“The Renaissance Person Tournament” by Clare Beams
Each of Clare Beams’ marvelous stories in her collection, We Show What We Have Learned, published by Lookout Books, University of North Carolina Wilmington, takes the reader into a very specific time and place. In “The Renaissance Person Tournament,” the first-person narrator has been teaching high school English at the Simmler School for twenty years. She describes her classroom as a “kingdom,” and as I read the description of the room through her eyes, I find myself back in my English classroom in high school, with the rattle of the radiator and the pale morning light coming in through the paned windows. Truly great fiction like this creates a specific world that is also universal in its scope, allowing the reader an entry into the story.
As Julia describes her classroom, we learn much about her through the way that she looks at this room. She organizes the chairs in a particular fashion: “I like them even-spaced as good teeth.” Many objects have attached themselves to memories, and these memories open up her past as well as her present. But it is when a memory leads us into her imagination that we get to know the sorrow and loss buried deep inside.
The tournament is the highlight of our year at the Simmler School, figuratively and literally: Abe Larson, math teacher and advisor to the tech club, uses acid-bright bulbs in the auditorium spotlights. He likes to make the contestants sweat. Abe is grizzled, ponytailed, a bitter man. The rest of us are bitter too, in our different ways, but most of us try to be less blatant.
I am fluttering-nervous as I wait for the Tournament to begin, though I know this delicate feeling is much too young for me. I sit by myself in the seventh row. Amanda Stevens from the Foreign Language department waved and mouthed “Over here, Julia” as I was coming in, but I pretended not to see her, since I don’t have it in me to hear about her fiancé or their kitchen remodel just now. Already the judges on the panel are arrayed at their table and chatting amongst themselves. The reflection of those overdone spotlights on the three contestants’ empty chairs makes them look like they’re holding shining pools of water. I wonder which one Emily will choose, whether she’ll sit between the two boys or on one of the ends.
“Seat taken, Jules?”
No one but Jim Barnham has ever in my life called me Jules. When I turn, he’s already sitting. “You nervous?” he says. He leans in, blue eyes beamy. His desperation to be loved is becoming doglike with the years—both of us nearing fifty now.
I will not pet him. I give him a very small smile. “Well, you must be too.” Jim and I are the faculty coaches for two of this year’s three contestants, the two who have an actual chance of winning: Emily Branch (mine) and Peter Sweeney (his).
“Right, right. The kid is amazing, though, which helps. And yours.” He does a little whistle and wiggles his eyebrows. I note with satisfaction how they’ve grown shaggy. The remark and the wiggle feel lifted from the behavior of some effusive jokey man Jim must at some point have studied. I have wondered about the identity of this man from whom Jim borrows, if he is one or a combination of many, real or filmed or written; I’ve never quite been able to place him. My shame is that at first I failed to see through any of it, just like the generations of students who dedicate the yearbook to Jim with stunning regularity. Mr. Barnham, you changed my life!! It took me longer than it should have to understand that there is weakness in a need to make oneself loved, even if one is successful in the attempt.
Despite his contrived mode of expression, Jim isn’t wrong about Emily and Peter. They are, both of them, amazing. Emily is just a little bit more amazing.
“We’ll see how they do,” I say.
They are coming onstage now. All three are laid bare by those lights. Emily sits, watchful, in the middle. Peter is on her left, looking relaxed except that one foot bounces, and Jeremy Cooper is on her right. Poor Jeremy. He knows what he’s in for, blinking out at all of us in his humiliated ferrety way. Jeremy Cooper is here because he is good at memorizing the answers for tests, so he has accumulated, by this point in his junior year, a nice high GPA, and because we needed a third. Even his coach, Ellen Sayers from the Social Studies department, understands that Jeremy has nothing that could let him touch Peter and Emily. I have been grooming Emily for the Tournament since she arrived at Simmler as a ninth grader, and really she’s been grooming herself for it all her life. I could tell on the morning I met her. I always open my first lesson of the year with introductions: the students go around the room and say their names, then their favorite books and a couple of words about why they love them. That first morning, Emily said softly, looking at her hands, “King Lear. For the power.” And I was plunged back into my sunny rose-wallpapered high-school bedroom, where I’d read Lear for the first time. I remembered the feeling I’d had then, of a voice rising up in me to answer that scale, that heft—a voice larger than mine that still somehow came from me.
