Then she flicked me off and walked away.
That’s our valedictorian.
“How do you know what you would have done if you were forced by your government to commit crimes but you still wanted to be a good parent?” Herr Silverman says. “Were the Germans evil or were they responding to the social and political climate of their day?”
My classmates are mostly baffled.
As I listen to their whiny answers and attempts to place themselves on high moral pedestals, I realize the gap between them and me is widening as we get older.
The lies are so vivid, they’re beginning to burn out my retinas.
Today’s lecture pisses off the übermorons big-time, like the truth always does. And yet it makes me feel comforted somehow, not because Nazi officers did horrible things, but because Herr Silverman is trying to expose what everyone else in the world hides at all costs.
It’s a depressing reality, how my classmates make love to their ignorance, and I mostly tune out and wait for class to end so I can give Herr Silverman his present and be closer to the Leonard Peacock finish line.
When the bell rings, I stay seated.
Herr Silverman dutifully stands by the door and says good-bye to each student as he or she leaves.
I can tell he cares about everyone—even the stupidest among us.
It’s like he’s a saint or something.
Most kids rush out without even making eye contact, although Herr Silverman tries to give everyone his or her own individual good-bye.
It makes a difference, let me tell you, even if the übermorons in my class don’t appreciate it.
There have been days when Herr Silverman was the only person to look me in the eye.
The only person all day long.
It’s a simple thing, but simple things matter.
“So,” Herr Silverman says as he closes the door.35 “You wanted to speak with me.”
“About that question I asked in class today,” I say.
He sits down at the desk next to mine, and says, “Ah, what to do with the Nazi gun.”
“Yeah. Do you think it’s possible to turn an object with a negative, horrible connotation into something that has a positive connotation?”
“Sure,” he says.
I expect him to say more but he doesn’t, which makes me feel flustered and unsure of what I should say next, so I reach into my backpack and pull out a small box, wrapped in pink. “This is for you.”
Herr Silverman smiles and says, “Why do I get a present?”
“I’ll tell you after you open it.”
“Okay,” he says, and then begins to peel off the pink paper very carefully. He opens the little box, looks up, raises his eyebrows, and says, “Is this what I think it is?”
“Yeah, it’s the Bronze Star medal my grandfather was awarded for killing some high-ranking Nazi back in World War Two.”
“Why are you giving this to me?”
“Well, for a lot of reasons. Most of which I can’t really explain properly. That’s why people give presents, right? Because they don’t know how to express themselves in words, so you give gifts to symbolically explain your feelings. I got to thinking that the world would be a better place if they gave medals to great teachers rather than just soldiers who kill their enemies in wars. And with all the talk of World War Two in here and trying to make sense of horrible things, well, I just thought that I could turn the negative aspect surrounding that medal to a positive by giving it to you. Maybe that doesn’t make any sense. I don’t know. But I want you to have it, okay? It’s important to me. Maybe you can keep it in your desk drawer and whenever you get to feeling like maybe teaching isn’t worth it anymore you can think of that crazy kid Leonard Peacock who loved your class and gave you his grandfather’s Bronze Star as a reward for being an excellent teacher. Maybe it will help you keep going. I don’t know.”
“I’m honored, Leonard—truly,” he says, looking me in the eyes all serious, like he does. “But why did you give this to me today?”
“No reason, I guess. Today seemed like a good enough day,” I lie, but my words sound shaky.
“Do you have your grandfather’s gun from World War Two?” he asks, which freaks me out.
“What?” I say, all surprised, and suddenly I realize I’m inking my name into the desk.
I wonder why I’m doing that.
Then I wonder why Herr Silverman isn’t telling me to stop graffitiing on school property.
“I’m just going to say this, Leonard, and I hope you won’t take offense. Sudden changes in appearance. You did cut your hair, right?”
I just keep inking my name into the desk over and over again.
“Giving away treasured possessions. These are clear signs. Suicidal people often do these things. I’m worried you might be at risk.”
I keep tracing the letters into the desk.
I’ve never written my name on a desk before.
“Are you trying to tell me something here today?” he says.
“Not really,” I say without looking up. “I just wanted you to know how much your class means to me.”
He doesn’t say anything, but I can feel him looking at my face—I can tell he’s concerned in a way that maybe no one else is, and that I’m going to have to do some acting if I want to make it out of here and complete my mission.
I reach down deep within myself and put on the Hollywood face once more. I smile at him, force a laugh, and say, “I probably would want to kill myself if I didn’t get to spend time in this room every day. I really would. Your class is probably the only thing keeping me alive.”
