Naked he lay atop the table under her gaze. Mr. Arthur Teak first met Kim as a student in his tenth grade World History class. Noticing her in the ninth grade he’d asked the counselor to make sure she was assigned to his sophomore class. As an AP and college prep teacher, he was seen as a tough but fun teacher. Toward the end of each school year he talked to the freshman teachers and made lists of sharp students as prospects and dull or bothersome students to cull. A Christmas time bottle of Johnny Walker Red, a kind word and the occasional joke to the sophomore counselor was small price to pay for selectivity. The Geography teacher, Mrs. Howenstein told him Kim was cheerful, bright, but lazy. Lazy wasn’t a disqualifier since most students are lazy. He’d seen her work New York Times crossword puzzles in the lunch room, an unusual diversion for pretty fifteen year old girl in a school lunchroom. And she was pretty.
Tenth grade is the time and place many students are introduced to academic discipline and taught how to gather information then compare, analyze, and draw intelligent conclusions or perhaps challenge assumptions. The teacher’s challenge is to lead the student through this process through questions, drills, exercises, and writing assignments. The sophomore year demands of Geometry, English, and World History, properly presented, can accelerate sixteen year old student’s thinking and problem solving skills at an astonishing rate, given the student and teacher are willing participants in this old academic dance. Experienced teachers know just when to push, when to pull, and when go fast, go slow, and when to stop. In his time Mr. Teak had taught upwards of 2000 students and had a keen sensitivity to adolescent communication. Soon enough Kim proved to be articulate and quick to grasp facts, but true to Mrs. Howenstein’s assessment, lazy. Analytical skills and inquiry were in short supply. On his exams she blitzed the short answer, recall questions, but essay questions were given short shrift. He’d encountered hundreds of such students which he placed in a category he called “ Class B Jeopardy Contestants,” quick learners with excellent recall who became legal secretaries, lab techs, wannabe actors or the unemployed, those who’d never advanced their thinking skills to the next level to get into med school, earn a law degree, or PhD. They simply collected facts as another might collect stamps, coins, or baseball cards. In rare instances he’d nudged a few of these idlers into gear with good results. And because he liked her he would to try this with Kim.
Arthur Teak felt a pull toward this girl largely because she strongly resembled his wife Natasha who, with his sister, had died in the World Trade Center attack in 2001. Arthur had met Natasha, then a librarian at Moscow University, while he served as an intelligence analysist at the American Embassy. Their affair and subsequent engagement lost Arthur his security clearance and career. They moved to Florida, Arthur and Natasha both became teachers, he teaching History at Milbrook High and she Russian at the junior college. They had no children, preferring the freedom of summer vacations and a quiet home to the burden of babies, car seats, and diaper bags. Losing Natasha had been excruciatingly painful during the first year, particularly on holidays. He’d forced himself to trudge on and continued teaching. After a year he dated but found the process depressing. On Arthur’s birthday his attorney, friend, and racquetball partner Mike Fitch took him to an upscale spa for a message. While the spa enjoyed an excellent reputation, the massages for gentlemen, once they were known to the establishment, for an additional $50, came with a happy ending. This release satisfied Arthur Teak and was eminently preferable to the charade of dating and it became a standing weekly appointment. To protect his privacy his spa membership was under the name Richard Ford.
The settlement he’d received from the 9/11 Commission had been in excess of a million dollars and there was another $300,000 from the double indemnity insurance policy Natasha had carried. He continued teaching however because it was the only thing that garnered satisfaction. And now three years later comes this girl who so resembled Natasha. When twelve years old Natasha had been chosen as the model for a recruiting poster featuring a freckled-faced blond girl handing a bouquet of flowers to a wounded Red Army rifleman. The poster had become ubiquitous and appeared all over the USSR. It was the Natasha in this poster whom Kim so resembled. In his conscience Arthur pondered the advisability of giving in to the pull. Was it natural? Irrational? Was it healthy? No matter, he would befriend and cultivate this girl. The attraction was, after all, paternal perhaps, but not sexual. He settled on avuncular. The girl was bright, liked him, and was….well needful. And damn, wasn’t she the very image of young Natasha of the Red Army poster?
