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He was only five years old when I first saw him. Thinking it would be the last time, I dismissed him with a smile. He ended up in my class, though, two years later. He was a charming little boy, and I grew to love him. I would see him over the years as he grew, going to third, fourth, and fifth grade. When he graduated elementary school, I thought I wouldn’t see him again, but I did. My husband got a job near the Middle School that he was going to, and we moved. I taught him in sixth grade.
Seeing me again, the boy greeted me with a nod. I thought he was just trying to be cool among his friends, but he grew more and more distant as the years went by. I didn’t realize it, but he was just growing up. Still, I did my best to reach out to him. Some days, I saw him, though it was hidden in a smile or a twinkle in his eyes. I saw Tommy Keyes when this happened, the boy that I had known all his life.
Tom Keyes watched the boys laugh at him. “Everyone in eighth grade has a girlfriend,” his friends said. “Everyone wants a girlfriend.” Some of the boys in seventh grade already had girlfriends. Tommy was the only one in his group of friends who didn't. It wasn’t that Tommy didn’t like someone. He did; her name was Macy Starr. She was pretty and popular, and for some reason, free. He was always shy around her. In seventh grade, Tom drifted farther and farther away. His friends left him for football and basketball, and Macy got a boyfriend. He was so troubled that his grades began to go down. Once an A average drifted to a D average. I was probably the only one who knew why, and I found that I was the only one who could help him. Not all kids respect and appreciate their teachers, but this was what it had been like in fifth grade with Tommy. He was always a nice boy.
I waited. I needed the perfect opportunity, not to have a talk, but to let him know that someone cared. Meanwhile, Tommy stopped acknowledging his friends in the hall. I knew that it wouldn't be long until he had no friends. I had to do something, fast.
I wasn't clueless. I knew who was popular, who was not, and who was considered, "normal". For a while, in the beginning of sixth grade, Tommy was popular. Alongside him was his best friend, Collin. Collin had a sure position in power- he was the guy that everyone liked. By eighth, Tommy was clinging to normal, and Collin was still on top. He "had" Macy, who was also on top. His friends were jealous of him, but never voiced it. Being friends with Collin was an honor.
I decided to appeal to Collin. He was a laid back kind of guy, keeping a "C" average only to stay on the football team. I stopped him in class one day. It was English, my favorite subject, which was probably why I taught it.
"Collin, let's talk." Collin stopped dead, then turned to me.
"I swear, I didn't do it. It was Mark. I mean, maybe I told him it would be cool if he stole the sculpture for his eigth grade prank, but it wasn't me..." I smiled at him, shaking my head.
"You're not in trouble, Collin. Sit down." He sat.
"I do have a C average, you know. You don't have to call my parents..." I sighed and shook my head. He quieted down.
"Who's your best friend, Collin?" He shrugged.
"I mean, I have a couple. Mark's cool, I mean, except for that prank. Maybe Chris..."
"But do you have one guy? Maybe one who you wouldn't turn in, if he did some kind of prank?" Collin looked sheepish.
"Er... no, I guess not."
"No one? How about seventh grade?" He thought for a minute.
"I guess not... I mean, I've always had my crew..."
"Have you ever had a best friend?"
"If you're hinting at something, Ms. Nelson..."
"Nothing at all, Collin. Just curious."
"All right. You know, that kid, Tommy Keyes? Yeah, the quiet one in your class. Well, he was popular in sixth grade. I guess we were best friends." I was quiet, raising my eyes at him. "Oh! Yeah, I thought you were hinting at something! I heard about his problems. I can't help you. Besides, I don't have the time." The guy was smart.
"Would you rather we talked about your grades? Or maybe we could discuss that statue." He shrugged, and sighed.
"My lunch is yours. You want to know about Tommy? Fine."
The kid had to escape for his class after lunch.
His parting words were, "listen, Ms. N, I'd love to keep talking about this los- old friend, but I gotta get to math- unless you want to get me out of it, which totally works for me."
I waved him off, making notes in my head. I had an idea. I just needed to talk to Tommy's other teachers.
