I guess you could say Mr. Northup’s downfall began the day Gretchen Chase got a boyfriend and started wearing tank tops to class. She’d been a sweatshirt gal before that, showing skin being her only source of shyness. She was loud and proud about everything else, including wanting to criminalize most things Northup said we should hold dear: affirmative action, gun control, Al Gore. It’s not like any of us ever asked Gretchen for her opinion. It all came out of her like mouth diarrhea, earning her the nickname “Wretchin’ Gretchen.” To say that she and Mr. Northup butted heads would be like saying that Hamilton and Jefferson had a tiff.

Mr. Northup’s U.S. History was the first AP class I’d ever signed up for. Unlike other Advanced Placement teachers, Northup had an “open doors” policy: anybody could get in if they registered for it and could keep up with the work. My counselor warned me. Guys on the soccer team warned me. But my mom warned me about something else: college applications. She said if I wanted to get into UW, I needed some advanced classes on my transcript.

Since I liked history, I chose to start there. Had I known that each class was going to be a Godzilla vs. Mothra battle between Mr. Northup and Wretchin’ Gretchen, I might have chosen differently.

Admittedly, their daily scrums kept us coming to class.

“Cuz I don’t want to miss a thang!” Jason Acampo would croon Aerosmith style as we hustled into class.

Jason was the closest thing our school had to a G. He wore his black hair in a close buzz to accentuate the diamond studs in his ears. He puffed up his wiry body with a red FUBU sweatshirt and baggy, bleached Echo jeans. He was Filipino but fell into Black dude persona. I guess because it was the most natural non-white-American category to identify with.

After years of penny-pinching, his parents had sent him to O’Dea—a private Catholic high school in Seattle. But after a year and a half, he left. He told us he’d gotten kicked out for fighting and “ill shit.” But we suspected he was blowing smoke up our asses and that the real reason was more complicated.

Mr. Northup’s classroom was made up of wide circle tables. We sat at one near the back.

“Where the fuck’s Curtis?” Jason asked as we sat down.

Curtis Greenwood was actually Black. He kept the shiny curlicues of his hair short and neat. He wore polo shirts and slacks as if still following the uniform requirement of the small Christian middle school he transferred in from freshman year. As part of the leadership team, I toured new kids around the school. That’s how I’d gotten to know Curtis and Jason. I liked the new kids better because they needed my friendship more, particularly Curtis and Jason, who stuck out in our mostly white school. Or so I thought. It turned out they didn’t need my friendship at all and the incident with Northup and Gretchen would prove it.

When Curtis finally schlepped in, a minute before the bell, his lips squirmed like he was keeping something in.

“What?” I asked.

His face twisted in confusion, “It’s Wretchin’ Gretchen. She…”

“She looks hot,” Jason whispered as Gretchen walked in.

Gretchen’s scooped-neck, black tank top displayed the top halves of her breasts, the pale flanks of which undulated as they grazed through the air.

I twinged, realizing that I would enjoy staring at Gretchen in that tank top for much longer than appropriate. Even back then in 2006. It was early November. I could see the slyest stipples of hair follicles running along the tank top’s straining hemline.

Too bad she hadn’t let her hair out of that ponytail, I thought.

“Chet,” Curtis snapped his fingers in my face. “If you look any longer, you’ll join the Tea Party!”

Other kids whispered about Gretchen’s tits too. She showed no indication that she heard any of us, but settled into her seat, her flesh menagerie mercifully hidden below the table. She did meet my eyes once and gave a slow blink. Freshman year, there’d been a rumor she liked me and wanted to ask me out to Tolo.

I told the guys that I thought Gretchen’s change in wardrobe was because of big Thad, our goalie. “They’re dating now. They got chummy at some Right-to-Life rally.”

“He better not let it mess up his grades,” Jason snapped.

“They won’t last until Spring,” I said. Big Thad went through girls like jockey shorts.

“Well, good.’Cuz I don’t want our defense getting fucked up.” Jason asked.

