I had a teacher in middle school named Mister Bossy. Yes, we made fun of his name. He was a stern gruff tart-tongued blunt brisk unamused teacher. He was a hard grader and he had no time for fools and mountebanks and silliness in his class, which meant that most of us feared and disliked him and thought him autocratic and spent far more time making snippy jokes and finding endlessly creative ways to waste class time than we did paying attention to the subject or Mister Bossy’s steady undramatic efforts to teach us basic biology.
He had a wooden leg. No one knew why. No one ever had the courage to ask. Had anyone asked, Mister Bossy almost certainly would have glared at the questioner and said tersely Let us review the chapter on cellular respiration. You cannot possibly imagine Mister Bossy sitting down and explaining gently how he came to have a wooden leg. He was not that sort of man and I am not so sure he enjoyed teaching middle school students. I am fairly sure he did not enjoy teaching us, many of whom were rude and lazy and clownish and showed off constantly for the other guys and trying to gain attention for witticisms without the slightest thought that interrupting Mister Bossy, and making snide remarks, and shooting spitballs, and opening and closing the windows, and dropping textbooks for the startling bang!, and drawing cartoons in notebooks, and teasing and gawking at girls, might be insulting to Mister Bossy, might be a sort of theft of his time and energy, might be a sort of theft of immeasurably valuable holy unrecoverable time from the other students in the class, might be greedy and low and a theft from our own best selves, little though we knew of those selves as yet.
I was no better or worse than the other guys. I was a good student but I wanted to be liked more than I wanted to do well or be respectful. I had been raised right, with respect and reverence in the house, but at that time I wanted to be cool and independent and dashing and dangerous and I wanted the other students to pay attention to me and think me cool more than I wanted to act in a manner that I knew in my heart to be right. I wanted to push my parents away. I wanted to be cool more than I wanted to be the boy they assumed I was and had been. I wanted to be cool more than anything else then, and that is why, one droning hot afternoon, I muttered, aloud, loud enough to be heard by every being in the room, Do you keep your socks up with thumbtacks, Mister Bossy?
Let me just pause here for a moment so you and I can both wince at such cruelty.
Some boys burst out laughing. Perhaps six or seven boys. Some girls did too, perhaps three or four girls, although I would guess now their laughter was more a helpless expression of shock than it was actual amusement.
Mister Bossy looked up from his desk in the front of the room and identified the speaker. He stared at me for a moment and then he looked back down again at his desk and we went back to cellular respiration. The boy next to me elbowed me gleefully and a couple of the other boys looked at me grinning.
What a wonderful moment that should have been for me.
But I flushed so swiftly and thoroughly that to this day, many years later, I remember my face burning. You think this is a literary device like hyperbole or metaphor but I assure you I felt like my face was actually really and truly burning. I was completely utterly shakingly overwhelmed with shame. I looked down at my own desk and couldn’t make out a single word in my textbook. I had never felt this way before. I had committed many small sins to that point, causing pain to the innocent, telling lies, causing pain to my parents, stealing this small thing and that, but I had never burned in shame before. I’ll never forget it. Mister Bossy went on with the lesson. Eventually the bell rang. I left the classroom so fast I shoved a boy out of the way at the door to be first out. I was afraid that Mister Bossy would say something to me. I ran down the hall and down the stairs and out to where the buses parked. I think that was the first time in my entire life that I understood that sin was real, sin was foul, sin was not some remote theological idea but a terrible cruelty resident in each and every one of us, to be faced and fought every day until the day you die.
I waited by the buses for a while until my face stopped burning and then I went to my locker and got my stuff and walked home. I walked through our town and across the highway and through the little bedraggled woods and down our street. When I got home my mom and sister were at the dining-room table and my mom said How was school? and I said All right and went outside to shoot baskets on the hoop on the garage. I could feel her looking at my back. My sister said something about politics and they got back into their lifelong conversation about substance and illusion and sin and grace and I shot and shot and shot and shot and shot until dark and dinner.
Brian Doyle is most recently the author of the essay collection So Very Much the Best of Us.