The Boy on the Plane

Chapter 13


After that staff meeting where the other two new teachers were rolling their eyes at the inanity of some of the remarks some of the teachers were making and I was rolling mine right with them, I began eating lunch with the two of them in the sectioned-off teachers’ area in the cafeteria. Being new to teaching, we were all experiencing similar thrills and disasters, happiness and disappointment.

We were all about the same age. Foster was the quietest of the three of us. Betsy was a live wire. She could talk the entire lunch period through if we let her. She still lived at home; she’d gone to this high school not that many years before. She knew some of the teachers who’d been here when she was a student, and so we got inside information on who they were and what to expect of them.

She was quite pretty. Long blonde hair, slim figure and a buoyant personality. I doubted she’d remain single long. In fact, it looked to me like she had her eyes on Foster as potential mate material—or maybe just a bed partner. She flirted with him in a very subtle way. He didn’t seem to notice. But then, as I said, he was quiet. Reserved, too. He rarely spoke unless urged to by one of us.

I could easily see why Betsy was interested in him. Perhaps the obvious reason was, if they were together, she could talk all she wanted, and that had to be an attractive possibility for her. But there was more to him than that. He was as attractive as she was. He was slightly over six-feet tall, black hair, wide shoulders, regular features and very white teeth, his lower ones slight’y out of line, a feature that if anything made him look cuter and perhaps a bit vulnerable. What I didn’t know—and certainly would have liked to—was whether he had a sense of humor. Betsy did. I certainly did. In fact, I might have been overly endowed with mine. About half of what I said was tongue in cheek, aiming to get a laugh or at least a chuckle. Foster at least smiled while Betsy and I spent a good deal of time laughing and digging at each other.

Betsy had decided early on that the three of us, sharing so much in common at school, needed to set up a regular night out. Drinks at a bar. “Luckily, you have me as a guide and mentor—” she had to stop while I repeated ‘mentor’ in my most sarcastic and obnoxious voice while rolling my eyes—“mentor, and I can show you a very low-key and pleasant place that caters to young professionals. Like we are.”

I laughed. “Like we’re working our way up to be. I don’t feel all that professional yet. But I wouldn’t mind a night out. About all I do now is go home, cook dinner, review the homework or tests that have been turned in, and then prepared for the next day. Having a night to look forward to with adults only and no teenagers would create a diversion I’d look forward to.”

Betsy looked at Foster. Of course, she did that a lot but now was looking at him with a question in her eyes. He saw it and said, “Well, I’m not much of a drinker.”

“Then you don’t have to drink very much! The reason we should do this isn’t to get soused. It’s to have a night out with friends. I doubt either of you have made any friends here yet. Everyone needs friends. Of course, I’m assuming neither of you is married.”

Again, looking at Foster when she said it. He shook his head no, and I gave the same answer out loud. Betsy capped that off with a pronounced, “Aha!”

“Aha? What’s that all about?” Foster asked.

“It means you’re both eligible bachelors.”

Foster looked down for a second before meeting her eyes again. “You’re making assumptions, aren’t you? I may be a bachelor, Daniel may be, too, but that doesn’t mean either of us is necessarily eligible.”

“You’re not eligible?” Betsy asked, sounding disappointed and confused.

“Well, I am,” Foster said, “but only if the right man comes along.” Then he dropped his eyes again, and, with the dim lighting it was hard to tell, but I’d swear he was blushing.

I thought about saying I was gay, too, but didn’t. I had more than one reason for that. First, admitting it right then might seem tantamount to hitting on Foster. And second, the fact was, I didn’t know either of these people well enough at this point to know how capable they were of keeping stuff to themselves, stuff like who was gay and who wasn’t. I wasn’t ready to be out to the school yet. So I didn’t confess. I did compliment Foster on being open about it. I told them I’d roomed with two gay guys a couple of years in college, and they were the best roommates I’d had there, and that I’d regretted it when they graduated before I did. I figured that was a way to let them know I wasn’t a bit homophobic without being even slightly revelatory.

Foster took a quick look at me. I smiled. He looked back at Betsy. “Once a week?”

“Once a week,” she repeated. “Make it less often than that and it’ll soon peter out.” She turned to me, probably because she was pretty sure I’d say okay, thus putting more pressure on Foster. “You in, Daniel?”

