‘Hey Vernon,’ I say with a smile. ‘What’s going on?’
My bus stop is next. Vernon’s is the one after that, about five miles down the road, maybe more. He swings around in the aisle and regards me furiously with his one good eye.
‘Why’n’t you just bend down over and suck,’ he says. Then he kangaroo kicks me in the stomach. His Keds against my gut. Hard. I buckle, suck in air or try to, images searing my eleven-year-old brain. Bend down over and—oh, the horror! He stands aside, fists clenched, and somehow I make it past him and the hulking albino driver that we call Shorty and off the bus, half falling on to the snow.
Bend down over and what? Genitals, in our sixth grade imaginations, were the elephaunt in the room. We were in denial. Give us ghosts, poachers, rabies, teen pregnancies—even the devil himself, who was kind of big in those days—but genitals. Oh my god. Noooooooh! Rumors abounded of the sucking and bending down variety but we knew they weren’t true. Except when they were. Janet-who-lived-by-the-tracks not Janet-who-lived-on-a-farm-and-had-horses had shown us pictures. She’d swiped them from her step-brother. They were frankly unbelievable. And now here Vernon Sweeting had painted me in the same light: unbelievable. A fiction. Bending down and sucking. On myself. Impossible! But Vernon said so (it was an insult, not an invitation. That much was clear). He’d carved this word picture on my psyche where it would be etched forever. From now on that’s how I’d see myself, eternally bent down over and sucking. And that’s what really hurt.
Because I did really want to love Vernon (not hate him) but most of all I wanted him to love (not hate) me. I would have taken another kick in the guts, anything except those world-changing words. They ruined everything, I thought sinking deeper into the snow. What a hero I could have been, instead of the self-sucking loser I clearly was. A hero: loftily reaching out to Vernon Sweeting, the second baddest boy in the whole damn school. Big bad sad half-blind Vernon, with those taped-up bottle-top glasses, one eye a wary blue, the other masked by a thick yellow cataract like a torn blind on a haunted house. Lived in a trailer outside of town, dwarfed by tire mountains and engine blocks and rusty tractors. A black dog chained to a shed. A mama I never saw and a daddy who walked with a gimp. I was then as I am now, a girl who likes to get a rise out of a boy, but I hadn’t been trying to get a rise out of Vernon. I’d only been trying to do good, at least that’s what I told myself. Because of her.
Mrs T. My sixth grade teacher. I idolized her with the grave, fierce devotion of the acolyte. She’d turned me on to writing with her daily journal exercise and I was hooked. Fifteen minutes every school morning that made everything in between seem like a dream. Mrs T was young and slim with coarse dark hair and coal-black eyes and a scrubbed, sculpted face that could have been Irish or Mohawk or both. She’d responded to the pedagogical call with a rare combination of passion and compassion, guts and brains. She had faith in us, all of us. We were the future. We all loved her, we all rose to her challenge, clamored for the torch she took it upon herself to pass on. It couldn’t have been easy. There were a lot of Vernons in my school, an incendiary mix of kicks and townies and migrant workers. The staff was told not to smile until Christmas but I remember Mrs T’s four-seasons grin. She smiled at the Muhaneys who all lived in a single room with no hot water and came to school barefoot until one of the little girls died and they all moved away, and she smiled at Dougie Burns, who was Vernon’s arch enemy and lived in a trailer too. Dougie was the first worst kid in the school and had a mean shifty way about him, but Mrs T had faith in him too.
Vernon, though, wasn’t mean and he became her special project. One day he brought a garter snake to school in a shoe box and she rustled up a tank and helped him set it up. She got him to research snakes and to present the research and the snake to the class for Science. The snake lived with us in room 6T and everyone knew it was Vernon’s and that Mrs T had given it her blessing which elevated it to a kind of god-like status in our minds. The Snake God of room 6 T. Vernon loved it fiercely and fed it every day and shoved his desk up next to it, and Mrs T let him. She encouraged us to ask him if we could have a turn feeding it. Vernon took some time to think about and then to frame his answer. It wasn’t like he was used to having anything anyone else would want, let alone being asked for it politely. Because of the glasses and the cataract and his poverty and his slurred mumble and god knows what else, Vernon had been teased and humiliated to the point of becoming, not a bully himself like Dougie, but a fortress nonetheless. But Mrs T was patient. She taught us to be patient, too. He’d mutter yeah or no without looking you in the eye and that was just fine. What Vernon gave Vernon could take away. Mrs T said so. And she said so not by saying, but by doing. It was in this way—by doing, or trying to do as she did—that we came to understood that Vernon deserved respect and that beneath all that hurt and fear and neglect was a rare species of soul and one that had to be handled with care.
I understood so hard it hurt.
One day I went to the classroom during lunch for some reason but got only as far as the door. Vernon and Mrs T were beside the tank and Vernon was crying. Not sobbing or anything. Not covering his face with his hands. Just standing on one side of the tank with his glasses off and his face streaked and red and she was sitting on a stool opposite him not smiling a bit. Something told me now would not be a good time to go into the room, but it was only as I began to walk away down the hall that I saw what I was meant to see.
The tank was empty.
When the lunch bell rang we gathered around the classroom door but it was closed and Mrs T was standing outside it. She’d been crying too, we could tell. We joined the other sixth grade class for part of the afternoon. When we went back to our own room, Mrs T was back at her desk but Vernon was not at his and Dougie Burns was not at his. Mrs T told us that someone had gotten into the tank and stolen Vernon’s snake. She told us this in such a way as to break our hearts, many of us for the first time. She didn’t have to ask if anyone knew anything about who would do such a thing because we all knew it backwards.
Dougie Burns and Vernon Sweeting and Mrs T seemed to spend a fair bit of time out of the classroom that week. Spies and runners confirmed seeing one or more of them—including Dougie’s mom and Vernon’s dad, in or around Principal Snyder’s office. Importantly, the empty tank disappeared. It was there one day and gone the next. In its place nothing until someone shoved the globe along a bit so it filled the space. I wonder now if Mrs T got into trouble, maybe for going out too far on a limb for Vernon. Did his father blame her for what happened, for taking it upon herself to save his son? If Vernon’s dad knew what hubris meant, did he throw the word at her? Did he tell her to bend down over and suck?
Mrs T taught me that to write was one way to change the world. She taught Vernon that to love was another. Maybe she got into trouble for her trouble, for her care. But if Principal Snyder kicked her in the guts, Mrs T had guts to spare and came back swinging. And smiling. I remember the smile she shot Vernon when he finally showed up to class one morning. Shuffled past Dougie and where the tank had been, sat down at his desk and took out his journal.
‘Okay,’ she smiled and turned around to slot the tape in the recorder. Some mornings she played music for us to write to and it was one of those mornings.
So that afternoon I just sat there in the snow, my ass getting numb trying not to think about what it would be like to suck on my own genitals. Sometimes I wonder about Vernon and think that anyone with access to that kind of language will do all right for himself. I hope so, because his kick wasn’t worth a pinch of shit. But back then I was mad and humiliated and all that genital stuff made me feel like hurting someone. I lived in one of the last houses in town. Across the street was the Mobil station where the older kids would gather in a few hours to smoke and drink beer. The highway stretched out in a cold hard line beneath the snow-whitened sky. I pushed myself to my feet, beating snow off my tights. I would tell her—I would write tomorrow in my journal about what Vernon said and how much it hurt and look what a mean venomous snake was her pet Vernon.
But the story, when I started writing it in my journal the next day, came out as something entirely different.