Doubting Thomasby Matthew Clark Davison
This morning's headline was a single word hanging over a picture of Thomas and last year's forth grade class. Not the official school photo, but a candid shot under the oaks on the school's grounds just as spring in Portland started to give way to summer and the geraniums began to dot the wooded floor. "Pedophile?" it asked in Times New Roman. Bold.
Before his lawyer picked him up, Thomas sat his desk drinking his tea, staring at the online photo. His and his students' eyes out had been covered with black bars, the kind he'd seen thirty years ago on naked people in medical dictionaries when he and his older brother would sneak away from the children's lit section and into the science room at their town library.
* * *
Let's go, the lawyer says, parking, and soon they are in the recreation building and through the door where the forums have been held. There's a folding table next to the entrance, and on it rests a trophy that someone has forgotten to return to the case in the hall.
They sit. Across from him, about twenty feet away, are Toby J.'s parents, Toby's social worker, Thomas's boss and friend Marci, an independent child psychologist, and the official arbiter. They are all sitting at the long table in what everyone is calling The Hearing Room. About a dozen other parents are seated on folding chairs, waiting for things to begin while busy on their phones.
Thomas looks over at his accusers. Mrs. J. is wearing a dress that looks like an man's oversized oxford shirt, and keeps playing with the built-in belt, the same dress she wore to The King Farmers' Market two weeks ago when she and her husband and Thomas bumped into each other the morning after the fundraising party for the forth grade trip to Seattle.
Thomas remembers how they looked into each other's canvas bags. They talked about melon, about heirloom versus hothouse tomatoes, about kale. The conversation seemed both urgent and meaningless—the tone of urgency with no content. Then they went on their way.
He bumped into the couple a second time, and tasted pies with them at the pie stand; he'd shared a laugh (Was it a nervous laugh?) about the outrageous cost of the baked goods (Is the crust made of gold?) with Mr. J., whose blackberry-stained lips had looked alien on his clean-shaven face. "What a fun night last night! The band? The champagne?" Thomas had said.
A pause opened among them, then lingered. Mrs. J. looked at her husband, whose eyes focused on his own bare wrist as if wishing he'd worn a watch. Thomas waited, and after some time, changed the subject to how well Toby did in his group report. Such a team player! they'd agreed before Mrs. J. said the impatient grandma is watching Toby, so they'd better get back.
* * *
Now Mr. J.'s face is covered in stubble, his graying beard almost white against his Mediterranean complexion. He seems to be staring in his lap. Suddenly, he uses his right hand to adjust the gold watch on his left wrist.
Mrs. J. is moving her gaze between the social worker, Marcy, Thomas's lawyer, and her husband.
Thomas has been forming a solid idea as to why this has happened, what may've triggered the accusation, and he has thought many times of telling his lawyer about the silly interaction with Toby's father at the party—the one he suspected Mrs. J. witnessed but pretended not to see—but he has not.
At least not yet.
They're a good family, he keeps telling himself, The Js give a lot of money to the school. They work hard in their community. And most of all, Toby is a kind kid who knows his parents love him; and shouldn't have to suffer any more than he already has because adults are making mistakes.
* * *
The first morning of the hearings, Thomas's lawyer paced in the parking lot, texting on one mobile device, talking into a second. After Friday's online newspaper headline read, "Beloved Grade School Teacher Accused of Molestation," the lawyer used words like witch-hunt. Like libel. Like defamation. Like slander. Of course, he sees his lawyer's point, sees why he wants to make this a big deal. Wants to file suit.
* * *
After his lawyer stops talking, Thomas and the crowd are let out for a bathroom break. These breaks cause their own problems because there is only one men's room, no special private john for the people accused or accusing. So the arbiter assigned by family protective services, and Thomas's lawyer, and the community members at the hearings all go to the same place. Inside, there is one stall and two urinals. The reporter responsible for this morning's headline, who stands next to the door, always makes it to the stall first, and stays there for the entire break, as if he wants to force Thomas to pee next to men who were worried that he'd molested their children.