On Thursday I gave the class a page of extra credit. Intentionally, I made it wrong. I knew that the brains would try over and over until they got an answer that could work for them. The slackers and strugglers would probably get a wrong answer, thinking that they were right. I knew one kid, however, who wouldn't do it. The next Friday I told the class.
"The extra credit didn't work quite right. It was wrong, impossible, actually, so anyone who didn't do it was correct." The brains groaned. Everyone else stayed still. Tommy froze, and then looked up. I nodded at him, all bussiness-like, when I wanted to smile. This would happen in the rest of his classes.
After school Tommy came into my classroom. I ignored him, setting up papers. He cleared his throat. I smiled.
"Hello, Thomas." I didn't turn around. He coughed, and I stopped. Putting down my papers, I drew another chair up to my desk, then sat down in my own. He came over and sat down. Then he took his homework out. I started to grade papers, and he did his homework. When I finished, I pushed my chair back and stood up. Tommy did the same thing. Putting his stuff away, he left the room. I grinned.
Years ago, in third grade, little Tommy Keyes had knocked on my classroom door at the beginning of third grade, second day. His mom was way late, and he wanted help with the homework, which was a math addition page. Instead of asking me anything, however, he was super shy and sat down on a chair next to my desk. I continued to work. Soon, he scooted the chair over, and began to work as well. It turned out that he was a natural at working quietly. We never talked during these sessions, while we teased each other and puzzled over problems during the day. He did the same thing faithfully, every day, until the end of each grade. The first time that we really talked, however, was at the end of fifth grade.
"We're moving tomorrow, to the western part of Chicago, Ms. Nelson." I looked up at him.
"I know, Tommy. I know."
"I'll miss you, I guess. And I'll miss the east. Wonder what I'll do after school?" I smiled up at him. We talked for the rest of the time about his schoolwork, his social life, and his friends. He told me that he wasn't moving too far away, and his best friend Collin would be going to the same school. He also said that he couldn't wait for middle school. I would miss this little kid.
He'd stopped in sixth. I knew that he had to be happy that I was back, but he didn't act like it. I knew how this would lead, if I played my cards right. We would talk when he felt like it.
The semester ended. Report cards went home. I knew that I would start getting calls from angry parents- it was their nature. The day that report cards were supposed to arrive, Tommy came into my class again. He sat down, then looked up.
"I'm afraid to go home."
"You may be surprised."
"Not with more than half the semester gone."
"Why, exactly, was it thrown away like that?" He paused for a second.
"Who needs school?"
"Seriously, though. School is just full of a bunch of boring work, dumb football players, and unattainable girls."
"You're usually the one cracking jokes, Tommy. Are you okay?" He looked up, changing the subject.
"I'm sorry I ignored you for three years, but it's not exactly cool to hang with teachers."
"Cool? What is cool? Football?"
"Football may be dumb, but it's still cool."
"Are you planning to play a sport this semester?"
"Not baseball, either." He looked defiant. I smiled.
"You played soccer in fifth grade. I thought you loved it."
"Soccer isn't cool. It's a girly sport."
"Football's a girly sport. Soccer's manly." He laughed, then got up.
"I guess I'll go, Ms. Nelson. See you next week, if I survive." He left the room. I nodded to myself, murmuring. He would survive. I wasn't done with that kid.
A couple days later I found Collin again. Smiling at him, I motioned to my room and led him there. He flopped down in the chair immediately.
"My friends are going to think that I'm a teacher's pet." I nodded, shuffled some papers, then handed one to him. He read it out loud. "Join your school's soccer team. We need players. No try-out or prior experience required. Students will need a "B" average to stay on." He looked up at me. "Why are you showing me this?"
"I think that you have potential. Plus, I'm handing you a chance to raise your grades without looking like a teacher's pet."
"If I could raise my grades, I would."
"Then why aren't you?"
"Because I can't! I keep it at a C, I get to stay on the football team. That's my sport, not soccer."
"Wasn't basketball your sport last year?"
