Chapter 8 December 23, 1994, Christmas Eve-Eve
By 03:30 PM, the buses had all come and picked up their loads, leaving only the car-riders. Julie walked over to finish her Late Duty with Mark Nelson. Having much on her mind, Julie had forgotten about their little discussion at lunch, and all about the Post-it note.
Before she even reached the car-rider side of the pavilion, Julie heard the students slamming each other. “Your Momma is so fat all she wants for Christmas is to see her feet,” One said while another came back with “Your Momma is so fat she ate a whole Pizza. . . . Hut.”
Julie could not believe Mark was just sitting back letting the students do this to one another. Couldn’t he see how this would lead to a fight? Besides, Philly Suchie was over there. If Your Momma Jokes are fair game, is it a stretch to think that Your Daddy jokes wouldn’t soon follow? Something as simple as a student who forgets Philly’s dad was killed and makes a silly joke could say something that really screws up the poor boy immensely. But Mark was over there sitting idle. And this figured, because from what Julie had seen, Mark is the more of the joking type, not the disciplinarian type.
“Hey Ms. Green,” all the students said, welcoming her as she walked up.
“Hey Ms. Green,” Mark repeated. “I had Tommy go grab you a chair from inside. Come have a seat.”
The chair was right next to Mark, practically on top of him. She wondered if Tommy had put it so close or if it was Mark’s doing. No matter, Julie grabbed it and pulled it across the concrete slab where she was facing the siting students who were waiting on their rides. “Only five left.” she noted while glancing at her wristwatch.
“Yea,” Mark agreed, “It being the day before the holiday, I can’t see us being out here for too much longer.”
“That’s good. Oh, I finally got around to watching that movie you liked.”
“Yea? Which one was that?”
“Forrest Gump,” Julie answered.
“Run Forrest. Run Forrest,” One student said. A second said, “My name is Forrest Gump. People call me Forrest Gump.” Finally, a third said, “Life is like a box of chocolates. You never know what you’re going to get.” Four of the five students laughed. Of the four, Philly Suchie was the only one who didn’t say anything.
“I am dying to know what you thought, but first let me hear from the students,” Mark said. “Tommy Peoples what do you think? Is it Best Picture material?”
“Well I don’t know about that, Mr. Nelson.” Tommy replied. “I ain’t never seen it.”
“Well double negatives aside, Tommy, how did you know those lines were in the movie if you hadn’t seen it?”
“I don’t know,” Tommy answered. “Heard some people say it I guess.”
“What about the rest of you?” Mr. Nelson asked the others. “Have you seen it?” They all shook their head, no. “Well how did you know about the lines in the movie?” No one said anything. Mr. Nelson then asked each one individually, “Sam, how did you know?” Sam raised his shoulders to show he didn’t know to which Mr. Nelson replied, “Unbelievable.” He turned to Matthew, “Matthew, How’d you know that life was like a box of chocolates?” Matthew would only look down at the concrete. “Francis, what about you?” Francis couldn’t come up with a response. “Well the next time one of you decides to interrupt a conversation,” Mark said, “I ask that you please know what the hell you are talking about. Ms. Green and I would love to talk with you about anything. And believe me, if you had seen Forrest Gump, we’d welcome you right in to the conversation to talk with us. But you haven’t, therefore I ask that you keep your comments on the subject to yourselves.”
Julie couldn’t believe her ears. What she originally thought about Mark not being a disciplinarian was true. He wasn’t a disciplinarian. No, it was worse than that. He was a bully. The way he asked each student individually while waiting for a response was geared specifically towards having each one embarrass himself by admitting he had not seen the movie. She again remembered The Lion King debate earlier. Just like with her, Mark was making them feel stupid. And for what? To use as a teaching moment on why you shouldn’t interrupt? No. That could not be it. Because didn’t he say that the interruption would have been ok had they only seen the film? Besides, when he did it with her at the lunch table, it was not as if she had interrupted. No. She just mixed up on some movie trivia. The truth was that Julie couldn’t see Mark doing that if a student had interrupted them talking about anything but a movie. Now each student was sitting there waiting for his ride and staring down at the concrete. Each one was silent. Each one was embarrassed.
Mark finally broke the silence, “Well, Ms. Green, what did you think about it?” he asked.
“About what? Oh the movie? Yea,” she hesitated. “But hey, let’s talk about something everyone can be included in. Is that cool?”
