Edwin Avery eased into a parking space he had used for over twenty years. One piston inside the engine of his fifteen-year-old Hyundai puttered oddly as he twisted the key to silence it. Stepping onto the gritty parking lot on a warm spring day in mid-March, Mr. Avery cracked his windows before locking the doors, a routine he had observed since the air conditioning died. He entered the paint-chipped doors of the high school like always, and in a few moments, he was unlocking his classroom and propping open the door with a battered wooden wedge.
He pulled a few packages of pop tarts and individually wrapped bags of sausage biscuits from his worn satchel and placed them on the table near the microwave before sitting at his desk where a stack of papers awaited him. Moments after he began scoring essays with his signature purple pen (red looked like blood on the page) three young men wandered in, grabbing the sausage biscuits and nuking them, their eyes bleary from little sleep.
“Hey, Mr. Avery,” said Laurence, the taller of the three. He had made varsity on the basketball team this year, his father missing most of them due to a needed night job.
“Good day, Larry,” said Edwin with a smile. “Exciting game the other night. I had to check my blood pressure when I arrived home. Buzzer beaters are indeed stressful.”
Larry laughed, but it was the forced chuckle of a student laughing at a teacher’s joke. Edwin had been thinking much about Larry lately, namely his concentration in class, his focus on the basketball court, all due (he surmised) from the fact that his last meal was at school yesterday.
“Yeah, Mr. Avery,” Victor said, playing with his dreads, pulling at them just over his forehead.
“You got an old ticker?”
“Have,” Mr. Avery corrected. “And yes. I am, in relativity to you, old.”
They all laughed together at the awkward joke, and soon they were gobbling their food and Mr. Avery went back to scoring essays.
After a time, the first bell rang. Today was one of those “easier” days in the life of an English teacher, however, as it was the final workday for students to perfect their final drafts before submitting them to Mr. Avery’s wooden “in” box. He would take them home this weekend and score them, and in the meantime, he could conference with students who needed help. Most of the time, however, he sat at his desk with his little black book, a gift from his wife last Christmas, writing story ideas for contests and magazine submissions.
The students mostly sat in silence, their pencils and pens feverishly scribbling away, a few of them just now starting on a rough draft in order to just “play ball”, as Mr. Avery worked on an outline for a novel he had envisioned after another sleepless night.
A red ribbon ran through the middle of the little book, and about every hour he would pull the ribbon to the right and stare at the list of names. It was a list of names he had been keeping all year, transferred from another list after Christmas.
There was Jacob, who one day had been acting out during discussion time, not participating with his group, and when Mr. Avery had called him out into the hallway and asked “are you ok?”, Jacob told him about his estranged father. Jacob’s mother and father had divorced, and since Jacob was eighteen, they felt they didn’t want him in their lives. He was living with a friend, and that day his father had called him to talk about Jacob’s favorite car: a Ford Mustang. The cruel caveat to the conversation was that Jacob’s father had purchased a brand new Mustang and an antique fixer-upper, He informed Jacob that he would repair the older car with his “new” son and the new Mustang was going to be “mine so’s I can cruise the chicks while my wife ain’t home”.
There was Natalie, the girl who, in a run-on sentence, told him that her mother died three years ago, and her father had just suffered a near aneurism but the vessel didn’t burst “thank God” and she was his only transportation to the hospital emergency room because they didn’t have insurance. She was also driving her father’s car because her car was a “useless hunk of steel” rusting in the yard.
There was McKenzie, a girl who came to school every day even though she lived with different friends every week. D’Shawn’s father was in prison for something he didn’t do. He hadn’t seen Mallorie in a while because she had her baby and she lived at a friend’s because her mom kicked her out.
Their names hung in his mind. He sat at his desk every day and saw their faces in his memory.
Every hour he thought about them, perhaps saw them in class or in the hallway. He agonized over them. To try to keep his sanity he’d turn back to his outline and try to focus on it, then a nervous student who didn’t speak because she had been abused and only communicated in writing and emails dropped her essay in his box.
He smiled at her, she didn’t smile back, and it was ok.
He did this all day. Every day. He walked around the room and talked to his kids, and even though he had his own kids, half of them grown, these kids were as dear to him as if his wife of twenty-two years had birthed them all.
At lunch, he sat in his room as the crowd of students flocked in to line up at his microwave, bring in their free lunches (most of them), and raid his stash of snacks and bottles of water he had purchased for dirt cheap at Save-A-Lot every two weeks. He looked at his package of tuna and ziplock bag of carrots and celery and thought about getting paid in a few days and stocking up on snacks again.
