Burton Fielding entered the classroom on the first day of school, more uncertain of himself and his future than he had been in eight years of teaching. More than uncertain, he was terrified. His soul had yet to recover from the drubbing, both physical and psychological, he had received the year before. Did he really think he was qualified to teach English to underprivileged, urban high school kids?
This marked the beginning of his second year at the brick-and-mortar facility the students—a mix of African-American, Latino, Asian and Caucasian—called Oakland Tech. Nattily dressed in his weathered sports jacket, a navy Oxford button-up, tan khakis and cinnamon brown loafers, he peered up at the industrial-sized analog clock. The minute hand lay firm against the bubble-curved background, before abruptly stomping downward. It arrived above the sharpie-thick one with a sonorous clack.
The six a.m. light of the classroom filtered through the half-parted blinds. Burton—thirty-two, black, with bony arms and a sharp mind—settled behind his desk. It was the same one from last year, with the top left drawer that always stuck. He gave it a tug, rattled the wooden handle for a few shakes. It wouldn’t budge. He slapped his hand on the top of the desk, pulled again on the handle and felt it fluidly slide open, peeked inside to discover a thin paperback, a Dover version of American verse that he had utilized for two of last semester’s classes. He flipped through it until his eyes fell to a poem by Longfellow, with its meaningful, weighted title: My Lost Youth. He read off the page, yet by the time he reached the last lines, his eyes had lifted and he was reciting aloud by memory.
“I remember the gleams and glooms that dart / Across the school-boy’s brain; / The song and the silence in the heart, / That in part are prophecies, and in part / Are longings wild and vain. / And the voice of that fitful song / Sings on, and is never still: / ‘A boy’s will is the wind’s will, / And the thoughts of youth are long, long thoughts.’”
“Aw, shit, look who I got again this year,” said a husky voice two hours later, the booming declaration cascading off the final echoes of first bell. Terry Larsen, a heavy-set junior who had scored sixteen touchdowns for the Tech Bulldogs the prior year, drifted toward Burton from the busy hallway with his red-topped, silently brooding best friend Neal Flynn in tow. “Mr. Fielding, what up?”
The teacher’s insecurity regarding his purpose at the school returned, and gradually smothered him like a textbook pressed against an exposed throat. Yet he managed a friendly smile. “Mr. Larsen, glad to see you here bright and early,” Burton said. “Bodes well for the semester.”
“Yo, don’t get all excited, me being on time this once. Moms wanted me to make a good impression, right out the box. But, you know, ain’t making no promises we get past day one.” He laughed, moved to a seat in the back of the class, the servile Neal shadowing him all the way.
Burton, from the security of his desk, watched the teenagers stream into his class, reminded that his transfer to one of Oakland’s most dangerous schools had been foisted upon him without his total buy-in. He had been teaching fourth-graders, quite happily and most contentedly, when the call came from the superintendent herself. She was well aware of his teaching style: subtle yet effective. That approach had yielded superior test scores for his Thornhill Elementary School students, who tackled their studies with uncanny determination and verve. The superintendent found she had little choice—as the years went by and the test scores increased and the accolades from parents and fellow teachers reached something akin to a fever pitch—but to send Burton somewhere he would truly be needed.
Burton, after a full year of following the state-mandated curriculum and offering himself up as tutor, mentor, and sage to any and all willing protégés, realized there was nothing these teenagers needed that he could offer them. He wanted to reach out to them, motivate and help lead these disenfranchised youth toward academic success and a prosperous life beyond high school. The road he had traveled thus far to reach that goal, however, had veered off into bog country, an uninhabited wasteland where the silence was deafening and he was alone with his personal ambitions. The signs read, Abandon hope, all ye who enter here, yet despite the warnings he was stubborn and knew that to forge on was his only option. It wasn’t as if he was trapped in Dante’s Hell. It was only Oakland.
The second bell rang, Burton glanced down at his lesson plan for the day, then stood and addressed his first class of the new year.
The end of seventh period found Burton working out a sore spot in his bony right shoulder, kneading his left knuckles into the muscle.
“Tough getting back into the groove, isn’t it?” Harold Foster, a physics teacher who had spent nine years at Tech, ambled into the classroom sporting a friendly smile. Burton smiled back, gave his colleague a small shrug. “I’m afraid I missed the faculty meeting where they initially passed all that groove out,” he said. “How did you fare?”
