“Everything Was Cliché and Nothing Hurt,” an essay by Alaina Symanovich

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.

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10 Comments

  1. You left our kids without a teacher in the middle of the year. You chose to keep secrets apparently, which was no ones doing but your own.

    You fancy yourself a victim of this place, but you show no gratitude at all for the people who gave you an education, and a job, and the friendship that you speak of.
    This town is full of a lot of very kind people, many of whom you seem to have no problem using as fodder for your sensational drama.

  2. You helped us when we had no one else to go to. You showed understanding when we were constantly ignored. You treated us as people instead of dirt. You listened when no one else would. You helped me discover who I really am and what I really believe. You gave me my voice back. FUCK the haters. You’re the epitome of what a teacher is supposed to be. Wakulla was blessed to have you.

    1. Youre right she does owe you thanks in helping her evolve into a better person. If it wasnt for your pathetic excuse for a community, in which only the choosen few and church going are accepted and appreciated, she probably wouldnt have the natural tallent to ever achieve her dreams. So many southern ppl claim Christianity, but practice with clutish undertone. As if, Jesus wanted you to hate and ostracize anyone who disagrees with your pastor. Why….thats mighty white of you Jesus. Lmfao! Please support higher education so these people’s children dont grow up to be victims of organized religion or political pawns. Thank you. Blessed be!

  3. Best teacher i ever had even though she never knew anything about me because I’m to separated from society to reveal my emotions also don’t worry about what people say you did the right thing leaving those who really liked you as a teacher would realize that

  4. The responsible thing to do would be own up to the things you did. Wakulla highschool wasn’t looking for a therapist, it was looking for a teacher. No one asked you to get involved in these kids’ personal lives. Plain and simple, it was unprofessional. You really try as hard as possible to make yourself a victim. Honestly, it’s kind of sad. That doesn’t mean I didn’t enjoy you as my teacher. I hope you learn from this.

  5. Can I post this?

    Unfortunately you must lack a little experience in seeing the whole picture and world for that matter.
    I’m sure you were too busy reading your books and expanding your well used vocabulary to explore the idea that EVERY town and school is filled with drama, secrets and children with an unfortunate home life. Did it slip your mind that these same issues are happening in other communities throughout our country? Do you watch the news where celebrities are taking their lives due to depression (of any degree) even though they have the financial ability to seek help and medication? Their struggles being broadcast post-death for “higher ratings.”
    Seems as though you got exactly what you wanted. Small town stereotypes still exist (news reporter announces and everyone rolls their eyes as they eat their 6 PM dinner of Fried chicken and limabeans accompanied by rice and gravy after saying “Grace”).
    Your story has begun and now you have to dwell on your poor life where you were afforded the opportunity to higher education. Maybe you can even have your main character Teacher/Friend spiral out of control once realizing that by being so closed up in your classroom and letting the kids invade the learning space of other children with all their drama that she MISSED her opportunity to teach these children and expose them to the life outside of Small town that loves Jesus. Religion isn’t the issue you were fighting-ignorance was. Ignorance is bliss and most forget that these kids don’t move away unless someone encourages the chance that they may find happiness and adventure if they were to move away.
    The GREAT educators that taught me (yes, in this Small town) encouraged me to move away and learn about the world— and because of those Great educators, I did. I moved, traveled, expanded my brain and heart, and then returned to teach these same children (good, bad and ugly).
    Good luck with your project. Maybe in your next adventure exposing innocent, ignorant children you will grow and become more seasoned in your self-pity.

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