Kim lived with her mother in a mobile home park just inside the Milbrook school district. Her father had abandoned the family soon after Kim’s birth and now divorced, was serving a 20 year prison term for trafficking and jury tampering. Her mother, Cora, worked as a letter carrier and part time barmaid at the Dixie Lounge. Occasionally she’d just be creeping in early as Kim readied herself for school. Most students at Milbrook came from solidly middle class and some from upper middle class families. As public high schools go, it was a snob school. Girls of the ”in” cliques –the cheerleaders and the dance team saw Milbrook as Hollywood High East.
Arthur and little Kim’s friendship began with food. Adjacent to his classroom was a large book room containing a small refrigerator, electric coffee maker, and a microwave oven. During the second week of school Kim had popped in his classroom during his planning period asking, “Mr. Teak, you have anything to eat?” A peanut butter sandwich and coke later she asked, “Could you write me a pass back to Geometry?” This soon became a daily occurrence enjoyed by both. At Open House in late September he’d met Cora, Kim’s mother.
“She’s always talkin’ about Mr. Teak. It’s Mr. Teak this and Mr. Teak that. I think you’re the first teacher she’s really liked. I see why now, Mr. Teak. I wish teachers were as good lookin’ when I went to school.”
“Well she’s a good student and it’s a pleasure to have her in class.”
The next day Kim came in after school asked him if her mama had come on to him at open house. “Well, she was certainly friendly but I wouldn’t call it ‘coming on’ to me. “
“I love my mama and she’s a good person, but, well… you know. “
And he did know and it drew Kim even closer to his heart. He quietly stocked the book room with pop-tarts, frozen waffles and micro-wave meals for her. By Christmas break she had developed a routine of stopping by throughout the day for a snack then after school to eat and chat while he graded the day’s papers at his desk. This he looked forward to; it was his favorite time of day. Before the holiday break he had a talk with her.
“Kim, you’re a bright girl and you’re doing okay in History, but you could do much better. I want you to push harder on essays. You need to develop writing and critical thinking skills and this is a good place for that. I can help. How are you in English class? “ He’d already spoken with her English teacher, Emily Chillings, and knew her performance there was similar – she was a whiz, quick to grasp both the main points and the subtleties of literature, but lukewarm in composition.
“I’m doing okay, I’m getting a B. I love the literature.”
“Do you want to do better, get A’s? You do want to go to college don’t you?”
“Would you like me to help?”
“Sure. You bet.”
“Okay, first what I want you to do is keep a journal.” At this point he took a pretty leather bound book of blank pages from his drawer. “This is a little Christmas present. Write in this daily – it doesn’t matter what you write, but put down thoughts whether they’re important or silly, it doesn’t matter, just be sure to fill a few pages every day. It’s a practice many good writers employ and done honestly will advance writing and thinking skills, and rather easily too. What do you think?”
“Oh Mr. Teak, you are so sweet.”
“Just between us, Kim. I think you’re sweet too. Take the book and keep your journal private. It’s not for anyone else.”
“What about you? What if I wanted to share what I write in the book with you? Could I do that? “
“Maybe. But the important thing is to begin writing, writing things that relate to your life. When Christmas break is over we’ll start thinking about writing about Socrates and Aristotle. You have a good holiday, girl.” Resisting the urge to tell her he’d miss her, he said, “Merry Christmas, Kim, I hope you and your mom have a good holiday.”
“You too, Mr. Teak, I’ll miss you. Merry Christmas.”
She had returned to school with the journal he’d given her at Christmas completely filled and asking him to “Take it home, don’t read it at school but it home, Mr. Teak and tell me what you think.”