I’ve taught a wealth of bright and talented students. I have watched them in their finest moments and glimpsed the adults they might become, if things go well for them. When I saw the way Samantha Matthews’s capable hands calmly patted the back of the crying friend she hugged, I also saw the scrubs her older self could wear. I heard long slick tables and crisp suits in the smooth answers Patrick Dunning gave every time I called on him, whether or not he actually knew anything about what I’d asked. Emily is the only student I’ve taught whose future remains opaque to me, because nothing I can fix on seems big enough.
Though that’s not quite true, that she’s the only one. I’ve never been able to see Peter Sweeney’s future either. With Emily the blank seems too vast to fill, but Peter’s blank I can fill with too many things. He performs each task with so little effort that you think he’ll be doing it forever, until he does the next thing.
Emily looks calm as she waits, her dark fringe of bangs sleek above her immobile, solemn face. Peter has begun to smile, just the right amount—so nice to see all of you!—for the crowd. Jeremy looks like he might throw up.
“All right, everybody!” says Linda Hayes, the head of this year’s judging panel. “All right, time to begin. Welcome to this year’s Renaissance Person Tournament, and congratulations to our three contestants: Emily Branch, Jeremy Cooper, Peter Sweeney. To have been selected to compete is a very great honor.”
We all clap. Jim’s elbow brushes mine.
“Round One of the Tournament will consist of three free-response questions that assess the candidates’ knowledge of history, culture, and literature. Each candidate, in alphabetical order, will have the opportunity to be first respondent on one question. Miss Emily Branch will begin. She’ll have five minutes in which to answer, and then each of the other contestants will have two minutes to respond and add to Miss Branch’s response.”
Round One is, I think, the easiest—a simple matter of knowing things—but I find I’m gripping my own kneecaps.
“Are you ready, Miss Branch?”
“Here is your question. Please discuss the agenda of the First Council of Nicaea, the degree to which that agenda was successfully completed, and the long-term effects of the Council on history and culture. You have five minutes. Your time begins now.”
Emily bows her shining head, also wetted by the lights. I try to keep breathing. Why doesn’t she start?
At last she raises her face. “We believe,” she says, “in one God, the Father Almighty, Maker of all things visible and invisible, And in one Lord . . . ”
Reciting the entire thing this way will eat up her time, but Emily has chosen to do it for the sake of performance. She is giving us the original Nicene Creed from the First Council. I hadn’t even known she knew it. Her voice is unhurried, not overly loud, and the words click out smooth as pearls she is dropping onto a string. I listen as she comes to the end. She’ll have only a couple of minutes left to say anything of her own. “. . . they are condemned by the holy and apostolic Catholic church.”
Emily pauses for the space of a breath.
“I think this speech, the first version of the Nicene Creed, is the most important development to emerge from the First Council of Nicaea of 325 C.E. The Council had many purposes. To settle the Arian and Meletian controversies. To fix on a definitive Easter date. To decide questions about baptism and the persecution of nonbelievers. Each of these was resolved, and all of that is important. But I’m not sure anything is more important than the words. With the Creed, the Council members were declaring that they had the right to control and unify the beliefs of the faithful. They took many voices and”—another pause—“braided them into one. With this Creed, the Council reaches through time to shape even my voice, even today. It’s amazing, I think, that words can do that. They can change you, if you let them.” A shyness comes into her voice, because she’s describing the shape of her own life so far. The corners of her mouth lift slightly. “If you want them to.”
Emily stops, just as Linda’s teeth are coming together to tell her time. There’s a short silence. I wish I could record its awed sound.
“Thank you, Miss Branch,” Linda says. To her credit, her voice is almost neutral. “Mr. Cooper, you will respond first. Your two minutes begin now.”
Jeremy’s ears and nose begin to go red. “Well,” he says. Maybe feeling the way his nose is turning on him, he rubs at it. “I think Emily covered things pretty well. I guess I’d just add that the Council happened in 325 C.E.”
Emily said that. The judges’ pencils move discreetly.
“And that the Arian controversy had to do with—” He panics as he realizes he can’t come up with the word, which is Trinitarianism. I watch Emily ache to whisper it to him. “With whether Jesus was, in actuality, divine. Where his place was, relative to God.” It feels as if the judges’ busy pencils are scratching at Jeremy’s skin. “That’s it, really,” Jeremy says. Ellen said he was excited when she told him he was the faculty’s choice to be the third competitor. I know she did her best to help him prepare, and I know he’d have been diligent in reading whatever she gave him. But he’s a kid who’s spent years reading only the texts his teachers have given him, though very thoroughly, and that’s not the kind of study the Tournament rewards; what’s fair game is too wide-ranging.
