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