Continued from: Beneath the Weeping Tree: Part 8 — Sore Knees
Steve Bender propped his feet on the windowsill and stared out at the desolate courtyard. His teeth chiseled a pencil, another nasty habit he picked up as a result of the smoking ban on school property. He longed for the times when he could smoke right there in the office. Exhale out the window to appease anyone who whined about second-hand smoke in the school. That hadn’t been a good enough measure, though, and when some parents had gotten wind of his continued smoking in the office, the administration cracked down on all tobacco use on the premises. “Sets a bad example,” those parents had bitched. He figured it was the same parents who sloshed through two martinis before dinner was finished each night.
A pair of jays darted through the yard like fighter planes swooning toward the ground on a quick mission. He watched as they landed in a large poplar and remained still on one of its limbs. The branch rocked gently in the wind and he wondered if those birds knew just how good they had it. Find a place to chill out. Dig worms or something to survive. Worms dry up or the scene just turns stale, fly the fuck away from there. Winter comes. Skedaddle southward. See old friends in the Everglades. Maybe the Mississippi Delta. He read somewhere that more than half of the birds in the country migrated to Louisiana in the wintertime. Not a bad choice, he supposed. Lots of sun. Cajun delicacies. Mammoth drinks.
And they probably aren’t so anal about the goddamn cigarettes down south, either, he thought.
“Student here to see you Steve.” Dolores popped her head inside the door. She knew he didn’t mind that. They’d grown very close over the years and although he did quite a few things “off the books” in his office, he trusted her with any dirt on him that she picked up along the way.
“Student? Is this an appointment?” Bender began shuffling through the clutter atop his desk. He piled papers neatly to one side and cleared room for the coffee cup that was lodged on the window sill. The pencil made its way from his mouth to the fold behind his ear.
“No appointment. Said he just really wants to see you.” She lowered her voice to a whisper. “He looks a little stressed.”
“Okay. I’m real busy,” he smiled. “But I guess I can spare a minute or two.”
Dolores told Cooper he could go into Bender’s office. Cooper stopped in the doorway, standing there for a moment, his hands pressed against the doorframe as if he were keeping it from collapsing. When the guidance counselor swiveled in his chair, Cooper continued into the room and made way for a metal folding chair.
“Here, let me clear a space for you,” Bender said, hoisting one hand outward to prevent Cooper from sitting. “I don’t want you sitting on that old thing. It’s not even fit for my mother-in-law.”
Both of them smiled and Cooper was relieved to see Bender clearing off a padded chair similar to his own. He appreciated the humor with which he was greeted and his mind plunged into a brief fantasy of the two of them sitting there like old pals, cards fanned before there faces and chips scattered across the desk. He imagined Bender with a stogie jammed between his lips and a can of beer resting in the crook of his arm while contemplating his next move. Cooper learned a thing or two about poker from James Blow, a slick-haired jock who rode the school bus with him. But it was all secondary information that he’d been forced to steal by eavesdropping. James Blow didn’t talk poker or anything else to kids who weren’t his jock contemporaries or the cheerleaders who followed them around like mindless lapdogs. But Mr. Bender didn’t feel like any James Blow. He seemed like a normal guy who wasn’t afraid to show his human side. As his poker fantasy evaporated, Cooper clung to the hope that he might learn a thing or two from this guy during his high school experience.
“Now, there you go. That’s a real seat, my friend.” He motioned for Cooper to take the seat. “I don’t believe we’ve met. I’m Mr. Bender,” he said, extending a hand. “Or just Bender, if you please. Guidance counselor, extraordinaire!” He smiled and Cooper reciprocated.
“Cooper,” Cooper said, then cleared his throat.
“Cooper? That your last name?”
“No, sir. First name. Cooper.”
“Well, Cooper. What brings you here today?” Bender asked, taking the seat behind his desk. “Everything okay adjusting to the new school year and all?”
“Well…for the most part. There are a few things that have been bothering me, though.”
“Sorry to interrupt…but, which grade are you in, Cooper?”
“Tenth grade, sir. I’m a sophomore.”
Bender was jotting down words on a legal pad while they talked, and suddenly Cooper wished he’d never come in here. What a stupid idea. Attracting even more problems. Come to think of it, he didn’t really have a very good reason for coming down here in the first place, did he? He just didn’t want to deal with class or that bitch Mrs. Bradford or Suzie Becker and her not-so-sore knees or another day of pondering over Pythagoras or his damn measuring of triangles. Maybe everything would be okay if he just stood up and excused himself. Like he’d made some terrible mistake. A wrong turn from the nurse’s office. Perhaps misdirected by that know-it-all secretary, Waltson, in the main office. And now there it all was. Documented. Just like his mother, now he would have his life spilled out onto the page. He imagined coming home from school and the two of them—his mother and Mr. Bender—sitting there on the couch. His mom with tears in her eyes while she leafed through the legal pad and Bender shaking his head in disappointment while cramming another Little Debbie cake into his mouth from the tray that had been set out on the coffee table.
“Sorry to be writing, bud. I just want to get everything straight before we start talking. That should do it.” He set the pad on his desk blotter and inserted the pencil in his mouth. “Okay. Now, what seems to be bothering you?”
