the wax paper

Rebecca Potter

THE LAST TIME HE SAW HIS FATHER

Today in first period I am reading “Reunion,” a short story by John Cheever about a boy

who meets up with his dad at a train station in the city, and it is the last time he sees his father. I

hold the story in my hands as I weave through my students. I barely have to look at the page to

recite the words. I’ve read this narrative so many times with so many classes over the years.

I know how my students will react—the points in the story they will chuckle a little,

where they might shake their head or roll their eyes. I can guess what some might write about in

the journal we will do later in class. I know all this. I know how the class will go before it even

starts.

I constantly peer out from the Cheever’s story to watch my students as I slowly snake

around the room. I am watching for their reactions, watching to make sure they are paying

attention, not causing a disruption, awake. Daniel sits near the front in a desk he fills completely.

When he stands I feel small and powerless because he looks more like an adult than a child. It is

better when he sits. I am more in control. Or at least I feel that way.

Mr. Kidwell walks around the room, too, while we read. He is the special education

teacher who works with me in first period. He helps the students who have paperwork, 504s and

Individual Education Plans (IEPs), students who have learning or behavioral disabilities and

need accommodations.

Right now Mr. Kidwell stands over Trenton who sits at one of the back desks, looking

angry. It’s a permanent expression. I’m not sure if I’ve seen him smile in my class at this point.

He waits for a reason to get mad at me. I refuse to give him one. He sits, lounged back, one leg

extended, foot tapping the air, ready to pounce. I wonder though how much he is hearing of the

story or if we will be able to get through class today without him exploding. I think about this

everyday he’s in my class.

I walk among them reading from a text that is so internalized the words roll from my

memory and heart. I am doing my teacher-duty: making sure Tyler is paying attention, Morgan is

not texting, Charlie is not finishing homework for another class, Jake is not chewing tobacco. I

walk over to Megan who has her mascara wand out. I give her a sideways glance as I continue to

read. She puts the make-up away. I smile slightly and walk on.

Isabel struggles with the text. She follows along in the text with a pencil in one hand and

rubs her forehead with the other. She wants so badly to understand, but I’m fairly sure she

doesn’t. Her learning disability makes reading and written expression especially challenging. I’m

afraid she will give up--not just today and not just on understanding this one story. I’m afraid she

will give up on believing she is capable and valuable.

I cannot police what’s going on in their heads as I read. I don’t know what new girlfriend

Luke is daydreaming about. I don’t know if Emily is thinking about the child growing in her

womb or if Amber is stressing over being kicked out of her mom’s house for smoking weed—

again. Tyler might be thinking about his new video game. John is probably thinking about the

game this weekend. Thomas is still dealing his mother’s death; it’s only been a little over a year.

Jake just doesn’t want to be here; he hates everything about school. Who knows what Daniel is

thinking about. I walk around the room, reading over my students’ heads.

The story is finished. The boy in the story will not see his father again.

“Oh my God, Mrs. Potter. What the heck?” Isabel says from the back. She is always

angry when she doesn’t understand something right away. Daniel rolls his eyes at her.

“Why are you mad?” I am walking towards Amber who has her phone out again. She

puts it away when she notices my approach. I keep my face focused on Isabel. “Are you upset

about the father, or did you not like the story, or is it something else?” I make sure my tone is

conversational. I make sure my question allows Isabel to be successful. I make sure to give her

options.

“Well, kinda everything, you know? Did he even ever to get to eat? Why was his dad

such a jerk and cussing at everybody? And why couldn’t he see his dad again?”

“Oh, Isabel. All good questions. You are right where you need to be. Fantastic!” She

smiles proudly. I haven’t answered any of her questions on purpose. I walk to the front of the

room and pat Ross on the back as I go. He is quiet and does not need much. I don’t want him to

think I don’t know he’s here.

“Okay, take out your journal, please. What number are we on?” I ask because I genuinely

never remember. I seriously have no idea. But someone else always does. If not, we will make it

up. I don’t know what number we’re on, but we have a routine. We have to. Mason and Brendan

need it.

“Number seventeen, I think.” From the back. Billie. She always knows what journal

we’re on.

“Sounds good to me. Seventeen it is. Write a paragraph about how Cheever creates

empathy for his narrator. Think about the word empathy. How does the reader connect to the

character in this story?”

They begin. I have to repeat the prompt three or four more times, maybe five. I do it now

without even waiting to be asked. Mr. Kidwell walks around, looking over kids’ shoulders,

making sure they are writing. I do the same.

