Successful teachers are strict. I feigned a confident, authoritarian tone in the classroom throughout my one and only year teaching high school. But the pushover deep within me inevitably seeped through the cracks. With enough eye contact, I couldn’t help but revert back to the laid-back college graduate I had been before. Besides, content and compliant freshmen in my physical science class were worth sacrificing a bit of intensity.
Once, while conducting a lab with vinegar and baking soda, a chubby 15-year-old finished the assignment early and needed something to do.
“Mr. Holt,” he pleaded behind large innocent eyes, “Can I try to make crack?”
I surveyed the ingredients at his disposal on the granite lab bench: Water, baking soda, vinegar, sugar, and a hot plate. Certainly no illegal potential there.
“Uhh, yeah sure. Knock yourself out. Call me over when you finish.” He giddily waddled over to the sink and got started.
“Look!” He shouted five minutes later, his pants covered in white residue. “I made some good crack, right?”
His illicit product looked like mashed potatoes that had been left out to dry.
“Jeeze, Kevin, just promise me you won’t try to sell that stuff,” I told him.
And my aversion to confrontation wasn’t limited to students. During my lunch break, I took a stroll around the giant marble, air-conditioned campus for a change of scenery. As I approached the security booth on the first floor, a friendly guard opened the door and greeted me.
“Heading out to lunch?” he inquired.
I didn’t want to admit that I was just going for a walk. “Yes, I am going out to lunch,” I lied delicately, thinking of my packed sandwich and apple sitting on my desk.
“Where you going? McDonald’s?”
“Uh, yeah, I guess so,” I reluctantly prolonged the tale.
“Do me a favor. Pick me up a Big Mac and fries, will you?”
Dammit. There was no turning back. “Of course,” I agreed, as I turned to walk out to my car and drive all the way to McDonald’s to buy my friend some congestive heart failure. It must have looked odd when I handed him his meal and had nothing for myself.
Even after hours, I was plagued with this disease of caving to the needs of others. In the late afternoon, as I coiled my computer charger and zipped up my bag for the drive home, I heard footsteps squeaking down the hallway.
Oh, no. The school should have been locked by now. How did these kids get in here and what did they want?
“Damian, Matthew, Tyrone. What’s up?” I greeted the three boys wearing street clothes in place of the unflattering, grainy uniforms.
“We’re ready to go!” They were practically jumping out of their Nikes.
Suddenly I remembered my coercion tactics from earlier in the day. I had promised to drive them to the mall after school if they completed their work.
“Ah, yes,” I said. “How could I forget?”
The boys skipped down three flights of stairs to the parking lot, while I lumbered behind, before we piled into my sedan.
“It’s hot in here, Mr. Holt. Roll the windows down.”
“Change the station, Mr. Holt. Put it on Q93.”
I watched my finger land on the radio dial, but then I suddenly paused. Was I really going to let teenagers orchestrate my entire day? How many Big Macs was I going to have to buy in my life?
“You guys want me to drive you around like a chauffer?” I looked at the boys through the rear-view mirror. “We’re going to listen to All Things Considered.”
“It’s what smart people listen to,” I said confidently. “Now buckle your seat belts and shut up.”