"Odd" is not a useful definition when referring to adolescents. It's hard differentiating between a teenager with problems and one whose only problem is being a teenager. It's nearly impossible for an English teacher to know if a sulky withdrawal is a sign of depression that requires attention, or a fit of I-want-to-die grief because the team lost a game.
I'm supposed to develop language skills, not psychoanalyze students. Besides, I play a tiny role in their life and consciousness. A pie-chart of the teenaged brain reveals that fifty-four percent tracks the state of their hormones, twenty-one percent does play by-play analyses of their mercurial moods, ten percent is given over to calculations: what music they desperately need, what movies they'd die if they didn't see, and what items of clothing everybody else but they have; another eight percent debates how to fill time when school is out; four percent charts who did or didn't look at or speak to them in the manner they desired, two percent critiques the personal lives and wardrobes of their peers and anyone in People or Entertainment magazine. The remaining one percent of attention is divided between whatever academic subjects they like.
These proportions fluctuate under the pressures of momentous life events, such as attending a prom, being admitted to college or getting a zit. But by and large, this is the adolescent brain, and there is precious little place in it for either me or my course of study. I stand outside, arms waving like semaphores, trying to wedge my message into whatever space is left in there for rent. They hear nothing, and see only a rapidly aging pest with style-challenged hair (too long, too brown) boring clothing, a pathetic, I gather, sense of humor and a lovelife that annoys them because they don't understand the status quo. Neither do I, but I can live with that.
Working under those conditions gets old, and it doesn't allow much time or scope for meditations on the class population's mental health. That's how it always has been.
Until now, when it got worse. Kids today aren't what they used to be, which was predictably, but non-lethally, weird. Just as we'd relaxed, adjusted, listened to experts' explanations and accepted their peculiarities—they upped the ante. Headlines erupted with stories about teens who expressed their moodiness by blowing away their classmates, teachers and whatever else peeved them.
Lately, I found myself thinking about their teachers. Sympathizing with them. Wishing I could have talked to them—before their students killed them. Wondering if I was destined to be one of them.
Reflecting on those news stories in a school full of adjustment problems must be like living on an earthquake fault. You know the danger's there, but if you think about it too much, you'll go crazy which is just as fearful a prospect. All the same, if you're sane, you note seismic activity, stay aware of how extreme classroom tremors become.
Adam Evans registered a ten on my Richter scale. I hoped my machinery—not his—was malfunctioning, but I didn't think so.
Because of him, I feared that I'd overdosed on teenagers in general. But whether or not I had, Adam Evans was a puzzle I couldn't solve, and he'd been a worry the entire academic year. I never felt sure of myself when it came to him. Never could even determine to my satisfaction whether our problems were his or mine.
Now, eight months after Adam entered my class for his senior year, I was still in the dark. All I knew for cetain was that he was a royal pain. Philly Prep runs a high percentage of royal—and commoner—pains. They are, in fact, our specialty, appealing as we do to those (sufficiently affluent) youngsters who have a difficult time in larger, more standardized schools. Our mandate is to ignite a spark in the insufficiently fueled.
This was what I was trying to explain to my near and dear ones on a Sunday afternoon in late April. My sister Beth, her husband Sam and their two children were visiting en route to a party nearby. This was in no way a typical experience. Beth and Sam were the ultimate suburbanites. Sam rode the Paoli Local into the city each day to his law firm, but then he hurried back out to Gladwynne. And Beth behaved as if coming to the city were the equivalent of going on safari without a guide. So this visit was an event. We drank coffee and caught up on our lives.
I talked about teaching, my growing ambivalence. I talked about Adam. I wanted sympathy, I wanted compassion. Often, lately, I wanted out. "I'm afraid for him," I said. "He doesn't seem in complete control. The other day—I was sure he was going to hit someone. I had to physically restrain him. And then he freaked. Acted as if touching him was a crime." Beth looked aghast—her suspicions about people who lived inside the city limits were proving true. I shook my head. "I'm making it sound worse than it was. He stopped as soon as I touched his arm. He hates being touched. It's part of what's abnormal about him. Anyway, I didn't have to wrestle him down, he didn't hurt the other kid, but he did overreact to both that other boy, and then, to me. He's off center. I can't explain it, but I worry about what he might to do to somebody else—and I worry about what he might do to himself."
