“Katie, would you like to go to Prom with me?”
That's a perfectly normal thing to say to the most beautiful girl you've ever seen, right? The Prom is in twelve days so it would be normal to walk up to her and ask. Just ask, ask her your question, Alex. It sounds good in your head so now you just need to get it out of your head. Easy.
It does sound good in my head. Mostly. Its sounds as good as any thought can sound. But I know what it would sound like if I actually said it, if I actually walked up to her and looked into her face and saw her looking back into my eyes and I opened my mouth to try and form the words.
The way her shoulders round, just so, the way her neck curves up to those delicate ears and her round head, that perfect kind of round, makes me want to be there, leaning in, my cheek resting against the warm strands of straight brown hair she's pulled together and draped over one shoulder, her right shoulder. I want to smell her hair and I know immediately how creepy that sounds in my mind and then I know just as immediately and even more creepily that I don't care if it's creepy. I want to walk up behind her and run my hands down her shoulders, down her arms, down to the elbows, and I want to hear her smile as she turns towards me and I want her to kiss my cheek as I lay my head on her hair and wrap my arms around her and...
A voice rips me from my dreams. It is a whisper, too close, with breath very near to lunch's peanut butter and jelly sandwich with sour cream and onion potato chips. My stomach hollows out. I can't believe I didn't notice him walking the desks. It is Mr. Kenton, my English teacher.
“Master Stevens, despite my suave demeanor and charitable face, I will give you a zero in participation for the day if you don't, you know... participate.”
“S-s-suh-horry Mr. K-Kuh-henton.”
I don't stutter his name in my thoughts. I don't usually stutter my thoughts. A doctor once told me that stress might affect my stuttering. By affect it I mean make it worse. A lot worse. I believe him. I can see myself walk up behind her and wrap my arms around her and imagine her kissing my cheek and smiling and it's all very effortless and natural and... right. It's perfect. We don't have to talk. She can talk. In most of our mental interactions, she talks. Sometimes she tells me about her day. Sometimes she tells me about her hopes for our future together. Sometimes she sings. Sometimes she whispers. She can talk or sing or whisper and I can listen. I enjoy listening. When I do imagine talking to her, even on the false set pieces and in the ridiculous scenes and scenarios I set up for us in my head, I still feel the stutter. I sense the pressure in my mouth, the heat in my head. I hear the sound – usually on the S or hard K words, sometimes on N's and M's – I hear it catch and crush my tongue into the roof of my mouth. The K sound rattles around, bouncing off of my teeth, until I have to swallow it and continue the word without the hard K. I usually replace the hard sounds with the softer, easier H sound, so Kenton becomes Kuh-henton. The stuttered K's crash outward into the air like fireworks, sudden and bright and impossible to ignore, and the soft H finishes the word like the quiet streaming of red and orange and blue flames burning back to earth. People murmur, in awe, at my voice.
Maybe 'awe' is the wrong word.
In my mind, we laugh, we hold hands, we kiss, and we say what we need to say without words. Here, even in the safety of my own mind, even in my idealized scenarios where I can create any interaction with her I want, I still can't talk to her.
There's no way I'll be able to talk to her in real life. To express what I want to express, even if I skipped her name and, like a robot, jumped right into the question of her going to Prom with me, it would still be like walking a minefield with magnet boots. I'd stay stuck on the W in “would” for at least three beats, probably more, and then immediately get snagged by the Y in “you.” I'd finish the end of “you” at the ten to twelve second mark, and by then I'd want to skip every other unessential word in the sentence. I could skip right to “Prom.” “Would you Prom?” She would understand that, right? I think most women, if approached by a moderately attractive man and asked, “Would you Prom?” the answer would be a resounding “Yes, yes of course I would Prom,” and the two would go to the Prom and be the big hit of the Prom and they would end up married with five kids and live happily ever after.
Mr. Kenton is looking at me again. My stutter is well known around school. It's been well known since first grade when it appeared in all of its social-life-ruining glory. I can still hear the laughter of the kids in my class, if I want. That isn't too hard to deal with. What I really remember is the worry in their voices, their questions to each other and to the teacher. 'Why is he like that?' 'What's wrong with him?' And my favorite, 'Ew, that's weird.' There were meetings with teachers and counselors and therapists and 'specialists.' There were many specialists. They all fed me the same lines, that lots of famous people have had stutters like mine, and that soon I'd be speaking like John F. Kennedy, or Alec Baldwin. When my parents told me who JFK and Alec Baldwin were, it made me feel even less hopeful. The kids all think I'm weird and stupid but someday I'll speak like the President? Even back then, I smelled the rising stink of adult lies. I smiled, to be polite, and I did my best with their exercises and techniques. They said they were hopeful, but that year my teachers were made aware of my condition. As were my teachers the next year, and the next.
