She had come at lunch for help on her essay.
He made sure the door was left open. No reason. That’s just what you did these days. Sarah was a quiet, sweet girl. One of his Honors kids. He was happy to spend his lunchtime with her. He wished more of his students would ask for help, but few did. Maybe in some way he communicated the idea that he wasn’t really interested in them and didn’t really care about them. In truth he didn’t think about them very deeply, and he so rarely thought to advertise his availability to help them that, when he did, he could see why they might think he was insincere. But he did want to help them.
He gave up every evening to grade their papers, and woke up every morning at 5:00 to prepare his lessons. Didn’t that show he cared?
Sarah was an average writer, meaning that her writing was riddled with grammatical and punctuation errors but her sentence construction was sound and showed some variety. Her ideas were conventional but clear. The essay she showed him, if she fixed all the mechanics and was able to elaborate a little and smoothly incorporate some well-chosen quotations from the novel they had just read, would earn a strong B. She was demonstrating exactly what she was asked to demonstrate. He was very satisfied with her work, and appreciated her as a person: a quiet, respectful, attractive young girl who never drew attention to herself.
She was a lot like him. She didn’t light up a room, but she was easy to be around and you were grateful such people existed.
He had her explain her thesis ideas to him, and he drew her out a little and explained that those were the kind of nuances and elaboration that the essay needed. He asked her to explain which passages in the novel inspired her ideas, and he mentioned other passages that offered further support. While they talked he red-penciled some random sentences in her rough draft, showing her the kinds of mistakes she habitually made. All this took about fifteen minutes.
Then they were silent.
Sarah stared at the essay in her hands.
Mr. Daniels, she finally said. I’m afraid.
Two words. And it punched a hole in his heart and nearly brought tears to his eyes. None of his students ever confided in him, ever revealed themselves. He wanted to hug this lovely little girl, but knew that he couldn’t.
What are you afraid of, Sarah?
Do your parents hurt you?
No, she said immediately. No, no, no. They love me. They treat me so well. I’m afraid I disappoint them. That’s not really what I’m afraid of, but I am afraid of that.
Don’t be. Any parent would be so proud of you.
She smiled, a tiny smile, but he could see she didn’t believe him.
What are you afraid of, Sarah? Tell me.
The future. Next period. Leaving this room. I’m afraid I’m not good enough for any of it.
He was silent. Later, thinking over all she said, he wished he had told her that he was too. Because he was.
Everyone around me seems so strong and happy. They seem so confident. Everything comes so easy for them. She paused. I’m so tired. She paused again. I’ve never had a boyfriend.
Well that surprises me. Because you are a very pretty girl. When I was a kid in high school I would have died to have a girlfriend like you.
She didn’t smile. She didn’t believe him. But it was so, so true. In any case, it meant nothing to her. He might as well have said, But Sarah, there are pygmies on Mars.
The next few minutes were very awkward for him. He didn’t know what to say. He knew there was nothing he could say; really, all he wanted was to sit with her, let her talk. But she seemed to be done talking, and he couldn’t bear for her to just walk out the door, all afraid. All alone. So he asked her if she had talked to the counselor about any of this, and she shook her head no, and he asked her if she had talked to her mother. Again, no.
What about your friends?
She shook her head. There’s no one I can talk to.
Do you write about it? Do you have a diary? A journal?
Yes. But I don’t get very far.
Well, keep trying. Keep writing. It will help.
He glanced at the clock. Lunch was nearly over. She saw him and looked too.
I better go.
Sarah. You can come back anytime, and sit with me here. We’ll keep the door open, and you won’t have to say anything if you don’t want to. Or I can help you with your essays, or anything.
Thank you. I better go.
She gathered her things and left.
After school, he spoke to the counselor about her. And from that time on he was especially kind and gentle with her whenever he noticed her in class, became aware of her, but often he was not aware of her. He had so many students, and every class was so planned and goal-driven. Most of the time — the vast majority of the time — he just lost sight of her, and she was right there in his class. His second period class.
The year ended. She never came to see him again.
Brad Shurmantine lives in Napa, CA. He spends time writing, reading, tending three gardens (sand, water, vegetable), keeping bees, learning to play the piano, taking care of chickens, ducks, and cats, and trying to be a good companion for his wife. He backpacks in the Sierras and travels when he can, and has a serious passion for George Eliot.