“Maybe you can bench-warm together,” Curtis told Jason.

Somehow, Jason still had a D- in Northup’s class.

About a third of the original class, big Thad included, had already dropped out, opting for the gen. ed. U.S. History where war movies formed the core texts for each unit: Glory, Saving Private Ryan, Battle of Hamburger Hill, etc. But Jason didn’t seem the slightest bit aware he was traversing a rickety bridge with the valley of mediocrity on one side and the abyss of failure on the other.

Arguably, Jason had the most to lose by staying in Northup’s class and failing. When Jason arrived last year, he quickly established himself as our soccer team’s star forward, scoring ninety percent of our goals that season. We’d almost made state. We probably would have won the championship if Jason hadn’t gotten so many yellow cards. Neither my footwork nor my nerve came anywhere near Jason’s, but my legs gave me speed enough to flank him and guard him from defenders. The number of assists I gave him had welded us together as friends, but I knew the upcoming season would go nowhere without him, and neither would I.

Northup walked in after the bell with a folder stuffed with our essays on the causes of the American Revolution. We’d written them so long ago, I’d forgotten not only what I’d written, but what the causes were. I went palm-to-face the instant I heard the papers begin descending on us like the falling leaves outside the window.

Through my fingers, I could see Northup’s face was a mix of pride and chagrin, like he’d just fathered a cute but colicky baby. His skin, orange from tanning booths, glowed with particular vigor that day, though his lips were tight as always, showing the strong keel of his jaw. As he tossed our essays back to us, he moved on his stork legs, clad in black denim, with the maniacal glee of an anarchist pamphleteer. Only his bald pate showed his age, definitely not his fierce, dark eyes.

“Focus on yourselves! Try not to feel too bad! I will accept rewrites, though they have to be done on your time and show significant progress. We need to hustle through the next few chapters if we’re going to finish the Civil War this semester. With that said, I am available for an hour every day after school to anyone who wants to improve.”

Upon getting his paper, Jason declared himself to be mentally retarded.

“No. You’re just inexperienced,” Mr. Northup said. “You wouldn’t put a toddler right into a soccer game and expect them to score. Part of this class, indeed part of life, is learning from failure.”

“I’ma learn hella then,” Jason said.

Northup small-talked with us a minute, reacting to things our shirts said. Jason, for instance, had to define FUBU’s acronym for him. The For-Us, By-Us slogan made Northup raise an eyebrow. “Hmm. Sounds subversive. I love it.”

He then waltzed off on his jolly campaign of teen ego destruction. Curtis and I were too chilled by the wintery realities of our own grades to take any glee from Jason’s misery. I’d gotten a C-. Mr. Northup’s red ink burrowed throughout my paragraphs like beetle markings on dead wood, widening boreholes of critique through my thick attempts at reason. There were zingers like this: “Your paragraphs are like full grocery bags of facts; the bottoms fall out, and everything tumbles.”

On Curtis’s paper, Northup wrote “turgid work,” though he’d gotten an A-.

Curtis laughed as he read us Northup’s note: “Your diction is far too loaded. Judgmental. At a certain point, you seem to be saying that the elites started the revolution just by breathing.”

“This is such unfair bull crap,” Gretchen hissed.

“Oooo. She said ‘crap,’” Curtis said.

“What? Did you get a B?” Jason asked Gretchen.

Though she didn’t look at him, she tilted her head to one side as if trying and failing to pop a crick in her neck. A red rash was advancing from her nape to her ear lobe and down to sully the beachhead of her chest.

I could hear Northup’s voice telling me hers was a “peasant face” because of her ample cheeks and weak chin. Jason would call her a “Butter Face”; as in, everything-but-her-face was hot. But her face seemed pretty enough to me just then. As I boiled in Northup’s wrath over my shitty essay, I thought about how I wouldn’t have minded Gretchen’s arms around me. She just needed to do something with her hair, still in that boring ponytail. And stop wearing work boots plastered with pewter-colored mud from the farm.