Before they could switch the subject, Francis’s mom drove up in a blue two door Buick Regal. Still looking embarrassed, Francis stood from where he was sitting and without looking up from the concrete began to move toward his mom’s car. To Julie it appeared that Francis was attempting to make his way to his mom’s car without interacting with Mr. Nelson. Unfortunately, Mr. Nelson’s chair was situated such that it was directly in Francis’s path. So some interaction would be inevitable. Julie believed she could actually see Francis working through this dilemma in his head.
When Francis made it to where Mr. Nelson was sitting in his chair, Francis still had not looked up from the concrete. From where he was siting, Mark made his hand into a fist and put it right in Francis’s eye-line which caused Francis to look up and at a smiling Mark Nelson.
In the beginning of last year’s school year, nearly all of Mr. Nelson’s students had approached him with their own secret hand-shake they had made up. Each one was different and unique, and Mr. Nelson took the time to learn them all. Francis was no exception and he himself had come up with the most intricate hand-shake to share with Mr. Nelson. A secret hand-shake that was initiated with closed fists.
Like these things sometimes do, the Baxton Elementary secret hand-shake craze lasted no more than a week or two and died without much additional fanfare. It had been nearly a year and a half since Francis had even thought about it. Perhaps if you would have brought it up to the others they would have scoffed, claiming it was a stupid fourth grade thing. With Francis in the fifth grade now maybe he should think the same, but he didn’t. When Francis saw that closed fist he immediately thought about how fun it was to create his own secret hand-shake and how incredible it felt to have a teacher take all that time to perfect something that a kid had made.
Francis smiled back at Mr. Nelson and in that instant forgot why he was upset. The two performed the secret hand-shake together, twice. Then Francis got into his mom’s Regal and headed home for the holiday break. Only, Tommy, Sam, Matthew, and Phillip remained. Julie looked at her watch. It was 3:38 PM.
Keeping with her earlier suggestion that they talk about something else, Julie asked, “What are ya’ll getting for Christmas?”
Mark made eye-contact with Julie. While still looking in Julie’s eyes he nodded towards Philly. Then he nodded towards the three others students and grimaced. Julie immediately got his point. Julie had suggested that that they switch the subject to something that each of them could be included on. The nods were Mark telling her, “Read the room” or “Know your audience.” Julie’s question asking what the children were getting for Christmas was meant to be inclusive, but here Mark was telling her it singled Philly Suchie out.
Now Tommy, Sam, and Matthew were talking over one another. They were eager to say what they were getting, and they had been asked by a teacher to do it. It was too late to shut the lid so Mark Nelson powered on. “One at a time. Guys one at a time,” he said, before changing Julie’s question just slightly. “Ok, Matthew, you can go first. What is it that you want for Christmas?”
Looking up from the concrete, Matthew replied, “I want a Power Ranger.”
“Really,” Mr. Nelson inquired with a smile. “Which one is your favorite? I always liked the one who had the stick for his weapon. He wore a purple mask. Donatello wasn’t it?”
Matthew could tell that Mr. Nelson was joking. He returned a smile completely forgetting why he had been staring down at the concrete in the first place. “I like the white ranger. Well he used to be green, and a bad guy, but now he is white. His name is Tommy.”
“Yea, Tommy is the best,” Mr. Nelson agreed. “I always liked Tommy because he is the only ranger who gets to wear that badass gold vest. Speaking of Tommy, Tommy, what about you? What do you want?”
Tommy looked up. “I want a Dallas Cowboys Starter Jacket,” Tommy said in a way that evidenced that he really hoped Mr. Nelson thought it was as cool as he did.
Mark caught the boy’s intent. “Those are super nice, Tommy. You hoping for one that you pull over your head or one that is full zip?” Mark asked.
“Oh, pullover. Gotta have the pullover,” Tommy replied.
“Yea, I totally agree. Gotta be the pullover,” Mark said. “Though I have to admit I was a little concerned that pulling it over my head would mess up my hair.” All of the students laughed at this because there was no way to tame Mark’s tightly wound brown curls. He continued, “But then I was like, well the pullover has that huge pocket on the front that covers the whole stomach area. If you know anything about Mark Nelson, you know he likes his pockets big,” He hesitated, “and his vests gold. Not to mention, that big ass front pocket has a flap that fastens the pocket closed with Velcro. That front pocket Velcro flap combination makes the pullover untouchable in my eyes.”
Everyone laughed. “Which team?” This was Sam asking.
“Daaaaamn, Saaaam,” Mark said, making the words sound like they rhymed, “that’s a good question. Now, which team? Which team? Whiiiich teeaaam?”
