Simon A. Smith
There was something about the mint green paint job in the auditorium that Terrel couldn’t take. He kept scrubbing his hand over it like he meant to sand it clean off the wall.
“Did you have to make it this fluffy green?” Terrel asked.
“I didn’t do it,” Mr. Hirsch said.
“Yes you did,” Terrel said. “It’s not savage enough.”
Mr. Hirsch sighed. “It’s… It’s a high school, not a jungle.” Terrel made a face, and Hirsch realized he hadn’t said what he meant. “It’s just that… It’s not. We can’t...” He couldn’t correct it, only make it worse.
“It’s hotter than a jungle in here,” Terrel said. “I know that.” He ran a wrist over his forehead, pulled his collar up, and dabbed his neck dry.
It was true. Without any sort of central cooling system, the heat was stifling.
Hirsch put the camera to his eye, adjusted the lens. It was a nice camera, a Nikon D5300 he’d worked extra jobs to help afford the previous summer. “Just relax,” he said. Terrel’s light brown skin went from smeared to sharp in the frame.
The subject couldn’t get comfortable. First he tried posting an elbow against the wall, then changed his mind, letting his back go limp, sliding halfway down to the floor.
“Terrel?” Hirsch said.
“Don’t take it yet,” Terrel said. He stuck his elbow out to the side like he was putting his arm around an imaginary friend.
“I’m only focusing,” Hirsch said.
Hirsch dipped the camera.
“Okay, now!” Terrel shouted.
Hirsch hurried, hoisted the camera as fast he could. Terrel was doing something with his mouth, tonguing the inside, making it pop and then droop. Hirsch waited for him to stop, but he didn’t. He was squirming all over—his mouth, his arms, his neck. He flipped the dreadlocks out of his eyes. He’d refuse any advice, Hirsch already knew, so he snapped one while Terrel was still moving.
“Let me see,” Terrel said, darting over to look at the screen. “No,” he said. “Take another one. I look mean.”
He was right. There was a meanness about it. He’d made his eyes all narrow and cold, pushed his lips forward. Somehow, Hirsch couldn’t believe his rapid mobility; he’d even managed to ball his right hand into a fist. If anyone moved, the pose declared, they were going to get it.
For the next photo, he made a complete transformation. Where before his posture was stiff and rigid, now it was lax and welcoming. He put on a cheerful grin, leaned in, and sort of reached out to the camera.
Hirsch clicked, checked the image.
He smiled. “Oh, this is a good one,” Hirsch said, shading the screen with his palm. A closer look showed a playful quality, like somebody had been tickling him.
Terrel sidled up, took a peek. He made a sour face, recoiled. “Hell no!” he said.
“No,” he said. “No way. I look gay.”
“Terrel,” Hirsch said. “Come on, now. That doesn’t make sense.”
“Yes it does. You know what it means,” he said, clucking his tongue. “You’re flodgin’.” He spun a circle, growled.
“I don’t understand.”
“It’s this shirt,” he said, acting like he meant to wiggle free of it without using his hands.
“Come on,” Hirsch said.
“It’s not even mine. It’s not!”
“I didn’t say it was.”
“You see these shoes?” Terrel asked.
“They’re my brother’s. These pants…” He tugged at the pockets, huffed, shook his head.
Hirsch released the camera, let it hang slack around his neck. He walked to Terrel and put a hand on his shoulder. “Look,” he said. “This is supposed to be a celebration. You earned Student of the Month. This is a photo to honor you. It’s going up on the wall of fame. Just be yourself.”
Terrel shrugged free from his grip. “I could do that,” he said. “If I wanted to, I could just do that.”
“Let’s take another one then.”
It wasn’t that Terrel had achieved the highest grades in the class during the month of May but that he had travelled the farthest distance. In September and October, he refused to hand in a single assignment. By January he began attempting some of the more creative assessments, and in April he raised his hand, volunteered to read portions of their assigned texts out loud. For May he memorized a speech he wrote about gun violence and recited it in front of the whole class with hardly any signs of temerity or insecurity. Back in November he’d confided in Mr. Hirsch, told him there were three generations living in his two-bedroom apartment in West Garfield Park. There was a small basement area where his older brother packaged and sold drugs and where his young mother got loaded and slept off her own high. With all the unpredictable drop-ins, continuous partying, music playing, and video gaming happening around him, he was lucky to get three hours of sleep per night. Taking everything into consideration, Terrel had been one of Hirsch’s biggest successes of the year, and all the other students had to admit that he’d earned his reward.
