Education Pays, fiction by Deana Nantz

Every­thing was mov­ing at a nor­mal pace until he showed up. Eleventh graders lis­tened to their teacher’s unremit­ting spiel on a work of lit­er­a­ture. Miss Sheila Sin­gle­ton, a first year Eng­lish teacher, reeked of green skill and flo­ral per­fume, and when he arrived, she eager­ly dragged out a lit­er­a­ture book from a rusty fil­ing cab­i­net, dirt­ied with pro­fan­i­ty and old chew­ing gum.

Scuffed sling backs scoot­ed Singleton’s lanky frame to the emp­ty seat beside the fil­ing cab­i­net. She pat­ted the back of a met­al chair, Van­na White style, and said, “One seat left, just for you, Young Man.” Stu­dents snick­ered and rolled their eyes. “I’m Miss Sin­gle­ton. What’s your name, Sir?

James Bul­lock,” he said. The oth­er stu­dents turned around, sur­prised by the mil­i­tary tone. He sound­ed old­er and stood taller than the rest, and when he took his seat, he sat straight-back painful with elbows aligned on the desk.

Wel­come James. We’re glad to have you.” Sin­gle­ton smiled and wait­ed for a response. James nev­er spoke. He looked at her, then at the fil­ing cab­i­net, and then at her again. For a moment she lost track of time, doe-trapped in Bullock’s stare. Cal­lous eyes crept up and down her body from neck to lap and stopped at her bare knees. Sin­gle­ton wished she’d worn pants. She always felt pretty—school teacher sweet—in skirts and dress­es. The usu­al Ken­tucky farm boy acknowl­edged this sweet­ness with a smile or a nod of the head. But not James. His eyes kept mov­ing from her lap to the fil­ing cab­i­net, and she final­ly under­stood why upon read­ing the words Miss Sin­gle­ton sucks above a large penis. Some­one had drawn anoth­er one while she taught away, stu­pid­ly she thought, wrapped up in a sto­ry and unaware of back­room shenani­gans. Sin­gle­ton couldn’t under­stand why boys felt the need to draw dicks on school prop­er­ty. But they did, and it nev­er failed to humil­i­ate her. At the moment she felt dou­bly humil­i­at­ed and exposed in front of this hand­some, new stu­dent. She final­ly tore her­self away from his adult eyes and walked to the front of class with her head hung low to begin again—defeated in a dif­fer­ent way, unable to com­pre­hend the new, noi­some atmos­phere per­vad­ing her class­room.

***

For the next two weeks, James Bul­lock nev­er said a word or attempt­ed an assign­ment. Sin­gle­ton knew he was spoil­ing for an argu­ment from the per­pet­u­al smirk on his face. But she didn’t address the sit­u­a­tion because he had the upper hand. In fact he silent­ly con­trolled the entire class. No one dare speak to the con­duc­tor of the back of the room.

Clean-cut and square-jawed, Bul­lock resem­bled the quin­tes­sen­tial school­boy. Until his seething eyes said oth­er­wise. He refused to pick up a pen­cil, but Sin­gle­ton could feel him lis­ten­ing, hat­ing the sound of her voice. Some­times she played videos while he played dead asleep, and like an untrust­ing feline, he kept one eye open. Every day Bul­lock wait­ed for the oth­er stu­dents to exit the room before get­ting up, and although he nev­er looked at Sin­gle­ton on his way out, she had an idea why he lagged behind. He want­ed a moment alone, a thought that intrigued her. Some­times she had trou­ble divert­ing her atten­tion from his lean swagger—the way his jeans fit snug­ly around a tight waist­line and the small cur­va­ture of his del­toids. He had the nat­ur­al def­i­n­i­tion of a land­scap­er or con­struc­tion work­er who had no use for an iron man gym.