"And the year before? Sixth grade? Wasn't it baseball?" He was quiet. I sighed. "Why do you feel I'm doing this Collin? Do you think I just want to torture you?" He sat for a second, pouting.
"You sound like my mom." I waited. "Soccer's not cool. I can't change that. And Tommy's not cool either, so don't ask me to, like, 'take him under my wing.'" I sat still for a second, musing. He looked embarrassed.
"What is cool?" He didn't say anything. I stood up, handing him the flier. "You'd better go if you're going to catch your bus."
Two days later, Monday, Tommy stopped coming, but my spirits didn't go down. He was probably just afraid of a lecture. The other teachers were talking about me, and one day the principal approached, inviting me into her office.
"I have suggested that you meet with Tommy's mother in a more... personal parent/teacher conference." I nodded.
"That sounds like a good idea. When would she come?"
"She's willing to come after school today. She's willing to do a lot to make Tommy feel better and his grades get better, so make sure to let her know what she needs to do." I thanked her, backing out of the office, then hurrying to my classroom. I had papers to grade before the next class, and I had to ready what I would say to Mrs. Keyes.
"Are there any problems at home that you've noticed?" Mrs. Keyes was sitting across form me as I questioned her, looking serious. She was still in her business suit.
"Not that I can think of. My marriage is going well, and we have a good environment for him."
"Are there any competitive siblings? Maybe some that set too high of an example for Tommy?"
"No, Tommy is an only child."
"Do you work a lot?" She was silent for a moment.
"Yes. I do work quite a bit. Do you think this is affecting Tommy's grades?" I paused. It was best to let a parent know about a problem, but not offend them. I took the latter.
"I don't think so. Why don't I work on something, and get back to you?" She nodded, and got up.
"I have to get to a meeting. Thank you for your time." I sat still for a second, thinking. I knew what I needed to do. Taking out my copy of Collin's report card, a frowned down at it.
Study Hall- B
Algebra- good student, but doesn't turn homework in on time.
French- never studies, does bare minimum.
Study Hall- goofs off with friends, should not put them together.
History- could care less, but does the work.
Science- turn in homework!
PE- great athlete, stellar performance, but the sportsmanship could use a little more work.
I hadn't been able to come up with a comment, leaving it blank. I knew it was time to get Tommy and Collin together.
Fifteen hours later we were arguing.
"Ms. Nelson, I like you and all, but to see you after school?"
"I wouldn't tutor you, Collin."
"Some nerd, then? Or a TA. I'd rather not."
"Collin, you have no choice. I've already called your mother, and she's agreed. It's the only way to save your grade. You were one plus away from a failing grade." He sat for a second, musing.
"Is this some plan of yours?"
"Yes. Perhaps. Hopefully. I just think this will work, for both you and your tutor." He looked up.
"Who is my tutor?"
They both protested. Collin said he couldn't be seen with a "normal", not to mention a "normal" verging on "loser." Tommy told me that Collin was the ultimate picture of dumb football jerk, and he avoided him for that reason. I told them both that they would have to change that, and deal with it. Soon, Tommy was tutoring Collin in every one of his classes, except for French. I told Collin that I wouldn't get him a tutor there if he kept his grades up. They both gave me dirty looks. I just smiled. This would have to work, and some people would have to bend over backwards for it to work.
They reported to me after the first session, as instructed. They were arguing up a storm.
"The kid doesn't listen in 'class'!" Tommy said.
"When have you listened? You don't even turn in your homework! At least mine is in, if late!"
"It's always wrong!"
"How would you know?"
"Both of you be quiet!" The boys fell silent. I sighed, then went on. "This is for both of you. Would you rather I make you take specialized classes, which give you extra homework each day, which piles up as you don't do it?" They both shook their heads. "I didn't think so. Thomas, have you thought about that soccer team offer?" Looking over at Collin, Tommy shook his head. "How about you, Collin?" Collin paused, then looked up at Tommy.
"Can I get back to you on that?" Tommy reacted strangely. His head snapping up, he stared at Collin and grinned. Collin didn't meet his gaze. I looked at both of them, and then waved them off.
