Mark found several of his first period students waiting outside his classroom door. They filed in quietly when he unlocked it, and solemnly took their seats. Equally quiet teenagers continued to drift in as it got closer to time for the bell to ring. There was some very muted whispering in the back of the room, and a lot of staring at him, particularly at his left hand.
He studied them surreptitiously until the bell rang, and finally he sighed and stood up, leaning against his desk. There was no way their minds were on Biology. Well, not on learning biology, anyway.
"I see we aren't going to get much done until we get this out of the way," he said, frowning. "Very well. I'll answer a few questions -- respectful questions."
A girl in the front row raised her hand timidly. Beth had been shy and flustered around him the entire year, and now her eyes were puffy, like she'd been crying.
"Yes?" he asked gently.
"Did you and Kristen really get married? I mean, like, really?"
He nodded. "Yes, we did."
"When's the baby due?" That comment came from the back of the room, and sounded like Karen, an acerbic blonde whose efforts to entice Mark with her well-padded bosom had gotten blatant enough, recently, that even he had found them obvious.
His eyes narrowed, but he laughed. "What baby?"
"Oh come on! Everybody knows she's got to be pregnant. How else would she get you to marry her? You might as well admit it; everyone'll be able to see in just a few months."
It wasn't entirely out of character. The girl was known for her lack of tact. But it was really pushing the envelope of what most students would be comfortable saying to a teacher, even a young, informal teacher like Mark. Several of the other students were staring at her like she'd lost her mind, but a couple were nodding their heads and glancing at him guiltily.
"Sorry to disappoint you," he said with a tight smile. "She's not pregnant."
Karen snorted. "Yeah. Right. As skinny as she is, she'll probably be showing any time now."
"Karen, you are disappointingly cynical for someone your age," he said. "I married her because I love her, not for any other reason. Don't you believe in love?"
The girl's eyes flashed angrily. "You really expect us to believe you love her?" She sneered. "When everyone knows sh-- mmf!" Her best friend, seated behind her, had leaned forward and clamped her hand firmly over Karen's mouth and was hissing frantically in her ear.
"No, no, I want to hear what she has to say, Chastity," Mark said, drumming his fingers on the front of his desk. "When everyone knows what, exactly?"
Chastity gave him a pleading look, her face flushed with embarrassment. "Mr. H, she's just talking out her ass. Don't worry about it, please."
"Oh, I know," Mark said, his voice mild, but his slight smile didn't reach his eyes. "But she started the sentence, and I want her to finish it."
Karen finally shook her way free of her friend's hand and glared angrily. "When everybody knows she's a tramp, that's what!" she snapped. "You don't honestly expect her not to cheat on you, do you? The baby's probably not even yours!"
The room went deathly silent, as everybody stared at her in embarrassed shock. In that stillness, Chastity's whisper was as audible as a shout. "God! You are such a bitch. I don't even know you."
Mark nodded, keeping his expression carefully neutral. "I thought you were working up to that." He stood up, walking over to lean on the windowsill. "I'm fully aware of her reputation, Karen. In fact, I'm probably far more familiar with the facts behind it than you are. As a matter of fact, if she had been pregnant, I would still have offered to marry her, even though the baby wouldn't have been mine." He looked thoughtful. "Actually, this came out at the meeting last night, so I might as well mention it. At one point, she was afraid that she was pregnant, and I did offer to marry her." He smiled wryly, shaking his head. "She turned me down -- that time." Then his face grew serious. "But, Karen, my wife is not a 'tramp'. Don't ever let me catch you referring to her that way again."
The girl didn't shrink from his gaze. Instead, she tossed her head defiantly. "If the shoe fits," she sneered. "You can call her whatever you want, but that won't change what she is!"
"Oh? You're so certain of what she is?" He knew he should put a stop to this, but... the job wasn't worth it, if he had to just let such comments slide. "Tell me, Karen... what happened a few weeks ago?"
She sniffed primly. "It won't last. She'll get bored with you. Hell, she's probably already cheating on you. She's just being more careful about it."
He laughed. "A fortune-teller, are you? Maybe you should go to work for the Psychic Friends Network, since you know so much about the future." He shook his head. "You know, I'm really disappointed in you. You act as if no one can ever change. Hasn't it occurred to you that she never had a reason to change before?"
"Think a lot of yourself, don't you?" she asked.
He shook his head. "Nobody ever asked her to before," he said. His gaze swept the class before returning to Karen. "Tell me, why do you dislike her so much? Jealous? Afraid she'd steal your boyfriend? Did it ever occur to you to just ask her?"
She met his eyes unflinchingly. "There's not a girl in this class who's boyfriend hasn't fucked her if they've got one."
"And did any of you ever ask her not to?" he asked.
"We asked them. But she's always got whoever she wanted. I can't see why," she added nastily.
Mark gritted his teeth. "Karen, she didn't go after them. They went after her. Sounds like it's your boyfriends you ought to be mad at. And you never did ask her not to, did you?"
"What good would that do?"
He smiled slightly. "Well, if she knew you didn't want her to... she wouldn't have."
"Yeah, right. Do you believe in the Easter Bunny, too?"
His smile broadened. "Karen, think about it for a second," he said patiently. "How did you treat her? What reason did she have to tell them no? But if you'd been her friend -- not only would she have told them no, she'd have told you that they asked."
"Whatever," she said, with another toss of her head. "You're deluding yourself, but it's a free country."
Mark shook his head, suddenly tired. "You are free to think what you want, Karen." His voice was gentle. "But I know the truth, and I know quite a few things you don't. She's not going to cheat on me. And if she did... I'd still love her."
A couple of girls sighed wistfully at that, and Karen looked away, her jaw tight. A boy in the front row raised his hand.
"Yes?" Mark asked.
"Are they going to fire you?"
He shook his head. "No. I met with the school board last night."
Karen stage whispered to the girl beside her, "Besides, Steven Davis can buy whoever he needs to keep his son-in-law's job."
He turned to look at her coolly. "That's not what happened. Quite frankly... I wasn't concerned about the outcome of the meeting," he said. "Had I lost my job, I would have found another. Kristen is far more important to me than any job."
Again, there was a scattering of wistful sighs, and one of the girls near her whispered, "Jesus, Karen, jealous much?"
Karen flushed angrily and looked at her desk.
Mark stood up, returning to the front of the room. "Is that it?" he asked.
"Is Kristen dropping out of school?"
He shook his head, honestly surprised. "No, why would you think she was?"
"Well, I mean, she's married. And her dad's rich, anyway. Why would she stay in?"
Mark sighed. "Because she wants to learn. Despite what some might think, she's a very bright girl. She wants to learn as much as she can, and to use her brain."
That seemed to pretty much answer their questions. The room was quiet, anyway, with students avoiding looking at him with various levels of embarrassment, but several of them, at least, looked thoughtful, too.
Mark sat down on the edge of the desk and pulled the podium holding the day's lesson in front of him. "If that's all the questions, we should get to work. I'd like to challenge you to do something, though: make an effort to actually react to Kristen, not to her reputation. You might be surprised."
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