Sin­gle­ton set out to win Bul­lock. She knew she need­ed help and there­fore fre­quent­ed the Eng­lish teach­ers’ lounge, try­ing to elic­it Bullock’s back­ground. She caught Mrs. Jones shelv­ing copies of The Scar­let Let­ter. “Mrs. Jones, you’re my last hope. No one knows any­thing about James Bul­lock. I guess he moved once or some­thing.” Sin­gle­ton swung her skin­ny arm, almost knock­ing over the cof­fee mak­er. Jones sighed in annoy­ance.

Oh sor­ry,” said Sin­gle­ton. “James won’t do any­thing. He refus­es to talk to me or look me in the eye, and I can’t bring myself to say any­thing to him. Uh—do you know any­thing about him?” Sin­gle­ton knew she sound­ed dumb by the fast turn­around of Jan­ice Jones who wore her glass­es librar­i­an style on the tip of her patri­cian nose. Jones moved her specks upward and gave Sin­gle­ton a glare. “As far as I know, he belongs to those Bul­locks who live out on route 30. I had his old­er broth­er who’s been in the paper recent­ly for assault. I remem­ber James Bul­lock com­ing in for fresh­man ori­en­ta­tion. I think he was in Milner’s class before he was pro­mot­ed to assis­tant prin­ci­pal. You can ask him.”

I don’t want to both­er Mr. Mil­ner.”

Well, you’ve got the right atti­tude there. The less you deal with the admin­is­tra­tion, the bet­ter. Keep off the radar.” Jones point­ed to the cart hold­ing nov­els. Sin­gle­ton picked up Hawthorne’s mas­ter­piece and began shelv­ing. “Hes­ter Prynne kept her mouth shut and remained on the out­skirts of Boston,” Jones said.

You—think I’m like Hes­ter Prynne?” Sin­gle­ton point­ed to the red let­ter A on the cov­er of the book. “Jesus.”

Every­one can be stamped with a label. Hes­ter has an A for adul­tery. Accord­ing to Mil­ner and a few of my stu­dents, I have a B for bitch. And a sweet young thing like you has an N for naïve all over her.”

Thanks.” Sin­gle­ton stopped help­ing and head­ed for the door.

No offense, Sin­gle­ton. But some­times the less you know, the bet­ter off you are. Push the good stu­dents for­ward and leave the Bul­locks alone.”

***

Sin­gle­ton became obsessed, try­ing to move Bul­lock for­ward. He nev­er came to class pre­pared, so she hid a text­book, note­book, and pen­cil in a draw­er that she placed on his desk before stu­dents entered class. She even taped a suck­er and a card, one of those cheesy you’re kind of spe­cial cards, on the inside cov­er of his text­book. But Bul­lock nev­er acknowl­edged the sen­ti­ment.

Sin­gle­ton felt dizzy in the mesh of apa­thy, armpits, oil glands, and wal­low­ing tongues. Ring­ing bells sliced into her nerves, and deal­ing with lost home­work, restroom pass­es, and clut­ter between rows of desks max­i­mized her already exist­ing agi­ta­tion. She couldn’t find a few of her per­son­al items that she usu­al­ly kept locked in the same draw­er where she stored Bullock’s school sup­plies. A few days a week, she ran around the track to relief stress, but for some rea­son, she couldn’t find her sweats and ten­nis shoes. Her deodor­ant was gone along with her walk­man. Search­ing for miss­ing items almost pushed her over the edge, but she mus­tered up one more ounce of strength to put on one last dog and pony show for the day. Her black dress, cov­ered in chalk, coör­di­nat­ed with her disheveled desk, and the gold lock­et around her neck need­ed read­just­ing. She tugged at it as stu­dents mean­dered about the room. When she felt abused and con­fused by pub­lic edu­ca­tion, she opened the lock­et to see her beloved fam­i­ly. She wished she had a lover’s pic­ture on the emp­ty side, but teach­ing all day and grad­ing papers all night didn’t afford an active social life. No one want­ed to date an exhaust­ed woman with a per­ma­nent wrin­kled brow. A first year teacher either adjust­ed or quit, and Sin­gle­ton, piled high with lay­ers of stress suf­fo­cat­ed under the extra weight of Bullock’s antipa­thy. But she kept going because she believed in Kentucky’s creed: edu­ca­tion pays.