Foster leaned his prodigious frame—six-four, arms large and muscular, skin a deep, burnt umber, his bald pate and full, unkempt beard emphasizing his massive shoulders—against a clean surface of the cloudy green chalkboard and absently stroked his beard. “‘Bout average. Got the same bunch of little assholes and assorted odd ducks as I do every year. Could be there’s a decent scientist or mathematician set to bloom forth out of one of my classes this semester. I’m all about keeping an open mind, you know?”
“Yes, you’re nothing if not open-minded, Harold. Do you still start everybody with an ‘F’ and work up from there during the semester? Or have you decided on a more optimistic track this year?”
“Guilty until proven innocent. That’s the motto I live by, and one that hasn’t failed me yet.”
“At least you have a motto, however cynical it may be,” Burton said. “Harold, I have no idea what I’m doing here. How am I supposed to connect with these kids on anything but an extremely superficial level? I went from thirty fairly attentive kids all day, every day, to more than two hundred restless teenagers over six periods. I’m completely out of my league.”
“You’re not out of your league, Burton. You just need to radically accept your circumstances. Fifty minutes at a shot is simply not a lot of time to do anything all that meaningful. You just gotta teach to the ones that possess the brains and fortitude to hop on board your program, and allow the other little fuckers to miss that train and walk the damn tracks.” Harold’s arm dropped from his chin and joined the other cannon resting over his protruding stomach. “What is it you didn’t figure out last year that suddenly you’re going to receive an epiphany about this year?”
“Nothing that I can exactly qualify. I’d just like to be more…I’m not sure…involved in the lives of my students. More hands-on, more mentoring, more helpful than simply following a lesson plan and fielding the occasional raised-hand query.”
“Then that’s what you have to do: more. Why don’t you come up with a project, some kind of activity that’ll get the little bastards inspired enough to spend some time with you? Get them motivated so they’ll line up outside your class before first bell and after school, begging for you to Obi-Wan their Skywalking asses. Last thing in the world I’d want, a bunch of brown-nosers coming to me for guidance or supportive platitudes. But, hey, you’ve won Teacher of the Year and I haven’t won jack, so…I can see how you’d thrive on that mentoring bullshit.”
Harold grinned and Burton realized that he was suddenly energized. This big bear of a man, with his proclivity for fast food drive-thrus and ample quantities of Trader Joe’s two-buck Chuck, had started wheels turning. A passage by Leslie Pinckney Hill entered his mind and without thinking he burst into recitation: “Lord, who am I to teach the way / To little children day by day, / So prone myself to go astray? / I teach them KNOWLEDGE, but I know / How faint they flicker and –”
“How little I care.” Harold shook his head and pushed off from the blackboard. “Once you English prof-types start spouting poetry off the top of your beans, it’s high time to make for the exits. Adieu to you.” He backpedaled to the door, shooting Burton a sly grin before he disappeared.
From the hallway, Harold yelled, “And good luck, you goddamn Pollyanna.”
Luck had nothing to do with Burton’s transformation from insignificant outsider to Teacher of the Year: will and determination lit his path. Raised by a single mother in Vacaville, the poor black boy was stigmatized early on by his welfare-class standing. Later, he discovered his intelligence could be wielded as a formidable weapon to fight his way out of poverty. He was black, smart and weak, a deadly combination in an atmosphere of C-minus, white, bruiser types. But he was also a survivor and a bit of an idealist, who believed that taking full advantage of the education offered in the primarily Anglo, backwater California town was his ticket to the outside world.
He had managed to get out, guided by certain high school teachers who had recognized that he was a born educator. They responded most favorably to his drive, discipline, honesty and tremendous love of learning. One mentor in particular, his freshman English teacher Mr. Kelsey, had helped channel the knowledge-hungry spirit within the teenager. The white lecturer introduced him to poetry, the spectrum of black bards from Phillis Wheatley to Langston Hughes, Countee Cullen to Maya Angelou. Privately, he encouraged him to craft his own verse, to find the creative expression that would allow Burton to embrace his own dreams, explore his singular struggles and triumphs.
He escaped the oppression of Vacaville for the freedoms of UC Berkeley, where he spent four solid years immersed in the pursuit of academic knowledge before acquiring his teaching certificate, which led him to seven years at Thornhill Elementary and innumerable professional accomplishments and personal satisfactions. Now he was here at Oakland Tech, stuck in a hole of academic despair, struggling to escape yet again.
