Mark Alford sits in the faculty meeting and checks his email for the 30th time. He loads up the blogs he visits less often than his email. They are blogs about applying to acting school, but people also post about recent gigs and experiences in the amateur acting world. Mark’s favorite blog is “Bard None.” He scrolls down the page to view new posts. SnackSnackSnack has written again. Mark imagines SnackSnackSnack as a 300-pound man, balding, with a well-kept beard in which he stores hummus and pita chip flakes for later consumption.
“Another exciting season of applications!” writes SnackSnackSnack. “Even though I have never been accepted to a program, I still love this time of year!” Mark cannot tell whether or not the post is ironic.
Mark is glad he does not weigh 300 pounds, but he is not slim. When he plays basketball, it feels like he’s wearing a backpack. An old college roommate once said that Mark would make a fantastic spy because nothing about him stood out. Mark constantly reminds himself that not all actors are incredibly good looking.
The faculty meeting is about to end and Mark closes his laptop. Mark does not remember when he started checking acting school blogs and watching Ashland Shakespeare productions on silent during faculty meetings.
“One last quick question,” says Jeremy, the math teacher. Mark regrets closing his laptop. Jeremy’s questions are blatantly pre-constructed teaching manifestos delivered to Mrs. Lee, the vice principal. “I’m just wondering about the school policy regarding drinking coffee while teaching. It states pretty clearly in the handbook that teachers are not to drink coffee while teaching. It is on page 302, for anyone who has their handbook with them.” Jeremy opens up the handbook he has with him. Jeremy sends frequent glances toward Mrs. Lee to gauge her approval level but does not hold her gaze because he wishes to appear like he is speaking to the entire group. “I have seen at least one colleague drink coffee while teaching and so I guess my question is has something changed and I wasn’t notified, like maybe I missed the email?”
Jeremy wears clip-on bow ties. The clip-on thing bugs the shit out of Mark. If you’re going to wear a bow-tie wear an actual bow-tie, is his thought. The coffee conversation is obviously about Mark. Bristol Bieglar, the art teacher who makes all of the learners call her “Skystar,” her spirit name, starts chewing her nails. Skystar does not spend much time in this particular dimension, and she frequently reminds her coworkers that she suffers from adult ADD. Despite her diagnosis, Skystar keys right in on the passive-aggressive conflict present in the room.
“I’m really glad you brought that up, Jeremy,” says Mrs. Lee. “I think it is important to reiterate the logic behind school policies so that everyone is on the same page, just like we as teachers need to inform our learners why we are teaching them what we are teaching them. We do not allow the learners to drink coffee in class, and so it’s just not very fair for the teachers to drink coffee in class. Of course, feel free to drink non-alcoholic beverages when you are not in the classroom.”
Mrs. Lee smiles at Mark. Mark mentally lists all of the activities the learners are not allowed to do that teachers regularly perform. He thinks, “Running a faculty meeting.” He thinks, “Being vice principal.”
St. Joseph’s Prep is a small, all-boys Catholic high school. The faculty used to consist entirely of priests, but now only one priest, Father John, roams the halls. Father John is in his eighties and racist, especially toward Asians. Father John wears his Korean War veteran’s jacket every day over his clerical shirt and black slacks. The jacket looks similar to a high school letterman’s jacket. He smells strongly of prune juice and Jim Beam.
Per St. Joseph policy, underclassmen line up in front of the door and wait to be welcomed into the classroom. The instructor is to greet each learner with a handshake. Mark stands before a line of jostling sophomores. The bell rings. “Gentlemen, eh-um, gentlemen,” says Mark. He tries to say it with authority. Sometimes Mark has dreams where he lies supine in a gutter at night with a group of learners standing above him. They kick him in the ribs and groin; every once in a while someone leans over and punches him in the face. In the dreams, Mark is grateful for the learners who take the time to clock him with a fist; he appreciates the extra effort. A barely audible voice screeches “Gentlemen” from the sky.
“Gentlemen,” says Mark, a little louder. Normally this would go on for several minutes, with Mark eventually yelling, but Mrs. Lee stands several feet away and monitors the situation. The learners know Mrs. Lee has actual authority.