Cooper felt trapped for a moment, but decided he’d give this guy a shot. “I guess I’m just losing interest in school. That’s the main thing. You know…the reason I decided to come and see you. I mean, I used to like school. Actually like it. I mean, I was never a math guy, but I could do it. But now, it’s so complicated, and that bitch, Mrs. Bradford… I mean…”
He paused, horrified that he’d referred to Mrs. Bradford as “that bitch.” It was all over now, he thought. The suspension. A letter home. Maybe a conference with his mom. He imagined her on the receiving end of a phone call from the guidance office. Yes, that’s right, ma’m. He walked right out of class and then began to use profanities during his meeting with a counselor. That was it. He’d be forced to submit to more extensive interviewing every time he entered or left the apartment. She might even begin to investigate his friends and discover that they were imaginary. He palmed sweat from his forehead and thought about rising to leave.
But Mr. Bender stood up first.
Cooper watched as he stepped casually toward the door and pushed it shut. When he returned to the seat behind his desk, the previous guise of friendliness remained on his face. He reached into his top desk drawer and pulled out the tin of chewing tobacco. His fingers drummed on its lid, curbing the silence. Finally, he sighed and cleared his throat.
“What do you want to get out of school, Cooper? Why are you here?”
“To learn. And so that I can maybe go to college. Get a good job.” The cliché answers tasted terrible and his tongue felt like a dried-out rug.
Bender did not look impressed. “Is that the real reason? Or is it that you may want to use school just to experience life. You know… the people around you. You can learn just as much from your social interactions as you can from your textbooks. This is nothing new to you, I’m sure.”
Cooper nodded his head as if he was indeed thinking this all along. That Bender was telling him nothing new. He’d thought about these things before, but never in such literal terms. Learning “from social interactions.” He liked that.
“I bet you could tell some great stories about things you’ve observed in other students, in your family, in your teachers. That’s what school is really all about. Making you a strong thinker so that you can make some gains in every aspect of your life.” Bender pinched some chew between his thumb and forefinger, parking it between his cheek and gum. “I know that all sounds kind of corny right now, but, hopefully if you give it some time, it will all fall into place and start making some sense. Now… by the way, you don’t mind if I have a dip here do you. It’s this damn nicotine addiction I’ve developed over the past thirty years of my life. When I was your age I had pink lungs, too.” He smiled.
Cooper thought about all of the cigarettes he’d smoked.
“Oh well,” Bender said. “Now listen. You pointed out that one good reason to come to school is so that you can get a good job later on in life. Sort of a vague concept, wouldn’t you agree?”
Cooper nodded his head, realizing where this was probably going.
“Now, I want to talk specifics. In my position, I see kids throwing out all kinds of possibilities about what they might want to do when they’re adults. They get thrown off from reality a bit because, for some reason, they feel pressure that they need to make up their minds about those things when they are fourteen, fifteen, sixteen years old. Now, I’m not saying it’s a bad idea to start thinking about some of those things—gearing your interests and gauging your motivation. That type of thing. I just think that you shouldn’t try to corner yourself.”
Bender paused, holding a hand up as if to call time-out. He reached under his desk and the hand came back with a tattered Styrofoam cup, its edges pocked by teeth marks. Cooper considered that he hadn’t spoken much, but he was grateful for the fact that Mr. Bender had ignored his remark about Mrs. Bradford. He hated adult lectures, but somehow this didn’t feel like a lecture. It felt more like advice dealt out in a friendly sort of way.
“I’m not gonna bark in your ear for long about this, Cooper. But I just want to get two things straight. I want you to follow your interests without getting sidetracked by anything. Not teachers, students, family, friends. And I don’t want you to feel pressure to choose your track in life at the age of… ?”
“Fifteen. See, when I was in school, I didn’t quite know what I wanted to do. I always thought it would be cool to be a garbage man. They have closure to their job each day. Trash is there. You pick it up. And, wham, it’s gone. I like that. But, I decided the stink was just too much for me, so I decided that I might want to be a painter. Again, you see the work that needs to be done. Do your prep work with scraping. And then slap on the fresh coat of paint. Simple as pie. Or so I thought. You see, I failed to consider the ladder aspect of it. I’m not crazy about heights, and the pain I get in my lower back while standing on a ladder… Have mercy. So, now I leave it up to my wife to give me all my pain.” He laughed.
Cooper grinned, obediently.
Bender said, “Basically, what I’m saying is to leave your options open. Follow the roads that seem important. Trouble with your math teacher? Don’t sweat it. It may really suck for the rest of the year, but then you might have the greatest experience of your life next year. Who knows? In my case, I never did make up my mind about what I wanted to do. So that leaves me here pondering your options instead of my own.”
Bender turned back toward the window and spat into the cup. He looked out into the courtyard and the two of them endured a short silence. One of the jays remained in the tree as the branches swayed in the wind. The leaves reflected sunlight like tiny mirrors.
“Ever watch birds?” Bender asked.
Cooper stood up and walked toward the window. He leaned over and looked out at the jay.
“Birds. Squirrels. Chipmunks. Foxes. You name it,” Bender said. “My favorites are the squirrels. They seem really curious about everything. Although, the birds can fly. I sort of envy them for that, Maybe that’s why I like squirrels better.”
They remained there for a few minutes. Mr. Bender added to the dark pool of saliva in his cup a few times, and Cooper imagined himself up in the tree with that jay, the wind riffling through his hair, reminding him that he was alive.
Soon the jay took flight and Cooper watched as it circled the tree, then soared upward and away from the enclosed yard.
Continued in: Beneath the Weeping Tree: Part 10 — Evaluation