Everything was moving at a normal pace until he showed up. Eleventh graders listened to their teacher’s unremitting spiel on a work of literature. Miss Sheila Singleton, a first year English teacher, reeked of green skill and floral perfume, and when he arrived, she eagerly dragged out a literature book from a rusty filing cabinet, dirtied with profanity and old chewing gum.
Scuffed sling backs scooted Singleton’s lanky frame to the empty seat beside the filing cabinet. She patted the back of a metal chair, Vanna White style, and said, “One seat left, just for you, Young Man.” Students snickered and rolled their eyes. “I’m Miss Singleton. What’s your name, Sir?
“James Bullock,” he said. The other students turned around, surprised by the military tone. He sounded older and stood taller than the rest, and when he took his seat, he sat straight-back painful with elbows aligned on the desk.
“Welcome James. We’re glad to have you.” Singleton smiled and waited for a response. James never spoke. He looked at her, then at the filing cabinet, and then at her again. For a moment she lost track of time, doe-trapped in Bullock’s stare. Callous eyes crept up and down her body from neck to lap and stopped at her bare knees. Singleton wished she’d worn pants. She always felt pretty—school teacher sweet—in skirts and dresses. The usual Kentucky farm boy acknowledged this sweetness with a smile or a nod of the head. But not James. His eyes kept moving from her lap to the filing cabinet, and she finally understood why upon reading the words Miss Singleton sucks above a large penis. Someone had drawn another one while she taught away, stupidly she thought, wrapped up in a story and unaware of backroom shenanigans. Singleton couldn’t understand why boys felt the need to draw dicks on school property. But they did, and it never failed to humiliate her. At the moment she felt doubly humiliated and exposed in front of this handsome, new student. She finally tore herself away from his adult eyes and walked to the front of class with her head hung low to begin again—defeated in a different way, unable to comprehend the new, noisome atmosphere pervading her classroom.
For the next two weeks, James Bullock never said a word or attempted an assignment. Singleton knew he was spoiling for an argument from the perpetual smirk on his face. But she didn’t address the situation because he had the upper hand. In fact he silently controlled the entire class. No one dare speak to the conductor of the back of the room.
Clean-cut and square-jawed, Bullock resembled the quintessential schoolboy. Until his seething eyes said otherwise. He refused to pick up a pencil, but Singleton could feel him listening, hating the sound of her voice. Sometimes she played videos while he played dead asleep, and like an untrusting feline, he kept one eye open. Every day Bullock waited for the other students to exit the room before getting up, and although he never looked at Singleton on his way out, she had an idea why he lagged behind. He wanted a moment alone, a thought that intrigued her. Sometimes she had trouble diverting her attention from his lean swagger—the way his jeans fit snugly around a tight waistline and the small curvature of his deltoids. He had the natural definition of a landscaper or construction worker who had no use for an iron man gym.
Singleton set out to win Bullock. She knew she needed help and therefore frequented the English teachers’ lounge, trying to elicit Bullock’s background. She caught Mrs. Jones shelving copies of The Scarlet Letter. “Mrs. Jones, you’re my last hope. No one knows anything about James Bullock. I guess he moved once or something.” Singleton swung her skinny arm, almost knocking over the coffee maker. Jones sighed in annoyance.
“Oh sorry,” said Singleton. “James won’t do anything. He refuses to talk to me or look me in the eye, and I can’t bring myself to say anything to him. Uh—do you know anything about him?” Singleton knew she sounded dumb by the fast turnaround of Janice Jones who wore her glasses librarian style on the tip of her patrician nose. Jones moved her specks upward and gave Singleton a glare. “As far as I know, he belongs to those Bullocks who live out on route 30. I had his older brother who’s been in the paper recently for assault. I remember James Bullock coming in for freshman orientation. I think he was in Milner’s class before he was promoted to assistant principal. You can ask him.”
“I don’t want to bother Mr. Milner.”
“Well, you’ve got the right attitude there. The less you deal with the administration, the better. Keep off the radar.” Jones pointed to the cart holding novels. Singleton picked up Hawthorne’s masterpiece and began shelving. “Hester Prynne kept her mouth shut and remained on the outskirts of Boston,” Jones said.
“You—think I’m like Hester Prynne?” Singleton pointed to the red letter A on the cover of the book. “Jesus.”
“Everyone can be stamped with a label. Hester has an A for adultery. According to Milner and a few of my students, I have a B for bitch. And a sweet young thing like you has an N for naïve all over her.”
“Thanks.” Singleton stopped helping and headed for the door.