There are no dividers between the urinals. On the first day of hearings, one of the fathers stared down at him—not like in the gay clubs he'd been to in San Francisco where glances were born of lust—this father looked down at him as if accessing the enemy's weaponry.
On his way back into the room, Thomas trips on a jogging stroller one of the mothers hadn't quite tucked away under the table by the door. On his way down, he reaches for the table to gain balance, but it collapses a bit, and the old trophy slides over. Out of its cup, four golf balls roll to the floor and click and bounce and click.
No one helps Thomas up. In fact, he must collect the balls himself. The first three are close by, and easy to herd, but one escaped under the chair of a father. Thomas reaches between the man's legs to get the ball back. He returns them to the trophy's cup, then places it on the ground next to the stroller, reassembles the folding table to flat, and puts the trophy back in its place.
Once all are seated, Mrs. J. looks directly at Thomas for the first time since the hearings began. Her face is more beautiful without makeup, Thomas thinks, and while she hasn't expressed any outright emotion, her skin is slightly swollen, like a person who recently stopped crying. It's a youthful, vulnerable look that verges on sexual. He imagines her body under the shirt-dress and remembers the bodies of the women in the medical texts. Women who were underweight or overweight or suffering with crooked spines and bowed legs—lactating women, women with two-very differently sized breasts—how entirely unanimated they were, standing there, captioned with case study numbers beneath them—and how different his reaction was from his brother's, who tore out the torsos with shapely breasts, and tucked them into his wallet with the Velcro closure.
She maintains eye contact with Thomas, and the expression shifts, deflates—perhaps embarrassed and relieved. Is she remembering hunching down next to her son and asking, Are you sure his hand didn't brush your privates? Did his fingers hook over your belt, like this? Did she keep asking until his no turned I don't know turned maybe turned yes? Is she remembering all the subtle ways she may've coached Toby, even if she didn't then, and still does not know why?
As they start closing comments, their talk sounds to Thomas like a television playing in the apartment next door. Thomas is sitting, waiting, worried about how many ways this will affect his kids' learning, and how in the hell he will ever manage to do what Marci called rebuilding trust.
* * *
Finally, an outcome: The official arbiter says that all parties from the three separate investigations show that Thomas does not fit the profile of a molester; there is no evidence to suggest wrongdoing. In fact, the incident-in-question was witnessed by several of the children and a classroom aide, all of whom state quite clearly that no inappropriate touching ever took place—and all three separate investigations yield the same result: innocence.
She apologizes to Thomas, tells him she's never seen someone remain so calm under the circumstances, and congratulates him on being such a fine educator. The committee hopes, she says, That this investigation will not have a negative impact on his continued success, and she then tells Mrs. and Mr. J. that they did what any parent would do, and assures them that children are exposed to so much—what with television and the internet—that whatever caused Toby to say what he did would eventually make sense—and no one should harbor any ill will toward the child.
Thomas reaches down, grabs the skin where the stroller caught his ankle, and remembers when he first saw that kind of jogging stroller at a camping store. Called a mountain buggy, the thing cost almost eight hundred dollars. He'd joked with the salesperson, assuming that it was priced incorrectly—surely there must be an extra zero there—but the salesperson said, No. That's the price; and we sell tons of 'em.
From that day on, he'd notice the mothers of his students with their younger siblings in tow, and the women on the running track, and in Portland's coffee houses with that brand of stroller.
It is then that Marci says that No, she has nothing else to add; and the social worker says That's all then; and the arbiter says, All parties agree that the case is dismissed and will not be going to criminal court.
As they all awkwardly shift toward the exit, Mr. and Mrs. J. avoid contact. They speak in hushed tones, as if they are exiting a theater just after the end of a good film.
He sees that stroller again. Airec's mom is fiddling with it, strapping her three-year-old down. She's the woman who transferred her kid out of his class immediately after the initial accusation, before the hearings even began. As he walks behind her and the other parents, his lawyer whispering words of encouragement, he imagines Airec's mom starting her jog home, gaining speed as the wheels start to loosen. Just as she achieves full speed, the wheels come off, causing her to jam her middle into the buggy's handle, and Airec's baby sister to go flying up and up toward the sun starting to set behind the oaken skyline.