Pay It Forward
CHAPTER ONE Reuben January 1992
The woman smiled so politely that he felt offended.
“Let me tell Principal Morgan that you’re here, Mr. St. Clair. She’ll want to talk with you.” She walked two steps, turned back. “She likes to talk to everyone, I mean. Any new teacher.”
He should have been used to this by now.
More than three minutes later she emerged from the principal’s office, smiling too widely. Too openly. People always display far too much acceptance, he’d noticed, when they are having trouble mustering any for real.
“Go right on in, Mr. St. Clair. She’ll see you.”
The principal appeared to be about ten years older than Reuben, with a great deal of dark hair, worn up, a Caucasian, and attractive.
“We are so pleased to meet you face-to-face, Mr. St. Clair.” Then she flushed, as if the mention of the word “face” had been an unforgivable error.
“Please call me Reuben.”
“Reuben, yes. And I’m Anne.”
She met him with a steady, head-on gaze and at no time appeared startled. So she had been verbally prepared by her assistant. And somehow the only thing worse than an unprepared reaction was the obviously rehearsed absence of one.
He hated these moments so.
She motioned toward a chair, and he sat.
“I’m not quite what you were expecting, am I, Anne?”
“In what respect?”
“Please don’t do this. You must appreciate how many times I’ve replayed this same scene. I can’t bear to talk around an obvious issue.”
She tried to establish eye contact, as one normally would when addressing a coworker in conversation, but she could not make it stick. “You know this has nothing to do with your being African American,” she said.
“Oh, yes,” he said. “I do know that. I know exactly what it’s about.”
“If you think your position is in any jeopardy, Reuben, you’re worrying for nothing.”
“Do you really have this little talk with everyone?”
“Of course I do.”
“Before they even address their first class?”
Pause. “Not necessarily. I just thought we might discuss the subject of . . . initial adjustment.”
“You worry that my appearance will alarm the students.”
“What has your experience been with that in the past?”
“The students are always easy, Anne. This is the difficult moment. Always.”
“With all respect, I’m not sure you do,” he said. Out loud.
* * *
At his former school, in Cincinnati, Reuben had a friend named Louis Tartaglia. Lou had a special way of addressing an unfamiliar class. He would enter, on that first morning, with a yardstick in his hand. Walk right into the flap and fray. They like to test a teacher, you see, at first. He would ask for silence, which he never received on the first request. After counting to three, he would bring this yardstick up
over his head and smack it down on the desktop in such a way that it would break in two. The free half would fly up into the air behind him, hit the blackboard, and clatter to the floor. Then, in the audible silence to follow, he would say, simply, “Thank you.” And he’d have no trouble with the class after that.
Reuben warned him that someday a piece would fly in the wrong direction and hit a student, causing a world of problems, but it had always worked as planned, so far as he knew.
“It boils down to unpredictability,” Lou explained. “Once they see you as unpredictable, you hold the cards.”
Then he asked what Reuben did to quiet an unfamiliar and unruly class, and Reuben replied that he had never experienced the problem; he had never been greeted by anything but stony silence and was never assumed to be predictable.
“Oh. Right,” Lou said, as if he should have known better.
And he should have.
* * *
Reuben stood before them, for the first time, both grateful for and resentful of their silence. Outside the windows on his right was California, a place he’d never been before. The trees were different; the sky
did not say winter as it had when he’d started the long drive from Cincinnati. He wouldn’t say from home, because it was not his home, not really. And neither was this. And he’d grown tired of feeling like a stranger.
He performed a quick head count, seats per row, number of rows. “Since I can see you’re all here,” he said, “we will dispense with the roll call.”
It seemed to break a spell, that he spoke, and the students shifted a bit, made eye contact with one another. Whispered across aisles. Neither better nor worse than usual. He turned away to write his name on the board. Mr. St. Clair. Also wrote it out underneath, Saint Clair, as an aid to pronunciation. Then he paused before turning back, so they would have time to finish reading his name.
In his mind, his plan, he thought he’d start right off with the assignment. But it caved from under him, like skidding down the side of a sand dune. He was not Lou, and sometimes people needed to know him first. Sometimes he was startling enough on his own, before his ideas even showed themselves.
“Maybe we should spend this first day,” he said, “just talking. Since you don’t know me at all. We can start by talking about appearances. How we
feel about people because of how they look. There are no rules. You can say anything you want.”
Apparently, they did not believe him yet, because they said the same things they might have with their parents looking on. To his disappointment.
Then, in what he supposed was an attempt at humor, a boy in the back row asked if he was a pirate.
