Ted drove Austin over to the school early in the morning. Austin was so nervous, he nearly slipped when he was transferring into his wheelchair from the car. Fortunately, the weather was good, so he didn’t have to worry about ice patches on the ground or anything like that. Another piece of luck was that the wheelchair entrance to the school was around back, so Austin didn’t have to worry about everyone staring at him getting out of the car.
“You okay, son?” Ted asked him.
“I’m fine,” Austin lied. He couldn’t help but think the last time he had been here, he had been walking on his own two feet and happily married.
“Do you want me to come in with you?” Ted offered.
“No, Dad... I’ll be okay,” Austin said. “Really,” he added.
Austin’s father wished him luck and he wheeled in through the back entrance. It was fortuitously placed right next to the seldom-used elevators, which Austin needed to get up to his third floor classroom. In the four years Austin had been working at the school, he hadn’t even known they had an elevator. As the elevator creaked and grunted on its way up, he decided there was a reason he hadn’t known about the elevator.
The first bell hadn’t rung yet, so there were no kids in the hallways. Austin did run into two teachers he knew: Coach Lieberman and Mrs. Granger. Both of them already seemed to know what had happened to him, so he assumed everyone knew. The coach clapped him on the shoulder and told him he was looking good; then he commented on the muscles Austin was getting in his upper chest and said he was welcome to use the weights in the gym anytime he wanted.
Mrs. Granger simply told Austin they were happy to have him back. Mrs. Granger had acted as a bit of a surrogate mother to him in the past; she knew Austin’s wife wasn’t around for him much, so she often brought him food to take home with him. He could tell how much it pained her to see him like this.
“It’s not a big deal, really,” he told her. “I just use this wheelchair now. I’m fine.”
“Of course,” Mrs. Granger said. “You’re just the same as before.” She tried to smile, “How’s Heather, dear?”
Austin considered lying, but he didn’t see the point. “We, uh... we separated...”
“Oh...” The lines on Mrs. Granger’s face deepened. “I’m so sorry, Austin.”
He hated seeing the pity on her face. And he knew he was going to see a lot of it today, especially once word got around that his wife had left him in addition to everything else. “I have to get to class,” Austin said.
The week before, Austin met with the woman who had been filling in for him as a substitute and she told him everything she had done with the kids during his absence. The substitute was a retired teacher named Agnes Hattfield, who clearly didn’t think Austin should have been coming back to his teaching job. “Are you sure you can handle this?” Agnes kept asking him. The truth was, Austin wasn’t absolutely sure. But he couldn’t live with himself if he didn’t give it a try.
As Austin wheeled into his classroom, he saw some changes from the way he had left it. Agnes had started teaching the kids cursive handwriting and she had written the entire script alphabet at the top of the chalkboard. Austin was glad she had done it because he now realized he could only reach the lower half of the chalkboard.
Austin wheeled over to his desk, which had been cleared out since Agnes had left. He was relieved to find that his wheelchair fit neatly into the space under the desk. He removed his lesson plans from a bag on the back of his chair and placed them in one of the desk drawers.
The first bell rang and Austin felt his heart speed up. That was the bell for the kids to start coming into class. Soon they’d be here. He realized he’d never felt so nervous in his life.
Austin stayed behind his desk at first, so the wheelchair wouldn’t shock them right away. The kids entered the same way they always did—chatting animatedly and oblivious to their teacher. Billy Rosser was the fifth student to enter the room and the first to notice Austin was the one behind the desk. Austin was pleased to see that Billy’s face lit up, “Hi, Mr. Chandler!”
“Hi, Billy,” Austin said, smiling back at him. He guessed that Agnes Hattfield hadn’t been a very fun teacher.
“Hey, you’re back, Mr. Chandler,” Georgia Litman observed as she walked in.
“That’s right,” Austin said.
“For good?” Georgia asked hopefully.
“For good,” Austin confirmed.
About half the class had come in at this point and they started clapping and there were scattered excited yay’s throughout the room. “Mrs. Hattfield was really mean,” Zoey Jones confided in him.