“You still have about a minute, if you want to use it,” Linda tells him gently. Jeremy shakes his head.
“Okay, then. Mr. Sweeney, your turn. Two minutes.”
“Thank you,” Peter Sweeney says. He smiles again for all of us. He has an almost perfect face, lean and warm, classic as something from a dated book in which the hero is described as dashing. “My fellow contestants have made excellent points. I liked Jeremy’s emphasis on Arianism, on the Trinitarian controversy.” Flawlessly done: he’s pointed out Jeremy’s mistake while underscoring his own command, yet he manages to disguise the jab as graciousness. “And Emily, Emily makes such an eloquent, powerful point, about voices.”
This is when Emily blushes. I have never in all the time that I have known her seen Emily Branch blush. As her cheeks stain pink, I feel a dark dread well in the back of my throat.
“Of course, neither of those are really lasting developments. Constantine, who called the Council, was succeeded by two emperors who restored Arianism for a time. And the First Nicene Creed was later revised into the Second Nicene Creed, the version so many of us are familiar with today: ‘We believe in one God, the Father Almighty, Maker of Heaven and Earth,’ and so on.”
I am sure to the bottom of my soul that Peter knows no more than this of the Nicene Creed in either version. This is his genius, to make the things he doesn’t know look unworthy of attention: and so on.
“So for me the lasting effect of the Nicene Council is something else. It has to do with the fact that all of these bishops arrive in Nicaea because Constantine has called them. With the fact that great events and decisions can be controlled by one great man.”
He finishes just as his two minutes come to a close. Look at me, his face tells us. I will be a great man. I’m not that far from being one already.
I find Emily afterward. I pull her carefully to me, as if she were an injured bird, though when I release her, her face is untroubled. Round One has left her one point behind Peter. She won the First Responses—Peter’s was polished and impressive but nothing like the miracle of hers—and of course she carried the Second Responses against Jeremy, bringing her to eight points total. Peter, who won both his rounds of Second Responses and took second place in the First Responses, has nine. Jeremy has two points, having placed third in the First Responses. We give points for third place out of three because we’re teachers, and we like to be encouraging.
“The Nicene Creed,” I say to her, shaking my head. “The first Nicene Creed.”
She shrugs. “I’m happy with how it went,” she says. A typical Emily remark—I’m used to congratulating her while she looks at the floor. But today she’s watching Peter, across the room, as Jim claps him on the back.
Peter meets her gaze and smiles. That smile is something that should only be turned on many people at once. It’s heavy as gold, and I don’t think even Emily can be expected to bear up under it.
The next morning I’m in my classroom early, anticipating that Emily will come see me, as she usually does. “It sort of settles me into the day,” she told me once.
While I wait, I straighten the chairs around my oval table. I like them even-spaced as good teeth. I’ve done this each school morning for twenty years, since I first came to Simmler when I was twenty-eight. My classroom by now is my own kingdom. Everything in it I have chosen: the posters of the Globe Theater and wry-eyed Hannah Arendt, the pieces of yellow, not white, chalk that I keep lined up in dusty parade in the tray beneath the board, the bright throw rugs I’ve scattered around the edges of the room, every book on the three big bookshelves.
If this room is a kingdom, though, its citizens are not only my students, past and present, but also the different people I have been, all these years. The books remind me most of the fall I turned thirty, when I was wondering whether or not to leave Simmler and apply to graduate school—when I would walk away from the grading spread on my desk, lift a book from the shelf, and ruffle its pages, trying to decide if I was brave enough to venture in again, alone, to wander around and ponder, or if it was too late for that. The window reminds me of the spring ten years ago when my mother died, the most beautiful spring I can remember. Every morning brought buttery light caked thick over the discussion table, so that I was unsure whether feeling or just the glare made my eyes well.
And that back corner, against one of the bookshelves, will always be the place where Jim Barnham feathered his fingers over my collarbone, one early winter afternoon in my first year of teaching (I favored scoop-necked blouses in those days, even in cold weather), during one of the visits he used to pay me between classes. I remember he told me I looked Grecian. This has never been remotely true—I come from Pennsylvania farming stock and I have always looked like I should be hauling hay with my four sturdy sons. Though some part of me knew it was a lie even then, I remember craning my thick neck, in response, as if it were sculpture. This was maybe two weeks before he arrived at the annual Christmas party with the girl who would become his first wife, with nary a word to me. He met her when she sold him a set of salt-and-pepper shakers at the gift store downtown for his mother’s Christmas present. In my imagination those salt-and-pepper shakers have always been shaped like ducks.
