Driving fast up a winding mountain road in the rain, I held my head out the window. The windshield impenetrably fogged up, and I was late. Wind and water whipped my hair. Flicking drops from my glasses with my free hand, I white-knuckled the wheel with the other. A cement truck’s hazards blinked in low-gear ahead of me. As it lumbered up the long incline, black smoke spewed from its exhaust with each downshift. I thought about passing, but my four-cylinder engine didn’t have the horses, and I could barely see.
I did my best to stay on the road as it veered into the high-school parking lot. The only spots this close to the opening bell were the ones furthest away—an example of irony (or was it?)—I made a mental note to use in a future lesson. The Cavalier ground slowly over loose gravel to a stop. I turned and looked at the back seats—no umbrella. With three minutes to go before announcements, I grabbed my jacket and ran uncovered for the doors. The homeroom bell chimed as I sped through the foyer. I hurried through the crowded halls, doing my best in tractionless shoes not to slip and fall on the slick tiles. I navigated the slalom of students slamming locker doors.
Approaching the door to visit my mentor, Mrs. Warburg, my momentum pushed me beyond the point of slowing down to compose myself. I stopped just inside the door, and a wave of students crashed into my back and pushed me further into the room. I stopped again. A puddle started to form under my dripping coat. My mentor, who was simultaneously sitting and leaning on the edge of her desk, shook her head—writing me off as another young, slacker student teacher, probably. I plopped my things in the corner of the closet and took my place at the front podium, reminding myself to smile.
After the morning rituals (attendance, announcements and the pledge), and in the 30 seconds or so before the first classtime bell, I stared out at the rain. I avoided anyone’s gaze as drops prattled the classroom windows like birdshot, but the students were looking at me. I couldn’t help but feel unusual. Staring. I reached up and touched my hair—always my first instinct when people are staring. With a start, I realized my head-out-the-window drive in the rain had sculpted my hair into some kind of absurd shape. I rubbed it with my hand to flatten it, and the students burst into laughter.
After asking Mrs. Warburg’s permission, I stole across the hall for the bathroom in an effort to center myself. I had stayed up late the night before and made a few last-minute changes to my lesson plans—plans Mrs. Warburg had already seen and signed off on. If the ideas were a flop, it would not be fun to face her. I returned with combed hair, and I’d taken several extremely deep breaths. Calling forth what I hoped was a confident-looking smile, I took the reins.
“Welcome to the arts of language,” I announced. I signaled for them to settle in quietly and waited out the last bits of chatter. Dressed in pleatless chinos, a pastel yellow shirt and a pale green tie, the class of 33 ninth-graders looked at me in wonderment: What the hell is he doing here? As I’d taken to habitually doing during moments of dread, I reminded myself of the debt I owed my own tenth-grade teacher who showed me a way out of my adolescent doldrums. If it weren’t for the spark of ambition he placed in me, I’d probably be one of the men outside repairing the roof in the rain.
“I’m thankful the weather hasn’t kept too many of you home, because we have very important work to do today,” I said, lifting my voice above the din. I paused, allowing time for my words to extract in their minds.
“Today,” I said, “we time-travel.”
Mrs. Warburg’s eyes shot up.
“Today we are going to visit the future!”
My mentor cocked her eyebrow. I was in my third week as her first student teacher. Our styles clashed. She maintained a gorilla grip on traditional methods; I incorporated cooperative exercises and games. My professors encouraged it, and the students seemed to enjoy the variety. I know I would have liked it, but the public schools (those public schools anyway) weren’t quite ready for the upgrade. It unnerved my mentor. I figured she would come around eventually—especially if I had something quantifiable, like good grades, to prove efficacy. To Mrs. Warburg, my mediating, small-group discussions seemed too close to chaos. She began clamping down.
Stephen Barker—a smart kid with round, wire-framed glasses—looked uncertain, but like the rest he was receptive. Allowing the tension to thicken, I started handing out envelopes. “Take one and pass the rest back,” I said. “On the front, I want you to write your address.”
Looks of recognition appeared on some students’ faces: Like, address an envelope?
“Everybody got it? Good. Now here is where it gets interesting: I want you to try and imagine your life in five years. How do you imagine things playing out?”
Frowns and wrinkled brows meant confusion. They weren’t getting it.
“Close your eyes and picture yourself as an adult, driving to your job every morning. You’re grown up, independent, and people love you. But you have your own grown-up problems. Can everybody see this person? Close your eyes. OK, good. Now, I want you to write that person a letter.”
I paused to allow the words to sink in.
“Here’s the last thing,” I said, as they opened their eyes. “These letters are private. The only people who will ever read them will be you—five years from now—when I send them to you, and you get them in the mail.”
Some started immediately. Most finished their addresses and stared at blank pages. I pulled on the white screen in front of the class and let it roll up, revealing a beautifully blank-slate chalkboard. With a nub of white chalk, I wrote, “Dear me of the future” in all caps.
Only after the last student was engaged did I brave a look back to Mrs. Warburg. Thankfully, she also was looking down, jotting notes—likely amused. As if by magic, a palpable sense of relaxation entered the room. The writing, assured of its intimacy, flowed at each of the 33 desks. Mrs. Warburg looked at me and smiled.
“You have 10 minutes,” I said. “Enjoy.”
Joel Finsel is the author of “Cocktails and Conversations from the Astral Plane,” and writes creative fiction every other week in encore throughout 2014.