The Chase family farm stashed itself somewhere in unincorporated county land on the far flung corner of our school district’s reaches. None of us ever cared enough to find out what the Chase’s grew. Pumpkins? Pigs? Rightwing conspiracy theories? But it must have been some Blue Ribbon fare the way Gretchen showboated her brogans the way other girls did with their Louis Vuitton heels.

Without even letting us digest his comments on our shitty essays, Mr. Northup began waxing poetic about anti-expansionists and abolitionists during the Mexican-American War. He exalted them like a guy talking about a girl he was still holding out hope for. Joshua Giddings. James Russel Lowell. Emmerson. Thoreau. He went on particularly long about the Irish workers’ protests in New England over Texas’s annexation. These were men we’d never heard of. No movies had been made about them. No bills carried their faces.

Gretchen sighed and clicked her tongue at every phrase Northup spoke.

Northup continued, “No roads, cities, or counties bear these men’s names.”

Gretchen’s exasperated sigh interrupted him. “Why go on and on about these…losers?”

“Oh, here we go!” Jason’s eyes disappeared as his cheeky smile took over his face.

“Just a minute,” Northup said.

But Gretchen kept firing. “No generals. No inventors. No businessmen. No leaders.”

“Please,” Northup said.

“These people were peons.”

“They were speaking for the people!” Curtis shot back at her. They were also all white, which Curtis would later note.

“Losers!” Gretchen shouted.

The room curdled. Knuckles went white. Jaws tightened. The fluorescent lights seemed to buzz and threaten to pop. Everybody wanted Gretchen to shut up. But Northup let her continue.

“These losers sat around all day. They wrote articles. They talked. They did nothing to get us to where we are today,” Gretchen said. “If we’d listened to them, we’d all be speaking Spanish and living in crowded apartments!”

Jason turned around in his chair, “Bro, if you hate this class so much, drop it already?”

Gretchen turned to meet Jason’s gaze. Tears were in her eyes, “This is a loser’s lecture. This is a loser’s class!”

“No! Out,” Northup’s voice fulminated like mortar fire. We all flinched.

Gretchen snatched up her stuff and trundled out.

“Bye,” Jason said.

“Thank fucking God,” Curtis said.

“Enough,” Northup said. He looked at the ground. He collapsed in his chair and leaned back. “I’ve pushed too much.”

He took off his thin-framed glasses and wiped them with his wrinkled shirt. His eyes were moist, “Take the rest of the day to revise your papers or read on. I wanted us to be inspired by these men’s struggles. But I was wrong thinking that was possible.”



It was Northup’s trump card. A trap door he could pull to excise anyone who became a problem.

I’d been the first one he’d used it on.

The first day of class, Mr. Northup invited us to debate him. “Combat me!” He smacked his fist against an open palm. “While our illustrious school board won’t let me teach it, I operate from a lens not unlike Howard Zinn in The People’s History of the United States. The big shots of history did everything possible to consolidate power and dominate races, genders, and, especially, classes different from them. It took tremendous skill, intricate belief systems, precise words, and well-crafted legislation. This is not the only way to view history. But it is a compelling perspective informed by hard facts. So, you’ll notice I gravitate to it. I welcome you to disagree with it, but to do so, you must find facts that suggest otherwise. There are plenty to be found in your Tindall and Shi textbook, milquetoast as it is, but I will not gift them to you on a worksheet. Yes, I too wield power. Yes, this game too is rigged. Yes, I’m trying to convert you. But because I believe that a critical attitude toward power is the only way a democracy can survive. And the future of our democracy is in your hands. When we enter armed conflict with another country, do you just accept it? What are we doing in Iraq? What were we doing in Vietnam? In the Philippines? Lording military might over little brown people…”

Curtis elbowed Jason.

“Brown,” I smirked.

Jason nodded with a shrug, but Northup stopped dead in his monologue.

“Stop!” he said and pointed at my heart. “I heard you.”