“Aw, don’t say that,” Austin scolded her, although he was secretly pleased the kids were happy to be rid of her.
“She was!” Zoey insisted. “She was always yelling at us and making us be quiet. She sent Dougie to the principal eight times.”
“Is that true, Dougie?” Austin asked Dougie Henderson.
“Nope!” Dougie said, grinning mischievously. Austin could imagine how Agnes Hattfield might have gotten frustrated with the boy, who sometimes acted like he was popping amphetamines.
“Are you still sick, Mr. Chandler?” Regina Mills asked him.
The question he had been dreading. The second bell rang and Austin decided it was time to be completely candid with his students. “I’m not still sick, Regina,” Austin told her, waiting for her inevitable response.
“Then why are you in a wheelchair?” Regina asked.
Austin wheeled out from behind his desk. He had rarely sat at his desk before and he didn’t intend to hide behind the desk now. He wheeled out so that the whole class could see his wheelchair and his paralyzed legs. “I’m not sick,” he explained. “But because I had a bad accident, I have to use a wheelchair now to get around for the rest of my life. But I’m not sick. Some people need wheelchairs and some people can walk.”
The class seemed a little bit bewildered by the site of their old teacher sitting in a wheelchair. Several of them appeared to be quite upset.
“I was thinking,” Austin said, adjusting his body in his chair, “maybe instead of having a lesson this morning, we could just talk about my disability and you could ask me any questions you’d like.”
It turned out to be a brilliant idea. The kids had tons of questions, enough to last until the lunch bell.
“Can you walk at all, Mr. Chandler?”
“No, not at all.”
“What about holding on to something?”
“Can you stand up?”
“Can you move your legs?”
“No, I can’t. I can’t move them or feel them at all.”
“You can’t feel your legs? But what if someone stabbed you in the leg?”
“I hope that wouldn’t happen, Bobby. But I wouldn’t be able to feel it.”
“Why did your leg just move?”
“Sometimes it moves on its own. It’s sort of like when you go to the doctor and they hit you on the knee with a hammer.”
“Are you retarded, Mr. Chandler?” (That was from Greg Fenton, whose brother was a wheelchair-user with cerebral palsy and mental retardation.)
“No, Greg, I’m not. I’m exactly the same as I was before.”
“Why do you keep lifting yourself up?”
“That’s called a weight shift. I do about every fifteen minutes so that my legs get a little relief from being sat on all day.”
“My grandma just got a wheelchair, Mr. Chandler.”
“Well, now you can tell her your teacher uses a wheelchair too.”
“Are you still going to teach us the same stuff?”
“Of course I am.”
The questions continued longer than Austin had imagined they would. He showed the kids how the wheelchair worked, including the wheels and the braking mechanism. He even detached one of the legrests to let them take a closer look. By the time the lunch bell came, Austin felt that the kids were a lot more comfortable around him. That was the great thing about kids—they adjusted to everything so quickly.
As the kids were filing out for lunch, Austin noticed little Jenny Brooks lagging behind. He recalled the sheet of grades Agnes Hattfield had given him and remembered that Jenny’s grades had fallen steadily since he had left. He had worked so hard with Jenny and her learning problems, it upset him to see this decline.
“Jenny?” Austin called to her. He wheeled closer to her. “Can I talk to you a minute?”
Jenny nodded and stayed behind the other kids. She hesitantly approached him. He noticed how she hung her head and looked down at her shoes.
“Jenny, why don’t you take a seat,” Austin said, gesturing at a desk in front of him.
Jenny slid into the desk, but still didn’t say a word.
“Is anything wrong, Jenny?” Austin asked her gently. “I saw your grades since Mrs. Hattfield took over for me and they haven’t been as good as usual.”
“You can talk to me, Jenny,” Austin said. “I’m still your teacher.” He waited another minute and she still didn’t say anything. “Come on, Jenny... it’s okay.”
Jenny’s eyes filled up with tears. “I missed you, Mr. Chandler.”
