My first guidance counselor had an office at the end of what I — and I guess only I — called “guidance counselor’s row.” It was a spacious, west-facing corner office with an extra window that made it especially bright at the right time in the afternoon, which was when she called me in on this particular day. She called me in to ask me what I wanted to make of my life. I told her that I didn’t understand the question, so she rephrased it more clearly, but not by much. “What do you want to be, ultimately?” Ultimately? I thought for a moment. Well, ultimately I want to be a good person. She nodded and said nothing. So I thought some more. I want to be loved, and then qualified it by saying that I also want to do good work. She paused again, and then looked down at the opened file she had in front of her which the glare had so brightened that it just looked like a pure white rectangle. “I don’t know if you can be with these grades.” I didn’t know there was a grading system for goodness, I told her in earnest. “For some people there is,” she told me sardonically. There was nothing else remarkable about her.
My second guidance counselor — same office but different person — called me in just after lunch. He asked me how my day was going. I told him honestly that it wasn’t going very well. “I guessed as much,” he said pointing a little too close for my liking to my black eye. Just before my appointment I had gotten into a fight in the back of the school, somewhere I wasn’t supposed to be, over accusations of bogarting cigarettes, something I wasn’t supposed to be smoking. I and the other student disagreed on the details of that second point rather strongly and in the process we broke the veil of secrecy (smoking in silence) so that people who were coming there to legally smoke could hear us from a good distance. He listened to me and made some notes in green ink that I couldn’t read before realizing he had the wrong file on his desk. It was that of a better student who had the poor fortune of being my alphabetical neighbor. He shuffled through his cabinet and found nothing, and then he left the room. I started to wonder if the previous guidance counselor hadn’t just taken it with her to wherever she went. Maybe she used it as a motivator, or a stress ball kind of thing. “How much worse can it get,” she’s probably thinking to herself, before opening her bottom drawer with my information opened and giving off a sigh that is only a few decibels below the first few seconds after climaxing. Then after 10 minutes that were actually just two, he came back with the right file that he seemed to be looking at for the very first time. “How do you see your future?” I told him I didn’t understand. “What do you want to do after you’ve left here?” After I graduate? “If you want.” Well, I want to be useful somehow. “That’s not quite what I asked.” That’s the best answer I have in my present condition. “You need to learn how to throw a punch. I can just tell.” Maybe I did this to myself to lessen the penalty. Then he took out a red pen and wrote something in my actual file that I also could not read.
My third guidance counselor was in the middle office of guidance counselor’s row. That meant it had fewer windows and less space. I felt bad because she was on the larger side of things, body-wise, and did not appear to have much maneuverability between her desk and her files. Every time she moved back she would hit the cabinet and the pictures she put on top of it of her family and pets would shake and sometimes be knocked over, particularly the one of the grey-haired man at the edge which would topple over onto the floor, usually face down. She was not well-liked by the students who had her. She had a tendency to judge them solely on their test scores. I didn’t mind this at all actually because it happened that my test scores were acceptable at worst. I put it to the nature of the tests. I looked at them as puzzles or games. I always liked things I could turn into games because it was a surefire way to shut off half of the functioning part of my brain. So even if I didn’t know anything, I could still focus on the task of determining which pieces went where. Going by the shyly elated look on her face as I told her all this, it seemed she knew what I was getting at. She went into her drawer and took out a backgammon board. “This is not appropriate,” she admitted, probably thinking I should have a Rubik’s cube or something, “but it’s all I have in here. In fact it’s always been here.” But even when I told her I’d never played backgammon before she seemed unfazed. And so we’d have semi-weekly appointments where we’d sit and play backgammon. It wasn’t until a much later appointment when she finally asked where I saw myself in 10 years. If you win this game, I said, then I will tell you. Then the picture of the grey-haired man fell to the floor with no prompting from either of our movements. She stared at it with an inscrutable expression and put it in the bottom drawer of her desk. On our last appointment the picture in that position was of a younger blond man.
