The Loser

Issue #148
Summer 2021

The email invitation read, The Children’s School: A year-end celebration of faculty and scholars’ achievements. Your presence is humbly requested.

People said that my place of employment was a wonderful school. The teachers cleaned the boys’ and girls’ bathrooms. There were crossing-guard duties and after-school workshop responsibilities. Homework was assigned but there were no grades. I never paid much attention to what the children turned in, crude drawings of beers and boobs, that kind of thing. My English classes had sixth-graders mixed with twelfth-graders. All of the children were expected to read and absorb the same books by Ovid, Kafka, Cather.Let the children teach one another was something I heard a lot. Or maybe it wasDo no harm to their brains.

I was a short Korean (orphan, adopted) in her early twenties with a bachelor’s degree in English. I emphasized in my classroom the dignity of hard work, cleanliness, and kindness. My coworkers had nominated me to clean the bathrooms every day. As I scoured the toilets in the girls’ bathroom, I imagined befriending the plain-faced maintenance man who ambled down the hallway in his starched dark blue Dickies uniform, jingling his keys, whistling a folksy tune. No one knew I had once been locked in the utility closet for close to forty-five minutes after school, except the maintenance man who unlocked the door and let me out. “I’m OK,” I remember saying to him. He stepped aside. I mean, I brushed past him with a charming insouciance as if he had offered me something I didn’t want. On occasion, the maintenance man would nod at me in passing in the hallway.

Could no one else see how much I had to offer the world?

Not many people liked me.

For the next few hours of the evening, I would pretend I didn’t want to be at the party so I would have something to talk about with my coworkers. I imagined they would bond over how lame it was to be at the party, even though none of them had anything better to do, except the guitar teacher who was in Devendra Banhart’s band. I pulled into a long curving driveway that led to a wealthy person’s house with cedar plank siding. I parked my Corolla.

Inside the house, my coworkers stood around drinking. I was surprised to hear them mull over issues of language and power in the classroom. I heard them speak of Paolo Freire’s teaching methods with notes of enthusiasm and suspicion in their voices. I took the initiative to assist the host pouring glasses of wine. She looked overwhelmed. I stepped behind a banquet table and poured generous glasses into plastic cups. My hands were shaking. Wine sloshed over the rims. There was a black hair on the white tablecloth. A squiggly little line.

A coworker and I discussed dating in Los Angeles. She asked me if it was true I hadn’t had sex. She heard her students talking about it. She squinted at me as if squinting would reveal the veracity of the rumor.

“I don’t know,” I sighed. I straightened my posture and took a deep breath.

“Are you religious or something? I can see you with someone getting a master’s degree,” she said helpfully.

“I have this cousin,” she went on.

The front door opened. Everyone gasped and clapped as four children from The Children’s School shuffled in holding musical instruments close to their bodies. Mrs. Kleeb led them to a row of music stands. They waited for the applause to die down, then launched into a rendition of Dvŏrák’s String Quartet no.12. For weeks I had listened to the quartet practicing their Dvŏrák every day after school. I held my creative-writing workshop in a walk-in storage closet adjacent to the auditorium where the quartet rehearsed. At the beginning of the year, I read my students’ pages diligently, with patience and care. The last few months I had lost interest.

“Write whatever you want,” I told them. I would lie down on the floor and dream of driving around my childhood neighborhood without touching the steering wheel. I wished I could confide in my students the beauty and strangeness of my dream, but they were too engrossed in what they referred to as their writing projects. Martha Cho had been working on an essay about the anthropocene in relation to neoliberalism. Eric Kowalski sat in the corner and drew smiley faces on his leg with a Sharpie. Michael Jimenez was writing a novel about a teenager neglected by his parents. Their predilection for pretentiousness astonished me. Sometimes I left them in the closet alone and walked to the gas station a block away where I bought my cigarettes. The cashier always slid my change across the counter.

“He doesn’t want to touch my hand,” I would tell my students when I returned to the closet. “It’s racist.”

“Maybe the problem is the fact that we live inside these yucky capitalist structures,” said Martha Cho.

“We’re all trapped,” said Eric Kowalski.

“I suppose that’s right,” I said, surprised at Eric’s insight.

“No, really, is it time to go home?” he said.

I watched the music teacher beam at the children and smile patiently as they made mistakes; there was something touching about it. Michael Jimenez held his instrument far away from his head.

“Hold it like this,” said the music teacher as he placed his hand underneath his chin.

“I don’t think Michael heard you.”

The music teacher, late fifties with the face of a sorrowful vole, brought a solemn finger up to his mouth. “Listen to the children.”

