I have a favor to ask of you.
This summer, I took a class at Stanford University on memoir writing. To be honest, while I love writing classes, which force you to produce, work your discipline muscles, and offer you the chance for quality feedback from friendly people, I wasn’t sure that I would ever want to write a memoir of my own. Well, I met an incredibly generous group of writers and had a teacher (poet Caroline Goodwin) who was warm and encouraging to all of us, and I managed to produce a memory of something that happened to me as a teacher a while back. And I realized that I probably don’t have a memoir inside me – at least not in the traditional sense. But an idea started to formulate: a series of memories like this one which, taken together, form a vague sense of some of the highlights (and in this case, a sort of “low”light) of my career. If I could create a dozen or so of these, I could self-publish them and blackma- . . . er, force . . . no, . . . . . . request everyone I know to buy it. The money I make from it would be put in a vast, secret account in the Cayman Islands to avoid the huge tax . . . . OR it would allow me to see a bargain matinee movie every Saturday for the rest of . . . the month.
I know most of you probably check this spot out occasionally because, like me, you love a good mystery. And what I offer here is not a mystery in any sense (except maybe in the question of my motivation during certain embarrassing moments.) But if you are willing, I would very much appreciate you reading this and offering me any feedback you like. And if this particularly speaks to you – or if you are offended by this – and would rather offer me private feedback, let me know and together we can figure out how to make that happen.
This is the story of a mistake I made. I’ve made a lot of them, but if I do collect a bunch of these and put them together, I won’t just focus on the lowlights. I didn’t bother to illustrate this. The names have been changed to protect the innocent (and some not-so-innocent). My name is not changed.
THE GUM GIRL
I knew I was going to have trouble with Maya the moment I met her. It wasn’t that at sixteen she was already hard around the eyes, with a half smile that bordered on a sneer. It wasn’t her provocative skirting of the dress code, a signal that she was in a rush to leave childhood behind her. It was the gum.
Some wise counselor had determined that a drama class was just what Maya needed to get her out of her shell. Maya wasn’t in a shell: she was in armor, ready to do battle against anyone who threatened her sovereignty, and Bazooka Joe was her weapon. Almost immediately, we were engaged in an all-out war based on her sovereign right to chew.
Gum prohibition is one of the most logical rules in an acting class. The general aim of class rules is to create as few of them as possible. Mine were brief and straight-forward: Strive for good attendance and mutual respect. Leave the telephone in the backpack. Refrain from food or drink in the theatre. And no gum! Gum has a way of finding itself pressed under theatre seats or ground into the stage floor, and it hampers a child’s already limited ability to enunciate.
“Spit out the gum, Maya” became my daily watch cry. The pinkish blob would land in the wastebasket, to be replaced within minutes with a fresh stick. This is what rebellion looks like in high school.
I tried all my disciplinary tricks on Maya, to no avail. I tried respect, taking her aside in private to remind her of my rules. I tried practicality, following her around with a trashcan. I tried sarcasm, mimicking her bovine appearance, matching her chew for chew. My efforts were met with that hard gaze, that silent smirk, that half-open mouth exposing the glistening mess that dangled off her evil pink tongue.
I didn’t want to involve the administration in this matter. In the scheme of things, a gum scofflaw pales in comparison to students who are homeless, who deal with family pressures by cutting themselves, who assault each other out of boredom. I knew Maya was bored in my class. She took an adversarial stance to every game and project. Her unwillingness to play with the other students earned her their enmity. In this room, ironically, I was probably the best friend Maya had. Occasionally, I would order her to take the stage for an improvisation, just to stir the pot, try to get her involved. She would glare, rise glacially from her seat, hit her mark upon the stage and give her scene partner nothing to work with.
And always – always: “Spit out the gum, Maya!”
Perhaps if I had taken the Dean’s office into my confidence, if I had steeled my feelings for this angry girl and her trivial transgressions, matters would have ended differently. But in her sulky way, Maya was simply another in the long line of bullies who had attacked me since junior high. She was like Jack MacDonald, who every day took my lunch money in a public ritual that involved an exchange of fists and fear. (His fists, my fear.) She was David Baumann, who had singled me out as “a dirty Jew” and contrived to torture me with his own version of the Final Solution.
I know, this was only gum, for God’s sake. I’d had students over the past fifteen years of teaching who let me know in no uncertain terms through word and deed that they weren’t buying what I was selling. The tall punk at my first teaching assignment who reveled in racist epithets, who called me names and tried to rally his “troops” against me! The incipient alcoholic who snuck Jell-O shots to his buddies! Why was it different with this little girl? Why was it so important that I exert my will over her silent defiance? At one point, I pled with her to consider transferring out of the class. She had tried, it turned out, but her counselor had informed her that no student could drop an elective at this time. We were both stuck, Maya and I, but we were too mad at each other to find common ground.
One afternoon, as the students finished their rehearsal for an upcoming midterm project, I caught sight of Maya standing apart from her scene partner, gazing into space, her jaws working with the precision of a piston engine. I took a deep breath, walked over to her, and held out my hand.