Sin­gle­ton learned her les­son about show­ing videos while remain­ing at her desk in the front of the room. When she turned her back, total bed­lam broke loose with fly­ing spit balls and mid­dle fin­gers. Today, her feet and shoul­ders felt heav­ier than usu­al. She need­ed to sit down. The kid beside Bul­lock was absent. Sin­gle­ton turned on a bio­graph­i­cal video about nature poets, grabbed a stack of papers, her red ink pen, and plopped down beside him. Twen­ty min­utes or so passed. Bul­lock hung over the arm of his desk to ogle Singleton’s crossed naked legs. Five min­utes lat­er, he was still at it. Sin­gle­ton lost it, “Where are your books, your pencil—why do you waste your time and mine?”

Bul­lock sat up, wait­ed for her to say some­thing else, and final­ly uttered, “Can I go to the restroom?”

What? That’s what you have to say? You don’t deserve to go any­where until you do some­thing!”

Bul­lock leaned over close enough to touch her cheek and whis­pered, “I hate this class, and I hate you.”

What—you don’t hate me. You hate school.” Singleton’s voice shook.

I do my work for my oth­er teach­ers. I hate you,” he said.

Sin­gle­ton remained silent for a few min­utes. With her guts in her throat, she began writ­ing fran­tic ques­tions on the back of a student’s paper, leav­ing space for Bullock’s answers: What school did you attend? Do you have a prob­lem with female author­i­ty? Does some­one mis­treat you at home?

She gen­tly placed the ques­tions on his desk. He smiled and answered, Ken­tucky Cor­rec­tion Acad­e­my, No, and No.

To ease the ten­sion, she told him to go to the restroom. She wrote one more ques­tion: If I call your home, will you be phys­i­cal­ly pun­ished for your behav­ior? When he came back, he looked at the note, wadded it up, threw it in the floor and said, “This is stu­pid. I hate this class, and I hate you!”

A few teenagers looked around to see what was going on. Sin­gle­ton made a twirly motion with her hand, sig­nal­ing their turn around, and they obeyed for once, sens­ing the seri­ous­ness of the sit­u­a­tion. Bul­lock, on the oth­er hand, kept star­ing into Singleton’s soul, empha­siz­ing how much truth exist­ed in his last state­ment.

Sin­gle­ton made an attempt to intim­i­date, “I don’t give a shit whether you hate me or not. Take your sor­ry ass to the office.”

Bul­lock beamed as if he’d won a prize and exit­ed the room calm and col­lect­ed. Sin­gle­ton called the office to report Bullock’s arrival. She told the assis­tant prin­ci­pal in ner­vous frag­ments what had hap­pened with­out men­tion­ing what she’d said. Wor­ried that Bul­lock would tell on her, she couldn’t con­cen­trate on any­thing else and turned off the video, released stu­dents two min­utes ear­ly, and then wor­ried about turn­ing them out before the bell, anoth­er rea­son to get on the administration’s shit list. She paced fran­ti­cal­ly back and forth until the assis­tant prin­ci­pal, Mr. Mil­ner arrived. “I’m fired,” she thought.

We need to talk about Bul­lock. I know you would nev­er say what he said you said.”

She grabbed her grade book and clutched it to her chest. Know­ing her job was on the line, she gath­ered up the courage to talk. “I don’t know what to do about James. He won’t do any­thing. No one has ever made me feel so creepy.” Final­ly she’d spilled her guts, giv­ing her a lit­tle relief. She laid the grade book on a stu­dent desk and motioned for Mil­ner to sit. She scoot­ed her desk toward his, grabbed the pen from behind her ear, and gen­tly twist­ed it back and forth with her spindly fin­gers.

Mil­ner held up his hands, “You know you’re very young and…”

I’m old enough to have a teach­ing degree, Sir.”

I know that. Even so, you under­stand that boys are going to make fools of them­selves for your atten­tion, don’t you?”

