The Collective

March 20, 2009
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“Hey, Ben,” said Al. They were casual friends, or Ben was the closest thing around him to a casual friend he could be. “I haven’t studied for this test at all. I woke up at like 2 o’clock last night and I just remembered it then.”

“Yeah,” Ben laughed a little nervously. “I don’t usually study, but for some reason I always do fine.”

“So what do you say? What do you say to, you know helping a friend in need?” said Al. Immediately Ben’s mind swirled, a great clash between different sources of knowledge. On the one hand he knew that at some point the fact that cheating was wrong had been imprinted on his mind, and he had sworn silently to himself that he would never do something that he had been taught was done only by immoral, bad people. But on the other hand he wanted, needed, the acceptance of his friend. “I can’t help you out,” muttered Ben. Al looked amused yet shocked. “Ha, of course you would never…” he said. Ben recanted. “No, no, it’s fine, just this once, and then, uh…hopefully you’ll pass this semester?” Al said nothing but smirked.

Then the time of the test came around and Ben finished early, copied his answers on a sheet of paper, folded it up and nudged it, oh, so sneakily, across the crack between the pushed-against desks in the class toward that of his conspirator. The work was given and received, just as the head of their classroom passed by walking straight and rigid as a steel rod and carrying water for her olive tree. She stopped mid-step and felt cool disappointment on behalf of her students. It was nothing she could reasonably have expected from Ben. She beckoned toward him. “Meet me after class, you two,” she said.

“I…I am so sorry, Ms. Oculos,” said Ben, stammering, holding the crumpled up test close to his chest, kneading his hands as he did so. “I had no idea, you know, didn’t know how something like that could hurt a person. How hard work—hard work is good. And…I think I understand.” He licked his lips, which were excruciatingly dry, and looked up at his teacher as would a puppy which knows it has done something wrong but doesn’t know why, and is searching for the correct answer. Its master knows it has done wrong, and so does the puppy, and though Ben felt ashamed, he had no real reason to be. Ms. Oculos looked up with soft, steady eyes. “Of course, we’ll need to notify your parents, but I am sure they will be lenient, disappointed, but lenient. Yes.” And that was his own fault, or perhaps it was the fault of others, that they were always so honest about what they wanted and what they were afraid of--parents’ punishments or sidelong glances at school. Ben’s situation was a tad more complicated. He flashed back in time, a thousand years ago it seemed.

He remembered his uncle. He was standing on the porch of his house, searching into the fiery red distance as the sun dropped slowly through trees and houses, as his own heart sank in time to the pounding lowing beat of nature. To the shared moment between them at that exact second. When his uncle had said to him, “One day, Ben, you might just fly above these fields and call the sky your home. You have a knack for flying, my boy,” and Ben had gazed uncertainly toward the blue-tinted clouds, torn between his heart and the wish of another.

“Oh, Ben,” she said, sighing. “It’s your own loss. Always has been. Always will be. Now hurry up before you’re late to your next class. And Ben—Ben, stand up for yourself a little.” Ben hurried outside, his eyes burning.

For some reason he wanted to get his teacher back, despite all her patient understanding. He wanted to get her back for knowing exactly what was wrong with him and why. For seeing the one huge, gaping black gash in his chest, that one thing. What was it? Well, he thought, she saw something, whatever it was.

Slowly, he let himself walk a little slower, and felt his lungs quaver less inside their cage. He took out the crumpled-up sheet, faded and smudged from tears and hands. He saw finally that the paper was dirty from time’s caresses. He formed it into a ball, tossed it into a trash-can, and moved on down the hall.

Ben spent the rest of the walk down the hall with his mouth dropped wide open. It was as though he had been struck with a metal hammer, and he was now singing and vibrating from its impact. He could barely process any thought beyond the repetition of his teacher’s single phrase. “Stand up for yourself,” thought Ben. Again he felt the blazing red color rise to his cheeks. He was hot-blooded and he got angrier with every shade of red he saw, as a bull about to charge. “Stand up for yourself? Well, that’s right—I’ll show her how she likes that,” he muttered. He resolved to do something about this problem—that someone so distant and removed from him knew something that he himself found hard to understand. But what, if anything, is there to be done when the only source of anger comes from inside our own mind? What if we are angry with ourselves?

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