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The Man Who wasn't Mr. Burton
I saw Macintosh Cleaver again at the tire shop the other day when I was back home for summer vacation. He left our middle school halfway through the year back in grade nine, when he was simply known as Mac, the boy who used his pencils to drum instead of for homework . He still had the shoulder length shaggy blonde hair that back then marked him to our teachers as not the private school type, and therefore a target.
We talked about middle school for a while, ("a goddamn prison"), and he brought up Mr. Burton, our science teacher, who went to fight in Afghanistan.
"He hated me," he gave a sad laugh, "everyone else loved him, but he just hated me."
I shrugged. There was a time when I hated Mac too.
"Remember the time he said, you know, just out of know where to research the Vandals, just because I was doodling or something."
"Yeah," I said, embarrassment was Mr. Burton's weapon of choice. "You know he came back right? To give a presentation after you had left."
"Really?" Mac rubbed the grease onto his overalls, "I always wondered if he'd killed anyone."
So I told him.
It was my best friend Rachel who asked me the question, mid-January , grade ten, when Mr. Burton marched back into the school in his full dessert Camo. She asked me innocently between bites of her sandwich, "do you think he's killed anyone?"
The idea rattled me. I had always imagined Mr. Burton, my favorite teacher, explaining chemistry problems to children at school in the outskirts of Kabul, sketching comics into the sand, and criticising his comrades for their lack of knowledge about 80s rock trivia.
“No, he couldn’t have,” I tensed.
“Why not?” Rachel looked up from her lunch.
“Because he is a teacher.” I picked up my backpack and started walking to class.
Mr Burton slouched against the back wall of the history classroom, greeted Jean, and Rachel. “How are your classes?” He asked, “I trust you're doing well in science.” He spoke softly, as if he were afraid that his own voice would wake a sleeping enemy hidden behind the history text books. Eggshell cracks lined his face, trailing spidery lines. But his eyes were what had changed the most. They didn’t look at Jean, they scanned the room for the enemy behind the bookshelf. The man couldn’t be Mr. Burton because Mr. Burton was a teacher, and teachers could never be lost in a classroom.
As he gave his presentation he sometimes coughed a dry laugh when he talked about the blisters on his first day or the struggles of learning how to use his military issued ipod, or how cold the training centre was in Winnipeg. He didn’t look at the pictures on the screen, and his eyes skirted away as if the dusty scenes from camp scalded him.
And I was silent because I wasn't sure how, or who, but someone had died.
"Did you ever ask," Mac interrupted me, taking a seat in the car shop waiting room. His boss sneered over at us, but we ignored him.
"I didn't need to," I sat down beside him. "Remember that time, in grade eight when I was sulking after an argument with you?"
Mac laughed, "we never did get along, did we?"
"Well Mr Burton came up to me after class and said, “I know we all fantasize about driving a rusty nail through the teeth of kids like Mac, but I can’t because I’m a teacher, and you can’t because you’re a young lady, and you have too much going for you that kind of boy bother you.”
Mac raised an eyebrow, "so you're saying that he can't have killed anyone because he is a teacher."
"I don't know," I said, "something changed. Mr. Burton was a teacher, and I always thought that teachers can’t kill anyone, even the Taliban. But somehow, while he was away, he stopped being Mr. Burton, and became a stranger. Honestly Mac, I don't know what he would have done to you if he had a rusty nail on hand. When we turned the lights on, he jumped like there was an explosion."
"What happened to him?" Mac asked, "after he was done his service."
"I was in high school by the time Mr. Burton came back. He got fired after, and it was rumoured that he struck a student on the wrist with a ruler." I said.
"So that means he killed a man in the war too," Mac scratched his stubble
I handed Mac his check, picked up my bags, and before I walked out, said, "well someone must have died when he stopped being a teacher."