After the performance ended, everyone applauded enthusiastically, and it took all of my strength to bring my hands together in a pathetic pantomiming of a clap. I installed myself in a corner of the living room. I pretended to examine a framed photo of a smiling Buddhist monk as if the picture required my utmost concentration. Out of the corner of my eye I saw the music teacher approach with a glass of wine.

“What are you doing here?” he said.

“I teach at the school.”

“No, I mean you’re standing silently in the corner of the room.” He pushed his shoulders forward and hunched his back in a grotesque manner. He made a face contorted with tremors of disgust. “This is what you’re doing.”

“Oh god.”

“I’m sorry, that’s just what it looks like.”

“No, I’m sorry.”

“It’s quite all right.”

“All of my favorite people are standing right here in a corner of the room,” announced Mrs. Kleeb as she put her arms around us. She was majestic, drunk, and wearing sweatpants. My students said she had once been an important television executive, but had dropped out of the industry because she wanted to wear sweatpants every day, hence the founding of her charter school.

“I think I saw one of the children selling drugs in the backyard,” reported the music teacher. “And then I found this on the ground.”

In his hand was a small metal tube with a filter. “I mean, what isthis?”

“It’s a grinder,” I said. “It’s for weed.”

“How old are you again?” said Mrs. Kleeb.


“So you know a lot about drugs.”

“Not really at all,” I said. “I worked full-time and commuted to college.”

“No one’s accusing you of anything,” Mrs. Kleeb said. She flicked her grayish braid over her shoulder and stroked it.

I consoled myself with the fact that there was one day of school left, a formality, until the year ended. I had prepared for my students a summer-break reading packet, which included essays by Nietzsche, Heidegger, and Foucault. My favorite was Foucault because his last name was easy to pronounce and he wrote about prisons. The Children’s School was like a prison with children and violins and gerbils. I wondered if it could be considered an actual prison if people were allowed to leave. I myself had never tried to leave. I would never quit. I’d probably end up like the administrative assistant who always offered to stay late because she had a bad home life. Each morning, I would arrive at the school where I sat in my Corolla and smoked my cigarettes in peace in the parking lot. At seven-thirty the bell rang, signaling it was time for me to go inside to teach the children. By six in the evening, I was back at home eating dinner with my parents and my sister, who always wanted to know how my day went.

“Sean Chin threw up on my shoes,” I told them a few weeks ago to emphasize my displeasure with my job and my life. “It’s pretty depressing.”

“You were born depressed,” said my sister (not adopted). “Or maybe you’re depressed all the time because you’re always alone sitting by the window and smoking weed.”

“But she’s happier since she started working at school,” insisted my father. “Much happier. She’s contributing to society.”

“She’s not so sad anymore,” said my mother. “She has friends now at school. When she went to school as a student, she had no friends.”

“You’re both talking about me as if I’m not here. I’ve always had at least one or two friends.”

“She had no friends,” said my father who had stopped chewing. “She received no phone calls. She sat by the window or out on the balcony and was sad.”

“I think sitting by the window made her especially sad because she’d look out the window and see other people doing things,” added my sister.

“When she saw other people doing things, it made her feel bad because all she did was sit by the window,” said my mother.

“So work at school is very good,” my father said.

“It’s fine,” I said.

“You could quit,” said my sister. She folded her napkin neatly. “If you really hate it so much. You don’t have to play the martyr. You could quit.”


Mrs. Kleeb and the music teacher were discussing what to do with the children doing drugs. I offered to investigate. Behind the cedar-planked house was a deck strung with bright yellow Christmas lights. It overlooked a gently curving slope and, at the bottom, a gemlike pool of water. A retention pond. A man and a woman held hands, then walked down to the water where they sat on the ground and hugged. I went down near them. They saw me approach, then they fled, laughing. A cheap-looking metal dock inched out into the middle of the pond. A solitary figure sat at the end of it.

“Hey,” I said. My footsteps thumped down the length of the aluminum.

Michael Jimenez turned. He was smoking weed.

“Should you really be doing that at a faculty function?” I asked him, but it wasn’t a question.

“I’m transferring to a better school next year,” he said. He rolled his eyes. They were small and gloomy and downturned at the corners. He moved around slowly and had trouble absorbing information in the classroom. There were rumors of “difficult parents,” which usually meant alcoholics. He was in eleventh grade. He offered me the bowl, a round monstrosity with swirls of dull colors. It was something that under normal circumstances I would’ve enjoyed. I sat down next to him. I took the bowl and brought it up to my mouth. I inhaled quickly.

