Paint this scene: imbue it with optimistic lighting à la Glee and the stench of yesterday’s cafeteria surprise à la every public high school in America: fill in any gaps with some universal notion of teenage angst and low-grade depression. This particular story unfolds in Smalltown, Florida, a wart on the pallid swampland; maybe it also unfolds ubiquitously across the American South. Who can be the judge of ubiquity?
Picture there’s this new English teacher, some grad student from Florida State who’s not even certified, just a kid who passed a background check and drug test. She’s got tattoos on every limb and makes a face when you mention Trump and doesn’t go to your church, or any church for that matter. She flinches when you call her “ma’am,” unaware you’re showing her respect and not making a sarcastic dig at her age. She doesn’t make eye contact the way your parents taught you to; she gets alarmed when you mention childhood beatings, beatings in which your mom forced you to pick your own whipping stick from the broken limbs in the yard.
New Teacher gets a reputation for being “private,” which undoubtedly means she has a weapons-grade-level secret hidden in her little brunette head. The artsy boy with scars on his wrist suggests she might have been born a he, though most of you don’t believe she’s that liberal. (Also, points out Blue-Eyed Blonde #1/∞, her hips are too prominent to be formerly a man’s.) By the end of the second day, though—yes, the second day, because secrets in this town flow like blood—you have your answer. New Teacher let a pronoun slip when she was talking about her fiancé (make that her fiancée!): New Teacher’s a lesbian. A living, breathing, tattooed, Trump-hating, church-evading, English-major lesbian. (Although, in this part of the country, you don’t say “she’s a lesbian”; you say “she’s lesbian,” the adjectival form of the word connoting that this fact encompasses her being.)
New Teacher gets summoned to the principal’s office, where the principal, an old white man, warns her to remember where she is. He acts apologetic. He tells her to stay away from the president of the Young Republicans Club.
Everything transpires exactly as Hollywood predicts it would: New Teacher moves from freak to fascination to fantastically popular. The handful of gay students adore her, naturally, but eventually so do you. So do most people who aren’t the president of the Young Republicans Club. You and twenty of your sort-of friends decamp in her classroom at all hours of the schoolday, brimming with questions about New Teacher’s personal life, even more eager to tell her about yours. She could start a gossip blog with everything you tell her. She doesn’t, though she occasionally records your words in a black Mead notebook:
You know the guy in charge of Discipline? He was arrested for beating his wife with a frying pan. His mugshot’s online!
That math teacher? A nineteen-year-old former student’s having his baby.
I saw another drug deal outside the AVID classroom.
Everyone knows the vice principal only got that job because his dad was the former principal.
The assistant football coach at Southwood had sex with a friend of mine. She admitted it and everything.
If you Google that teacher, you’ll find a blog that her psycho ex-boyfriend wrote about her.
That boy fucked his cousin.
Soon, New Teacher stops taking notes. Not because the rumors become any less sensational, but because, unbeknownst to you or anyone else, she’s now drinking liquor every night, wondering if there’s anything good or pure left in this world. Every morning, on her forty-five-minute commute to the school, she passes a brilliant blue billboard that announces: Smalltown Loves Jesus!
She thinks she’s being slowly strangled by the Bible Belt.
Days turn to weeks turn to months. Cue the cinematic supercut, the subtle bleed of autumn into winter, only discernable by the slight downtick in the cruel Florida heat. New Teacher complains that she doesn’t stop sweating until December. (Fifty-five degrees on Christmas: “chilly.”)
After Christmas break, New Teacher must be the most popular teacher in the school. She knows this because one of the older faculty, a woman with hair the color of sleet, quips: “You must be the most popular teacher in the school.” New Teacher knows this isn’t a compliment. You and she realize, with a jolt like a car crash, that her days are numbered. You realize that you don’t think of her as New Teacher anymore, not really; she’s just Teacher. Maybe, you think fleetingly, maybe even Friend. Sometimes she thinks this, too, though she’ll never admit it.
Teacher/Friend sympathizes with the flamboyantly gay kid, indulging him when he waxes poetic about the ROTC boy who took his virginity freshman year. (ROTC boy now has a big truck and a busty girlfriend.) Teacher/Friend allows girls to cry about their alcoholic mothers, their abusive boyfriends, their eating disorders. Teacher/Friend keeps secrets of who might be pregnant, who’s addicted to his mother’s pain pills, who’s lying to his parents about where he’ll be during Spring Break. Teacher/Friend keeps secrets on principle, scruples be damned. Teacher/Friend realizes she can’t tell right from wrong, guilty from innocent, anymore. Not in this wasteland where everybody loves Jesus and hates each other. Not in this humid, dusty swamp that she wouldn’t be surprised if even God forgot.
Teacher/Friend quits abruptly, leaves without warning one day at lunch. Teacher/Friend emails her resignation and speeds out of town, unaware even then that she is holding her breath, has been since August. With a shiver, Teacher/Friend realizes she made it out alive, just as all the viewers of the movie of her life would’ve guessed.
Teacher/Friend doesn’t cry until she thinks of her student/friends. The ones who didn’t make it out yet, the ones who never will.
Alaina Symanovich holds an MFA in Creative Writing from Florida State University and an MA in English from Penn State University. Her work has appeared in Sonora Review, Little Patuxent Review, Superstition Review, and other journals. She currently lives and works in Maryland.