I knew the list. Many of us teachers had tried to stop it, but no one could really stop the list. It was famous. A way to let everyone know who was popular and who was not, what sports were cool and what was not, and who was the favorite teachers. I am pleased to say that I made the top three most days. Don't tell anyone. It was my job to check the list routinely, make sure that there was still no reason to take drastic action. I checked it the day after the talk, typing in the URL. www.listjuniorhigh.kennedy.com.
The first thing I scrolled down to was the students list. This could be the most hurtful one. It was pretty normal. Chris was on top for the guys, Macy for the girls. Tommy was a little higher than usual, but lower than the middle. I scrolled down to teachers, just checking quickly. I was first. Smiling to myself, I went to sports. My eyes nearly bugged out of my head. Football was last. Soccer was first!
They said it was a mistake. Or, at least, Collin did. Tommy didn't say anything. This, of course, led me to a suspicion that no one would have. I knew that Tommy didn't have access to the list. Only the top ones could even check it out before it was published. Collin and his friends ran it. However, I also knew Tommy's biggest aspiration. In fifth grade he had confided it to me. Other than being a soccer star, he had said, he wanted to be a hacker. Yes, a hacker. One who can get into any system and crash anything. When the list first went up, with his name way down the line, I'd thought that Tommy would try to crash it. It seemed like the only thing that he couldn't hack was the school system. However, when the list stayed up, with Tommy's name near the bottom, I had figured his hacking days were over. But I should have known that Tommy Keyes would never let go of a dream. And he had two.
We all knew what would happen next. Football was ending, and Chris would have to sign up for the top sport on the list. It was what he did to keep the list from collapsing. Macy did cheer-leading again. She wasn't the sporty one. True to his everlasting word, Collin signed up for the soccer team. Tommy didn't join. I didn't quite understand where he was going with this, but he would probably do something.
He did. Five days later Chris Lardon got "hurt." It happened every year. Chris was too lazy to do any sport, but always joined it to keep his popularity up. The coach needed one more player, even if it was just to bench him. Tommy joined the team. It was right after the big breakup. This happened every month. Collin and Macy would break up, and get back together a week later. I heard from the gossip in the halls, however, that this breakup was bigger than others. This didn't matter to me. The kids would have to deal with themselves. They were big kids now.
Tommy did well. As the soccer team progressed, he became the best player, and the most interesting kid at school. He still didn't say hi to anyone, though. He stopped tutoring Collin after a while. The librarian told me that Collin would remain at the library studying so that it didn't look like he was being stood up. He came to me the next day.
"Ms. Nelson, this isn't working."
"What isn't working? I know the worksheet's hard, but the point is for you to learn the information..."
"Not that. I'm talking about me, working with Tommy. It's not working for me. He never shows up, and when he does, he just pouts."
"Well," I said, "this seems to be working for you. You got an A on the quiz today." He sat there in silence for a second.
"Yeah. So I think we'll keep this going for a little while longer."
Five days later my story turned movie. Everything went wrong. Macy and Collin kept fighting. Both their grades went down. Macy hid her report card from her mother. The soccer team lost for the first time. And Tommy Keyes disappeared.
I went to the soccer coach to get the whole story. He told me that when Tommy had come on the field, he had seemed less excited about soccer. He didn't score once. The coach put him in goalie. He couldn't afford to take him off the field, since Collin had ditched another game.
"He let three easy goals right in. I took him out. Collin had arrived, and I put him in. A few minutes later the kid's phone rang. As soon as he answered it, it was like all the blood in his face was drained out. He hung up and said he had to go, hopping on his bike. I figured it was some kind of emergency, so I let him go." Apparently, Tommy's mother had come home about a half-hour later. She had found a note on the fridge, with nothing but a soccer ball on it, then her son's signature. However, right on the back, she told me that he had drawn the emergency signal. It meant that he had to leave the house. A little worried, she'd waited. By the time night fell, she'd called the police. Mr. Keyes came home as well. They both waited nervously throughout the night. I headed over to their house to see what I could do.
