For the first few weeks after he left the department, Roland Pryzbylewski didn't have a clue what he was going to do next. It wasn't exactly a new feeling--he'd spent most of his time as a police feeling just as clueless--but that didn't make it any easier when his wife stared at him with the You Let Me Down Again expression he knew so well. He remembered the flash of insight he'd felt when he'd figured out the pager codes, the joy of reorganizing the docks case to the sounds of Johnny Cash, the looks of appreciation the rest of the squad gave him when they saw his handiwork. He hoped he'd feel something like that again--even a hint of it, something to tell him which direction to go--but there was nothing.
He fell into the accelerated teaching program without ever feeling like he'd made the decision to do it, to become a teacher. He didn't feel like he'd made any decision, really, but that was nothing new, either. Ending up on the Barksdale wire case wasn't anything he'd decided on, either, and that had turned out good, for the most part. Too bad he'd fucked it up in the end.
The Baltimore school system was so desperate for teachers, especially in math, especially in the middle schools, that merely expressing an ambivalent semi-interest was enough to get him in the program. Once his advisor found out his background, she and her colleagues were even more enthusiastic. He could see their eyes light up at the idea of having a former cop in their schools. Surely, he knew they were thinking, surely this is someone who can handle the inner city youth. Roland wasn't going to argue with them, not when they were paying for him to pursue a new career, but he had his doubts. It couldn't be any harder than working as a beat cop--but it's not like he'd been any good at that, either.
Walking a beat wasn't easy, but teaching turned out to be much, much harder. He spent his first weeks at Tilghman Middle thinking about quitting every minute of every day. After his first humiliating day he was this close to just not going in to work, but he couldn't face the thought of Sunday dinner at his in-laws if he fucked up one more career. The summer had been bad enough, his head filled with educational theory and his father-in-law pointedly avoiding any mention of the department.
There were two students who made an impression that first day: Randy Wagstaff, who introduced himself and shook his hand, and Duquan Weems, who was silent and smelled bad, yet neatly wrote out the answer to the problem Roland had tried and failed to teach the rest of the class. The next day, Duquan, still silent, sat next to Laetitia after she'd sliced Chiquan's cheek open, holding a battery-operated fan up to her face. Roland, standing frozen in the front of the room, wondered how this kid could have more of an idea what to do than he ever could. Then again, responding to a tense situation had never been his strong suit--at least this time he'd managed not to make it worse.
He slumped in his recliner that weekend, obsessing over what to say to the kids in his first period, but in the end it didn't seem to matter. The kids weren't interested in what he had to say, just interested in his previous career, and they were only using that as a way to distract him. It worked--it nearly always worked, those first few weeks. He knew he was letting them walk all over him, but he didn't know what else to do. The reward and punishment system he worked out for his second week didn't work, either, especially not where Namond Brice was concerned.
It got easier when Bunny Colvin's pilot program took Namond, Albert, and Zenobia out of his class. He felt mildly guilty about that at first, but once he realized how much more energy he had for teaching when he wasn't trying to control the chaos they generated, he forgot about it.
Things finally changed for the better the week he caught some of the kids playing cards and jumped on the opportunity to teach probability. Teaching was still the most difficult thing he'd ever done, but at least now he could see his way towards making a difference with these kids--his kids, as he was beginning to think of them.
The best thing about his class was the one student he felt confident he really was helping--Duquan, who was blossoming before his eyes. The first time the kid said a word, it was to thank him for half a sandwich. The first time Roland saw him smile, when he got the computer set up, it was like the sun had come out. Amazing what clean clothes, regular food, and a little attention could do. Roland only wished he could have half--even one-tenth--the impact on some of his other students.
Then it all went to shit. It shouldn't have surprised him. Bosses were bosses everywhere, and Marcia Donnelly was his boss. If she said Duquan was going to high school, there was nothing he could do about it. He tried, but he failed.
He knew he should listen to his vice principal when she told him to let it go, to let Duquan go. He knew she was right when she said there would always be another Duquan. She was probably right when she told him to concentrate on having kids of his own, too, although she couldn't have known how hard they were trying already.
Roland told himself he'd done what he could, done enough--no one would fault him for not doing more. His boss had told him to let it go. Still, when Duquan presented him with a gift, he knew he'd failed again. There was only one way Duquan had gotten the money to buy him a present, and the lie that he'd left his school bag at home was transparent to both of them.
He could have done something then, something more. That's what haunts him to this day. He could have pulled Duquan into the school with him, found the social worker, found some way to bring the boy back from wherever he'd gone. But he didn't. "That's great, Duquan. Thanks," he'd said, holding the pen set, knowing how weak it sounded. "Stop past any time," he'd added lamely, and then he'd let him leave. The next time he'd seen Duquan, he'd been working a corner, shoulders slumped, that dull expression back on his face. That hadn't surprised Roland, not really, but it still felt like a punch in the gut.
Roland Pryzbylewski has been a teacher at Tilghman Middle for six years now. The first year, he had a boy named Duquan Weems in his class, along with Randy Wagstaff, Michael Lee, and, at both the beginning and end of the year, Namond Brice. Roland focused mostly on Duquan that first year. The second year, Lashonda Pierce was the one who caught his attention. The third year, it was a pair of twins, Keith and Kevin Foster. It turned out Marcia Donnelly was right about one thing--there was always another one to tear his heart out.
Namond's starting at the University of Maryland this fall. Randy made it through high school as well, no thanks to the group home he was stuck in for the six months before his foster mother was well enough to take him back. Carver keeps up with the kid and says he plans to try for City College once he saves up some money.
Michael Lee is doing fifteen in Jessop for the murder of Duquan Weems. One of Roland's students from his fifth year testified against him--Michael's younger brother David, who still answers to "Bug" more often than his given name.
After five years at Tilghman, Roland got tenure; he figured he didn't need to listen to Marcia Donnelly's advice anymore, not when it came to David Lee. Bug lives with him and his wife now.