No Such Thing
By Steve Uppendahl
Teaching is like any job, I suppose. I don't know that for a fact, since teaching is the only thing I've ever really done. But, I'm going out on a limb here. I imagine that no matter what you may do for a living, each job has its similarities and its routines. It can become quite easy to get stuck in those ruts. Then there are days that simply shock you and, one way or another, you're never quite the same.
I've been stunned by many things in my teaching career. Unfortunately, most of those surprises have been more on the negative side-one of my students getting pregnant with her second child before she exits high school; a parent assaulting a fellow teacher for having the gall to give her son his first B; a teacher, mourning over his wife's death, being caught sleeping with a student. The list goes on and on.
This time though, things were different. Many teachers have a philosophy that we not only teach, but we are also continually learning. That may very well be true, but that doesn't mean I'm not surprised when a lesson comes from an unlikely source-in this case, a student called Wonder.
Even without his moniker, Wonder is a person who stands out, though not always for positive reasons. He's a student many teachers, me included, usually don't want in our classrooms. He's verbally abusive to students and adults alike, disrupts class on a daily basis, turns in one out of ten assignments and, perhaps the worst yet, is extremely intelligent. Few things cause more headaches than a disruptive, intelligent student.
Every Monday I give my classes a writing assignment. Choosing this week's assignment was simple. With a serial killer's plea bargain being big news in our fair city, justice would seem to be an ideal choice: "What is justice? Provide your own definition and an example to support your opinion."
With an assignment like this, I prepare myself to read through pages and pages of students' passions and ideas intermixed with students just doing enough to get by. That is exactly what I end up reading through, until I get to Wonder's paper.
His papers always stand out for two reasons. One, they are few and far between, so any assignment he turns in grabs my attention. Frustration and disappointment usually follow. Wonder rarely finishes his work. Two, he always writes in extremely dark pencil with ragged, almost aggressive printing that easily stands out among his peers' work.
I can tell immediately that barely anything is written. I almost don't read it and give him his standard F just on principle, but my teacher's conscience stops me. Besides, I'm always curious about what Wonder writes because, despite it all, he does have a good sense of humor. I take a breath and read his paper, "There is no such thing as justice. Not here anyway."
His words stop me in my tracks. I make it through my few remaining papers, but with great difficulty. I barely remember what I read one sentence later. The last nine essays take me over an hour and a half. I barely sleep. My mind is unable to shut down.
I've always liked Wonder, no matter how big a pain he is in class. He always can make me laugh immediately after he's pushed my buttons. It's that talent that keeps Wonder from getting in more serious trouble than he already does.
I ask him to stay after class. He walks up with his trademark swagger and smirk. His jet-black hair low over his left eye; his right eyebrow clear so his three rings can proudly be displayed.
"So, Teach, how'd you like my paper?"
Laughing quickly, "Well, Wonder, I'm still trying to figure it out actually."
He seems surprised and, strangely, a bit worried.
"Wha-What do you mean? It was a joke, Teach." He plunges his hands deep into his black, sagging jeans.
I shake my head and answer him, "No, Wonder, I don't think it was. I think you were trying to make a point. Even more, I think you were wondering if I'd even catch it."
His mouth curls up a bit as he speaks. "I don't know what you mean."
I lean forward onto my desk and look directly in his eyes ... or eye.
"I think you do. It's the last part that gave you away. If you'd just kept the first line, you might have gotten away with your standard F and we wouldn't be having this conversation. I probably would've thought you were going for that famous 'Why not?' answer we talked about in class. Few words, little effort, passing grade, right?
"But you were actually making a point. I want to know what it is."
Wonder jerks his head back so I can actually see both his eyes. I'm surprised by this direct approach.
"Why? What does it matter? Even if I get an A on this assignment, we both know I'm still failing this class. So what's the point?"
I narrow my eyes, but keep the connection. "There's more to life, and this class, than what your grade is. I would hope you'd know that by now. I want to know what you meant in your answer. I'm curious."
He smiles and sits on the corner of my desk. "You must have an idea, Teach. You're a smart guy."
I lean back in my chair and clasp my hands behind my head. "Thank you. I do have ideas, but they're mine, not yours. I want to hear your ideas."
He shakes his head, but answers me anyway. "I thought your assignment was stupid, all right?"
I smirk. "You always do. You tell me three days a week. What's different about this one?"
Wonder starts to pace in front of my desk. He finally turns and faces me, his hair cascading in front of his face, but doesn't hide the fierceness of his gaze.
"It's different because you should know better. Most of your stupid assignments you have to give us because it's part of the curriculum here. But, these weekly writing things are pointless."
I sit back in my chair and force myself to stop. This is Wonder's M.O. He loves to get teachers to defend their assignments. By the time the conversation is over, the teacher's forgotten the point of the discussion.
"You're stalling, Wonder. Answer me. Why is there no such thing as justice?"
We stare at each other for what seems like an hour. Finally, he relents.
His eyes stay locked with mine. "Because it's impossible to achieve true justice when humans are involved. We're imperfect beings, and justice is something that should be perfect."
I lean forward, intrigued. "Why should justice be perfect?"
Wonder looks at me with disgust. "Isn't that the point? That for every horrible thing that happens, the victim gets redemption? How can true justice be anything but perfect?"
I nod my head. "Okay, then why can't we do that here?"
Wonder raises his voice and waves his arms. "Come on, Teach! You know that's not possible with us. Let's say some punk rapes and kills your wife. You gonna tell me that seeing the scum that did it be convicted and even executed is going to make a real difference? He's dead. So is your wife. Your life is changed forever either way."
He's hot now, pacing back and forth, talking with his hands.
"Let's think smaller. Someone breaks into your house, steals your television, DVD player, and everything else. Two days later they catch the guys. You get your stuff back, and the bad guys go to jail. Justice served, right? Not even close. You think you or your family will ever feel safe in your own house again? Is that justice?"
I stare at him wide-eyed. He looks at me with contempt.
I take a deep breath. "But you still believe in justice, don't you, Wonder? Everything you just said might be exactly right, but in spite of it all, you still wrote, 'At least not here.' You were talking about Heaven, weren't you? Where everything is perfect; where true justice can occur?"
"Come now, Teach. This is a public school. We can't talk about such things. You should know better."
I nod my head. "You're right, Wonder, I should. By the way, you just earned an A. You make a habit of this, you might be surprised what happens next."
He turns at the door. "Maybe you're right, Teach. But what fun would that be? Besides, it sounds like a lot of work. I prefer the easy way. You know, 'Few words, little effort, passing grade.' Worked for you, didn't it?"
I stare at his knowing smile and can't help but return it.
Steve Uppendahl is a middle school teacher and coach. He has a lovely wife, Trina, and two beautiful, young and exhausting daughters. Steve loves to write whenever he can and loves those at FaithWriters for their inspiration and support. If you would like to write to Steve, you can do so through the letters page of this magazine.
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