Whatever motivation Terrel had arrived with was waning. Hirsch could see it in how he turned his attention away, let it stray toward the door. There was no bringing him back. He kept hedging for the exit, anxious for release. Then, ecstatically, he found it. The bell rang. In a flash he was gone, charging out of the auditorium and into the hall. There, Hirsch saw him leap onto the back of a friend and holler, “Got you, Squuaaaaaaad!” He wrestled the boy against a locker, then bounced back and said, “What are you going to do? Hit me? Hit me, bitch! Hit me!” He was laughing like crazy.
In a few moments the barking halls were cleared and everything went quiet. Hirsch was still for a long time, not knowing what to do or where to go next. This was his lunch period. He cradled his camera. It was a beautiful auditorium. Beautiful, he thought. It was a description he avoided in class. The boys would interpret it as something weak or tender about his character, and the girls, most of them, followed their lead as they’d been groomed to do. This was tricky work, unsolvable. But what else could be done?
The auditorium was something else. Aside from the tattered, crumbling sections along the ridges, the eye’s most unfortunate but obvious convergence, the room was beyond reproach. The school was built for 1927 Chicago, before the west side repped “K-Town” or “Fifth City,” brought together by circumstances no longer in style. The historical information, its particular conveyances, everything was right here in front of him and yet remained impossible, an absurd, unsuitable representation of current times. He aimed the camera up at the high, sculpted arches, glassing the ornate detail, all of it so irrational for its location. He couldn’t quite get the angle right, couldn’t capture its best light. Man, they didn’t make structures like this anymore, not here, not like they belonged. There was no other way to explain it. Damn, he thought, lowering the camera, giving up the shot. It wasn’t his vision that was needed. He didn’t have the context. The best chance for explanation had fled the space, a native child escaping the scene, returning to his obdurate gang. If others were to understand, it was up to them. He took a deep breath. How, he wondered, when the language was insufficient, non-existent, still waiting to be invented, relying on Terrel and his classmates, such hard, ruined inventors... Shit. Gang was not the correct term. He knew better. Even the word native was off. How was it possible that a title meant to imbue the recipient with such a sense of reverence and privilege had come to signify so much of the opposite?
His skepticism had crept back in again over the past few weeks. Soon another one of his senior classes would graduate and head out into the brutish, unforgiving terrain of low-end jobs, deplorable housing, various infestations of the heart, mind, and body. If they were very unlucky, despite everyone’s best intentions, they’d stumble into a mound of college debt brought on by the false promises and tenacious proddings of the very people they trusted to keep them afloat. He had done everything he could to prepare his pupils, but it wasn’t enough. It never was. What the majority of them really needed, Hirsch had laid awake thinking too many nights, was not a diploma but a certificate from a program that taught things like health, safety, empathy, recovery, and rewiring, a real alternative method of education and social justice. In short, they needed something that did not exist for reasons beyond his comprehension.
Sweaty and beaten, Hirsch ambled out into the halls. If he went back to his classroom he’d just sit there and stare out the window. He wasn’t in the mood to eat, wasn’t even hungry anymore. The debris cluttering the halls wasn’t helping his appetite. He stood and gazed down the empty hallway, feeling numb and restless at the same time. If he was not mistaken, there was light coming from the principal’s office all the way at the end. Something was drawing him toward the light, an indescribable feeling, perhaps closest to a sense of duty. His first steps were tentative, but they grew in pace and conviction as he approached the door. He throttled down the littered corridor, wading through splintered pencils, crinkled paper, whole notebooks, a wilted rose, dented milk cartons. It was ludicrous. How did such random foreign objects even end up here? Once, he’d found an entire business suit just lying on the ground outside the boys’ bathroom—coat, tie, even a pair of Kenneth Cole shoes. More than once he watched how students who asked to borrow writing utensils at the beginning of class would toss the same utensils into a trashcan at the end. What did they intend to do during the next class? Was it nothing other than a bottomless, unyielding procession of irrational decisions? It was infuriating. Although, he thought, beyond where the choices may or may not end, they must get to the bottom of where they began. And that, ideas and questions like that one, might be why he’d ended up here, standing with the principal’s doorknob in his clammy palm, twisting it, stepping over the threshold without stopping or even thinking to knock first.