“You’re not doing it right. You have to inhale and hold it in your mouth. Like this.” He sucked in his cheeks.

“It’s not that I’ve never smoked weed before. I’m worried someone might see us.”

“Here, I’ll block you.” He took off his sweatshirt and held it up like a makeshift curtain.

Since graduating college, I preferred to smoke up alone on the balcony of my parents’ duplex, to sit in silence with my paranoid ruminations and dreams and fantasies oscillating slowly between a lukewarm sensation that that universe cared about me and a vague, deathlike emptiness. I sucked in the smoke and held it in my mouth for a long time. I coughed a lot. I was oddly thrilled. I knew Michael would never go to college or make anything of himself, but that wasn’t my fault. I had nothing to do with that. He would go somewhere else and become someone else’s burden. That’s how he would spend the rest of his life. I would never have to think of him again. For the first time that night I felt ecstatic.

“You’re a pretty good teacher,” said Michael. “You’re better than some of the other ones.”

“I know.”

I inhaled, then blew out another puff. “The funny thing is I have no teaching experience. I think Mrs. Kleeb hired me because she’s a lesbian. Maybe she has a crush on me. I mean, I have no teaching credentials,” I explained as though a seventeen-year-old male could possibly understand me. “I applied everywhere. No one else wanted to hire me. To be honest, I used to work afternoon and evening shifts at Starbucks.”

I might have been a little stoned.

“Starbucks?” said Michael.

“Everyone in my family thinks I’m a loser.”

“I’ve never been to Starbucks.”

“It’s not that great. You have to stand around and be nice to people all day.”

“But you do that anyway.”

“I guess.”

Michael moved closer. He looked as if he was about to rest his head on my shoulder. “You’re too nice to people,” he said.

“That’s true, Michael. It’s important to be nice to people.”

I was surprised Michael had acknowledged the kindness I demonstrated in my classroom. Perhaps he wasn’t that slow. He swatted at a mosquito near my face. I caught a whiff of his Old Spice deodorant, a musky, masculine smell.

“What are you doing?” I was genuinely curious.

He mumbled. It sounded like, “Miss Mihm, you become even more beautiful every day.”

I started sweating a little. I knew I wasn’t much to look at, because no one ever said anything to me about my physical appearance. My teeth were gray with a soft furry texture and the spaces between my teeth were black as if I never brushed my teeth, my hair was thin and thinning, there were small clusters of pimples on my chin. And so on.

“Could you repeat that?” I wanted to make sure I had heard him correctly.

“You’re holding my bowl.”

I handed it back to him. In a faculty meeting held at the beginning of the school year, Mrs. Kleeb had forbidden us to spend time alone with students. “It doesn’t matter how talented or interesting or special you may find them,” she’d said. “You cannot sit withour little people alone in rooms. You cannot sit or stand alone with them anywhere.”

I wondered what she was so afraid of. What did she imagine might happen? Michael Jimenez and I were out on the dock alone in the dark and it was fine, I thought.

“Did you go to college?” said Michael.

“Do you think they let people without college degrees teach kids?”

“Did you live in a dorm?”

“I didn’t live in a dorm or anything like that.”

“But you partied.”

“Not really. I worked all the time.”

“I want to go to college so I can party,” said Michael. “Are you Filipino?”

“I’m Korean. Adopted.”

“Oh.” Michael took out a paperclip and scraped at his bowl. I watched him, fascinated; I had never seen him so focused and determined. I hoped he might pass the bowl back.

“That sucks,” he said.


Later that night, the host of the party pulled me aside. She said Mrs. Kleeb was looking for me. I wondered if someone had caught me sitting alone outside with Michael Jimenez. I wondered what kind of odd punishment I would be subjected to, if I would be asked to write a pamphlet on sexual harassment or student-teacher misconduct.

“Do you know why Mrs. Kleeb is looking for me?” I asked the host.

“I don’t know, but it seemed important.”

I glanced around the foyer for Mrs. Kleeb’s gray braid. At least I could say I had made an effort to find her. I went out the front door.

“I heard Mrs. Kleeb was looking for you,” said the music teacher.

I was walking to my car in a hurry as if I had an important place to get to. “Do you know what she wants?”

“It’s dark out. At least let me walk you to your car.”

“It’s right there,” I said. “Right at the end of the driveway.”

“I have an extra ticket for a concert this weekend,” he said. “I’m told it’s of the baroque persuasion.”

“But why does Mrs. Kleeb need to talk with me?”

