When I got to school and learned I was the primary suspect for lynching the cat, I was simultaneously disheartened and perplexed.
On the one hand, I was disheartened to hear about the dead cat. I mean, who would do such a thing?
But the fact that I, being one of the last to hear about it, was the supposed culprit, made me realize I was known at all. Up to that moment, I wasn’t sure I even existed.
Don’t get me wrong, I know I’m alive. But sleeping where I’m not wanted, eating here and there, going to stupid classes, and hanging out downtown hardly represents an existence. However, at least life downtown seems real.
Having said that, and in spite of this construct of institutionalized oppression called school, some education manages to occur. For example, Melody in art class has an ability with pen and pencil that is otherworldly. The teacher encouraged her to lead a class discussion. That’s what school should be about: learning from individuals who know something, not being force-fed. And I don’t even care about drawing. But her interpretation of translating beauty or life from the mundane has stuck with me since. As trite as it may sound, she believes if you look for it you can find it, even if it’s apparent to no one else. I asked her, “What would you see in a bruised face?” It was a sincere question. Yet, it was only through the awkward silence of everyone else that I recognized how it may appear coming from a kid who was known to sport such. She looked at me thoughtfully: “I see a noble knight fighting for his destiny.”
I had never spoken with Melody before. Heck, I’ve hardly ever spoken to anyone in this god-forsaken place since I transferred in just before classes started. I just never fit in. Of course, that’s not the fault of this school. I’ve never fit in any of the many I’ve been forced to attend. Schools and I have a mutual aversion. At least this would be my last. But that exchange with Melody in early spring made the year memorable.
My first hint of the dead cat situation occurred while walking in from the rain. The main hallway was more crowded than usual. Generally, I’m left alone. But today I felt I was being watched and people seemed to move out of my way.
Whatever. I didn’t pay it much mind. Until I arrived at my locker and a voice behind cryptically proffered, “Why did you do it?” It wasn’t an antagonistic query. More like morbid curiosity. I turned around to see the backs of three kids disappearing into the babbling crowd.
In homeroom, as usual, I sat in the rear corner by the window. Outside, I saw a police car parked near the front of the school.
The big girl arrived. She was one of the few who ever spoke to me and she also sat in the back. “The north entrance is closed. Someone hung a cat from the tree by the stairs.” I guess she somehow knows I don’t come in that way.
Various kids were talking among themselves with occasional glances my way.
After homeroom, the first few classes were as boring as usual. It was in between, within the crowded hallways, when I overheard conversations about the dead cat and could feel accusative scrutiny surrounding me. You might think I was paranoid. And who knows, maybe I am. However, this struck me as a new sensation.
English class was sometimes tolerable. But the best part was afterward when it was lunchtime. Today we had to read aloud our essays on “hate.”
I don’t need much of a reason to skip classes. On any given day I’d rather wander downtown and sometimes look for work than spend another hour imprisoned in high school. But today I came in specifically for this.
The kids droned on. One hated broccoli but was going to try it again with an open mind. Another hated picking up their dog’s poop but conceded it was better than leaving it for others to step in. Another hated washing dishes but said she was going to try to view it as being helpful. What’s worse is that her complaint was about using a dishwashing machine. She may have never washed a dish in her life. What’s wrong with these kids? Most of them have friends and families and live in homes. Some of them drive cars. Some are going to college. Imagine paying all that money to avoid reality for four more years?
I’m not angry at these kids. Sometimes I wish I could help them. But other than our age, we have nothing in common. Most are just too protected from life to learn anything about it. It’s like trying to learn how to swim without being allowed in the water.
There were many other stories. But the big girl read the only one I found interesting. She said her parents always hated each other and she never understood why it took them so long to get divorced. She concluded, “If I ever get married, it won’t be to someone I don’t like.”
I almost thought I wouldn’t have to read out loud today since the class was almost over. But the teacher called my name.
I didn’t move.
The room got quiet.
It seemed like a long time before he added, “Trevor, do you have your essay?”
It’s not that I intend to not respond: it just happens. I freeze. But after a few moments and right before he was about to ask again, I stood up. Abruptly.
Everyone else presented from the front of the class. But I stayed at my desk. I didn’t even push my black hoodie back, which I had been advised in the past would represent a gesture of respect.
All faces were hushed. I detected an expectation of something peculiar. Probably because my earlier oral presentations tended towards the dramatic — or I’d say nothing at all.
A transitory recognition flitted through my mind: I was the featured entertainment. That’s why I was last.
