BEAUTIFUL IN THE WATER
by Brad Shurmantine
Packed with the fat and arrogance that would kill him three years later, Julius Schott lumbered back to his portable classroom after the secret lunch meeting he had organized with the union rep to plot out the teachers’ next steps against Greg, their current principal. They were on their second educational reformer now; it had been seven years since Harold. Harold was perfect; he used to circulate every morning before first period and just pop in to say, How are you doing? Have a good day! Then you never saw him again. Perfect.
It looked like Greg had a right to require them to give up one prep period a month for staff development, but the teachers could push back hard on the “learning walks” and the 9th Grade Houses and the career paths and every other stupid idea the administration came up with. The teachers had all the cards, really. Not one damn thing Greg could do if you said no. And no one said no. Why would you draw attention to yourself that way? Just pretend to listen. Smile and nod and go back to your classroom and do what you always did, what you wanted to do. What you became a teacher to do. But Julius felt hot and angry that he had to play that game.
What Julius wanted to do was teach Government, and coach water polo. Not in that order. Today was the Big Game and his girls would once again crush their cross-town rivals, though it would not be so easy this time. Their coach John had been bringing that team along; the last two games had been tight. Julius would win, but his girls had to play their best. The days of ridiculous blow-outs were over.
Julius liked being out in the portables even though it was a hike to get there. It was November, getting chilly, but Julius wore the gym shorts and t-shirt he wore year-round. His big body was an oven and he always felt overheated. He loved his portable because it sat right next to the pool and administrators hardly ever wandered out there. Plus, it had its own HVAC system. He could set the room temperature to anything he wanted, and he wanted it cold. He had the air conditioner going even in January. His students complained at first but they had given up. He told them to wear a coat and bring a blanket, and there was in fact a messy pile of blankets on a table in the corner that the students lugged in and left behind. Julius was the teacher; he had a right to be comfortable in his own room.
Today that annoying little shrimp Gary Daniels, one of the administrators, was waiting outside when he showed up.
“Hi Julius. I’m going to observe your 5th pd. class if you don’t mind.”
He did mind. He minded a lot. “Sure. We’re not doing much. Having a quiz and going over the readings. But come on in.”Julius was intensely annoyed that Daniels had come to observe him on the day of the Big Game. He was bitter that the administration did little to promote this game, because it was water polo, and girls’ water polo at that. His team never got enough recognition, compared to the football and basketball teams–yet they won league every goddamn year! This injustice enraged Julius.
He had other things on his mind today than teaching, but at least he had a lesson plan. Most days he just winged it, brought in the morning newspaper and interpreted it for the students. Julius had strong political beliefs that usually sparked discussion, especially in his AP class. Those kids were so thin-skinned, so easy to goad. Just make fun of Barbara Boxer and they were off to the races.
“Jeez, it’s cold in here,” Daniels remarked when he came in the room. “Can I turn up the heat?”
“The students like it cold. It keeps them awake after lunch. But turn it up if you want.”
Daniels, who prided himself on being student-centered, thought this sounded vaguely reasonable and took a seat. If the students liked it, OK. He opened his laptop as the students trickled in.
Julius watched Daniels type like a madman while the kids grabbed blankets and took their quiz. It was a ten-question multiple-choice quiz on 12o pages of readings. These were Advanced Placement students after all; he had to challenge them. Daniels asked for a copy of the quiz and Julius gave him one. He watched Daniels study the quiz and launch into some big analysis. Julius could guess what he was writing; he and Daniels had once crossed swords about multiple-choice tests at a Social Studies department meeting. Daniels maintained that essay exams were a better kind of assessment. That went over like a lead balloon. Who had time to read a bunch of essays? Julius had stomped his ass.
After they finished, the students corrected each other’s quizzes while Julius gave them the answers and went over the readings. A simple, effective lesson. Daniels would say it was not “engaging,” but it was the way Julius liked to teach and the way students liked to learn. Julius was actually bored by the content he taught; the students could read all that in the textbook; they didn’t need him to explain how government worked. What Julius really taught was an attitude toward government and politics. What Julius taught was Julius. And the kids loved it.
However, with Daniels in the classroom he couldn’t go there. He had been on fire that morning, with no fucking administrator in the room. The Big Game always brought out the best in him, because Sports was Life. He had so much to give these kids, so many lessons he had learned the hard way, about what it takes to win, and not just win. Win big. All the pansies in the world, like Daniels and the Democrats, and big friendly John at Napa, were chasing butterflies. They had no clue. A winner was locked and loaded and took no shit. Attack, attack, attack. Just you and your band of brothers. Or sisters, as the case may be. Julius understood this, and had a way of communicating it with that lovable sarcasm kids ate up. He loved the way they looked at him and hung on every word. Teaching was the greatest job on earth, if they would just leave him alone.
