knew I wanted to be like them. I knew by ninth grade I wanted to teach, and the reason I worked so hard on the oboe wasn’t so I could be a master; it was so I could teach other kids to play it better.

What I never quite expected was how hungry some kids could be. Kids today, there’s just more hungry kids. What I mean is, they leave their homes without any emotional nourishment. I say my parents didn’t give me much time or attention, but I never doubted that they loved me, that they cared about me. I’ve got kids in my classes now who enter my room starving for encouragement and affection, starving for someone to believe in them, or maybe just to acknowledge their existence.

Some of the teachers at my school think I’m weird because I listen, actually listen, to these kids. They say I listen "too much," or I'm "too close."

I let them talk about their home lives, or their girlfriends and boyfriends, or just about friends and belonging. And I don't look around to make sure I have adult witnesses before letting them talk. Wherever they are and I am when they need me, that's when I listen.

Since I'm in the small-town South, it’s not some big controversy that I share my faith with these kids. Most of them already go to church; none of them get too bothered or spooked by mention of Jesus. But it’s kind of a big deal, right? Jesus? Worth a mention or two? Not during class, mind you. Just when we're talking.

Other teachers are freaked out that I’m friends with them on Facebook, or that the kids have my cell number. But I give individual lessons -- extra money! yay, Christmas! -- on the side a lot, so it’s kinda important to be able to reach these kids.

I got married right after college, so that was a decade ago. We’ve got two kids. It’s pretty awesome. Exhausting, though, right? I was at a Bible study the other night and one of the other dads there was talking about how he’d read that the hardest part was going from first to last. One minute, you’re the most important part of your wife’s day. All of a sudden, you’re the last part. And that’s, like, only fair. That’s what having kids is about. Putting them first and stuff. Delaying your own gratification. Sometimes, you know, for months.

Once in a while a kid will text me about their love lives. Nothing pornographic. Nothing that’s about me and them. Just “he broke up with me” stuff. “He likes someone else” stuff. Yeah, it’s mostly girls, because that’s what girls text. Boys text me things like “I scored 12 points in our game tonight!” And that conversation pretty much ends when I text back, “Great!!”

It feels good to be needed like that. Not in a dirty way. Just needed. By kids who are so hungry for attention, and validation. And all they need is a little text message or a nod and a smile and a listening ear, and maybe their entire life turns out differently. And yeah, I’ll admit, there’s times at home when I feel a little invisible or undervalued, so it’s nice to see that glow in the eyes of these kids, the glow that I’m meaningful, that I’m a big deal to them. Maybe that’s a little selfish of me. But is it wrong? Geez, I sure hope not.

Late on Thanksgiving evening, I got a text message from one of the girls. She sent it out to a group and included me. “Who wants to go Black Friday shopping with me????” I replied back “I DO!!!!!” because, well, I’m old, and I have two kids, and it was almost midnight. And I’m a guy. So it seemed like pretty obvious sarcasm to me.

What I didn’t know and couldn’t have expected was what happened next.

Here’s the next text I get, sent just to me: “What do you mean?”
So I just kept up the joke: “Let’s stay out shopping all night!! Yay!”
And then: “Why are you so interested in me?”
What? At this point something was clearly wrong. “What do you mean?” I replied.
Then: “Why are you texting me so much?”
“There’s some kind of misunderstanding,” I wrote.
“Why do you want to go shopping with me?”
“I don’t. I just want to go to bed.”

First, I obviously could have phrased it better. But it was midnight. And it’s text messaging. So adding “with my wife so that I may get at least five hours of rest before one of my kids wake up” seemed too much.

Second, I didn’t know that the girl’s father had seen my reply to her original text and taken her phone. I didn’t know he was the person texting me from “What do you mean?” onward.

Two days later, I’ve been suspended with pay and being interviewed several times by a detective. I’ve given permission for the police to search my computer and phone records. One minute I’m making a joke about Black Friday with an 8th-grade girl, and the next I’m suspected of being a child predator. What’s even more horrifying is how many of my colleagues act like I’ve done something wrong!

A week later, the detective tells me they’re not going to press charges. No evidence of anything terrible. Duh. How many perverts would have a clean computer and no records of anything awful, right? Then, in a hearing with the school district, they encourage me to resign.

“But I haven’t done anything wrong,” I insist. It’s surreal to me that I’m sitting in this hearing while I can name at least a handful of teachers who have been pulled for DUI or even have drunk on the job. I replied to a text message on Thanksgiving, and I’m in the crosshairs.

They tell me if I resign, they’ll keep it out of the media, and they’ll help me get another job when the next school year comes around. They say it would be easier on everyone. My family. The school. The kids.

My wife is being so supportive, but I can sense it. There’s this gap now. This gap between us. This flicker of doubt. Why was he texting a 13-year-old girl? Even though she was sitting right with me on the couch when I did it.

Of course I’d do stuff differently if I had a do-over. I’m ashamed and horrified and confused. I’m being accused of... ugly, ugly things. Hoping I can avoid the publicity and save our family the embarrassment, I agree to resign.

It’s all over the news that very night. I’ve been forced to resign because of “Inappropriate Communication” with a student. The girl’s mom has called everyone except President Obama. She’s mad that I’m not going to jail. I doubt I’ll be allowed to teach again. The one job I ever wanted, the career I wanted for my whole life, the thing I felt God had called me to do, and it’s over. All because of a few text messages.

I’m still lost and scared. Lots of students and families are showing their support and offering to help and pray, and that means a lot. They know me well enough to know I’m not capable of those ugly things. And my family will stay together, even if it’s going to be tough.

And the questions keep coming up in my head as I try to figure it all out. Am I a danger to kids? Are teachers like me a bad thing? Am I the collateral damage of protecting kids from perverts? Are kids better off with distant and cold teachers who can keep their jobs? If I ever get the chance to teach again... can I be a teacher who doesn’t, who won’t, connect with kids desperate for connection?

Am I what’s wrong with teaching, or are our fears killing what’s right?


troutking said...

Great story, Billy. Interesting and provocative.

Billy said...

Thanks Trout. I wish I could say it was more fictitious than it actually is.

G. B. Miller said...

Nice piece of flash. And sadly, we do sometimes as a society go into major overkill and ruin lives needlessly.

Collateral damage but is the damage really necessary to protect the greater good?

Daisy said...

Sadly I can see that scenario happening quite easily here in suburbia.