Principal Amos was sitting behind her desk, her oily face pressed up close to the computer, squinting, reading the words out loud as she scanned the screen. She looked tense, harried. “Oh!” she said, looking up. Fumbling, she touched a pudgy finger to her nose, sliding a pair of small, delicate glasses higher on its waxy bridge. “Mr. Hirsch! What can I do for you?”
“Well,” Hirsch said, inching over to the chair in front of her desk, “I’m not sure.”
“You’re not sure?” Amos said. “That’s funny.”
“Is it?” He said.
Wow. The air conditioning was really kicking in there. He could feel its imposing intensity as he approached. The roaring window-unit, protruding from the wall behind her like an icy maw, made his skin shrivel.
Just before he sat down he paused, froze in his descent, half lowered into the seat, waiting for permission to continue. “May I?” he asked.
“I couldn’t say no, now. I wouldn’t,” Principal Amos said. “Please. What can I do for you?” she repeated.
Hirsch sank into the chair, a moist little squeak issuing from the vinyl fabric. No sooner had he settled in than he realized that he had no clue how to proceed. He’d acted before having a plan, a spontaneous train wreck of emotions. Maybe the kids were right.
He thought about speaking, opened wide, but nothing came out. There was an awkward, involuntary gulping sound as he closed his mouth. Ms. Amos was a saggy, ill-proportioned woman with round, spongy features above the waist and brawnier, firmer limbs below. She removed her glasses, rested them on the cushioned section between her breasts. As was her custom, she’d applied a shade of neon red lipstick that made her cocoa colored skin look somehow frightened, like it was hiding behind it. Her outfit, again in keeping with her habits, was tight and restrictive. Sitting there now, noticing how uncomfortable and improper she looked, Hirsch was reminded of a sign he saw hanging in a gift shop years ago. “Dress for the body you have,” it said, “not the one you wish you had.”
“Is everything okay?” Amos asked. “What’s the matter?”
“Well, I kind of thought you’d know… I was hoping… I thought you’d have a better handle on it than I do. You know, as a woman with your personal, um, inside information, informed opinion, the causes and effects, whatnot…” He wasn’t saying it right. “What is your perspective?”
“I’m sorry. I don’t get it.”
Hirsch was aware of how odd and disconcerting he must look. He’d have to think of something quickly. There was a poster tacked above Ms. Amos’s head. A corner of it was coming undone, peeling back from the wall, no doubt from the force of the air-conditioner. It was imposing, perhaps four feet wide by five feet long. “SUCCESS,” it said in big bold letters. “It is never too late to be what you might have been.” A swell of sunlight illuminated the tall pine trees in the foreground. Behind them, a towering mountain covered in snow, its peak cloaked in white, wispy clouds. Seeing an impression like that in a place like this, Hirsch thought… it was… he didn’t know what exactly. Amiss? Off the mark, like seeing a cat inside a fish tank.
“I’m worried about Terrel,” Mr. Hirsch said.
“Terrel Richards?” she asked.
“Yes,” he said.
“Okay. And why is that?”
“Well,” Hirsch said. “He’s not ready… um, for…” He tried to think of the right thing. “For the world.”
“His behavior? His attitude?” She asked.
“His brain,” Hirsch said.
“Ah, low test scores,” she said. “What was his ACT score?”
“It was all right,” Hirsch said. “Low, yes, but not lower than expected.”
“Expected?” she said, taken aback, offended.
“Considering,” Hirsch said.
Amos tipped her head to the side, pondering, a bitter expression of displeasure etching itself across her florescent lips. “Considering what?” She craned forward in her seat.
“Death, destruction, drugs, malnourishment,” he said. “Depression, abandonment. Should I continue?”
Amos tilted back in her chair again, swaying away from the table. The look in her eyes was that of someone who had either never considered the issues raised or had considered them once or twice but had decided, acknowledging their troubling, unsavory effect, that it would be preferable, through a sanctioned regiment of brainwashing and blind faith, never to contemplate them further. On the surface there was a sober sternness to it, a stunned or injured quality. The eyes rejected a deeper level of interpretation, refused conversation, deadened, detached. Hirsch had witnessed the countenance before, usually on the faces of the ultra-religious or profoundly poor, something like surrender but not quite. Remote. In any case, the longer it continued, the more paralysis set in, so that the viewer began to feel uneasy and anxious for release. Hirsch floundered, lifted himself above the seat, using the arms of the chair for leverage, and let himself plop back down.