Sin­gle­ton took note of Milner’s rud­dy face and won­dered if he drank a lot because of his job. She didn’t need to be remind­ed of ado­les­cent boy behav­ior from a guy who wore bow-tied, short sleeve shirts tucked in high water dress pants.

You have chalk on your nice dress.” Milner’s eyes moved to her knees. “You say you sat beside him, ask­ing him ques­tions about his behav­ior.”

Yeah, I did.” Sin­gle­ton tapped her tem­ple with her pen. “Come to think about it—that was the first time he respond­ed to me, and then he went off when I asked if he’d be phys­i­cal­ly pun­ished at home.”

Miss Sin­gle­ton, don’t take this the wrong way, but do you think James sees you as a poten­tial mate?”

Sin­gle­ton rubbed the back of her neck. “I think he sees me as a pos­si­ble vic­tim, Mr. Mil­ner. No one has ever looked at me that way. I spent last year as a sub­sti­tute teacher for Mrs. Hart­ney, remem­ber? I’m not total­ly dim-wit­ted to the ways of teenagers. ” She stood up and attempt­ed to smooth out her wrin­kled dress. “I’m real­ly scared of him.” She began walk­ing the floor like a girl in low bud­get hor­ror. “Some­thing isn’t right at home. He went to a cor­rec­tion facil­i­ty. Does any­one know why?”

Ken­tucky Cor­rec­tion was the last straw. He and his bus dri­ver didn’t get along. James refused to sit down, and when the bus dri­ver threat­ened to throw him off, he stood up, pulled down his pants in front of every­one, and threat­ened to defe­cate on the bus. We sent him off for that one.”

Excuse me for say­ing this, but why is he in my class if he’s try­ing to shit on school bus­es? And why didn’t some­one tell me this when he was admit­ted to this school?”

Mil­ner laughed. “You don’t need to devel­op pre­con­ceived notions about stu­dents. And unfor­tu­nate­ly, he’s court ordered by the dis­trict judge. I’d move him out of your class, but he’d just do the same thing to anoth­er teacher. You need to fig­ure out a way to han­dle him.” He cleared his throat. “This may be a defin­ing test for you as a new teacher.”

A test I’m fail­ing so far.”

Mil­ner made a wheez­ing sound and wiped his oily, Tom Sel­l­eck mus­tache with a dingy hand­ker­chief. “I went to a ses­sion about dam­aged kids with a group of child psy­chol­o­gists this sum­mer. One said that boys who feel sex­u­al­ly attract­ed to their moth­ers get angry and ashamed and some­times become vio­lent and aggres­sive toward their female teach­ers.”

Singleton’s jaw dropped. “Oh Jesus—you think he’s pro­ject­ing his anger on to me from some con­fused Oedi­pal Freudi­an garbage?”

Mil­ner put up his hands in defense. “Don’t shoot the mes­sen­ger. He could hate women, his mother—maybe he’s pro­ject­ing.”

Sin­gle­ton couldn’t think of any­thing else to say. A degree in edu­ca­tion hadn’t pre­pared her for this. Mil­ner wait­ed a few moments. He end­ed their con­ver­sa­tion with, “He’ll get a day of in-school sus­pen­sion. Have a good week­end, Sheila.”

When Milner’s heavy tread was no longer audi­ble she said, “Have a good week­end? He should have said have sweet dreams and don’t think about the psy­cho, school bus shit­ter who wants to screw you and his moth­er.” Sin­gle­ton, still mum­bling, slammed the door shut and bar­reled out of the build­ing, almost falling down the last set of cracked steps lead­ing to her car.

But she couldn’t roll out of park­ing for obses­sive think­ing. “I have to stop,” she said, pulling on her bot­tom lip. After a deep inhala­tion, she turned on the radio and almost jerked her neck out of whack to the scream­ing voice of Trent Reznor. “I want to fuck you like an ani­mal” blast­ed across the high school cam­pus as Sin­gle­ton ner­vous­ly yanked the vol­ume knob. “Did I put that in there—I thought that CD was in my walkman—I nev­er lis­ten to that track. Fuck! I’m los­ing it.”

