Copyright © 2016
by David Lee
by David Lee
As a first-year teacher, Michael Bartacek had no illusions of being hired by a big city high school. He would need experience before that could happen. Currently, there were more certified teachers in the state than there were openings. In fact, there had been several other qualified people vying for the position he'd secured at Franklin High in this small, conservative community in the western part of the state.
The job was by no means a plum just waiting to be picked. In fact, the student body was made up mostly of kids who were eligible for the free and reduced meal program. Many of them ranked in the 50th percentile or below on standardized tests. While being poor doesn't necessarily mean those kids weren't smart, there is a definite correlation between poverty and achievement. It's a bigger factor than race or ethnic background. Getting these kids interested in learning anything could be a challenge.
Besides teaching American History and World Studies, Michael was expected to coach the newly organized track team. Perhaps "organized" wasn't the best term to describe the motley group of boys who had elected to participate.
The school district was desperately underfunded, and didn't have the money to pay for the equipment and facilities that many organized athletic endeavors require. There was no football or basketball program. Their competitive sports included only wrestling and running for the boys, and softball and track for the girls. None of those required a big outlay for gear — a few mats or balls, and uniforms would pretty well cover it.
Michael's experience in working with inner-city kids the past summers had given him a leg-up on the other applicants. He knew how to inspire boys who were disadvantaged, and he knew how to make-do. The people he'd worked with in Chicago had joked that he could squeeze a nickel until the buffalo shit!
Ralph Prentice, the principal, had hired Coach Bartacek for a number of reasons, but particularly because of his athletic background. Although he was an intelligent young man who had maintained good grades in all of his college classes, the factors that set him apart from the many applicants for this job were his achievements as a high school and college track star. The administration felt he was someone the boys would look up to.
Michael cared about his students in the classroom as well as out on the track. He was young, idealistic, and enthusiastic; and he wanted all of them to succeed. He was touched by their triumphs and defeats almost as if they were his own. The kids who got to him the most were those who seemed to be carrying additional burdens. They reminded him of his life growing up in a single-parent home without a father and without much in the way of material comforts, and he hated to see anyone else in that plight. At least he'd had love, and as much attention as his mother could give him when she wasn't working at one of her several jobs. It seemed like that component was missing for a number of his young charges. Perhaps he could be the male role model some of them needed, just as his coaches had been for him.
In addition to his achievements and his empathy, Michael had other qualities that made him popular with his colleagues and students alike. He was personable and handsome. His sire may have been out of the picture before he had any conscious memory of the man, but that father had passed along good genes - a great body, blue eyes, and blond hair. Of course, Michael was responsible for developing that body, and wearing his hair in a contemporary, flattering style.
Michael started off in the fall with cross-country practice. The school hadn't competed with other schools in several years, and they wouldn't attempt that until the second semester. However, if he got them in the habit of running regularly, they might be ready to compete in the spring.
He got together with Tom Brems, who coached wrestling, and the two of them set up a four-day per week schedule to oversee the weight room. They both felt it was a way for their athletes to gain strength for competition.
They opened it to anyone, boy or girl, who had passed a physical for sports. After a couple of weeks, the room became a spot where a growing number of kids hung out. It became the popular place to be.
Doubtless, there were those who attended in order to meet someone of the opposite sex, but the coaches made sure that muscle and strength building weren't neglected in the pursuit of social connections.
Either way, it was a wholesome environment for kids to be in.
After sniffing the aroma of the weight room one afternoon, Coach Bartacek thought of another way to boost self-esteem among his students, and aid their social acceptability at the same time. One of the things his mentors had done for him in high school was to teach him about hygiene. He remembered being both embarrassed and grateful when Coach Weld had taught him the importance of taking frequent showers and using deodorant.
Realizing that the young teens he was around could benefit from similar advice, he contacted the Gillette company about receiving samples of their underarm products. The company's PR person responded by sending kits, which included razors and shaving cream as well, for all the students, boys and girls, to be distributed for free. It was a good method to get kids interested in using their products, possibly for the rest of their lives, and the cost could be written off as advertising.
Michael talked to Mr. Prentice about having them handed out in gym classes, since most students were required to take PE. Anyone who might be excused from gym was invited to pick up their samples from the attendance office. Probably no one would pass up something which was free.