Austin felt an ache in his chest. “Aw, Jenny... that’s really sweet. But I’m back now.”
“But you’re still hurt,” Jenny pointed out.
“What did I tell you before?” Austin said. “I’m fine now. I just need to use this wheelchair instead of my legs.” Jenny didn’t seem convinced. “I promise you, Jenny... I’m in really good health. I’m not going anywhere.” He smiled at her. “Yesterday, I worked out for over an hour. Could I do that if I were sick?”
“I guess not,” Jenny said.
“You have to trust me, Jenny,” Austin said. “I’m not going anywhere.”
A slow smile touched Jenny’s lips. “Okay, Mr. Chandler.”
“But still,” Austin added, “you won’t have me as your teacher forever. Next year you’ll be in fourth grade and you’ll have one of the fourth grade teachers.”
“Are you going to teach fourth grade?” Jenny asked hopefully.
Austin shook his head. “No, Jenny... you know I always teach third grade.”
“You could switch,” Jenny suggested.
Austin laughed. “All right... go to lunch, Jenny. We’ll talk more later.”
As Austin watched Jenny hurry off to lunch, he realized this was the happiest he had felt since his accident.
Lindy Chen couldn’t help but hear about Austin Chandler’s return to work. The other teachers were whispering about it for about a week before the big day came. Lindy had to admit that she had missed Austin for the last few months. The teacher substituting for him, Mrs. Agnes Hattfield had been a supreme bitch. Mrs. Hattfield was always knocking on the door to Lindy’s classroom and asking her to keep down the volume. Lindy considered slugging ol’ Agnes one in the jaw for the good of society, but she thought that might kill the old woman.
Lindy knew how miserable Austin’s students were when the substitute was around. She often overheard them wondering aloud when their teacher would return. It was common knowledge that the kids worshiped Austin. She knew this firsthand—even her fifth graders were still talking about how much they adored their third grade teacher.
Lindy was apprehensive about seeing Austin again. She heard he was using a wheelchair now and the thought made her uncomfortable. Lindy had never known anyone who used a wheelchair before. She didn’t know how to act around him.
Mrs. Granger came into Lindy’s classroom early on the morning of Austin’s return. Mrs. Granger looked like she was about to cry. Lindy knew how much Mrs. Granger had adored Austin. “Oh, Lindy,” Mrs. Granger sighed. “I just saw Austin. That poor, poor boy.”
Lindy tried to act casual, like she wasn’t interested. “Oh? What’s wrong?”
“It’s just... so hard to see him in that wheelchair,” Mrs. Granger said tearfully. “And he told me his wife left him...”
“His wife left him?” Lindy’s ears perked up.
Mrs. Granger nodded. “He looks so terrible. I wish there were something I could do...”
Austin’s wife had left him. Interesting. The thought remained in Lindy’s head even after her students had filed into the classroom and she was forced to begin her lesson for the day.
By the time lunch arrived, Lindy still hadn’t managed to get Austin Chandler out of her head. During the morning, she heard the familiar giggles and cheers coming from the third grade classroom, which had been absent for the past several months. The kids were obviously thrilled to have Austin back.
Lindy turned the matter over in her mind and decided the polite thing to do was to at least poke her head into Austin’s classroom to say hello. She waited until the last of her kids had filtered out of the classroom, then she picked up her bagged lunch and walked over to his room.
The door to Austin’s room was open and she could see him sitting at his desk, eating his lunch alone. In the past, Austin had often eaten in the teacher’s lounge, but she supposed he wanted to be alone today. She didn’t blame him. As she looked more carefully, she could see the wheels of his chair sticking out from under the desk.
Lindy blushed slightly and looked up at him. She hadn’t even realized he was looking at her with his vivid green eyes. His face still looked pretty much the same, except maybe slightly thinner and there was a darkish tinge under his eyes. He still looked really good. “Hi, Austin,” Lindy said. “It’s... good to see you again.”
Austin eyed her lunch sack. “Would you care to join me for lunch?”
