The Illusion of Brilliance
by Susan Savage Lee
Table of Contents|
parts: 1, 2, 3
Mr. Flint taught senior English classes at Fielding. The headmaster touted the faculty’s praises in general, but he was particularly keen on Mr. Flint, who had attended Harvard and had been a well-known Thomas Hardy scholar from a very young age.
Most of the students didn’t care about the qualifications of their teachers, focusing instead on their grade point averages and entrance exam scores. And yet, some girls avoided Mr. Flint's classes; they took Mr. Whitfield’s English courses instead, gradually adjusting to the dry lectures that he read from yellowing pieces of paper.
“He’s a perv,” Susana had heard Megan say to Catherine. Susana was in a bathroom stall, trying to remain perfectly silent until Megan and Catherine left the bathroom.
“How do you know?” Catherine said.
“Because I have a cousin who goes to his old school,” Megan said. “She said he was forced to resign there because of it.” There was a hiss, followed by the sharp, pungent smell of hairspray being applied to Megan’s shiny, blonde hair. Then they were gone, already uninterested in the topic of their conversation.
Susana stood in her stall, unable to push the latch and go on with her day. Several times, she had caught Mr. Flint staring at her while another student was giving a presentation. He had longish hair that always had an unkempt look to it and, between that hair and his thick glasses, it was oftentimes hard to see where exactly he was looking. She explained it to herself as a trick of the eye, even though she felt dirty as if she had just paid witness to a moment of intimacy that she wasn’t supposed to see.
It happened more and more often until Susana got to the point where she had everything quietly packed up so that she could be the first student to leave. When Mr. Flint asked her to stay after class, she knew her efforts had been fruitless all along.
“How did you learn English so well, Susana?” he said, leaning against his desk. He had pushed up his glasses with one finger between the lenses.
“I was born here, in the United States.” She was holding her books in front of her, aware of the receding voices of her schoolmates.
“And your parents are from Russia, correct? That’s why you tutor students in Russian?”
“Yes,” she said. He wasn’t going to make comments like “anchor baby” or something like that, but she sensed that there would be other words spoken that meant the same thing.
“Well, your ideas are absolutely brilliant. I can tell that you have a gift for literature,” he said, picking up a paper from his desk. He held it in front of him, the white back of it facing Susana.
“But the writing is sometimes awkward. It sounds like the kind of errors that non-native speakers make,” he said.
She didn’t say anything. A slow-moving burning sensation was suddenly spreading across her face.
Megan liked to respond to Susana’s silence in moments like these with comments such as: “I know your mom was probably a mail-order bride, but I would think that you would have learned a little English by now. I mean, comprende?”
“I’m a native speaker,” Susana said, clearing her throat.
“Well,” he said smiling, “in any case, I think you should redo some of the passages in here to raise your grade.”
He handed her the paper and, to her horror, she saw a big red C at the top. She had never gotten C’s in any subject, much less in English. Susana took it, thanked him, and walked out of the classroom.
She just made it to the bathroom when her arm, seemingly without her control, lashed out to punch the stall door. The door flung back and forth for a minute, the metal latch in the center banging against the stall walls. Susana looked at her hand and saw the beginnings of red welts there and she rubbed at them, already embarrassed.
She rewrote some of the papers at least three times, yet her grades only improved by a percentage point or two. Her scholarship depended on receiving a B or better. Since Mr. Flint required so many papers, it was inevitable that her final grade would drop below the required score.
* * *
When he asked her to stay after class to help him carry his books and papers to his car, she accepted because she knew there really wasn’t a choice. If she hadn’t been so absorbed with the growing anger and the burgeoning realization that she was little more than a slave to faculty and students alike at Fielding, she would have seen what he was doing behind her back.
She remembered that Jodie Foster movie from the ’80s where everyone stood around doing nothing while men gang-raped her on top of a pool table. Maybe she had known it before that movie, maybe not, but Susana had recognized that there was a world of men and then there was everything else that was somehow less worthy or less important than that first world.
“The military used to do that to women to make them talk,” her mother had told her once. “At least in America, women have power,” she had said. Susana had remained silent. She wasn’t sure what kind of power Jodie Foster’s character had when her back was pinned to a pool table.
He shoved her against the desk, and it was so unexpected that Susana fell forward, her palms pounding down on the desk’s smooth surface as she tried to regain her balance. The papers that she had been gathering scattered like snow across the floor. Then she felt his hands everywhere at once, but they weren’t really everywhere, as she would later remember. He had ripped her underwear instead of trying to pull it down under her uniform skirt.
