Substitute Teacher Takes a Break from Jane Austen

by Adam Matson

Mr. Larson, as he had not yet grown accustomed to being called, had earned a modicum of respect from his fourth period senior English class. They would usually stop talking if he stood up from his desk. 

But today everyone gazed and laughed eagerly at Ryan Frechette, whose planetary guffaw was the center of their social universe.

“Normally I can totally handle my shit after three beers,” Ryan boasted. “But that telephone pole just snuck up on me. Guess my dad needs a new Lexus.”

Mr. Larson was only twelve years older than his students, and understood that there was a perverse dynamic of stupidity-worship in high school. Ryan Frechette had totaled his father’s car, drunk driving, after a party over the weekend, and this made him the class hero. A wave of high-fives swept over him like a cheer at a baseball game. 

Mr. Larson stepped forward, and now a few students in the front rows turned to him, grinning sheepishly but ready to begin class. After four weeks of substituting for Mrs. Hens, their regular English teacher, who was on leave for arthroscopic surgery, he had finally been accepted as one of them, a teacher who could be in on the fun. Mr. Larson knew he had encouraged this, breaking through their jocular banter with a barrage of mock-stern teasing that had won them over. Now Ryan Frechette nodded at him, clearly expecting an approving smile, the way every child of this ripe, self-obsessed generation expected encouragement and congratulations for absolutely everything they did.

“Ryan, I suppose you think you’re some kind of stud,” said Mr. Larson, allowing the grin to linger on the kid’s face. “To me you’re a goddamn moron.”

It took the students a moment to realize he was not kidding. A few of the girls lowered their eyes, and more than one set of shoulders slumped inward.

“Mr. Larson,” Ryan said, slouching at his desk. “You know how it is, right?”

“I know how you are. I was like you, not long ago. Like you I was eighteen, and I knew nothing. Like you my head was full of shit.”

He had been substitute teaching for about four months, since he’d been laid off from his tech job, but not until this moment had he experienced a thrill of pure joy. The innocence had evaporated from their faces. Ryan Frechette looked like he had been slapped, and was waiting for his mommy to punish his aggressor.

“I want you all to shut up for a moment,” Mr. Larson said, not angrily. “I think today we’re going to give Jane Austen a break. We’re going to talk about life. Ryan is our inspiration.”

The boy half-smiled.

“Sense and sensibility are two virtues he lacks.”

Someone in the class snickered. Slam dunk.

“I’m going to tell you a few things about the world that is out there waiting for you,” said Mr. Larson. “We’ll focus on your immediate futures, since I know what smart phones and ADHD have done to your attention spans. You all are seniors. You graduate in two months. Many of you are eighteen, and legally adults, and it’s time someone treated you like adults, because, frankly, you’ve been coddled and sheltered all your lives to the point where I’m concerned that the first rainy day you encounter will dissolve you like strands of toilet paper. So today I will take your questions, about life, the universe, and everything, and I’ll tell you the straight truth. This will likely be the only time a teacher ever speaks to you like this.” They were staring at him as if he had just started sprouting tentacles. “Who has a question?”

No one raised their hand. Usually they talked as if the cameras were rolling, prattling on long after making their points. 

“No questions,” said Mr. Larson. “You don’t even know what to ask.”

They looked nervous now. Good.

“Let’s start with college then. Who’s going to college?” 

Everyone in the class raised their hand.

“Who knows how they will be paying for college?”

Awkward silence.

“My parents?” someone asked after a moment.

“Your parents. Are they covering the whole cost, or just part of it?”

“I don’t know….”

“How many people don’t know how they are going to pay for college?”

A series of half-hands quivered in the air. Mr. Larson knew all of these kids were going to college. They lived in an affluent community. The life course of college/job/fulfillment had been injected into them from birth like antibiotics.

“College for you is going to cost about two hundred thousand dollars,” said Mr. Larson. “Who has that much money right now?”

He certainly did not.

“What is the point of college?” he continued, knowing none of them had two hundred grand.

“To get a job,” someone said. Obvious.

“What kind of job are you going to get, Brendan?”

“I dunno, something in sports.”

“You going to pitch for the Red Sox?”

“No.”

“No. You’re not. Here’s something no one will tell you in college. The entry-level job you get when you get out, if you’re lucky enough to get one, will not pay enough to cover both your rent and your student loans. It might cover one or the other, but not both.”

They frowned at him. Student loans?