Lindy shifted uncomfortably. She remembered how she had always thought Austin had a little crush on her. Before his accident, she had thought it was cute and harmless and even a little enticing. But now that Austin was single and vulnerable, she was afraid of him getting the wrong idea. She wasn’t sure how she felt about him anymore. But of course, none of that was a good excuse to avoid having lunch with him. “All right,” Lindy said. She pulled a chair up to his desk and sat down. She noticed as she slid into her seat that Austin was still wearing his wedding band on his left ring finger.
Austin shifted in his chair and smiled nervously at her. She returned the same nervous smile. She rustled through her sack of food. “So how does it feel to be back?” she asked, trying to sound cheerful.
“A little weird,” Austin admitted. “I think it’s going to take some getting used to.” He added, “But the kids are great.”
“They missed you,” Lindy told him. “Mrs. Hattfield was an old witch.”
Austin laughed. “Yeah, I... uh, I had the pleasure of meeting with her. She didn’t think much of the kids having a paraplegic teacher.”
“Why am I not surprised?”
Austin took a deep breath. “I hope she’s not right. I... don’t want to compromise the kids’ education at all.”
Lindy noticed that Austin was tapping his fingers against the table—probably a nervous twitch. His legs were still hidden under his desk and she wondered if his inability to move them made his upper body more restless.
There was an awkward silence as Lindy unwrapped her sandwich. Finally, she said, “I’m sorry about Heather.”
Austin looked at her in surprise, then looked down at his wedding band. “Oh... uh, yeah. I’m still... hoping it will work out. That’s probably really stupid.”
Lindy shook her head. “I don’t think so. I mean, she’s your wife.”
“Yeah, but we’re not right for each other,” Austin said, as if he was realizing it for the first time. “I’m not the corporate type. I just want to teach kids about reading and math. And spend time with my wife. And have kids... or at least, I did.”
Lindy frowned as she considered his last statement. Then it slowly dawned on her—Austin was paralyzed from the waist down. That included everything below the waist. Everything. Oh god, Lindy thought. How awful for him!
“Sometimes people fall in love who are totally wrong for each other,” Lindy said softly.
“Has that ever happened to you?” Austin asked her.
Lindy blushed slightly. “I’ve never been in love. So... no.”
“Never?” Austin seemed surprised.
Lindy realized she had never said this before to anyone. But Austin was being completely honest with her, so she felt she owed him the same. “I guess I’ve just been unlucky,” she said.
Austin’s green eyes seemed to look into her very soul. They were the same green eyes that made half the eight-year-old girls in his classes develop a crush on him, the same green eyes that had won over Heather eight years ago. “It will happen for you, Lindy. I’m sure of it.”
Austin enjoyed talking to Lindy during lunch. He had initially been anxious about inviting her to sit down. For the first ten minutes, Austin couldn’t think of anything but his legs. He felt so self-conscious every time he looked down at them and was acutely sensitive to the presence of his wheelchair. But as the conversation went on, he found himself relaxing. She was relaxing too—he could tell. Lindy was a nice girl and he was sorry he hadn’t gotten to know her better sooner.
The lunch bell surprised Austin. He hadn’t realized they had been talking so long. Lindy jumped out of her seat. “Oh my,” she said. “I didn’t realize it was so late.”
“Neither did I...”
As Lindy walked toward the door, Austin wheeled out from behind his desk. He was rushing and his knee banged into the side of the desk, sending it off-kilter. Austin quickly readjusted it before wheeling after Lindy. “Hey, Lindy?”
She stopped and turned around. She flashed him a tense smile. “Yeah?”
Austin absentmindedly locked the wheels on his chair as he took a deep breath. “I was thinking maybe you might like to go to dinner with me sometime?”
The way Lindy was staring at him, Austin wished he could crawl into a little hole and die. What was he thinking? Why would a beautiful woman like Lindy ever want to go out with him? “Austin, I...”
Time for damage control. “I meant as friends, of course,” he said quickly. Shit shit shit...
Lindy nodded slowly. “Yeah, um... I’ll get back to you when I have some free time...”
