The flies buzz so close to my ears that I can hear their pearly white wings flap flap flap. I wonder if they do it on purpose. Do they know I am listening to them as they arc around my earlobes, as they dance across my jaw? I doubt it. But if they did, would they think -
"Jonah, are you with us?" Ms. Turner calls, her voice strained despite herself. She knows how hard it is for me. I know she's trying. I know I've disappointed her. Again.
I smile sheepishly and force a slight nod as I fold into myself in embarrassment. Why can't this just be easy for me? No, pay attention.
"So Maria just said that selfishness does not have to be bad. What do you think?"
"Me?" I squeak. I squeeze down on my fidget, clicking, clicking, clicking away the nervous energy. It takes all my might not to shrink into the sound, out of the spotlight. They are all looking at me. Well, some of them look. Many don't. But I am sure they are all listening, waiting for my impending mistake. Though Dr. Johnson disagrees.
"You," Ms. Turner replies, smiling now, calm.
Calm. Calm. I listen to my breath. Slow it like Dr. Johnson taught me. In slow. Out slow. Ignore the fly that rests on the shiny, tan desk. Ignore the imaginary string wrapped around my lungs. Just empty the air from the lungs and the tightness won't feel so forced. Empty the mind. And hold it.
In that stillness, an idea hits with such clarity it springs from my lips fully formed, without prompting. "Well, yeah, I think it depends on if you care about the outcome or the intention." Ms. Turner's lips curve into a smile, but the surrounding 8th graders scrunch their faces in confusion or drift away from the conversation.
"Explain," Ms. Turner prompts.
My mind floods with ideas. Outcome is output. Outcome impacts the world. Does the end justify the means? Does it matter what you want, or what you do? Are you what you think and what you feel? Or are you your actions? And what if those are different? And why does it matter? I almost lose myself in the wave of thoughts that crash over me again and again. I try to pull together my tools, my fidgeting fingers, and my breaths, to tread water in the ideas and pull myself back to the classroom.
This is not do or die, I remind myself, easing the anxiety that sometimes comes with overstimulation. This is not do or die. This is do. This I can do. I can do this.
"Intention is just what's inside; outcome is what happens. If we want to improve the world, then outcome matters more than intention. It's like, in basketball, do you need to want it to go in the hoop or like do we just need it to like go into that hoop. Or like, with politics, does it matter if you want to change the world, or like, is it good to take smaller steps. Like should we fall trying to leap, or succeed taking those smaller steps, maybe?"
I beam as I find myself no longer in a sea of words, but rather in a sea of co-signs. My lips spread into a wide grin. I wear my joy like a badge, well-earned.
"Jonah raises a fantastic point!" With Ms. Turner's words, my cheeks flush rose in embarrassed pride. I know that tonight Ms. Turner will send a text home to my Grandma Jackie and tell her about my great comment in class today. And Grandma Jackie will - focus focus focus.