“Oops.” Mr. Larson frowned. “Most of you will finish college with debt. Some of you will double-down and go to grad school, increasing your debt. A good number of you will be living at home after you graduate. Many of you will work two jobs, for years, likely one of which will be in either the food service industry, or retail. Both food service and retail suck. They take your soul and step on it. Like a fat kid crushing a beetle.”

A girl in the front row, Laura Something, scrunched up her face in a pout. “Why are you telling us this?” she asked.

“Because you have the right to know.”

“Didn’t you say you got laid off?” another kid asked.

“Take a good look, ladies and gentlemen. This is what a Master’s Degree in English is worth.”

There was a short chuckle.

“Let’s talk more about college,” said Mr. Larson. His stomach was beginning to feel warm, like when he floored the accelerator on the highway. “College can be great, and you have four years where you have no bills to pay, no health insurance to worry about, and more free time than you’ll ever have again. It is also four years of extraordinary pressures, many of them academic, most of them social. You will be surrounded by drugs and alcohol. Ryan,” Mr. Larson extended a hand toward the class hero. “Sounds like you’ve already got a jump on the drinking culture.”

Several students snickered.

“Think you know something about drinking?”

“Yeah, man,” said Ryan Frechette. “I know a thing or two.”

He accepted another high-five.

“You know shit,” said Mr. Larson.

Again the class fell silent. Mr. Larson began pacing in front of his desk. “The first weekend of college there will be parties all over campus. Many of you will make the first significant alcohol-related mistakes of your lives at these parties. You will be encouraged to do so, egged on by other idiots. I couldn’t wait to get drunk for the first time. Got wasted my first night at college. Had my first hang-over the next day. Felt like I was a man that day. But I was just a dipshit. Here’s another thing they don’t tell you: that first weekend party? You don’t have to go. The pressure will tell you otherwise, and all your brand-new best friends will tell you you have to go, but you don’t have to go. Take my word for it. There will be a thousand parties, all of them exactly the same. Approach them at your own pace. If you don’t want to go, that’s cool.”

A shy girl in the front row smiled minutely. Mr. Larson bent his head and continued. “All the ladies in the class please stand up.”

They hesitated, as they always did when told to do something physical, then as a nervous group they all stood. He gave them a moment to breathe, grin, relax their shoulders. Then he stopped pacing. “Many of you, ladies, will be sexually assaulted at some point during college.”

Together all of their shoulders seemed to slump at once. One or two looked like they might cry.

“Take a look at each other,” said Mr. Larson. “Several of you are going to get raped.”

The girls exchanged furtive glances, but mostly they stood stone still. The boys did not look at anyone.

“Sit down,” said Mr. Larson, and the girls obeyed. “Your turn, gentlemen. Up.”

Warily the boys left their seats. Ryan Frechette and his high-fiving friends were the last to oblige.

Mr. Larson pointed a finger generally at the boys. “Some of you will commit sexual assault during college. You’ll get drunk, you’ll start to feel good, you’ll take someone back to your room, and you’ll make a mistake that ruins her life, and never gets easier for either of you to bear, no matter what you do.”

“That’s messed up, Mr. Larson,” said Ryan Frechette.

“Yeah, I don’t think you should be talking about this,” said one of the girls.

“Nobody’s going to talk to you about it at college either,” said Mr. Larson. “Sit down, gentlemen.”

The boys sat back down, shaking their heads. Mr. Larson glanced at the clock on the wall. There were twenty minutes left in the class. Not a single student looked happy. Good. He thought of his other classes, his underclassmen, bright-eyed freshmen and sophomores. Smart, wealthy kids from good families who expected everything to work out for them. Misfortune could be swapped out like a broken iPhone, problem solved. 

“Bad things happen to good people sometimes,” Mr. Larson said. “And sometimes good people do bad things. I’ll give you an example.”

He sat down on the desk. Everyone was watching him now, their expressions lost between discomfort and fear.

“This happened when I was in college,” he said. “There was a girl I was friends with. We’ll call her Kendra, which was not her real name. She was a cute girl, funny, smart. We had a bunch of classes together, and she lived in my dorm junior year. Now junior year is when almost everybody turns twenty-one, and as I’m sure Ryan has already figured out, like generations of idiots before him, your twenty-first birthday is often an occasion for epic and raucous drinking.”

“Hell yeah,” said Ryan Frechette, drawing a few laughs. “I can’t wait to turn twenty-one. You can come out with us, Mr. Larson.”

Mr. Larson nodded. “So a bunch of us went out for Kendra’s twenty-first birthday, to a bar called… Jesus, you’d think I would remember. Doesn’t matter. So we’re at the bar, maybe ten or twelve of us, most of us already twenty-one. Everyone each ordered a round of drinks, and every time there was a new round, we made the birthday girl take a shot. That was tradition.”