He hadn’t previewed the readings himself–he put that quiz together five years ago, and stole the questions from the College Board–but he knew this stuff like the back of his hand, and was confident that Daniels was taking note of his mastery of course content. These students were slow and they were already behind schedule; he had dumped 120 pages of reading on them so they could catch up and move on to Unit 2. Now some of them were getting all pissy about it. Maybe they thought they had some leverage with an administrator in the room.
“Mr. Schott?” That was Tara, the smartest kid in the class. The only one that would wring an A out of him.
“Mr. Schott, do you really think Question 6 is fair? State taxation isn’t talked about in Federalist No. 51, and neither Supreme Court case we’ve studied deals with it. I think it’s only briefly mentioned in one paragraph in the textbook. Is it really fair for that to be one of the questions on this quiz?”
That little bitch. Julius could feel Daniels watching, and it made him feel hot. Maybe she wouldn’t get the A after all.
“Is it fair? What does fairness have to do with it? I’m trying to prepare you for the AP exam, Tara. These are the kinds of questions you will encounter on that exam. Get used to them. And reread United States v. Lopez, because it’s definitely in there.”
“I don’t think so.”
“Tara, reread that decision. It’s in there, it’s implied.” Julius wasn’t sure it was, but this would get her off his back.
“OK. Thank you, Mr. Schott. I understand now. I’ll reread that decision.”
Maybe she will get the A. “It’s OK, Tara. It was a lot to read, I understand that. But this is what you’re going to be facing when you take that exam next May. It’s like I’m always telling you. Life isn’t fair. You have to put the hours in, you have to work, and sometimes stuff just happens, and things don’t go as planned, but if you work hard and put the time in you will be ready for that test. I guarantee it.” That was satisfying; that was what he wanted to teach these kids. Daniels couldn’t take that away from him.
For the last fifteen minutes he had students quietly read. Daniels packed up and left.
He had his 6th period class read Chapter 4 and answer the questions. It was the last class of the day and he knew he’d be too agitated to teach, thinking about the game. He sat at his desk while they read and studied Napa’s roster; they were thin. They only had one girl he was worried about. He’d drape Melissa all over her. The problem was, John had really turned them into a team. They worked the ball well. His girls couldn’t hang back and watch them pass.
Julius had the swimmers. If you had the swimmers, you won; if you didn’t, you didn’t. John didn’t have many swimmers; his girls couldn’t afford to join the valley swim team, much less play club. John never knew which girls would show up in August. Coach, I’d like to play water polo this year. It will look good on my transcript. How do you play? Julius had heard that stuff too, and he wasn’t allowed to cut those girls so they stayed on the team and got a minute or two, but mostly his girls were groomed. He had seen them play club; he knew just how he’d play them. He felt pity for John and his F Troop, but that was life. A lesson for his students.
After class he hurried over to the pool for a quick dip before the girls showed up. He needed to cool himself down. He was self-conscious about his body and didn’t like to swim when anyone was around. He didn’t know how he had gotten so heavy, but he forgot all that when he was in the water. He felt free there. Graceful. For ten minutes he lulled in the pool, rolling around like a dolphin. Then the girls started arriving and he pulled himself out and started making preparations for the game.
Gary Daniels had athletic supervision that afternoon, and he showed up at the pool while making his rounds. There was a volleyball game in the gym, and a tennis match out on the courts. He found water polo boring so he planned to make a brief appearance and keep rotating. Besides, it was painful to watch his friend John get beat. Gary was loyal to his school, but John was his friend. It was John’s turn to win. It wouldn’t kill our girls to lose a game, he thought.
He saw Frank, another Social Studies teacher, sitting in the bleachers, and joined him.
“How are we doing?”
“We’re winning but it’s close.”
They watched in silence. Then Gary felt compelled to say something nice about Julius. Frank worked with him and must like him; why else would he come to the game? “Julius is a hell of a coach.”
“He really is. Those girls love him.”
“Winning will do that. You know, it’s always hard for me to think of Julius as a water polo coach. He looks more like a linebacker than a swimmer. Like he should be coaching the defensive line or something.”
“Yeah. True. But you should see him in the water. That guy can swim. We had a department party out here last June and Julius was in the pool the whole time. He was in his element. We all talked about how beautiful he looked, in the water.”
“Yeah. Funny. But that’s what everyone said.”
Gary studied Julius. The period had ended and the girls had swum to the side of the pool and were lined up, listening to him. He was crouched down and seemed to be barking at them. Gary tried to imagine Julius beautiful in the water, but all he could picture was a fat, clumsy walrus.
He concentrated. They’re only clumsy on land. They’re beautiful in the water.
About the Author:
Brad Shurmantine lives in Napa, Ca. He spends time writing, reading, tending three gardens (sand, water, vegetable), keeping bees, taking care of chickens and cats, and working on that husband thing. His fiction and personal essays have been published in Pettigru Review, Potato Soup Journal, and Every Day Fiction; his poetry has been published in Oddball Magazine, Jam and Sand, Ariel Chart, and Mom Egg. He backpacks in the Sierras and travels when he can, and has a serious passion for George Eliot.