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He's a Marked Man: A teacher's confrontation with the meaning of Ash Wednesday

It was lucky Conroy was in his office. Otherwise Jamie Laarman might have spilled it all to the secretary. That's how badly he needed to unload his frustration.

"He's not coming back in," Laarman told his principal. "I've had it with the jerk. He's pushed me over the line, and he's gone."

Conroy swung his chair away from the computer screen and stood. "Shut the door," he said. 'And who's got your kids?"

Laarman felt behind him for the knob. "Nobody's got my kids. They're ripping the room apart, and frankly I don't care."

Conroy noticed that Laarman hadn't slammed the door and took it for a sign of hope.

"I just came to tell you that that little fiend is not coming back into my class—"

"What'd he do?" Conroy said, pointing to a chair that Laarman refused.

"Smarted off," Laarman said quickly.

That's all. Just smarted off. So Conroy let it sit for a minute—didn't push this first-year teacher's disheveiment, pointed instead once more at a chair that once more Laarman refused.

"Smarted off?" Conroy said again.

Laarman threw his gaze up to the top of the wall behind the principal and stopped there, as if reliving what must have been sheer pain. "He gave me this look," Laarman said.

"What'd he say?" Conroy asked.

"He didn't say nothing. He just gave me this look," Laarman told him.

Conroy allowed his new English teacher the double negative, for emphasis. "So you want me to boot him out of your class because he gave you a naughty look. Do I have this right?"

"You didn't see it," Laarman said. "It was pure belligerence—"

"Eyes?" Conroy said, "Just his eyes. He didn't say a thing—he didn't moon you, didn't slug anybody didn't cuss—"

"Don't take his side, Frank," Laarman said.

"I'm not taking his side. I'm trying to find out what happened." He pointed again at the chair.

"My kids are all alone," Laarman said, rejecting again an attempt that he understood was designed to cool him off.

"He gave you this look—"

"He gave me this look, and I blew up," Laarman said, his eyes dropping momentarily. 'And he knew it. The minute he saw the look on my face—I didn't even yell—he took off—"

"Took off?" Conroy said. "Out of the room?"

"Out of the room."

"Running?"

"Running."

"To where?"

"Outside."

"Outside the school?"

"That's right."

"You chased him right out of the school?"

"Into the parking lot."

"The parking lot?"

"Around the cars."

"C'mon—"

"I did."

"And you never caught him, I bet."

Rage darkened Laarman's face like a veil. "How did you know?" he said.

"Westgard's half your size. Besides, if you'd caught him, you'd be confessing murder right now."

"That's right," Laarman said. 'And what really got me was that stupid ash on his face." He pointed to his own forehead, pulling Ms eyes cross-eyed.

Conroy broke into a laugh. "Let me get this all straight here now . . . West-gard comes back from church at noon hour with the ash on his forehead, smarts off in your class by giving you some kind of mocking look, and you're thrown into righteous fury. You chase him out of the room and into the parking lot, where you can't catch the little devil."

Laarman bristled.

"All of this happens on Ash Wednesday. And what really ticks you off, Laarman—you hopeless Protestant, you—is that this Catholic kid smarts off wMIe he's got ashes on his forehead."

"Not that," Laarman said. "It's not prejudice or anything—"

"Baloney it isn't," Conroy interrupted. "That's what gets you—that the ritual doesn't count, that it didn't mean diddly to Westgard, when you think it should." He put both hands on tire desk in front of him, then leaned slowly backward, bringing his hands up behind his head. "He's got the mark of the church right on his forehead, and he ought to behave like it. That's what you're thinking, isn't it?"

"I got ticked off because of the way he looked at me, not because of the ash—"

"You expect more of him, don't you? You expect more of all your kids who on this holy day got the ash up here," he pointed to his own forehead. "You expect that it means something to them-— mat when they come back from church with ash splashed on their foreheads, they should be angels."

Laarman shrugged his shoulders. "Why go through all the lunacy of putting—"

"See, lunacy," Conroy interrupted again. "You're prejudiced—"

"I didn't mean it—"

"It's not lunacy," Conroy said.

Laarman finally sat down. "I'm sorry" he said.

"I didn't mean it that way."

"You know what it means?" Conroy said.

"Ashes to ashes, dust to dust,'" Laarman said. "I may have been raised Protestant, but I'm not an idiot."

"Frailty," Conroy said, "mortality sinfulness, weakness—that on our own we stand in dire need of grace. You know that language, John Calvin?"

