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Knowledge and Wisdom
written by: Christopher Johnson
He slid into a slouch of such extreme proportions that it was nearly impossible to figure out how he remained anchored to the seat of his desk. He leaned back at a 45-degree angle, slacked his head to one side in a pose of inexhaustible boredom, splayed his legs out to their full length, and blocked the aisle completely, as if he were a hockey goalie. As he sat in this nearly prone position, he held his pen between his thumb and forefinger and idly wiggled it up and down, creating the illusion that the pen was made of rubber. His face wore the immobility of a Greek statue. His eyes stared ahead with brown vacancy. He was eighteen years old.
His name was Todd Niedermeyer, and he took up space in Paul DiNardo’s General English IV class—25 benighted souls who sat and wriggled and slept in class for 50 minutes a day as they pursued their English requirements on their wayward path to a high school diploma. Paul was in his fourth year of teaching at Jefferson High School in suburban Chicago. He felt an enormous respect for the school and was even a little awed by it. It had been built in the early 1900s, built of red bricks, layer upon layer of bricks, impermeable, impenetrable, mortared into near-immortality. Students entered and studied and graduated—generations of students. Teachers started their careers at Jefferson, taught for 35 years, retired, and died—all in Blodgett’s Grove. The school and the learning that unfolded inside its walls were perpetual. Desks were lined up in rigid rows, the blackboards were clean and awaited chalk attacks, and the bulletin boards were festooned with cascades of exhibits.
When Paul walked into Jefferson for the first time, he felt an almost overpowering sense of the past and of respect that he could be a member of the faculty of this august institution. He was part of a tradition that stretched back for centuries. He was a cog in the Western tradition, imparting knowledge and wisdom.
Yet all was not well with this venerable institution. It was 1975, and the torrid dreams and shattered glass of the counterculture had drifted down from the college campuses of the 1960s to the stolid high school buildings of the 1970s, creating a reprobate ambience of drug-induced apathy, New Age bromides, and jock-versus-freak polarities, all dressed up in long hair and bell-bottom jeans. Paul stared out at his fourth-period class and was confronted with a sea of T-shirts emblazoned with the logos of Led Zeppelin, Pink Floyd, the Rolling Stones, the Who, the Dead. The parents, the administrators, and most teachers were scared as hell. It was The End of Western Civilization as We Know It. “These damned kids can’t even diagram a simple sentence,” a time-beaten teacher moaned in the teachers’ lounge.
Todd was one of 25 seniors in Paul’s fourth-period class. General English IV—not the greatest scholars in the world. They read stories about drag races and cosmeticians and construction workers. These kids were biding their time. Waiting. Waiting. Waiting for something to happen in their lives. Waiting for something that they could not name. Something. A future as hazy as the smog in L.A. If high school were a city, they circled around the periphery in their psychic jalopies. Todd slouched around the edge of school with eyes at half-mast. Paul would send a question flying like an arrow at him, hoping to puncture the blasé shell in which he wrapped himself. “So, Todd, what did you think of the story?”
It was about three construction workers who died while working on the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge in New York during the 1960s. Plunged into wet concrete way below. The piece was from Gay Talese’s book about building the bridge.
Todd lifted his head up from staring at the picture of Alfred E. Newman that some kid had carved into his desk. He looked at his teacher. He brushed his hair aside with a molasses motion. He raised his eyes from quarter-mast to half-mast. “I dunno,” he said. “It was OK, I guess.”
Paul felt his blood start to rise. He’d been such an overachiever in high school—always ready to answer every teacher’s questions. He tried again. “Well, how did you feel about the story?”
“I guess I felt OK about it.”
“What did you think was the most important part of the story?”
“I dunno,” Todd drawled. He shrugged his shoulders. “I guess when those guys died.”
“How did you feel when the construction workers died?”
He paused. “Well, I felt like I’m glad I’m not a construction worker.” The whole class laughed. Paul felt a seethe that grabbed his bones and muscles and screwed them into tight little psychic coils. Todd scratched away something in Paul—some façade, some image of himself that he had created. As a kid, he’d wanted to answer the teachers’ questions. He’d studied all the greats, the Shakespeares, the Dickenses, the Joyces, but at the age of 26, what did he really know about the prodigal sons of suburbia like Todd Niedermeyer--souls who had lost their way in the thickets of adolescence?
Something about Todd had wormed its way into Paul. When he dressed in the morning, he felt as he were pasting on a role. He stared at the mirror, and his eyes were deep-set and empty. He drove to Jefferson in his beige Toyota Corolla and started his first class, and 25 pairs of eyes stared expectantly at him—glared at him—waiting, waiting for him to start teaching, to share his knowledge and wisdom.
