Being a teacher leads to things you never expect. I need to write the stories of some of those things. And some of those things will make me blush, and make me regret, and maybe even make me cry. You see, when a teacher sees a student naked, there is usually jail time involved. The self-righteous child protectors will read this sentence and start heating up the tar and ripping apart feather pillows. But I should say at this point that I have never actually seen a student naked. Not actually naked. Only metaphorically naked. Realistically, they are still children even though they are suddenly stuck in weirdly morphing bodies that are becoming an adult. They are all metaphorically naked all the time.
Part One ; “I hate you and I love you, Mr. B!”
Her name was not really Rihanna Baumgartner because I don’t use student’s real names, but she was a Hispanic girl with a German-American father. She had a cute little face like a cartoon animal. I had her brother in my class the year before teaching him English as a seventh grader. He had the same chipmunk cheeks and deer eyes that she did when she came in and sat down in my classroom on the first day of school. I could’ve sworn it was just Joe again wearing a skirt and earrings… and breasts (I am happy you can’t see me blushing at the moment). When he came into my eighth grade class later in the day, I almost asked him what he had done with his skirt. He would’ve laughed at that. He was a goofy, skinny kid who laughed at all my jokes, and I fell in love with him the year before (teacher love, child protectors! Put those torches out!) She was painfully shy. It took two months just to get her to talk to me in class. She didn’t have many friends, so she didn’t talk to others either. But she had a five-thousand megawatt cartoon grin. And she laughed at my jokes without opening her mouth. She was sweet and quiet and the perfect student.
I learned most of what I knew about her by talking to two of the Science teachers and the Reading teacher (who was my second girlfriend, the stalker, during the time when I had two girlfriends at once). They told me Rihanna’s older sister Melody had run away from home as a teenager and was later found dead in Las Vegas. It wasn’t clear at the time whether the death had been a murder or a suicide. Rihanna lived in a family of five in the trailer park/junkyard that was Fowlerton, Texas at the time. They were desperately poor and apparently the father was well known as a drunkard and suspected of being a wife-beater. Rural towns in South Texas have so many lovely family stories to tell. I could only ache for the poor girl and wonder what her home life was like. If I was guilty of staring at her during class time, it was because I wanted to make sure I saw no bruises on her. But I fell hopelessly in love with a girl who chose to sit up front and always laughed at my jokes and funny stories. (Teacher love again! Come on, people!)
At that time, in the 1980’s, I was earning a reputation as the teacher who could reach and teach the “bad” kids. I was given the title Chapter Two At-Risk teacher and given all the toughest discipline-case-type kids in my English class because… well, in Texas Education no good deed ever goes un-punished. So, that meant that I had the Baumgartner kids for two years apiece. It was an honor I wore well. I was fool enough to like kids that most other teachers dreaded.
During the eighth grade campaign in the War on Ignorance, 1988 version, Rihanna transformed into something else entirely. She started wearing her older sister’s leather jacket. She became snippy and snappy about giving answers in class. And one day she said something that caught me off guard and changed everything between us.
It was after class had ended and only her new best friend, Maria the non-reader, was still there in the classroom. “Mr. B,” she said, “I love you.”
“Oh, girl,” I smirked, “you don’t have to butter me up. You are making an “A” already.”
Rihanna glared at me and Maria stared at her. Things grew suddenly uncomfortable.
“I love you, Mr. B.” Her voice was flat and unemotional.
“Well, that’s nice. You are one of my best students,” I said, squirming on the inside like earthworms on a hot sidewalk.
And that was the end of the conversation.
That was also the end of the sweet little girl I had fallen in love with. After that point, she was surly Rihanna. She was Rihanna the snarling one. She was make-a-comment-and-slip-in-a-bad-word Rihanna. One unfortunate exchange led to, “I think you need to go see the principal, Rihanna.”
“Fine! I hate you, Mr. B!”
It was totally out of the blue. And very upsetting.
Joe had become a Freshman by then, but he still came by to see me once in a while. He was the one who told me Rihanna was heartbroken over me. Maria the non-reader would later tell me Rihanna wanted to spend romantic weekends on the beach with me. (That was a daydream, I’m sure, because we were about 300 miles from a beach… unless she meant the bank of the Nueces River which sometimes had no water at all in it.)
The principal came to my classroom during my conference period to talk to me.
“Mr. Beyer, Rihanna Baumgartner was in my office for the last two hours. She is insisting she needs to be changed from your English class into Mrs. Soulwhipple’s class.” (Mrs. Soulwhipple was the district superintendent’s wife, so she had all the A+ Bluebird-type students while the rest of got the Robins and Meadowlarks… also known as the Buzzards.)
“I hate to lose Rihanna as a student,” I said, “but she is definitely smart and hard-working enough to handle Mrs. Soulwhipple’s work.”
“Well, that’s good. I am going to have to make that change.”
“She told you that she hates me now, did she?”
“Well, yes, but I think we both know that’s not what she really means.”
“Yes. I have been through this before. Sometimes they just love you so much it turns into hate.”
“Yes, something like that. She is angry because she wants something more than you can give her. And as a single teacher, I need to relieve you of that problem.” (To this day I still believe he said problem, but I knew he meant temptation.)
So she actually became a star pupil among the Bluebirds. And when she stopped by in later years with her brother Joe, she smiled again and laughed at my jokes again. The old Rihanna with the cartoon animal grin was still alive and happy in the world. A decade later, when I was trying to do the Jehovah’s Witness thing and knocking on doors to spread the Good News, I saw her again at her trailer in Fowlerton. She was happy to show me her beautiful smile again, and she showed me her two smiling little ones. They had her husband’s dark brown skin, but they had her cartoon animal smile. The world was a better place to live in again. And I think it was because I saw her naked heart… and I did not hurt it. I let the butterfly land upon my hand, and I did not try to capture it. I did not crush the butterfly.