Mr. Kenton has been aware of my stutter for a long time. Generally, this makes him hesitate to call on me to answer questions or read passages from our books aloud. Now, seeing his eyes twisting toward me, seeing that I have, yet again, drifted away from his ingenious lecture, it seems like he might disavow my sanctuary and call on me to read. Even my internal pleas are stuttering.
P-puh-pull-ease d-don't call on-n-n me.
I shake my head slightly. His stare softens and his eyes return to the novel in his hands.
“Ms. Williams, you get to close us out. The rest is all yours.”
He went from nearly calling on me to calling on her? Does he know how I feel about her, is it that obvious? It probably is that obvious. She has her book laid out on her desk, and she stoops to read it. Even hunched over her book she is art. With her head tilted forward, the gentle bumps of her vertebrae catch the sunlight from the windows on the southern wall. Her shoulders slump toward her delicate hands. From the back, it looks like she might be cradling a baby bird.
Then her voice.
We're on the last page of The Great Gatsby. Class struggle, identity, acceptance, I get what Mr. Kenton has been saying about it and why we should find significance in some of its characters' experiences, but overall I just haven't been into it. It's a classic, apparently, but I don't feel that as my classmates read it. Not until she reads:
“He did not know that it was already behind him, somewhere back in the vast obscurity beyond the city, where the dark fields of the republic rolled on under the night. Gatsby believed in the green light, the orgastic future that year by year recedes before us. It eluded us then, but that's no matter – tomorrow we will run faster, stretch out our arms farther... and one fine morning – So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.”
That last page would have taken me months to stammer through. I would have branded an eternal hatred into my heart for Gatsby and Fitzgerald and the republic's dark fields. I would have borne the book ceaselessly into my past.
But to hear her say it, to hear her voice float lines down over the class like silk threads and to scan along with every word as it leaves her lips makes the last few hundred words of the book seem like the greatest thing anyone has ever written. I want to hear her read the whole thing. I want her to narrate the entirety of my Sophomore curriculum. Science, math, history, I want her to read all of it. I don't know if my stutter makes me more susceptible to the smooth beauty of her voice, but I want her to follow me around and speak for me. To have her be my mouthpiece, I would gladly never speak again.
“Thank you, Ms. Williams. So, first off, pat yourselves on the back, you did it. You read an entire F. Scott Fitzgerald novel, a classic. You can put that on your college applications. You can write it into your resumes. You can bring it up at parties and Bar Mitzvahs and job interviews. You should probably get it tattooed on your ribs in Chinese or Sanskrit. That's what the cool kids are doing these days, right? But why? The eternal question that begins all deep and meaningful understanding: why?”
Mr. Kenton is moving through the desks again. Everyone watches him and pretends to be interested in what he is saying, until he looks directly at them. Then they look back to their books, intent to appear studious in their attempts to crack Fitzgerald's secret code. Eye contact is your enemy in this scenario. Eye contact is almost a guarantee of being called on for an opinion.
Mike Hill is the first to slip. He doesn't look down at his book quickly enough when Mr. Kenton scans that side of the classroom.
“Mr. Hill, you seem to have stayed awake for much of the reading, help us out. 'So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.' This is one of the more famous closing lines to any book from the 20th Century. How do you feel about it?”
The room, everyone except Mike, shudders with the rush of not being chosen. Our relief is an affront to his sad fate, an emotional slap in Mike's face, but we don't care. Sucks to be you, brother.
“Ceaselessly, that's the word that grabs me. I can see how you might read this last line and think they were inspired in some way to battle the current, to start again at a similar spot where they began once before.”
Wow, Mike, you have been reading along. Or maybe Googling literary analysis of The Great Gatsby?
“To battle the current is admirable and brave. To be willing to accept your past and accept being defined by it is brave, in a way. But ceaselessly, to row and row against the current and find yourself carried ceaselessly into the past, without a hope for something different? To me, that seems pretty dark.”
Mr. Kenton stops to turn toward Mike. I don't think I'm the only one surprised by Mike Hill's thoughtful answer. Everyone waits to see what Mr. Kenton will say. Everyone except me. I am watching Katie Williams and wondering what she would say.
“Mr. Hill, that's a bold conclusion. Are you saying this story ends with Fitzgerald suggestion that the battle for overcoming humble beginnings and climbing into the highest positions of social and economic power and influence is hopeless?”
