There he was in one of his two uniforms, in our early morning history class. His closely guarded secret was widely known. It perfumed his uniform; wrinkled slate gray pants and a lackluster white shirt with a stained black tie that would become a focal point for daydreaming. The stench of him, of his uniform, wafted in the room. It was old, stale, and heavy. It was like he carried the bar with him wherever he went. That old Irish gene myth was his demon, his curse, as much as the school he was assigned. The black and brown bodies offended him. We were brown liquids in bottles I imagined he thought of as bottom shelve liquor, lined up in rows taunting him for forty-eight minutes at a time.
The late bell rang and with a punctuality uncommon in addicts, even functional alcoholics, he rose, begrudgingly, crossed the room to close the door, cleared his throat and began with his question of the day. Looking through us, he blankly asked, “what is the historical importance of this day?” Usually I ignored him or was ghost to him as I skipped his class altogether. With too many absences that week, I surrendered to good sense and participation points to raise my hand piercing the overwhelming boredom and darkness in the room. “On this day the Japanese bombed the shit out of Pearl Harbor effectively beginning World War II.” He swallowed my expletive lite response like a light beer, without pause or bother. The lesson droned on and I was once again lost in my own worries. His lessons were like paint by the number. Ask this, read that, write that and don’t ask anything of him. He was a book that told no stories, made no connections, painted with no colors. He was present but absent from the experience. I wished I was still sleeping, watching Good Morning America or even stuck on the train, anywhere but there…
While his monotone monologue hit us from the well worn script, I wrote in my journal for English class, a worthless task the teacher put much value in. Filling the requisite space, I closed the notebook doing a mental check of other assignments that required my time, when he caught my eye. Looking around cautiously, I wondered why before panicking, when he loudly called on me to stay after class. By the time the bell rang, I was more upset, angry, that he was going to waste my time or even sanction my response or behavior. Under my breath I told my neighbor, “this borracho was going to get in my face about some stupid shit.” As I approached him, I readied myself for an onslaught of drunken power. My classmates filed out the room and I waited, stewing in it. The last person exited and he broached me before I even rose from the chair-desk I hated. He handed me my last exam with an A in red. “I enjoyed your essay. Do you have an interest in history or just World War II?” Looking at him suspiciously, I stammered, “No, no, war is war. And all of it is a useless lost of life and money.” He nonetheless proceeded to talk with clarity and excitement about my proclivity for history volunteering mentorship. Dumbfounded, I said, “thanks, I’ll think about it,” and hurriedly left the room.
I forgot all about the odd conversation until I cleared out my bag that night. I sat to read my essay and his notes. Baffled, I flipped back to the first page. How did I get an A with the number and length of comments he poured onto my paper. For the first time I saw beyond the fumes that eroded his humanity, his value, in my eyes. Yet, my anxiety did not subside. The next day I realized why. He saw me when I fit into a construct he connected to easily. But wasn’t it his job to expand my constructs not the other way around? He saw my value, when he learned via my essay that I regularly watched and appreciated MASH, Frasier, figure skating and gymnastics and could effectively use them to draw comparisons about war.
The remainder of the semester, I avoided him, coming to class as little as possible or leaving quickly. I refused to be his one. The one student he pinned his hopes on, the one student he invested time, the one POC he could point to as potential, the one student that validated his presence in an urban school, the one student to prove his drinking was not a problem. I refused to share my views on the books I devoured, the shows none of my peers enjoyed, the shows I found more interesting and valuable than The A Team, Night Rider and all the other marginal shows folks were flocking. I penned my thoughts in my journal instead and moved on refusing to be the one.