Symphony 78

“Every bit as bad. Love the kids; hate the textbook; and I go crazy trying to hold myself down to their speed. But it’s okay. Overall, its okay.”

“Except today?”

Neil told Tom about the incident with Jesse. Tom was not moved; he simply said, “I don’t get it. Why are you bothered by it? They’ll expel the little bastard and that’s that.”

“I don’t want him expelled.”

“For God’s sake, why not. He’ll just keep on being a pain. Be glad of the opportunity to get rid of him.”

Neil got up and said, “Freshen your drink?” He busied himself in the kitchen for a moment and on the way back he stopped off at his desk. He gave Tom his drink and laid a photo on the coffee table. “Look at that,” he said.

It was a snapshot Neil had made earlier in the year, inside his classroom with half a dozen kids clowning around between classes. Jesse was among them. It had been one of his good days; his face was alight with mischief, but there was no malice in it.

Tom looked at the kids soberly for a minute, and said, “God, they’re young!”

“Yes, they are. Young and vulnerable. Young enough so that the right person could keep them from going wrong. Too young to cast off just because they misbehave.”

Tom sat back for a time of thoughtful silence, then said, “It must be strange.”

Neil nodded. “For the first few weeks I was thrashing about, trying to find out what I was supposed to do, and how to go about doing it. Then came a period when I had my daily routine down, and as soon as I could relax a little, it got so boring you wouldn’t believe it. Parts of it still are. I dread coming home because I have to correct sixty-five awful papers every night. I have to drive myself to do them. They make high school papers look good by comparison.”

Tom shuddered in mock horror.

“Despite all that, I love what I am doing. Can you believe I’m saying that? It is because of the kids. I see two classes of kids, each for half a day. Its not like high school where they move in and out of your life on the hour. I actually have time to get to know them.”

The conversation drifted to other subjects.

Tom and Neil had been acquaintances and colleagues for three years before Neil’s scandal. In that time, Neil would not have called Tom a friend. They both taught literature, but theirs was a large high school and except for occasional meetings they both had to attend, their paths did not cross professionally. They were members of an informal group of teachers who met once a week to play basketball after school, and occasionally they shared a drink after a game. Beyond that, they had no basis for friendship.

Yet, when Alice Hamilton accused Neil of trading grades for sex, Tom was one of the first to defend him, and one of the few who never wavered in his loyalty. His position was, “What ever happened to innocent until proven guilty? And besides, I just don’t think Neil would do something like that.” He said it loud and often. It cost him some friendships and made him unpopular with the administration and the school board, but none of that stopped him. It was, Tom said frequently, not a matter of friendship, but of simple justice.

It may not have begun as an act of friendship, but Neil treasured it nonetheless.

“Neil,” Tom said, “I have some news you will be curious to hear.”

“Yes?”

“Actually it’s good news and bad news. The bad news is that Alice Hamilton is pregnant . . .” more tomorrow

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