Chapter One: September
The meaning of life is that it stops.
Inexorable is time. No matter what you throw at it, no matter what you do to stop it or slow it down, it’s ruthless, it keeps on going, and you find yourself here, at that place you didn’t want to get to. You can enjoy the moment, but the moment passes; you can try to stretch it out, but it only stretches so far. You can chase after wide vistas that give the illusion of infinity, spend your life devoted to a mysticism, its suspending trances, the promises that the moment is somehow eternal, that death is not the end despite all evidence to the contrary. But then you end up here—you always end up here—and then time will keep going and one day your stretch of time finally ends.
I imagine what one of the desperate September optimists would say. They’d remind me with a consoling hand resting upon my hunched back that just as there is always another September there will also be the next summer coming just as inevitably, the next July sunrise to warm my face upon, the next happy encounter with loved ones. Et-fucking-cetera. Sure, okay. I nod, pretending to agree. But inwardly I look back at the featureless, mostly lonely and unfulfilled life I’ve had and my next thought is: so too someday will inevitably be the death bed. That last midwinter sunset is going to show up whether you like it or not. It’s the patient and statuesque grim reaper, it’s the way of all flesh, it’s the grueling entropy of the universe and it cannot be escaped or reasoned with. Hopelessness always wins out.
I think like that a lot, but more so in September after the summer has been devoured day by day and week by week and I’m back in this seat or another nearby with the same—albeit slightly tanned—faces around me. I scan the shades around me, can feel the undercurrent of soul-shriveling angst. Their happy-to-be-back grins hide the shock, the state of mourning, barely suppressed moans hidden behind the ersatz determination and forced cheerfulness that got them out of bed this morning.
Or maybe I’m just projecting.
I am a teacher. I am overworked and underpaid, given impossible tasks and blamed when things don’t work out. Truly my vocation is worthy and my intentions noble—so we are told, so we are about to be told—but in my work day I break up girl fights and send kids to the office when they looked stoned. I tell kids to take off their trucker caps in the hallway and give detentions to the ones that fuck off during the Pledge. Somewhere between all the bullshit, between the babysitting and the lesson plans, I’m supposed to inspire and edify, to make the device-addicted clueless youth educated. Coming back in September after a blissful summer devoid of these vicissitudes is the bummer of the universe and each year it gets harder. It can be depressing being a teacher. It’s why we all drink and that’s why we have the summers off. Nobody would do it otherwise.
We’re always in the school auditorium on the first day back. It’s the same thing every year, the same requisite speeches, the next initiative from the higher-ups that we know will dissipate and be forgotten, the powerpoints and bar graphs of state-testing scores from which they squeeze any positive trend, the same threats from legal experts, the same reminders from the union rep. I imagine I can guess each word before they say it. This is the yearly hazing we must endure, a verbatim eternal recurrence.
Oh shit, here comes the motivational speaker. Polite applause. A wake of chewable geriatric perfume as she passes me going down the aisle, wobbly in her modest heels although she wears them for a living. She starts up with the inspiring quotation and I shut down like a student when they hear the words ‘packet’ or ‘rubric’, hunkering down in my seat to not be noticed as I check my phone, find a game on it, anything. Just like the kids we teach.
The parallels fascinate me. How when you're a teacher the border between being a teacher and student blurs. Those Kafkaesque dreams people have about being back in high school are our work dreams. We take on the role of students and the principals are the teachers. We are threatened for not threatening the kids over countless rules. They take our attendance with clipboards at meetings, they stop by our rooms to make sure we’re on task. Often teachers get lunch duty during which they have to play guard in the cafeteria and the principals stop by to check we are there. They are the guards of the guards themselves.