“Thank you,” says Mark. “You guys did a real nice job getting ready for class.” Another St. Joseph policy is that teachers must say five “positives” for every one “negative.” This has the unintended consequence of teachers complimenting kids for fairly basic human behavior, like the time Mark said, “I know we had some trouble not lighting the garbage can on fire last class, so I really appreciate you guys doing a better job with that today.”
One year prior, Mark was a Jesuit novice embarking on a life destined for sainthood. He imagined himself as the subject of a stained-glass window. It would picture Mark in a priest’s verdant regalia holding up the Eucharist while hordes of heathen children prepared to attack. He prayed for a not-too-painful martyrdom. Really, thinks Mark, if he had only returned to his room instead of attending the after-party, he might still be a Jesuit, and not inhaling teenage fecal matter on a daily basis.
After he graduated college, Mark entered the Jesuits. Seeing as Mark thought of himself as both extraordinarily bright and destined to be a saint, the Jesuits were a perfect fit. Mark expected faith-filled discussions about the lives of saints while sipping tea and hours of quiet prayer before the Blessed Sacrament. Basically, Mark had expected people as destined for God’s perfection as himself.
One of the novices, Ryan, had not informed his girlfriend that he was entering a Jesuit seminary. Instead, he told the girl that he was travelling to Eastern Europe for several months and would be out of touch. Ryan figured that he was not going to make it more than a couple of months in the Jesuits anyway. Another seminarian chain-smoked. Almost all of them cursed. Several argued against the teachings of Holy Mother Church.
It was a nightmare.
Mark spent all of his free time either in the chapel or in his room reading papal documents.
Every moment he was forced to spend with the other novices grated against his soul. At night, as Mark was busy perfecting himself for God, the others drank beer and watched The Sopranos.
It was all right, he told himself as he grinded his teeth while kneeling in front of a cross. Saints lead by example.
Mark knows about the rejections long before they arrive in his inbox. The acting schools send out acceptances first, and the people with acceptances post messages on Bard None that include a series of exclamation points. The absence of Mark’s acceptance email seals his rejection. In some sort of conspiracy to completely unravel Mark mentally, the rejections always arrive right before Mark teaches his least favorite learners—the sophomores.
In the classroom, Mark knows the annual school intruder drill will come any minute and is stalling when the school secretary comes over the loudspeaker and says the super-secret code for an intruder attack: “Remember, students, that today is the Feast of St. Joseph.” The learners more or less line up against a wall. They are situated out of sight from the door’s rectangular window. Mark guesses the idea is that if a shooter cannot see any learners he might hunt elsewhere. Jeremy knows for sure, thinks Mark. It is probably in the handbook.
The boys act like they are playing hide and seek. Mark looks over to tell them to shut up and sees Tony with his cell phone out showing off pictures of his girlfriend. Mark thinks about going over there but is concerned that the photos are nude, which would then require massive amounts of work on Mark’s part. The secretary gives the all-clear over the loudspeaker: “May the adopted father of our Lord keep us forever safe.” The instructors march the learners to the soccer field. Outside, Mark sees Jeremy chatting up Mrs. Lee. The learners are easy to watch, and Mark daydreams what he would do in the case of an actual intruder.
Mark draws up his battle plan. He would turn the desks on their sides and form a barricade. He’d say something very Bruce Willis, like, “All right, men, time to finally put those books to good use.” He would stand beside the door with a metal stool raised above his head. The intruder enters the room, automatic rifle wedged into his shoulder. The learners launch their textbooks from behind the desks. The shooter sprays the room wildly, unable to find a target.
Mark brains the intruder with the stool. Mark is a hero. Mark appears on talk shows. Mark kisses Ellen DeGeneres on the cheek. Ellen asks Mark if he thinks of himself as a hero. Mark says, “I think the real heroes, Ellen, are the people who lost their lives that day, especially our math teacher, Jeremy Stapp, who was shot not once but 20 times in the face.”
Mark thinks, get real. There is an emergency exit around the corner from your classroom. You would run for it. They’re not your kids. Mark thinks about booby traps. Mark tells himself, you would sit there terrified in your classroom awaiting God-knows-what and you would probably be the first to go, not out of bravery but just sheer indecision and terrible luck. You will be stuck, unable to move. Just hope it doesn’t hurt too much.
