My school was on fire. It was exhilarating. Fire trucks were whipping their sirens around, and my whole high school was out on the football field, chattering excitedly, whispering in little groups, because we were missing class, and oh my goodness, firemen! The headmaster came onto the green lawn and waved for our attention. He used a megaphone to make an announcement. I was barely listening. I was looking at the buildings, trying to see smoke.
“The school will be okay, and there aren’t any injuries,” the headmaster was saying. “Unfortunately, though, it appears that somebody has set this fire on purpose.”
I started paying attention then. He’d told me something I knew already. Standing alone on the second floor of my school, I felt goosebumps run up and down my skinny teenaged arms, because I was the one who had set my school on fire.
It’s an action movie. It’s a joke we’re all in on. When I tell this story, now, at parties, with gold light and the bubbles in the glass, I tell it like an adventure. I try to work up some suspense and then a good punch for delivery. I tell it like it’s funny. People cheer, they give me high fives.
“You’re my hero,” some strangers say.
“That takes balls,” said one boy.
“Why’d you do that?” That’s the question I get the most, over and over. “How come?”
“To get out of Spanish class” is my answer, and that’s a sort of truth.
I really did hate Spanish class. The teacher had buzzed blond hair and Walmart nails and eyes like a pig, and she always talked about “the Hoosiers,” “the Hoosier state,” in some twangy Midwest accent. I still don’t know what a fucking hoosier is but if I ever meet one, I will pick a fight for sure.
But the hoosiers aren’t the reason. When the police asked, “Why’d you set the school on fire?” my answer was not, “No quiero la clase de Spanish.”
In fact, for a month or so, the police didn’t ask me anything at all. For a month or so, I was getting away with it.
These days, I work in a high school. I teach English in Istanbul to bored, antsy teenagers. The girls wear headscarves that match their handbags. When I enter the classroom in the morning, I ask, “HOW ARE YOU, STUDENTS?”
And they answer in a big, exaggerated chorus, “FINE, THANKS, AND YOU?”
I ask them what they’ll do on the weekends, and they shrug. They will play computer games, they tell me. They will study. On Friday, they will pray, and they hold out their arms, bent at the elbow, hands raised and palms in. It’s not the kind of prayer I’m used to, but I nod and nod, trying to understand.
“Tell me about your holidays,” I say in slow, careful English. “Tell me about Ramadan.”
They explain to me about fasting, about Bayram, about how they give meat to the poor after they “cut cow.”
“We don’t ‘cut’ cow,” I correct them. “We ‘slaughter.’ Everybody repeat: SLAUGHTER!”
So this is my way of trying to understand them. It’s sloppy and embarrassing, but every time a student tells me something new, there is a map in my brain with some new territory lighting up. I start every class like that.
“Tell me things,” I say over and over. “Tell me about yourselves. Anything you want. Tell me what you’d like. Just raise your hand.”
When I was a student in that ill-fated high school, I was not some violent cast-out. I wanted to meet people. True, I was new at the school—I’d just moved to the South from New England, and I was still adjusting. But I joined the cross-country team at my mom’s behest, and met some girls that way.
Beth was blond and pretty and had a wry sense of humor that set her apart from the other girls in the private, expensive, Country Day school. She wore black T-shirts and drove her own car. She had something called lupus, and she listened to heavy metal. She gave me a Tool CD and took me to Krispy Kreme. She was friendly, and I wanted desperately to be her friend.
I wore ripped-up jeans and made elaborate doodles in my class notebooks. I was good in class, didn’t drink, didn’t do drugs, had never even been to a party. When Beth and I talked, we made plans about the future, about how we’d get out of that town. Or we talked about Nirvana, or running, or a vampire story she was going to write.
The wanting of friendship was always there. But the easiness that came with real friendship never appeared. Silences in conversation made me afraid, and I’d ask questions I knew I’d asked before, repeat conversations we’d already had.
“Do you think Courtney Love did it?”
“Where would you go, if you could go anywhere?”
“What’s better: Krispy Kreme or Dunkin Donuts?”