“What does empathy even mean, Mrs. P?” Luke asks in his heavy, charming country

drawl. I explain what it means for what seems the fiftieth time this class period. Thomas has his

head down in his notebook, writing furiously. John flicks his pen on his leg, thinking, thinking,

thinking—maybe about empathy or maybe about the ballgame. Amber is typing on her phone. I

walk over to make sure she is actually working. She is. Mason has his laptop out and is typing

loudly. He is on the spectrum far enough that he needs his laptop for efficiency and to hide from

the other students.

Daniel just sits there. No surprise. Like many other students in this class, he has an IEP,

Individual Education Plan—a piece of paper that has followed him around from year to year and

teacher to teacher. It is meant to tell teachers how to best teach this child with ADD and other

learning issues. Sometimes, and I think this is true for Daniel, the IEP says something different:

just get him through, he’s not capable of much, you’ll be glad when he’s not in your class

anymore. Don’t expect greatness from Daniel, the IEP says behind the education jargon.

But he is smart. He participates in class and says smart things. I know he thinks smart

things. But he rarely writes smart things. He is the student who answers my discussion questions

with comments like, “I don’t know, Mrs. Potter. Why you don’t you tell us?” He is the guy who

last week laughed so hard at some goofy video on Tyler’s phone that he gave himself the

hiccups. He is the one who makes faces while I teach so that even Mr. Kidwell can’t hide a

smile. And he is often asleep. I spend a lot of my time tapping his broad, sloping shoulders,

“Wake up, wake up, wake up.” He always apologizes. Today he is awake. But he is not writing.

Mr. Kidwell and I continue to pace the room while the students write. “Yo, Mrs. Potter,”

Marcus calls out from the other side of the room. He is standing. I put him at a desk along the

side of the room so he can stand as much as he needs to and still do his work. His IEP says he

has problems sitting and being quiet. So I let him stand and let him talk as much as I can.

“Yo, Marcus, what’s up?”

“I don’t get this empathy thing. It’s hard and stupid.”

“I get you, Marcus. No prob. Why don’t you write about how you can relate to the

narrator, with the kid? Or maybe how the story makes you feel? Like when the dad keeps cussing

out all the waiters.”

He thinks for a minute, looking up to the ceiling. Several other students have stopped

writing and are listening. I am aware of this. My answer to Marcus’s question is meant for them,

too. “That’s chill. Okay,” Marcus says. He starts writing but doesn’t sit.

Trenton has written maybe a sentence or two, not a full paragraph. I don’t say anything to

him this time. At least he has written something. I pick my battles with him carefully. I don’t

want a scene.

After a few minutes, I move to the front of the room. “Okay, guys and gals, let’s chat.”

We discuss the tools we see Cheever using, the mechanics of how he makes the literature work:

the setting, the characters, the conflict, the resolution, the imagery, the dialogue. I know all the

answers. I have taught this so many times. I know the right questions to ask to elicit the right

answers. And I know how to make their wrong answers seem almost right. So when Brendan

says he thinks maybe the dad has dementia, I don’t laugh out loud or tell him he is wrong.

Instead I say, “Well, Brendan, that is an interesting observation. You’re absolutely right—there

can be some similarities between drunkenness and dementia. So while the father probably

doesn’t have dementia, your insight is cool. Nice work! Two hundred stars for you!” The stars

aren’t real, but they matter. My students collect imaginary stars. Brendan has thousands.

Then Daniel starts crying.

His round face turns red, his giant shoulders under a ragged blue shirt are shaking in his

seat. He sits near the front, so everyone can see him. And they can hear him. He sobs, boohoos,

and sniffles, like a little child who has had his little heart utterly broken. I am stunned and do not

know how to respond to this.

Do I draw more attention to him? Do I ask him if he’s okay? Do I ignore him? All the

education courses in college cannot prepare me for the right moves at times like these. This is not

the first time a student has cried in my class, but kids like Daniel do not cry. Kids like Daniel are

not vulnerable or sensitive. Crying for him means publicly acknowledging that there are parts of

him that are weak. Crying for a kid like Daniel is humiliating. If I go over to him, the gaze of all

the other students will be more firmly planted on him. Trenton and Luke will stare. Marcus

might say something rude. Amber could roll her eyes. And there is no way I can be subtle, but

ignoring him seems cold. Teaching teenagers is all about preserving their dignity. Daniel’s

dignity is precariously dangling before me.

I choose to lower my voice, knowing full well everyone will still hear me, but at least I

will appear to be trying to be discreet. I walk over and bend down a little.

“You okay, Daniel? Do you need to step out for a few minutes?”