Emily is late. Her father, who is an electrician, times her rides in the mornings around his own first job of the day. I return to my desk to test my pens. I find two likely to call it quits soon and toss them before they can turn on me.
“Ms. Alberts?” Peter Sweeney is leaning aesthetically against my door frame. “Could I come in for a second? If you’re not too busy.”
“Sure, Peter. Have a seat.”
Even his movements are compliments: he pats the surface of my desk in appreciation, he settles with visible comfort into the chair where Emily should be sitting. “Thanks,” he says. “I thought—I hope I’m not interrupting. It’s just, you know, they tell us we should ask for lots of people’s advice about the Tournament. So I thought I’d stop by, since there’s really no one else whose advice I’d rather have. Aside from Mr. Barnham, of course.”
Exactly the speech I would expect Peter Sweeney to make when approaching his opponent’s coach. I’ve never been as fond of Peter as everyone else is. This despite his obvious brilliance—he wrote a paper in my ninth-grade class that I’m not sure I could have written myself—and his generosity to every person around him, even, or especially, the bumblers, the awkward blurters, the strangely dressed, the pockmarked. Other teachers wax rhapsodic about Peter in faculty meetings. Me, I feel certain he wouldn’t be so kind if there weren’t other people watching. There’s a memory I return to when people praise him, a moment that happened when Peter was in ninth grade. He was leaving my room after class with shaggy Sam Evans, who gave up on Simmler midway through that year. Sam had lost his copy of Romeo and Juliet again. As they made their way to the door Peter said Sam could borrow his—just come by his locker, Peter told him, with that ease he was already perfecting, as they passed my desk. Right after they’d gone I remembered someone I needed to catch between classes and ducked into the hall.
“So I’ll just come up with you?” I heard Sam saying. “Thanks a lot.”
And I watched Peter say nothing, turn his perfect back and walk away.
“Peter!” I called. I came up behind them. “Peter, Sam’s asking if he can come get your book.”
“Oh, sorry,” Peter said. “Didn’t hear.” But in the first moment he turned toward us, just before he composed his face, I saw anger. Gone almost too quickly to register. Still, I saw it, and I know what it was—though he was smart enough to be careful, even then, and I never saw another moment like that from him. He would never make that kind of mistake now.
I fold my hands on my desktop. “I doubt you need much advice, Peter. But of course if I can help I’m happy to.”
“What I wanted to ask is—do you have any tips for dealing with the nerves?”
I stare at him. I almost laugh.
“It’ll be harder today than yesterday. Because today’s about our own opinion, you know? And with all those people watching.” He looks at me earnestly. I wonder if he’s practiced that look in the big, heavy-framed mirror I’m sure hangs somewhere in his house, maybe above the living-room mantel. “I just figured you might have some thoughts to share, out of your own experience.”
All right, I decide. All right, Peter, let’s play. I knit my eyebrows as if considering what wisdom to bestow. “Well,” I tell him, “I think the best thing is just to give the most honest, thoughtful answer you can.”
“Right,” he says. “Thanks. That helps a lot.”
“And really, you can’t worry about what anyone else’s answer will be like. If one of them knows a little more than you, has a little more to say, I mean—” I smile kindly. “You don’t have any control over that, do you? All you can do is your own best.”
I don’t know quite what I’m expecting, but I know that it isn’t for Peter to return my smile, sunnily, as he does. “You’re talking about Emily, I guess,” he says. “You must be so proud of her. She’s really—incredible.”
That breaks me out of our nice game. You stay away from her, I think.
He’s standing up now. “Well, I should be going,” he says. “I’m sure she’ll be wanting to talk to you too.”
I collect myself enough to say, “Good luck today, Peter,” emphasizing luck just a little, but he’s already out the door, and I don’t know if he hears.
In the quiet of my kingdom then, I continue to wait for Emily. Five minutes before the start of first period I go upstairs and find her with some other junior girls, all of them leaning against the lockers with their legs stretched out into the hall. “Oh, hi,” Emily tells me.
I have given this girl stacks of books, careful criticism and more careful encouragement, raw and beating belief. Hours and hours and hours of my life, so that she might have the chance to stand up and prove what she can do, so that she will be able to carry the record of that proof inside herself, reinforcing that self’s outline, forever. The Tournament itself is a small thing, but what it could do for Emily is not small. There aren’t that many chances like this in a life, though she can’t yet see that. I force myself to speak calmly. “I thought maybe you’d want to come down and talk.”
