My eighth grade science teacher was Mr. Han. He was tall, lanky and had brown hair and a mustache just like my dad. Mr. Han loved science, and he loved nature. When the weather was nice, he’d take us out on the football field where we’d stare at patches of grass, marveling at all the things waiting to be discovered in six inches of turf, if someone actually took the time to look. We charted the path of the sun, learned about fault lines, memorized the Periodic Table, and learned to read test tubes. But we hardly ever opened the science textbook even though we had to bring it to class just the same, in case the principal came in and we had to act like science was boring.
Mr. Han’s class was right before band. In fact, every single student in the class was also in band. The aisles of Mr. Han’ science class were a jumble of instrument cases and sheet music.
We had to bring our instruments to class because the band room was on the other side of the building and it was hard enough to make it from science to band without being tardy. Mr. Han never gave tardies. But the band teacher did.
I sat a couple rows back, on the right hand side of the class, with my flute tucked discreetly under my chair. Nikki Smith, who changed her name to Nichole after she decided she was going to become a world famous supermodel, sat in the very back with the boys. Meanwhile, Philip Brown, the first chair trumpet player and self-proclaimed king of eighth grade academia and my arch-nemesis, sat right up front. Jesse Johnson, whose parents owned the stone quarry, sat next to Phil, not because they were friends, but because Jesse had a way of distracting the class with questions that had nothing to do with composite rocks or tectonic plates, and Mr. Han wanted to keep an eye on him. He had to keep his saxophone by the door so no one would trip over it.
One day, we came into class, banging into the chairs with our instruments. Mr. Han was writing on the board. In loud, sloping letters he wrote: There is NO such thing as a FREE LUNCH! He turned around and grinned at us, rubbing his chalky hands on his jacket. “Okay, you might want to take notes because this is going to be on your test,” he said as he began his lecture. Philip Brown threw me a look and dove into his backpack, digging out his power red college-ruled science notebook, and a tape recorder, just in case.
“Anyone know what this means?” Mr. Han pointed at the board. I stared and pretended to look thoughtful. I couldn’t think of one intelligent thing to say. I was the kid poor enough to get free school lunches. I wondered if maybe this was some kind of joke, but Mr. Han wouldn’t make a joke like that.
Every Monday morning, the entire eighth grade lined up outside of Mr. Han’s homeroom and purchased their lunch tickets for the week. I lined up too, in my hand-me-down clothes and the wrong kind of tennis shoes, and every week, I prayed Mr. Han would remember so I wouldn’t have to say it. But when it came my turn, Mr. Han always said, “That’ll be five dollars, Kristie,” and I had to say, in front of everyone, “Um, Mr. Han, I get free lunch.”
“Oh, that’s right,” he smiled, making his eyes crinkle up at me just the way my dad’s used to. He really did look a lot like my dad. Except my dad’s eyes were blue, and Mr. Han’s were brown. Brown eyes can look a lot like blue when they smile. But they’re not.
Then he put down the big roll of purple lunch tickets and picked up the small roll of light blue lunch tickets. He counted off five and handed them to me. “See you in class!” he called as I walked away. Light blue looks a lot like purple. But it’s not.
Mr. Han was waiting for an answer. “Kristie?” He asked me. My face went hot and I suddenly felt the intense need to cry. “I’m not really sure,” I mumbled. Philip Brown looked triumphant. He already had his hand in the air. Mr. Han stared at me for a second. I loved science and I loved Mr. Han and I always had the answers if Philip Brown didn’t beat me to it. Mr. Han blinked, and I saw him remember. I could tell he remembered by the way he sucked his breath in quickly and then looked away.
Philip Brown was practically writhing with knowledge. I wanted to smack the GPA right out of him. “It means you can’t get something for nothing,” he snorted. “Everything costs something. Whether in science or in economics, nothing happens without significant expenditure of energy and resources.”