Reading Kim’s journal was compelling. Despite a stringy, juvenile style, her revelations opened facets of her life he’d hitherto only guessed and excited the voyeur in him. The characterization of her mother’s behavior, her reactions to the changes her body was experiencing, how she felt about other students, about school, about the ubiquitous liquor and drugs at school, about certain boys – in particular a boy referred to only by a drawn line. An unusual mention of ambition pleased him. She wrote of wanting most of all a life of fun with the things money could buy, nice clothes, a car, nice house. She expressed interest in med school, the first flicker of ambition he’d ever detected. Arthur was seldom mentioned and then only cursorily. As to the “blank” boy, she was obviously attracted and found him “good looking, mysterious, intelligent, and so do-able.
Returning the journal, he thanked her for sharing and complimented her candor. “Would you agree that it makes you a better writer?”
“I guess –- but hey — it sure as shit makes you a better reader, doesn’t it, Mr. Teak?” She laughed. He laughed. Then she laughed louder and so did he. After their paroxysms she asked, “Any questions or comments?”
“Give me time to digest. Of course I’ll have comments and questions too. Again, thanks for sharing, Kim.
During that spring semester he and Mrs.Chillings pushed and pulled Kim along the tedious composition trail and her writing improved from adequate to technically correct but boring. Both of them liked her, and he confided to Emily Chillings that he wanted to make sure she had enough moxie by her senior year to get into a good university.
“I don’t know, Arthur. You might be wishing for too much. There’s no money or connections there”.
“Well Emily, if she can make the cut then, perhaps there’s a way. “
Arthur taught two electives – Shakespeare and a class in creative writing. Kim would take the creative writing class as a junior and Shakespeare as a senior. Did she want to be close to me or my refrigerator?
Over the summer between her junior and senior year Arthur Teak met with Mike Fitch, his attorney, and discussed establishing a trust fund that would provide Kim with tuition, housing, and an allowance at a good university. A car could be provided the second year.
“Arthur, you could be on thin ice here. First I strongly advise you not enact anything until this girl has graduated, umm that’d be next year and how old will she be then…17, 18? Otherwise you’ll be wide open to scandal. Second, to protect yourself you should get, in writing, the mother’s approval. What’s the mother like? Do you know her?”
“Her mother’s name is Cora. Letter carrier by day, bar maid by night. Reputation poor. Very poor. To her credit she and Kim get along very nicely. But once Cora smells money she might get predatory.”
“We can handle her easily if Kim’s 18. Do you know Kim’s birth date? If she’s attained majority it’ll be a cake walk. It can be done otherwise; it’ll just be much safer if she’s 18. Does this girl have any inkling of this?”
“No. I’ve discussed it with no one, not a soul, save you, Mike. And her birthday is in April, she’ll be 18 just before graduation.”
“Good. Now, a personal question – you don’t have to answer…. Are you ….uhh….are you and her…..”
“No, we’re not having sex, Mike. I’m just her teacher, her favorite teacher and ummm….a friend…it’s purely academic and maybe a little bit avuncular. No touching, no kissy kissy – I assure you.” No not in the flesh, but fantasizing sex with Kim was earning his libido beaucoup frequent flying miles.
Trigonometry made Kim’s senior year tough. Two weeks into the year after school on Friday she told Arthur she wanted to drop trig. “I’ve got enough math credits already and the office said if it was okay with you, they could make me your teacher’s assistant first period. I could help you a lot.”
“No, Kim. Bad, bad idea. You’ve got to have trig to qualify for a premed program. You’ve got to. Look I can arrange for a tutor? What do you think?
“Naw, Mr. Teak, you’re right. It’s just that trig is so hard. Mr. Anders is a really good teacher. It’s me, it’s so damned hard wading through all this algorithm shit. I hate it. Thanks, though.” He then decided to tell Kim of his plans for what he called “a little tuition aid.”
