The kid was a loser, all right.
I saw it the first time he walked into my classroom. Too pale, too scrawny. Hair like a new recruit, glasses like an old guy. Clothes like he raided a fundamentalist compound.
You, I thought. You are the antelope that gets eaten.
Jimmy Cooke wasn’t poor, he wasn’t neglected and he didn’t have any type of condition. No, Jimmy Cooke was normal, for all intents and purposes, except for one thing.
He just didn’t get it.
I’d been teaching high school English for about five years, ever since I finished college, and I’d seen kids like him before. Kids who just didn’t seem to fit anywhere.
“Hey, guys!” I’d heard Jimmy say in my class, leaning across the aisle toward two boys on the soccer team: “Know what? I read that the astronauts of Apollo 11 had to go through customs when they returned from the moon. Isn’t that weird?”
I’d seen him waylay his crush in the hall, this quiet girl Natalie who played clarinet in the band: “So Natalie, my lizard Albie? He’s molting now.”
He was trying to make connections, he really was.
No one picked on him. This was a private school in New England, a progressive institution attended by progressive kids. They were well versed in diversity and inclusion, tolerance and acceptance. The kids weren’t nice — they were teenagers, after all — but they weren’t bullies.
It bothered me, though. It bothered me that Jimmy wasn’t getting what he wanted.
“Let it go, Nick,” said Art, the graying, sixtyish calculus teacher and my faculty mentor. We ate together in the lounge almost every day, Art wolfing an egg salad sandwich and me scrounging what I could from the vending machine. “Your job is to give everyone a set of oars so they can figure out how to row their own boats.”
I valued Art’s advice — he’d been a good mentor to me, somebody who’d advised me on everything from mid-term grade calculation to classroom-appropriate attire. But I didn’t accept his hands-off take on the Jimmy situation. Red-blooded American individualism — intentional or not — wasn’t working for Jimmy; he stood too much to lose by not learning to assimilate.
So I asked Emma, the speech teacher and the faculty member closest to my age, for a second opinion.
“It’s sweet you want to help him,” Emma said. She fingered a paper clip while we talked, her behind her desk, me with one leg on the edge of it. “I mean, aren’t we here to educate? Maybe our job doesn’t stop at the academic level.”
That was it, the moment I decided to take action. The moment that I decided that I’d give Jimmy Cooke the high school experience he was looking for.
The next day, during class discussion on The Crucible, I asked Jimmy to read the part of John Proctor, the play’s protagonist. He started out strong in the character, with good volume and enthusiasm, but inevitably, it happened: his voice cracked.
I cut in. “Has your voice changed yet, Jimmy?” I said, smirking. This was my first volley, my first shot over the bow.
A few boys snorted, one guffawed.
Jimmy, for his part, didn’t seem phased by my comment or by the laughter. He just smiled and pounded himself on the chest, saying: “Got a frog in here.”
I was phased by his reaction. I’d wanted him to fire back, zing me with a rejoinder like, “Eat me, Grampa.” I’d wanted him to say something that would sway the class to his side, something that would allow him to take his place among his peers.
He continued reading, and when his voice misfired next, I doubled down: “Still singing soprano, I see.”
Outright laughter this time, from most of the class. Jimmy responded by trilling a few notes like an opera star warming up: “Me me me ME me me me!”
This wasn’t going as I planned.
I didn’t wait for his voice to break a third time, I just interrupted him after a couple of sentences, saying: “Okay, it’s a girl’s part for you, Jimmy.”
Whooping, banging on desks, paper throwing. Someone yelled, “Suh-nap, Mr. Martin!”
Jimmy got up and curtsied.
I’d been so sure that, given a chance, Jimmy Cooke would row himself to shore. Instead, he’d stilled his oars, let the waves take his boat.
Adrift on his own current.
Kira Plummer is the author of many things, most of which have never seen the light of day. She has managed to publish a story or two online, as well as some articles in newspapers and trade journals, however. When she’s not fielding rejection letters, she enjoys her work in corporate communications for a defense contractor and time with her wonderful husband, amazing son, and network of supportive family and friends in northern Virginia.