Fiction: The Beast
By Christopher Johnson
“What were they thinking?” Zach Brown, one of the other teachers, glared at me from across the Formica-topped table in the English department office. It was just he and I, and he was staring at me through his Seventies-style aviator glasses with lenses that changed color according to the amount of light in the room. Sunlight flooded the room, so the lenses darkened, though I could still see his eyes. Both of us were in our mid-twenties, and both of us were in charge of 150 hormone-spewing, acne-growing, sex-obsessed, attitude-exuding souls in their teens. 150 of them.
“So what’s it like out there?” I asked.
“Hopeless. Out of control.” The school administrators had decided over the summer to give the seniors a smoking area, outside, in the high school’s courtyard, and he was one of the lucky teachers who had been assigned to supervise the area. It seems unbelievable now that a school board would approve a smoking area for students, but this was 1975, a tumultuous period for American schools, with kids debating the Vietnam War and taking drugs and challenging authority in just about every way that they could. Many of the administrators and even more of the teachers seemed at a loss over questions of authority, over who was in charge of schools and even what it meant to teach. The student council had pressed the administration for two years to create a senior smoking area, and finally the administration had given in, hoping that bringing smoking out into the open would end the furtive smoking in the restrooms and give us teachers a break from our fruitless and sometimes ridiculous attempts to police them.
The decision to permit smoking added fire to debates that we teachers were already carrying on about teaching and students and how authority was changing in American schools and society. A group of us would go out for beers after school on Fridays--an expression of camaraderie that I have missed ever since I left teaching. We threw ourselves passionately and vociferously into the big questions. Was teaching a form of imperialism--an expression of patriarchal, racist, sexist, colonialist relationships in society? Should we completely abandon the old teacher-student relationships based on power? Should we be more like coaches than distant lecturers on a platform?
The decision on the smoking area made those debates even more heated. Some agreed with the administration. End the hypocrisy. Get the smoking out in the open. Others disagreed vehemently. Smoking was illegal for those under 18. Smoking caused cancer. By creating a designated area, the school condoned smoking. How did that help kids make good decisions? In the midst of it all, many of us young teachers felt as if we were teetering delicately between adolescence and adulthood, between James Dean and Ward Cleaver. It was a strange time, a strange feeling.
I will never forget walking for the first time through the smoking area in September of that year. The area was in a stately courtyard enclosed by the oldest part of the high school, which had been built in the early 1900s. The school itself was a bastion of tradition and stability. Lining the walls near the principal’s office were the portraits of all the previous principals, dating back to the early 20th century. All men, all white, all with gray, neatly combed hair, blue or gray suits, most wearing blandly colored neckties but some with equally bland bow ties, all of them wearing glasses. They were educators, colorless but dedicated professionals, defining and carrying on an educational tradition of which the community was proud.
I thought and still think that it was a fine tradition, but as I ventured into the smoking area, I could not help thinking that it was a tradition veering toward irrelevance. The courtyard was mobbed with kids in T-shirts and torn jeans, the boys’ hair like tangled birds’ nests, the girls with long straight hair and hip-hugging jeans. They stood, sat, and squatted. They all smoked and tried their desperate best to look cool. They laughed and talked at the tops of their lungs, and the sound exploded into the sky. They pushed one another and leaned on one another and wore shades the color of midnight. One or two sat at the base of a tree and stared into space, chemically and completely out of it. They looked as aimless as cadavers. Their eyes wore the emptiness of wasted lives. I suddenly felt that we adults had let them down, that we had failed them, that American culture had failed them.
And I felt threatened. These kids seemed so separate, so foreign, so unlike the way I had been when I was that age. Ten years before, when I had been in high school, so many of us had been like little adults. We did as we were told. We did our homework assignments and addressed the teachers respectfully. We had to jump through hoops. If we couldn’t form a fist in the front pockets of our white Levis, then the pants were too tight. I remember one kid back then who came to school with a Mohawk haircut. The Dean of Students sent him home, and he couldn’t return until his hair grew back on the sides. The world of high school was an orderly world. We knew the rules, we knew our roles. But when I walked through that smoking area, I felt as if everything had fallen apart since then. I felt such chaos, such raw emotion in those kids. They weren’t trying to be young adults. They were their own creatures. They existed in a separate world, a world that I neither knew nor understood.
