A long time ago, a young teacher named Gilbert Gershwin packed his belongings into a Pontiac Phoenix and took a job at a boarding school in Upstate New York. He felt safe there, surrounded by old books and tall trees, and was blissfully unaware that the other young teachers referred to him as Grrr, a nickname they coined not because it was the first syllable of his last name but because of the rugged scar on his otherwise handsome face and his apparent lack of social skills. For most of a year, Gershwin’s quiet presence at meals and meetings fed his peers’ imaginations, but one warm night in March while they were lying in a field of alfalfa and gazing up at the bright tale of Comet Hale-Bopp, they spied him stealing into his apartment with woman in a short leather jacket. Excited that the aloof one might, indeed, have a pulse, they spent the rest of the evening making up stories about him, but when the sun rose, both the comet and the woman were gone and their colleague was once again back in hiding.
Gershwin knew they wanted him to come out and play, but at this point in his life he preferred being a mystery. At the start of his second year, however, someone came up with the great idea of assigning him the opening day task of taking student ID photos. That’s when, as he was shuffling through name cards and bracing himself for another round of small talk, he looked up to find a girl wearing a yellow polo shirt and clinging to the manila folder she should have left at registration. As he’d done all morning, he directed her to a line of masking tape on the carpet and added that despite any rumors she may have heard, smiles were indeed permitted. Perhaps, she’d hear too many bad jokes that day, but the girl looked anxiously at the camera and then at his scar, and when the corner of her mouth finally jumped a little, he pushed the button.
“IDs get handed out at first advisory tomorrow,” he said, pulling the film cassette from the camera. “But you’re last of this batch, so if you want to see yourself, it’ll be just a minute.”
He expected the antsy kid to bolt, but after taking a step toward the door, she swore under her breath and stopped. Thrown off, he noticed a spot of white on her fingertip, and asked what year she was. She said junior, class of ’97, and he asked where she was from. Nearby, she said, reading the nametag on his chest, but she was boarding. He said something about her parents being able to visit. She responded with a raised eyebrow and said the minute was up, so he peeled the backing off the film and held it out. There should have been four faces gazing up at them. Instead there were three merry kids and an empty frame where she should have been.
“How’d you do that?” he asked, tilting the photo to the light.
“How should I know?” she said, with a shrug. “It’s your camera.”
“I guess I’m not a very good photographer,” he said. “No focus.”
“In that case, let’s try another,” she said with a groan, and she went back to the line on the carpet. “By the way, I think I’m in your American Literature class.”
Brigid Haze turned out to be an able student. She was punctual, prepared and she enjoyed thinking in metaphors, but as much as she enjoyed digging into books, she did not enjoy digging into discussions. For a week or so, Gershwin let her coast, but one day when another student made a particularly uninformed comment about a poem, he noticed her eyebrow doing a smug little hop.
“Miss Haze, may I talk to you for a moment?” he said, when the bell rang and everyone started packing up. Sensing she was about to get a lecture, Brigid slid down into her seat as Gershwin perched on the edge of a nearby desk. “So far you’ve been a tourist in this class,” he began in his best teacher voice. “I’m glad you’re comfortable, but I’m hoping you’ll unpack your bags and join us soon.”
“I’ve read almost everything on your syllabus.”
“Why are you here then?”
“I switched schools last spring and the second one, for reasons no one could explain, wouldn’t give me my English credit. I should be a senior, but now I’m like a junior plus, which makes me sound like a fat kid.” She twirled her notebook in front of her and he couldn’t help but laugh.
“Are you applying to colleges?”
“That’s my plan, which means summer school. My dad thinks I should do a post-graduate year since I’m still seventeen, barely, but, I gotta be honest, another year of high school is gonna kill me.”
“Got any recs?”
Brigid swept a scrap of paper off her desk and furrowed her brow. “Are you volunteering?”
“If you show me some work and participate more. This class could sure use it and if you know these books…”
“But if I’m quiet and I get like a solid B, you won’t? Isn’t that like blackmail?”
“I’d consider it a fair trade. How about it?” He crossed his arms for effect.
“You know,” she said, “your lessons may be kind of slow, but these kids actually like the reading. They were even talking about one of your poems in the dorm. It’s just that nobody wants to talk first and get told they’re wrong.”
“I wouldn’t do that.”
“I know, but they’re kind of stupid. Maybe if you made us write for a few minutes when we got here or something? I bet they’d talk then.” With her eyes cast at the ceiling and her fingers drumming softly on her desk, he got the silly feeling that she was really a teacher in disguise.
“How about a found poem?” he suggested.
“Or maybe we look at the one we’re reading from another perspective?”
“I like that better,” said Gershwin. “Damn, maybe you should be the teacher?”
“No way,” she said, sounding like a kid again. “Me and schools do not go together. Let’s see, at the first I got in a fight with a girl whose daddy was on the board. At the second, well, that pit was more like a summer a camp than an actual school.”
“Well, we’ve got lots of photogenic ivy here, the food’s okay, and if you do your work, people tend to leave you alone.”
“That’s exactly what I want.”
“And if last year’s essays aren’t abysmal, I’ll let you read other books.”
“Can’t I just tell you what I wrote about? You trust me, right?”
“It doesn’t work that way,” he said. “And, last thing, you’re not very subtle when it comes to hiding your disdain for the ideas of your, ah, less worldly classmates.”
“All the more reason to play nice and be with us.”
“Believe me, I’m right here.”
“I’d say about half here.”
“I’m like you then,” she said, her eyes flashing indiscreetly, and Gershwin coughed awkwardly and pulled out the speech he used when a girl acted coy. It started with the word “diligence” and ended with his index finger and thumb securely attached to his chin. Despite being young, he performed it with poise and projected a kind of studious flair, but when he rose from his desk and saw what she’d written on the cover of her notebook, I spy with my little eye a little brown-eyed spy, his act fell apart and he held up his hands in surrender.
“Okay, you got me. We both have to be here.”
“How do you manage?”
“They pay me.”
“Your parents didn’t drive by and push you out of the car?”
“Nope, I drove myself.”
“And you can leave whenever you want.”
“The job may look like servitude,” he said, trying to regain his footing, “but, yeah, I’m allowed to leave. You can, too—if you hate schools as much as you say—but not during B Block, okay? Now go, I don’t want you to be late for whatever.”
“Thanks for the talk,” she said, slinging her bag over her shoulder, and she told him she didn’t want to read any new books. She liked the old ones too much. Maybe that’s why she got annoyed when people said stupid things about them.