What I Learned in Health Class

When fakes are presented often enough, they become their own kind of facts

Sara Schaff
Mar 5, 2020 · 5 min read
Illustration by Bea Hayward

Freshman year of high school, we had to take Health Education with Mr. V., whose wire-rimmed glasses and khaki pants I can still see as clearly as if they’d been worth remembering. I dreaded Mondays because sometimes at the start of class, he would tell everyone that he and I had seen each other over the weekend, on purpose.

​”Go on, Sara,” he’d say. “Tell everyone about our date.” Or: “Sara and I had a romantic weekend.” And then he’d watch me.

​I don’t think I worried my classmates would believe him, though no one ever said whether they did nor didn’t. No one said anything at all. It didn’t matter whether anyone believed him or not. What he succeeded at was putting an image of us in their heads, a false embrace. Wasn’t that why he said it in front of an audience? As we’ve come to understand, fakes, when presented often enough, can become their own kind of facts. Even I couldn’t help but see us together, and for some reason we were always drinking milkshakes together at a diner in town, his arm too heavy and starchy around my shoulders.

While he smiled at the front of the classroom, my body filled with prickly heat, a particular kind of silent claustrophobia all women know. I can’t forget hating his smugness. He always waited for what felt like an eternity before getting on with the rest of class.

​I don’t recall a single thing he taught us. Except that even our teachers weren’t safe. There’s always a teacher for that lesson though.

​He was even worse with another girl, and I can’t remember what he said or did to her, probably because the image had been planted in her body, not mine. Whatever it was, it was bad enough that a friend and I decided we had to do something about it. This was around the time Anita Hill was testifying in Congress. At home our televisions were always on, and suddenly we had new language. That language felt like a path we could walk on.

​My friend and I walked down that path to the principal’s office — or maybe it was the vice principal? We said the words we’d just learned to say, and I wish I could remember what those words were exactly, and who listened to us say them. I wish I could remember whether they looked surprised. Whether they looked like they wanted to help, but knew they couldn’t, whether they sent secret messages through their embarrassed smiles. What I know is that nothing changed, in that moment or after it, and so off we went, having learned another lesson that we were bound to learn eventually.

​What I remember most is how relieved I was the following year, the summer I had to take Driver’s Ed, when I found out Mr. V. would not be my instructor. All the Driver’s Ed teachers were our regular teachers, and I don’t remember much about any of them, even the teacher who taught me to drive and once had to slam on his passenger-side breaks because I floored the gas instead of halting the car at a stop sign, and my friend in the backseat, another student-driver, gasped and screamed as if we were about to die. I can’t remember that teacher’s face, whether he had glasses or not, the color of his hair, or what subject he taught during the regular school year.

​Who learned to drive from Mr. V? I imagine her as small and nervous behind the wheel. I imagine her, too, as an adult now with her own catalogue of memories — some so real she’ll doubt their reality.

​There’s nothing realer though than her daughter, bright and quick. And she knows that one day this girl will be told a lie by some man with gun-metal hair. Even if the girl turns away from him, she’ll feel a spell has been cast upon her. Her body will become a house for a lie.

This particular lie won’t even be the worst of her future unwelcome guests. There are others who are ruder, crueler, who show up suddenly, without advance notice, years after she’s banished them. They always make a wreck of her home.

​This particular guest doesn’t make a mess, doesn’t make her cry. When he appears, she regards him with curiosity and surprise: why is there an old man squeezed next to her in a booth in a diner, his hairy wrist covering her thin one under the table? It’s a strange setting, this diner. Why the red-leather booth and not, for example, the red-velvet seats of a darkened movie theater?

​Perhaps because the light is brighter here, and the waitresses see her and take pity. They always refill her wholesome milkshake before she asks. They catch her eyes and glance from her to the man: are you okay? they seem to be asking. They could also be assessing her, comparing her to the other girls he’s brought there. But she doesn’t want to think so; she nods back at them because she knows she’ll be alright, though she doesn’t yet know how.

​Just say the word if you need us, she hopes they’re whispering, you don’t have to stay here.

Gay Mag

A new magazine from Roxane Gay offering some of the most…

Sara Schaff

Written by

Author of two story collections: The Invention of Love (Split/Lip Press) & Say Something Nice About Me (Augury Books). More: saraschaff.com

Gay Mag

A new magazine from Roxane Gay offering some of the most interesting and thoughtful cultural criticism to be found on the Web. Our first quarterly is coming in June 2019. We value deep explorations, timelessness, and challenging conventional thinking without being cheap and lazy.

Sara Schaff

Written by

Author of two story collections: The Invention of Love (Split/Lip Press) & Say Something Nice About Me (Augury Books). More: saraschaff.com

Gay Mag

A new magazine from Roxane Gay offering some of the most interesting and thoughtful cultural criticism to be found on the Web. Our first quarterly is coming in June 2019. We value deep explorations, timelessness, and challenging conventional thinking without being cheap and lazy.

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