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On the day we call the cops on him, L. tells me he’s always been a fighter.

No guns, though.  He looks up at me from where he’s hunched, a skinny kid sitting on a rickety chair.  Not before what happened.

What happened before was L. was riding his bike and some bad boys shot him in the spine.  He wasn’t supposed to walk again.  He walks fine now.  He swaggers.  His khaki pants are too big and he cinches up his belt higher than the other boys.  I don’t think he can handle wrestling with the constant creep of a sagging waistline.

bellocqsadeleCarriSkoczekTwenty years ago I published my first book with a small press, and it won an award my hometown newspaper described as “the prestigious Flannery O’Connor Award.” My father still thinks that’s the award name, though he says The Prestigious Flannery O’Connell Award. All writers hope that getting their first book published will change their lives. It does, variably. I got a teaching job, also firsthand insight that hardly anyone reads a small press book with a good award except writers and aspiring writers—especially an aspiring writer enrolled in your class and perhaps his mother. One day a student a few years younger than me told me his mother had read my book. I braced myself. I was in one of my grim starter marriages, and my grim father-in-law had weighed in. He’d skimmed my book and grimaced. “Trying too hard to be naughty.” He compared me unfavorably to Shakespeare, whom he couldn’t have read closely.  “Why sex?”

At the end of the day I taught one class. That was my training over. Two hours of listening to Debbie talk and seven hours of watching teachers teach. I’d really learned nothing except that appearance was all that mattered. The kids clearly weren’t learning anything, and most of the Korean teachers spoke almost no English. The place was a joke. If I decided to jump about and spout gibberish I would have been considered a good teacher… as long as I smiled and wore a tie.

When I was in elementary school, my motto was “Another day, another A.” I didn’t go around chanting it in the hallways or anything like that; I wasn’t quite that smug (at least not publicly). This mantra of mine was more like a private joke, something my mother and I could laugh about when I got home each afternoon. After all, school was so easy. Why shouldn’t I boast about it? It made us both giddy. And as I piled up A’s, I also piled up awards: scholarship awards, citizenship awards, perfect attendance awards. I looked forward to the end-of-year assemblies, daydreaming about the accolades I might receive this year. By the time I reached fourth grade, Mrs. Corbet’s class, my obsessive grade-mongering was beginning to take on maniacal proportions.