Ben Jameson begins his teaching career in a small private school in Northern Virginia. He is idealistic, happy to have his first job after graduate school, and hoping some day to figure out what he really wants out of life. And in his two years teaching English at Glenn Acres Preparatory School, he comes to believe this really is his life's work, his calling. He wants to change lives.
But his desire to "save" his students leads him into complicated territory, as he becomes more and more deeply involved with three students in particular: an abused boy, a mute and damaged girl, and a dangerous eighteen-year-old who has come back to school for one more chance to graduate.
In the Fall They Come Back is a book about human relationships, as played out in that most fraught of settings, a school. But it is not only a book about teaching. It is about the limits and complexities of even our most benevolent urges--what we can give to others and how we lose ourselves.
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About the Author
Robert Bausch is the author of seven novels and one collection of short stories. They include Almighty Me (optioned for film and eventually adapted as Bruce Almighty), A Hole in the Earth (a New York Times Notable and Washington Post Favourite Book of the Year) and Out of Season (also a Washington Post Favourite). He was born in Georgia and is Professor of English at Northern Virginia Community College. In 2005, he won the Fellowship of Southern Writers' Hillsdale Award for Fiction for his body of work. In 2009, he was awarded the John Dos Passos Prize for Literature, also for sustained achievement. He has twice been a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize. He lives in Virginia.
Read an Excerpt
A High Old Time
In the fall of 1985, shortly after I got out of graduate school, I had the good fortune to land a teaching job at a small private school in Virginia called Glenn Acres. I went around telling everyone I was going to begin my professional life as an English teacher, although teaching was not, as the Catholics like to say about young men destined for the priesthood, my vocation. It was an emergency job — something I fell into so I would have some income and I could save up for bigger and better things. My plan was to work for two or three years and then go to law school. I scored a 160 out of a possible 180 on the LSAT, so I knew I would get in almost anywhere I could afford to go.
And I was right about that. As I write this, I am in my twentieth year of practicing law for the Federal Government — in their antitrust division. My two years as a teacher seem long ago and far away now.
What happened to me in those two short years may have been a consequence of some fault in the understanding between teacher and student, but it changed the world for me in ways I'm still contemplating. This is not a story about teaching. Nor is it about education, or school, although most of what happened started in a school. This is a story about caring a little too much; or maybe about not caring enough. I really don't know which. The only thing I know for certain is that I wish a lot of it did not happen.
My girlfriend Annie believed all the trouble began with Leslie Warren in the fall term, during my last year. Leslie lodged a complaint against me early that year, and Annie thought the complaint, however untrue, got me so bound up with the injustice of it that my "Christ complex" emerged and I spent the entire year trying to right all the injustices in the world. I admit Leslie's complaint hurt me; it was so deeply disturbing on so many levels that I lost the ability to comprehend loveliness for a while. But I worked with her — with the most beautiful young woman I will probably ever know — and when I think now, even now, how much Leslie came to mean to me — I can scarcely get my breath. What happened to her — what became of us, really — is the one thing I can't get myself to accept. Even after all this time.
When I first saw Leslie she was strolling across the school parking lot, carrying her books against her breast, her fine hair, almost the color of corn silk, swaying in the fall breezes. A perfect September day, at the beginning of things, and she looked like autumn — like the blossoming harvest of gold and amber, in sunlight.
I hoped she was a teacher, but I soon found out she was a junior, hoping to finally get the credits she needed to graduate from high school. She was everybody's worst nightmare, I heard — she was not in my class that first year, so I counted myself fortunate, in a way. But in other ways, I longed for just the opportunity to catch sight of her. I am not talking about lust either — just a kind of aesthetic pleasure. You can't help but admire something so perfectly structured. She had high cheekbones, a sleek but soft jaw that curved exactly right around dark red lips. Her eyes were light blue under naturally dark brown, exquisitely arched brows, and dark, curled eyelashes. I had never looked upon such a face. You didn't notice her body — although it was lithe, and shaped well enough. I know the way I'm talking about her only furthers the notion that I was in love with her, but in truth, I wasn't. Or at least, I wasn't in love with her in the way you might be thinking. She was only seventeen when I first saw her and it was hard not to discount all the rumors about everybody's nightmare. She was so perfect I wondered how she could be so completely wild and cross, full of such bitter trouble that nobody wanted anything to do with her. Not having her in any of my classes that first year did not keep me from getting to know her anyway; maybe I even understood her a little bit.
The truth is I don't think my trouble started in the second year, or with Leslie's eventual complaint about me. I think it may have started with little George Meeker, in my first year, before I'd ever spoken with Leslie Warren. If I had not been drawn so completely into George's predicament, perhaps I wouldn't have been so deeply involved in the events of that second year — the last year as it turned out.
I said I wished a lot of it did not happen, but I think mostly I did what my accidental profession called me to. I know that sounds noble, and as if I'm really going to end up talking about my work as a teacher after all, but really I'm not. To say this story is about teaching is exactly the same as saying The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is about the Mississippi River.