“Do you think he’s just been bored? Terrel, I mean.” Ms. Amos said.
“No,” Hirsch replied, probably too quickly. “I mean, I love Terrel, but that’s definitely not the problem.” Right away he felt weird having used such a profuse term of endearment, but it was true he supposed, and so he’d let it lie where it landed. “I know enough to know that’s not it.”
She folded her arms, nodded her head. “You know, sometimes they need to be pushed. If you can find out where they are falling behind and where they are excelling, if you can track them, their skills, often times you can play to their strengths and bolster their sense of intelligence, even in cases of preparation for the world, as you put it, beyond these walls. You have to give them something they can relate to, some relevance and purpose. Does that make sense?”
“Well,” Hirsch began, hesitating, “no, or… I mean yes and no. Sort of.” How could he explain that it only made sense in relationship to the script she’d been trained to use, the mantras, the panaceas, et cetera? It made sense only in that these confabulations were designed to divert sense, and that in itself had its own kind of backward logic.
They were silent for a time. Hirsch had become interested in a picture that was sitting at the corner of her desk. It was a photo of her and a young girl, presumably her daughter, standing arm-in-arm in front of a pulpit. Behind and above the lectern hung an enormous crucifix shrouded in plush velvet curtains. Both ladies were beaming, practically singing into the camera. Hirsch couldn’t stop gaping at it. Something about it was mesmerizing. He reached forward to pick it up, and when he did he realized that half of the wooden frame was broken, its seams drifting apart from the glass so that it nearly fell out when he lifted it.
“Whoa!” Ms. Amos said, “Be careful.”
“Yeah, whoa. I got it. I’ll be gentle.” He held it firmly in his hands, clamping the edges together with his fingers for support.
“That’s my daughter. She graduated last year. That’s our church.”
“Where did she go to school?”
“The Lab School,” she said.
“That’s private, right?”
They were quiet again. Hirsch was noticing how bright and sparkly her daughter’s teeth were. They looked like flecks of ivory soap. It was different with his students. Most of them were missing teeth, and many of the remaining ones were yellowed or chipped. “You got them public school teeth,” he could imagine someone taunting. It was a metaphor for so many things in their lives. He put the frame back down on her desk. It rattled a little bit, almost fell, and he had to catch it in his hand, steady it back into place before releasing it very cautiously.
“That needs to be fixed,” she said.
“Yes,” he said. “For sure. No doubt."
“I could hammer a few small nails into the corners there, and…”
“Oh, I wouldn’t do that,” Hirsch said.
“No?” she said. “Why?”
“Well, it’s not strong enough. Hammering is too jarring. It’ll just make it split. The whole thing will shatter.”
“Really? What would you suggest then?”
“Wood glue, maybe,” he said. “I’d use wood glue, something that could help it fuse back together slowly over time. It won’t be of much use in the short term, but...”
“Wood glue?” she asked. “I’ve never heard of that.”
“It’s available,” he said. “Simple and effective, less disruptive.”
“Hmmm,” she said, unsure of his suggestion. “Could you do it?”
“Do you know how to fix it?” she asked. “I have several things that could use repairing.”
“Me? No, not really. Carpentry isn’t my forte. I can take the photos,” he said, reaching down to grab hold of the camera resting in his lap and raise it in his palm. “But the other stuff...preservation... I’m no maintenance man.”
“I know that’s right,” she said, snickering. “You take excellent pictures.” She smiled. It was a big, expansive smile. He thought maybe she even winked. A twinkle had come into her eyes. “The proof is all over your room. It’s really something,” she said.
“Thank you,” he said.
“Yes, it’s wonderful data you have up there all over your walls, superb documentation.”
“Oh, certainly,” Hirsch replied. “Evidence of the futility of vanity and distraction. Marvelous stuff!” He flinched, covered his mouth, shocked at his honesty and audacity.
“What?” Ms. Amos said. She whipped her head from side to side, like trying to knock something loose. His words had made contact with some internal gauge, startled her into a state of giggles and slaphappy head shaking. “What did you say?”