The lack of effect he had incurred on the student body, fused with the school’s atmosphere of anger, aggression and fear, had beaten him down. He thought about Harold Foster’s suggestion—an extracurricular project designed to allow Mr. Kelsey’s mentoring spirit to live through Burton—and perceived it as a possible way out of the disillusionment he felt. He mused about the poetry and prose he had written in his own high school years, then flashed on the race wars and gang violence that permeated his current academic home. He summoned the feelings his creativity had engendered in him, the writing that had fueled his ascent from the land of repressed dreams into the world of his own making, before they were replaced with thoughts of random knifings, beatings and the occasional impromptu blasts of gunfire that occurred on school grounds.
His brain stumbled onto the accord between the two poles of thought, and suddenly Burton took his first steps out of the hole.
Three weeks later, Burton had secured the backing of Principal Genotti for his Aggressive Fiction contest, and lined up three judges to select the winners. He posted flyers on the scant bulletin boards that dotted the campus, but knew his best shot at entries and protege-willingness rested with his own students. So Burton focused his recruitment efforts on those whom he saw nearly every day.
“It’s not ‘aggressive’ necessarily meaning violent or dangerous,” began the pitch to all his classes, “but more along the lines of meaty, with some real substance and emotion to it. But it can be raw, too. In your face and without limitations. You may submit anything that would be considered fictive: short stories, poetry, screenplays, song lyrics, comedic essays, graphic novels, virtually anything. I’ll impose absolutely no boundaries on subject matter, language, format or style. I welcome each and every one of you to participate and to approach me—before class, after class—with any questions, any issues or ideas, absolutely anything that you wish to talk about.”
The deadline for entries was the Friday after the Thanksgiving holiday, two months away. Burton knew that the majority of students would begin writing shortly before the due date, and not a week or a day sooner. He did, however, remain hopeful that a select few would seek him out earlier rather than later.
“Mr. Fielding,” a male voice ventured from his office doorway, “do you have a minute?”
Burton heard the flat but unmistakable native California accent and looked up from his current project: grading a pile of essays on Ernest Hemingway’s Nick Adams short stories. His eyes blurred before focusing on an unfamiliar face, attached to a body that was halfway in the hallway and halfway in the classroom.
“Can I help you with something?”
“I, uh… I came about your contest. I want to win it, you know?”
Burton chuckled inwardly, the cockiness of the student in scuffed blue jeans, hundred-dollar kicks and an ironic-seeming t-shirt (‘Where’s the beef?’) awakening his curiosity. He found it peculiar that the boy wasn’t from any of his classes, yet was the first student to show any interest in the contest.
“You want to win, that’s a good attitude.” Burton gave him a welcoming smile. “Come on in. What’s your name?”
“Byung Tranh, but everyone calls me Brian. I’m a sophomore, you know, and I heard about the writing contest, so…” The boy trailed off, his thought unfinished, like Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales.
“What can I do to help?”
“You want to help me? To win? That would be fantastic.”
“Well, I can’t help you win, exactly, but I’m happy to provide any guidance you may be looking for. Have you started writing anything yet?”
Brian shuffled his feet to Burton’s desk, slid his backpack off his shoulder and dropped it to the floor. He rummaged through it, wrestled a science textbook from the bottom of the bag before removing a stapled set of notebook paper. With an odd ceremonial flourish, he placed it on the desk.
“That’s only part of it,” Brian said. “I’m still working on it. And I’m planning to write more, you know. Maybe a lot more. We can enter more than one thing, that’s what the rules thing said, right?”
Burton regarded Brian’s offering but left it untouched, aware of its array of possibilities, like a festively wrapped present from a mysterious stranger. “You can turn in as many submissions as you’d like. No limit, that’s correct. But I would advise going for quality over quantity. Your best work is really what we’re looking for with the contest.”
“Yeah, okay. But we can enter more than one thing, that’s what you said, right?”
“Yes. Brian, is it? You can enter as many pieces of writing as you’d like.”
“Okay,” said Brian, standing to the side of the desk. He suddenly whipped his backpack over his left shoulder, said, “Bye,” and was gone.
Unsettled by the abrupt departure, Burton thought that the boy was an oddity to be sure, awkward and peculiar. But then, he had imagined himself inelegant and ungainly the first time he appeared in Mr. Kelsey’s class, so who was he to judge based on a single impression. Besides, Brian’s interest in the contest appeared genuine.