Several of the students perked up. Mr. Larson could see the word COLLEGE!, with a big exclamation point, dancing in their eyes.

“By the end of the night we were all totally wasted, especially Kendra. Those of us who were left took a cab back to campus, and staggered back to our dorms. Kendra and I lived on the same floor, so we walked each other home. Leaning on each other. Trying not to fall. Reeking of alcohol.”

“Mr. Larson, I knew you were cool,” said Ryan Frechette.

Mr. Larson stuck his hands in his pockets, began fidgeting with his car keys.

“I don’t remember if she invited me into her room, or if we just sort of lurched in there,” he said. “I remember some things about that night, but not everything. I remember we started making out on her bed. We started getting undressed. I thought it was the greatest birthday party ever. Then, right as she got her bra off-“ and he could see several of the girls squirm in their desk chairs “-she passed out.”

Someone in the back row said “Aww.” 

“The next thing I remember I was on top of her,” said Mr. Larson. “And we were having sex.”

Now the class fell silent.

“And I guess I thought she was awake, and knew what was going on, but I don’t know. She came to at some point, suddenly, and started resisting. Wanted me to stop. Started pushing me away.”

He felt pain in his hand, withdrew his hand from his pocket, saw that the keys had been pressed so hard they’d drawn blood.

“I did not stop,” Mr. Larson said. He stared at the floor. “Because in my mind, I guess, we were having fun. I even told her: ‘This is fun, right? It’s your birthday, you have to celebrate.’”

He shuddered as he recalled what he’d really said. In his drunken confusion he had told “Kendra” it was his own birthday, and he wanted to celebrate it right. “It’s my birthday,” he told her, over and over.

Everyone in the class was staring at him. 

“I woke up in my own bed the next morning,” said Mr. Larson. “I have no idea how I got there.”

A girl in the second row had tears in her eyes. Another girl gaped at him, open-mouthed.

“After that Kendra never spoke to me,” Mr. Larson said. “I’d see her around campus, and she’d look away. At the time I just sort of thought we had made a drunken mistake, that it was just some awkward college hook-up. Happens to everyone. Took me years to realize what had actually happened. What I’d actually done. And I feel sick about it.”

He slid off the desk and sat down in his chair, his body dropping like a sandbag, and he did not say anything for a while. Eventually he glanced at the clock, saw there were a few minutes left before the bell.

“Listen,” he said. “I want you all to look around at each other. Next year you aren’t going to see each other anymore, you’ll be off on your own. If I can give you one piece of advice, one thing that’s more important than any books you’ve read over the last four years, or any theorems they made you memorize, it’s this: take care of each other. Look after each other. Be the person who takes care of the group. Not the person the group takes care of. Gentlemen; even if she says ‘yes’ at the party, or at the bar, make sure she still says ‘yes’ when you get back to your room. And if she says ‘no’ back at the room, you better back off. And ladies; it’s okay to say ‘yes’ at the party and then ‘no’ back at the room. You have the right to change your mind. You all don’t think about these things right now, but in a few months, you’ll have nobody to hold your hand when you get into trouble. Except each other. That’s all I have to say.”

A hush settled over the room, and the bell rang a couple of minutes later. Slowly the students got up from their seats and filtered out of the classroom. In the hallway Mr. Larson heard the buzz of conversation and laughter, and knew that some of them were already forgetting what he’d told them, perhaps on purpose.

 

That night when he got home he opened a bottle of wine half an hour early. Usually he waited for his fiancée, Catharine, to arrive home from work before they started drinking. Mr. Larson sat at the kitchen table drinking and staring at his cell phone, waiting for the inevitable call from the school.

It came while he was cooking dinner, while Catherine was watching TV in the living room. It was the high school principal, on speaker-phone, with the superintendent.

“I understand,” Mr. Larson said, before hanging up.

He sighed. Catherine had never heard the story about “Kendra.” Now she would hear it tonight.

“Are you teaching tomorrow?” she called over the television.

“No,” said Mr. Larson, and he brought a fresh bottle of wine into the living room.

 

 

About the Author: Adam Matson's fiction has appeared internationally in over a dozen magazines, including The Poydras Review, as well as Straylight, Soundings East, The Bryant Literary Review, The Berkeley Fiction Review, Morpheus Tales, Infernal Ink Magazine, Crack the Spine, and The Indiana Voice Journal. He is the author of a collection of short stories, Sometimes Things Go Horribly Wrong (Outskirts Press).