I really wanted some time alone to think about what had just happened, but public high schools didn’t take into consideration a kid’s need for a break now and then. I could have just ducked out, hit the woods, and disappeared the rest of the day, but I really wanted to get a good start in this place. That wasn’t anything new — I actually always tried to get a good start in new schools. But it was kind of hard to, the way everybody always slapped a reputation on me before I’d even opened my mouth. Then something would happen, and I’d be off again anyway.

So I found my English class — English for Dummies — downstairs in a wicked-hot room with the sun beating in through big windows that weren’t open. I could tell in an instant that the teacher, a big, heavy man with dark eyes that looked oddly sunken into his face, was one of those who had his head in the clouds because he was too distracted to pull the curtains over the glass to block the sun that was trying to incinerate us. Instead, he was walking around fanning himself with a limp piece of paper that turned out to be a note from the office telling him there was a new kid in his class. Me. He looked at me, then checked the paper again like it might have changed its mind and I didn’t really exist. Since I was still standing there when he looked back, he sighed like one more set of papers to mark an F on was really what he was looking forward to and pointed to a desk right in the front.

I took it and figured out why all the desks in the front were empty. The guy had apparently never heard of deodorant. I’d hardly gotten my butt in the desk when I hopped back up and said, “Sir, can I give those windows a crack, please?” It was either that or they were going to have to scrape me up off the floor in five minutes. I’d always been sensitive to smells.

He looked at me in horror, and I regretted my choice of phrase. “I just mean open them,” I said as nicely as I could. “Not smash them.”

The guy gave a weak nod, so I crossed the room, trying not to roll my eyes. Like I’d have really asked permission first if I’d been going to break them. And why would he think that I’d want to — I broke off the thought. I had “danger” written all over me. When people saw my scar, they immediately thought “knife fight.” Couldn’t just one person ever think “hit by a motorboat at age five?”

I gently opened the windows and pulled the shades. Already feeling like it was twenty degrees cooler, I headed back to my seat. The smell had improved a little, too. A couple kids gave me a thumbs up, which was nice, and the rest looked like they were already falling asleep in preparation for the class.

As I was in the act of sitting, the teacher said, “Why don’t you introduce yourself, while you’re up?”

I paused halfway down. “Hi, I’m Gareth,” I said as fast as I could and twisted the rest of the way into my seat.

“Welcome to eleventh grade English,” the man said. “I’m Mr. Ash.”

What the hell was this, Botanical Town? If I had an Oak or a Crocus tomorrow, I’d flip. “Hi,” I said.

Mr. Tree handed me a book. Well, what do you know. It wasn’t some Let’s Make Words Together! It was a real anthology of American Literature. I flipped through it reverently, seeing works by the masters, and some I’d never heard of. This book was a keeper, too.

The guy got class rolling finally. I didn’t say anything — I hardly ever did, and certainly not the first day at a new school. Since so many of my days were first days at new schools, that might be why. I’d long since given up being nervous. And in terms of making friends — forget it. The kids who wanted to hang out with me weren’t kids I wanted anything to do with, and I never got a chance to get to know anybody else. Way easier to be on my own.

It seemed Walt Whitman was on the menu today. I opened my book and followed along as Mr. Ass — Ash — droned through one Civil War poem after the next. Unfortunately, he was as boring as a windmill with no sails. Soon every other kid was asleep or busy texting, but Ashburger didn’t seem to care.

As he pontificated, I tried not to cry. Seriously. Poetry always got to me. It made me remember way back, back before the aluminum canoe and OxyContin, when my mother would hold me on her lap and read nursery rhymes in her old rocking chair that she said had been her grandmother’s.

I sometimes wondered how she could have kept and treasured the stupid old chair so long, and yet ditched her son. When thoughts like that got to me — usually at night — I’d sense him. I’d feel those strong, warm arms around me, offering me the help I’d needed as a child, and still needed now, in different ways.

Swiftly, I banished those thoughts. They were for darkness and privacy, not for the middle of a hot, smelly classroom. I knew better than to let memories run here, or else I’d be heading for the bathroom in a hurry until I could get under control again. Besides, there was something too wonderful about my blue-green-eyed friend to sully his presence here, in this mundane place. He was too good for my world.

And Walt Whitman always got to me. All those dying soldiers. If the reader took Whitman’s sexuality into account, the poems were even more powerful. Some of the men dying in his arms had probably been his lovers when they’d been whole and healthy, not shot to pieces by a war that had nothing to do with them. I could so relate to men who lived lives that had nothing to do with who they were inside. My favorite Whitman poem, “When I Heard at the Close of the Day,” about a man spending the night on a beach with a man who loved him, wasn’t in the textbook, of course. I wondered if Mr. Ashworthless even knew the truth about what he was teaching.

Someday, I thought, I’d be a teacher and teach it right. I wouldn’t assume that just because a kid had a scarred face that he had a scarred soul. And I’d fricking wear deodorant!

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