Oscar, Who Hated Me
Oscar is the one who killed Spencer. I’m sure of it.
Poor Oscar. He loaaathed me. I don’t think he walked into the classroom hating me. It was something that developed over time, though I can’t recall any precipitating incident. But after a few months, I knew Oscar’s goal in life was to teach me a lesson.
He actually submitted this as his response when I asked the kids to write their goals, except instead of “you” he wrote something like, “teachers who don’t know what they’re talking about,” his normally childish scrawl even more jerky on this assignment. I assume he was shaking with rage as he wrote it.
In class, Oscar was forever trying to catch me in a mistake, trip me up, or ask me something he hoped I didn’t know the answer to. During a parent-teacher conference, his mother said that he spent hours at night reading Wikipedia pages. She was trying to illustrate his inquisitiveness and bright mind, but after that point, each time he raised his hand, I imagined him furiously clicking away the night before, searching for some arcane fact that would secure my downfall.
He read ahead in everything and tried to derail discussions. His 7th-grade classmates were so annoyed by him that I couldn’t, with conviction, scold them when they screamed, “Shut up, Oscar!” at half the stuff he said. When I talked about connections to the Cold War during our reading of The Crucible, he came in the next day prepared with pages of printed notes about McCarthyism. For Romeo and Juliet, he got his own annotated version that was about three times the size of the trade paperbacks I had ordered for the class. Whenever I failed to address something that was mentioned in his footnotes, he literally jumped out of his seat to contribute it, as if the insight had just occurred to him. His classmates quickly caught on, though, and for months any time Oscar spoke in class, Andrew-the-Troublemaker or sly, funny Malcolm would respond in a sing-song, “Did you read that in your big book, Oscar?”
Oscar had views on everything; he was the kind of kid who spent more time talking to adults than to his peers, to his detriment, and who parroted back to the school exactly what he heard at home. He said wacky stuff (e.g., slavery was good for black people) and offered opinions on matters like the fiscal responsibilities of the home-school association. He seemed to relish the negative attention he got from classmates for his combativeness. Once, when he walked by in the hallway muttering some complaint, another teacher shook her head and said, “When he gets to high school: locker bait.”
It didn’t help that Oscar was an odd-looking kid. His face appeared stretch taught, like whoever was fashioning him misjudged the ratio of skin to skull and just had to make do by pulling as tightly as possible on his forehead and cheeks. His eyes bugged out a little. He wore a humongous old-man watch on his skinny wrist.
Oscar was a smaller, bonier version of his mother. They had the same bowl haircut, and outside of school, they were often seen in matching polo shirts with popped collars. On dress-down days, Oscar wore khakis, an oxford button-down, and a pullover sweater: essentially his regular uniform in a slightly different color. While the other boys were dressed either for the skatepark or the basketball court, Oscar always looked like he was about to leave for a conference.
Earlier in my teaching career, his one-sided vendetta would have exhausted me, but by that time I was established enough to be more amused than anything by the battle he thought the two of us were engaging in and the schemes he cooked up to school me.
I could have charged Oscar with involuntary hamster-slaughter, I’m so certain he is responsible for Spencer’s death.
Initially, Oscar was of the mind that it is stupid to have a classroom pet and loudly proclaimed this for several days. (“Shut up, Oscar!”)
Then, abruptly, he did an about-face. Maybe it was because most of the class loved Spencer and Oscar really did, on some level, want to belong. Maybe he liked the idea of caring for something so small and helpless. Maybe it was all part of his grand plan to take me down a notch. Maybe, just maybe, he was hoping to impress me with his caregiving abilities, his passive-aggressive offering of an olive branch.
Oscar began volunteering for all of Spencer’s hamstery needs, including insisting on being the one to place Spencer’s cage on top of the closet every afternoon.
One day, someone put the cage up without making sure all the doors and latches were closed.
I never accused Oscar of any negligence. I don’t think I even told the class exactly how or why Spencer died: it seemed cruel and pointless and wasn’t likely to teach Oscar anything, so convinced he was that I had nothing to offer.
I’m not sure whether Oscar ever thought he fulfilled his goal of teaching me a lesson, but considering the simmering resentment he seemed to feel toward me straight through the last day of school, I’m guessing not.
Occasionally I think of Oscar and wonder if I failed him, if I could have done more to reach him, if I was unfair in disliking him right back.
Mostly, though, I wonder if he ever did get shoved into a locker in high school.