The rest of the day rolled along, and soon he gathered up all of the essays, paper-clipping them according to period. He placed them carefully in an accordion folder and shuffled out the door and to his car again. He unlocked his car door, listened to the audible creak of the hinges, and pulled it closed only to notice a thick envelope lying on his passenger’s seat.
He set his bag and his accordion folder on the floorboard and gingerly picked up the envelope, feeling its hefty weight in his hands. On the back a note was scrawled in black ink:
Mr. Avery: You always believed in me no matter what. You came to all of my games and you always tried to help any kid who needed it. I’m sorry for giving you so much crap all those years ago. This is for you because you deserve it. Thank you so much for all you did for me and for so many other kids.
Devoid of a salutation, he found only the message. Even though he could recognize student handwriting from year-to-year, he didn’t recognize this at all. The envelope was heavy in his hands, and as he opened it his eyes widened to find a one-inch stack of hundred dollar bills, all of them crisp and new.
He immediately looked out the window, hoping that he would see someone looking at him, but he only saw current students strolling out of the building in groups. There were students who had stayed for tutoring or other reasons in this rural school moving by his car and into the parking lot in that teenage haze of only noticing what is directly in front of them. Some of them looked his way because they recognized the car, and most of them smiled and nodded or waved.
He sat in the car for some time, his thumb flipping through the cash, more than he’d ever held in his hands at one time even after doing a fundraiser. His heart raced, he broke out in a sweat, and he had to roll the window down to get some air.
Then he began to cry. The tears flowed from his eyes as he thought about all the kids over the years who he’d cared for, who had come to his room for food, had been given extra time on their assignment because they had been suffering extreme trauma.
He sat for some time until his wife called him on his archaic flip-phone to inform him that “this casserole wasn’t going to eat itself”. He started the car with a grind, puttered out of the parking lot and out onto the street, his car disappearing in a puff of blue smoke.
A few weeks later, at a run-down house across town, Jacob Neustadt answered the front door to find a delivery driver and a huge box. His best friend Andrew, a kid whose parents were in the process of figuring out how to find Jacob a place of his own, helped him bring the box into the cluttered living room. They opened it to find stacks of new clothing, all in Jacob’s size. There was a new backpack, about fifteen books by various authors, and a gift card to a restaurant just down the street.
McKenzie Johnson, called to the counselor’s office one afternoon, was introduced to a manager from a nearby motel who told her that someone had paid for a room for her for the rest of the year.
Natalie Kious, on her way to help her ailing father out the door to go to the ER again, was greeted by a twenty-four-year-old student gig worker who was delivering food to her house for dinner. Different drivers, and sometimes the same student, arrived at her house each night for the rest of the semester with another meal from yet another restaurant.
Emory Lewis, a teen mother Mr. Avery hadn’t seen in a while because she had been kicked out of her mom’s house and was working two jobs, used her last ten dollars to buy the cheapest can of formula at Save-A-Lot. Once she arrived at her friend’s house, her current home, she found three-hundred dollars under the flimsy plastic lid. Young mothers and some dads found the same thing when they bought the cheapest formula from that Save-A-Lot.
Mr. Avery pulled into the parking lot on Monday and rolled his ancient car into his space, turning the ignition off to listen to the one faulty piston sputter to a stop. He grabbed his satchel and fumbled with his keys as he entered the building to unlock his classroom. He dumped out some pre-packaged sausage biscuits on the table near the old microwave and went to his desk to remove the accordion folder and arrange the stacks of graded essays on his desk. He reached back into the bag and carefully removed the little black book, placing it on his old-fashioned blotter.
Soon, a line of students formed at the door. He stood at the portal and extended his little black bag full of poker chips that would determine where each student would sit this week. They chose their colored poker chip and sat at their designated tables, some of them high-fiving each other when they randomly sat with their friends.
After everyone had settled, he passed back their essays, stopping to discuss the grade with those who had questions. After this, he stood near the whiteboard and with a black marker wrote “Essay Comment Discussion”.
“Ok, friends,” he said loudly, using his teacher’s voice. “Today we are going to look at the comments I wrote on your papers, and then we are going to do some peer review to help each other become better writers…”
On Mr. Avery’s desk, the little black book was open to the page marked by the ribbon. All of the names were crossed out.