Mr. Prentice was very pleased with Michael's ability to solve a problem that had concerned him for several years. He had never been sure how to upgrade the general atmosphere of the school without embarrassing the kids. One of the PE classes was supposed to address such issues, but the teacher, Bill Walker, had basically ignored that part of it, simply letting the kids play at whatever sport was in season, instead of teaching anything. The man was lazy, but tenured, and there was little to be done about it.
Fall passed rapidly for Michael. Probably because he was always busy with school. New teachers didn't have a wealth of study guides and projects from years gone by to fall back on, and so, had to develop them a step ahead of the students.
Of course, the weight room and running practices took a lot of his spare time too.
He didn't have much of a life outside of school. He wasn't dating anyone. He had a tiny, furnished apartment over the back of the hardware store, which required a minimum of maintenance. He had no family nearby to invite him for the occasional dinner.
For Christmas break, Michael drove a hundred miles across the state to be with his mother, stepfather, and little half-brother. His mom had remarried when he was in college, and her husband was a really nice guy. While Michael didn't really view him as a father figure, he certainly appreciated the comfortable new life their union had given to his mother.
Little Noah was a joy too. When Michael came home, it was almost like Noah was his son. The three-year-old followed him around like a puppy. It made him sad to think he might never have a kid like that of his own.
In talking to his mother about the house he'd grown up in, he found out that she still owned it.
"When Phil and I built our current home during the housing slump, the old one wouldn't have sold for enough money to matter. So, we decided to rent it out to students. We hoped that someday you'd move back to the area and might want to live in it."
Their thoughtfulness brought him a sense of joy. Despite knowing the real him, they cared.
"Who knows, I might do that someday."
He spent a couple of days between Christmas and New Years in Chicago with a friend from college. Jonah was quite pleased to see him, but Jonah's boyfriend, Clive, seemed cold and distant. Michael suspected that the man was insecure. He came very close to telling Clive to stop obsessing and chill-out. He had no intension of coming between them. If Clive knew what he did about Jonah, he probably wouldn't be interested either!
Being gone from the classroom for a week and a half was long enough to rejuvenate the staff at Franklin. When school started up again in early January, one student had left the state, but there were a couple of new students who had transferred in.
The new student who tugged at his heartstrings the most was a boy named Jose Gutierrez, or Joe, as he wished to be called when someone took the time to ask. In the midst of his junior year, he was now living with his grandmother in a little place within walking distance of Franklin.
The boy was very good looking with piercing dark eyes, and a long, lean body. His genetic makeup gave him a glow and coloration that looked like a perpetual tan. One would have thought he'd have been popular among his peers, especially the girls. However, he kept very much to himself, more asocial than antisocial. His teachers all appreciated his polite manner and great work ethic. He seemed to be intelligent, but it was difficult to draw him into class discussions. He appeared to be terribly shy — a loner who blended into the woodwork.
Joe often seemed melancholy; his facial expressions ranged from looking anxious to being downright sad. The only time he seemed carefree was when he was running laps in the gym or outside, as weather condition permitted.
Coach Bartacek's philosophy of sports, as has been noted, was that it could be fundamental to boys' development in positive ways - to gain the self-confidence, to become higher achievers, and to be generally happier in life. Joe, in particular, could benefit.
Joe gave him a new impetus to build a competitive track team from the diverse assortment of boys under his direction. It would become his mission that year.
He got them started on spring training as soon as the ground was firm enough for running. He pushed them hard, but gave them plenty of praise for their efforts in return. At the end of a typical practice, they'd be tired, but would be walking with more confidence because of what they'd achieved. After a shower, and an application of their new deodorant, they felt even better about themselves.
In a few weeks, they would get to see how their efforts paid off.
By the time they'd participated in their second spring meet, which they hosted, the kids were functioning like a cohesive unit; as if they'd been training together for a long time. Other schools hadn't paid any attention to them because they were basically an unknown entity.
Franklin High had almost literally blown away their competition on that fateful day. The boys were elated!
Coach Bartacek strode into the locker room with the intention of settling down his exuberant team. He didn't want to quell their spirits, but thought it best to make sure no one got injured as a result of their victory celebration.
He remembered well the towel-snapping and grab-ass horse play from his own high school years which weren't that far in the past. He also recalled how Coach Weld had gotten into hot water with school officials when one of the boys needed several stitches as the result of slipping on a wet floor and hitting his forehead on a bench as he tried to avoid the sting of a towel aimed at his bare butt.
The Franklin team eventually calmed down as they showered and dressed. When they left, they were still smiling.
