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Before recess bell rings I roll my shirt cuffs up to my elbows and have the children gather round. I take off my wedding ring. “Words,” I tell them, “are worth smashing someone’s face in.”  

Look at twelve bright little faces eager to learn. Take a wrestler’s stance bulldogging the tikes. Snow outside piled high against the windowpanes. Heater turned on and humming. 

“Do you hear what I’m saying?  Because Words are the only thing in life that matter.”  

Somehow I command their complete attention. All twelve of them. 

I pick out Reginald, the tallest boy, sitting Indian-style center circle, wavy brown hair, bundled in a snowsuit ready for playing in drifts. “You, you like Words don’t you?”

He smiles. “Yeah sure. I use them all the time.”  Which gets a good laugh all around.

But I don’t so much as squint my eyes. “You ever slugged a guy over Words?”  

Kid looks flabbergasted. “My brother hit me once for telling him I loved him,” he says. 

And that, that is something I can work with, so I smile which makes me realize I’ve gone six days without shaving. “Good. That’s what I’m talking about. Words are so crucial you ought to be willing to take a good beating for them. Here, I want you to pretend I’m your brother and hit me as hard as you can.”  

The kid turns to the blonde ponytail half-shirt next to him and they chuckle. “Come on Mr. H. Seriously.”  Others laugh and a couple of smarttalkers heckle. An A/V cart goes rickety rack down the hallway sound squeezing under our closed door. 

I knew it wouldn’t be easy. “Ok,” I say sober-faced, “how about you tell me you love me and I’ll hit you as hard as I can?”  

The kid starts to look nervous. The others start the whispering. I can see he’s embarrassed as he looks away and says,  “But my brother already hit me.”  

I don’t back down. “Oh, so you’re not willing to take another punch?”  I step closer to him. 

The other children get scary quiet. A few girls scoot back. 

“Did you mean it?”  I say, baring my teeth, “Did you mean to use the Word you used?”

Reginald raises his mittened hand to sop up snot from his nose. He nods his head.

“Did you learn not to use that Word?”

Maybe tears are gonna fly. He won’t look at me. 

“Because you should never use Words you wouldn’t fight over, Reginald. Never.”  

The boy now looks like his age. “Do you want to hit me Mr. H?” he says.

The room is cavernous.  

I take a deep breath and say, “Only if you want me to. Only if you’re ready.”

[Forever after at]

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