"Of course, but the priest ought to give them a mirror. I've never seen anything like this. I look up at my kids after lunch, and half of them have ridiculous, smudgy foreheads—including Bob Westgard, the biggest jerk I've got." He pointed, pointedly, at Conroy. "You tell me—what did it mean to him? Ash Wednesday?"

"So terribly anxious to judge, aren't you?" Conroy said, "the whole lot of you—"

"Now who's prejudiced?"

"Seriously" Conroy said. "It's a thing with Protestants, isn't it—judging, looking at people and determining whether or not they're glory-bound."

"I'm not sending him to hell," Laarman told him. "I just don't want him in my class. I don't want to look at him again. He's slime—"

"Let me tell you something, Laarman. You're one of the finest first-year teachers I've ever had, and it's because you're a believer. I'm convinced of it." Conroy pulled himself up in his chair, put both hands in front of him. "But you don't know a thing about Catholic ritual—"

"We never covered it in catechism," Laarman joked.

"The old Ash Wednesday Mass ended with something close to what you call a banishment from the garden—God telling us, his creatures, that because of sin we can no longer live a life of pure glory."

"Well, that's exactly what / did—and that's what I want you to do: boot him," Laarman said, pointing again, this time out the window.

"You know who that makes you?" Conroy said.

"One angry teacher," Laarman said.

"One angry God," Conroy told him. 'And that's something you Protestants work on, don't you?"

"What's that?"

"Being God."

Laarman looked away.

"You like the role, Jamie?" Conroy asked.

"I won't have the kid in my class," Laarman said. "That's all I came to tell you—he's not coming back."

"So much for the human race," Conroy told him.

Laarman rolled his eyes. "This isn't a morality play here. We're not reliving the Old Testament, Frank, and I won't get myself drawn into Catholic ritual that seems to mean nothing at all to kids like—"

"Who's talking Catholic here?" Conroy said.

Laarman looked up angrily. "Look at this," he pointed to his forehead. "No smudges here!"

"And you're proud of that?" Conroy said.

Laarman stood. "Look, I gotta get back to my kids. You talk to him, all right? You tell him I won't have him back in my class. That's all I'm saying."

Conroy reached into his desk, took out a pencil, and started shading a dark circle on a piece of scratch paper, a circle of darkness a half-dollar wide. "I'll talk to him," he said, without looking up. "I'll tell him how mad you are. I'll let him know that he can't go back to the garden."

Laarman smirked.

Conroy kept darkening the circle. "So tell me," Conroy said, "how long did the two of you slow dance around the cars out there?"

"Too dumb long," Laarman said.

"And he's still out there?"

"I couldn't catch him."

"Ticked you off, I bet," Conroy said.

"I'd have killed him—"

"I believe it." Without looking up, Conroy dropped the pencil and pushed his thumb into the black spot he'd created. "Just for today, I want to make you a Catholic," he said, raising his blackened thumb. "Come here," he said, getting up off his chair.

"I'm not wearing a smudge," Laarman said. "Looks absolutely ridiculous—all those Catholic kids in my class with dirty foreheads—"

"And none of them care—-"

"And none of them care," Laarman mimicked.

Conroy looked at his thumb. "I guess it doesn't matter, does it—whether the ash is there or not?" he said. "Just as long as people like you—and me—and even Westgard, know we all got smudges and we can thank goodness there's Easter."

Laarman looked confused.

"Just as long as you know you're marked too—whether or not anybody sees it." He pointed his blackened thumb again. "Dust to dust—frailty—sinfulness—the need of grace. I shouldn't have to explain to a Calvinist."

Laarman reached up and undid the collar of his shirt, then jerked loose his tie. His eyes weren't so wild anymore. He was thinking—hard.

Conroy put his thumb up to his own forehead and smeared it with pencil shavings. "The odd part is, I can't even see it myself. Maybe it's meant for you too—after all, right now, you're the one staring." He picked a Kleenex out of the box on his desk, wiped off his thumb, then pointed up at his forehead. 'Ask not for whom the ash smudges, my man," he said. "That's John Donne, isn't it?—you're the English teacher. Or is it Hemingway?"

"It's the kind of line a lot of people use," Laarman said quietly.

"Like 'dust to dust'?" Conroy asked.

"Same thing," Laarman told him. He turned and walked through the door, and greeted the surprised secretary almost calmly.

What on earth did Conroy say? she wondered. What on earth could that man have done to take all that anger out of him in that short of time? The change she saw in Jamie Laarman was, she told Conroy later, nothing short of miracle.

"By the way" she said, somewhat testily "You didn't even tell me you stepped out to go to church."

Conroy looked at her strangely.

She pointed to her forehead.