“No offense, Singleton. But sometimes the less you know, the better off you are. Push the good students forward and leave the Bullocks alone.”
Singleton became obsessed, trying to move Bullock forward. He never came to class prepared, so she hid a textbook, notebook, and pencil in a drawer that she placed on his desk before students entered class. She even taped a sucker and a card, one of those cheesy you’re kind of special cards, on the inside cover of his textbook. But Bullock never acknowledged the sentiment.
Singleton felt dizzy in the mesh of apathy, armpits, oil glands, and wallowing tongues. Ringing bells sliced into her nerves, and dealing with lost homework, restroom passes, and clutter between rows of desks maximized her already existing agitation. She couldn’t find a few of her personal items that she usually kept locked in the same drawer where she stored Bullock’s school supplies. A few days a week, she ran around the track to relief stress, but for some reason, she couldn’t find her sweats and tennis shoes. Her deodorant was gone along with her walkman. Searching for missing items almost pushed her over the edge, but she mustered up one more ounce of strength to put on one last dog and pony show for the day. Her black dress, covered in chalk, coördinated with her disheveled desk, and the gold locket around her neck needed readjusting. She tugged at it as students meandered about the room. When she felt abused and confused by public education, she opened the locket to see her beloved family. She wished she had a lover’s picture on the empty side, but teaching all day and grading papers all night didn’t afford an active social life. No one wanted to date an exhausted woman with a permanent wrinkled brow. A first year teacher either adjusted or quit, and Singleton, piled high with layers of stress suffocated under the extra weight of Bullock’s antipathy. But she kept going because she believed in Kentucky’s creed: education pays.
Singleton learned her lesson about showing videos while remaining at her desk in the front of the room. When she turned her back, total bedlam broke loose with flying spit balls and middle fingers. Today, her feet and shoulders felt heavier than usual. She needed to sit down. The kid beside Bullock was absent. Singleton turned on a biographical video about nature poets, grabbed a stack of papers, her red ink pen, and plopped down beside him. Twenty minutes or so passed. Bullock hung over the arm of his desk to ogle Singleton’s crossed naked legs. Five minutes later, he was still at it. Singleton lost it, “Where are your books, your pencil—why do you waste your time and mine?”
Bullock sat up, waited for her to say something else, and finally uttered, “Can I go to the restroom?”
“What? That’s what you have to say? You don’t deserve to go anywhere until you do something!”
Bullock leaned over close enough to touch her cheek and whispered, “I hate this class, and I hate you.”
“What—you don’t hate me. You hate school.” Singleton’s voice shook.
“I do my work for my other teachers. I hate you,” he said.
Singleton remained silent for a few minutes. With her guts in her throat, she began writing frantic questions on the back of a student’s paper, leaving space for Bullock’s answers: What school did you attend? Do you have a problem with female authority? Does someone mistreat you at home?
She gently placed the questions on his desk. He smiled and answered, Kentucky Correction Academy, No, and No.
To ease the tension, she told him to go to the restroom. She wrote one more question: If I call your home, will you be physically punished for your behavior? When he came back, he looked at the note, wadded it up, threw it in the floor and said, “This is stupid. I hate this class, and I hate you!”
A few teenagers looked around to see what was going on. Singleton made a twirly motion with her hand, signaling their turn around, and they obeyed for once, sensing the seriousness of the situation. Bullock, on the other hand, kept staring into Singleton’s soul, emphasizing how much truth existed in his last statement.
Singleton made an attempt to intimidate, “I don’t give a shit whether you hate me or not. Take your sorry ass to the office.”
Bullock beamed as if he’d won a prize and exited the room calm and collected. Singleton called the office to report Bullock’s arrival. She told the assistant principal in nervous fragments what had happened without mentioning what she’d said. Worried that Bullock would tell on her, she couldn’t concentrate on anything else and turned off the video, released students two minutes early, and then worried about turning them out before the bell, another reason to get on the administration’s shit list. She paced frantically back and forth until the assistant principal, Mr. Milner arrived. “I’m fired,” she thought.
“We need to talk about Bullock. I know you would never say what he said you said.”
She grabbed her grade book and clutched it to her chest. Knowing her job was on the line, she gathered up the courage to talk. “I don’t know what to do about James. He won’t do anything. No one has ever made me feel so creepy.” Finally she’d spilled her guts, giving her a little relief. She laid the grade book on a student desk and motioned for Milner to sit. She scooted her desk toward his, grabbed the pen from behind her ear, and gently twisted it back and forth with her spindly fingers.
Milner held up his hands, “You know you’re very young and…”
“I’m old enough to have a teaching degree, Sir.”
