An Oxford Man
It was the first week of my eighth grade year, and the halls were abuzz at Readington Middle School. The ever-present rumor mill, which usually served to pass along news of great importance, like when Nicholas Coska pissed his pants in the cafeteria after drinking enough chocolate milk to submerge a minivan, had been selectively dispersing a bit of faculty gossip to the drama-hungry preteens: one of the eighth grade teachers was an Oxford graduate.
In typical grape vine fashion, the provided information lacked both context and substance. Who was this mysterious academic? Where had he come from? And how, for god’s sake, had he stumbled his way into a middle school teaching position in northern New Jersey? These deep and probing questions feed the sensation-starved masses as long as our middle school attention spans would hold, until Nicholas Coska pissed himself again and all else was forgotten.
Somewhere close to the year’s halfway point, when winter’s icy grip had tightened around Flemington, New Jersey and Christmas spirit had drenched all but the Scrooges’ houses in multi-colored luminosities, my mother came home one Friday evening from a school board meeting going on and on about something that was unable to permeate the cerebral force field I’d built around myself and the card trick I was practicing. There was a time, naysayers, when magic made the ladies swoon. Thank god I wrestled, though, because eighth grade was definitely not that time.
Anywho, as I was practicing the prestigious and highly technical Double Undercut pass, a few words from my parent’s conversation broke through my concentration: “and this guy apparently went to Oxford!”. Immediately I flashed back to the first week of school, to the year’s very first rumor.
“Ma! Hey, ma, what did you say? Who is this teacher who went to Oxford?” I asked, already plotting my big reveal at school on Monday: a reveal that would cement me in middle school mystery-solving glory for somewhere between ten and twenty five minutes of first period.
“Oh he’s one of your teachers! Mister… Mister… shoot I’m blanking on his name,” she replied, as my eyes widened. Readington Middle School was divided into three “teams”—R, M, and S—to split kids up into classes for English, Social Studies, and Science. My mind began racing as I wondered which of my three educational leaders could be an Oxford graduate.
“Mr. Smitka?” I asked, chuckling to myself as I remembered his lesson on the importance of marriage equality- a literal song and dance by the kindest, happiest, gayest teacher at RMS. Though certainly biased, he never failed to make learning about Social Studies fun and could evoke a smile through the painted black lips of even the most apathetic of gothic middle schoolers. No one knew too much about the man, so he seemed to fit the bill for the mysterious Oxford educated individual.
“No, not Smitka. But maybe it’s something like… oh gosh we were just talking about him!” she exclaimed, growing just mildly frustrated. I thought about the other two teachers I had, and hoped to god my second guess was right.
“Harm then, it has to be Harm,” I said timidly. Mr. Harm was a Humvee of a man with the driest sense of humor imaginable. Somehow, he made his subtle humor totally accessible to the class. Some days, we’d walk in and he’d have used the Bunsen burner to light his desk on fire. Everyone would scream and point and try to get his attention, until the giant man slowly rotated in his tiny swivel chair and said in utter monotony, “Oh. Uh oh.” Then he would produce a fire extinguisher from somewhere behind his back and simultaneously extinguish the fire while telling everyone to get out the homework assignment, continuing class as though nothing had happened. Sometimes the white foam would get on his shirt or face, and he would carry on without wiping it off as though it wasn’t even there. This earned him infinite respect among the students, and if it turned out he was the Oxford graduate, I think he would pay as much attention to people’s complimentary comments as he did to the white foam on his face.
“No, Michael Harm is a wonderful member of the faculty but it isn’t him. Who’s the other teacher you have Marino? The English teacher,” she asked, and I felt my heart drop. Not Mr. Stiles. Please. Not Mr. Stiles. “Is it… Mr. Styles?” I asked, already knowing what was about to come. “Yes! Yes, Larry Styles, the Oxford graduate. He went on and on to Principle Roberta about his time in Oxford. Isn’t that wonderful?” she asked. Wonderful, I thought.
Mr. Stiles was the kind of teacher you simultaneously pitied and hated. He wasn’t particularly nice, or understanding. He was insensitive to anything outside of his classroom, and routinely disregarded the general opinions of the class. That being said, we were absolutely brutal. I’m talking vicious, unrelenting, bad-kid on Nick at Nite TV shows bad. Matt Yanuzzi and I used to army crawl between the desks while he wrote at the board, unscrewing one leg from every desk. Then, at the slightest misplaced movement from anybody, they would collapse like dominoes in an echoing boom of chaos and confusion. When he was being particularly insensitive, we would call the classroom phone from our cell phones and watch as he attempted to figure out who was on the other end, never quite catching on to our game.
The shame I felt in that moment was devastating and boundless. The man whom we had been plaguing with our sociopathic pranks for months now was an Oxford educated scholar! For the next few weeks, remorse haunted me as I attempted to plug the leaks of bad behavior in the dam that was our classroom. I had to do something, anything I could to right my wrongs and get rid of this guilt.
Guilt, though, is a funny thing. It comes in waves, and leaves in much the same way. One day, weeks into my crusade to make amends, Mr. Stiles was handing out papers to the class. Having just the night before watched Monk re-runs with my dad, I had been practicing my powers of observation all day. I noticed a hefty ring on his hand as the papers were being passed out and slyly directed my eyes to the engraved lettering, imagining the letters popping up in front of my face like they do in television shows, revealing the solution to me. As the meaning of the words I had just read took shape in my mind, I heard my mom’s words echoing in my brain from our previous conversation about Mr. Stiles education: “He went on and on to Principle Roberta about his time in Oxford. Isn’t that wonderful?” Wonderful it is, I thought as a devious smile crossed my face. I could almost see my guilty exoskeleton peel away as I stretched and interlocked my fingers behind my head; I was many things, but I was certainly no liar. I watched the imagined words, lifted from the ring and floating in front of me as I let out a satisfied breath.
It isn’t what you say, but how you say it that matters. Not long after discovering the clever trick he had played on the administration, I re-assumed my leadership position in our strikingly militant prank squad. In my own mind—the unforgiving and unrelenting mind of a middle-school boy—I was doing a public service. Readington Middle School’s delicate ecosystem had been thrown off balance by this man’s egregious lies, and I was the equalizer. It was not a position I had asked for, but rather one thrust upon me by cruel circumstance. I was no angel, and he was no Oxford graduate. Whatever, nobody’s perfect.