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They were all freshman and all players on the school soccer team, and they seemed to have adopted him, his jokes, and his class as their own personal mascot. There was Nick and Adam and Seth: all awkward bones and muddy knees. Sometimes he caught a smell off of them, the smell of the terrible loneliness of male adolescence, and it made him want to cry. It smelled like tears.

The fourth boy in his fan club was Hakim. Hakim was one of the three black boys in the whole freshman class, bussed in, like his comrades, from Spring City. Hakim was very popular, one of the most popular freshman boys, always in the middle of a press of kids. The three other boys deferred to him, sometimes waiting for him to laugh before reacting to a joke. But if Charles ever happened to pass Hakim in the hall, the smell of loneliness came off him so strong, it made his eyes water. Sometimes, when everyone else was supposed to be busy with some quiz, he would catch Hakim watching him shyly, quickly glancing away when he realized he was caught.

He never paid the boy the indignity of acknowledging this. He suspected that Hakim had led the charge in popularizing his class and he was grateful for that. There were five girls, too, who always sat in the front row. Megan, Kristen, Jen A. Poor Doreen, saddled with the name of a different time. Or so he imagined.

Down to a girl, the skin on their cheeks was a wind-chapped red and they all wore their hair in scraggly, greasy ponytails, pulled back so tight he could see the knobs of their temples. They wore oversized fleece pullovers zipped up to right beneath their chins, the grubbier the better. They allowed a scrum of dog hair and dust bunnies to nap up their sleeves.

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This was maybe one of the biggest differences in the students here, besides the obvious one of his old classes being all black and these ones being nearly all white. The girls he taught back in Boston, even the bookworms, would have writhed in mortification if ever caught wearing one of those fleeces.

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The girls in Boston, it had saddened him to see, wore tighter and tighter clothes each year, growing more swollen, constricting themselves even further in brightly dyed tight denim and greening gold chains. Thank god Charlotte escaped all of that. He hated this town now but he was still grateful it let her escape all of that.

He found her obnoxious: he had her first period on Wednesdays and Fridays and she made a point of sitting right up front and passionately doodling in a notebook, making a show of being oblivious to the entire class. No danger of too tight jeans and all they brought with them from that one. He turned from the board to see that everyone had assumed their places.

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The girls in the front, his boy fan club a few rows behind them, their fellow students sprinkled in between. In the very back were the louts.


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This never changed. It would be that way until the end of time.

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The class chuckled. This was a trick of teaching patter: establish an inside joke and make call-backs to it.

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Fish in ponds? Make mud pies? The kids thought he was mocking the innocence of it, calling it lame, so they laughed heartily, too. Now he joked about it whenever possible, it always got them on his side. As he spoke, he made his way around to the front of his desk and, with a purposeful squat, hopped on the top, swinging his legs back and forth. A part of him was always twelve years old.

This fascinated him: did everyone contain a multitudes of selves? That was, perhaps, the source of their cleaving in a nutshell. Laurel could not conceive of anyone that she loved not being of the same mind as her. I thought we were of the same mind. It started from the back of the class. It honestly sounded like somebody retching and he was momentarily panicked: the one thing that dazed him in a classroom was when a kid was sick. His palms began to sweat at the thought of having to deal with it, all while trying not to retch himself.

Megan and Kristen were the same. It was only outdated Doreen who could look him in the eyes, and when she did he realized, with a start, that she was crying. The boys, his fans, looked murderous. Hakim was staring straight ahead in a mounting, unvoiced rage, his fists clenched and vibrating on his desktop. This was what made him listen closer to the sound.

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It was wordless and bass and hollow. At first he thought maybe it was supposed to be an owl call, and that was weird, why would one of the louts disrupt a lecture with an owl call? Charles cocked his head and made a theatrical show of listening again. The sound grew louder. It was hooting, he realized. It was supposed to be hooting and then it struck him: it was a really bad imitation of a monkey.

He sat back against his desk.

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He folded his arms across his chest, still trying to control the class, while inside he only wanted to cry. It was baffling, how even rebellion came in only one shape: slouched shoulders, head low, insult the obvious. In Boston it had been to call him a nerd, to make fun of his smarts, but this was so far from an insult it made Charles love those students more.

The hooting grew louder and louder and Charles leaned back against the desk, his heart racing, love on his tongue, feigning detachment.


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He told himself I am not angry, I am not angry, I am not angry. He would put it aside. It was what he always did. One of the worst things to do was to lose your temper, was to let them see your anger. It was true of children. Anger had to be carefully deployed. Children and white people, they expected you to become angry, they thrilled at it, a little bit.

They pretended to be afraid, but it was a game some of them liked to play with black men. His students back in Boston had done the same: he had never wanted to give them the satisfaction of getting angry. A bunch of little boys are not capable of embarrassing me. No amount of noise changes that. There was more rustling. One of the kids in the back leaned forward: a long skinny tibia of a freshman named Martin Wade. In fact, Martin had always struck him less as defiant and more as terminally bashful.

It had broken out of him. Martin still leaned forward, his mouth agape.