After a few months of teaching, I wondered how anybody could be a teacher for his whole life. It turned out to be really hard work. I had to deal with as many as twenty to twenty-five students per class, five classes a day, five days a week. That could be as many as one hundred and twenty-five different personalities every day. I had to teach them how to write — how to think on the page, express themselves honestly and correctly, day in and day out. Do you have any idea how many pages and pages of student writing you'd have to read and evaluate just to teach one simple idea? If each student is hardworking enough to produce only two pages of writing per day, that's 1,250 pages a week. Of student writing. And they all had to write about something that mattered, not just to them but to the rest of the world. (How could one escape the burden of teaching values?)
You're teaching them writing, so what else do you do with them? You can have them read, but then they have to write about what they've read, so you have to read that too. And what do you have them read? Every choice is a step into the moral arena. Every assignment you make gives you the feeling that you're standing at the base of Hoover Dam, and you're about to pull the plug that will unleash a deluge. But you have to do it because that's your job. I did it for two whole years. I think I was actually getting pretty good at it until all the real trouble started. I don't want to bore you with details, but I developed ways to get around the various writing requirements that gave me time to actually do some good work with individuals — with the students who cared about what they were learning.
When I first saw Glenn Acres I thought I was in the wrong place. It was a big ranch house — one level that sprawled over most of a quarter of an acre at the top of a long, sloping hill that ran all the way down to a four-lane highway. (I learned later that in fact it was a converted ranch house, with several extensions built on. Just after the Korean War the owner sold it to Mrs. Creighton, the headmistress, and her husband, and they remodeled the inside with rooms and bulletin boards and blackboards, bookshelves, a drinking fountain, and just about everything you need in a school except a gymnasium.) When I first saw it, I was sure it was somebody's house. I was almost afraid to knock on the back door. I had to knock several times, each time more and more loudly. Mrs. Creighton, a red-haired, middle-aged woman with a mop in her hand, finally opened the door. I was immediately aware of a capable odor in the room. It was an odd mixture of Mr. Clean, lemons, and dog shit.
"Yes," she said.
I thought she was a housewife and I'd interrupted her morning routine. "I'm sorry," I said. "I must have made a wrong turn or something."
"You here for the interview?"
"Well," I stammered. "I came from ... I'm Ben Jameson. Is this Glenn Acres Preparatory School?"
"Come on in," she said. "I'm Mrs. Creighton." She was not tall. Her hair was piled into a great bun on the back of her head. She had a long face, at one time certainly beautiful. She wore bay leaf-shaped glasses on the tip of her nose, and a gold chain ran down each side of her face and then back up over her shoulder. She was wearing high- heeled shoes and gray slacks; a red blouse that hung too loosely down the front and back. She used the mop in her hand to push a bucket full of the offending cleaning fluids in front of her to make room for me. "My goodness you're tall. Don't bump your head."
I leaned down and stepped into the room, but I'm not that tall; only a quarter inch over six feet.
"I've been cleaning up after North," she said. Then she gave a short laugh. "The dog. He messed again."
In the corner, ravenously renewing his supply of bulk for the next day's deposit, was a great oversized lounge chair sort of brown-and-white dog, his tail wagging in sweeping approval. Next to him, watching almost jealously was another dog that looked exactly the same, except he was wheezing from the effort and taking a break from his bowl.
"That's North Carolina eating over there," Mrs. Creighton said. "And the older one there watching him is South Carolina." She stared at them smiling, proud of their names. Then she looked at me and said, "Of course the kids all call them 'North and South,' or just 'Blue' and 'Gray.' The civil war, you know." She was smiling as she said this, so I gave a short laugh, but then she stopped smiling.
"Blue and gray," I said. "That's funny."
"Just come around here to my office."
I followed her, my eyes burning and watering, and my nerves at just the right pitch, so that the slightest suggestion of anything untoward would throw me into a panic. I am the type of fellow whose hands don't shake, whose voice does not tremble in moments of crisis. What happens to me is I sometimes begin to sweat profusely. I have made small rooms more humid all by myself.
It was a relief to get out of the close, warm, caustic air where the dogs sprawled on the gray stones. (It was, I later learned, the "Math room.") Mrs. Creighton led me past a great, long picture window, through a door at the back of the room and out into a small hallway. She turned and smiled and I noticed that her teeth were shaped in such a way that from the wrong angle, or with just a quick look, one might think her two front teeth were missing. But they were there, hanging back a little from the others, tending a little toward the bridge of her nose, and very definitely healthy and white. The glasses balanced on the tip of her nose, and she gestured for me to follow her. "Just back here is my office." She said this with pride, and I felt compelled to remark that the wallpaper was very pleasant to look at, and I liked the pictures on the wall.
"Oh, those," she said. "They came with the house. I never took them down. So did the wallpaper."
"Nice desk," I said.
She pointed to a chair next to the desk. "Sit down."
The room was dimly lit. Only one window, shaded by the oak tree outside, let in any natural light, and she had a desk lamp that focused a weak neon beam on the blotter under it. The window was half open, but the air was still humid, too warm, and inert. One of the panes in the window was cracked from one corner to the next.
Mrs. Creighton struggled to get seated, and when she was settled in her chair — a high-backed, dark brown leather thing with wheels and puffy squares stitched into the leather — she wheeled it up to the desk and began studying some papers piled in front of her.