Susana never saw him do anything. He was already inside of her before she said stop. She quit speaking because the sound of her own voice scared her. It was hoarse and cracked as if she had wandered waterless across the desert for days. There was just the sound of her hands slipping on the desk and his breath in her ear, harsh but rhythmic. An explosive pain that forced tears to her eyes spread across the lower half of her body. She could feel liquid running down her leg and she knew without seeing it that it was blood.
Some disembodied part of her mind had desperately clutched at the details: the quotes on the back wall, the plastic clock above them reading 4:25. By the time that she heard him zipping up his pants, the same disembodied part of her saw that it was only 4:29. Four minutes of her life that would never end.
“If you tell anyone, they won’t believe you,” he said, forcing her to turn around and look at him. She was crying and in between that veil of water, she could see a look of hatred swimming in his eyes. “They won’t believe someone like you.”
Then he got the rest of his things together, scooping up the scattered papers quickly before disappearing, the door shutting behind him.
Susana leaned against the desk, her underwear a shredded mess around her left ankle. She couldn’t stop crying until she thought about someone finding her there, someone slowly pushing open the classroom door like a victim in a horror movie on the verge of finally finding the monster.
She quickly bent down and used her own underwear to wipe up the blood on her leg. Then she shoved the crumpled white and red mass into her bag. When she was sure the blood was gone, she picked up her books and slowly headed to the bathroom. Although most of Megan’s bullying had taken place there, it now seemed safe to her in its quiet emptiness.
Susana took a wet paper towel and wiped her face with it. She stared into her own blue eyes in the mirror behind the sink, leaning forward as Megan always did. She was trying to find something different in them, but all she could see was a startled surprise that these things could happen.
She leaned back, gripping the cool rim of the sink. She wasn’t sure how she could have forgotten that villains existed or that she had felt safe enough in a place like this to imagine that villains couldn’t walk these halls.
* * *
Later, she went to tutor Lee after Mr. Flint’s class. Although she wanted to call him to cancel, she was afraid to be alone in her room. As a faculty member, Mr. Flint knew where she lived.
She had been tutoring Lee for a couple of months, although she didn’t think he needed a tutor in Russian. He seemed to be pretending not to know the answers.
“It looks like backwards letters to me,” he had said during their first lesson. “But maybe English letters are the backwards ones.”
“They are,” Susana had said and they had both laughed.
Every semester, she was assigned five or six students to tutor. Most of them were in Russian so that her pupils could list “reading proficiency” on their college applications. Russian and Chinese were the more exotic languages. Supposedly, kids that could learn these languages were smarter than those who took Spanish or Italian.
Her students never cared about bilingualism; they only cared about grades. Except for Lee.
“So how do you express “to be” in the present tense if it doesn’t exist? How do the other words make it say that?”
“I don’t know,” Susana said. “We just know that’s what it means. Something doesn’t necessarily have to be there for you to understand.”
He asked her questions about her parents. When did your parents come here? In the 1970s. What do they do for a living? My mom does nails and my dad is a delivery driver. Is that what they did in Russia? No. My mom was a nurse, and my father was a doctor, but their degrees aren’t acknowledged here.
Lee had considered these answers for a moment, as he began to peel back one layer of her identity at a time. “Are you okay?” he said, leaning over the table and touching her hand.
She looked up, startled that these past moments weren’t happening right now. He was looking at her with genuine concern and, for a moment, she wanted to tell him what had happened. There wasn’t any hope that someone would stop it, because she knew how things worked at Fielding. Her only consolation was that she could relieve herself of this ugly burden rapidly growing inside of her.
Tears began to form, and then she remembered what she would have to go home to: church on Wednesdays and Sundays, her mother’s crummy vegetable garden that was always afflicted with pests, and her father’s silence as he looked out the window, remembering when he changed people’s lives instead of changing their linen supply.
“Nothing,” she said. “I saw a really sad movie earlier and I was thinking about it.”
“Did you write anything else in your story?” he asked after a minute.
There would be a contest this year, and Mr. Flint would be the judge. She felt that hotness spread across her cheeks again when she thought about how she couldn’t enter the contest.
“You should send them out somewhere,” he said.
“Do you really think so?” she said, slightly smiling. There was a light in his blue-green eyes and she remembered how she had caught him looking at her legs or her hair sometimes during class. But he had been dating Megan or he was with some other girl. She thought that’s what bored boys did in a class that they didn’t like.
“Yeah,” he said. “They’re really beautiful.”
She smiled, noticing the boy chasing the little girl on the cover of their Russian textbook. She wondered how old she had been the first time that she had seen the verb “to run” in Russian. Then she noticed that his hand was still touching hers, his fingers obscuring her colored nails.
* * *
Copyright © 2017 by Susan Savage Lee