With no plans for the evening, Burton envisioned reading Brian’s unfinished work later that night, possibly with a glass of Shiraz and Art Blakey on the turntable. Perfection. For the first time since the contest began, he found himself hopeful and enthusiastic about the entire endeavor.
Weeks passed, with Burton feeling less hopeful and less enthusiastic about the contest. There had been barely a trickle of entries so far with even less interest from the students he had approached privately. The prize was substantial: a thousand-dollar college scholarship that W.W. Norton had ponied up, compliments of an editor friend of Burton’s. There was also a promise of publication for the winning entry in a future Sunday edition of the Oakland Tribune. Both prizes were ideal for the type of student he had initially dreamed up the contest for. He was eager to help those bright and talented writers—so much like him, if only they could see that—who needed the push to convince themselves of their literary skills and creative worth. A tiny sum of financial aid and the opportunity to see their work in print might be enough to make a positive impact on their lives, to allow them the path that Burton had forged for himself.
But one by one, his star students had rejected his advances, citing, “Too much homework already, Mr. Fielding,” as well as, “I’ve got an after school job and my grandma to take care of after that,” or the soul-crushing, “I’m not even sure I’m going to college, so what’s a scholarship gonna do for me then?” Mostly, Burton faced general disinterest and even a measure of disdain for the project. The smartest girl in his fourth period American Literature class, Vanessa Johnson, wrote delicate, yet stunningly beautiful prose, and was genuinely hurt that her favorite teacher had constructed a contest that was so masculine in nature. Her writing was anything but aggressive, she argued. He disagreed with her, encouraged Vanessa to submit something, anything, and leave it to the judges to decide the merits of the submission. She passed, as did the majority of his most promising student writers.
Brian Tranh, who had to date submitted twelve pieces of fiction, was one of the few students who took the contest seriously. The first piece Burton had read he thought dreadful, and the submissions got increasingly worse as they filled up his office in-box. Any hope he held out for the prolific sophomore had been dashed repeatedly over the past few weeks. At one of their first meetings, Burton had asked what had drawn him to the contest, what motivated him to write.
“I dunno. A teacher of mine, back when I was a lot younger, like three years ago, told me he thought I was really creative and, you know, had a good imagination. I wrote a story I guess he liked and told me that I was good and should keep at it. There’s nothing else I can really do, no good at sports or even math, like I should be, I guess, so I’m thinking writing stories and stuff will make me famous or something.”
Burton thought at first that he had perhaps found a kindred spirit, a boy whose family story subtly reflected his own upbringing. Brian’s parents were working farmers who had emigrated from Vietnam and landed in the Bay Area shortly before his mother entered her second trimester. They were of poor stock, barely spoke or even understood the language, yet struggled valiantly for the assimilation of their Asian boy into American culture, desperate for him to become a western boy in a western world. Their only son, the living legacy they pinned their own idealized hopes and dreams on.
Determined to create a rich mentor-mentee relationship for the both of them, Burton had encouraged the apprentice scribe to write his stories and stuff, to follow his bliss, create his own fantastic worlds and personal triumphs on the page. Subsequent meetings with Brian, however, resembled horrific car crashes, head-on collisions that stopped traffic for miles, all of them handily avoided if not for a student driver who never should have been allowed on the road in the first place. At the last, particularly disheartening after-school meeting with Brian, Burton’s own idealistic hopes for the Tranhs’ singular child waned and he sincerely wished that the boy would just stop trying.
“I just get rid of all those extra words and then the story’s good, right?”
Brian had been seated in the classroom after last bell, fingering a heavily marked sheaf of papers, red pen scribbles covering most of each page.
“Brian, it’s not that simple. What happened to the exercise I suggested?”
“I don’t remember any exercise. What was it?”
Burton took a breath. Held it, followed by a slow release before he spoke again. “I suggested that you take a short story, one that you particularly liked, by an author you respect, and transcribe it word for word. I said I preferred you to write it down by hand, rather than type it into a computer, but either method would give you the same result.”
“Oh, yeah, now I remember. Nah, I didn’t do that.”
“Well, Brian, I’d suggest…again, that you try it. Copying a story down like that gives you a sense of the author’s writing style. The rhythms of his sentences, the feel of his language, how his words mesh together with one another to create something stylistic and precise. The point is that you learn about how writers construct their stories, physically, so that you can then use those lessons to create your own story. You can even borrow similar themes, perhaps, or a structure, a shape that binds the plot and characters together into a compelling piece of literature.”