Joe was the last one there, having only put on his underwear and a pair of shorts by the time the locker room was empty. Despite his triumph as part of the relay team, he seemed withdrawn, almost morose. Michael tried to lighten his mood with a bit of banter.
"Hey Joe, what's with the long face? You kicked serious butt out there today!" Michael said cheerily. "You oughta be on cloud nine!"
"It's bad. Mom's muscular dystrophy has gotten a lot worse, and she doesn't have long to live, if anyone cares!" Jose blurted out, averting his gaze.
"Sorry, I didn't know! I didn't mean to touch a raw nerve. Sometimes I run my mouth without thinking. I CARE! Settling into a new high school is tough enough without a tragedy like that."
"I'm sorry too, I shouldn't have snapped at you." Joe said, contritely. "It's not like me, but I don't have anyone to talk to. I don't want to make Grandma feel worse. It's just so hard sometimes…"
The boy turned away, hoping to mask his feelings and maintain his composure, but his efforts didn't dissuade his coach from tying to comfort him.
When Michael put a hand on Joe's shoulder, the boy stiffened for a second and then turned around and clung to the man as if he were in the middle of a lake and in danger of going down for the third time. The gentle touch seemed to have shattered a levee which had long held back a flood of grief. While the boy sobbed, Michael rubbed his bare back without uttering a word. He simply didn't know anything to say that would ease the kid's pain. He hoped that his gesture of caring would come through in a non-verbal way.
As the waterworks began to diminish, Michael became aware that his body was responding to the presence of the boy in his arms in a way that he hadn't intended, and couldn't seem to control. He wondered if Joe was conscious of the swelling mound in his coaches' shorts.
"I-I'm sorry I invaded your space," Michael said shakily as he pulled away. "That was unprofessional of me."
"I'm the one who got into your space." Joe replied. "It was what I needed, and it felt awesome! Thanks for understanding; you really do care."
Michael swallowed and nodded. He did care about this young man, more than he was ready to admit.
From that day on, a special bond began to develop between the teen and his coach. In Michael's American history class, Joe began to participate regularly in discussions, sometimes to the point of sharing enlightened connections that many other kids didn't seem to notice on their own.
He came out of his shell in other classes too; and, as a result, began to make a few friends. He seemed to be changing before everyone's eyes. Time-lapse photography might have captured the transformation like the beauty of a rose bud opening to full bloom.
Joe got into the habit of hanging around the locker room, or Michael's classroom after school. He confided things that he might not have felt comfortable sharing with anyone else. For instance, like many teens, he expressed dissatisfaction with his body, and his looks in general. His feet were too big, he was too skinny, and he couldn't bulk-up no matter what he ate.
It was obvious to Michael that Joe had a distorted view of himself. He was handsome, if a bit lanky. His build was perfect for a runner or a swimmer. Also, he was young enough that he would continue to fill out. If that weren't sufficient cause to make him appealing, his full rosy lips and the long eyelashes which framed his brown eyes were the kind any girl would kill for!
One day in the locker room, Michael tried to change the way Joe saw himself.
"Come over here and look into this mirror. Notice this good-looking guy who has a handsome face and a great body. Smile at him, and watch him smile back."
Joe grinned at Michael's assessment of him and he seemed to bask in warmth of Michael's compliments. Maybe he wasn't an ugly duckling after all.
Joe's mother died about three weeks before the end of spring semester. The funeral was to be held at 11:00 a.m. on Saturday in the town where he'd spent his life until his recent move. It was over 100 miles away and he despaired that he might not get there when his grandmother's old car broke down on Thursday, two days before they were to go. In a small town, the odds of having it repaired in time were slim to none. Besides, Grandma Maria wasn't sure she could scrape up the money on short notice to have it fixed.
If the funeral were taking place in a town within a 30-mile radius, countless people would have volunteered to drive them, but many of their friends either had jobs on the weekend, or had vehicles that weren't dependable enough to chance a longer trip.
When Michael learned of their predicament, he offered to take Joe and his grandmother to the service since he was free because there wasn't a track meet that weekend.
The trip would take nearly two hours because of the narrow winding roads they had to traverse, so they left at 8:00 a.m. in order to arrive in time for the visitation which preceded the service.
Maria insisted on riding in the back seat of the SUV because "the men" should sit together. Joe loved being referred to as a ‘man' ahead of his 17th birthday. Because of the emotional connection he had made with Michael, he wanted to be close to him throughout the whole ordeal.