“In a couple of weeks we’ll send out applications. You should apply UNC, Emory, University of Virginia and Vanderbilt. And the University of Florida and FSU just in case. You did okay on the SAT but taking it again would probably give you a good boost – especially if you tweeked your math a little. That’s why a tutor is a good idea.
In the end she accepted the offer of the tutor and squeeked by with a C in Trig. Although Arthur and Mrs. Chillings helped her applications with a little editing on the essays and sterling recommendations, she failed acceptance by the better schools, but was accepted at the University of Florida.
In August he drove Kim and Cora down to Gainesville and got her settled into the efficiency apartment he’d arranged. While Cora attended a “parents only” presentation he took Kim to lunch and went over the terms of his “tuition aid” program. “Tuition is arranged, Kim – the bills will come to me. Same for the apartment.” From his pocket he withdrew two credit cards, one the UF debit card, the other a Visa. This is for on campus expenses; this for off campus – don’t go crazy there’s a $150 monthly limit on the Visa. Don’t buy for others. Keep your finances private. Remember, for med school –grades are everything so please, please work hard, Kim. Let me hear from you once in a while.”
On the road home he felt his throat tighten as a prelude to tears and would have cried had not Cora been present. She was as jolly as if they were returning from a funny movie. Her ceaseless chattering and attempts to pry from Arthur how much this and that were costing irritated him.
“We were lucky to get into some generous financial aid programs. Now it’s all up to Kim.”
Kim did very well the first semester. A C-minus in Biology Lab marred the second semester. Summer school was three fluff courses. Arthur decided against buying the car for Kim. She communicated with Arthur weekly by phone and an occasional card. She remained candid and good-natured and never attempted to hide bad news about grades. Occasionally she shared funny little tidbits about the fleshier side of college life, but avoided specifics, and he never pried. She mentioned dating this boy or that boy from time to time but didn’t seem to form any lasting bonds. Her sexual experiences she kept from him. Sex, they both knew, was as much a part of college life as classes. She was careful with the credit cards and never reached the limits he’d set. Second year began with poor grades in Chemistry and ended with failing Analytical Geometry and an incomplete in Chemistry Lab.
Hopes for med school dissolved. Arthur felt displaced from the equation he’d been a part of for the past few years. Inwardly he resisted accepting Kim’s failure as his defeat. Insouciance had always been her hallmark. He should have weighed the risks more carefully. Maybe it had always been sexual attraction and his super teacher role a mere rationalization. But then he genuinely liked and admired her as an individual who enjoyed life despite having been dealt a shitty hand, and hadn’t he begun liking her long before any desire had emerged? That was the gain he surmised, the mutual respect and friendship.
That second summer she dropped out. She called to tell him this and that she’d see him the next week and they arranged lunch. Ironically, she was cheerful. Kim realized the importance of leaving the university but internalized this more as a necessary course correction rather than failure. “I am so sick of school. I’m going out to California with a girl friend. We’re both going to try out for Jeopardy. When I get back, I think I’ll look for a job. Let’s share a piece of cheesecake, okay Arthur. I’m gonna call you Arthur from now on, Arthur. Arthur sweetie,” she smiled and they both laughed.
Arthur parked his Lexus in a shady spot behind Cumberland Spa, ready for his weekly appointment.
“Marcy is on vacation, Mr. Ford”, the receptionist said,” so you’ll have our new masseuse today. I trust everything will be satisfactory. Let me know if not.”
Inside he disrobed, hung his suit in the locker, showered and entered the massage room, lay on his stomach on the message table covered by the large thick towel listening to the piped in music, a string quartet played Mozart very softly, just right. He detected a faint aroma of coconut and nutmeg as he heard the door open. “Hello Mr. Ford, Marcy’s on vacation, I’m Kim; I’ll be your masseuse today.”
(c) Gary Ives
Reading Hour Jan-Feb 2014 vol 4, Issue 1, p 3.