The other day, a kid had raised his hand and said, “Mr. DiNardo, you don’t seem to like us very much.” Paul felt a stab. He felt like a phony—artificial. After the kid said that, he went home that night—he lived alone in a two-bedroom cottage on the outer fringes of Blodgett’s Grove—and he had a Scotch and then another Scotch and watched All in the Family and Johnny Carson and fell asleep on the sofa in his clothes.
Frustrated, Paul asked Mrs. Margaret Francis about Todd. She’d been teaching at Jefferson High School for 35 years. She’d seen it all. Mrs. Margaret Francis was in her early 60s, and the years were beginning to slow her down. But just a bit. When strands of her gray hair wandered in front of her eyes, she pushed them aside with an elegant motion of her hand and continued to listen to the words of her students with an unfailing ability to enter into their world. Paul told her about Todd. He told her about his exasperation. “Paul,” she said simply, “talk to him once a day as if you’re not a teacher and he’s not your student.”
Ah, but there never seemed to be a time for that. Paul would finish one class and rush off to the next. Besides, he had no idea what he would say to Todd. Paul would see him around, in the cafeteria or shuffling down the hall or sitting in the courtyard with his girlfriend, who had blazing red hair and seemed to do all of the talking. Paul would start to walk over to him, but something stopped him, and he’d make an excuse.
Now it was the beginning of May, halfway through the fourth quarter. Time for midterm reports. Paul called Todd to come up to his desk after class one day. He said to him, “You’re doing very poorly in class. I’m afraid I’m going to have to send a progress report home.”
Todd raised his head at a glacial pace and slowly focused his bordering-on-sleep eyes on Paul. “Why? I’m doing OK.”
“No, you not doing OK,” Paul responded. Like a prosecuting attorney, he accosted Todd with a litany of his sins: missed assignments, D-level tests with a quarter of the answers left blank, five-paragraph essays with one-sentence paragraphs.
Todd slowly trained his inert brown eyes on Paul. “Mr. DiNardo,” he finally drawled, dragging the words from the depths of his soul. “Can I go to the restroom?”
“God!” Paul thought. “This is hopeless!” He allowed Todd to go, and as the young man disappeared through the portal to Paul’s temple of learning, he spit out a whoosh of air in frustration.
The progress report, though, stirred an immediate response. Mr. Niedermeyer phoned him. Over the phone, the father sounded distant but insistent. He wanted to meet with Paul about Todd. Mr. Niedermeyer didn’t mention any Mrs. Niedermeyer, so Paul assumed that Mom was . . . well, he didn’t want to ask.
Mr. Niedermeyer came in later that week, after school. He sprouted a moustache like a black string and wore a pale green shirt and beige pleated trousers. A thin strip of hair surrounded the shiny bald spot that crowned his head. His lips were as thin as a ruler. His eyes looked past Paul at some point far in the distance.
He demanded to know why Todd had received a progress report for a D. Paul proceeded to guide Mr. Niedermeyer through the sins that Todd had committed against General English IV: the missed assignments, the poor test grades, the lack of participation, the disdain for learning. Paul walked the father through the whole thing, secretly feeling righteous indignation as he dragged the man’s son through the muck. He spared the father nothing.
Paul looked into the father’s eyes. And he was shocked to see something curl the man’s eyebrows and bring a liquid film into his eyes. “He’s a smart kid,” the father whispered. A sad residue limned his barely audible voice. The man stared at Paul expectantly, trained his eyes on the teacher, waited to receive the answers and wisdom he was searching for, waited for Paul to propose some solution that would transform his son from a black hole of disaffection into a smart, approval-seeking overachiever.
Paul had to say something. He fell back on the palliatives that teachers have tried from age immemorial, hoping to snag some semblance of motivation. “I have an idea,” he said. “Why don’t I send reports to you on his progress every week? And if he does poorly on quizzes, why don’t I call you? And why don’t I let you know when tests are coming up?” Mr. Niedermeyer leaped upon these nuggets as if Paul were the oracle of Delphi.
Then, expecting nothing, Paul was amazed to witness a slow conversion. Todd actually started to pay attention to the nuggets of wisdom that Paul imparted in class. Paul dutifully sent home his weekly teacher reports to Mr. Niedermeyer, and they tracked a gradual rise from the depths of the D’s to the much more socially acceptable mediocrity of the land of C’s. Todd handed stuff in. He did a little better on quizzes.