You are not a hero, Mark tells himself. You are not a saint. You should know that by now. You are just as special as the seven billion other people on the planet.
The learners meander back toward the building, and Mark thinks about his profession. Teaching has provided Mark with many important lessons, including that it is definitely possible to hate a child. The sophomores, along with the general soul-grinding despair Mark has felt lately, drove Mark to Father John for confession last week.
“Well, Father,” Mark said, “I just keep imagining hitting a child.”
“One of the Asian ones?”
“No, not one of the Asian ones, Father,” said Mark. “I imagine punching this kid so hard my fist busts through his skull and pops out on the other side covered in gray matter.”
“Listen, it’s normal to want to hit a kid every once in a while,” said Father John. “My mother used to beat me cross-eyed, may she rest in peace. It was good for me, discipline. Kids don’t get whooped enough anymore.”
“Ok,” said Mark.
“My point is, don’t actually hit them. And if these dreams keep up, you might want to find a new profession. You would not do well in jail.”
Mark enjoys teaching when it feels like a stage. Occasionally, he dresses up like famous religious leaders: Ghandi, St. Paul, Mother Teresa. He wore a giant elephant head to school to teach the kids about Hinduism, but Mrs. Lee made him take it off. There are moments in the classroom when Mark makes a movement that goes beyond simple communication. Somehow, during these transcendent times, he manages to convey the necessary information straight into the learner’s minds, and Mark feels like an educator.
In class, the idea crosses Mark’s mind that he enjoyed being a Jesuit when it felt like a stage—when the attention focused solely on him and his holiness. It is a difficult thought, painful, and he brushes it away to preserve his precarious emotional stability.
It is Parent-Teacher Conference night. In order to stave off confrontations, Mark gave all of his students an A- on the latest progress reports. He stands with his arms crossed in front of his door and rehearses the lines he has prepared for mothers and fathers. The parents walk into the school with their learners in tow.
Sitting in a chair in the corner of the classroom is Mark as a teenager: chubby, well-dressed, and prideful. His mother talks to a teacher. It is his mother with her perfect nails and manicured hair and the perfume that follows wherever she goes, a little colony of smells. She berates the teacher and she berates her son. Her son is her entire world, and that is why he cannot fail, she says. He is the man of the house. He is not to waste his many, many talents, like his father did.
She loves him and loves him and loves him, she says, but never comes to a single performance. She has a headache; she works late. She attends the functions in which she takes charge, like parent-teacher conferences and youth group meetings. It is Mark sitting in the corner, arms crossed, thinking if I do not become great and well-known and famous and holy I will be lost.
On Bard None, SnackSnackSnack has been very positive, and another contributor named Yakisogood has repeatedly complimented SnackSnackSnack on his attitude. In one post, they exchange recipes for Potato Leek Soup that Mark thinks about trying out. SSS and Yakisogood share places to eat if they are both accepted into the same graduate program. Mark senses a growing romance.
Someone posts that NYU has sent out all of their acceptances and waitlists, and Mark checks his email even though he just did and finds an empty inbox. Mark walks down the hall to the teacher’s lounge for coffee. He passes by a science classroom. Mr. B is teaching physics to juniors.
“Einstein figured out that without wind resistance, a person in free-fall would not feel his own weight,” says Mr. B as he scribbles eligibly on the whiteboard. “But, here’s the interesting thing. If you are falling toward the earth, the earth is also rising to meet you.”
Jesuit buzz word: Discernment. Choosing between goods. Water dripping on a rock versus water dripping on a sponge. Jesuit buzz word: Affect. The Spirit of Darkness, the Spirit of Light. Mark’s spiritual director: You need to find a center. Yeats: The center cannot hold.
SnackSnackSnack writes a very sad post on Bard None: “Farewell, my fellow thespians. For the seventh year in a row, I have been denied by all eight programs to which I applied. I should rephrase: My application has been denied from all eight programs to which I applied. For, remember, they do not reject us, but our applications. I wish you all the best. Keep to the stage, dearest friends. Find the role you were born to play. I, for one, am looking forward to becoming Judas at my church’s annual Life of Christ production. This is a big move up from Roman Centurion #7.”
