Having the Last Word by Karen Zey

(Names changed)

‘I caught these two kissing and touching each other in the bushes at recess,’ Mrs. T said through pressed lips.

Ten-year-old Kelly, wispy hair askew, stood at the doorway of my special ed. classroom with panicked eyes, while 13-year-old Gavin scowled in silence. The grade seven teacher gripped their shoulders, holding them captive under the shroud of her disapproval.

‘I’ll speak to them,’ I said.

‘This is inappropriate in an elementary school. Completely inappropriate.’ Mrs. T whipped off her gloves and shoved them in her pockets. ‘YOU better do something about their behaviour.’

Hadn’t she been the one on yard duty? But I didn’t really want the sour-faced doyenne of the staffroom to handle this any further.

‘I’ll speak to them,’ I said again.

She strode down the hall on her prim, low-heeled shoes toward her own classroom, leaving me with the problem of Recess Romance.

Yes, speak to them – right now. But where to begin?

Playing kissy-kissy in the bushes at recess was not as benign as it might seem. Gavin lived in a group-home with older teenagers. He had heard his share of sexual lingo and witnessed kissing, possibly more. His puberty-fueled explorations were a normal part of the human experience, but he had limited awareness of social boundaries. Kelly was only ten-and-a-half and barely talked. She adored Gavin, a good-natured non-reader, who stood as tall as me. He was the only pupil in my class who knew how to write his name in cursive, which, along with his height and solid build, made him the kingpin in my Learning Opportunities class. And Gavin had been smitten by Kelly’s innocent, winsome smile.

‘Tell me what happened,’ I said, lowering my voice so the kids already inside wouldn’t hear.

Kelly’s mouth trembled. Gavin stuck out his lower lip in a defiant pout. ‘Kelly my girlfriend. We just hold hands.’

Kelly blinked back tears and looked to her new boyfriend to talk their way out of trouble. Gavin gently wrapped his arm around her shoulder. ‘Kelly, she my girlfriend. Mrs. T. mean.’

As much as I resented Mrs. T’s huffy insensitivity, I knew I was at a crossroads. Like any teenager, Gavin was maturing into a sexual being. With a surge of new hormones and the occasional bulge in his groin, he had much to learn about controlling his natural impulses. Kelly was a child, happy to go along with this new game of cuddling and kissing and giggling with her buddy. And I was their teacher, the responsible adult who needed to rein in the romance, starting with the arm curved around Kelly’s shoulder.

‘It’s okay, Kelly. I’m not mad. Gavin, put your arm down please.’ I waited, keeping my face neutral. His arm came down. ‘Thank you. Now, listen up. No one is allowed to go in the bushes at recess or lunchtime. You know that.’

Gavin didn’t argue. The schoolyard’s out-of-bounds rule applied to everyone. ‘Sorry, Miss Zey,’ he said. My heart melted; Gavin mostly tried to please.

This was a good start, but I hadn’t resolved anything. The lure of fondling a willing girl whom he liked and who liked him back would trounce Gavin’s usually compliant nature if no one was looking. And Kelly would go along with it. How should I handle this? The school nurse had given my pupils the special ed. version of the sex talk. But this episode wasn’t about protecting the areas of your body covered by a bathing suit from bad adults. Or touching your private parts only in the bathroom or your bedroom with the door closed. This was full-blown, unbridled puppy love. I had to lay down some firm limits, but do it delicately.

Kelly was still flushed, too upset to listen. I addressed the frowning 13-year-old male in front of me. ‘Gavin, Kelly can be your friend if she wants to. Boys and girls can be friends. But boys and girls don’t kiss at school. Sometimes, teenagers kiss on the weekend, on a date.’

Should there really be a difference between weekend and school behaviours? Where was I going with this?

‘Kelly likes me. I kiss her,’ Gavin insisted.

‘Kelly is not a teenager, Gavin. She’s only ten. She’s not allowed to kiss boys yet. She’s too young.’

Had I just made up an arbitrary rule about the permissible age for kissing?

I helped Gavin count on his fingers how many years until Kelly turned thirteen. ‘11, 12, 13. Yes. Three more years. Kelly is too young to kiss boys for now. No kissing.’

Was I simply encouraging Gavin to look for an older girl? Was I passing the problem on to the next teacher in line?

‘She my girlfriend. We hold hands.’

‘Holding hands is special. We don’t do it every day. You can hold hands with a girl at the Halloween dance.’ I doubted Kelly’s parents would let her go to the after-school dance once I discussed her new crush with them.

Gavin’s only response was a loud ‘humph’.

‘The rule is “hands to yourself”. That’s not just about fighting. It also means no kissing. No touching. You like Kelly. She’s your friend. You don’t want to get her in trouble for breaking the rules, do you?’

Oops. Shouldn’t I keep guilt out of it?

Gavin shook his head, but kept glancing at Kelly, who returned his looks with doe-eyed adoration. I was definitely going to have to make extra rounds on the playground over the next few days.

‘Okay, both of you can go in. Kelly, go and sit with Tina.’ She slipped inside our half-sized classroom and pulled her chair next to Tina, who was looking at a picture book.

‘Gavin, do you want Ricky to be your partner in math today?’

Shift his focus. Redirect him to the next routine activity.

‘I want Kelly.’

‘Not today, Gavin,’ I said. ‘Tina and Kelly are math partners. You can work with Ricky or Matt.’

Give him a choice. Defuse the power struggle

Gavin was still pouting, but he shuffled over to Ricky’s desk. I thought I’d made headway and was pleased with his cooperation. I wanted to show Gavin he wasn’t being punished. ‘You can pick Kelly tomorrow if you like.’

He shrugged. ‘Okay.’ He dragged his chair next to Ricky’s and plunked himself down.

Phew! I’d found the right words. Maneuvered through the jungle of puberty. Sidestepped a battle of wills with a stubborn teenager. There I was—on the brink of special education savvy. Standing at the blackboard, I reached for a piece of chalk and surveyed my little group of eight students. And Gavin, with the pride and loyalty of any young man who has won the attention of his first love, looked me straight in the eye and added quietly: ‘Kelly my girlfriend.’

Karen Zey is a Canadian writer, a part-time teacher, and a full-time student of life. Her CNF appears/is forthcoming in Bright Flash Literary Review, Porcupine Literary, SugarSugarSalt Magazine, The Sunlight Press and other fine places. Karen leads the Circle of Life Writers workshops at her community library.