“I can do that. Copy it down, change some names and stuff, then submit it to the contest, right?”
Burton eyes widened, then tightly closed. It was at this point that he figuratively threw up his hands and wrote Brian off. He had no idea how to help this student who was, to his mind, utterly lacking in skill and imagination. Not to mention that he seemed to be a complete fucking idiot. It was becoming excruciating for the teacher to even be in the same proximity with this kid who just didn’t get it.
“Brian, I think that’s all the time we can devote to this right now. Why don’t you go home, read over my notes and…think about them, okay. Just…think about the stories, your stories, and we’ll talk again. Later.”
The boy left his office and Burton realized that with less than two weeks before the contest deadline, not a solitary student other than Brian had found the desire to petition him for guidance or help with the contest. He did have the occasional impromptu entry, however, given orally and with mock seriousness. Terry Larsen, the star receiver from first period, spent a week bombarding him with tongue-in-cheek poems and rap lyrics. The ever-present Neal Flynn stood by his side as an accompanying human beat box.
“Stop lights are red / My contacts are blue / Loving the jail-bait ladies / Mr. Fielding how ‘bout you?”
“All right, Terry, that’s enough for today, thank you for playing.”
“Aw, come on, me and Neal just getting warmed up. You gonna love this next one.”
At the end of the day, his mind stumbled upon the idea of reading a bit of Longfellow, for much-needed inspiration in the face of wasted effort and a thoroughly depleted sense of self-accomplishment. He pulled the handle of the left drawer that always stuck and wasn’t surprised when it failed to open at his initial tug. Burton wrestled with it for close to sixty seconds, jostling and tapping both the drawer and the desk itself until he decided the dead poet wasn’t worth it, and he went back to grading that day’s quizzes.
Burton was in the empty Teachers’ Lounge, pouring a cup of lukewarm coffee into his psychedelic-hued KFOG mug, when Bhavya Narayan entered. Wearing a traditional salmar kameez—embroidered with gold and beading of pearl—that complemented the red, tear drop-shaped bindi on her forehead, the social studies teacher sidled up beside Burton conspiratorially.
He inhaled an imperceptible breath, smelled the jasmine and sandalwood that emanated from her; it was a freshly scrubbed, clean smell. A devout Hindu, in her early twenties, she reminded him of the beautiful Indian actress he had seen years before in the movie Kama Sutra.
“It appears one of my students has taken quite a shine to you and your contest.” There was mischief in her eyes.
“Now who would that be?” he smiled. Then stopped. “You mean Brian Tranh?”
“Yes, he is the one. He barely listens to my lectures anymore, so busy writing all of those ‘aggressive’ pieces of fiction at his desk. Are they quite good?” She filled her own mug with tap water, placing it with measured delicacy into the microwave oven.
“As a matter of fact, they’re quite bad. Is that… surprising to you?”
“Not surprising, no. Honestly, I do not think much of him as a writer. I brought him up only to tease you, if I am to be frank. Mr. Tranh is actually one of my poorest students. He did, however, at least feign an interest in the classroom material prior to the appearance of your contest.”
Burton reddened, set his coffee down on the counter. “I’m sorry for that, I never intended it to—”
“No apologies. It does not matter, really. He is but one of two hundred students who come to my subject. One can only serve those who wish to learn, as you understand quite well, yes?”
Burton gingerly nodded, wanting without restraint to agree with her, but finding himself uneasy with the prospect of embracing this particular pedagogical view.
“There is no use in overly concerning yourself with mediocrity and the merely adequate students,” she continued. “The exemplary ones, the boys and girls who display the capacity and skills to succeed, those are the students we are truly here to serve. The rest we merely babysit for eight hours a day. Do you not agree?”
Burton did not respond immediately. Bhavya’s eyes, the color of Himalayan blue poppies, searched his own loamy brown irises for the reason behind his reticence. “I’m sorry,” he finally managed, “but I can’t say that I agree. Not that I’ve been here very long, but if that were true, it would be…well, sad. Wouldn’t it? For the rest of them, I mean.”
“Ignorance is sad, Burton. Low test scores, very sad. Students with desire yet without talent…that is a special kind of sadness.” Bhavya paused to slip a tea bag into her microwave-heated mug. “Mr. Tranh, he is of the harmless sort. However, it appears that he is engaged in proving something by entering your contest so continuously. I trust that he will not be rewarded for his persistence if the merit of his work is not present. That would be sad for us all, quantity trumping quality for its own sake.”