Michael felt it might look out of place for him to be seated with the family, but Maria said that she would introduce him as her neighbor who had been kind enough to drive them. That would be a sufficient reason.
Joe, Maria, and Joe's other grandma, Isabel, greeted the friends who had come to pay their respects. Michael was introduced to them as a good friend.
When there was a lull, Joe and Isabel excused themselves to take a restroom break. Maria took the opportunity to speak privately with Michael.
"Thanks for being here today. Jose really needs you. He was emotionally lost until track season, and you took him under your wing. Since then, you are all he talks about. To be honest, I think he has a crush on you. I hope that you'll be gentle when the time comes to tell him you can't return his affection — unless you have the same feelings about him."
Michael was surprised by her candor, but responded without hesitation.
"I feel very close to Joe, and I would never intentionally hurt him."
"His father, my son, abused him for years."
"Damn! I've never noticed any marks or scars on his body."
"It wasn't physical or sexual, but verbal. Jose tried his best to make everyone proud, but it was never enough for Enrico. I think Jose has always had a problem with self-esteem because of that. That's why it's especially good for him to have another male like you to connect with — like an older brother who can give him the love that he's missed out on."
Michael pondered her words. She'd talked about affection and even love between her grandson and him. Did she recognize how much he cared for the young man? At least she didn't seem to disapprove of their emotional relationship. He wondered how she would react if it were to become physical.
A week before school let out for the summer, an announcement came over the PA system saying that Coach Bartacek was offering to sponsor a bicycling club in the summer for all interested students — boys and girls. Besides their bikes, they would need to have helmets and would be expected to attend a class on safety before they could join. In addition, a parent or guardian needed to sign a consent form, absolving the district of any culpability in case of an accident. Their physicals for sports would still be in effect to cover the medical liability.
At the inquiry meeting, about 20 students showed up. Michael was pleased with the turnout. It would be a challenge to ride herd on that many kids when cycling, but it was unlikely that all would join, or stick with it for a prolonged period of time.
Joe was there, and hung around afterward to talk, as he often did.
"I'm not sure if I'll be able to join you. Grandma promised me a bike for my birthday, but that's late in August. Maybe she'd consider giving it to me early. I can kick in a little money that I've saved up, but I don't have enough to pay for it — even if it's a used one. I'm in one of those situations that I think they call a ‘catch 22.' I need the job I've been offered doing chores, like hoeing weeds and stuff, at an organic farm so I can make money to buy a bike, but I need the bike for transportation to get to the job.
Grandma's giving me a ride out there tonight to help replant an area that got washed out, but she can't always do that because of the kids she watches."
"Let's hope your grandmother can come up with it. I'd hate to see you miss out."
Michael waited until he figured there had been time for Maria to take Joe to his destination and come home again. Then he made a quick trip to her house.
"Mrs. Gutierrez, may I have a minute of your time."
"My dear boy, please call me Maria. You are always welcome to as much of my time as you need."
"Thanks, Maria! I have a proposal. Joe very much wants to be in the biking club, and he needs transportation to work for Mr. Johnson on the farm. Is there any way he can get his birthday present a few months early?"
"I was planning for that before my car broke down. I had to use the money for repairs and now I have only about $50 set aside for it."
"Well, here's my plan. The Target store over in Springfield has one on sale for $110. It's very much like the one I have, so I know it's pretty reliable; maybe a little heavy for long road-trips, but not bad. I'd like to give you a hundred dollars toward it. Combined with what you've saved, he could get it, the helmet he'd need, and possibly a light so he'd be safer in the dark. My only stipulation is that no one is to know where the money came from. I can't afford to treat all of my students the same. If I give this to him, some people would assume that I was trying to buy his affection. There might be a scandal, and I could lose my license if people thought that I was plying him with gifts."
"Even if you were doing that, he's almost 17. Sixteen is the age of consent for boys in this state."
"Since I'm in a position of authority over him, it would still be illegal even if he were 18."
"Oh, I didn't know. I wouldn't want you to be in trouble. Anyway, that's really a lot of money. I'm sure you have student loans to pay off."
"My coaching contract covers my loan payments with cash to spare. Since I live in that tiny apartment and have no family, my expenses aren't too great. I really want to do this for Joe. Someone did that for me when I was his age. I'm pretty sure it was my coach, but I can't prove it. Anyway, I want to pay it forward."
"In that case, I'll try to go to Springfield and back before I have to pick him up. He will be thrilled!"
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