“It seems pretty hopeless,” Mike says.
“What about this line, 'It eluded us then, but that's no matter – tomorrow we will run faster, stretch out our arms farther... and one fine morning...' that seems pretty hopeful? One fine morning we will catch that thing that is stretching out before us, we will reach out and our efforts will reward us with, something. Hope, right?”
The class is waiting, but is somewhat deflated. Katie's head dropped a few inches when Mr. Kenton finished his question. I think she felt Mike had lost, that someone had finally posed a serious point with actual merit and Mr. Kenton might have to deem the idea thoughtful and worthy in some way. I think she felt like we, as a class, had won something. We, too, were stretching out our arms for some lofty prize. But she slumped at the thought of Mike being done.
But Mike wasn't done.
“It could be hopeful and it could be inspiring, if any of the people who were reaching out had survived the novel or succeeded in any real way. The people reaching, like Myrtle, or George, or even Gatsby himself, all failed. Gatsby died and no one went to his funeral. He reached out his arms and grabbed nothing. The truth is, not everyone who reaches their arms out or runs faster toward their goals finds that great tomorrow. Many people, maybe most people, go ceaselessly into the past, back to the same life they've always had.”
“Ceaselessly, huh?” Mr. Kenton says, looking once more to the novel in his hands. “It is a strong word, Mr. Hill, a very strong word. Despite my better judgment, I am inclined to agree with you. I think Fitzgerald was so disillusioned and, probably, disgusted with the American upper class of the twenties that he saw the greed and dismissal of the lower classes as endemic. I would imagine he had little hope of it ever changing.”
He did it. Mike Hill did it, he said a thing and Mr. Kenton agreed with that thing. I won't say it's unprecedented but it's pretty close to unprecedented (I wonder how long it would take me to say “unprecedented” out loud? Eight seconds?) I'm not alone in my amusement, I can hear the winds of praise stirring at the edges of the classroom and whispering their ways through the tall grasses of English Lit 201.
“Your reports on this great American novel are due one week from today. At thirty percent of your grade for the class, I'd reach my arms out and run faster and paddle ceaselessly for that insightful and provocative paper. Take a note from Mr. Hill's responses and stun me with your genius.”
He did it. Here, nearing the end of our Sophomore year, Mike Hill garnered the respect of the historically disrespectful Mr. Charles Kenton. He gets a few smiles and a handful of playful insults from his friends. His paper is going to be good, and I feel, somehow, that hearing him today will somehow make my paper good. Or at least better.
I've been inspired by teachers before. I've been introduced to big ideas and made to feel significant and special. My fourth grade teacher, Mrs. Flowers, took me into the world of adults. I'd been sent to the Principal's office because I punched Dan Saunders in the face after he made fun of my stuttering (for the last time). When I got back to the classroom, she noticed my change in demeanor. She could tell I'd been chewed out, told that fighting and violence were never the answer and that if I ever did anything like this again, I would be expelled. She knew the drill. But as everyone was heading out the door at the end of the day, she called me back in. I figured it was so she, too, could chew me out. She put a hand on my head and looked around to make sure we were alone before saying, “You know, just because he is the Principal, doesn't mean he is right.” She didn't go into details, she didn't say anything else, she just opened a tiny window into the worldviews of different adults in leadership and let me take a quick look.
Inspiring. The real kind, not the empty “you can do anything you put your mind to” kind. Mike Hill echoed this inspiration today.
Tomorrow, I will leave for a boy scout weekend in the mountains. I won't see Katie until Monday, if even then. What if she isn't in school? What if someone has already asked her to the Prom by then? What if someone has already asked her to the Prom now?
Katie, will you go to the Prom with me?
I feel my tongue thickening as the words roll through my mind. I might be able to rush through “Katie,” the W is going to get me, but I might be able to push through it with two, maybe three extra syllables. The “you go to Prom” section is all barbed wire and bear traps. Those words are going to grab my tongue and play hot potato. But I don't care. I'm reaching my arms out farther. I'm running faster. So what if I stutter? Maybe she will think it's cute. Maybe she will sense the bravery it took for me to talk to her. Maybe she will feel sorry for me and say yes. I wouldn't even feel bad, I'll take a date to the Prom with Katie Williams however I can get it. I'm not proud.
Another hot PB&J whisper, the sting of the sour cream and onion chips trailing behind. It was Mr. Kenton, and he smirks back at me on his way out the door.
When I stand my legs aren't with me. They want to follow Mr. Kenton.
Katie, will you...
