It was a rhetorical question. Mostly sarcasm, veiled with a lilt.
Mr. Luther knew that every one of these 5th graders had done their homework. Their parents paid $11,000 a year for them to do homework. He knew that these kids managed to squeeze in as much homework as they could between swimming, piano, Chinese and martial arts. They did homework on busses and in cafes with the nanny and at the dinner table and in locker rooms and in the lobby of music academies while waiting for their lessons.
So, asking these kids “Who did their homework?” was like asking a Brooklyn sidewalk if it had ever met a pile of wet dog poop. Of course they did their homework- instinctively, and without hesitation.
He asked this question because if he didn’t keep it light- if he didn’t play the role of the fun-loving and supportive launch pad into middle school- he would have to find a new job. This was a cushy job. Even if his own humanity was united with boredom, and his own wants and needs seemed to have softly evaporated throughout the years, until he simply became an educational accessory, rather than a teacher. Besides, he was nearly 50. Finding a new job at this point was not an option.
Every morning he tied his tie a little tighter, so that his head stayed on.
It wasn’t that he didn’t like these kids. They were fine. They were butt kissing overachievers, with their sights set on retirement, which made his life easy. They were mostly devoid of personality, but again, that took some of the complication out of the job. They didn’t really understand jokes and they didn’t want to goof around and they were about as lively as a room full of tiny human robots could get, but he never had to deal with any conflict in his job, ever.
Today, however, when he looked up from his papers and saw every hand raised straight up through the fibrous ceiling tiles, he was overcome by a wave of pure rage. It shot through him like a train, leaving him feeling overheated and filled with steam. Before he could register this surprising new sensation, he mumbled softly:
“I’m gonna freak out.”
Every hand stayed lifted in the noiseless classroom, but all 17 baby faces looked back at him in confusion.
He hadn’t said it very loud. But the kids were well behaved, and the room was quiet, and his words were a pin that everyone heard fall to the ground.
They waited in silence for Mr. Luther to move on. But he couldn’t.
“Did you hear that?” He asked.
“Please put your hands down.”
They did. Neatly so.
“Can anybody tell me what I just said?”
All hands shot back up, so he let them suspend. He loosened his tie. He let one minute go by in silence. Nobody put their hand back down. Nobody would, until the question was answered.
Another minute ticked by, and the hands stayed raised towards the heavens. He scanned the room for signs of fatigue, but these were not quitters. There was no fidgeting feet or trembling fingers. No shifting or moving at all. Not even one student switched arms in a moment of weakness. They would wait him out.
“Does anybody know what it means to freak out?” He asked, curiously.
Their hands stayed raised. Their eyes stayed dead.
“Mina, what does it mean to freak out?” He selected a lithe blonde girl in the first row, who looked like she had been ready for middle school for nearly 40 years.
All hands lowered.
“Freaking out is slang, it means to lose control.”
“Very good Mina.”
Mr. Luther continued to loosen his tie.
“Has anybody here, in this room, ever freaked out?”
This time, they lifted their hands slowly. He felt himself grow lighter. Perhaps today was the day they would all get in trouble.
He pointed to a boy in the back, with large front teeth and an unfortunate bowl cut, who had just become a recent media sensation for breaking a 30 year old golf record at a PGA Jr. event.
“Clark? Have you ever freaked out?”
He answered without hesitation. “No, sir.”
“Are you lying, Clark?”
Clark, who was an uncomplicated 10 year old boy who just wanted to do what he loved and be a professional golfer, looked around at his peers for help. They stared back at him with blank expressions. This was not a question he was used to be asked. None of them were. He began to hiccup.
“N-no sir.” Another hiccup.
Mr. Luther realized he was being unfair.
“I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to put you on the spot.”
“It’s ok-ay Mr. L-uther.”
Mr. Luther walked back to Clark’s desk. Heads turned to follow him like wind blowing through tall grass. He felt this. Were they finally interested?
“Clark,” he said gently. “What would you tell me if I was going to freak out?”
This time Clark did not need advice. He managed to swallow his hiccups. He smiled.
“I would tell you to dream big. Always focus on your dreams, and have fun.”
He gave Clark a little pat on the shoulder. Then he walked back to his own desk at the front of the room and sat down. The children watched in anticipation, wondering when he would start today’s lesson.
Mr. Luther undid his tie, pulled it from around his neck, and finally released his head.
It floated up to the ceiling, higher than any hand could reach.