She turned in half slow motion and regarded me with casual disinterest.
“Spit out the gum.” I said.
Her eyebrow rose in half-surprise, her curiosity stirred. I couldn’t reach the girl with improvisations or exercises to inspire her imagination and creativity. Drama fun was anathema to her. But this was something new.
“Here,” I said, nudging my open palm before her. “Spit out the gum.”
Maya looked down at my palm, looked up at me, shrugged and spit the gum into my hand. I smiled, took it between my fingers, and pressed it against her forehead.
The gum didn’t stick – it fell like a smashed bullet to the floor. A few students nearby let out a shocked guffaw, and then the bell rang. Everyone filed out of the theatre. Maya, after a moment of confused hesitation, followed them. Then I grabbed a tissue out of my office, walked back to the stage, picked up the gum, wrapped it tightly in the Kleenex, and dropped it in the wastebasket. Any sense of pleasure or triumph at this act was fleeting, to be replaced by a rush of shame. I had not vanquished the bully. I had become the bully.
* * * * *
I immediately reported the incident to the administration. Ellen, the principal, offered a snort of sardonic laughter.
“Brad, Brad, Brad . . . what did you do?”
Still, she was sympathetic. Maya, it turned out, had cut quite a swath over the past two years with faculty and students alike. Sullen defiance was the tip of the iceberg. Fights had broken out between her and other girls in the middle of class, some of them violent. Her record was jammed with truancy reports and teacher complaints. Maya, it seemed, was resistant to being taught or tamed.
All I wanted to do was make the guilt go away. I offered to apologize to Maya and make things right. Thus I found myself, like many a bad boy before me, in the principal’s office after school, facing Maya and her family. This consisted of her mother, a tiny, wizened woman who spoke only Spanish and seemed as frightened as me, and Maya’s older brother, awash in black leather and gold chains, his good looks, like his sister’s, marred by a sneer.
“Maya,” I began, “my actions were wrong, and I would like to apologize.”
The mother focused her eyes on my lips, then leaned in to her daughter who translated my words. The mother seemed to relax then, nodding slightly to me in acknowledgement of my offer. But her son put up his hand and took over the meeting.
“Sure you would,” he snarled, “because you know what we have on you. We called the police. You’re going to end up in jail.”
This announcement had the effect of a punch in my gut. For six weeks, Maya had been an irritant to me, but our tussles, while unpleasant had mostly been fodder for funny stories in the lunchroom. Suddenly things had gotten serious. She was sic’ing the law on me. And while the last thing I wanted to do here was defend myself, but I couldn’t think how my infraction merited a police file. I felt the air rush out of the room as my imagination went into overdrive, tossing me into a cell with a sweaty, tattooed monster, who turned out to be David Baumann.
“I don’t think we need to go this far,” the principal soothed. “Mr. Friedman has acknowledged that he made a mistake and –
“I’m not doing this just for Maya,” her brother said. He sized me up and down like an exterminator regarding a cockroach. “We all know about him – “ He shoved a finger in my face. “He hits lots of people. He needs to be stopped.”
The first hint of outrage struck me then. I had been the wronged party, and one stupid act on my part had erased all of my righteousness. I was happy – eager, even – to take my medicine. But this accusation was an outright lie. Over the course of the past fifteen years, I had raised my voice in anger. I had inflicted many a withering sarcastic remark. Once I had grabbed a student’s hacky sack and flung it testily to the ground. But I had never lifted my hand to a student.
Ellen and I exchanged glances. I knew her well enough to see that, beneath her cool exterior, she was getting angry. But She wasn’t mad at me. She knew at once what was afoot. Somebody was trying to build a case. Somebody was hoping to sue.
“Mr. Friedman, we’re done here,” she said. “You’re welcome to leave. I’ll handle this.”
As I stood up to go, I caught sight of Maya’s mother, her eyes darting from her son to her daughter in confusion and sadness: confusion because the meeting had started out so well; sadness because this mother was apparently a veteran of many a skirmish like this one. I turned and faced Maya one last time.
“Maya, I am truly sorry.”
And I walked out the door.
* * * * *
The boy wasn’t bluffing: I was indeed brought up on assault charges. I turned to the teachers’ union, which provided me with legal representation. Thus, I found myself in the small, colorless office of an attorney who now sat on the corner of his desk, facing me like Perry Mason had faced a litany of quivering defendants for ten seasons. Like me, each and every one of those poor saps was innocent. But it didn’t mean I wasn’t in for a whole lot of suffering, most of it self-imposed.
Arthur, my attorney, was the physical antithesis of the urbane Raymond Burr who had played Mason: pudgy, with a rumpled suit and an unfortunate comb-over. But he plunged right in, with Mason-like confidence, to reassure me that everything would be all right.
“The last thing I want you to do is apologize,” he began.
“Too late,” I said. “I did it, and I’m sorry, and I told her so.”
Arthur smiled and shook his head. “That stops now. These people think they have you over a barrel, but the truth is, you didn’t do anything wrong.”
He waved his hand as I attempted to argue for the prosecution, lifted his heft off the desk and slid behind the computer on his desk. “I’m going to argue for you in court, and that jury will totally sympathize with you, I promise.”
