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To Write a Paragraph

by Joan L. Cannon

Looking back on that day, I have a mental grab-bag of mixed recollections, none of which I should probably trust, but which won't leave my memory.

At least it wasn't one of those public high school classes restricted in size only by regulations. There were no more than fifteen of them. It was a relief to see how few faces were turned toward me as I made my way to the front of the classroom. It was not so great a comfort to count those that weren't.

I felt the way I remembered on the day of those dreaded oral comprehensives. The silence was, as they say, deafening. That was when I noticed that every one of those faces belonged to a boy or to be more accurate to a young man. It was a small, special class of senior boys with an assortment of various handicaps, none physical, taking place at the end of a school year. For the first time, I seriously questioned what in the world I was doing there.

Eventually, or so it seemed, the three heads I'd noticed did turn to give me the once-over. In those days, shoulder length hair was common and could be viewed a bit like the yellow star of wartime Europe. It advertised the allegiance of its wearers, and no one would be likely to miss the implications. There were two conventional haircuts in the room, and the rest flowed in varying degrees down towards the shoulders, which were clad primarily in cotton knit or denim. A quick glance at the rest of their attire revealed two pairs of pressed khakis, and the remainder were faded blue denim. I think the khakis were worn by the two with conventional haircuts.

One of the boys, I'd been told, was President of the Student Council. I knew a little about him, thanks to the Guidance Department, but not much. He was considered to be intelligent and rebellious, the son of a successful cartoonist. His greenish eyes suggested the disinterest of some kind of reptile.

Alone in a row next to the wall away from the window, I saw an equally cold pair of light blue eyes, startling under arched black brows and ringed by improbably long black lashes. His skin was flushed at the cheeks, his lips quite red, and his hair would have been the despair of almost any female. Almost black, glossy, deeply wavy, clinging to the shape of his skull and ending in a series of arabesques just above his shoulders, it was the perfect coiffure for someone in a shampoo commercial. I can remember few details about the others' appearances. The second short-haired one remained an irritable and irritating adversary until graduation day. I'll call him Tom.

At this distance, details of that and subsequent meetings have mostly faded in my mind with a few exceptions. As I had been instructed, on that first day, I greeted them, spoke my name, and then turned to write it on the black board, and tried to introduce the lesson suggested by my sympathetic and long-experienced department head.

These formalities were greeted by blank stares from everyone until I paused an instant too long, and Tom asked an insolent question with a clear expectation of receiving no answer, and the equally clear hope of a reprimand. In the momentary dead air after he finished speaking, while I tried to marshal my defenses, the Student Council President turned to the lad and said, "Keep quiet. Let her finish."

I don't know who was more surprised, the heckler or me. The expression on my champion's face telegraphed as clearly as if he had spoken it aloud: he was in charge and was going to give me a chance, but I better not blow it.

That was how I weathered that first week — on a kind sufferance thanks to the interference of real authority. Also, thanks to the help I'd received from dear Mrs. H, we began to stagger forward. The group, special cases that they were supposed to be, turned out to be to a man intelligent, perceptive, and with no exceptions, challengers. They viewed that class, and, I think, the world at large as trials to be endured, but never without resistance.

It took about five minutes to perceive that the only way they would learn anything was if they found it in some way worth their time and attention. It took about ten minutes to figure out that they would listen, however, to positions in opposition to their own if they knew for sure that I, as representative of the establishment, respected the positions they defended.

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