With the swiftness of a bullfighter, Northup opened the classroom door and commanded me to follow him into the hall.

With the eyes of all my classmates on me, my face turned into a stove burner: hot, red, and untouchable. I did my walk of shame like a prisoner through mocking crowds toward the hangman’s noose. My stomach fell.

“Oh, shit!” Jason laughed.

Northup ordered everyone to start reading and defining the fifty words and phrases scrawled on the whale of a whiteboard. He closed the door behind us.

In the hallway, Northup looked up at the suspended ceiling tiles, “That’s what I get for talking too much.”

He put a heavy hand on my shoulder and got close enough for me to tell he’d eaten salmon for lunch. I could see the scales glinting silver on his coffee-stained teeth, “Now you listen. No biases. No prejudices. You drop all that out here, now. Like contraband. I’ve invited you into the realm of scholarly discourse. But it is a privilege, and I can remove you at any further provocation. Is that crystal clear? Don’t you typify another student again. Particularly one like him. Oh, yes. Your friend may smile, he may laugh. But that’s a mask for other feelings. Other thoughts. And we must find out what those are. Our democracy depends on it. His success depends on it. Got it?”

Thankfully, I’d been yelled at plenty by coaches. So I knew the drill well enough. I didn’t argue. I didn’t cry. I just stammered out, “Okay. I’m…sorry.”

“Very well…” Northup ushered me back into class.

When I sat down again and started copying the IDs to the death march rhythm of my thumping heart, Jason was crying with glee into his fist.

“Oh, fuck! He put you on blast, dog,” he said, his voice breaking into bursts of laughter. It was like he’d seen a miracle. A white kid getting yelled at.

“Dumbass,” Curtis said.


The shame Mr. Northup made me feel that day cauterized into affection. It took energy to get that angry. Summoning anger took work, which required love. Yelling meant somebody loved you. So I loved Mr. Northup from day one.

I marinated in his progressive gospel and his catechisms about class warfare. In addition to the textbook readings in the bland Tindall and Shi, I followed Northup’s advice and read Zinn too.

As Zinn recounted Columbus’s genocidal mania against the Arawkas, I realized that other than side characters in movies, I’d never thought about Native peoples before. And now, as I looked out into my big, grassy backyard, I saw ghosts of the people who’d walked through these lands on hunting expeditions. Only, because I didn’t know anything about Washington Natives yet, I saw these ghosts as the Arawaks. Missing arms, legs, ears, and hands, they stared at me. Sure, it wasn’t my idea. I hadn’t branded them. I hadn’t tried to squeeze gold from their genitals the way Colombus had. But I lived in a country that celebrated their conquistador with a day off work every year. Our capital had a sports team that wore one of their heads like a war trophy. For the first time, I was learning about those who had lost in America’s long and sordid story and the shitty way the winners had won.

I told Curtis all this, but he seemed unimpressed. It was like he’d read all this before and that it confirmed what he already knew. The literary voraciousness for the Bible, encouraged at his Christian middle school, had been redirected to a much more useful cannon. Curtis had an older brother in college who sent him weekly reading lists that included mostly pan-African tomes and tracks from the Black Power Movement. I’d see him reading Stokely Carmichael one day, Huey Newton the next. The more he read, the less he seemed to want to talk to me.


Day one of the Civil War Unit was Mr. Northup’s Battle of Gettysburg: the beginning of the end. Gretchen was already at her seat. The back of her tank top read Hands off our babies! Hands off our guns! in red lettering. While I pretended to josh around with Jason and Curtis about whatever, I snuck glances at her. The front of her tank top showed the silhouette of an AR-15 and read Right to Life! She had a trucker Von Dutch hat pulled low over her face, which held a flush like skin near a fire. Her face was sewn to her BlackBerry, fingers tapping out suggestive rhythms on its little keys. A smile kept playing across her face while her teeth nibbled her lower lip as if to keep in a secret.

“They totally fucked,” I said.

“Who gives a shit, guy. I was asking you about pre-season!” Jason huffed.