Although I was holding the essay in my hand, I decided to place the paper upside down on my desk. Some probably thought I was going to sit down without a word, since, after all, that’s what I did with my first oral presentation earlier in the year.
Although I detest public speaking, it had somehow inspired me as the only challenge this place could offer that merited my attention.
Mr. Brodwerk was just observing. He was as curious as everyone else: a jury of my peers awaiting to pass judgment. I had never been the target of such heightened anticipation. I fleetingly pondered adding a mention of the dead cat to my opening statement, which seemed as present as my shallow breathing.
Without any preamble, I started: “I hate this school. I hate this city. I hate this class, I hate this teacher and I hate you. But none of that compares to how much I hate myself.” And then I stopped.
It’s hard to describe how absolutely quiet and still the room was before I opened my mouth. But afterward, it was like some kind of black vacuum from the far reaches of outer space had visited the room to envelop it with infinite nothingness.
The pace of my breathing increased.
I didn’t move.
Nor could I sit.
I just stood there gazing at perplexed faces reflecting back like I was some kind of a morbid specimen in biology class.
This fills me with sadness. I have something to say. But I can’t talk.
Somehow I was frozen in time, stuck in some alternate reality. The moment is a bad dream stretching to eternity.
Until the bell rang.
The class picked up their stuff and silently filed out. The mute and sluggish departure was a contrast to the typical boisterous flight for freedom.
When the room was vacant, except for Mr. Brodwerk and I, we both remained motionless; neither of us uttering a word.
After a while, he slowly stood up and calmly walked over. “Trevor, the assignment was about ‘Overcoming Hate.’” He glanced at my paper on the desk. “And it was supposed to be 100 words.” He looked directly at me. But he wasn’t angry. I had no sense he would try to hit me. Nor was he judging. I felt seen, in a way that I had never been seen previously by an adult. “Trevor, you’re a smart kid. Do you mind if I read it?”
I didn’t say anything.
He reached for the paper, picked it up, turned it over, and started reading while walking back to his desk. I was still transfixed in this spaced-out timewarp of disconcerted melancholy. But to him, I was just me. And nothing was wrong. And who knows, maybe sometimes freezing when attempting to address a group who think you’re a freak isn’t wrong.
From behind I watched the back of his arm rise to wipe an unseen face. At his desk, he grabbed a tissue and blew his nose. When he turned around, even from across the room I could see his eyes were strained.
“Trevor…” he paused to clear his throat. “Trevor, you should read your whole essay to the class.”
I had never seen Mr. Brodwerk this way. He seemed vulnerable. He seemed…human.
“Look, I really hope you will read this tomorrow.” He took a breath. “But if for any reason you don’t show up, I want you to know I’m going to read it to the class for you.” He paused. “And then they’ll know.”
He looked at me for a sign, anything I might offer, but I didn’t budge.
“I’ll be right back.” He started towards the door. “Don’t go away. I’m going to make a copy of this and give you back your original.” He stepped out and left his briefcase behind. And as soon as he was gone, I relaxed. Although there was no doubt he was coming back, we both knew I wouldn’t.
The hallway crowd was thinning as kids went to the cafeteria or outside. I stopped at my locker for the last time. I overheard someone telling a group of kids that the security video showed who lynched the cat and it was a different senior with a black hoodie who has since confessed.
It was too bad for the cat. But I was kind of annoyed that I was no longer a suspect.
I left my padlock on the locker shelf with the key inserted. Maybe the next kid could use it.
The rain had stopped. I lit a cigarette before I was off the school property and started walking in the direction of downtown, soaking in the late spring dampness. A corner of the sun started to peek through the clouds and refract off raindrops positioned on the chainlink fence. It was fascinating how big the water drops could be without collapsing and dripping away. This place had never looked so good.
The chainlink raindrops beckoned me. I stopped and bent over to gaze at one and marveled at the distorted, upside-down universe it beheld: a visual spectacle for any who might look. The tan brick school was disproportionally small. Tiny teenagers walked inside this elusive raindrop universe where no one was going anywhere but in a circle. I exhaled out the side of my mouth, careful not to disturb its charm or my own contemplation of endings and new beginnings: Regardless of everything that happened this year or didn’t, she was the best of it.
Who knows, maybe there’s a little bit of Melody in everyone?
That ending will sound better coming from Mr. Brodwerk when he reads it to the class without freezing. And I suspect word will get back to her.
I stood up and began walking again. I don’t always smile near this place, but today was as good as any to be my last as a schoolboy.
by George Alger
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