My favorite bedtime story is Philadelphia Phyllis, the little girl who used to solve crime mysteries back at the turn of the century. You tell me so many Philadelphia Phyllis stories, and my favorite is the one where she stops a bully from picking on kids at school when she finds a magical weapon that gives her power. I often wish there were other kids here, but your stories about bullies make me wonder if I’m lucky it’s only me.
My favorite song is the one your dad wrote called “Underwater Vatican,” which you sing for me sometimes, because you miss your dad. (Mom helped me spell Vatican and says it’s where some important guy used to live but she couldn’t really explain why he was important. She says we don’t have guys like him anymore.)
Daddy, I can’t think of anything else to write.
I love you.
I’m sorry that you were sad when you were a little boy, but you’re hardly ever sad now, which is good, right?
Momma says I should tell you to hold on.
Hold on to what? I wonder.
I don’t know.
But hold on.
There, I wrote that. Mom better give me full credit for this assignment.
Can’t wait to see you at dinner tonight. I think we are having corn chowder with bacon AGAIN, because that’s what we have the most of, so we have to save the other types of food for special occasions like birthdays, and mine’s coming up in a week or so. You said you have a really special surprise for me.
I wonder what it is!
You never ever forget my birthday and you always make it special.
Is it true you don’t have a birthday, like you said?
I wish I knew when your birthday was, because I would find you the best birthday present ever. Horatio would help me search Outpost 37 until we had the perfect prize.
Why won’t you tell me when your birthday is?
Mom says it has to do with bad memories.
Why don’t I have any bad memories? I ask her, and she says it’s because I have such a good dad.
That makes me smile.
You are a good dad!
S, your “Jay-Z Princess”
(What is a “Jay-Z”? You never tell me!)
Herr Silverman stands tall at six foot three or so. His body type would best be described as wiry. His hair is prematurely salt-and-pepper, and in ten years or so it will be entirely silver, at which point his last name will be appropriate. He always wears a solid-color tie; a long-sleeve white shirt; green, tan, or black pants with no pleats; black or brown suede lace-up shoes with a clunky heel; and a leather belt to match his shoes. Simple, but elegant—and most days he looks like a waiter at a fancy restaurant. Today he has on black pants, tie, shoes, belt, and has shaved the beginnings of a goatee.30
At the beginning of every class he greets all of his students at the door, shakes everyone’s hand on the way in, smiles at you, and looks you in the eye. He’s the only teacher who does this, and the process often creates a human snake in the hallway. Sometimes the handshaking takes so long that there are still people lined up after the bell has rung, and this pisses off the other faculty members something awful.
Once our principal saw the line and yelled, “Get to class, all of you!” because he didn’t see Herr Silverman in the door.
Herr Silverman said, “It’s okay. We’re just in the middle of our daily greeting. Everyone deserves a hello. Hello, Andrew.”
Our principal made this really weird face, finally said, “Hello,” and then walked away fast.
Today, when Herr Silverman shakes my hand, he smiles and says, “I like your new hat, Leonard.”
It makes me feel so good, because I believe he really likes it, or rather he likes the fact that I’m expressing myself—that I’m wearing something no one else is wearing, and I’m not afraid to be different.31
“Thanks,” I say. “Can I speak with you after class? I have something for you.”
“Certainly.” He nods and gives me an additional smile—a real smile, the kind that uses all the muscles in your face but doesn’t look forced. Herr Silverman’s smiles always make me feel better for some reason.
“Why does he have to shake everyone’s hand every day?” this kid Dan Lewis says about Herr Silverman as we take our seats.
“He’s so fucking weird,” Tina Whitehead answers under her breath.
And I want to pull out the P-38 and blast them both in their übermoronic heads, because Herr Silverman is the one teacher who cares about us and takes the time to let us know that—every day—and these stupid asshole classmates of mine hold it against him. It’s like people actually want to be treated poorly.
Although once when we were talking after class, Herr Silverman told me that when someone rises up and holds himself to a higher standard, even when doing so benefits others, average people resent it, mostly because they’re not strong enough to do the same. So maybe Dan Lewis and Tina Whitehead are just weaker than Herr Silverman and really need his kindness because of that, but I certainly wouldn’t take the time to look them in the eye and smile every day if they talked like that behind my back. Herr Silverman is smart enough to realize that being different has consequences. He’s always talking about that in class. Consequences. But he never bitches about the consequences he has to deal with, which makes him stand out.
“So,” Herr Silverman says to the class, and I notice that once again he has refrained from rolling up his sleeves. “It’s ethical question day. Who has a question?”
We do this thing where someone asks a hard question related to the Holocaust—one with no clear right or wrong solution, like a moral dilemma—and then the class debates the answer.
Mine is the only hand in the air today, and so Herr Silverman says, “Leonard?”
“Let’s just say that an American teenager inherited a real Nazi gun from his grandfather, who captured and executed a high-ranking Nazi officer. What should be done with the gun?”