“If that’s not afterglow, I don’t know what is,” Curtis confirmed.

“What would either of you two virgins know about afterglow?” Jason said.

Northup came in from his lunch, smelling like kimchi and salmon, Zinn’s book in the crook of his arm. The bell rang. We started on the ‘do-now” assignment, which Northup always posted on the board. Meanwhile, he hobnobbed with students. On his rounds, he noticed the back of Gretchen’s shirt.

“What’s the front say?” he asked, walking up behind her.

“What? Oh,” Gretchen looked up from her phone. “That’s okay.”

“Oh, c’mon now. Let’s see it,” he said.

“No. Really. I’m good.”

“Well, now I must insist.” Northup edged himself around her, craning his neck to see her front.

“No!” she said.

“Young lady, this is my classroom! If you have something offensive that’s going to disrupt…”

“Fine! Here!” She stood up and lifted her arms so he could read the message clearly scrawled across her back-achingly big boobs. I heard her give a nervous laugh that could also have been a whimper.

Jason’s eyes buggered and he let out a silent laugh.

Northup lowered himself into a nearby chair while he read the shirt’s message, nodding slowly.

“And here’s the back!” she snapped and sat down a moment later.

Northup sighed, “Well, I suppose the 1st amendment has its drawbacks.”

Curtis guffawed. Then because Curtis laughed, Jason and several others did too.

Gretchen’s face was an instant sunburn. She wrote furiously in a notebook, ending her entry abruptly by clicking in her mechanical pencil led, packing up, and leaving for the rest of the day.

She never spoke in class again. Not even when Mr. Northup, cribbing from Zinn, described Lincoln as a miserly power broker mostly concerned with preserving centralized authority. Without her interjections, Northup’s lectures sped along, leaving us with about ten extra minutes each class to catch up on work. The silence of those work periods was as eerie and trigger-itching as the morning after a Christmas day cease-fire. Gretchen seemed to conjure up a weather system above her as she moldered.

It was around that time when we heard big Thad broke things off with her and she hibernated back into her hoodies.


The next couple days in class were spent pouring over original source documents, export/import charts, and stock market records all meant to steer us to the conclusion that economic forces and states’ rights were the main reason for the Civil War. After facilitating a tepid class discussion on this, Mr. Northup lectured for ten minutes or so, confirming this conclusion and declaring the matter settled.

Curtis looked around.

“Now. Onward to Reconstruction! Then Industrialization, the Workers’ Struggle, and the Great Depression beyond. Hell, we just might get to the ’60s, and, dare I say it, Vietnam and Watergate!”

“Wait,” Curtis said.

“Yes, Mr. Curtis?”

“What about…slavery?”

“What about it?”

“Are we…going to address it?”

“If you’ve been reading Zinn, as I recommend, though the district would have me pilloried for suggesting, you’ll be thoroughly reminded about the heinous treatment of slaves and African Americans’ participation in obtaining their freedom. I also assume you’ve all been taught rigorously about Slavery since Middle School.”

“Who in here has been reading Zinn?” Curtis asked.

No surprise, only Curtis and I raised our hands. It wasn’t required.

“So, it doesn’t look like all of us have been “briefed.” Tindall and Shi have like two paragraphs on slavery,” Curtis argued. “And wasn’t the South’s main beef with the North’s economic agenda is that it didn’t stand on the backs of Black people?”

“Well. It stood on the backs of the workers, I’d argue. Including Blacks. And we’ll cover this in great detail in our unit on the so-called ‘Roaring Twenties.”

“I’d like to cover it now,” Curtis said.

“I’d like to have the floor now. Enough!”

Jason went slack-jawed.

“You’re being paternalistic,” Curtis said.


Gretchen looked up.

“Are you serious?”

“Out!” Mr. Northup decreed again, pointing to the door.

“This is fucking ridiculous!” Curtis fumed, stuffing his mounds of books—Tindall and Shi, Zinn, Dictionary, and Thesaurus—into his backpack.