"I knew it was my fault!" Ten minutes later, and Tommy's mom was crying into my shoulder. "I should have paid more attention to him!" I patted her on the back, not saying a thing. I had had a chance to tell her what was wrong, and I didn't. I felt bad. A few minutes later, the doorbell rang. I stood up to get it. When I opened the door, I saw Collin. He started at the sight of me.
"Ms. Nelson! Is- is he back yet?" He was nervous, the kind of nervous that I noticed when a student had cheated on a test.
"He's not back. Why don't you come in?" He looked around, looking for an excuse to escape. Not finding one, he followed me in.
"Collin!" Ms. Keyes sat up and smiled at the nervous boy. "We haven't seen you around here much anymore! Have you heard anything?" Collin nervously looked at me again.
"Ms. Keyes, why don't I get Collin something to drink. He looks worried. Would you like some tea?" Ms. Keyes sighed.
"I can get it myself. Collin, why don't I get you some soda? You still like Coke, right?" Collin nodded. When Ms. Keyes had left, I turned to him.
"Do you know anything?"
"No." It was a shaky no.
"We want to help him, Collin. I want to help both of you. And I know that you know something." He was silent. We were both silent. Ms. Keyes came back in, gave us a funny look, and then went into the hallway to call her husband. Collin took his leave, saying that he'd see me later. A few minutes later, Ms. Keyes came out of the hall, her eyes streaming again. Collin looked nervous, and kind of guilty. I turned to him again.
I got off the train, hurrying towards the large brick building. An hour after more the phone call, I had taken my leave, and gotten home. The phone rang two minutes after I walked in the door, and I answered it. It was Collin. He told me that Tommy said he was going to his old favorite place, and that I would know where it was if something went wrong. I hung up, thinking hard. When Tommy Keyes was little, we ran into each other at a public library back in the east. He'd told me that he went there every day.
"I'll really miss this library," he'd said when he found out he was moving. "It's my favorite place ever." Hoping I was right, I pushed open the big doors, putting on my coat. I knew that this library always blasted the air conditioning. I headed right over to the sports section, where Tommy used to linger and stare at the glossy photos of sports stars. There he was.
“Tommy.” He was sitting against the shelves, looking straight ahead as if he couldn’t hear me. “Tommy, look at me.”
“I like this library,” he said, practically whispering. “The one at home isn’t as good.”
“You have to go home, Tommy.” He turned, this time, and looked at me.
“You can’t help everyone, Ms. Nelson. Some of us don’t want to be helped. We just want to live under the radar, without anyone annoying us or trying to teach us something.” He half-smiled then. I sighed, and then sat down next to him.
“I’m not trying to teach you anything right now. I just want to know what’s wrong. Why are you here?”
“You can’t help everyone,” he said again. I waited for more. “All my life, I’ve been good at two things. Soccer and computers. Before you came here, I was also good at being popular. I didn’t tell people I was good at computers or soccer, obviously.” He sat up a little straighter, as if preparing himself for a long story. “There were these guys. They all did horribly on tests, and everything, but they got good grades on their report cards. Everyone knew they probably cheated, but I figured out that they were really doing. Hacking.” I nodded at this. I’d already heard the story, of four students who proved how flimsy our firewalls were.
“One day, I wanted to check out exactly how they did it. I tried it in computers class, and it was easy. I’d never hacked anything before- that was the first time. Which meant I was stupid, and got caught.” He kept staring forward as if he could see what had happened in front of him. “The teacher couldn’t believe I did it, because of my grades in the class. So I blamed the guy next to me.”
“Chris,” I said, starting to understand.
“Yeah. He didn’t hear it, because by that time I was talking to the principal, and I just panicked. Chris they could believe, because back then Chris was the smart one, and acted like the smart one. And then I tried to fix it, tried to say that he was trying to do what I was doing- looking at what the kids were doing.”
“And they got expelled.” Now I remembered the whole thing. It was why Chris had a week-long suspension on his record, for hacking the school system, something I had never looked into. And the four guys who changed their grades were expelled, sent to a public school across town where no one went anywhere.