Sin­gle­ton froze. Spo­radic rain drops and wind whip­ping met­al rungs against the flag pole couldn’t break through until her cell phone chimed in, infu­ri­at­ing her to the point of scream­ing out against noise, out­side and inside her head.

Hey Mom. Did I throw my gym clothes in your laun­dry bas­ket? I’m los­ing my mind.”

I haven’t seen them. Lis­ten, do you have plans tonight—cause if you don’t, we’d like you to make it for din­ner. Tyler keeps cry­ing for you.”

The sound of her mother’s voice and the image of her adopt­ed broth­er slowed her pulse.

Do I have any plans? That’s fun­ny Mom. There’s noth­ing to do in one-horse shitville. You know this. I’m not dri­ving an hour to sit in a lone­ly bar. I just want to get in my bed and for­get about James Bul­lock.”

What hap­pened today?”

He could have cost me my job, and I think he needs more than in-school sus­pen­sion. The creep pulled his pants down on a school bus.”

I hope he doesn’t pull them down in front of you. He’s prob­a­bly a sex offend­er.”

They wouldn’t tell me if he was. What the hell should I do?”

Have you looked at his file?”

No.”

You know, by law, you have access.” Singleton’s moth­er had retired five years ago from teach­ing spe­cial edu­ca­tion. Women in Singleton’s town either made nurs­es or teach­ers.

I wish I’d stud­ied nurs­ing. Clean­ing up shit is bet­ter than get­ting it beat out of you every day, men­tal­ly that is. Hell, Bul­lock may beat my ass yet.”

That’s love­ly talk. Your name is on the record room door. You need to stop react­ing emo­tion­al­ly. You may only be five years old­er than some of them, but they are still chil­dren in adult bod­ies.”

Sex­u­al­ly depraved chil­dren?”

Have you con­sid­ered sex­u­al­ly abused chil­dren? You need to under­stand his prob­lems before rip­ping into him. Remem­ber com­pas­sion.”

I’m not like you. I’m not that strong.”

Singleton’s moth­er and father had adopt­ed a child from a moth­er addict­ed to metham­phet­a­mines, and like her par­ents, Sin­gle­ton was soft­heart­ed when it came to chil­dren. She couldn’t under­stand why Bul­lock couldn’t see this and why she felt so out of con­trol in his pres­ence. If she had to, she’d spend all night in the records room in order to feel dif­fer­ent­ly about James—about teach­ing.

Sin­gle­ton poured over the note from his fourth grade teacher: After com­ing home from Christ­mas break, there was a dra­mat­ic change in James. He grew irri­ta­ble, dis­obe­di­ent, dis­or­ga­nized, and threat­en­ing to his peers. From fourth grade on James Bul­lock had been in and out of deten­tion and grouped with slow learn­ers and behav­ior dis­or­ders. Numer­ous social work­ers had been called to his home and his father had been ques­tioned about tru­an­cy. But James had done his time at Ken­tucky Cor­rec­tion Facil­i­ty and reen­tered the world of pub­lic edu­ca­tion per Judge Warner’s orders. Sin­gle­ton flipped page after page, try­ing to find some­thing more sub­stan­tial, but there was no sol­id evi­dence that Bul­lock had been abused, just rep­e­ti­tious notes of how he refused to read, coöper­ate, and func­tion in a social set­ting. She returned his fold­er to the box labeled B in an order­ly man­ner and sat still for what seemed like an hour, mes­mer­ized by vol­umes of mani­la fold­ers, con­tain­ing a pletho­ra of stu­dent back­ground. She would have pulled the file of every stu­dent on her ros­ter, but she felt uncom­fort­able by cus­to­di­al clam­or out­side the door. Before leav­ing, Sin­gle­ton con­sid­ered every pos­si­bil­i­ty of Bullock’s fourth grade turn­around. What if he’d always had a read­ing prob­lem and a teacher too indif­fer­ent to help him? What if there were drugs? What if his father had hurt him? What if some­one had left or a mon­ster moved in? What if we didn’t have Tyler? Her baby broth­er and the smell of his skin took prece­dence over Bul­lock. Sin­gle­ton sobbed into her long hands that cov­ered her face but snapped halfway back to com­po­sure upon the jan­i­tor ask­ing, “Are you okay Miss?”