“Sure. I can always back out if I find you’re a bit too much for me. Now that Foster has cleared the path, I can see you coming on to me strong, and I’m not sure how to fight off someone as pretty and assertive as you are. I mean, sober you’re pretty hard to resist. But looped?” I laughed, and she did, too. She knew I was joking. I was also giving the impression I was straight but not interested in a relationship. I think she got the message.

We got to know each other much better as the weeks rolled by. They rolled by quickly, too. It wasn’t that long ago I was a kid with time on my hands, not much responsibility, and time seemed to creep by. A week was a long, long time. Now, a week seemed to be over almost before it began. I was so busy with school, taking care of Robin, talking with my mother, who was always interested in how Robin was doing, that Monday would suddenly be Friday and Robin would be asking what we were doing for the weekend. He expected me to be his entertainment director, I guess, like we were on a cruise and there were wall-to-wall activities just for him with me in charge.

One thing was certain. He expected Terry to be invited if we were going anywhere.

I liked Terry a lot. Smart kid, polite, funny, and he’d done wonders for Robin’s confidence.

And then there was the incident. It changed a number of things.

I was working in my classroom after school one afternoon late in October. All those papers to go through! I knew it was my fault. If I didn’t give them writing assignments, I’d have much less work to do. However, I’d found it horrifying what terrible writers kids were. Essays, book reports, creative project: ouch! They couldn’t write to save their asses. The only way I could think of to correct this was to make them write. Lots of writing.

It was making a difference. Especially the creative writing projects. Writing about anything they wanted to write about. Using their imaginations. I’d made it simple, but insisted they be entertaining. I told them writing about taking a walk around the block and counting how many cars were either white or black or blue didn’t count as an acceptable piece of work. No one wanted to read that, and it didn’t challenge their writing talents. But a walk around the block where you meet different people and describe them and write about what they want and what their plan is to achieve their goals and how you feel about that and how that walk has affected you? I told them I wouldn’t mind reading about that.

So yeah, I fired them up the best I could, and we went over the papers in class without saying who wrote what, and I elicited ideas, and the kids were getting better. Actually improving. But I was working too hard, too. All these papers to mark up and make comments on. The thing is, I enjoyed it. I enjoyed seeing them progress. I enjoyed their enthusiasm.

I still had an hour’s work to go when Foster knocked on my doorjamb and said, “Can I have a minute?”

He’d never done this before. We’d had no contact other than the staff meetings, which were still deadly and mandatory, and our weekly nights out. But the nights out had been fun and relaxing, and I’d gotten to know Foster well enough to like what I’d seen.

I was curious to know what he wanted, so I smiled at him and told him sure.

“You told us the other week, Betsy and me, when we were talking about what it must be like raising kids, that you have custody of a student who goes to school here. That he lives with you. I was curious and found out who it was. How I did that isn’t important. We can discuss it later if you need to know. But, trust me, that’s unimportant, and my motives were pure.” He stopped long enough to give me a soft, almost apologetic grin, then continued. “However, I picked up unofficially that the guy you’re taking care of is Rob Tressman. A freshman. He’s in one of my French classes. And stop looking worried. I’m trying to help is all, but I needed to verify that Rob’s the one you’ve got custody of. Can you do that?”

I looked at him hard. There could be several reasons not to disclose this. But, from what I knew of Foster, I liked him. He seemed to care about his students. That made a huge difference to me. Betsy treated her students as though they were the job, and she wanted to do the job well, but I never got the impression she cared about them as individuals all that much. Foster did seem to care. When he talked about a problem he was having with a student—and we all experienced that—or a student who he was having fun with, I could just hear it in his voice. He cared.

So, yes, I did trust him. And I didn’t think for a moment he’d create a problem for either Rob or me. I really didn’t see the harm in admitting Rob was the one I was taking care of.

“Yeah. Rob’s the boy living with me, the one whom I have custody of. I’ve only known him a few months now. Why are you asking?” I kept my voice very level, very matter of fact. His turn now.