He sniffles loudly and wipes his nose with the back of his hand. “No.”

“Okay. But if you need to, just go. Whatever you need, sweetie.” I squeeze his hand and

turn to the class, back to discussing the story. But my heart is still intently focused on Daniel.

I’m not sure why he’s crying, or if he even wants me to know. Sometimes it’s enough to let them

know that I noticed.

So even though I am concerned and unsettled, I move on. “Alright, sweethearts, let’s look

at this again. What effect is Cheever creating with this line? We know this is the last time the

narrator will see his father in the first line. Then the story ends with ‘that was the last time I saw

my father.’ We know. Why end it that way?”

I pause. For a while. Megan twirls a strand of hair around her finger. Mr. Kidwell has

moved back towards Trenton, who is looking down into nothing. Mason looks into his computer

screen. I count in my head like I’ve been taught to do and think of different ways I can word the

question if no one raises a hand. I have several contingency plans: write it in your notes, share

with a partner, put it on an impromptu discussion board, look at another question and then come

back to that one. I will not give them the answer, though. Never.

In the quiet of waiting for an answer, Daniel sucks in air and wails. I can tell he can’t

help it. He has covered his face now with both his hands, but it is not enough to silence his

crying or keep everyone from looking at him now. I contemplate when I should say something to

him again, how long I should pretend not to notice. For his dignity’s sake.

I ask the question again, drawing attention back to the lesson. They are thinking. I pace

the front of the room a little. “Why does Cheever end the story telling us it was the last time he

would see his father?” Daniel does not raise his hand. Does not wait to be called on. He just

blurts out.

“Because it is my dad.”

The room is a different silent now, not the silence of not knowing the answer. It is a

waiting silence, a silence that isn’t sure what to do. I don’t say anything. This is not for strategic

reasons, no pedagogy, no planned exercise. I pause because I don’t know what to say. The

mother in me collides with the teacher. I have to breathe for a minute and wait to recover from

this collision so I know how to proceed. But there’s no time to recover.

While I am breathing and pausing and colliding, Daniel goes on. “I never see my dad.”

He is loud, almost yelling. “He is a drunk. He is an asshole!” He pounds his fist on the desk. We

all watch him. Trenton is looking at him, not the floor, and he doesn’t look angry. Mr. Kidwell is

no longer pacing or looking at his paperwork. Mason has turned from his laptop. Billie’s mouth

is dropped open. Megan is covering hers. Marcus sits. Now Daniel’s voice is quieter. “He’s in

Ohio. And I’m here. I haven’t seen him in years. I hate him, Mrs. Potter. I hate my dad.”

I should not allow cursing or pounding fists or yelling in my classroom. I know right now

I am not using the best practices, the strategies for effective teaching, I was taught in college and

am continually reminded of at trainings. There is probably a different way I should handle this

situation, but I’m not sure what it is right now. So I let him cry and yell and hurt, right there in

front of everyone.

I cry, too, even though maybe some would say I shouldn’t. I should remain professional,

keep my emotions in check. But this is a child who I love. I will hurt with him this morning

because it is the right thing to do and because I can’t help it.

“I am so sorry, Daniel. You deserve better.” I hug Cheever’s story to my chest, as if it

were this wounded boy I held in my arms. “Of course you have every right to feel the way you

do.”

“I just can’t understand why he left me. The last time I saw my dad I should’ve told him

how much I hate him. I hate him. I hate him. I hate him.” His face is red, and his body is shaking.

I listen. I wait. I let the moment be. Some students are shuffling in their seats, uncomfortable.

Many are crying. I’m not sure if they are crying for Daniel or for themselves or for both. Isabel

crosses the room and stands behind Daniel. She leans down, hugs his neck, and puts her cheek

against his. She doesn’t say anything. Then she returns to her seat.

Now I know exactly what to say. “This is the power of literature, kids. It’s more than

fancy terms like metaphor or irony.” Because these are indeed fancy words for my kids. “The

power, beauty, and importance of literature is that we get it. We feel. We understand each other

better. We understand ourselves better. That is empathy. My father has never left me, but I get it.

Because of Cheever’s story. And because of Daniel.”

Daniel opens his tattered spiral notebook. “Journal seventeen, right?”

“Yes,” I whisper. My throat is tight.

Rebecca Potter teaches high school English and lives with her husband, three sons, and two bulldogs in central Kentucky. She is working on an MFA in the Bluegrass Writers Studio at Eastern Kentucky University. Her current project is a book that focuses on relationships in the classroom. mrspottersroom.blogspot.com