Lauren and Margot are talking to Katie. I can tell Margot is about to leave, and I can only hope Lauren will be close behind her.
Katie, will you go to the...
“See you at three, girl,” Margot says. As she passes me, I get a smile and a quiet, “Hey, Alex.”
“Hey,” I say. It's good, distraction is good.
Katie, will you go to the Prom with...
I have to stop because Lauren isn't leaving. I can't walk up to two girls talking and stand there like a weirdo right before I potentially stutter my way through an awkward Prom date request and receive a resounding “no” for my efforts. The only other person in the room is Mike. He is still packing up his papers and binders and books. I could walk over to him, strike up some stupid conversation about his Gatsby insights. Then I would have to talk. I have found that volume doesn't help my stuttering. Quite the opposite. Also, I might get stuck in a conversation about 20th Century literature and the role of rural industrialization on the stock market crash of 1929 and I would end up politely nodding along with his factual recitations and his own hypotheses as Katie walked out the door and out of my Prom dreams and out of my miserable stuttering stupid life.
It's my voice. I don't know who is guiding this crazy train but it is my voice and she and Lauren are now looking at me. They way they are looking at me, I must be making a very strange face.
“I'll see you at three?” Lauren asks, confused, still looking at me. Katie nods and Lauren walks past me. She doesn't give the same polite acknowledgment Margot gave me.
“Hey, Alex, what's up?”
I think that's what she said. I'm not hearing things anymore. I can see her mouth move, see her eyes wondering. She is waiting for me to say something and I have forgotten what it was I wanted to say. Maybe I put it out of my mind on purpose, to save myself the pain of embarrassment and rejection. It's probably best that I just walk away at this point. She doesn't deserve this. She doesn't deserve to be made to feel so awkward, to have to entertain the class charity case, that kid who the teacher never calls on because he can't talk, that kid who has never had to answer a teacher's call in class. Katie shouldn't have to be forced to either turn down a lame invitation to Prom from the charity case, or say yes out of pity and be seen at Prom with me. It's not fair. I hadn't thought it all the way through, but it's not fair. What was I thinking? I was thinking about myself. I wasn't thinking about Katie, about how sad it would be to be seen at Prom with the weird stuttering kid, Alex Stevens. I wasn't thinking about her conversations with her friends, with her parents, about showing mercy on the kid who no one wanted to hang out with. Hey, want an awesome date? Go out with the guy who takes four minutes to answer a question. Go out with the guy who takes an hour to tell a joke. There is no reason for me to be standing in front of the most beautiful girl in school a week and a half before Prom and taking up any of her time.
I can't take it anymore.
“Sorry,” I mumble as I turn and walk away. I pass by my desk and I hope I'll never see it again. I don't want to be sitting at that desk and looking two desks forward and one to the right at the back of Katie Williams' perfect head. When I pass the last desk and turn toward the door, I hear a voice behind me. I can't make out the words, but it is a female voice.
And it is a question.
“Don't you want my answer?”
It is a female voice. It is Katie's voice. When I stop and turn, she is looking back at me. I expected to turn and see her staring back at me, angry, annoyed, her brow furrowed or her eyes rolling back in her head, disgusted, dismissive.
She isn't angry or annoyed. She isn't disgusted. She is... confused.
She is confused, but she is smiling.
“Your a-a-ans-swer?” I stammer.
“Ask me, again,” she says.
Did I ask her? Did I say the words I've been practicing in my head for six months? I don't even remember saying anything. Is she reading my mind?
She sees the question on my face.
“Ask me again,” she repeats.
I turn and slowly step back toward her. I look over my shoulder. We are alone.
“Um,” I start, but I shut that down. You can't start with Um, it makes the stuttering worse. Um is death. Um is the devil.
I start again.
“K-Katie... will y-you...”
She is nodding. Why is she nodding?
“G-g-go to P-pr...”
“Yes,” she says.
She said yes, why did she say yes?
“Pr-prom with m-me?”
She is still nodding.
“Yes,” she says again, stepping toward me. “I thought you'd never ask.”
She walks past me. At the door, she stops, turning back toward me. She wants to say something but instead, smiles. She walks out.
I hear another voice. It is a male voice, deep and triumphant. It is a guttural scream, maybe followed by fist pumping and leaping around the English Lit 201 classroom. The voice is stuttering the loudly yelled word “Yes” over and over again, and will continue to do so until the end of time.
Upward mobility is real. Dreams are possible. Reaching out and running faster works sometimes. Most people don't know when they've said the most important sentence of their lives. I do. `
Suck it, Gatsby, I'm going to Prom with Katie Williams.