This sense only deepened a few days later when I had a confrontation with a kid, a boy, who had just come into class from the smoking area. The class was English IV General, for kids who weren’t going to college. It seemed as if all these kids smoked, each and every one of them, and when they came in from that smoking area, some of them were in pretty bad shape. This kid Jesse came in to class, fresh from the smoking area, all red-eyed. I was teaching about nonfiction, trying to get a discussion going about this Gay Talese piece about the building of the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge and a worker who fell into the cement and got buried. The story actually hooked the kids. They were into it.
All of a sudden Jesse started giggling, uncontrollably. The top half of his body was plastered with a T-shirt with a huge Led Zeppelin logo on the front—the most iconic image of high-school culture during the 1970s. His jeans were torn at the knees and baggy in the rear. He kept on giggling, chortling at something that was funny to himself and himself only, the rest of the class beginning to stare at him, and me putting on my best Officer Krupke face and telling him to cease and desist. Still the giggling continued, and his eyes were blank and red. “Jesse,” I said with cool icy detached firmness, “you’re going to have to control yourself.”
“I can’t, man.” He laughed some more, and the rest of the class stared at him and wondered what Mr. Teacher—me—was going to do.
“What’s so funny that it turned you into a complete jerk?” I wanted to utter. But I didn’t actually say the words, I just thought them. I angrily scribbled out a detention slip and sent him to the office. That took care of that problem. It took care of Jesse, at least until the next time. The episode angered and frustrated me, mostly because I felt like I was drowning in something that I did not understand. I sat in the English department office and fumed, and it turned into one of those days when I wondered why I had gotten into teaching in the first place. I felt totally inadequate in dealing with the vagaries and craziness of adolescence.
Realizing that my own knee-jerk reaction to Jesse was counterproductive, I set up a conference with him a few days later. His eyes were no longer red; he was no longer high. He started the conference by saying, “Sorry I acted the way I did.” He swept his dirty-brown hair out of his eyes, and I noticed that now he was wearing a Pink Floyd T-shirt.
“Apology accepted,” I said. I looked at him, into his eyes, which were a lively green, rather like the color of asparagus. “Can I ask you something? This smoking area. Why do you go out there? What’s the appeal?”
He shrugged. “I don’t know. It feels comfortable.”
“But why? Why does it feel comfortable?”
“I don’t know. It just does.”
I waited patiently for him to say more. I looked into those green eyes, and I saw such inchoate emotions, emotions that were on the tip of his tongue but that he couldn’t articulate. Finally he said, “I just like it there.”
There was something going on in him that I couldn’t quite reach. It was strange—I’d been his age only 10 years before, unable or afraid to articulate what had been going on inside myself at that age. Jesse wasn’t challenging me with his silence. He just looked as if he had been struck dumb. I grasped for some way to unlock the words from him. I said, “How do you feel when you’re out there?”
“Free,” he said without hesitation.
“What do you mean by free?”
“You know. Free. To do what I want. To be let alone.”
“Do what you want? Like murder? You want to murder someone?” I said this with a slight grin so he knew I was kidding.
A trace of a smile crossed his lips and he said, “No, I ain’t gonna murder anyone.”
“What else?” I asked. “What else about the smoking area?”
“Well, we can hang out with our friends.”
“That’s important,” I said.
He nodded. “Sometimes it’s all we have. It’s all we have. The kids get jerked around, not by you so much, but by lots of other teachers. They go out there, they smoke, nobody jerks them around. It’s free. You can be who you are. You can smoke.”
“Why do you smoke?”
“Cause I like it.” He paused. “No, I love it.” Now he was challenging me.
“Do your parents let you smoke at home?”
“They don’t care what I do.”
“Really? That can’t be true.”
“It’s true. They can’t be bothered. Besides, they smoke, too, so they don’t care if I smoke. They really don’t. I’m telling you the truth. They really don’t care.”
“What do you talk about out there, in the smoking area?”
“What kind of stuff?”
“Things. Stuff.” He paused. “Girls, I guess. Yeah, girls mostly.” He paused again. “There’s one thing more, which I forgot.”
“What we call it. What we call the smoking area.”
“What do you call it?”
“The Beast?” I recoiled a bit. This came out of nowhere. “Why the Beast?”