“No,” he said. “I’m not. I’m a teacher.”
“I thought only pirates wore eye patches.”
“People who have lost eyes wear eye patches. Whether they are pirates or not is beside the point.”
* * *
The class filed out, to his relief, and he looked up to see a boy standing in front of his desk. A thin white boy, but very dark haired, possibly part Hispanic, who said, “Hi.”
“What happened to your face?”
Reuben smiled, which was rare for him, being self-conscious about the lopsided effect. He pulled a chair around so the boy could sit facing him and motioned for him to sit, which he did without hesitation. “What’s your name?”
“McKinney. Did I hurt your feelings?”
“No, Trevor. You didn’t.”
“My mom says I shouldn’t ask people things like that, because it might hurt their feelings. She says you should act like you didn’t notice.”
“Well, what your mom doesn’t know, Trevor, because she’s never been in my shoes, is that if you act like you didn’t notice, I still know that you did. And then it feels strange that we can’t talk about it when we’re both thinking about it. Know what I mean?”
“I think so. So, what happened?”
“I was injured in a war.”
“My daddy was in Vietnam. He says it’s a nightmare.”
“I would tend to agree. Even though I was there for only seven weeks.”
“My daddy was there two years.”
“Was he injured?”
“Maybe a little. I think he has a sore knee.”
“I was supposed to stay two years, but I got hurt so badly that I had to come home. So, in a way, I was lucky that I didn’t have to stay, and in
a way, your daddy was lucky because he didn’t get hurt that badly. If you know what I mean.” The boy didn’t look too sure that he did. “Maybe someday I’ll meet your dad. Maybe on parents’ night.”
“I don’t think so. We don’t know where he is. What’s under the eye patch?”
“How can it be nothing?”
“It’s like nothing was ever there. Do you want to see?”
Reuben took off the patch.
No one seemed to know quite what he meant by “nothing” until they saw it. No one seemed prepared for the shock of “nothing” where there would be an eye on everyone else they had ever met. The boy’s head rocked back a little, then he nodded. Kids were easier. Reuben replaced the patch.
“Sorry about your face. But, you know, it’s only just that one side. The other side looks real good.”
“Thank you, Trevor. I think you are the first person to offer me that compliment.”
“Well, see ya.”
Reuben moved to the window and looked out over the front lawn. Watched students clump and
talk and run on the grass, until Trevor appeared, trotting down the front steps.
It was ingrained in Reuben to defend this moment, and he could not have returned to his desk if he’d tried. He needed to know if Trevor would run up to the other boys to flaunt his new knowledge. To collect on any bets or tell any tales, which Reuben would not hear, only imagine from his second-floor perch, his face flushing under the imagined words. But Trevor trotted past the boys without so much as a glance, stopping to speak to no one.
It was almost time for Reuben’s second class to arrive. So he had to get started, preparing himself to do it all over again.
From The Other Faces Behind the Movement by Chris Chandler
There is nothing monstrous or grotesque about my face. I get to state this with a certain objectivity, being perhaps the only one capable of such. I am the only one used to seeing it, because I am the only one who dares, with the help of a shaving mirror, to openly stare.
I have undergone eleven operations, all in all, to repair what was, at one time, unsightly damage. The area that was my left eye, and the lost bone and muscle under cheek and brow, have been neatly covered with skin removed from my thigh. I have endured numerous skin grafts and plastic surgeries. Only a few of these were necessary for health or function. Most were intended to make me an easier individual to meet. The final result is a smooth, complete absence of an eye, as if one had never existed; a great loss of muscle and mass in cheek and neck; and obvious nerve damage to the left corner of my mouth. It is dead, so to speak, and droops. But after many years of speech therapy, my speech is fairly easily understood.
So, in a sense, it is not what people see in my face that disturbs them, but rather what they expect to see and do not.
I also have minimal use of my left arm, which is foreshortened and thin from lack of use, and I am deaf in one ear. My guess is that people rarely notice this until I’ve been around awhile, because my face tends to steal the show.
I have worked in schools, lounged in staff rooms, where a Band-Aid draws comment and requires explanation. “Richie, what did you do to your
hand?” A cast on an arm becomes a story told for six weeks, multiplied by the number of employees. “Well, I was on a ladder, see, preparing to clean my storm drains. . . .”
So it seems odd to me that no one will ask. If they suddenly did, and I were forced to repeat the story, I might decide I liked things better before. But it’s not so much that they don’t ask, but why they don’t ask, as if I am an unspeakable tragedy, as new and shocking to myself as to them.