“Haha!” Hirsch laughed, uncapping his mouth. “Nothing,” he said. “I didn’t say anything!”
“Oh!” she said, laughing loudly now. She was having trouble catching her breath.
“I’m going to go,” Hirsch said. He fired up from the chair, catapulted.
“Okay,” Amos said. She was still reeling, trying to compose herself in the large black leather chair where she sat, wriggling about in spasms of squeals and groans.
She was still laughing and snorting as he reached for the doorknob, preparing to exit.
“Wait!” she called out. When he turned, she was wiping tears of laughter from her eyes, trying not to smudge her heavy mascara. “Don’t you worry about Terrel or any of your other students. God will take care of them. He has a plan.” As her speech concluded she faltered. There was a trailing off at the end, a sort of retreat, like maybe she wanted to reach out and scoop some of it back in.
Mr. Hirsch smiled. He nodded his head. “Is there a saint of pragmatism?” he asked.
“What?!” Ms. Amos blurted, and right away she went back again to her eruptive laughter and convulsions.
“Pragmatism?” Hirsch repeated, and now he was starting to catch her giggles. They were bubbling out of him, uncontrollable. “You know, like a guy who was canonized for all of his cogent, rational ways.” He doubled over with laughter as an image came to him. The visual in his mind was so comical that it was making it hard for him to get out the description. “Someone who was always prepared and responsible, dressed in a tool belt, a modestly priced raincoat and a reasonable pair of slacks! Saint Sensible of the Southside!”
A maniacal hilarity ensued. Ms. Amos flung herself forward on her desk, buried her face in her arms and wailed with laughter. Mr. Hirsch held onto the doorknob for support, bore onto it with all of his weight. He was choking on laughter.
“Why are we laughing?” Hirsch said.
“I don’t know,” Amos said, her voice muffled by her arms and waves of hysteria.
“This isn’t funny,” he said.
“I know,” she said. “I know!”
After a while, Hirsch was able to pull himself together. He straightened up, took a few deep breaths. Amos still had her head down. The giggles were sputtering out, fading in intensity. He wasn’t certain, but he thought he heard some sniffling, maybe a little croak in her voice. Was she crying? She was. Her weeping, now mingled with titters, tears, and sobbing, grew louder until everything else drained away.
“I don’t know,” she whined.
“What?” he said.
“I don’t know anymore. I’m cracking,” she said.
A sneaking surge of elation rose in him. “Of course. It’s only natural,” he said.
There was no answer. She remained down, prostrate and whimpering, rolling her head back and forth on the table. Hirsch came forward from the door, a clamorous urgency welling within him. He looked at the camera hanging around his neck. He picked it up, aimed it at Ms. Amos’s slumped body, the crown of her plump head, the frazzled hair and punctured tableau. It was perfect. For a second he was poised there, checking the aperture, modifying his position, setting the angle. He planted a foot up on the chair and panned forward.
“Wait a second,” he said out loud. He hopped back, ran to the door and ripped it open.
“What are you doing?” Ms. Amos moaned.
To his great joy, Hirsch immediately located a stray student walking past at that exact moment. Eureka! It was a lanky boy sporting cornrows and a huge, bulky T-shirt. He was also wearing a headband, its damp halo diking the flow of perspiration. Hirsch had never seen him before. “Here!” he shouted, wrenching the camera free, untangling the strap, and handing it to the baffled student. “Come here!” He took ahold of his shirt, shoving him into the office. “Take this!” he said. “Hold this, keep it steady, point it at us, and snap a shot. Just push the button.”
“Okay,” the boy said. He smiled, shrugged. “I’ll give it my best shot.”
“Exactly!” Hirsch said. “Your best shot!” He hustled over to the chair. He grabbed it and scooted it closer to the desk. He sat down facing the camera, Ms. Amos’s lifeless body only a few feet in back of him over his right shoulder.
“It feels good in here,” the boy said. He pinched the middle of his T-shirt and shook it out, trying to fan himself cool.
“What are you doing?” Ms. Amos asked. She raised her head, dumbstruck. “Wait a second!” she said, taking everything in, trying to orient herself. “Wait!” There was an instant when she made a connection, figured out what was happening, and a half-tick later she was racing, trying to tidy herself, running a finger under her eye, tousling her hair, yanking tissues from the box on her table. She was absolutely frantic, couldn’t move fast enough. “Wait!” she kept saying.