But, of course, that wasn’t the end of the story. It never is, except on television. In mid-May, about a month before the end of school, Paul handed out the obligatory research paper assignment. These weren’t college-bound kids, but he was determined that everyone ought to do a research paper before they flee high school and enter the real world. So he gave them the assignment, but he modified things. It was shorter than usual, only three pages, and he marched the kids through all the stages that we all remember with varying attitudes ranging from nausea to meek resignation: the making of the note cards, the numbering of said cards, the creation of the detested outline, the writing of the first draft, the finessing of the final draft. Paul was Circe counseling his charges through the twin dangers of Scylla and Charybdis. He was the English teacher, doing what English teachers were put on God’s green earth to do: torment hormone-crazed adolescents with that most weighty of tasks, the research paper.
Slowly Todd had been pushing the boulder of achievement up the Sisyphean mountain. But as they embarked on the research paper journey, something happened to him. As he pushed the boulder up, it got stuck. The boulder even started to roll back down that steep mountain. The note cards he handed in stunk. His outline stunk even more. Paul could think of no other words to describe it.
Paul was puzzled. Why had Todd stopped pushing that boulder up that Sisyphean mountain?
He decided to find out. He sat Todd down one day after class. He held out the notecards and the outline as if they were dog doo that he’d picked up with his pooper scooper. “What gives?” he said. “These aren’t any good.”
Todd just stared ahead, with the look of a kid who believes that he will never ever achieve anything at all in this crazy mixed-up world. “I just can’t do this,” he murmured, with the weariness of someone far older. The old passivity was back. He didn’t have enough confidence to squash an ant.
“Todd,” Paul said, “you can do this. I’ll work with you.”
Todd shrugged and murmured, “OK.”
Paul had let the kids write about anything they wanted. The older teachers said he was crazy to do that, but it felt like the right thing to do with these kids. Todd had chosen the arcane world of drag racing, which in the Seventies was in its explosive heyday with its Shirley Muldowney and Big Daddy Don Garlits and US 30 Dragstrip in Hobart, Indiana. It was a cool topic, but something held Todd back. His slowly developing confidence had dissipated as if it had been a mirage.
So Paul worked with the young man, and the notecards no longer stunk, but they still weren’t anything to write home about, and the outline no longer stunk, but it was mediocre and completely lacking in excitement. Paul was disappointed. Something had happened—something in Todd’s psyche. He’d been rolling the big boulder up that mountain, but something had scared him, and the boulder had overwhelmed him.
The kids’ papers came in that last week in May, right before Memorial Day. Paul was the fisherman, and he was reeling in all of these fishes—some big, some small, some beautiful, some ugly.
And much to Paul’s amazement, Todd’s was one of the most beautiful fishes he caught. The paper shone and smelled and tasted of those enormous drag racing machines and roared with the insane blast of the engines and pounded with the crazy glee of the inebriated fans in baseball caps who flocked to the drag races like acolytes attending a Mass said by the Pope.
Paul heart beat with joy as he read what Todd had written.
He set it aside that night.
He read it again in the morning.
He knew as soon as he reread it that Todd hadn’t written it.
He’d known this the first time he’d read it. He just hadn’t wanted to admit it to himself.
“Damn it!” he muttered to himself. He’d been rooting for the kid. He’d wanted him to succeed.
In a strange way, Paul was heartbroken. He looked for the original article, and he had no trouble finding it. It was in a hot rod magazine that had been published the year before. Todd couldn’t even hide his plagiarism very well.
Then Paul was angry. Good old-fashioned pissed-off at how stupid Todd was and how ridiculously dumb kids could be. Paul was the offended one. Todd had committed the ultimate sin against him, the teacher. Todd had tried to trick him. Todd had lied to him. Paul had invested psychic energy in bringing the kid up to snuff in school, and Todd had betrayed him. Paul was going to enforce the rules. He was, after all, The Teacher. He wasn’t going to let Todd off the hook. There would be no redemption. Rules were rules. This wasn’t television. There would be no second chances in Paul’s General English IV class.
He set up a time to talk to Todd. One-on-one. Mano à mano. Paul sat behind the vast expanse of his teacher’s desk, and Todd sat in a student desk that resided next to Paul’s desk for just such conferences. Paul handed Todd his paper. He handed Todd the copy of the article he had cribbed, word for word, comma for comma. At the top of Todd’s paper, in bright red ink, Paul had written a big fat zero—the Scarlet Digit.
Todd sat up straight as if jolted by electricity. He looked from his paper to the article from the hot rod magazine. Todd stared at Paul. He turned pale. In full regalia of guilt, he dropped his paper on the desk. He curled up his body as if he were returning to a cocoon. Paul could feel his fear across the distance between them. “Can I rewrite it?” he asked, in the tone of a victim at an inquisition.
Paul almost said yes. He almost did. Truly. Almost. But not quite. “No,” the teacher said, draining his voice of all emotion. “Rules are rules, and plagiarism is against the rules. The zero stands.”