“Yeah, you get mad, Curtis!” Jason guffawed.

“What do you care, you jackass,” Curtis rolled his eyes. But before he hustled out, he stopped. “Chet. You give a damn. You coming? You going to stand for this bullshit?”


“Young man. I will not allow you to incite an insurrection in my classroom.”


I looked at the ground, “I need this class, dude.”

“Forget it,” Curtis walked out, edging along the wall to be as far away from Mr. Northup as possible.


We knew it was all over when we came back second semester and, at Mr. Northup’s podium, stood Principal Sparfeld, at weary attention in his charcoal-colored suit.

Things had been boding badly for Northup for a while. As we were studying for and even taking our final, there were rumors of discord. Gretchen and her parents had filed grievances. Others had too, but we didn’t know whom. We heard she was claiming Northup had leered at her and body-shamed her in front of everyone. Principal Sparfeld initiated inquests. Each of us got called in to give an account of classroom happenings to Sparfeld’s henchmen. And then, the unthinkable happened. Jason Ocampo passed.

The last few days of first semester, Jason prowled the hallways with his grade printout, shoving his C- in people’s faces.

“I passed that shit! Ah ha. Pay up! The dumb kid can be smart too, oh-ho! Truth tastes good, baby.”

Jason even taped a copy of it to Gretchen’s locker with a note ironically asking her to Prom. Since Thad won’t go with you, he wrote.

Everyone suspected Mr. Northup had passed Jason just because he liked him. Because he and the soccer coaches were friends. Because Jason was a “non-traditional” student.

Curtis had gotten an A, not surprisingly. By practicing and taking Northup’s comments to heart, I’d slid through with a B+. The same grade Gretchen Chase had gotten. Gretchen never scored lower than an A. And this fact sealed Mr. Northup’s fate.

Principal Sparfeld didn’t look at us or speak as we filtered in with all the soberness of soldiers about to be briefed on an eminent battle. Sparfeld adjusted his silver-framed bifocals and with strokes of his pen, underlined phrases on the statement before him, printed on letterhead.

The bell rang, and with a look, Principal Sparfeld wrenched me into the gray sea of his eyes into which I knew part of me was about to drown.

“Mr. Northup will not be coming back as your instructor for U.S. history.”

My gut dropped in the way it did after the start of a game—my stomach a cold vacuum of possibility at the center of a field intensifying with movement. Who would take over? Would they be as good? Could we still get AP credit? And what about Mr. Northup? Where would he go? Where was he now? Was it because of me? I swallowed, knowing Principal Sparfeld wouldn’t be answering any of my questions.

I too had gotten called in and questioned by an assistant principal. When asked if Northup had ever done anything disrespectful or unconventional, I was honest about the time he’d taken me out.

“So, he yelled at you?”

“For being racist. And dumb,” I said, hoping honesty would help.

In hindsight, my assertion likely quickened the administration’s proceedings.

Even though Sparfeld wielded more power, the room felt emptier. Plus, Jason was gone. Despite the passing grade, he intuited the unlikelihood of it happening again. Especially with Northup’s ouster.

Principal Sparfeld continued, his voice gravelly. “Over a 3-week inquiry, it was found that Mr. Morrows was unfit to complete his contract. This was deemed based on confirmed bias in instruction and evaluation, lewd conduct, and indoctrination of minors.”

As Principal Sparfeld iterated his verdict, Gretchen rotated her neck as if freed from a yolk.

I wanted to bellpull her ponytail. I wondered if I could make her head clang.

“This is fucked up!” I exploded.

Sparfeld sputtered, “Whu…No! No profanity. Sit down.”

“It’s not worth it, dude,” Curtis said.

“Mr. Northup might have allowed these types of shenanigans…” Sparfled pursued.

“How are you not upset about this?” I asked Curtis.

Sparfeld took a step forward. “Sit down now or you’ll be suspended for the day. Another word and you’ll be suspended for the week!”