From atop a ladder, C. K. Mackenzie grunted, acknowledging that he was listening. Of course, he'd heard this before, so his real attention was on a painting he was hanging. My brother-in-law partnered in this endeavor, standing nearby, reading a J. Crew catalogue, ready to hand up a tool if needed. Male bonding. They didn't look at each other or communicate. They were both very happy.
I pulled Adam's paper out of the pile on the oak table. There were always papers needing marking. That, too, grew old. "Tell me this isn't peculiar. Quote: 'I will learn to harmonize with the song of my follicles.' End quote."
"You'll do what?" Mackenzie swivelled and endangered his perch. Sam dropped the J. Crew catalogue, and rushed to the rescue, grabbing the sides of the ladder, steadying it. The women made sounds of alarm, the men made sounds indicating they could take care of anything.
"Not me. Adam." I repeated the sentence. Mackenzie shook his head, as well he might. "I've asked for a conference with his parents," I said. "There are too many strange things like this about him lately. He should be evaluated, get some help before…I don't know what. He's off somewhere, can't concentrate, reacts bizarrely with inappropriate laughs or no emotion at all…" My words dribbled off because I had so little confidence in my own opinion. I had a strong sense that Adam was having mental and emotional problems, but he'd done reasonably well on his SAT exams, and that piece was such a bad fit with the rest of the puzzle, it worried me, made me think perhaps I was being too harsh on the boy.
"It must be difficult trying to teach writing," Sam said in his calm, ultra-sane manner.
"It's impossible." Writing logically requires thinking logically—and how can you teach that? But—speaking of logical thinking—how can you not try to? "So what's your take? Is that follicle thing as weird a concluding thought as I think it is?"
"It's, um, interesting. Really. I don't know about poetry, but I kind of liked it," Beth said.
"Imaginative," Sam said.
"Vivid," Mackenzie said. "Singing follicles would sound way better than a Walkman."
The children, in bright plastic smocks I'd surprised them with, continued playing with modeling clay, also an Aunt Mandy treat. They did not participate in the Adam Evens follicle debate.
Another reason to love being an aunt. I can be generous for very little outlay, endearing in short spurts, and incommunicado the rest of the time. And they didn't leave me with papers to grade.
"Really?" I asked. "Interesting? Imaginative? Vivid? That's what comes to mind?"
Maybe Adam was taking a creative leap in which case, even if I personally felt he fell flat, I should encourage him.
My sister glanced at her watch. "Let's clean up," she said. "The party's already begun."
"Why don't you go ahead?" Sam suggested. The kids and I will pick you up in an hour or so. I'll stay and help…"
They didn't know what to call my significant other. I called him C.K., but they were taken aback by his remaining a set of initials. "Call him Chico," I said.
"Wrong," Mackenzie said.
"I meant Czeslaw. I always mix those two up."
Beth meanwhile aimed peevish looks at her husband, who ignored them. She gave switched her attention to me. Earlier, she'd tried to sell me on this party-giver, one Emily Buttonwood, a soon to be divorced, newly relocated to center city friend of hers. She'd been adamant about how we just had to meet and become new best friends. I'd redirected the conversation to Adam, hoping it would convey an inkling of why my life was sufficiently congested and chaotic without becoming a city guide to one more bewildered former suburbanite. I'd done it twice so far for Beth, with time-consuming, dismal results.
"Reconsider, Mandy, and come with me," Beth said. "You'd just love each other. You have so much in common—she's a book lover, like you. In fact, she's so down on people, books are about all she loves these days—with a few exceptions. She needs people like you. Single, interesting people."
Flattering, but no cigar. A depressed, bitter, people-hating new friend. Precisely what I needed to round out my life. "I'd love to, of course," I lied. "But I have these papers to finish, a lesson to prepare, and…" Beth looked downcast. Then she brightened. "I nearly forgot. Emmy would be perfect for your women's book group. I told her about it, and she's really looking forward to it. Will you give her a call? Or should I give her your number?"
"They just voted to close membership. It was getting too large and unwieldy. No time for everybody to speak up." All true, but it nonetheless left me with the sense I'd failed Emmy Buttonwood in her hour of need, without ever having met her. Somehow, I now owed her. I wasn't sure how my sister had so effortlessly instilled guilt about negligence to a stranger, but she had the gift. She has inherited my mother's tenacious nagging skills. Both of them should have been CEOs of major industries. Instead, they apply their formidable powers to those who need to be brought into line. Preschoolers and me.
