Neil opened Tuck Everlasting to the place he had left off and began reading. Lorraine did not relax. That was Neil’s second warning that things were not going well, so he kept one eye on his book and the other eye on Jesse.
Jesse opened his desk and pulled out a paper, rolled it up and threw it across at T. J. Nelson. Neil stopped reading and looked at Jesse, then rolled his chair back to the chalkboard and wrote Jesse’s name there. He said, “First warning.”
“Why?” Jesse said in hurt tones.
“For throwing that paper wad at T. J.”
“I didn’t throw any paper wad!”
A weak or lazy teacher would have ignored the paper wad; a self-righteous one would have suspended the boy for implying that his teacher was lying. Neil had always tried to steer a middle course, so he said sternly, “I have eyes, Jesse. Don’t push your luck.”
Neil returned to his reading, but the mood was spoiled for him and for the class. Whatever he read to them now would have little effect. They were too busy thinking about Jesse.
Jesse opened his desk, took out another piece of paper, and slammed the lid down hard. Lorraine jumped and tried to slide still farther from him, but she was already on the edge of her chair.
Neil laid his book aside and the classroom became ominously silent.
Neil locked eyes with Jesse, but the boy would not look away. Very few of his students, here or in high school, had ever had the power to infuriate him, but this boy did. Neil took his time before responding, fighting down his anger and trying to be fair.
Yet deep inside he knew he was not being fair. In order to overcome his own growing dislike of the boy, he was leaning over backward to avoid punishing him.
“Come here, Jesse.”
“Get up here!”
Even then, Jesse rose and walked to the front with deliberate, taunting slowness. Neil remained seated so that their eyes were on the same level and spoke with a calmness he did not feel. “You deliberately slammed your desk top in order to disrupt the class. What’s wrong with you today?”
Jesse shifted fluidly from defiance to a shuck-and-jive act. He lowered his head and looked hurt. He said contritely, “I didn’t mean to.”
Their relationship had gone too far for Neil to believe that, or for him to overlook so transparent a lie. He said, “You did mean to. You wanted everyone in the class to look at you — again. You wanted to be the center of attention. Well, you’ve got my attention now. This is your second warning, and if you get one more I’ll not only give you a detention, I’ll also send you home.”
“You hate me!”
“No, Jesse. If I hated you, you would be long gone by now. I am bending over backwards to avoid giving you detentions, but you aren’t helping me any.”
Jesse lowered his head still further and sounded still more pitiful when he said, “You do, too.”
Neil had to pause for a deep breath. Once Jesse’s false accusations would have filled him with guilt, but he was on to the game now and it only made him more angry. Yet he did not want to suspend the boy for something as subjective as attitude.
Neil kept his voice as calm as he could and said, “Sit down.”
As Jesse moved back toward his seat, he muttered, “Fucking bastard!”
Neil gripped the edge of his desk until the veins stood out on his forearms. He would not lose his temper — but, of course, he had already lost it. more tomorrow