He was of average height and build, with blond hair and a disconcerting smile: his mouth expanded, his teeth flashed white, but his eyes expressed no joy or excitement. At best they looked nervous and slightly desperate, like those of an animal caught in a trap. At worst they looked dulled over, like the animal resigned to its fate, seconds from death.
With magnanimity I confessed that I hadn’t yet learned his name.
“It’s Kyle,” he said.
I probed for the last name in the time-honored way. “Kyle…?”
“Kyle,” he repeated. His dead-eyed smile sprawled across his face.
“Okay. And you’re the one with the roommate who…?”
“I’m sorry about that, Mr. Wilson. I won’t be late again. My dad was angry, but I told my mom what you said about plugging in my alarm clock even though it has batteries and she said you were completely right. I just didn’t know.”
He looked so crestfallen I apologized for not having cared more, though frankly my heart wasn’t really in it.
“…and I’m sorry your father was angry at you,” I concluded.
“He wasn’t angry at me, Mr. Wilson.”
“Okay, then. Well, what can I–”
“He was angry at you.”
I tried to hide my irritation. Angry at me? Because his kid hadn’t managed to come to class on time? Would excusing the tardiness have been fair to the students who had gotten up when they should have, and who had spent twenty-five minutes in an active discussion that Kyle had missed?
Already I wanted Kyle to leave my office. “What brings you here, Kyle?”
He smiled nervously and said that he would be presenting on Friday. Since he was the first one to present, he wondered if I could tell him what the grade would be based on.
“Effectiveness,” I said grandly. “You have to be able to identify the important points and convey them to your fellow classmates. But don’t worry. I’ll be there to make sure things stay on track.”
“Are we graded on creativity? You said we should be creative.”
“Absolutely!” I said. “The best presentations are the ones with energy. Teaching’s not as easy as it looks, you know, especially on a Friday morning on a campus where the parties begin on Thursday nights. Not all students have learned the trick of plugging in their alarm clock.”
This was meant as an olive branch, but he only nodded seriously. I sensed that he was a little dull, and that he knew that this was one of his weaknesses. Something he would have to overcome.
“Have fun with this,” I said. “Surprise me.”
On Friday I launched into some preliminaries to warm up the class. I previewed the Michael Pollan essay we would be discussing on Monday. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw Kyle. I didn’t want to stare at him, but he didn’t look too good. He looked gray.
Oh, great. A kid with stage fright for the very first one. Well, this will be good for him. He’ll need to be able to speak in public to advance in this life.
I wrapped up my introductory remarks and turned the floor over to Kyle.
“Kyle’s not here,” a creaky voice said.
I blinked and stared. Kyle had spoken, but it did not sound like him.
“Kyle…?” I said carefully. “Kyle, it’s time for you to…”
As my words trailed off, Kyle finally rose from his desk. He was wearing a robe and holding a plastic pipe. He had some kind of powder in his hair. He shuffled to the front of the room, using a cane for support.
I thought he might have lost his mind.
“Um…okay, everyone, Kyle’s presenting today—the topic is semi-colons, I think.”
“Kyle’s not here!” Kyle said sharply. He had adopted a high-pitched, quavering, old-man’s voice. Air whistled through his teeth as he feigned anger. Continue reading