My desk was located in the back corner of my classroom. A lot of teachers I’d had either sat or stood behind their front-of-the-room desk when addressing the class. I didn’t want that separation and so had had my desk moved to the back. I was sitting there now. Foster came all the way into the room and walked toward me. I started to stand, but he put out a hand like a traffic cop.

“No, stay seated, please. I’ll take a chair, too.” He did so, squeezing into a student-sized chair/desk. I sat back down and waited. His show now.

“Daniel, I need to give you just a little background so this’ll make sense to you. We don’t know each other that well but have spent some time together, enough that I’ve sussed you out and formed an opinion of you. You’ve certainly done the same about me. Neither of us knows how accurate our opinions are; we’ll only learn that as we spend more time and get to know each other better. Then our opinions get strengthened or adjusted. But I can guess some of what your opinion of me is.”

He was meeting my eyes as he spoke. It’s difficult to hold someone’s eyes too long. He paused to let me speak if I wished. I didn’t, but I did have the chance to glance around the room, breaking the eye contact. Then I met his eyes again, tacitly telling him to go ahead.

“You probably noticed right off that I’m quiet. Reserved. Reticent, even. I don’t know if you’ve ever considered why. Probably not; it would be narcissistic of me to imagine you spending any time doing that, and narcissism isn’t a trait I’ve ever been accused of. But if you have, then, extrapolating, you might have wondered if being quiet was something that evolved from being gay and all that entailed.

“And you’d have been right. I was as noisy as any other boy growing up. When I was twelve, I finally fully realized how different I was, and I kind of went into a shell. Other boys were very open about their feelings about sex and girls. I’d never learned how to lie; never had to. Now, I couldn’t really join in the conversations they were all having without lying, and for me, it was easier to be with them and smile and listen and nod and add very little. Being boys and full of themselves, no one seemed to notice.”

He stopped long enough to take a couple of breaths. I could see he was digging into his past, and the memories weren’t all happy ones.

“So I changed. It was gradual, but I went from an average, outgoing boy to a much more silent, introverted one. Surprisingly, to me at least, I didn’t find myself saddened by this. I discovered, very much by accident, that standing back from the crowd, just observing, I could learn a lot about people, about situations. One becomes more sensitive to things and is able to see how human relations work. How one thing would lead to another. And I didn’t mind at all no longer being in the middle of things but being able to see how others were reacting to each other.

“And what I saw that got to me was how other boys were treated. I’d always been one of the bigger boys growing up. Active, too, and so I had my rough-and-tumble experiences. Childhood fights. Bumps and bruises. Part of a boy’s early life. But, as a young preteen and then teen, I was watching other boys—hey, I was gay and watching other boys was what I was good at—and I saw all sorts of things that I’d never have noticed and that other boys didn’t notice. I saw boys who pulled back once the going got a little rougher, a little raunchier. I saw boys who had ways of moving away from the fray as other boys were moving toward it.

“I felt a lot of compassion for those boys who were more timid, who had less courage. I don’t know if I would have felt that had I not developed the way I had. I’d been one of the rougher boys and not at all sensitive to how other boys felt. Now I did, and I saw how hard it was for them. Where that compassion came from, I don’t know, but I did have it, and it changed me. I somehow felt the need to start protecting those boys. It became important to me. I don’t think anyone who hasn’t felt this need to help and protect those not able to do it for themselves can really understand this, viscerally, at least. But it became part of me.”

He stopped and, surprisingly, chuckled. Laughed at himself, really, but only briefly. “Okay, yeah, I said I wasn’t narcissistic, then talked your arm off about myself. But this is leading somewhere, and I thought you’d need context. So here we are. Ready for the somewhere.”

Before continuing, he stopped to take a breath and squirm a little in the student desk that wasn’t quite big enough for him. “As I said, I have Rob in my class. He’s quiet. I watch the kids when they come into the room and when they leave. He comes in and sits down. I have open seating, and he always picks a seat in the front row. He doesn’t speak to anyone. He’s almost always the last one out after class. He waits for the hubbub at the door to settle before leaving. And he usually lingers a moment or two in the doorway, watching the halls before leaving. This tells me something. My protective instincts are aroused. I’ve never spoken to him other than during class participation. But I do watch.

“Today, in class, I was asking questions in French and then pointing to kids to answer them, again in French. When the answer wasn’t what I wanted, I asked for hands from anyone who had a different answer.