She was my best friend because she was my coolest friend. When I wasn’t trying to talk to Beth, I walked quickly through the school halls, keeping my head down. No one ever bullied me. No one tried to make me feel bad. I missed my old home in Massachusetts only as an afterthought. When anyone asked, I would tell them, ”I’m fine, I’m fine. Everything’s fine.”
When students come to visit me in the English faculty room, I imitate the teachers who have already been there for years. I appraise them with cold eyes, answer their questions sternly, get them to speak in whole, English sentences. Even the students who are loud in class come in sheepish, frightened-looking. I say, “What do you want? Speak up.”
But I don’t want to talk to them that way. I want them to tell me stories, I want them to complain. I want to kiss them on the top of the head like we still do with the kindergarteners. When it snows and school closes early, I rush into the courtyard with the students. I pack a snowball with red, chapped hands, and I call out, “Huseyin!” and I hurl it at one of my students, laughing. It’s the best I can do.
At home, wrapped up near my space heater, I call the person I miss back home. We talk about my class, about his work in construction, about the city I left, the one he still lives in.
I want to say, “You look so tired. Is there anything you need?” I want to say, “I’m sorry I had to leave you there. I’m sorry that you’re on your own. I’m sorry your mother died and that I don’t know what that’s like. I wish I could make it easier for you. You work too hard, you work every day. Take your broken hand to a doctor for Christ’s sake. I’ll give you the money; I’ll do anything to make it easier on you. Life should be easy for you. You are the best man I know.”
But I can’t say those things. Instead we ask the same questions.
How’s the weather? How’s work? Is everything okay? Are you sure? I miss you too. Every day. Everything’s okay, here, too.
I didn’t set my high school on fire because I was surrounded by malicious, wisecracking friends peer-pressuring me into doing something foolish. It was something I did alone.
I was in study hall with a lighter in my shoe. There wasn’t anyone I knew in that class, and the teacher didn’t pay very much attention.
Twenty minutes into class, I left the room and wandered upstairs. I went into the girl’s bathroom, entered a stall, and pulled out handfuls of toilet paper. I took the lighter from my shoe, flicked it once, twice, and held it to the paper. The fire singed the thin tissue and then caught, turning from a little nail-sized flame to a fistful, and bigger, and when smoke started to curl up from the pile I dropped it and hurried out, back down the stairs, and into my seat, shaking and frightened and excited.
I waited twenty minutes. I was expecting to hear the alarm, for something tremendous to happen, for a change that would knock a new direction in my life. When nothing happened, I left the room again and went back upstairs. The fire had gone out. I tried once more.
This time, it stuck. Ten minutes later, the fire alarm went ringing, and I got up with the rest of the students to file out of the school. A girl had gone to use the bathroom, and when she’d opened the door, great curls of smoke came billowing out. She’d pulled the fire alarm herself. The trucks showed up soon. We could hear their sirens a long way off. It was a success, in a way. Spanish class was cancelled.
When I have one of the boys in that class use one of our vocabulary words in a sentence, “hate,” he stands up, grinning, and points to her. “I hate Nimet! Eugh!” He sits back down again. The rest of the boys laugh and nod and agree. The girl keeps looking at her desk, half-smiling alongside them, like maybe she’s in on the joke. The next word is “insect.” One of the boys stands up.
“Spider is insect, like Nimet. Eugh!” And the other boys laugh.
After class, I pull them aside and speak to them in a voice cold and solid as a stone. “We don’t ever. Ever. Say that we hate one of our classmates. It’s rude, and it’s disrespectful. How would it make you feel if I said I hated you? It would make you feel bad, right?” The boys nod. I’m not sure how much they understand. They are elbowing one another. “If I hear you say you hate a student again, I will kick you out of my class.” And I tell them to go on, git.
I pull Nimet aside, too. “I’m sorry that happened,” I say softly. “It won’t happen again.”
“Okay.” She is still almost smiling, looking at the floor.
“Are you all right? Do you want to talk about it?”
But this is a false offer, because we both know her English is not good enough to talk about it with me, even if she wanted to. She shrugs, still with that almost-smile, and when I take my hand from her shoulder, she walks out of the classroom, not saying a word.