Without any positive responses from acting schools, the possibility that Mark may have to spend another year in the classroom becomes very real. When Mark thinks about it, his saliva turns sour. It would not be terrible, but it would not bring Mark any closer to greatness.
Earlier in the week, Mark’s 1993 forest green Honda Accord with 240,000 miles died on the way to school. He was on the side of the road when a senior learner named Chase pulled over in a Porsche Carrera and drove Mark the rest of the way. Later that day, Mark gave Chase a detention for having the tail of his shirt untucked after leaving the restroom.
With his car beyond repair, Mark now commutes on the 70 bus. The bus is not that bad, Mark tells people. Mark watches sports cars fly past through the tinted glass when he is lucky enough to have a seat by the window. Mark thinks a BMW would be nice. He imagines his problems would be more palatable in patent leather seats.
A cheerful man sells bootlegged DVDs on the bus each day when Mark returns home. He carries a Jansport backpack and hands out laminated lists of his inventory. He spends about thirty seconds hawking movies and the rest of the ride chatting with friends.
The white-collar commuters read magazines or books. Messenger bags lie at their feet. The other commuters work at restaurants. They carry aprons and wear monogrammed polos. They stare at their android phones. Then there are the homeless people, drug addicts, and infrequent riders.
Mark can see before the bus pulls up that it is packed. He slides his card through the console and maneuvers his way to the back. There is the soft press of people; the stop-and-go tide. Mark aims for the landing by the back door; the space is occupied.
“This bus is always jammed.” “Day and night.”
Mark grabs the railing by a spot next to a pregnant woman. He glances around and sees a young man sitting by the aisle with a backpack filling the window seat next to him. The young man wears ear buds and caresses his phone. He pretends not to notice that a woman who could give birth any second stands next to him.
Maybe it is the young man’s proximity in age to Mark’s learners. Or the pregnant woman. Or just the sick feeling of total world injustice Mark has felt lately.
“Excuse me, your bag does not need a seat,” Mark says loudly enough to get through the ear buds. “There is a pregnant woman standing in the aisle, and your bag does not need a seat.” All other conversations have ceased; the crowd is silent in nervous anticipation. Mark is on center stage but no one looks at him. The learner stares further into his phone. Mark can feel the driver glancing at him through the massive rectangular rear-view mirror.
“It’s really all right,” says the pregnant lady.
“No, it’s not all right,” says Mark, gaining confidence. He is no longer Mark. He is Henry IV, he is Matt Damon in Invictus, he is Denzel Washington in every movie Denzel Washington has been in. “Sir, I know you can hear me. I demand that you remove your bag immediately and offer the seat to this pregnant woman!” Mark attempts to remove the bag himself. The learner is faster than Mark expects.
Through his functioning eye, Mark sees a police officer standing above him. Mark realizes that he is supine on a sidewalk. The young man is not present. Mark notices a sharp pain when he inhales, and not all of the liquid on his face and shirt is blood.
“Some of the passengers spit on you because they had to wait for another bus,” says the officer, as he helps Mark to his feet. “You got worked over pretty good but I think you’ll be fine.”
“Where’s that guy?”
“He took off. You tried to grab his bag. There’s not a lot we can do.”
The pregnant lady thanks Mark as she walks past. Mark accepts a ride home from the officers.
The back of a police cruiser is pretty comfortable, Mark thinks. He can see his reflection in the window. He touches his eye. The learners will ask questions. You should see the other guy, Mark will say.
Maybe it is the concussion, but Mark thinks to himself that he has not felt his body in a long time, even if that feeling is one of acute discomfort. That he has not done stupid, ordinary, trite activities like revel in his surroundings or fully breathe in spring’s arrival. There is the feeling that he resides in an actual physical body. He thinks about when he ran cross-country in high school. He remembers sprinting the last 400 meters of a three mile race. Like breathing didn’t matter. It is a moment and it passes. Mark is grateful, but when he tries to hold the moment, when he diverts the full extent of his mental capacity to recognizing the presence of some sort of cosmic force, the moment is gone.