Making Out is a series centered on how issues observed in the high school classroom by writer and teacher, Jess Burnquist, translate to daily life in the glare of parenthood and the shadows of nostalgia.
I am in a meeting with two other teachers, two parents, an administrator and a student who sits at the head of the glossy boardroom table looking simultaneously smug and small. There are introductions and a fluorescent light buzzes at odd intervals almost in tandem with pauses in pre-meeting conversation. ‘Michael’ is a sophomore and this meeting has been called to address his behavior—his lack of focus. I notice the lack of eye contact between him and his parents. Brief introductions are made and then it is go-time. Each teacher is to give Michael feedback about how his choices are negatively impacting his progress.
I think about Michael while the science teacher says that during note-taking the boy draws comics. Michael’s eyes spark at that statement, but he says nothing. Michael’s math teacher nods and says that not only is Michael always drawing, but he also constantly asks why, why, why. Michael’s father turns toward his son and raises an eyebrow. Michael meets his stare and doesn’t blink. It is my turn to contribute. I state that Michael seems very bored and lonely in class. He has an audience but it doesn’t seem as though he has many friends. Also, I wish he would try reading before deciding that the featured text “sucks”. Michael’s mother clears her throat. I find myself hoping that she will defend him or ask me what we’re reading. She says nothing. I continue by asking Michael why he loves drawing. He looks at me quizzically and then shrugs his shoulders.
The administrator ticks off his missing credits and explains that he is in danger of not graduating. She asks him what he plans to do about it. Michael shrugs. His father says, “Well?” I notice that Michael’s mother is doodling on her copy of Michael’s transcript. She has created a curlicue sun and a half-moon with a moustache. The sun and moon are smiling. Michael crosses his arms and remains silent. Dad leans in and repeats, “Well?” There is an undertone of you’re-gonna-get-it. Michael looks at the administrator and says, “What do I have to do?” The kid is savvy. He has successfully deflected the question and eased a mounting tension. A list of must-dos is given. Next, a list of potential consequences. Things are beginning to wrap up. I ask Michael’s mother, “Did you teach him to draw? Did he teach himself?” She shakes her head and unconsciously scrawls out the sun and moon. As they leave, Michael crumples his transcript and drops it in the trash. He gently places his hand on his mother’s back guiding her out the door toward the sunlit exit.
Later, I drive to a family dinner at my mother’s house—my childhood home. It is lively—debates and discussions are immediate. My family doesn’t have the capacity for small talk. I excuse myself to return a phone call to a friend and am compelled en route to open the middle drawer of my mother’s dining room buffet. It is cedar and when the drawer slides open, I smell my childhood. Old report cards and keepsakes are stored here. I see a drawing of the sun made by my brother and think about Michael’s mother. I reach below the drawing and pull out an envelope with my high school’s logo and my mother’s handwritten address.
I can’t recall having seen this before today. There are two papers inside. The first is a note to my mother from my high school American history teacher. He has written at the top: Requested Feedback. I remember that time in my life. I felt as though I perpetually disappointed my father and an overwhelming awkwardness. I was often sad. The first semester I had this man’s class, I was miserable—and near failing. I experience a delayed embarrassment over the realization that my mom sought feedback from him coupled with a sense of dread over what I am about to read.
She is one of the most disengaged students I have. She does not complete or turn in her work. She stares at the wall or out the window a lot. She will smile when I try to redirect her. Sometimes she enters the room with her friends in a whispery drama and immediately asks to be excused. She has a strangeness about her and is constantly writing poems instead of doing the assignment at hand. I’ve included our most recent worksheet. Note her poem in the margins.
I look at the second paper he enclosed. My ears are ringing. I’m blushing. It is one of those worksheets that asks questions with at least three possible responses but provides only a narrow space for a stripped down answer in the world’s smallest handwriting. The margins are wide though. I read my ago-self poem—
Arriving at the last bell
a bit of me is muted.
Every single day
this hurt happens.
Their reprimands—cheap soliloquies.
I’m being true to the parts of myself
that are ungraded. True. Not false.
My mother calls me from the kitchen. I return the teacher’s feedback to the envelope, then into the drawer. Quickly, I fold the worksheet-poem and stuff it into my purse. I think about Michael. I think about my younger self. My daughter is on the back porch and she is yelling for us to come quick. “Look at the moon!” she says with excitement. It is a harvest moon rising—enormous and otherworldly. My daughter says she thinks the moon is pretending to be the sun. When my husband asks her why she thinks so, she is quiet for a moment before responding, “The moon has to be itself every time but today it wants to shine more.”
Michael’s mother’s scrawled illustration again comes to mind. I wonder if she is looking at the moon right now. I wonder if Michael has a hundred worksheets with his heart in the margins. I hold my daughter in my arms and I am in some way holding my younger self while the moon climbs higher returning to its normal size. It seems satisfied having reminded its audience that it can do tricks—having reminded us that depending on our vantage point it is bigger and so much brighter than we imagine.