Julie noticed that Mark liked to throw a curse word in when he spoke with the students. They ate this up. She figured it made them feel like adults. She had always thought it was sporadic, but thinking back on the latest discussions, she realized that Mark had said one curse word when speaking with each student. With Matthew it was: Badass Gold Vest. With Tommy it was: Big Ass Front Pocket. And just now with Sam it was: Damn Sam. Both the gold vest and front pocket were discussed multiple times later, but only once did they have the curse word modifier. For the first time Julie thought maybe it was all by design, but stopped herself before she would actually believe it. By design or not, she could see all the students thought that Mr. Nelson was the coolest teacher.
Not only that, but she could also see that by now all of the students had forgotten about the Forrest Gump lecture. She didn’t realize it, but she too had forgotten again about The Lion King debate. She checked her watch, and looked back towards Mark. He’s so charismatic, she thought. It’s no wonder why the students think he is so cool. And it wasn’t just that he was cool, but he was also a great teacher to boot. Mrs. Sampson had told her about how he had taken the time to learn over twenty five secret hand-shakes. To Julie this showed his unrivaled passion for his students and that he wasn’t the lazy bones she initially thought he was.
Half-way joking once, Julie told Mark that she figured him for lazy. He didn’t take offense, but the manner in which he gave his response was the first time Julie noticed how seriously he took his job. He told Julie that in the fifteen years he had been teaching; he has never had one of his student’s fail the fourth grade or any grade after. Mark said that he keeps track of all of his students and makes it his mission that they all matriculate.
Julie didn’t know how true that was, but certainly believed the other thing she had heard from Mrs. Sampson. Mrs. Sampson told Julie that Mr. Nelson’s students do the best in the nation on standardized tests, every year. This was certainly plausible for Julie, who had learned from Jet Finestein that Mark Nelson could teach test taking with the very best of them.
Thinking about Jet Finestein’s story made Julie think about why Mark lectured the kids earlier about Forrest Gump. Mark uses movies to teach, and they all acted like they had seen it. Maybe he was upset because if he crafted a lesson plan around a movie that everyone had pretended to see – she stopped herself. This was giving him way too much credit. Julie looked down at her watch, and once again turned her attention to the students telling of their Christmas wishes. Tommy was no longer waiting for his ride. Julie supposed he had been picked up while she was zoned out.
Only Sam, Matthew, and Philly remained, and Sam was going on and on about his upcoming Christmas trip to Universal Studios Florida. Mark Nelson was definitely interested in this discussion. The guy loved movies no doubt about that. She glanced at her watch again. It hadn’t changed from when she had checked it three seconds prior. It was still 3:44 PM.
Philly was glad he didn’t say nothing back when Ms. Green talked about Forrest Gump. But at least when Tommy, Matthew, Francis, and Sam interrupted grown-ups they only got talked to. A few weeks ago, Philly didn’t even know what interrupting grown-ups was or that it was bad. And when he did interrupt grown-ups, instead of being talked to like Mr. Nelson did, his momma’s friend Big Ern beat him with a large wooden spoon.
Philly had gotten spankings before, but only with a belt, three licks directly on the butt, and always with his pants up. He rarely cried anymore when he got them. Big Ern had made Philly pull his pants and underwear down to his ankles and grabbed Philly’s left wrist for leverage as he hit him nine times with a large wooden cooking spoon. Philly was crying hysterically after the first lick and began to squirm. Big Ern tightened his grip on Philly’s wrist to keep him from escaping, and swung the spoon at him again, this time striking Philly in his back. Throughout the beating, the man wielding the wooden spoon did not realign his aim to compensate for Philly’s movements. The next hit landed right on the back of Philly’s legs.
The hits kept coming and Philly kept squirming. Only the first blow landed on Philly’s buttocks.
With each blow, Big Ern told Philly he needed to quit squirming and take his beating like a man, but Philly could not make himself quit. After the fifth lick, Big Ern yelled, “I am not going to stop until you quit.” With all his might, Philly tried to stop, and eventually did. Unfortunately Big Ern had gotten in four more licks before Philly could do so.
After Big Ern finished his work, he congratulated Philly on taking it like a man and advised that the most important part of being a man is not telling anyone, especially that kike loving teacher, Ms. Green, about the spanking. If Philly could do this, Big Ern told him, he could have whatever in the world he wanted for Christmas. When Big Ern asked Philly what he wanted, he said he didn’t know yet. “No matter, just be thinking about it,” Big Ern told him, and that he should be ready to tell him whatever it was he wanted by the last day of school before the Christmas break. Philly agreed, and kept his end of the bargain by not telling a soul and thinking long and hard about what he wanted for Christmas.