Burton, at a loss for exactly how to respond, simply took another sip of his coffee and waited for Bhavya’s tea to steep and the fourth period bell to ring.
His classes had ended hours before, the sun was almost down, and Burton found himself planted on a swing in the abandoned playground of Thornhill Elementary. The Aggressive Fiction contest was over, the winner had been announced, and Burton was despondent. “The Stoop,” a short story written by one of Harold Foster’s ace science students, had won the prize, and rightly so. The nerdy, diminutive black sophomore—a kid just like him but one who Burton never met or counseled on the contest—had chosen to write about the darker side of urban life, with language that was raw and actions that were violent as well as emotionally unexpected. It was the best of a very small lot, if Burton discounted the twenty-three submissions belonging to Brian Tranh, and he had had absolutely no hand in its origin or development.
He missed his elementary school students, had grown disdainful of his teenage wards, and was sick in his gut that the contest had been a personal failure. The only student who showed any motivation, allowing Burton to dabble in the role of mentor, was the prolific young Brian. Not, as the teacher had hoped and planned, the smart and talented kids, the low-income wunderkinds who would have ignited his powers of creative propulsion and surely catapulted those few brilliant students into the stratosphere and out of their hopeless lives. No, not them. Only Brian had cornered him day after day, to suck Burton dry with his inane questions and endless but unjustified reservoir of enthusiasm.
“I think my favorite entry from the ever-prolific Brian was actually a close tie,” Harold had said to him earlier in the day, once the contest was officially concluded. “It’s between the TV script that was a literal scene-for-scene transcription of an old ‘Star Trek’ episode—”
“Oh, you mean the one where he changed Spock to Bock and Kirk to Kent? I’m afraid I may have inadvertently inspired that bit of plagiaristic whimsy.”
“Really? Well, kudos to you. Did you also have a hand in my other favorite, the haiku ode to Captain Crunch? Twenty lines long, I believe it was, masterfully fitting the form like a piano in an envelope.”
Burton chuckled mirthlessly at the memory while his body swayed on the creaky swing. He wondered how, or if, he would last out the year.
“Mr. Fielding, I didn’t win,” Brian Tranh blurted from outside Burton’s front door. He shifted his weight from foot to foot, like a coiled spring anxious to leap. “I was supposed to win.”
A Saturday morning, it was the first day of Holiday Break, two days since the top three contest winners’ names had been posted around the school. Burton had been cowardly but successful in his attempts to avoid Brian on school grounds, but now the teenager stood before him, his face grotesquely fixed into a mask of agitation and distress.
“Brian, this isn’t okay, your coming—”
“You told me if I kept writing, I’d win. That’s what you told me, right?” Brian’s voice took on a nasal, whiny quality that made Burton cringe. He didn’t know this boy, not really, and had no idea if he was capable of violence, so he treaded carefully. He refused, however, to relinquish control over the situation.
“I’m not going to have this conversation with you here, Brian.” Burton spoke to him calmly, yet with the firmest undertones he could muster. “You come to my classroom after school, once we’re back in session at the new year, and we’ll discuss all of this. But we cannot… I will not… have this conversation now.”
Brian looked at him with a mixture of confusion, hurt and despair.
“I’m going to close the door now. Goodbye.” As he stepped back into the apartment and shut the door, Brian dropped onto the exterior passageway and cried.
“You said you’d help me, Mr. Fielding. Why didn’t you help me?”
Burton threw the bolt on the door, his nerves rattled, then retreated to the back room where the stereo was turned low to the local NPR station. He struggled to engage himself in the program, even raised the volume for a story about migratory habits of the mayfly, but was distracted by the muffled sounds of crying that continued outside.
By the time he decided to face his fears and console the troubled student, the radio piece ended and the sounds of crying had ceased. Burton peeked out the kitchen window and scanned the passageway for signs of Brian. The boy was gone and Burton stood alone at the door. He wondered if he should do something, all the while hoping that if he just did nothing at all, the problem would somehow disappear completely.
Burton ran off to Boston shortly after Brian’s appearance to spend Christmas with a dorm buddy from Berkeley whom he had kept in fairly close touch with over the years. He never once mentioned Brian, or the fiasco of a contest he had devised, forcibly keeping the weekend visit light and laser-focused on his friend and new wife. He returned to Oakland on New Year’s Eve, and within hours found himself back in his classroom at Tech, sitting at his desk with the left drawer that always stuck.