When Lindy was safely out of the room, Austin slammed his fist against the chalkboard. God, that was so fucking stupid. He was acting like he was the same guy as before. He had to remember that women were going to see his wheelchair first. He couldn’t just ask them out like before.
Austin wheeled to the teacher’s restroom to cath himself before class started up again. Inside the restroom was Jason Madder, a sixth grade teacher, and Richard Tyson, an art teacher. They both gave Austin a big hello, trying to act like not a damn thing had changed.
Austin wheeled to the far side of the restroom and realized there was no handicapped stall. Frustrated, he opened the door to one of the normal stalls, but his chair was too wide to fit.
“No handicapped stall,” Rich said sympathetically. “There’s one in the students’ bathroom.”
Unfortunately, the students’ bathroom was all the way at the other end of the floor. Austin looked at his watch and saw that he had less than a minute before class was supposed to start.
“You need help using the urinal?” Rich asked him.
Austin couldn’t very well tell his two colleagues that he needed to insert a catheter into his bladder. And he sure as hell wasn’t going to do it in front of them. “No, it’s okay,” Austin said. “I’ll wait.” In an hour, the kids had music class. He’d have to do it then.
When Austin reached the classroom, the kids had mostly filed in and were back in their seats. He wheeled to the front of the room and turned to face them. “All right, I think we had a really productive morning,” he said, “but it’s time to start learning again.”
There were scattered groans coming from the room, but it wasn’t as bad as he had feared. The kids really were glad to have him back.
“So let’s get started with our vocabulary words for this week...”
Things were going pretty well initially. Austin was falling into his own teaching style and realizing that his wheelchair wasn’t getting in the way as much as he feared it would. At some point, however, he began to notice he was losing the class. They weren’t paying attention anymore and he even heard some giggling. Austin had been teaching long enough to know that something had gone wrong.
That was when Austin looked down and saw the stain spreading across his crotch.
Austin felt his face turning red. He looked up at his students and saw their mixed reaction of shock and amusement. I have to play this cool, Austin told himself, or else they’ll never respect me again.
Calmly, Austin reached into the back of his chair and pulled out the light jacket he had brought with him. He placed it over his lap, covering the stain on his pants. It was a temporary solution, but it would have to do.
The rest of the lesson was subdued. When the kids left to go to music class, Austin went to cath himself and thought about how to handle this situation. The kids were probably very confused by what they had just seen. And the way word traveled, he was sure everyone in the school would know in a few days.
When the kids came back, they seemed quieter than usual. Austin stayed behind his desk and the kids stared at him from behind theirs.
“I think,” Austin began, “we should talk about what happened.”
He waited for a response, but there wasn’t any. He realized that more than anything, the kids were scared for him. They probably thought he was falling apart and they were going to lose him.
“Because of my disability,” Austin said, “I can’t feel it when I have to go to the bathroom. So if I wait too long, my bladder becomes full and I have an accident. That’s what you saw.” He paused. “I’m not sick. I’m fine.”
He lifted his eyes and saw Billy Rosser raising his hand. “Mr. Chandler, is it the same for number two?” There were a few scattered giggles, but Billy’s question was earnest.
“Yeah, it is,” Austin replied. He wasn’t going to tell them about the catheters and the suppositories he used. That was a little bit too much information. “I can’t feel anything. So I have to try to get to the bathroom before it happens. I was just careless today because it was my first day.”
At that moment, Austin vowed to himself that he was never going to have an accident in front of his class ever again. First thing after school, he was going to suck up his pride and go to the drug store and buy himself a pack of adult undergarments. It wouldn’t be the end of the world to wear some protection all the time, and it would probably save a lot of embarrassment in the future. Sure, the kids would understand and probably even think it was funny if he shit his pants, but it would definitely cost him some respect. And if he finally did get a date in the future, how would it look if he wet his pants then?
Austin fielded a few more questions, then continued the lesson as if nothing had happened. The kids were very well behaved and seemed eager to learn the new material he was teaching him. He didn’t remember them being this good before. Maybe that old woman had whipped them into shape.