My fourth guidance counselor didn’t have an office. If it was cold out, we’d meet in one of the stairwells at the farthest reaches of the school, by the gym or the woodshop. If it was warm out, we’d meet at this rotted, often damp picnic table in the morning where he’d smoke and nibble on the same jelly doughnut in his rumpled suit. It wasn’t a suit really, but a concoction of flannel shirt, jeans, some orange jogging shoes, and an ill-fitting brown sport coat, or sometimes a cardigan. Sometimes the wind would blow while he was looking at my file and the papers would fly all over and he’d put them back haphazardly. Not that they were stored any better, as he lugged the files around in a duffle bag or in an egg crate. In our meetings we’d just shoot the shit, I’d tell him about problems at home, about teachers or other students I liked and didn’t, and he would do the same. He had a grudge against one young substitute, a track coach’s son just out of college who the girls would gather round as if he had them under some hex. I couldn’t tell if he was saying this out of concern or envy.
Then one appointment, as if he just remembered it, he asked me “So what is your plan, man?” I don’t want to be dispensable. “What are you talking about? No one is dispensable.” I know that, but sometimes people are indispensable. So where does that leave everyone else? He took a long drag of his cigarette. “Look,” he said dabbing the ashes on the grass, “we can’t meet here anymore. You know that payphone over there?” You mean the one all the way on the other side of the building? “Yeah, I see all the kids over there.” That’s where the buses park. “Well go over there after school then. We’re not going to meet there, but I’ll call you and tell you where and when we’ll meet next.” Saying nothing further, he took out a stick of Bazooka Joe from his cardigan pocket and placed it in front of me. When I reached the phone later, I remembered that the chord had been severed from it ages ago.
My fifth guidance counselor wasn’t really a guidance counselor. By then I was out of school for a few years. In fact I was in a bar when we had what I take to be our first appointment. I was alone, drinking my Bud, and she just appeared to my left, sipping a club soda with a red straw and a cherry floating around it. She was spiffily dressed, prim and proper but authoritative, like an old-time crossing guard or meter maid was authoritative, and giving me a look that tolerated far less nonsense than any of her predecessors. In any other situation it would be quite rattling, but I found myself assuming a stance I’d come accustomed to long ago. “What are you doing?” she asked me in a serviceable tone. I’m having a drink and occasionally looking up at the game. “No,” she said with more firmness, “what are you doing?” I … work in the UPS store and sometimes I help do night inventory at a mattress store.She took out a small leather-bound pad and took notes. “Where are you,” she went on. “And just to be clear, I mean ‘where are you?’” My apartment is a block over. And she told me to take her there, which I did, and pretty soon that became her office. I don’t believe I was the only one under her responsibility. She would be gone for several hours throughout the day. But I believe she made my apartment her main center, as GUIDANCE COUNSELOR was put on my door a few weeks after she first came up.
I soon stopped going to work at the UPS store and the mattress place. I was too busy with the daily tasks she gave me. Every morning I’d wake up to a new note she’d written taped to the coffeemaker. “I need you to do X” or “Today you should do Y.” They seemed like mindless busywork at first, repetitive exercises for memory and other menial chores or craft projects. One time I spent two weeks working on a pinewood derby car. But soon they didn’t bother me and their regularity became a comfort. She would review my results, which she monitored through no method I’ve yet gleaned, with the same purposeful expression. Her poise was always in balance, never drifting into approval or condemnation. Yet every so often I would find other notes, printed out in Apple Chancery or Helvetica font, in other parts of the apartment; behind the bathroom mirror, on my bedpost, or sticking out from under the cable box. They usually read “YOU ARE A GOOD PERSON” or “YOU ARE LOVED.” I never knew when she was putting them up or if they were meant to be just found or actively looked for, or even if they were connected to my performance on a task. But I carried them out as if they were.
When she is gone, as she inevitably will be, I know I will still carry them out, and I will still through some measure find the notes. This country is full of people who live in offices, little nests of paperclips and Krazy Glue, marked GUIDANCE COUNSELOR. Who they are I don’t know. Siblings of hers, perhaps; the one golden child in a litter of runts. But I know that after I have said all this, I will wake up to a new note. “You must forget the past,” it will say, “and once more be a student.”