It began when Mr. Cowles asked the unfortunate question, “What animals belong to the same order as the rhinoceros?” Even I, a teacher-in-training, knew that the only good answer was “your mom.” The problem, though, was that while everyone else was thinking it, Derrick Bauer had his hand raised and the words on the tip of his tongue. It was all downhill from there. There was laughter, sure, but afterward some yelling and bits of awkward silence. I guess by the end of it Cowles was sick of looking at him, and considering that I was the most useless authority figure in the room, the task of “doing something” with Derrick fell to me. What I did was my choice, apparently, just so long as it occurred outside the classroom.
I took him to an empty science lab next door. He sat at a front-row table, I sat on top of the teacher’s desk. I guess he expected me to say something—I guess maybe I should have said something—but I didn’t. What do you say? I’m very disappointed in your behavior? I don’t care how the kid acts. He’s thirteen and he’s weird. “Your mom” jokes come with the territory. In fact, it was one of the better ones I’d heard that day. It’s not like he cares what I have to say, anyway.
I got bored after about five minutes and booted up the teacher’s computer. The internet wouldn’t work without a password, so I settled on a rousing game of hearts. I clicked through a few hands mindlessly, restarting whenever I took the Queen of Spades and royally screwed up my score, hoping for Derrick to say something like, “I’m sorry for being bad. Can we please go back now?” Of course that didn’t happen. He’s what my dad would have called a ‘hoodlum’—a scrawny, pale-faced, acne-scarred kid, always in a dirty black hoody, who only speaks when he has something stupid to say and throws burning bags of his little brother’s feces onto peoples’ porches after dark.
A scraping noise caught my attention and I glanced up from the screen. Derrick was scratching at the desk with the blade of a small Swiss Army pocket knife. A line had been scratched in the desk. It could have been the beginnings of a stick-figure for all I knew, maybe just a plain ol’ stick, but given what I already knew about the kid I was fairly sure the line was the beginning stages of a swastika, or an Uzi, or something phallic. Anyway, the point is he was scratching something into the desk and I’m fairly certain I remember not being allowed to do that when I was in school.
“Is there someplace else you could stick that knife other than in the desk?” I asked, trying to sound authoritative. Derrick’s eyes flashed up at me. I suddenly felt the need to elaborate. “Like in your pocket or something?”
Silently, he closed the blade and put it in his pocket. I gave him a nod to affirm that he made the right choice (that’s important, I’ve read) and returned to my card game. I got the damn Queen again.
After awhile, I glanced back at him to see what he was doing. His eyes were locked on me. They were glazed over, maybe with boredom, maybe with… I looked at his hands. The point of his mechanical pencil bored into a little pink eraser like a drill, grinding out its innards and leaving them in fleshy chunks on the desk. I glanced back to my Hearts game again, then back to the kid, then to the eraser. I cringed.
“Whenever you’re ready to participate respectfully, we can go back to class,” I announced. The words sounded weird coming out of my mouth, and my voice sounded too loud.
Derrick merely shrugged and dug the pencil deeper into the eraser. Neither one of us moved or spoke for another twenty-five minutes, at which time Cowles entered, his face red and his fists tight and held at his hips.
“I think it’s about time we head back, don’t you?” He sounded so much like a man when he said that. I was very proud.
Derrick shrugged, stood, and walked past him out of the classroom. I stood too, but Cowles moved to block my way out the door.
“What’s been going on in here?” he demanded. “Derrick’s missing everything! Class is almost over.”
I have to admit, I was a little scared. Not petrified, mind you—it’s not like he had threatened to sit on me or anything yet—but definitely a little worried that I was about to fail my educational psychology class.
“Well… I guess he wasn’t ready to go back.”
Cowles’s beady eyes narrowed. He shook his ever-reddening head and moved out of my way.