I packed up my things.

Sparfeld called Security. “Escort him off campus!”

“Let’s go,” I said to Curtis.


“Fine.” But as I stormed out, I paused. My fists clenched and I felt my disappointment form a string of hateful words. Together they formed an arrow shaft that my mind seized and let fly.

Framed by the door, I turned around, pointed a finger at Gretchen, and shouted, “This is all because of you…you..”

Gretchen turned around, “Me, what? Go ahead. Say it…”

“He will not say anything!” Sparfeld commanded. “He will leave this classroom.”

“Me, fat cow?” Gretchen offered. “Me, slut? Me, trailer trash? Bible thumper? Fascist? I’ve heard it all.”

“I…” Everyone’s eyes were on me. “I think you’re wrong. About everything!”

Gretchen had chestnut brown eyes. Those eyes stared at me sweetly while she told me to eat a dick. Preferably my own. If I could find it.


I replayed the last one-on-one moment I’d had with Mr. Northup. I’d come in during my lunch to finish up my final before leaving for Christmas. It had been snowing. I watched it from Northup’s window. A row of American Hornbeams colonnaded the path down to the field, their bare branches wearing fluffy white coats of new snow, like overdressed parents in line for concert tickets. I handed in my final paper, and thanked him, wishing him a happy holiday.

He’d been eating kimchi and reading Al Franken’s Lies and the Lying Liars that Tell Them. Northup looked up at me with a sleepy, sober expression, as if he were about ready to Rip-Van-Winkle himself through to spring.

“Thank you, Chet,” he said. “I will always remember you as a young man who, despite his station, was open to new ideas.”


After I returned from my week-long suspension, Curtis, Jason, and I met up at lunch.

It was the longest we’d gone without seeing each other since the summer. And everything had changed. I had so many questions for them, so much I wanted to tell them, that my thoughts gridlocked my brain into silence. I think the same things happened for them because five minutes passed in complete silence.

“This is awkward.”

Jason said what we all were thinking. A week’s time had split crevasses among us in the shape of a peace sign. Each of us clung to our own quadrant of land.

Curtis tapped his fingers on the table and looked at me. “You were way out of line with what you said to Gretchen. That’s called blaming the victim, dude.”

“Victim?” I shot back. “What the hell are you talking about? She said he leered at her? Give me a break.”

“He did leer at her, bro. We all were there. We all saw it,” Curtis said.

“I guess I was in a parallel universe then,” I said. “Because I remember him just wanting to read her t-shirt.”

“Where her tits were, guy,” Jason put in.

“He read all our shirts! He read your fucking shirt. FUBU. Remember?”

“He probably just read guys’ t-shirts to distract from his creepin’,” Jason said with a dismissive wave of his hand.

“Like a decoy,” Curtis finished.

I scoffed. “A busy teacher has time to come up with decoys?”

“Creeps are never too busy to come up with decoys. Then that thing he said about her body,” Curtis said.

“What thing?”

Curtis sighed. “He implied that her choice in clothing was one of the downsides of the first amendment.”

“Oh, for fuck’s sake!” I said. “He was talking about what the shirt said. That we can’t have gun control or abortion. Two things you guys want. Two things everybody in their right mind wants! I mean, Jason…”

They shifted in their seats, hoping to wait me out.

“It’s like you guys are forgetting that you both hate Gretchen.”

“Gretchen wasn’t the only one who filed a grievance against Northup,” Curtis said.

“You?” I stammered. “Be…because of the slavery thing?”

“Yeah. Because of the ‘slavery ‘thing,’” Curtis said. “Have a race of landowners and powermongers profit off your ancestors’ unpaid labor for 400 years and tell me it’s just a ‘thing.’ Northup was biased at best, bigoted at worst. So, I told those peckerwoods I thought he had to go. Divide and conquer those bitches just like they do with us. Fight the power!” Curtis said and pumped a fist in the air.

