“Mr. Brenham, how come Russia is at war with Ukraine?”
“Patty, you’re supposed to be doing your quiz. And why are you asking a question about world history in math class, anyway?
“I’m done.” She held up her paper for emphasis. “Joey said you have relatives over there, so I thought you might know.”
“Patty, please let the rest of the class finish their quizzes.”
When the bell rang, Mr. Brenham reminded the students to bring their papers to his desk before heading home. Patty waited for them to leave.
“What’s up with that war?”
“Patty, it’s complex. But the main point is that it’s a horrific tragedy for both sides.”
“Should I hate Dmitriy? His family is from Russia.”
“What? No. Of course not. Why would you say that?”
“Some of the other kids hate him because Russia is sick in the head.”
The teacher glanced out the window, into a flash of memories he would rather be forgotten. “Here in America, it’s supposed to be a place for all people.”
“Yea, but there are people that make things bad for others.”
Mr. Brenham picked up the papers and began to tap them vertically on the desk, conforming them to a neater stack. “In two more years, you’ll be going to high school, and I think you’ll learn more about the difference between the people of a country and its government. Even here, there is much disagreement, but over there, open disagreement is more suppressed.”
“Is the Russian government evil?”
“Well, they are managing some terribly evil things. But that doesn’t make everyone in that government evil.” He placed the papers in his briefcase.
“Dmitriy called me a Nazi.”
Mr. Brenham slowed, “Well, he shouldn’t have done that.” Then frowned. “Some of the Russians are just as bad as the real Nazis were.”
Patty headed out to the waiting busses and spied Dmitriy by himself, rifling through his knapsack in the grass. Her bus was always the last to leave so she had another moment and detoured towards him. “I heard what you said about me.”
Surprised, he looked up, “Well, people from your family’s country killed my great-grandparents.”
She didn’t know what to make of that. Perplexed, she stood there absently watching him search his belongings. She could see he was too preoccupied to expect any sincere engagement. “But that wasn’t me.” She abruptly turned and ran to her bus.
As they drove by, she watched Dmitriy through the window. He was still searching through his pack in the grass, obviously having missed his own bus. Then she saw the three school bullies approaching him from behind with ill intent.
Patty immediately alerted the driver and told him to stop, as a fight was about to break out. He was momentarily confounded as he hadn’t observed any problems but had learned over the semester that this was one smart and assertive passenger and he felt compelled to heed her warning.
She raced across the pavement to Dmitriy, who remained unaware of the approaching danger and stood silently above him and at his side. He turned to see what she was looking at and instantly stood up in mutual defiance.
An awkward standoff ensued. No words were uttered, but a distinct hostility prickled like downed power lines sparking and undulating in rhythm to an approaching storm.
Half a dozen kids who were walking home stopped at the street and gazed back at the side of the school. Two of the kids pointed their phones. The crossing guard who was stopping traffic recognized this group wasn’t moving, so she let traffic pass and checked out what they found so interesting.
The stopped school bus featured a dozen kids pressing their faces against the windows, all peering at the scene. Departing teachers as well as parents picking up kids drove around the paused bus, which was not fully blocking the exit. Some of the cars stopped in response to the developing situation. Mr. Brenham not only stopped but got out of his car to investigate. Two other teachers came out of the building and directed themselves toward the group, apparently alerted to some potential trouble.
Mr. Brenham broke the silence. Looking down at Dmitriy’s opened pack with its contents splayed on the ground, and seemingly avoiding the elephant in the room, he asked, “Did you lose something?”
“My phone is missing.” Dmitriy’s response was icy. “And it looks like he has it.” Dmitriy nodded in the direction of the phone in Billy’s hand. “It’s got my name on the back.”
Billy was the tallest of the “Three Bs” as they were informally known. They all had names that began with a B and were often seen together – and often served detention together. They had even been suspended together. Independent of school, they were also arrested together on charges of petty larceny. But Billy had assessed the unfolding scene and simply offered the phone to Dmitriy. “We found it.” His words barely suppressed resentment, but he handed it over without any tricks.
Patty responded quickly, “Where did you find it?”
“Around.” That was all Billy said.
The Three Bs turned in unison and strolled away.
Dmitriy also assessed the situation and even though he was sure their initial intent was not to return the phone and was likely to harass him by letting him know they had it, he offered his own single word as they walked away. “Thanks.”
Mr. Brenham recognized there was more to the moment than what was immediately evident but simply left with words of encouragement. “Well, glad you got it back. See you tomorrow.”
The two teachers observing from the periphery headed back toward the building.
Patty kneeled down and started to pick up Dmitriy’s things. He joined her and they had his pack zipped up in a few moments.
They stood up again and Patty looked over to her bus, “I gotta go.”
Dmitriy nodded and offered a quiet parting. “I’m sorry for what I said.”
“It’s all good.” She paused. “I’m sorry about your great-grandparents.” Before jogging back to the bus she added, “How will you get home?”
He inspected his phone like it was brand new and said, “I’ll get a ride.”
The crossing guard directed the dilatory kids across the street. The paused parking-lot cars continued on their way. Some of the kids on the last bus were still looking her way, but none had their faces pressed against the windows anymore.
Patty stopped behind her bus and yelled back at Dmitriy, “I’ll see you in World History class tomorrow.”
He smiled in response to the first kind words he received in a while, “I’m there.”
by George Alger
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