I don’t know. I don’t know,” she said.

Sin­gle­ton didn’t sleep easy that night, but the next day she felt some­what bet­ter after a fam­i­ly break­fast of warm chat­ter and but­ter­milk pan­cakes. Singleton’s moth­er read from the news­pa­per, cat­a­loging events at the coun­ty fall fes­ti­val. Sev­er­al streets were blocked off for local flea-mar­ket type booths and car­ni­val rides. Sin­gle­ton need­ed a break from wor­ry, but she didn’t want to bump into any stu­dents or acknowl­edge the fact that her town had one year­ly fes­ti­val to enter­tain the mass­es. Noth­ing else was going on but a trendy, teen melo­dra­ma that she’d rather not suf­fer through. Her moth­er wouldn’t stop hound­ing her about get­ting out so Sheila, her par­ents, and her broth­er decid­ed to eat fried food and lis­ten to carnies bar­gain for the last rem­nants of dis­abil­i­ty checks.

They walked the streets in a crowd­ed mass of mul­lets, old lady bee­hive hair, and tooth­less grins. Sin­gle­ton held Tyler close. He point­ed at peo­ple eat­ing pow­dered dough. She kissed his fin­ger. “You’re such a sweet baby. I’ll buy you a cake.” Sin­gle­ton hand­ed Tyler to her moth­er and took off down the street to find a fun­nel cake. The sun was fad­ing behind the nau­se­at­ing Far­ris wheel, and the near­est booth with fried treats had closed for the night. Sin­gle­ton knew there’d be more food sta­tions on the car­ni­val side, so she took a short­cut down an iso­lat­ed, hedge-lined alley. As she walked along she thought about Tyler, how he’d have to go to school with the Bul­locks of the world. And then she won­dered if some­one had held James Bul­lock close at a fes­ti­val. Her thoughts were inter­rupt­ed, how­ev­er, as her back land­ed hard on black­top. Some­one had jerked her long pony­tail so hard that her feet flew out in front of her.

Blunt smash to the head—she felt some­thing wet under her, maybe blood. She tried to get up but couldn’t free her­self from the tena­cious grip of a blurred man who’d ripped the pre­cious lock­et from her neck. He tried to smoth­er her with a cloth, one that she final­ly rec­og­nized as the miss­ing gym shirt. He stuffed her mouth with her own stink.

Singleton’s body lay immov­able and cold. She heard blue­grass singers in the back­ground and the unzip­ping of pants. She couldn’t yell out, but she want­ed to as Bul­lock came into focus with the flash of his malev­o­lent smile. “I want to fuck you like an ani­mal,” he said. Now she was look­ing at the real thing. She tried to think it was just anoth­er sketch on a fil­ing cab­i­net, not the painful stab to all she held sacred. She turned her eyes to the sky, to God, but he was blocked by the huge bill­board adver­tis­ing a young man proud­ly wav­ing his diplo­ma. Miss Singleton’s tongue lolled to the side of her open, drool­ing mouth as she read the words, Edu­ca­tion Pays.

Deana Nantz holds an MFA in cre­ative writ­ing and an MA in lit­er­a­ture from East­ern Ken­tucky Uni­ver­si­ty where she cur­rent­ly teach­es mod­ern dra­ma.  She also teach­es high school Eng­lish and writes poet­ry and fic­tion.  Her poet­ry has been fea­tured in Par­a­digm and an inter­view she con­duct­ed with Chris Offutt is in the lat­est edi­tion of Jel­ly Buck­et.

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