“I was just feeling pretty ready,” she tells me. “I wasn’t sure I needed to.”
What she’s doing instead, I suspect, is sitting here for the chance that Peter Sweeney might walk by.
Classes are all five minutes shorter than usual to make time for Round Two of the Tournament at the end of the day. The difference is slight but noticeable to all of us; when your time and thought are habitually carved up into forty-minute increments, each thirty-five minute class has the short, wincing feel of a limp. Before I know it I’m back in the auditorium.
I see Jim three rows back, chatting with Amanda Stevens, who has her head back, laughing, in the posture of the deliciously teased. Her throat is pink. I wonder what her fiancé would have to say about this particular picture, if he could see it.
I slide into the chair on the other side of Jim, and he turns toward me, his face folding over on itself with happiness. Being chosen, by anyone, is one of Jim’s favorite things.
“Hey, Emily did great yesterday,” he says, with a magnanimous sweep of his hands.
Amanda feels the warm tide of his attention turn from her and swivels to talk to Stan Fisher, who teaches French. Some sleeping muscle deep within me takes this for a triumph, and twitches with a remembered, irrelevant pleasure. That twitch, it makes me angrier.
“Jim, can I ask you something?”
“Have you gotten the feeling that Peter is interested, you know, in Emily?”
“I’ve been thinking that too.”
I nod, pressing my teeth together very hard. Because I know Peter isn’t interested in Emily, not really—only in making her think he is. When has Peter ever felt a true thing? Except perhaps his desire to win.
“I think he admires her,” Jim tells me. “And I think that’s beginning to grow into something more.” His tone is as jolly as if we’re discussing the mating of prize pets. The thing is, I’m not even sure it’s an act, his taking Peter’s interest at face value. I doubt he bothers to think much about what goes on inside Peter’s head.
“Very natural,” Jim says.
Blessedly I don’t have to comment on the naturalness of it all, because Alex Wells is bringing Jeremy out of the holding tank and onto the stage. The order has been chosen from a hat: Jeremy, then Peter, then Emily. Each contestant will deliver a speech, composed on the spot, on the same topic, while the other two wait in the hall with a teacher so there’s no chance for them to overhear. Today Jeremy has the look of someone being led to his place of execution. He stands, center stage, and waits for the blow.
“Here is your assigned topic, Mr. Cooper. Please give us your opinion on the following: what is the single most important moral value a perfect society should hold? You have five minutes, beginning now.”
About as generic and open-ended a question as possible; the idea in Round Two is to leave them plenty of rope to hang themselves. Which is just what Jeremy proceeds to do—though to be fair to him, maybe it only seems that way in comparison to the performance I know the other two will give. Shiny with sweat, Jeremy starts to talk about freedom and then changes direction and focuses on achievement instead. The moon landing, the theory of relativity, a vague reference to “literature.” It seems that according to Jeremy’s definition, we’re all living in the perfect society. By the end of the second minute he’s back to freedom again. He starts talking about the American Revolution, with the upturn at the end of each sentence that I remember from all of his comments in my class, even the smartest ones, and soon he’s just reciting the names and dates of acts and battles. This is the kind of mind he has. As we all knew.
Meanwhile, Emily and Peter sit in the hallway. Their supervisor is Mary Alice Washburn, who never seems able to make eye contact with anyone for too long—one of the reasons she’s a bad teacher. I wonder just how fast and far Peter’s hands might creep in the intervals when Mary Alice is staring at the wall or the floor.
“All of that was because of freedom,” Jeremy says. “Freedom is—people are willing to die for freedom.”
The panel waits for a moment to be sure he’s done. Then Linda tells him “Thank you” in a very kind voice. Alex goes back to fetch Peter.
If Jeremy looked like he was being brought to his death, Peter looks like he’s going to an awards ceremony to claim his prize. He walks with easy-to-afford modesty, the suggestion that it would be bad taste to draw attention to his victory, that obvious thing. He grins and tents his pockets with his hands while he waits for Linda to tell him the topic. Then he considers.
“The first thing to decide, of course, is the definition of a perfect society,” he says, and he’s off and running, talking about individuals and community. The rhythm of it is nice. But as I listen, I begin to feel a mounting excitement. “A perfect society,” Peter says, “must be deemed perfect by its inhabitants. Each and every one of them must be free to find their own perfection, their own greatness.”