I wasn't eager to join forces with another of Beth's displaced friends. Not with anyone, in fact. I was already drowning in too-muchness, and my current fantasies were of silence and solitude. I wanted a Georgia O'Keefe life, as long as it didn't require artistic talent. Few possessions and fewer visitors to my plain white space. No teenagers. No sisters with dull, sad and needy friends.
"I'll try," I said. "I'll ask the group next time we meet." They'd be annoyed with me—they'd settled the issue last meeting. I could only hope Beth would quickly forget about her relocated friend. Out of sight and all that.
"What do you think of our expanded view?" Mackenzie asked. The wall now appeared to have a barn window, through which we saw a vista of fields and grazing cows, the latter suspended a few feet above the painted pasture. We city-dwellers living several stories above street level had found the floating bovoines funny. I, for one, was in great need of funny.
Also, the painting filled a whole lot of wall. Judged by price per square inch, it had been a bargain, as my mother would say were she not safely several states due south in Florida.
"I think it's straight," Sam said. I wasn't as sure.
Beth fussed with her children. "You realize that you're going to upset that boy's parents," she said.
"Adam's? About the conference?"
"I'd be. And if it's true, wouldn't they be the first to notice?"
At which point silent Sam surprised me by voicing an unsolicited opinion. "Be careful about your actions," he said. "It's hardly what a parent wants to hear, and given the fact that you have no psychological background, no credentials in that area—"
"I'd like them to have him evaluated. To get him help if he needs it. It isn't as if I'm accusing them of something, or libeling—"
"His parents might not see it the same way, is all I'm saying. Think twice."
We were all expected to listen to Sam's advice, which was always wise and always conservative, and for which he charged others big bucks, but he was annoying me. What had happened to the concept of being a decent human being? Love thy neighbor. Good Samaritanism.
"When should people intervene?" I asked. "At what point should somebody stick her neck out and try to help? Shouldn't we try to prevent things? Or should we wait for a TV crew to arrive so we can say, 'I noticed he was behaving oddly, but…' I'm mostly afraid for Adam. Do you know the statistics on teenage suicide?"
"Mandy!" Beth said, with a fearful glance at her children. "Sam, I think we should all go to Emily's."
I got the sense that Sam most definitely did not agree, but after hosing down the kids, many farewells, and a further warning from Sam about intervening in a child's personal life, they went off to their party.
Even with the ladder put away, Mackenzie fretted about his handiwork. "Not sure it's straight," he said. I pointed out that we lived in the oldest part of the city. In a former factory. The floors weren't straight and neither were the walls, and there probably wasn't a forty-five degree angle to be had, so how could one tell about a painting in the middle of a long, unstraight, wall?
"The appearance of straightness, then," he said.
Kin to the appearance of mental illness. "I don't care what Sam said," I told Mackenzie. "If I don't put up an alert about the boy, who will?" I was convincing myself because if my sister and brother in-law were correct, I was about to kick up a lot of hard feelings, and in truth, I still couldn't decide if Adam's essay contained brilliant imagery beyond my puny comprehension, or lunacy. Or whether I'd become such a grumpy, burned-out case that I was looking for trouble, scapegoating Adam Evans.
"Tell me about the kid." Mackenzie stared at the wall, tilting his head to the left, obviously still deliberating the painting's straightness or lack thereof.
And there you had the problem. I shouldn't need to tell him about Adam. I already had. Lots. He didn't listen. He divvied up his attention and deeded me almost as little conscious brain-space as my students did. Was he listening even now as he squinted and realigned himself and paced in front of the wall? Maybe my tales were too thin a gruel for Mackenzie's daily diet. To a homicide detective, my deviants from the norm must seem amusements.
But Mackenzie's deviations from the norm are either dead or in hiding. Mine are right in my face.
"He smells, for starters," I said. "Remember? I told you. I think he's stopped washing. Permanently. A few months back. Always wears black, so the dirt doesn't show all that much, but he is fragrant. Black everything, including a long scarf no matter the weather. His hair's greasy, and it's sometimes hard to be close to him." I hated how superficial, unsympathetic and narrow-minded I sounded, and I knew all the counter arguments. A seventeen year old boy is bound to assert himself, and anoying the hell out of his eldes is a prime method. If cleanliness was valued at home, then keeping dirty would work. If nobody objected to either long or short or completely shaved off hair, then how about stringy-greasy-smelly? I knew all that, but the sense of wrongness persisted. "He behaves…inappropriately. I can't define it."