Paul knew that with that zero, Todd would fail his class. Todd looked at Paul with eyes as pathetic as those of an abused dog. Paul remained unmoved. He was The Teacher, and rules were rules. Todd got up. He retreated to the door, slumping like a boxer who had just been pulverized. A sliver of pity crept into Paul’s righteous indignation, but the anger burned up those shards of pity. Todd left. “Damned kids,” Paul muttered.
Mr. Niedermeyer called that night, and then he came in after school the next day. He was apoplectic. Furious. Paul sat at his teacher’s desk, and Mr. Niedermeyer sat at the student desk, precisely where his son had sat. Paul played the prosecutor to the hilt. He pulled out Exhibit A and Exhibit B. “Todd plagiarized,” Paul said. “Rules are rules.”
With full fury, Mr. Niedermeyer challenged Paul: “Why won’t you let him do it over?”
Paul was in high dudgeon, and he would stay there. He would stay firmly ensconced there. He was a mere 26 years old, but he assumed his best prosecutorial tone. “Because Todd cheated. He broke the rules. When you cheat in life, you don’t get a do-over.”
When Paul said that, the father’s face tightened with fury, and he clenched his teeth and clutched his hands into fists and stared unblinkingly at a spot far in the distance. Paul drew away from him a little. Mr. Niedermeyer glared directly at him, and hatred flamed in his eyes. “Why don’t you get off your goddam high horse and give the kid a break?”
The father’s words only hardened the teacher. Paul knew that he was on his high horse, but he hated the father for telling him so. He detested him for that. He thought to himself that this damned kid had screwed up all semester with his infinite indifference and disdain. By God, Paul was the English teacher with his finger in the dike, upholding the values that he and all English teachers held so dear, holding back the floods of decadence and laziness, preserving and protecting Western Civilization as We Know It.
“No,” he said. “The zero stands.”
“We’ll just see about that,” Mr. Niedermeyer said. “Damn it, we’ll just see about that!” He stood up, flung knives at Paul with his eyes, whipped around, walked across the classroom, opened the door, slammed it with the force of hatred.
In bed that night, Paul went through the thing over and over and over in his mind. He had the rules on his side. The plain facts, ma’am. The boy had plagiarized. He had not done his own work. He was a fake. F for fake. Yet slithering like a snake along the edges of his consciousness were Mrs. Margaret Francis’s words: “Talk to him once a day as if you’re not a teacher and he’s not your student.” Yes, those words were very nice, but the rules were the rules. Paul tossed and turned and felt a ball of bile in the pit of his belly.
The next day, Mr. Poulos, the Chair of the English Department, a gentleman in his late fifties with a dignified demeanor that disguised a fervent devotion to the rules, pulled Paul aside. He said that Mr. Niedermeyer had called him and had gone on and on about Paul, making clear in no uncertain terms that Paul was being completely and totally unfair. Mr. Poulos trained his eyes on Paul. “Did the boy plagiarize?”
“Then the zero stands.”
That night, Paul made out his final grades for the year. As he did so, he paused over Todd Niedermeyer’s F. He was sitting in his upstairs office, where he did all his planning and grading and thinking. He paused and wiggled his black pen over the grade and gnawed on the edge of the pen and took off his wire-rim glasses and squeezed the top of his nose with his thumb and forefinger. He sighed. He left his grade book and walked downstairs into the kitchen where he poured a stiff Scotch and ate dinner and trudged back upstairs and returned like Fate to his grades. He stared at Todd Niedermeyer’s F and sighed deeply once again. The next morning, he took his grades to school and turned them in to the principal and cleaned out his desk and took down the bulletin board display on American poets of the 19th century and returned the key to his classroom and left Jefferson High School behind for the summer.
After the year ended, Paul never saw the kid again. He had no idea what happened to Todd Niedermeyer. He never heard any teacher or other student speak of him. They were two atoms that collided momentarily in the vast inhuman reaches of the universe. Paul chalked the whole thing off to the times, when it was so hard to reach those burned-out, toked-up, rock-and-rolling aimless kids besotted with horniness and suburban apathy. It was a phase for most of them, he supposed. He supposed most of them grew up, had careers, got married, begot a new generation that would be afflicted with a whole new species of societal ills. He supposed that that would be Todd Niedermeyer’s fate.
And yet . . . the bitter little ball of bile that Paul had felt in the bottom of his stomach would not go away. It would not dissipate. It would not die. It clung—malevolent—acidic--deep in his belly. He felt the bile when he woke up in the morning, like a rotten batch of mussels that he’d eaten the night before. He imagined the ball of bile growing hairs and expanding, turning his stomach sour. He could not shake or forget the acidity. The ball was always there, eating at him, churning, spewing out poison, chewing away at his insides. Slowly devouring the inside of his stomach.