All quite unobjectionable on its own, but surely that word greatness is tripping the same wire for the judges that it is for me; surely they too are remembering that it’s what Peter emphasized in Round One as well. We’re hearing ego in a way we would never in a million years hear it from Emily, who has an air of continuous, delighted surprise to have found herself with all of us, away from the small disheveled house that holds the rest of her life.
I’m drifting along on the current of my happiness when I hear something that snags me. “The greatness of a perfect society’s individual members should be knit into the general tapestry,” Peter says. “Because society is a wonderful contradiction—many and one at once.”
The words blend with the rest, but that description of society’s nature is Emily’s. It’s something that I have heard her say, more than once, word for word.
I can see what must have happened. They were preparing for this round together, maybe right out there in the hall, talking over potential questions and ideas that might be dropped into a response. But hearing him say it, I feel as if Peter has reached down Emily’s throat, into the core of her, and stolen her words.
This feeling grows when it’s Emily’s turn, for the line is one of the first things she says. “Society in general strikes me as a beautiful contradiction. It’s many and it’s one—it’s both.” Anybody could reason through, could understand that it could be either one’s idea. The ear, though, can’t forget who said it first. And Peter would have known that very well, as he opened his mouth to say it.
In the wake of that doubling, it’s hard, probably, for everyone but me to really listen to the rest of what Emily has to say. “We’re all privileged to be a part of such a mechanism—or such an organism, really, because society I think is a living body. The work of making it as perfect as it can be, that’s a responsibility that ultimately rests with each of us.”
Peter comes out ahead in this round by two more points. Linda announces the scores with the three contestants lined up beside her on the stage. As they turn to go, I see Peter’s fingertips alight on Emily’s shoulder blade. She looks at him, at this thief, with gratitude.
At twenty of eight on the final morning of the Tournament, I go upstairs to the lockers, because this time I know better than to wait for Emily to come to me. I intercept her at the back of a clump of giggling girls on the move. Though he’s nowhere I can see, Peter is all over her: in the toe of her shoe dragging at the floor, in her fingers tucking at her hair. He has pulled her right into the pit of normal vapid adolescence and made her indistinguishable from the indistinguishable girls around her. I know, I do know, that she is just a girl, as they are girls, and so she has every right to feel the same things they do. But it hurts me that it would be hard to pick Emily out now as the one who will go into the auditorium this afternoon and recite an original composition, then gracefully critique the work of her fellow contestants, as Round Three requires. Emily’s is an actual, real villanelle, because she loves Bishop’s “One Art.” Hers isn’t a perfect poem—she’s only sixteen—but it contains a depth of feeling that astonishes me. I stare at this girl in front of me without recognition. The bored set of the mouth.
“Emily, can I talk to you for a second?” I ask.
“I was just on my way to the bathroom.”
She owes this to both of us, though, even if she’s lost sight of that now. I raise my eyebrows and say, “I’ll see you in my classroom right afterward.”
When she arrives, I wait for her to sit, which she does without looking at me. Then I tell her, “I’m worried, Emily.”
A standard teacher line, but Emily has probably never before heard it. Her head snaps up. “You aren’t happy with how I’m doing?”
“I’m not worried about the scores.” I wonder how to explain it to her: that it’s the way she’s playing that frightens me. That in her life she has the capacity to become wondrous, but not if she makes the choice I fear she’s making while we all watch, to put something else ahead of her brain. It’s not a choice you get to revise later. You think it is, while you’re succumbing to an experience of love that really you’re lifting right out of all of your books—while your skin hums and the air grows gold tinted, while his gaze makes you feel you’re blooming. The books themselves make you think that maybe books aren’t the most important thing after all, or at least that there will be plenty of time to return to them. And I suppose there might be. Time isn’t really the problem. It’s that when you go to look for those books—if you do go to look—they aren’t where you left them, aren’t in any place you know, anymore, how to find.
“I just feel like you’re losing your focus,” I tell Emily.
She hunches her shoulders. In that motion I see a thousand defiant kids who have shrugged, over the years, to tell me they can’t do any better, and what do I want from them, exactly? What I want from, for, Emily is the whole world. I want her to feed herself, to watch that self become the most enormous thing.
I wait for her to speak. She won’t be able to pretend to be this other girl while she’s talking. But she’s quiet.
“Emily, listen. Peter, he’s—not a good use of your time,” I tell her.