The school was deserted, the official start of the new semester still days away. Burton sifted through the pile of flyers, mail, and school notices wrapped in a bundle that had come from his in-box. Searching his desk for a letter opener, he continually failed to redirect his mind away from Brian. He was frustrated with himself for being so indecisive and outright scared during what could hardly have been considered a confrontation. But it was a violation. He knew Brian was severely lacking in literary skills, but expected there would have been at least a low-level strain of common sense in that brain to keep him from ambushing teachers on their own doorsteps.
Added to Burton’s level of frustration: the phone message he discovered upon his return from New England. Humberto Numado, a Sunday editor at the Oakland Tribune, had received the winning story—“Thank you very much, it was a very invigorating read”—but was sorry to say that it would not be published. He cited its excessive use of the word “fuck,” and the extreme violence of the piece as reasons for their refusal. He apologized, wished his best to the winner and left the door open for next year’s winner.
Why would there be a next year? Burton thought as his left hand fell to the handle of the problem drawer and yanked it toward himself. It refused to give, despite all his tugging and cajoling. Burton banged his right fist on the top of the desk, tugged at the handle again, and then pounded the worn oak furniture with both hands. Fury, impotent rage, coursed through his bony arms until, after nearly ninety seconds of violence, he was spent. He crumpled backward into his chair and stared dumbly at his throbbing hands.
Burton slowly composed himself then reached for the pile of papers from his in-box. Among the official paperwork, two front-page sections of the Oakland Tribune jutted out, yellow post-it notes sticking upward from each newspaper. He opened the first one, dated December 26, and found an article about a Tech student who had broken into the school, climbed up the roof of the front building, and leapt to the ground below. The student’s name was Byung Tranh, ruled another casualty of the Christmas blues, a season when suicide attempts among young men flourished.
Burton had to read until nearly the end of the two-column article to learn that Brian had survived the fall and was at Oakland’s Kaiser Hospital. Below the story another yellow postie was attached, in Harold Foster’s distinctive handwriting, which read: Don’t you dare try to place the blame of what he did on your contest or anything you did or didn’t do, because I know you will. This was all him. Not you!!!
The other front page section, this one dated December 28, contained a six-column article about Brian’s suicide attempt. It took up most of the page. Mostly regurgitated information from the previous article, with the inclusion of extended passages from five stories Brian had submitted to the Aggressive Fiction contest. Burton wasn’t sure if he was stunned more by the news of Brian’s eagerness to take his own life, or by the fact that this noxious prose was staring back at him from a major metropolitan newspaper.
A final post-it from Harold mirrored Burton’s astonishment. Unbelievable, it read, the kid’s now a published author. He’s got bona fide clips to show the world. Twenty bucks says he gets a book deal out of this whole thing. Holy hell!
Burton stared at the newspaper, struggled to feel something for the student. Something emotional, caring, substantive. All he felt was numb.
A few days later, school had resumed and Burton, back in his classroom, listened to the hall bells ringing like a toll struck specifically for thee. Terry Larsen, the star receiver for the Tech Bulldogs, with Neal Flynn ever in tow, strutted into Burton Fielding’s first period Literature class. He flashed a grin.
“Mr. Fielding, how’s it going?”
“It’s going, Mr. Larsen.”
“So I guess I didn’t win your contest, huh? Thought my rhymes were pretty tight. Aggressive, too, with a capital ‘A.’ Maybe next year, huh? I’m ’a keep at it.”
The football player headed to his seat, but this time Neal didn’t shadow him. Instead, he approached Burton. “Mr. Fielding, have you heard anything about that Vietnamese kid, the one who tried to do himself in? I’ve got a couple of classes with him, just wondering if he’s okay or not.”
Burton looked up, surprised. “Brian Tranh? You knew him? Know him?”
“Yeah. I mean, we didn’t hang out or anything, but he was always asking me about you in our other classes. I figured since he was writing all the things for your contest, you know, maybe you visited him in the hospital or something.”
“No, Neal. No, I haven’t done that.”
“Oh. Okay then. Just wondering.”
Neal loped to his seat behind Terry, who play-checked him with a forearm to the chest. The second bell rang and Burton suddenly felt something stronger than numbness for Brian Tranh. He felt shame.