Fifteen minutes before the dismissal bell was set to ring, Austin told the kids they could start packing up to go home, as he usually did. Austin wheeled to his desk as the kids ran to the closet to get their things. He looked away for a moment to get something from his drawer, and when he looked back up, the kids were holding up a large multi-colored banner than read: WELCOME BACK, MR. CHANDLER!
Austin blinked in surprise as Billy and Louise sprayed silly string in his direction. The kids were all grinning in his direction, pleased that they had put one over on their teacher. Austin felt a lump rising in his throat. “Wow... this is...”
“We got you a present!” Zoey Jones said eagerly. She produced a potted plant from behind her back.
Austin didn’t know much about plants, but it was a nice thought. He accepted it from her and placed it on his desk. “Now somebody has to remind me to water it,” he laughed.
“I’ll water it for you, Mr. Chandler,” Zoey said. “I have lots of plants at home, so I won’t forget.”
Zoey hugged him and Austin felt only slightly self-conscious of the jacket still on his lap. “Thanks, Zoey,” he said. He had to wipe a tear from his eye.
The kids filed out of the room to go home and Austin was left alone to pick silly string off his shirt. He fingered the pot of his new plant, and saw the words “Welcome Back, Mr. Chandler” printed in black ink. God, he was glad he was back here. Being away for so long made him finally realize how lucky he was to have his job. So few people had a career that made them really happy.
Austin looked down at his left hand and saw his wedding band reflecting the light of the room. He didn’t know why he was still wearing it. Maybe he could go back to his teaching job and still be a great teacher, but he had to stop kidding himself that his marriage was going to survive this. The truth was that he and Heather had been destined for divorce from the moment they said “I do.” It was time to let go. Even if he didn’t meet another woman for a long time to come, he had to admit to himself that it was over between him and his wife.
Austin tugged on his ring, trying to pull it off his finger. Even though he had lost weight in the last few months, his fingers had become rougher, more calloused, and it was hard to get the ring off. Finally, he managed to twist it off. He dropped it into his shirt pocket. His finger felt oddly naked.
“Hey, Mr. Chandler.”
Austin looked up from his desk and was surprised to see Lindy Chen standing at his doorway. She was smiling at him.
“Looks like the kids gave you quite a surprise,” Lindy commented.
Austin raised his eyebrows. “Did you know about this?”
“I may have heard something on the grapevine,” Lindy replied coyly. She walked over and sat on the edge of his desk. “Those kids really love you, Austin.”
“Aw, they’re just glad I’m not a cranky old woman,” Austin said.
“No, they really love you,” Lindy said. She looked like she wanted to say something else, but instead she gently placed her hand on top of his.
“Well, I like them too,” Austin said. “You know, teaching is my life. Especially... now.”
“I know,” Lindy nodded. “Say, Austin... are you free for dinner this Friday night?”
Austin stared at her. After the way she had acted before, this was the last thing he had expected. He looked down at his bare ring finger. “Uh... sure.”
“The truth is, I always wanted to get to know you better,” Lindy said.
Lindy smiled. “Friday then, I guess.” She tapped his shoulder. “Oh, wear something sort of nice. I’ve got a place picked out.”
“Okay,” Austin agreed. She winked at him, then walked towards the door. He smiled when she stumbled a little as she walked out. Lindy was nervous.
Was this a date? Austin thought maybe it was. He rubbed his legs, excited by the thought of it. A date with Lindy, the prettiest teacher in the school. Not too bad for a paraplegic, he thought.
Austin accepted the fact that there was a decent chance he wasn’t going to score with Lindy this Friday. In fact, he didn’t want to score. He was still getting over Heather and uncertain of how he’d be able to function sexually. If anything was going to happen with Lindy, they’d have to take it very slow. And if nothing happened and they were just friends, that would be okay too.
Austin wasn’t glad he was paralyzed. He did miss walking and he wasn’t sure if he’d ever be completely adjusted to thinking of himself as disabled. But he had to admit maybe there was some good that came out of it.
Back to stories