“I know that. Even so, you understand that boys are going to make fools of themselves for your attention, don’t you?”
Singleton took note of Milner’s ruddy face and wondered if he drank a lot because of his job. She didn’t need to be reminded of adolescent boy behavior from a guy who wore bow-tied, short sleeve shirts tucked in high water dress pants.
“You have chalk on your nice dress.” Milner’s eyes moved to her knees. “You say you sat beside him, asking him questions about his behavior.”
“Yeah, I did.” Singleton tapped her temple with her pen. “Come to think about it—that was the first time he responded to me, and then he went off when I asked if he’d be physically punished at home.”
“Miss Singleton, don’t take this the wrong way, but do you think James sees you as a potential mate?”
Singleton rubbed the back of her neck. “I think he sees me as a possible victim, Mr. Milner. No one has ever looked at me that way. I spent last year as a substitute teacher for Mrs. Hartney, remember? I’m not totally dim-witted to the ways of teenagers. ” She stood up and attempted to smooth out her wrinkled dress. “I’m really scared of him.” She began walking the floor like a girl in low budget horror. “Something isn’t right at home. He went to a correction facility. Does anyone know why?”
“Kentucky Correction was the last straw. He and his bus driver didn’t get along. James refused to sit down, and when the bus driver threatened to throw him off, he stood up, pulled down his pants in front of everyone, and threatened to defecate on the bus. We sent him off for that one.”
“Excuse me for saying this, but why is he in my class if he’s trying to shit on school buses? And why didn’t someone tell me this when he was admitted to this school?”
Milner laughed. “You don’t need to develop preconceived notions about students. And unfortunately, he’s court ordered by the district judge. I’d move him out of your class, but he’d just do the same thing to another teacher. You need to figure out a way to handle him.” He cleared his throat. “This may be a defining test for you as a new teacher.”
“A test I’m failing so far.”
Milner made a wheezing sound and wiped his oily, Tom Selleck mustache with a dingy handkerchief. “I went to a session about damaged kids with a group of child psychologists this summer. One said that boys who feel sexually attracted to their mothers get angry and ashamed and sometimes become violent and aggressive toward their female teachers.”
Singleton’s jaw dropped. “Oh Jesus—you think he’s projecting his anger on to me from some confused Oedipal Freudian garbage?”
Milner put up his hands in defense. “Don’t shoot the messenger. He could hate women, his mother—maybe he’s projecting.”
Singleton couldn’t think of anything else to say. A degree in education hadn’t prepared her for this. Milner waited a few moments. He ended their conversation with, “He’ll get a day of in-school suspension. Have a good weekend, Sheila.”
When Milner’s heavy tread was no longer audible she said, “Have a good weekend? He should have said have sweet dreams and don’t think about the psycho, school bus shitter who wants to screw you and his mother.” Singleton, still mumbling, slammed the door shut and barreled out of the building, almost falling down the last set of cracked steps leading to her car.
But she couldn’t roll out of parking for obsessive thinking. “I have to stop,” she said, pulling on her bottom lip. After a deep inhalation, she turned on the radio and almost jerked her neck out of whack to the screaming voice of Trent Reznor. “I want to fuck you like an animal” blasted across the high school campus as Singleton nervously yanked the volume knob. “Did I put that in there—I thought that CD was in my walkman—I never listen to that track. Fuck! I’m losing it.”
Singleton froze. Sporadic rain drops and wind whipping metal rungs against the flag pole couldn’t break through until her cell phone chimed in, infuriating her to the point of screaming out against noise, outside and inside her head.
“Hey Mom. Did I throw my gym clothes in your laundry basket? I’m losing my mind.”
“I haven’t seen them. Listen, do you have plans tonight—cause if you don’t, we’d like you to make it for dinner. Tyler keeps crying for you.”
The sound of her mother’s voice and the image of her adopted brother slowed her pulse.
“Do I have any plans? That’s funny Mom. There’s nothing to do in one-horse shitville. You know this. I’m not driving an hour to sit in a lonely bar. I just want to get in my bed and forget about James Bullock.”
“What happened today?”
“He could have cost me my job, and I think he needs more than in-school suspension. The creep pulled his pants down on a school bus.”
“I hope he doesn’t pull them down in front of you. He’s probably a sex offender.”
“They wouldn’t tell me if he was. What the hell should I do?”
“Have you looked at his file?”
“You know, by law, you have access.” Singleton’s mother had retired five years ago from teaching special education. Women in Singleton’s town either made nurses or teachers.
“I wish I’d studied nursing. Cleaning up shit is better than getting it beat out of you every day, mentally that is. Hell, Bullock may beat my ass yet.”