“So—and this is going someplace, trust me—what started this was, I asked a question and pointed to Barry Gaines to answer it. This is French for high-school freshmen, but actually second-year French. Barry is a senior. He’s a star on the lacrosse team but not a good student, or a good person, either, from what I heard from the team’s coach. Barry’s taking French again because he needs one year of a language at the high school level to graduate, and he’s already flunked Spanish and German. Thought he’d try French this time, probably because I’m a new teacher and he thought I might be easy. He’s hoping to pass this time-and maybe play me to get there.

“Anyway, his answer wasn’t close to acceptable, and I asked for hands from anyone who had a different answer. Rob’s hand went up. It does a lot. He’s doing very well in that class. He might be quiet, but he’s a fine student. As I said, I’ve watched him. I’ve also checked. He’s doing very well in all his classes. But you probably know that.”

I nodded, not wanting to interrupt.

He nodded back and kept talking. “Rob’s was the only hand up. Sitting in the front row, I’m sure he wasn’t aware of that. He’s cautious, I can see that. Had he been in the back of the room and saw no one else volunteering, he might not have raised his hand. I simply don’t know. But he was sitting in front, didn’t know how the rest of the class was acting, and his hand when up.

“His was the only one, so I called on him. He gave a perfect answer, as I expected he would. So I went on with the drill, and while scanning the room for my next victim, saw Barry. He was looking very unhappy.

“When class was over, my instincts kicked in, and after Rob left, I followed him out a few seconds later.

“It was almost too late. Barry had waited for him and confronted him. He was speaking loud enough that anyone in the same zip code probably heard. ‘You don’t show me up, see!’ he said, then poked Rob in the chest, hard enough for Rob to take a stumbling step backwards. Barry came right with him. ‘You’re going to get it for that. I’ll—’

"That was as far as he got because I was there by then. Barry’s a big kid, much bigger than Rob, and he plays a rough sport and is good at it. His coach says that’s the only reason he puts up with him. Anyway, that was all Barry said because I was there. You’re really not supposed to touch students and certainly not grab one like I did. But that thing I told you about had surfaced, and I was livid. I rarely get that angry, but this was Rob, and I was incensed. I yanked Barry away and back into my classroom. I’m not sure his feet reached the floor all the way there.

“I laid down the law to him and made double-sure he understood. He’ll apologize to Rob with me there, and then will stay far away from him. He will. Believe me, there’s no doubt about that.”

From his tone of voice, which was much different now that he was reliving what had happened, I had no doubts of his sincerity. But it was what he said next that mattered.

“While I was doing this, I mean pulling Barry away, I caught a glance at Rob, and that’s why I had to see you. Daniel, he’d completely shut down! I’ve seen that look before from others like him. I don’t know Rob’s background enough to know anything for sure but do know he pulled back into himself and just shut down. I was with Barry only a minute or so; it was all I needed, and I was thinking of Rob the entire time. I knew I needed to get back there to him. So I returned to the hall as soon as I could. By then, it was emptying, and Rob was gone.

“Daniel, I figured you needed to know. Maybe he needs help, counseling or something. If you want me to talk to him, I’d be glad to. But what I saw, he was in a bad place.”

I shook my head. I turned away for a few moments, just thinking. Feeling and thinking. Then I turned back to him. I told him what was what with Rob. How I’d met him, the state he’d been in, the custody decision, everything.

“The thing is, Foster, he’s been doing so well! He’s away from the abuse he was living with for years, living in a supportive environment, enjoying having a close friend, making other friends in school. He’s on the school newspaper. He’s training a puppy. He’s been doing really great.

“But a kid like that, he doesn’t get over everything in his past overnight. I knew he was still fragile. The way he responded that you witnessed was just like he’d always done in the past. I guess I’ll find out tonight how bad it is, whether he got over it or didn’t. Thanks so much for looking out for him. That’s just what he needs.”

Foster stood up. “Thanks for telling me that. He is a great kid; I’ll keep my eyes on him.”

As he turned to go, I had one more thing to say to him. “Foster, you know that protective instinct you said you have, that others don’t understand? Well, I do. I have it, too. That’s why Rob is living with me.”