Since that initial agreement, Big Ern had allowed Philly to expand his Christmas list to four things total. Philly could have one big thing and three medium sized things. Big Ern had congratulated Philly for taking the two last beatings like a man, and told him over and over that Philly acting like a man had earned him the right to add two more medium sized things to his Christmas list.
For the life of him, Philly did not remember what he had done wrong to justify these two additional beatings. He knew he had not interrupted grown-ups. That initial beating truly cured him of that. Nevertheless, he figured that he had done something wrong. He must have, right? Whatever it was, just like the first time, Big Ern had Philly pull down his pants and underwear and used a wooden spoon to beat Philly. As much as it hurt, Philly did not squirm. Philly was glad he only needed five licks one time and actually proud of himself that it was only three licks the second. He was convinced that he was really proving he was a man. Besides, he got to add two more medium sized things to his Christmas list.
Though Big Ern never said it, Philly understood that the big item on the Christmas list was not for any beating he got, but for the other thing him and Big Ern did together with his pants down. From the time of the first beating on, Big Ern continually asked Philly what the other part of being a man meant. Philly knew the answer. Never tell anyone about him and Big Ern, ever.
Waiting for his ride home, Philly thought little of the beatings and more about getting his Christmas list in order. He still didn’t know what he wanted. He had listened patiently to Matthew, Tommy, and Sam each tell Mr. Nelson what they wanted, and now knew that as soon as Sam finished it would be his turn.
Three medium sized things, and one big sized thing, Philly thought again to himself. Sam was nearing the end of his talk with Mr. Nelson about Universal Studios Florida. “I haven’t been since it first opened, and have been really wanting to go back,” Mr. Nelson told Sam. “You got to promise me, if you go, you will ride the E.T. Adventure.” Sam did. “Well, Philly, that just leaves you my man. What do you want?”
“Well I get to have three medium sized things, and one big sized thing.” Philly began just as a dark brown Toyota Corolla Wagon was pulling up.
Matthew and Sam are next door neighbors and their parents alternate weekly with car pool duties. Behind the wheel of the wagon was Sam’s mom whose turn it was to pick up the two from school this week. Only Philly remained, Julie checked her watch. It was 3:46 PM.
Though saving Philly for last was by design, Mark was upset that Philly had waited patiently to tell the other kids what he wanted for Christmas, and now he didn’t get to tell them. Mark had switched the focus of the question from what the kids were getting to what the kids were wanting. He knew this would be good for Philly for several reasons.
First, with Philly only saying what he wanted, he could say most anything without telling a lie. Philly had a bit of a reputation for lying. When Philly was in kindergarten it wasn’t so bad, because all the students stretched the truth. But now as they have gotten older the other students’ fabrications have nearly ceased. Philly’s lies though were as bad as ever. What’s worse, the students were now old enough to recognize these lies, and sadly still, they are old enough to call him out and make fun of him for telling these lies.
It wasn’t just that Mark knew Philly would lie about what he was getting for Christmas, and that the kids would later make fun of him when he didn’t get those things. But also, Mark knew why Philly would lie. Mark knew Philly would lie because of the students he was surrounded by. Mark knew Philly would lie because the truth sucks.
The truth was Philly’s family was struggling even before his dad had died. And with his Mom doing it all by herself now, Philly may get very little for Christmas. That is if he gets anything at all. Naturally, he would lie about that if he were asked what he was getting. Who wouldn’t? Not to mention, Matthew, Tommy, and Sam were some of the coolest kids at school, which was to say their families were the richest. Philly was not cool, but of course he really wanted to be. Being cool and having nice expensive things were synonymous at Baxton Elementary. There was just no way around it. No doubt, if Philly was given the chance to look cool around the cool kids, he would lie about what he was getting.
The good thing was that Matthew, Tommy, and Sam were not snobs. They were just used to getting nice things. It was all they ever knew. It made no difference to ask those three what they wanted versus what they were getting, because either question’s response would be congruent with their families’ means and would sound equally extravagant to Philly ears. If Philly were to go first he may later be embarrassed by what he said after hearing from the others. This was why Mark had planned to ask him what he wanted last. Mark figured this way Philly would just base his list off the others’ instead of just guessing what was cool. Now though it was too late.
“So you said you get to have three medium sized things, and one big sized thing?” Mark asked Philly.