His nostrils flared, his eyes glazed in tears. For years my most vivid memory of Curtis fixated on his anger. Now I know how strong Curtis was for not showing more. The bovine response of white people amid skeletons of oppression is visible to me now, my own included. But then? Sorrow over the loss of my teacher and friends overwhelmed me with a power I couldn’t yet comprehend.

“What about you, dude,” I pointed at Jason. “How can you turn on Northup after all he did for you? I mean, giving you that passing grade…”

“The fuck you talking about?” Jason pulled the lapels on his sports coat. “He didn’t give me shit. That asshole made me work.”

Jason told us how every day the last week of the semester, he had answered Northup’s class-wide invitation for extra help after school and Northup had helped him. Unlike the O’Dea educators who’d just wanted to see him fail. That, it turned out, was why Jason had left. “Fuck those bougie bastards anyway.” In contrast, Northup sat with him, and through his step-by-step guidance, Jason had written a five-paragraph argumentative essay, earning him a C-.

“Northup was a great teacher,” I said as if looking at a cold dead fire.

“It doesn’t change anything,” Curtis said. “He was a dumb, old bigot who liked to stare at girls’ boobs and gloss over this country’s greatest atrocity. And he got what was coming.”

Curtis got up and left.

After a while, I got up too. “Well, I guess I’ll see you at practice.”

Jason shook his head. “My folks say I got to work now. I don’t got time for kid shit no more.”


We didn’t hang out anymore after that.

That spring, I took my disappointment out on the soccer field, running, shoving, and sliding more than any previous season. It got me nothing but yellow cards. But that didn’t stop me that last game from cutting across the field like scissors through Christmas paper. I faked out two defenders and got the ball in range of the net. Beneath the humming white lights of the stadium, out of the corner of my eye, I saw another guy coming at me. I slid to kick the ball into the net as the defender tripped on my knee. I was too busy teeth-gnashing through the pain of my torn ACL to see or hear the smack of the goalie catching my shot, losing us the season.

The pulsating pain eclipsed my whole body. Yet it wasn’t enough. Not enough to win us the season. Not enough to bring Mr. Northup back. Not enough to make things okay with Curtis. Not enough to keep tight with Jason.

I passed Advanced History with an A+. The dufus they brought in to replace Northup just had us watch movies the rest of the year. I read the rest of Zinn and Tindall and Shi and aced the AP exam, bagging college credit and later, helping me get accepted into UW. But at the time, it didn’t seem to matter. I saw life through shit-smeared glasses.

Because of my injury, I had to go to Junior Prom in a wheelchair, alone. For an hour or so, I scooted myself around the dance floor, trying to laugh it all off. But my arms got tired. And so did my face from fake-smiling.

I rolled myself over to the refreshment table to sulk.


It was Gretchen. She was wearing a white gown with a plunging neckline. Heels cupped her surprisingly delicate feet. Her softness… Her fullness…I wanted to lay my head against her and cry.

“Hey,” I croaked.

She’d come alone. She asked about my injury. I told her how they’d put a dead guy’s tendon in me.

“So, you’re basically part zombie now,” she said.

“Not dead, just… broken,” I said.

She nodded and, while playing with a string of blonde hair, frosted and curled into perfection for her night out alone, she asked me to dance. I said yes and she held my hands and pulled me in slow, wide circles around the dance floor in my wheelchair.

We wouldn’t agree with each other on anything. Or even like each other that much when it came down to it. But we were together. And that night, that was enough.



About the Author

Since 2007, Shaun Anthony McMichael has taught writing to students from around the world, in classrooms, juvenile detention halls, mental health treatment centers, and homeless youth drop-ins throughout the Seattle area. He is the editor of The Shadow Beside Me (2020) and The Story of My Heart (2021), anthologies of poetry by youth affected by trauma, mental illness, and instability. Over 80 of his poems, short stories, and reviews have appeared in literary magazines, online, and in print. He lives in Seattle with his wife and son. Visit him at shaunanthonymcmichael.com.


Photo by MChe Lee on Unsplash