“That’s lovely talk. Your name is on the record room door. You need to stop reacting emotionally. You may only be five years older than some of them, but they are still children in adult bodies.”
“Sexually depraved children?”
“Have you considered sexually abused children? You need to understand his problems before ripping into him. Remember compassion.”
“I’m not like you. I’m not that strong.”
Singleton’s mother and father had adopted a child from a mother addicted to methamphetamines, and like her parents, Singleton was softhearted when it came to children. She couldn’t understand why Bullock couldn’t see this and why she felt so out of control in his presence. If she had to, she’d spend all night in the records room in order to feel differently about James—about teaching.
Singleton poured over the note from his fourth grade teacher: After coming home from Christmas break, there was a dramatic change in James. He grew irritable, disobedient, disorganized, and threatening to his peers. From fourth grade on James Bullock had been in and out of detention and grouped with slow learners and behavior disorders. Numerous social workers had been called to his home and his father had been questioned about truancy. But James had done his time at Kentucky Correction Facility and reentered the world of public education per Judge Warner’s orders. Singleton flipped page after page, trying to find something more substantial, but there was no solid evidence that Bullock had been abused, just repetitious notes of how he refused to read, coöperate, and function in a social setting. She returned his folder to the box labeled B in an orderly manner and sat still for what seemed like an hour, mesmerized by volumes of manila folders, containing a plethora of student background. She would have pulled the file of every student on her roster, but she felt uncomfortable by custodial clamor outside the door. Before leaving, Singleton considered every possibility of Bullock’s fourth grade turnaround. What if he’d always had a reading problem and a teacher too indifferent to help him? What if there were drugs? What if his father had hurt him? What if someone had left or a monster moved in? What if we didn’t have Tyler? Her baby brother and the smell of his skin took precedence over Bullock. Singleton sobbed into her long hands that covered her face but snapped halfway back to composure upon the janitor asking, “Are you okay Miss?”
“I don’t know. I don’t know,” she said.
Singleton didn’t sleep easy that night, but the next day she felt somewhat better after a family breakfast of warm chatter and buttermilk pancakes. Singleton’s mother read from the newspaper, cataloging events at the county fall festival. Several streets were blocked off for local flea-market type booths and carnival rides. Singleton needed a break from worry, but she didn’t want to bump into any students or acknowledge the fact that her town had one yearly festival to entertain the masses. Nothing else was going on but a trendy, teen melodrama that she’d rather not suffer through. Her mother wouldn’t stop hounding her about getting out so Sheila, her parents, and her brother decided to eat fried food and listen to carnies bargain for the last remnants of disability checks.
They walked the streets in a crowded mass of mullets, old lady beehive hair, and toothless grins. Singleton held Tyler close. He pointed at people eating powdered dough. She kissed his finger. “You’re such a sweet baby. I’ll buy you a cake.” Singleton handed Tyler to her mother and took off down the street to find a funnel cake. The sun was fading behind the nauseating Farris wheel, and the nearest booth with fried treats had closed for the night. Singleton knew there’d be more food stations on the carnival side, so she took a shortcut down an isolated, hedge-lined alley. As she walked along she thought about Tyler, how he’d have to go to school with the Bullocks of the world. And then she wondered if someone had held James Bullock close at a festival. Her thoughts were interrupted, however, as her back landed hard on blacktop. Someone had jerked her long ponytail so hard that her feet flew out in front of her.
Blunt smash to the head—she felt something wet under her, maybe blood. She tried to get up but couldn’t free herself from the tenacious grip of a blurred man who’d ripped the precious locket from her neck. He tried to smother her with a cloth, one that she finally recognized as the missing gym shirt. He stuffed her mouth with her own stink.
Singleton’s body lay immovable and cold. She heard bluegrass singers in the background and the unzipping of pants. She couldn’t yell out, but she wanted to as Bullock came into focus with the flash of his malevolent smile. “I want to fuck you like an animal,” he said. Now she was looking at the real thing. She tried to think it was just another sketch on a filing cabinet, not the painful stab to all she held sacred. She turned her eyes to the sky, to God, but he was blocked by the huge billboard advertising a young man proudly waving his diploma. Miss Singleton’s tongue lolled to the side of her open, drooling mouth as she read the words, Education Pays.
Deana Nantz holds an MFA in creative writing and an MA in literature from Eastern Kentucky University where she currently teaches modern drama. She also teaches high school English and writes poetry and fiction. Her poetry has been featured in Paradigm and an interview she conducted with Chris Offutt is in the latest edition of Jelly Bucket.