“That’s not true. There’s a lot for you to live for. Good things are definitely in your future, Leonard. I’m sure of it. You have no idea how many interesting people you’ll meet after high school’s over. Your life partner, your best friend, the most wonderful person you’ll ever know is sitting in some high school right now waiting to graduate and walk into your life—maybe even feeling all the same things you are, maybe even wondering about you, hoping that you’re strong enough to make it to the future where you’ll meet. Did you ever write those letters, after we talked the last time? Letters from the future? Did you give it a try?”
“No,” I lie, because writing those letters made me pretty emotional and I don’t want to go there right now. I have to focus on the task at hand. “Maybe I’ll do that tonight.”36
“You should. I think it would help.”
I get to thinking about the mystery again. I’m not really sure why—maybe because this is the last chance I’ll get—but I say, “Can I ask you a personal question, Herr Silverman?”
We sit there in silence for a few seconds as I try to work up the courage. My voice sounds shaky when I finally speak. “Why don’t you ever roll up your sleeves or wear a short-sleeve shirt? Why don’t you wear the faculty polo shirt on Fridays either?”
My heart’s pounding hard enough to crack ribs because I kind of believe the answer might be able to save me. Even though that doesn’t make any sense.
“You noticed that, huh?” Herr Silverman says.
“Yeah. I’ve been wondering for a long time now.”
His eyes narrow slightly and then he says, “I’ll make you a deal. You write those letters from the future and I’ll tell you why I never roll up my sleeves. What do you say?”
“Sure,” I say and smile, because I can tell Herr Silverman really thinks the letter writing will help. He’s passionate about helping fucked-up students like me. And for a moment I forget I already wrote the letters and won’t be around after today—that I’ll never know why Herr Silverman won’t roll up his sleeves. “Do you like your gift?”
He picks up the Bronze Star and holds it in front of his face. “I’m very honored that you think so much of my teaching, but I’m not sure I can keep this, Leonard.” He puts it back into the box and says, “It’s a family heirloom. It’s your birthright.”
“Can you just keep it for me in your desk until I decide what I want to do with it?” I say, because I don’t feel like arguing about this. “Just for a night at least. It would mean a lot to me.”
“Just because. Okay?” I plead with my eyes.
“Okay,” he says. “Just for a night. You’ll be here tomorrow to pick it up? Promise?”
I know what he’s doing—giving me an assignment that requires me to be here tomorrow. It actually makes me feel good, and I’m surprised by the fact that I can still feel better sometimes.
“Yeah,” I lie. “I’ll be here tomorrow.”
“Good. I look forward to getting your perspective every day. I’d be crushed if your seat ever became empty. Übercrushed.”
We sort of lock eyes and I think about how Herr Silverman is the only person in my life who doesn’t bullshit me, and is maybe the only one at my school who really cares whether I disappear or stick around. “The government should give you a medal for being a good teacher, Herr Silverman. I’m serious about that. They really should.”
“Thank you, Leonard. Are you sure you’re feeling okay? There’s nothing else you’d like to discuss?”
“Yeah, I’m sure. I’m off to see my guidance counselor right now, actually. Mrs. Giavotella already reported my ‘strange behavior.’ I’m sure they’ll be getting around to asking your professional opinion of my sanity. But I’m off to Guidance now. So even if I were messed up, super-counselor Mrs. Shanahan’ll fix me straight with a root beer lollipop before I leave the building, so no worries, right?”
When I look up to see if he’s buying my lie, I can tell he isn’t. So I say, “I’m sorry I wrote on your desk. Do you want me to clean it?”
“If I give you my cell phone number will you promise to call me if you feel like you’re going to kill yourself?”
“I’m not going to—”
“You can call anytime—day or night. Will you promise to at least call me first, so I can tell you the reason I never roll up my sleeves? I bet knowing the answer to that question will make you feel better, but let’s save it for when you’re feeling really bad. It will be an emergency anecdote antidote,” he says, and then smiles in a way that makes me smile, because he’s proud of his stupid slant rhyme and he’s also breaking the rules again, giving me his cell phone number. No other teacher in the building would do this. He’s going above and beyond for me. And it makes me so sad to think he’ll be really upset when he hears about my murder-suicide. “So will you promise me that you’ll call if it gets worse—before you do anything rash? I’ll tell you the answer if you call. It’s a big secret. But I’ll tell you, Leonard, because I think you need to know. You’re different. And I’m different too. Different is good. But different is hard. Believe me, I know.”