“She didn’t say. Maybe it had something to do with your investigation of the young scholars.”

I had forgotten we were supposed to refer to the children as “young scholars”.

“Haha. That’s funny,” I said.

“Ah, yes, funny,” he said. He was staring at something on the ground. “But you didn’t respond to my invitation to the baroque concert this weekend.”

His voice sounded strained and formal. I was surprised at how hurt he looked. I listened to myself try to apologize carefully. I took out my keys and drove home. It was dark out. An oncoming truck honked at my car. It made a sad, mournful sound like a fugue. I listened to a love song on the radio called “Not About Love.” I found a great parking spot in front of my parents’ duplex, the smallest place on Wedgewood Drive. I walked up the rickety wooden steps to our unit. Inside, my sister was sitting on the brocade couch in the living room. She was watching a news program with the sound off. A quilt covered her short legs.

“Our parents are asleep,” she whispered. She looked disappointed. “You smell like weed.”


Monday, the last day of school, I found Nadine Gall crying in the hallway. Someone threw something at her, books, apples, or a backpack with books and apples. It was hard to understand. I brought Nadine into the classroom, and to pass the time, I went up to the chalkboard and diagrammed the dramatic triangle. There were fifteen minutes left of the school year. I turned around and looked at my students. I asked them if they wanted to talk about the entanglements of racism or capitalism. Nadine had taken off her shoes.

“It smells like cigarettes in this room,” she said.

A student I’d never noticed before pointed at me. “I’ve been waiting the entire year to say this. I hate you.”

Sean Chin opened the gerbil cage. The children chased the gerbil out of the room. I asked the children to close the door and return to their seats. I might have been screaming very loudly and with force. After some confusion, the children went back to their desks. The gerbil left a trail of black pellets all over the linoleum.

“I really want all of you to shut up and listen to me,” I said.

The children gasped, stunned by my rudeness. They waited for me to say something, but I had nothing for them. I began to prepare in my head a short speech about humility and compassion. A young scholar who always had gunk in her eyes spoke up.

“Miss Mihm, what will you do this summer? Are you going somewhere? Are you coming back to us?”

The children shifted around uncomfortably. I tried to explain to them I didn’t need to go on vacations, because I traveled inside the contours of my own mind.

“What the fuck,” said Eric Kowalski. “What the actual fuck.”

Michael Jimenez raised his hand respectfully. “Miss Mihm, this is boring. Can we go home?”

There was a minute left of the school year.

What I really wanted and expected from the children was an acknowledgement of my kindness and benevolence. I waited for Michael Jimenez to say something about that. My classroom sat in silence. Sometimes I dreamt about teaching a class on silence. It wouldn’t be a class conducted in silence, but an investigation of it. Silence as an ethical practice. Silence as passivity. Silence as protest. Silence as rage. The children and I sat for so long with our silence in what seemed to border upon an everlasting quietude and tranquility it began to fill me with wonder, then the bell rang, interrupting my philosophizing. Before I had a chance to give them my little speech and my little summer break reading packet, I heard the legs of chairs scrape the floor. The door opened. My classroom emptied out into the onslaught of other children shouting, toilets flushing, lockers slamming, musical instruments on wheels traveling down the putrid hallway.

That afternoon, I headed toward the utility closet to retrieve the mop bucket. Mrs. Kleeb came up to me and motioned for me to follow her. I wondered what there was left for us to talk about.

“It won’t occupy you for too long,” she said.

“No, it’s OK.”

“The year passed so quickly, didn’t it?”

“It felt long at times too,” I admitted.

“But they grow so fast. Hormones.” She smiled.

She handed me a manila envelope. “This morning we took a school-wide vote about whether or not to ask you back next fall,” she said.

“Oh. OK.”

“Given everything that happened between you and Michael Jimenez at the party,” she added. “His parents are pretty upset.”

“I see.”

“The results are in the envelope if you want to take a look.”

“Yes, of course,” I heard myself say quietly. But I didn’t mean it. I opened the envelope. The scraps of paper with childish pencil marks looked almost celebratory, like leftover confetti from an old-timey annual parade for hobos and vagabonds. Certainly, those kinds of parades still existed. I thought about my classroom and the children in my classroom. My kindness and generosity had not made an impression on Michael Jimenez or on any of my young scholars. Mrs. Kleeb offered me a box of Kleenex and told me not to cry. She said if I got my life together someday, perhaps I could return in a couple years.

“That’s it?” I said.

“I suppose it might be hard for you to understand,” Mrs. Kleeb yawned, “but we really loved having you here.”