For one month, I thought they wouldn’t figure it out. I didn’t tell anybody about the fire I set, about the flames licking up. There weren’t any cameras inside the school.
At a lunch with the cross-country team, the subject of the arson came up again. It was a popular topic of conversation. They were talking about suspects, about rumors—they said the kid who did it stuffed burning wool up into the ceiling tiles to try and make the fire spread, to bring the whole building down and kill the students. Yeah, we were lucky we got out alive.
“Are you okay?” the team captain, Mackenzie, asked me in the middle. I hadn’t realized my face was anything but blank.
“Oh—sure,” I answered quickly. “I was just—worried about whoever it is that must have set the fire. They must be really upset about something.” She nodded and turned back to the group. I congratulated myself on the quick lie.
Eventually, trying to be cool, I slipped up and told a kid in my driver’s education class. Word spread around fast, and soon after that, my mom called me on my way home.
“Police are here, asking about you,” she said on the phone, her voice shaking. “They think you had something to do with that fire.”
The cop was waiting in my living room when I got there. Talking to my mom, like he was a friend. I sat down and he said straight out, “Listen. I’m not here to mess you up. Now, we know you set that fire. We have a lot of evidence. I can’t say what it is, but I can tell you that if you cooperate, I’m going to go to bat for you. If you can give us a statement, it’ll go really smooth. We want this to be painless.”
“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” I said, fast and hot. I could feel my eyes go big and false-round.
It went on like this for hours. I kept saying that I didn’t know, I didn’t know, I was just tired, I wanted to go to bed. When they finally let me leave, I sat on the stairs and listened to my mom saying, “She’s a good girl, she’s never done anything like this. I’m sure some of those kids blamed it on her just because she’s new. She wouldn’t do something like this.” I could hear her heart shredding up in her throat.
I lay on my bed, wide awake, for hours.
This is a funny story. It’s a story I tell because of the high fives, the white teeth flashing in the lamplight when friends laugh out loud, saying, “Wow.” Saying, “I wish I’d done that!” It’s a quirk. It’s cute.
But there has been one time, once, in my entire life, that I have found myself completely alone. It was in 2004, at the age of sixteen, when I lay in my room and realized that no one was going to help me. That I was going to break my family’s heart. That I’d be kicked out of school, that everyone I knew in that whole state would suddenly see me as an insane criminal, an arsonist. That I’d have a record. That I might go to juvie, could get taken away from my home. That nothing would ever be the same. And I’d brought this on myself. It was my own fault. There was nothing, nothing I could do. This was the worst hour. It is still the worst hour. But this is a funny story.
When I called the police officer back to make my confession, I remember “Taps” was playing on the radio, and I was like, HAHA REALLY? And the radio was like, Haha. Really. My statement, when I wrote it in blue pen, sitting cross-legged on my mother’s bed, contained a lot of curses and a couple doodles. To this day, when I hear somebody use the term “go to bat for,” I want to slap them on the mouth.
So I was expelled, I was arrested, everything changed, and I walked around my quiet house past my quiet family like I had already died. I never spoke to Beth again. She never called, not once, not to ask what happened or to see how I was.
The cop, my family, my friends these days at the parties, they keep asking: “Why did you do that? What for?”
I could say, “Los motherfucking hoosiers.” I could say, “I was bored, I was angry, I’d just moved, and my dad had gotten remarried, and I hated cross-country, and I went to see The Polar Express, and I cried and cried and cried.”
I could say these things. But they don’t make a very fun story. So I don’t.
A sixteen-year-old is supposed to talk a lot; a sixteen-year-old is supposed to gab and gab and chat for hours about nothing, twirling the phone cord around her finger. But this is not really talking, not truly. When we are teenagers, we don’t know how to talk to people. We barely understand how to speak. We hardly know what we’re thinking, so how are we supposed to explain it to somebody else?
Because talking to another person is the hardest thing in the world. It took years of practice for me to learn how to do it. And now, even though I teach it, even though I’m supposed to be putting conversations into the mouths of a new generation of teenagers, I still don’t quite know how. It takes practice, for years and years and years. I am still learning how to be a person with other people. I am still, even now, a student in that way.
Rumpus original art by Russell Christian.
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