“’Cause when we’re out there, it’s like we’re all part of one big nasty animal. We’re like this monster. We’re dirty and sticky like a huge fly. We got a million legs and greasy long hair, and we scare the hell out of strangers walking along the road.”
“Who are the strangers?”
“You guys. The adults. You’re the strangers.”
He was very intent, and I wanted to pull away from him. He went on, “The Beast has all its eyes popping out, and it’s a sick green color. You guys walk by, we gobble you up.” He looked at me as if he meant it.
“Are you going to gobble me up?”
“Not if you’re nice.”
“I promise to be nice,” I said. He laughed. He got up to leave. “Have fun with the Beast,” I said.
He looked at me in an enigmatic way and said, “I will.”
The interaction had taken such a strange turn—I didn’t know what to make of it. I went home that evening, had a drink, played with our two little children, told my wife what had happened. Amanda had been a teacher herself, and she had a great instinct for kids. She said, “He let you see into their world. It was a privilege. You should be proud. He trusts you.” It was true. I’d been teaching for six years now, and it was the first time that I felt that I had some visceral understanding of the rawness of the emotions felt by the kids that I taught every day.
Not too long after that, I had another confrontation with another kid who spent most of his non-class time in the smoking area. Danny was a cop’s son, a good-looking kid with a mop of black hair that he parted down the middle and brown eyes so dark that they were nearly black. Good Lord he was nervous, though. He was in what the school called a Skills Improvement class, which meant that he really struggled to read or write, and as he fought to make out the words in simple—and I mean simple—articles, he was all anxiety, his right leg and foot jiggling against the linoleum floor and his hands running through his hair as he tried to interpret the mysterious black symbols floating on the page in front of him.
I struggled to get the kids in these classes to write. Most of them thought they had nothing to say, and even if they did, they didn’t know how to get it out. I had given the class some short writing assignment in class, and I walked over to where Danny was sitting. As I approached his desk, he looked up at me as if I was the biggest pain in the ass he had ever seen. There’s a scene in Gus Van Sant’s brilliant film Elephant, in which one of the teenage boys at the center of the film is in the kitchen with his mother, only we never see the mother’s face—just the boy’s. An ingenious image. She is faceless to her own son. That’s how I felt to Danny—faceless. He had written something on his paper and then crossed it out, written something else, then crossed it out. He jiggled his feet against the linoleum floor. In his eyes, he was lost.
I looked at him, and my heart went out to him. Then I saw that on his desk, he had a copy of Hot Rod magazine. “Just write about hot rods, drag racing, whatever you want,” I said to him. “Just put it down. Get it out. Spell the words any way you want. Forget about punctuation. Just get it all down.” And much to my amazement, he did. He went to town. He put down everything he knew about the drag races, going to the races up in Wisconsin, about the smell of the fuel, the chaos on race day, the incredible road, seeing Big Daddy Garlits, who was the big star of drag racing back then. He put his love of drag racing on the page. I smelled it, I heard it, I saw it. It was amazing.
I went out to the smoking area—the Beast--again. It felt less threatening to me, more like a portal into their world. There was something inchoate, something undefined, about the kids as they stood and sat and squatted in the courtyard. They were more lost than fierce. There was a vulnerability about them. They clung desperately to one another. I looked into their faces, their eyes. Jeanette, who was in one of my classes, wore a buckskin jacket and had jet-black hair and skin like porcelain, and in class she always looked so cool. But now she was hurting and I had no idea why.
One kid whom I didn’t know sat crosslegged on the grass and kept pounding a stick into the earth. He was pounding it with a rock. He’d pound it in, then pull it out and start pounding it in again. He did this over and over again, obsessively. He was by himself, and in fact the other kids seemed to make a point of avoiding him. When the bell rang, he finished pounding the stick in and then he picked up his books and trudged off to the next class. That was when I got a good look at him. His skin was pasty. He wore an old jean jacket, with the right pocket torn. His eyes were sunken, and he slouched. His mouth was open a quarter of an inch, and he looked as if he breathed through it. His hair was matted. He was wandering in the desert, as if he were a member of one of the Lost Tribes of Israel. I felt once more as if we in the adult world had failed him, had failed all of them. How, exactly, I didn’t know. I never found out what the boy’s name was.