“Look,” I countered, “I know I didn’t physically hurt Maya, but I touched her, and I embarrassed her and . . . honestly, Arthur, I feel rotten about it – “ He held a hand up, smiled reassuringly at me, then turned back to the computer and resumed typing. The light from the screen, reflecting the precedents and strategies he was combing through, cast a slightly satanic shadow on his face. His eyes lit up as he found something, and he pressed a button triumphantly. I jumped as from behind me came the whir of the copy machine.
“Mr. Friedman, you have to put aside the guilt right now. Here are two things you need to know. First, if it comes down to it, we have to go to trial. If you apologize or settle, you open yourself up to civil liability. You give these people power over you that you don’t want to give. And secondly, you have to believe me when I tell you that you didn’t do anything wrong.”
He crossed over to the copy machine and pulled out several sheets of paper. He showed me California statutes that gave me the right to not only lay hands on Maya but to inflict a much more stringent punishment than a mere wad of gum was capable of. Frankly, the truth of this sickened me. How had I gotten here? In my heart, I knew I had intended the gum on the forehead as a joke, a return to some 1940’s kindergarten class when Lumpy had to stand in the corner for chugging his grape juice and shooting it out of his nose. In my desperation, I had tried to get cute, and I became more wrong than Maya had been. And while it all seemed to childish for me to now be facing a criminal proceeding and the possible loss of my credential, this was exactly what I was about to do.
I knew my Perry Mason well. It was time to shut up, swallow my guilt, and let my lawyer do his job.
. * * * * *
Drama teachers, no surprise, think dramatically, and my fantasies were jammed with a dozen scenarios, all of them ready-made to be released as the latest legal thriller:
- the D.A. simply could not find an unbiased jury, as the defendant was much loved in the community;
- the accuser, dressed in black like a widow, was censured by the judge in the midst of her testimony for chewing gum in court;
- Maya, in tears, broke down and admitted everything was her fault, as her brother, dressed in black like a villain, slunk out of the courtroom;
- fully exonerated, the defendant left the courtroom to a standing ovation by the jury.
Of course, the actual denouement played out quite differently.
* * * * *
Weeks went by without a word from Arthur. Like an old injury that had flared up, the guilt inside me subsided to a dull ache. There was a show to direct. There were classes to be taught. Maya was no longer a part of my daily struggles: she had been quickly dropped from the class. The girl who hated drama had gotten her transfer, ironically, in the most dramatic of ways.
After about two months, I called my lawyer. I knew the mills of justice grind slowly, but to not hear anything held my life in a suspense that I could do without. The law firm’s receptionist put me on hold for several minutes and then returned to inform me that the district attorney had declined to press charges.
This was great news, but a small part of me felt a twinge of anger at being labeled a frivolous lawsuit. I had been preparing for my day in court for several months, and let’s face it – this nightmare was gearing up to be the role of a lifetime. I was more upset with my own attorney for neglecting to inform me of a decision that had apparently been made over a month ago.
But then I reckoned that this period had been my penance. This cloud of shame had given me time to reflect on my relationship with students like Maya: the disdainful, disaffected ones who every year get dumped in a class they had no desire to be in. We teachers earn the enmity of such children by our very passion for our subject. Maya didn’t need to be taught drama. She needed to be taught how to work with the boss you don’t like, to get the rotten job done satisfactorily.
Or maybe she didn’t. There’s a coda to this story.
Clearly Maya and I were never going to have one of those To Sir with Love moments that I longed for. I’ll confess that this movie shaped the way I see the job of a teacher. When Sidney Poitier lost his temper at the antics of the hooligans he had to face every day, it was a revelatory moment for him, one that guided him down a better, more successful path as an educator. It’s pure Hollywood hokum, and it always makes me tear up. Maya and I had never had a moment. Her feelings for me didn’t thaw into understanding and friendship. I would never be a mentor to her, deserving of a hit tune sung in my honor at the senior dance.
But I did see Maya one more time. One spring evening, I rushed into the local Jiffy Lube for a much overdue oil change. I guided my car over the rack, and an attendant appeared with a clipboard to take my car’s vitals. As I stepped out of my Toyota and handed the keys over, our eyes met.
“Hey, Maya,” I said.
“Hey, Mr. Friedman.” Her voice was cool and professional, louder and clearer than I could ever get her to be onstage. She was neatly, even conservatively dressed. I saw no sign of gum. True, she tried to sell me some extra services that my car didn’t need, but she was only doing what a good Jiffy Lube employee is supposed to do.
If I felt a little nervous as I waited for her to finish with my car, imagining all sorts of things she might slip into my oil gauge. I put that down to my propensity for the dramatic. My car came out just fine. Maya handed me back my keys and wished me a good evening. She had done her job just fine. I never saw her again.
True, we hadn’t had our Hollywood moment. But it was, in the most realistic sense, as happy an ending as I could have hoped for. My one brush with the law had petered out satisfactorily, and the girl I had despaired of was now a working professional. No thanks to me, perhaps.
But I can live with that.