“Did you know Chris is really smart?” Tommy asked. “That he could have gone to whatever college he wanted, without this suspension? And those four guys- you can’t help them. No one can help them, because I sold them out.”
“And that’s why you’re losing yourself?” He flinched at these words, as if I had hit him.
“I wanted to go to a great college and play soccer while majoring in computers. Maybe even go on to be a government hacker. I am that good.” I didn’t doubt it. “But Chris isn’t going to get to do that. He gave up after that week, and then began to stop caring about his grades completely. Or his sports.”
“So you feel bad. Okay, I get it. But what are you going to do about it?” The boy looked at me, and I saw him as he was years ago, a scared kid starting out at a new school and trying to understand the homework.
“I was going to do something, but I lost the nerve.”
“What is it?”
“I can’t tell you.”
“Is it illegal?”
“Yes.” Well, that was a little surprising. I figured it involved hacking.
“You know what, Tommy? How about I go to your house, tell your mother that I heard from you and that you’re coming home, and you fix this.”
“You’re- you’re not going to try to help me?” I fixed him with a look, one that I knew worked because it had convinced four of my husband’s work friends to put down the meat and come help with the dishes. It also helped me do what I do best.
“I can’t promise that I won’t try to teach you something, or help you get your grades up, or anything else like that. But I’m leaving now because you’re right. You can’t help everyone. Sometimes you have to leave it up to them.”
Two hours later I got a call saying that the school system had crashed. It was back up by Monday, with no changes in grades that anyone could see. They figured it was just some glitch that had grown into a virus. A few days afterward, on a Wednesday after class, Collin waited a few minutes as everyone else went out the door.
“My counselor showed me my transcripts the other day. She wanted me to get my grades up so I could get into a good college.”
“Sure, yeah, that’s what counselors do. But I was looking through all the papers when I noticed something. Under disciplinary action. A few years ago, I got a week suspension for something I didn’t do.”
“I heard about that.”
“And I know that suspensions are supposed to show up on the transcripts.”
“Well, maybe because, as you say, you didn’t do it, it wasn’t there.” I hoped my face remained impassive, as I suddenly felt the urge to smile.
“Well, I just wanted to say, I’m going to work on my grades some more. I’ve kind of been having a strange few weeks, and now that I have a better chance to get into college…”
“That’s great, Collin.” I let some of my smile escape as I grinned at him.
“Uh, yeah. I just was thinking, about last week, when you said you wanted to help me. So… thanks.”
“I don’t know if you had anything to do with this, but you definitely had to do with something. So thanks. That’s all.” He backed away from my desk then, and began walking towards the door.
“Do you think you could do something for me?”
“Could you tutor Tommy Keyes? His grades are a bit low, and I really think he could do better.” Collin grinned at me, showing off what the girls in the school all went for.
“Sure, Ms. Nelson. I’ll hang with Tommy.” Collin left, and I realized that I had enabled what would likely be a scary friendship to deal with. I felt proud of myself.
Tommy Keyes grew up. He’d grown so much for all the years I knew him, but in that one week he became the man he is now. And after years of high school, getting a soccer scholarship, and keeping a major in Computer Programming going, he still wrote to his old English teacher. He also kept in touch with Collin, who was at community college at the top of his class, hoping to go to one of those prestigious law schools in a year. I didn’t doubt it. And me? My husband and I stayed in the same house, each teaching the same job, but something had changed. I was a better teacher now, one who saw a need to give the tools and let the students use them. The phrase “you can’t help everyone” didn’t mean the same to me as it did the general public. I saw it as an affirmation that some people have to struggle, or work hard, all by themselves. And all they need is someone cheering them on to reach the top.
With this philosophy I taught other aspiring teachers, as well as my own students, and began to give a few seminars around the state. A day before one of them, I got a text from my favorite student, telling me in confusing text speak what I think was the affirmation that he would be there. And so I climbed on the stage, took a deep breath, and turned to face an audience of people who wanted to teach, but all had so much more to learn.
"He was only five years old when I first saw him..." And here he was, smiling at me from the audience, as I recounted the years of learning that both of us had shared, and the happy ending that an English teacher loves.