There was another kid, Larry, a jock with short blond hair and compact build. He was in my senior college prep English class, and he fully intended to go to college. But he had decided to take the second semester off mentally. I mean, he just mailed it in. I would stroll though the smoking area, and I would see him there, smoking, laughing, his blonde girlfriend wearing tight jeans and cocooned underneath his arm, and she smiled up at him and slid up to his body and he grinned back in a cocky sort of a way.
Larry did next to nothing in senior English. He was making an art of just sliding by. He squeezed by on tests and did just enough on compositions to get a D. He didn’t make trouble, but he never said a thing in class. He got under my skin. I assigned the class a term paper, and when I read his, I knew that he hadn’t written it. I tracked down the sources and saw that he had copied them without making any effort to rewrite them, and I knew with a sinking heart that I had to give him an F on the paper, which meant that he probably would get an F in the course, which meant that he would have to go to summer school to graduate. I sat down with him after school and compared his paper to the sources. “How can that be?” he said, feigning astonishment.
“I’ll tell you how it came be. You copied the paper. You plagiarized.”
He flashed a look of anger at me. “I did not. I wrote the paper myself.”
“But then how do you explain all the same passages?”
I showed the identical passages to him, and he looked at them quickly and then looked away. “I don’t know how that happened. I guess I forgot to add quotation marks.”
“What do you mean? The whole thing is cribbed. You didn’t just forget some quotation marks.” I found myself wanting to exert my power over him. I wanted to be in the position of deciding his fate. “You plagiarized the whole paper,” I said angrily. “Do you know what that means?”
He looked away from me. I pressed my advantage. “I have no choice but to give this paper an F.”
He looked down at the floor. “That means I’ll flunk the course.” I saw with satisfaction that his cockiness was gone.
“You should have thought of that before.”
“My dad will kill me.” He paused. “Can I do the paper over?” he asked. “Can I write it over? I promise to do it all myself. I’m really, really sorry. I should never have done what I did.”
I sat there. I didn’t know what to say. I had been looking down at his paper in my hands, but when I looked up, I saw the fear in his eyes. Stark, naked fear. He was afraid of his father. He was petrified. His eyebrows congealed into fear. He licked his lips. He jiggled his feet. I’m certain that his eyes watered over. He tapped the top of the desk obsessively with his finger. My heart raced. I felt like a judge from the Old Testament, sitting in judgment of him.
I said, “Yes.”
I’ve often thought about this incident ever since them. Maybe I was too “soft” on him, too “easy.” He thanked me, and he rewrote the paper. It was mediocre, which was typical of his work. But it was his work. He earned a C on it. He passed the course. He graduated.
I saw him one more time, and it was the last time that I ventured into the smoking area. The administration had announced that the “experiment” with the smoking area would end after this year, and I agreed wholeheartedly with that decision. But I had this inexplicable urge to wade into its midst one more time, to let it wash over me. I approached it, and I understood more than ever why the kids called it the Beast. There were 30 or 40 kids, and as usual they were in various stances, some sitting, some crouching, but they seem to have melded into one living thing. Their passions and their appetites were out in the open, the boys and girls clinging to each other voraciously, sucking on their cigarettes as if they were sucking on oxygen. Their eyes were alive with a maelstrom of emotion—fear, joy, defiance, anger. I wandered from the fringes into the heart of the smoking area, the heart of the Beast. That was when I saw Larry. His arm was wrapped possessively around his girlfriend, and they leaned on each other with the desperation of angels exiled from heaven. He looked at me, and he nodded ever so slightly and cracked his lips in a faint smile. I nodded back ever so slightly and then turned away and let my eyes wander over that group of adolescents one more time, and I felt the Beast bursting with raw emotion, pure passion, fierce appetite--so vulnerable yet so untamable. As I turned to walk out of the smoking area, I knew in a strange way that I would miss the Beast.
Christopher Johnson is a writer based in the Chicago area. He’s done a lot of different stuff in his life. He has been a merchant seaman, a high school English teacher, a corporate communications writer, a textbook editor, an educational consultant, and a free-lance writer. He’s published short stories, articles, and essays in The Progressive, Snowy Egret, Earth Island Journal, Chicago Wilderness, American Forests, Chicago Life, Across the Margin, Adelaide Literary Magazine, The Literary Yard, Scarlet Leaf Review, Spillwords Press, Fiction on the Web, Sweet Tree Review, and other journals and magazines.