I’m really curious to hear how my classmates respond. I’m sure their answers won’t match mine. It’s amazing how different they are from me.
Also, it’s sort of thrilling to mess with their heads—to see how stupid they are, because they would never dream I have a gun, even though I basically just told them I do. Tomorrow they will look back on this discussion in a very different light, and they will realize just how unbelievably moronic they are.
This girl Lucy Becker is the first to answer, and she basically says that my gun belongs in the Holocaust museum in D.C., and makes a speech about the importance of documenting our mistakes so we are not doomed to repeat them.32
“Counterpoint?” Herr Silverman says.
This kid Jack Williams who is kind of smart and interesting argues that the gun should be destroyed and talks about the rise of neo-Nazis who collect such things. Jack argues that if all Nazi propaganda were destroyed, no one would be able to use it to recruit new Nazis. “That’s why President Obama buried Osama bin Laden at sea,” Jack says. “So no one could use his grave as a symbol.”
“Very interesting rebuttal, Jack,” Herr Silverman says. “Responses from the class?”
Kids in my class go back and forth about what to do with the gun, and—even though I asked the question—their answers start to freak me out a little. I mean I have a real Nazi gun in my backpack and everyone is talking about what to do with it, only they don’t know that my hypothetical ethical question was real—they don’t know that I have the gun on me right now.
They are all so remarkably stupid—but still, I start to worry that maybe one of them will put it together and guess why I asked that question on this particular day, and then they’ll all lynch me.33
I worry so much that I start to sweat in my seat.
I feel really mixed up, and it’s like I just want it all to end—everything.
And yet at the same time, I want someone to figure it out, to piece together all the hints I’ve been dropping all day long, for years and years even, but no one ever figures it out, and I’m beginning to see why people go mad and do awful things—like the Nazis and Hitler and Ted Kaczynski and Timothy McVeigh and Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold and Cho Seung-Hui all34 did and so many other horrific people whom we learn about in school and—You know what? Fuck Linda for forgetting my birthday—FUCK HER—because how do you forget giving birth to someone eighteen years ago today and IRRESPONSIBLE and IRRESPONSIBLE and selfish and culpable and inhumane and—
“Leonard?” Herr Silverman says.
Everyone has turned his or her head and is looking at me.
I’m supposed to summarize both points of view regarding what to do with the P-38 and say which side I think won the debate, but I haven’t been listening and I can’t exactly say what I really think.
“I don’t know. I just don’t know anything today,” I say, and then accidentally sigh.
Herr Silverman looks into my eyes until I look back into his and then I sort of plead with him using mental telepathy, thinking, Please just move on. It’s my birthday. I only have a few more hours on this planet. Please. Be kind. Let me off the hook.
“It’s a hard question, Leonard. A good one. I don’t know either,” Herr Silverman says, totally saving me.
The übermorons roll their eyes and exchange glances.
He moves on to the lecture part of the class, discussing the concept of doubling, or being two different people at once—the good WWII German dad who eats a civilized dinner with his family at a formal table and reads bedtime stories to his children before he kisses their foreheads and tucks them into bed, all after spending the entire day ignoring the screams of Jewish women and children, gassing away, and heaving corpses into awful mass graves.
Basically, Herr Silverman says that we can simultaneously be human and monster—that both of those possibilities are in all of us.
Some of the stupid kids argue with him, saying they aren’t like the Nazis and never could be, because Herr Silverman says we all double in some ways. And everyone in the class knows exactly what he’s talking about, even if they pretend they don’t.
Like how the kids the teachers think are the nicest are really the kids who drink tons of alcohol on weekends and drive drunk and date rape everyone all the time and are constantly making less popular and truly nice kids feel shitty about themselves. But these same awful students transform themselves in front of the adults in power, so they will get the good college letters of recommendation and special privileges. I’ve never once cheated on a test or plagiarized, and Herr Silverman is probably the only teacher in the building who would write me a college recommendation letter if I wanted one.
Our valedictorian, Trish MacArthur, got character letters from the most popular teachers in the building, and every student at this school knows she throws the most insane parties, where booze and drugs are prevalent and cops are regular visitors—but since her dad is the mayor, they just say, “Keep the noise down.” A kid OD’d at her house last year and ended up in the hospital. And, magically, Trish MacArthur’s reputation among faculty members remained untarnished. She’s in A.P. English with me and she offered me two hundred bucks to “help her” with her Hamlet paper. She batted her eyelashes at me, crossed her ankles, pushed her boobs together with her shoulders, and said, “Please?” all helpless, just like she does with the male faculty members. They love it too. That girl really knows how to get what she wants. I told her to fuck off, of course. Called her a “broken valedictorian” and a “sham,” at which point she uncrossed her ankles, let gravity do what it would with her boobs, stopped blinking like her eyelids were butterfly wings, and in a gruff, age-appropriate voice, she said, “Do you even have a purpose here at this high school? You’re useless, Leonard Peacock.”