That’s a favorite icebreaker of mine at some point during the first days of school. I start it out as if it’s going to be a sermon on why being on time and obeying the rules is important. But then I morph it, I ask them if this is what it’s really all about? Isn’t high school in fact more like prison than any normal job out in the world? I go down my list of comparisons. At both our high school and prisons visitors are buzzed in, have to sign in, show ID. Some schools even frisk you at the door or have metal detectors. There are cameras surveilling you throughout the building which has wings like prison blocks. Populating the building are gangs and cliques and factions. Fights break out. Both have an infirmary, a library, a weight room, a fenced-in exercise yard, a similar cafeteria where you push your trays along and worry about where you’ll sit and upon whose territory you might encroach when choosing a table. Throughout the rigidly scheduled day you have to move along at prescribed times from one place to another and you can’t be late. Attendance is required by law but after a few years you can apply for early release. There are even days when groups go out and pick up trash as community service and for such excursions have you ever seen how they transport prisoners? Repainted school buses. So, I ask them, is high school really about training you kids for careers out in the competitive workplace or for prison, to acclimate you for docile incarceration? As far as I can see one institution teaches the other.
This year I could mention that I’m worried about ending up in jail. Your jailer might be jailed.
Back in June Rayne Gavarrete was worried about going to jail. I know that now. End of last school year at a similar kind of meeting they had announced a new federal law requiring all teachers to be fingerprinted, more institutional ass-covering so they can say they did everything on their end when the creepy shop teacher or leering coach takes off with Lolita across the country. These new mandates didn’t surprise me, nothing surprises teachers anymore. But at lunch that day Rayne got all worked up about it, made it into a huge political issue, partnered some colorful participles and anatomy to describe the system, the politicians, the whole fucked-up world. Rayne never spoke like that, I didn’t think she was capable. I should have known something was up, but I had no idea what she was involved in, would never have believed it. I chalked it up to institutional outrage, that hair trigger condition that has us groaning over every new initiative or mandate before we even hear what it is.
Now after this summer I too am at risk. I can’t have my fingerprints taken. I haven’t bothered to look into it, but from watching enough TV I imagine I know some of the charges: larceny, conspiracy, accessory to murder. Definitely abuse of a corpse. Nobody here has a clue though, to them this is just another ordinary first day back. It would have been for me too if I hadn’t by chance run into Rayne that day in Fowl’s Point. If I hadn’t it’s likely everything would be just as it always had been—another September, putting in my time for another year—if things had only been just slightly different and I hadn’t spotted her near the gazebo.
There will be theories and gossip about what happened to Rayne. I can see it already over there in the bent heads of the busybodies, the ones with eyes slightly bulging with scandal. But they know nothing, never did. I learned who Rayne was, loved her, went to dark places with her. There is admittedly a supreme pleasure sitting here knowing nobody here knows my involvement with Rayne and all that happened over the summer. To them I’m the same as I’ve always been. But then again, they didn’t know what feelings I’d harbored all those years, or what went through my head, the private inner world we live in they would love to get their hands on.
The crush I had on Rayne was truly crushing. Grinding. For years I fantasized about her, ate lunch with her, lusted after her, got jealous when other men talked to her, maybe even flirted in my limited way. I never did anything further about it though, just talked to her when I could, made it seem like an accident when I showed up at the local watering hole after work on Fridays after seeing her car parked out front. She seemed to like talking to me. We had a lot in common. Both social studies teachers, both history buffs of our particular periods and areas, both book worms, both souls who felt they were born at the wrong time and place. We always talked not very seriously about quitting the education business, getting out before we’re impossibly jaded and setting up a hip coffee shop cum used bookstore in town, surely a disaster of a business plan if it ever came to anything, but it reflected our common values, our impractical and romantic dreams. I suppose any other guy would have asked her out, tried to bed her or wed her—we were both single and unattached—but I was afraid of spoiling what little warmth we did share and having to coexist through the workweek in the miasma of rejection. Nothing was ever going to happen with us.
But then I saw her that morning at the gazebo and it changed my life. Lots of people might attribute it to something higher: God, Fate, some Cosmic Order, some sentience that weaves meaning into the atoms and chaos of existence. But I’ll have no truck with anything higher. Never have and never will. Explanations of our world being a product of arbitrariness and accident not only make perfect sense to me, but are no less awe-inspiring. I never saw it coming. A chance encounter and a spastic shift in the course of my life and it all happened in the sickeningly quaint town of Fowl’s Point.