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The Teacher
by Wyatt Bonikowski

Listen to Wyatt Bonikowski read 'The Teacher.'

The teacher said that everything could be explained by reducing words to their essential letters. He showed us on the blackboard. "You," he pointed to me, "this is the essence of your name. The letter A." But when he tried it with another girl's name nothing happened, so he made her leave the room. He couldn't speak for a minute. He wiped his forehead with his palm, then he wiped the stray letters from the board with the cuff of his shirt. "She doesn't belong," he explained. He looked scared. He made us put our heads down on the table, but then he said we should not put our heads on the table, it looked like we were sleeping. Some of us were not paying attention. The teacher noticed but didn't say anything. I thought that made him a pushover but the boy next to me thought it was cool. The boy next to me was reading a comic book that had nothing to do with the class.
    It was our first semester of college and none of us knew what to expect, including the teacher, he told us so. "This is your smallest class," he said, "so make the most of it. Learn each other's names, learn my name, let's all be friends." He had a funny laugh, high and low at the same time is how I would describe it. But he wasn't laughing when he said, "I know this class is required and you all feel forced to be here, but I expect you to enjoy it." After that first day, every one of us left the class saying, "Did you see that? He was staring right at me when he said it."
    We answered all of the teacher's questions the best we could. Or only when we wanted to, or when we thought it would help our grade. The most common question was, "Can anyone tell me what this means?" One day he would say it like he didn't care, but the next day he would say it like he really needed to know or something bad would happen. Sometimes you could say anything and he would smile and nod his head and point at you and tap a piece of chalk at the air in front of him. Then you would say something and he wouldn't even look at you, instead he would call on somebody else. He could stand looking out the window with his mouth open for what seemed like whole minutes.
    The teacher had us do group projects where we had to find things in the library and then write down what we found and then tell the class what we found and how they could find it if they had to. We hated group projects because one bad member always did less work than the others and then got the same grade. The teacher would not hear complaints. He said that this was the way groups worked, it was in the nature of groups. So then one group stole the janitor's keys and locked their bad member in the bathroom in the library basement overnight. When the teacher heard about it, he made an announcement to the class. "This," he said, "is what is known as justice." He wrote the letters on the board so hard the chalk broke.
    About halfway through the semester the teacher suddenly seemed very concerned about all of us and our progress in the class. He made us come to his office hours and talk about how our semester was going and what we thought about the class. It was like therapy, except that instead of talking about your problems you talked about how great the class was. I was one of the last, and when I talked to him he couldn't stop nodding and he had that sweat that he got on his forehead. I don't even remember what I said but he grabbed my hand and held it hard for about a minute and practically started crying. There were actual tears at the edges of his eyelids. That's when I thought, He must really like us, there must be something we have that he needs or something.
    The last week of class the teacher seemed really tired. He even turned his back to us and rested his forehead on the blackboard and groaned. We didn't know what to do. We looked at each other. We laughed behind our hands. We touched him lightly on the shoulder and guided him to a quiet corner where we laid him down and suggested he take a nap. One of us took a blanket out of his backpack and handed it to him. "It was my baby blanket," he said, "and I carry it with me in case of emergencies." The teacher said nothing. He looked at us like he didn't know where we came from. That kid with the blanket stood holding it out to him for a really long time before he just dropped it.
    On the last day of class, the teacher was excited. He clapped his hands and waved a piece of chalk in the air. He said he had something very wonderful to tell us, something really very wonderful for us all. He told us he was going to give us all A's. We cheered. He smiled. But then a couple weeks later when we received our grade reports, he had given most of us B's or lower. I sent him an email and asked him about it. "Why did you give me a C," I asked, "when you said we would all get A's?" I didn't hear anything from him. A few of the others in the class said they were going to find out where he lived. They said it in a way that made me never want to see them again. Then I found out where he lived. I tried to warn him, but he wasn't there when I knocked. He lived in a big apartment building that had peeling paint on the outside and rusted iron rails on all the staircases and balconies. Kids and televisions were screaming from some of the apartments. I hid behind a tree because I saw the others coming. I watched them smash in his apartment windows, then steal his TV. When they came out, I confronted them. "He's not there," I said. "We know," they said. "That's why we went in and stole his TV."
    A few months later, I ran into the teacher at the mall in Victoria's Secret. It was kind of embarrassing. "I remember you," he said. I was holding a bra. He said he was buying a gift for his fiancée, they had just gotten engaged. He started talking to me like I was his old friend, saying they had just recently moved and it was a relief to move from an area with so much crime. "You were my best student," he said. "But I got a C," I said. "No, you didn't," he said. "You got an A. Everyone got A's. Everyone always gets A's." He laughed his funny laugh. I couldn't tell if he was joking or being mean, or if he really didn't remember or maybe something had gone wrong in the registrar's office. I felt totally unsatisfied by this chance meeting. I felt older than I did when I was in his class. When I bought my bra, I could hear him breathing right behind me in line. I didn't have it in me to turn around and say goodbye or anything. But then as I was leaving I noticed he hadn't been in line at all. He was all the way on the other side of the store, standing at a rack of babydolls with his hand to his chin, like he was studying them.

About the author:
Wyatt Bonikowski's stories have appeared in Denver Quarterly, elimae, First Intensity, LIT, Snow Monkey, and other journals. He is an Assistant Professor of English at Suffolk University, and he lives in the Boston area with his wife and two daughters.

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