Philip was right of course, and he beamed all through Mr. Han’s presentation of the Laws of Thermodynamics. “Everything costs something. Nothing is free.” Jesse Johnson yawned. He was wearing the new leather bomber jacket he had gotten for Christmas, and he didn’t understand how any of this applied to him.
But I knew it was true. Everything cost something, and everything seemed to cost something more than we had. “You’re lucky you have so much,” my mom reminded me if I complained. There were always those African orphans to think about when I started to feel like the most economically depressed kid on the planet. I tried, but I hated those hand-me-downs, and I hated those light blue lunch tickets even more.
When the bell rang, I gathered up my books and my flute. Mr. Han was waiting for me by the door. “I’m sorry,” he said. “I didn’t mean to embarrass you.” He looked worried, and that made it worse. Ever since my dad died, teachers felt like they needed to worry about me.
“I know,” I said, staring as Nichole’s perfect head bobbed by. I wished my jeans were long enough to roll up the way she did.
“Can I tell you something?” he went on.
“Sure,” I said, seeing a band tardy in my future.
Mr. Han read my mind and grinned. “I’ll write you a note,” he said.
Then Mr. Han sat down on the edge of a front row desk and folded his hands over his knee. “I teach this lesson every year,” he said, “and every year, I wonder if anyone really gets it. So it’s important to me that you understand something: Most people have much more then they deserve, but they think they deserve much more than they have.”
I thought about my hand-me-down clothes and swallowed hard. I hoped he wasn’t going to start talking about Africa.
“I want to show you a picture of my son,” Mr. Han was saying as he got out his wallet. I didn’t know Mr. Han had a son, but there I was staring at a picture of a boy about my age. He had brown hair like Mr. Han, but his face was all screwed up and contorted and only one side of his mouth smiled in the picture.
“This is my boy, Peter. Something happened when he was born. The doctors told us that Peter probably wouldn’t live past a year, but he beat the odds! I told you that everything cost something, remember? And do you know what it cost to keep my son alive? It cost my wife staying up with him every night, making sure he didn’t stop breathing, it meant surgeries and trips to the doctor and wiping the spit off his mouth. It meant changing his diapers even when he wasn’t a small boy anymore. It meant selling our house and moving into a small apartment so we could afford his medical bills. It meant listening to him screaming whenever he had to ride in the car, and never, ever hearing him say ‘mom’ or ‘dad.’
“I used to feel kind of sorry for myself, and I was a little jealous of the dads who got to teach their sons how to throw a ball or build a fire. But then one day, a new doctor looked at Peter and he said it was a miracle that Peter was alive at all. And I finally got it. I had so much more than I deserved, and all I had been thinking about was the fact that I didn’t have what I wanted. If I’d gotten what I wanted, I wouldn’t have had my Peter, and if I didn’t have Peter, I wouldn’t be the man I am today.”
He was quiet for a minute, but then the second bell rang and Mr. Han jumped a little and stood up. He smiled at me again. He really does look a lot like my dad, I thought.
“Ah, you’re going to be really late for band, and I’m going to hear about it if I don’t let you go!” He scribbled a note on a pad of paper and handed it to me, but he held on to it when I took it.
“It’s hard to do without, and it’s hard not to compare yourself to others. Believe me, I know. But if you have anything in your life that is good, consider it a gift. Don’t go around demanding more. Just be grateful.”
Then he let go of the note and winked at me, “Study hard for the test, okay? It would kill Philip if you beat him on it!”
I did study for the test, and I aced it. Philip Brown cried real tears until Jesse Johnson punched him in the arm. Mr. Han had written in red pen at the top of my page, “Great job! Now, don’t FORGET!”
I didn’t forget. To this day, I still remember those words. But that’s more than I can say for Mr. Han. Every Monday, when I came up to his desk to get my lunch tickets, he looked at me and said, “That’s five dollars, Kristie.”
“I still get free lunch, Mr. Han,” I tried to whisper.
With a mischievous grin, he would rip off five light blue tickets, lean over and whisper, “There’s no such thing!”