“Snap it!” Hirsch said. “Come on! Do it!”
“I don’t know how,” the boy said.
“What do you mean?” Hirsch said.
“I’m not used to this kind of camera,” he said. He had it turned around the wrong way, pointed at himself. “Where is it?”
“I don’t understand,” Hirsch said. He bolted up from the chair.
“Wait!” Ms. Amos said. “Stop!”
The boy was moving the camera up and down, searching for the button, looking underneath and then on top, back and forth, squinting, mumbling under his breath.
“Here!” Hirsch said. He romped around in back of him, swiping at the camera, launching himself at full speed. “Give me that!” He said. “Let me have it!”
“Chill out,” the boy said. And it was at that instant, with Mr. Hirsch dodging about, arms flailing, berserk eyes flaring, hair spiked from his own deranged momentum, that the boy found the button and struck it. Click.
“Damn it!” Hirsch said. “Shit! Let me have that. Give me it!”
“Okay, bro,” the boy said. “Relax.” He released the camera, let it go zinging into Hirsch’s hungry hands.
The image was still glowing. There, in the viewfinder, was the upper torso and head of a madman, a warped portraiture of sorts, a wild, raving, panic-stricken beast. His face took up most of the shot, but in the background, just beyond, fuzzy and blurred, was the face of a student, inexplicably still visible through the distortion—a little shocked and dismayed, but mostly lost and confused, a tad annoyed also, but quizzical too.
Hirsch couldn’t take his eyes off of it. He was holding it completely still, staring.
“What?” Ms. Amos said. “What is it?” She got up from her desk, still grasping tissues and eyeliner, trying to stem the flow of liquid leaking from her eyes and nose.
She rushed over, flanked in tight beside Hirsch. Their bodies touched as she leaned in close and peered down. They stood there for a while without talking, stupefied. The boy, who had been standing by the door, came over and looked over their shoulders. He was a few inches taller than both of them and his silhouette cast a shadow over the screen.
“It’s…” Ms. Amos said, crinkling up her nose. “It’s ugly.”
“It’s a mess,” Mr. Hirsch said.
“You should do something,” Ms. Amos said. “Erase it or something.”
“It’s fantastic,” Hirsch said.
“You like it?” The boy said.
Mr. Hirsch turned around and offered the boy his hand to shake. “It’s beautiful,” he said. “Thank you.”
The boy looked puzzled, dazed. He dismissed the hand, left it outstretched. It was less from rudeness and more out of pure bewilderment.
“You could retake it,” Ms. Amos said. “Take another one. Or you could crop out the faces.”
“Exceptional stuff,” Hirsch said. “A work of art.”
The boy looked from the hand to the screen then over at Ms. Amos and then back at the screen again. He shook his head. “Ya’ll are tweakin’,” he said.
The bell rang. The boy, Pavlovian in his reaction to the chiming, whirled away, opened the door, and jetted out into the hallway, leaving the two of them there alone, speechless and spellbound.
“Yo, Bobo!” they heard the boy holler as the door sprung shut behind him.
Ms. Amos scurried over to her desk, yanked open a drawer. “Here,” she said, “put this pretty border around it.” Hoisted in her fist was a frilly strand of white lace.
“I won’t,” said Mr. Hirsch.
“It’ll cover it up,” she said.
The scuttling continued, frazzled movements back and forth in front of her desk, grasping and offering various removers, blockers, or foils; almost any object would do. “This one?” she kept saying. “What about this one?”
“Not this time.”
The boy’s voice was quickly swallowed up, devoured by the boisterous spirit of an aroused crowd, indifferent to the upheaval, unattuned to the assorted animals surrounding, each in various stages of exertion.
Simon A. Smith writes and teaches high school English on the south side of Chicago. He lives in the Albany Park neighborhood with his wife and a murderous orange tabby named Cheever. A graduate of the Columbia College Chicago fiction writing department, Simon also holds an MAT in secondary education from Northeastern Illinois University. He is the senior story editor for the podcast "Reading Out Loud," and his stories have appeared on/in Hobart, Quick Fiction, Keyhole, Chicago Public Radio, Juked, Whiskey Island, PANK, Curbside Splendor, and more.