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Fresh air

The room is hot. Sweltering. My legs stick to the chair, and I rub my arm along the cool metal bars of the desk frame until they, too, heat up and are of no use.

Our 11th grade English teacher, Mr. Wambach, stands at the front of the classroom. He wears a polo shirt and jeans, which are stained with yellow chalk around the pockets. He writes on an old, green chalkboard, in cursive letters that seem to take forever to appear.

We’re analyzing a novel, Ernest Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms. If I were paying attention I would read about Catherine and Frederic and Milan and war and love. I would read the quote about the world breaking people and many being stronger at the broken places. I would try to graft my own narrative onto Frederic’s, as I’ve done with so many protagonists before.

But it is so hot.

Our school is old. More than four decades old. Unsurprisingly, it has had little attention from the school district beyond the addition of a trailer park of mobile classrooms on one edge of campus. The windows in our building are fixed shut, presumably so students won’t open them during class and cause mischief. But because the air conditioning is controlled downtown, the teacher has no way to control the temperature in his classroom beyond opening the door to the hallway, running a fan, and hoping things will cool down.

Mr. Wambach, who is retiring in six weeks at the end of this school year, has had enough. He looks out at the crumpled bodies sprawled on the desks—32 of them in a classroom designed for 25—and stops mid-sentence. “This is absurd,” he says, “and I don’t care what they think about it.” He says the word “they” with such disdain for bureaucracy, for the idiocy of a system that would take away control of something so basic. Mr. Wambach walks to his light oak desk, which is cluttered with papers to grade and books to read. He opens the top drawer, pulls out a screwdriver and starts toward the window.

“Can you do that?” one of my classmates asks.

“I’d like to see the superintendent come down here and try to fire me over this,” Mr. Wambach replies defiantly. He makes a big production out of the next five minutes, removing the screws that hold the windows shut. With a loud squeak, the first one opens. Then another. And finally, the third. I’m sitting on the opposite side of the classroom, but can immediately feel a difference.

The air from outside isn’t particularly cold, but it is fresh and warm—as opposed to the stagnant and hot air inside the classroom. We hoot and holler for Mr. Wambach, a teacher we’re not particularly fond of. But his rebellious streak, this act of civil disobedience to the faceless bureaucracy of a large urban school district, wins us over.

It may have been for his own interest; a thin line of sweat had begun to appear on his shirt. But what we don’t realize is the effect this little performance, this five minute distraction from learning, does for us.

As Mr. Wambach moves back toward the chalkboard and turns his attention back to Hemingway’s plot, the words jump off the page. We begin to feel the emotion in the sentences. They evolve from just words into a story.

We don’t realize any of this, of course. It simply happens. With a cheap screwdriver, our teacher brought fresh air into the classroom—and a fresh perspective into our lives. 

Adam Rhew

Adam Rhew attended Beverly Woods Elementary, Carmel Middle, and South Mecklenburg High schools, all part of Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools. He earned a journalism and political science degree from UNC-Chapel Hill. He is a contributor to Southern Living, Charlotte magazine, and SBNation Longform, among other publications. Previously, Adam was an award-winning television and radio news reporter, with stops at stations in Chapel Hill, N.C., Charlottesville and Richmond, Va., and Charlotte, N.C.