“Hey, Jeremy, I didn’t see you there,” Mr. Ripley said when he glanced up from the papers he was grading.
Jeremy had been quietly hanging in the doorway to the classroom for a few moments, just watching Mr. Ripley scribble down grades and sidenotes paper after paper. Now that the teacher was aware of his presence, Jeremy shrunk back slightly so that only half of his face was visible past the threshold.
“Is everything alright?” Mr. Ripley asked when Jeremy shied away. Jeremy didn’t respond, which he sort of half expected, so he softened his tone a bit more. “You want to come sit down and talk about it?”
Wordlessly, Jeremy walked into the room timidly towards the man sitting behind the desk. Jeremy had been coming to this school for awhile now, long enough to where he became more comfortable around Mr. Ripley, which is why the man was so puzzled by the boy’s cautious behavior. Something was definitely wrong with the kid and he planned to get to the bottom of it. Jeremy took the seat that Mr. Ripley had so graciously pulled out for him.
“Did something happen at the home? Did one of the boys hurt you again?” Mr. Ripley questioned softly, pushing his papers aside to show Jeremy that he had his undivided attention.
“It’s not that,” Jeremy replied quietly, hanging his head down as if he’s too bashful to give a straight answer.
“Whatever it is, you can tell me,” Mr. Ripley told him, reaching out to lay a comforting hand on Jeremy’s knee. “You don’t have to be afraid.”
“I don’t know if it’s appropriate,” Jeremy said, picking at a thread on his sleeve, not meeting Mr. Ripley’s gaze.
“It’s just between the two of us. You can say anything you want in here,” Mr. Ripley told him, hoping he sounded reassuring enough to convince the pale boy.
“It’s kind of embarrassing,” Jeremy admitted, looking up at Mr. Ripley bashfully.
Mr. Ripley thought he saw a hint of a blush break out over Jeremy’s cheeks, something he’s never seen happen before. To be honest Mr. Ripley never thought it was possible for Jeremy to blush visibly, on account of how pale he was, but here the boy was proving him wrong once again. The wonders never cease with Jeremy.
“You don’t have to be embarrassed. It’s just me, okay?”
Jeremy considered this for a moment, watching the subtle changes in his teacher’s face. Mr. Ripley was a good man, one of the very few people he trusted aside from Ms. Caldwell, and all he could read in the man’s face was concern and compassion. Mr. Ripley patted him on the knee and Jeremy caved.
“Do you ever get urges?” Jeremy asked cryptically. He saw the way Mr. Ripley furrowed his brows and reiterated his question. “Like, do you ever like something you know you shouldn’t? Something that’s wrong?”
“Do you mean like, indulging in a bad habit?” Mr. Ripley asked softly, trying to decipher the war raging in Jeremy’s head.
“Kind of,” Jeremy agreed timidly, shoulders sloping down. He might as well just spit it out. “I think I like one of the boys at the home.”
“And you think that’s wrong?” Mr. Ripley inquired with a careful tone.
“The other boys… they say it’s repulsive. Impure.”
“But do you think it’s impure?” Mr. Ripley responded, using a gentle tone.
“I don’t know,” Jeremy mumbled with a shrug, looking down at his lap. He had his hands folded on his legs and his thumbs were fidgeting nervously. “I don’t care what the other boys think. Not really, anyway… I just wish it wasn’t such a big deal, you know? People already think I'm a freak.”
“There’s nothing wrong with the way you are, Jeremy,” Mr. Ripley encouraged, grasping the boy’s hands in his own in an intimate gesture. “How you feel is completely normal at your age. It’s scary and confusing, but it’s not wrong. It’s as natural as the electric impulses we give off and receive constantly.”
Jeremy mulled this over, a smidgen of doubt gracing his face, but otherwise nodded slowly. Mr. Ripley offered a small smile and reached a hand out to cup the side of Jeremy’s face, noticing a faint warming glow to it. He raised Jeremy’s gaze up to his by coaxing the boy’s chin up gently. They stared at each other for a long moment and Mr. Ripley thought he saw a glimmer of relief in the boy’s eyes. Like all Jeremy needed to hear was that he wasn’t wrong and that he wasn’t sick.
“May I ask who it is you have a crush on?” Mr. Ripley implored, lightening the mood as Jeremy blushed at the question. This made Mr. Ripley grin widely.
“Mitch,” Jeremy revealed, darting his eyes away from his teacher. “He’s the blonde boy that hangs around John. He’s a lot nicer than the other guys. He doesn’t tease me like John does. Even sticks up for me sometimes.”
“Maybe he likes you too,” Mr. Ripley offered hopefully, getting Jeremy to smile shyly. “Could be why he defends you from his friends.”
“Even if that were true, we could never be together,” Jeremy huffed, not daring to get his hopes up. “John would kill him, and then me.”
“Yeah, well, that’s none of John’s business, is it?” Mr. Ripley commented, boosting Jeremy’s spirits with positive reinforcement. “Come here.”
The teacher beckoned his student over with open arms and wrapped them around him securely as if silently telling the kid that this was a safe place. This was okay. Jeremy timidly hugged Mr. Ripley back and burrowed his face in his teacher’s chest. It was the first time in a long while that Jeremy felt secure and loved and he appreciated how much Mr. Ripley was willing to do in order to defend him for who he is.
“You’re such a good kid, Jeremy,” Mr. Ripley murmured, cradling Jeremy’s head with one hand as the other rubbed soothingly at the boy’s back. “So bright, so misunderstood… Don’t let anybody ever tell you you’re not good enough.”
Mr. Ripley consoled the boy in his arms in a reassuring manner, making sure Jeremy knew he was loved and supported. Mr. Ripley bent his head down slightly and pressed a lingering kiss on the top of Jeremy’s smooth head, closing his eyes as he willed all of his emotions to seep through on this one gesture. He could hear Jeremy sigh with content and even felt the kid’s arms tighten around him as if to say he didn’t want Mr. Ripley to stop.
“Thank you, Mr. Ripley,” Jeremy croaked into the front of his teacher’s shirt.
It would be a while until Jeremy finally felt ready enough to let go.