Burton spent his night wrestling with those feelings of shame, mixed with guilt and regret. He wandered the small apartment trying to grasp onto something solid within himself, some truth about the goodness of his character that he could believe in. That he could respect. Neal Flynn, a kid he had considered—if he considered him at all—a dumb jock, had shown more humanity, more sense than Burton could even attempt to muster for Brian Tranh. He was sick with himself.
In front of his faux fireplace, he stared at a framed certificate nailed above the mantle. It was a token of his hard work and determination, an honor that had been bestowed upon him after only four years of teaching elementary school.
“Teacher of the Year,” the parchment touted, “awarded to Burton Aaron Fielding, on this day February 10, 2010, for his generosity of spirit, selflessness of mind and the continuous encouragement of all his students to succeed, regardless of personal limitation or academic shortcomings. One of Oakland Unified School District’s finest educators and a crusader for those who wish only to learn and to be taught.”
It’s a lie, was his first thought upon re-reading the certificate. I’m a hypocritical elitist was his second thought, another overeducated snob, a fraud. An asshole. He lifted the glass frame off the wall and stashed it under a tidy pile of New Yorkers and Architectural Digests. He sat with his shaming thoughts and feelings of well-deserved guilt until he finally decided what to do next.
On his lunch period the following day, Burton ran into Safeway to obtain a token of his sympathy—balloons wouldn’t do, a teddy bear was too childish, roses or tulips felt inappropriate for a teenage boy’s recovery room—and settled on a bouquet of wildflowers. He sailed down the hospital corridor until he stopped at Brian’s door, which was slightly ajar. He spied the boy under a hazy, over-washed white blanket. The face was somber, eyes downcast. Burton heard the low chatter of a daytime program from a TV he assumed was mounted across from Brian’s bed.
He knocked, slowly entered the room. “Brian?”
The boy glanced upward, his face transforming, his mood elevated instantly. “Mr. Fielding, hey, you’re here.”
“I should have come sooner, Brian. As soon…well, as soon as I heard.”
Brian shifted in his bed, allowed Burton to observe his left arm, chest and both legs concealed in hard plaster casts. “Did you read about me in the paper?”
“I did. And I’m sorry if—”
“Did you see they published my stuff? Wasn’t that cool?”
“It was, yes…cool.” Burton placed the vase on a table.
“Hey, will you sign my cast?”
“I don’t…I didn’t bring a pen. Is there one—”
Brian grimaced then did a weird little shrug move, like he was embarrassed. “They don’t let me have anything in here I could hurt myself with. You know, on account of me trying to off myself.”
Burton was at a loss for words, but his heart poured out, finally, he thought, for this young boy. So young, not a burgeoning adult but barely an adolescent. A hurt little child.
He stared at Brian, not sure what to say or do until he remembered something. “Wait, I have it…yes, here it is.” He pulled a fountain pen from the front of his pea coat and held it out. “What would you like me to write?”
Burton watched Brian raise his plaster arm from under the thin white sheet.
“Write down what the secret is to winning your contest next year.”
A poem by Wordsworth, one of the Romantic poets who had sparked a passion in Burton for transcendent and sublime verse, had been stirring around in his brain. He had thought of sharing it with Brian, reciting it aloud, but now dallied with the idea of writing out a few lines on the cast. Inspiration for the boy during his recovery.
Set to write the first line of Wordsworth’s meaningful stanza, a realization hit. The poem represented something that Burton would want, a gesture and a sentiment that he would cherish from one of his teachers, one of his mentors.
But Brian wasn’t him.
What would Brian choose to have embedded in his cast? What words would spur him on, encourage and uplift his damaged spirit?
Burton paused a moment more, then wrote: Get better soon. Then come to my office. I’m here to help. Mr. Fielding.
Brian scanned the message, a rush of sanguinity flooded his humor and his smile. “To help me win, right?”
“To help you win,” Burton said.
He was unsure of what he’d just promised. He knew, certainly, that even if it wasn’t true, it was what the student needed to hear. Despite what he felt, staring at this dullard who would never win anything for as long as he managed to keep himself alive, it was what he needed to say.
Author Bio: Justin McFarr was born and raised in the Bay Area. He received his undergraduate degree from UCLA, and his master’s degree from USC’s MPW program. His work has appeared in Scribendi Magazine, Flask and Pen, AlienSkin Magazine, Verdad, Wild Quarterly, and on the Controlled Chaos blog. He is currently at work on a novel that is set in Berkeley during the summer of ’76.