"Not really. Not what you mean by that."
"Sometimes. But more like off-kilter."
"Did you ever think that maybe—this is difficult to suggest, but that this kid, for whatever reason, annoys the hell out of you, pushes buttons you aren't aware of, and that maybe you overreact to what wouldn't bother you about somebody else? Did you ever consider that you might be…. Oh, what's the technical word for the process—" He looked ceilingward, as if searching for inspiration. "Ah, yes, picking on him?"
How dare he? To suggest that I, a seasoned, semi-idealistic, underpaid, overworked teacher, champion of the underdog, was not playing fair? That I, despite all I knew and had learned and believed in was nonetheless prejudiced against one of my own students?
Of course I was. But it was still rude of him to suggest it. "I read an article, about the boy who killed those people at the clinic. He was an undiagnosed schizophrenic, and the way he acted for a long while before then—it sounded like Adam Evans. Isolated, withdrawn, unkempt…"
"Hey," Mackenzie said softly, finally turning his back to the painting and sitting down at the oak table, across from me and the stack of essays. "That describes half the world's population, including supermodels and kids on TV. The thing is, you're not equipped to diagnose—"
"I know that. I keep saying that. That's why I want somebody else to evaluate him. Somebody who does know how."
"Do his other teachers feel the same way?"
He had a blue-fire stare that reflected all the way to eternity, and at the moment, I did not enjoy being the subject of it. "Are you interrogating me?" I snapped. He looked surprised, confused and worried all in one blue blink. As well he might. I sounded less mentally stable than Adam Evans ever had. "Okay I'm sorry. He's been cutting a lot of classes and yes, he's considered a problem."
"What kind of problem? Academic, or as potentially dangerous a one as you…"He searched for a non-inflammatory word. I had made him uncomfortable, and now we were talking as if through a translator, to avoid further conflict. I felt ashamed, yet determined to not yield an inch. "—as you…fear?"
Good choice. "I don't know. I only know what I'm seeing. I talked to the counselor, but nobody else yet. I'm sure they're all worried—how could we not be? All those news stories about kids going nuts at school."
"Does he talk about causing harm, doing something stupid, killing people the way those kids are said to have?"
I shook my head.
"Singing hair follicles aren't the scariest image I can think of." Mackenzie's expression was kind, sympathetic, and…pitying?
I knew what he was seeing—a biddy, a schoolmarm straight out of mean-spirited cartoons, and the classrooms of his youth. The teacher who'd decided he was trash and treated him like an interloper because the Mackenzie family was large and forced to make do and he wore patched hand-me-downs.
I'd become an evil stereotype. Somewhere between Winter break and early spring, under the pressure and trivia of the daily teaching load plus the additional reams of college recommendation letters I'd agreed to write for students who didn't deserve admission to the schools I was writing—somewhere in there I'd lost my elasticity, my ability to empathize with the thousand variations on the theme of teen weirdness, my perspective. And the headlines about killer-teens hadn't helped.
"Singing follicles would be like wiring implanted under your scalp. Great audio," he said.
I checked to see if he was joking, but he meant it. Given his line of work, you'd think he'd be the one to despair of humanity but he'd found a balance I sorely lacked.
"If he turns out to be an eccentric genius, he'd better come up with a discovery or piece of art worth the stench." Even his handwriting annoyed me, running off the lines, changing direction, turning corners and managing to make even ball point ink splot. "I've spoken with Rachel Leary—"
He looked confused. He never, ever, truly listened. "The school counselor," I reminded him. "She's also meeting with Adam's parents."
"Then she agrees with you?"
"She doesn't have him in class. She knows his grades are down, that he's cutting. She knows that kind of thing."
"But you said he did well on his SAT's."
"Way better than I would have thought. He's smart. I know that—I never knew why he was at Philly Prep. But lately, something's gone wrong. He can't concentrate lots of the time."
"For your sake, let Rachel bring up the topic of mental illness, with a professional reason backing up what she says."
"They live with him, they have to have noticed—" I saw it in my beloved's eyes. I was a zealot, a lunatic insisting on saving a world that had not put in an SOS.
"The painting's crooked," I said. "It lists to the left." On that issue, Mackenzie took me seriously. As soon as his blue-ice eyes were refocused on the landscape, I locked on my teacherly mask and returned to Adam's essay. But a shudder raced over my skin, a skittering creature terrified by where it was and where it was heading.
© Gillian Roberts.