That startles her. She didn’t think I knew, maybe. “Why?”
Because, I want to tell her, you are so much more extraordinary than he is. He is only very charming, and too clever to be caught being anything he doesn’t want to be. These are not talents; they’re weapons. Even when he breaks your heart—and he will, Emily—he’ll do it in such a way, I know it, that you won’t be able to hate him. You will be left with no one to hate but yourself.
Emily sits as still, now, as a painted girl, waiting for my response. My heart beats furiously with the need to show her the truth. This is Peter, and if I want proof of what I know, I will have to make it.
“This is hard to say,” I tell her. “I saw him. With Jessica Fuller, Emily. I’m sorry.”
“What do you mean?”
I crease my face in sympathy.
“No,” she says, shaking her head. “He hates Jessica.”
“Is that what he told you?”
I’ve chosen well. Jessica has a loud laugh, a habit of wearing skirts so short and tight they’re like rubber bands around her hard little backside. I watch Emily begin to doubt. “You must have seen something that looked like—”
“Emily, he was kissing her. Up against the lockers.”
“When?” she asks, and I know I’ve done it.
She nods rapidly, dry-eyed. Only the ferocity of the motion of her head gives her away. No one has to put that much force into accepting something unless it feels like the end of the world. Who am I to be ending Emily’s world, Emily whom I love? But before I can say anything else, she’s getting up. “Thanks, Ms. Alberts,” she says, her back already to me, and then she’s gone.
For the rest of the school day the discussions I am meant to be leading flow past without touching me. We are talking about The Odyssey, stranded in one of those endless books after Odysseus has made it home but before he does any suitor-slaughtering. “Why do you think Athena is so frustrated with Odysseus here?” I ask. Thirteen faces turn toward me, so pure and blank the sight of them hurts. I want to tell them all to run.
At last Round Three’s beginning nears. In the faculty room, I refill my all-day mug and stand by the sink, my back to the other buzzing teachers, to sip the burnt-out end-of-afternoon coffee. There in the basin sits a collection of the many things we leave behind when we flee this room, realizing we have only a minute left before the next class starts: plates smeared with food; cups, their rims bedecked with the half-moons of our bad lipstick shades; sticky and bent-tined forks. These items move from shelf to table to sink in a constant orbit day after day, year after year, as our faces line and the skin of our hands goes baggy. I left a plate in here this morning, I know, but I can’t identify it in the heap now.
The room has begun to empty. I’ve been waiting for this moment for the three years I’ve known Emily, but I’m not sure I can go down there.
When Jim pops in to check his mailbox, I’m the only other person left in the room. He catches sight of me and grins. “One to go!” he says. He steps over to the photocopier to run something off, a handout for tomorrow, probably, then turns back to me. “I tell you, I can’t wait till it’s over. The stress!” He ruffles at the back of his hair.
He adopted this mode with me almost right away after that Christmas party twenty years ago: the pretense that we have always been friendly acquaintances. I’ve come to feel almost grateful for the easy erasure. But I think Jim would be surprised how I still remember. I went alone to the party. I’d assumed Jim would pick me up and we’d go together, but he’d been vague about plans earlier in the week, and when I called him that afternoon he wasn’t home, or wasn’t answering. So I drove myself to Stacy Porter’s house. I wore a wool skirt and a peach-colored cashmere sweater I loved the feel of. I thought his hands would soon be on it, maybe when we stepped outside during the party to stand in the cold: there would be clouds of our breath and the weight of his palms on my shoulders, and the joy of being soft. Jim wasn’t there yet when I got to Stacy’s, so I spent an hour moving from circle to circle of teachers and laughing politely at displays of intelligence disguised as jokes. Teachers are used to having captive audiences, and it makes us bad at conversation. I held my drink at a pretty angle; I thought, then, that there was a pretty angle for holding a drink. I felt in those days of Jim as if everything I did were suddenly visible.
I saw him right away when he arrived. The door opened and he sidled through, eyes already crinkled, beginning to shrug off his coat. I started to go to him. Then a woman stepped into the entryway. She wore a short sparkly gold dress like she thought this was a nightclub, makeup I could see across the room. I was thinking that Jim and I could laugh about her together, speculate about who she was and invent scandalous explanations for her presence here, when I saw him put his hand, with unmistakable intimacy, to the small of her back.
