Learning Curve

an excerpt

Chapter One

Tony Hart paced past the desks along the side of his classroom, silhouetting himself against the windows. Outside, the sun shone brightly in a cloudless blue sky. He'd noticed on his way to school that it felt warm for mid-March in Minnesota. His students' attention yearned toward those windows like a bunch of winter-sick plants growing toward the light. He figured the best he could do was wander into their field of view now and then.

"Overusing description is a common flaw," he told them. A few students actually nodded. This was his Creative Writing class, and if any group might have their attention on him instead of on visions of skateboards, it would be these kids. "Usually one adjective or adverb is enough, sometimes more than enough. So make it count. Don't use 'nice,' don't use 'pretty,' use words that carry more imagery with them. Call the girl your hero is drooling over 'vivacious' or 'sultry' or 'bubbly.' Or 'saccharine' if you're going to break them up later." A couple of kids laughed. "Not every case of 'He said' needs an adverb. 'He said softly, angrily, loudly, happily.' A lot of times that just slows the reader down."

He noted a furtive movement under Ashley's desk and headed his wandering that way without changing tone. "Of course, there are rare occasions when a string of adjectives or adverbs gives emphasis. For instance, you might have someone who is incessantly, blatantly, obliviously, discourteously..." He reached her row and, with a practiced swoop, lifted her cell phone from her hand. "...texting."

His name on the little screen caught his eye. "Mr. Hart is sooooo cute. I wonder if he'd turn straight for me." His first year teaching, that would have made him blush and break out in a sweat. By now, he just said quietly and without emphasis or explanation, "No." Then added, "Come get it back after class."

He headed back along the windows to his desk and stowed the phone in his drawer, continuing his lecture on clean narrative style by rote. When he shut the drawer he added, "So your assignment for today is to write a long flowery page on any topic. Then go back and do a rewrite. Remove or replace the adjectives and adverbs to use as few of them and as well-chosen as possible. Make it pop, make every word count. Hand in both versions. Forty minutes. Go."

The room quieted as the students bent over their notebooks, some thinking, others diving into scribbling without hesitation. Tony let his gaze wander over them, and was hit by a sudden wave of affection. This was why he was teaching. These were his people, the kids who loved language, loved words. Well, a few of them were here for what they thought would be an easy class with no real exams. Bless their startled little hearts when they found out how much writing they'd be doing instead. But most of these were juniors and seniors who shared Tony's passion for the written word.

They stared down intently, the warm spring outside momentarily eclipsed by the choice of "scintillating" over "sparkling." A few were excellent writers already, honing a craft Tony hoped they'd go on to use all their lives. Writing well was essential in so many professions... Tony couldn't help looking up at the clock on the classroom wall. Ten past ten. Right now, his husband would be in his end-of-disability assessment, finding out whether he could write well enough, speak well enough, to go back to the homicide detective job he loved. These kids had no clue what struggling to find words was really like.

Tony tried to pry his thoughts away from Mac's situation. He'd had to put up a pretty solid mental wall between home and the classroom these last few months, to give his students the attention they deserved. Tony would find out later how Mac's session had gone. In the meantime, there were papers to grade while his students wrestled with adverbs. He opened his drawer to get out a red pen, and noticed the cell phone sitting in there, screen now dark.

His old classroom had been a cell-phone dead zone, but this one wasn't. Mostly he was glad people could get hold of him if he was needed. With two small children, and a husband recovering from being shot in the freaking head, he liked being accessible. But the students' texting and surfing the Web was annoying. And texting about how cute Tony was... He sighed. Just ridiculous.

He was married now. He wore Mac's ring, had a picture of the four of them on his desk. And he still had to deal with student crushes. He didn't get it-he was really pretty ordinary and there were at least two seniors in this class alone who were better-looking-but it happened regularly. He didn't think Ashley's interest was serious. She was prone to giggling and flirty looks, but that was her general response to anyone male. Still, ever since a physics teacher in a neighboring school got fired for having questionable interactions with one of his female students, everyone had become nervous.

He'd return her phone at the end of class with a stern reminder and suitable waving of his wedding ring, and hope that nipped this in the bud. Tony let his gaze wander across the room. Ashley smiled coyly at him, and he gave her a forbidding frown. Definitely in need of reining in. His eyes tracked further, to a dark, close-cropped head bent low over a notebook. There was a potentially bigger problem. Quinn was silent, closed in and aloof. Tony wasn't even a hundred percent certain the boy was gay. But there was an expression he'd caught on Quinn's face once or twice, and the way the boy looked down fast whenever their eyes met, that made Tony wonder.

It was so damned frustrating to have to be careful. The flurry of advisory emails they'd received after the physics teacher incident had been ridiculous. Don't touch anyone, don't even pat students on the back or shoulder. Don't allow students to use your first name. Always have the door open during one-on-one conferences with students of the opposite sex. A little narrow-minded, that one. No doubt a students of any gender correction would show up soon.

If any kid needed someone to talk to, Tony was betting it was Quinn. He was tall, skinny, and awkward. His nickname was Q-tip, used so routinely Tony rarely heard his real name. He'd recently shaved his floppy dark hair to stubble, but it hadn't put a stop to that.

Tony had a suspicion name-calling wasn't all that was happening. More than once he thought he'd seen a bruise on the boy's arm or cheek. But it wasn't blatant, and Quinn had backed away fast from any question about bullying. Tony hadn't even come close to opening the touchier possibility of abuse. At Tony's first tentative words, Quinn would claim to be fine, blush hard, and walk away hurriedly, or hide his face in his work. In a perfect world Tony could ask Quinn to drop by after school, just for a friendly chat. Get to know him, build a rapport, and then ask again. Probably not a good idea in the current climate, though. Tony hated to think that stupid rules and directives were making him give students less than his best.

He pulled out some book quizzes from last class, and tried to focus on grading them. His concentration was for shit lately.

The clock ticked through the hour. By now, Mac would surely have received the psychiatrist's assessment. Tony was so torn between hoping Mac would pass and hoping he would fail, that he felt queasy.

What was worse? A Mac who felt broken, felt less than whole? Or a Mac back out on the mean streets where he might end up really dead? Tony was actually hoping for more time-a delay for more healing, more hope and progress, but without having to actually say, Yes. Go be a cop again. But was even that a betrayal of his husband? Tony rubbed his forehead peevishly, and stuffed his papers back in the drawer. At this rate, he'd fail every last one of them, and they didn't really deserve that. Not even the kid who referred to Holden Caulfield as a girl throughout his paper. Well, maybe just that one.

Tony got up and stalked around the room, making his students nervous by peering over their shoulders. He laughed softly at Sophie's image of an interstellar bar. Nice work. She looked up at him, and drew a line through the word "noisy." With a smart-ass grin, she changed it to "cacophonous." He muttered, "Show-off," very softly. Sophie could take a joke as well as hand one out.

Eventually he ended up behind Quinn. The paragraphs on the page were both short. Tony glanced at the first one. "The big, hard, heavy fist landed..." Quinn bent lower, hunched over his writing, and Tony backed off. He'd see the result later anyway. He noticed a new bruise on the back of Quinn's neck. To hell with the regulations. Tony would read this assignment, see if it sounded like just fiction or like clues to the boy's life, and then he was going to have a talk with Quinn. And definitely behind closed doors. The school board could just fire his ass if they didn't like it.