"Well," she said. "You're mister ..." she paused, looking at me.
"Jameson," I said. "We spoke on the phone."
"Mr. Jameson." She sounded so pleased to see me, as if she'd been waiting a very long time for this exact moment. I liked her face. She reminded me of my mother a little — honest, directly open and without guile. In spite of the odd shape of her teeth, she was not afraid to smile. "Yes, Misssterrr, Jameson." Her eyes fell to the surface of the desk, scanning the piles of paper again.
I waited, sweat gathering on my brow and running down the side of my face. She shifted a few of the papers, then found what she was looking for. "Ah, here it is." She adjusted her glasses and studied my application for a while. Her hands were gnarled and ravaged by arthritis, but she still painted her nails. She glanced up from the form and said, "You've graduated just this year?"
"Uh, huh." She went back to the form. I felt my stomach move, then heard it growl. It sounded like one of the dogs.
"You like young people?"
"Well you should. You're a young person yourself." "I look younger than I am."
"How old," she went back to the form, looking for it.
I told her I was twenty-five.
She laughed. "You're a very young man indeed."
"Just say yes," she said, looking into my eyes again. She had to frown a bit to keep her glasses in the right place on her nose.
I wasn't sure I heard her right. "What?"
"And don't say 'what.' Say 'pardon.' That's so much more ..." she paused, looking now out the window. She turned back to me, "Proper. That's not the word I want is it?"
"No. So much more — well. I like it better." She smiled and the glasses slid a bit down her nose. She pushed them back with her index finger.
I wasn't sure what to say next. It was quiet for a moment.
"What were we talking about." She put her hand up to her chin, frowned again — really scowling this time. I thought I would not like to be in the scope of that look for having disappointed her. I watched her as politely as I could with sweat trickling down the sides of my face. "Let's see," she said, smiling again. She looked closely at the form once more, holding onto the frames of her glasses. It didn't appear that she was actually reading anything on it. "You've never taught before."
She did not glance up at me, but it stopped her. "You don't have to call me ma'am."
"You got your B.A. in history?" "Yes."
"And your M.A. in English?"
Now she looked at me. "Why?"
"I don't know." I could see she didn't like that answer. "Well no. I do know, it's just that I'm not sure why."
She tilted her head back, looking at me through the thick lenses, so that it looked as if she was actually looking down her nose at me. She waited for me to finish.
"I was thinking I might go to law school later."
"It's an idea I was tossing around. But not right away. Maybe five years down the road or so."
"You think you can teach writing?"
"I think so."
"What makes you think so."
"I learned how to do it in school. If I can learn it anybody can." I figured modesty might impress her a bit.
She said, "Being a good learner doesn't guarantee that you'll be a good teacher."
"I know. Of course."
"I've known a lot of very bad teachers."
"I guess I've been lucky," I said. "I've only had one or two."
"What didn't you like about them?"
I thought about this for a minute. I could see what she was after and I wanted to say just the right thing. "I don't think they cared about their students."
It was quiet for a while. Now she seemed to be reading my application very carefully, still a slight frown on her face. "Mrs. Gallant, our usual English teacher, had to leave us. Her husband is in the military." She put my application down. "But that's not why she had to leave. She was a very good teacher and the students loved her, but she was not prepared to do the one thing I absolutely require."
This didn't seem to call for an answer. I met her gaze though, and realized she was watching me closely.
"We've had to be very vigilant with our students the last few years," she said. "Drugs and alcohol you know."
I nodded as though I did know, but again said nothing. I'd smoked a lot of dope and knew I might very soon have to lie.
"Our students must keep journals in English class. Do you mind having them do that?"
"And they must be told that if they fold a page over in their journals, no one will read what they've written there."
"But you must read everything they write on those folded pages.
You think you can do that?"
"Well ... I guess if ..."
"Mrs. Gallant couldn't do it. She refused, she said, on moral grounds."
"I could do it," I said. "It's not a question of morals, really." I would have said anything just then. I knew I was very close to getting the job. I did not know or consider the consequences of such a breach of faith. My main worry was that she would not believe me. "I see nothing wrong with being vigilant," I said.
"Children in school have no rights we need worry about. I want to get that issue settled right away. There are drugs, and very bad things in schools these days and we can't afford not to pay attention to everything. That is the first thing I want you to agree to."
"Oh, I agree. Yes." I think I smiled. Inside I was fairly singing, I got the job. I got the job.
"You also will have a bus route to follow in the morning."
Excerpted from "In the Fall They Come Back"
Copyright © 2017 Robert Bausch.
Excerpted by permission of Bloomsbury Publishing Plc.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
I bought this book on a positive review on npr, which i regret, truly bad writing by a self absorbed non- author
Full disclosure, I've been a fan of Robert Bausch for a long time. He seems to try something new in every book, so every book is an adventure. Some of fascinating thought experiments, and some, like this one, are fascinating explorations of the human heart. While it's a tough-minded book that will keep you turning pages to find out what happens to Ben, it's mostly about how strange and wonderful people can be, with all their faults and foibles.