Now, I know many things about Jim Barnham. I know that beneath his charisma is nothing very genuine or remarkable, really. I know how he married the gold-dressed woman, Ally, and how their marriage lasted the six years until she found out about Laura, who would become his second wife, to whom he would manage to stay married for almost ten. I know he couldn’t have given me anything lasting. At some point, even if Ally had not been working that shift at the gift shop, I would have regretted all of it. The regret might as well have arrived when it did.
Yet the suspicion comes to me now that I made some mistake in that moment when I saw him across Stacy Porter’s faux-French living room—red cheeked from the cold and from whatever he’d been drinking with Ally—and didn’t go to him. I ran instead out the back door and around to my car, then drove home with the radio on to drown out the low, ugly sounds of my own crying, wiping my eyes and nose on the back of my hand. I woke late the next morning and graded papers without leaving the house all day, some of the lowest grades I ever gave.
I wonder if, in that moment when I let Jim have that night just as he wanted it, without even making him explain, I lost something more important than Jim himself. If he was only the shape I gave my loss, because it seemed to want a face. If it was then, exactly then, that I allowed my life to become smaller.
Jim wrinkles his eyebrows at me. “You all right, Jules?”
He asks so lightly, because he doesn’t have to care about the answer. I don’t want to just release him again, untouched. I cross the room. He moves over, as if he’s expecting me to go to my mailbox, but I move over with him. He comes up against the humming, rattling photocopier.
“Jules,” he says, his voice warmer than his wary face—a tone you might use to wake up an old friend who’d dozed off on your couch. I bring my face in close to his. I know what I look like at so small a remove: there are folds in my neck and a heaviness to my skin, a wateriness to my eyes. Jim looks older too, since the last time we were this close. But really I’m not seeing Jim at all. I’m seeing a dividing line between possibilities and impossibilities, glowing like a live wire there in front of me. If I brought my lips to his I might still catch its taste: the electric spark of an open world.
Down below us, on the first floor, Emily walks toward the auditorium. Inside, she will recite her villanelle with her dark, magical eyes on the ceiling. “The house is mine, and I know all its lines. / I could draw them: roof and floor, each wall. / Its rooms are holes I feel along my spine . . . ”
The lights will heat Emily’s skin like tiny, loving suns. If she gives her whole self, as she will do, in exchange we will heat her to the point where no one can touch her, and then release her to scorch a path through the rest of her life. I don’t even ask to watch that next part. I don’t particularly expect her to remember me then. Only this part, only the readying and the imagining of what may come next, belongs to me.
Emily will feel hot, on that stage. As she describes her house, she will see it. She will feel the way she has felt, living inside it. Inside herself. I have thought about those feelings until I’ve been sure I’ve understood them, but after all I have only been seeing them from the outside.
Jim’s eyes are desperately seeking a safe space somewhere off to the side of me. I lean closer still, so he has no choice but to look where I want him to. See? There I am. Still there.
“We should go down,” Jim says. He sounds almost afraid. “They’ll be looking for us.”
Our students, he means. Will they? I’m not sure. Peter looks only for what he needs.
And Emily? Emily may or may not look for me in the crowd, while she speaks. She may or may not look for Peter. We will all be looking at her, watching for her poem to emerge, holding our breath. We want it to be unlike anything we’ve ever seen, and we also want to recognize it. But when it does emerge, Emily won’t wait for us. She will send it walking down the aisle, and I’ll be just like all the others, lucky to catch the flash of its face before it’s out the door.
“The Renaissance Person Tournament” from We Show What We Have Learned by Clare Beams. Copyright © 2016 by Clare Beams. Used here with the permission of Lookout Books, University of North Carolina Wilmington, lookout.org.
CLARE BEAMS’s story collection, We Show What We Have Learned, was a Kirkus Best Debut of 2016; was longlisted for the Story Prize; and was a finalist for the PEN/Robert W. Bingham Prize, the New York Public Library’s Young Lions Fiction Award, and the Shirley Jackson Award. Her fiction appears in One Story, n+1,Ecotone, The Common, the Kenyon Review, Hayden’s Ferry Review, Electric Literature’s Recommended Reading, and The Best American Nonrequired Reading, and has received special mention in The Best American Short Stories 2013 and The Pushcart Prize XXXV. A 2014 NEA fellow in prose, she was the Bernard O’Keefe scholar in fiction at the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference in 2014. After teaching high school English for six years in Falmouth, Massachusetts, she moved with her husband and daughter to Pittsburgh, where she teaches creative writing at Saint Vincent College and the Pittsburgh Center for the Arts.