As I began gathering my things, I heard Mrs. Warburg cough. When I looked up, she waved me over. Leaning back in her chair, she asked: “How do you think it went?”
“Pretty good,” I said. “Sometimes I wish I could take all my students out for a round of espressos, but I doubt that’s in the budget if we still are using these old books.”
Beneath her bangs, Mrs. Warburg’s visage remained blank—her eyes narrowed. “Listen, Julian,” she said, “those kids are taking advantage of you. You have no control. Jimmy Nothstein was chewing gum––I could see his mouth chomping all the way back here. Seth and Tina might as well get a room the way they touch each other all class. And Philip Turner spent the entire last 15 minutes drawing on the cover of his notebook.”
Really? “Could you see what was it?”
“Awesome! I wonder if he’d share it with the rest of the . . .”
“It’s not awesome; it’s not paying attention is what it is. When I teach a class, I’m aware of what my students are doing, Mr. Gray. Something of which I’m sad to say you seem blissfully unaware.”
“That’s not true.”
Her eyes widened, daring me.
“I just don’t feel the need to treat them like . . .”
“Like what?” Her face purpled.
“It’s bad enough they’re forced to sit in this cold room with terrible lighting.”
A moment passed. She took a deep breath. “Are you sure you want to be a teacher?” she asked.
I tried to remain calm. “I blew off three parties over the weekend to prepare this lesson.”
She leaned forward, propping herself up to stand. “What you are doing is OK if you want to sit in the back of the bus,” she said, “but not if you want to be their teacher.”
Sweat dripped down my back despite the climate-controlled chill.
“This is the third class you’ve taken over, and I can read it all over their faces: You have a reputation for being easy.”
My brows creased together.
“Even before they first came in here, they knew they could take advantage of you.”
She took a deep breath, secure in her role as expert. “I want to see you take control.”
“OK, I will.” I nodded. It felt right.
“You better believe you will, and you’re going to prove it by making an example out of one of them.”
My shoulders sank. I stepped back.
Tightening her fists, Mrs. Warburg walked out from behind her desk—her heels clompping to the heavy door. She kicked aside the wooden wedge, and the door shut loudly—muffling the noise outside.
“The students need to know you mean business,” she said, her voice lifting with each advancing step toward me.
“OK, I’ll be tougher.”
“Damn right you will. You can’t be afraid to assert some command—some discipline.” Her momentum pushed me back to where I knocked over a frame on her desk. “I don’t care who it is,” she said. The noise in the hallway quietened to a hush. “But in the next class you will give someone detention.”
The rain had stopped. Birds sang outside the window, and took flurried turns on the cheap plastic feeder in the courtyard.
“I don’t think I can just . . .”
“At the rate you’re going, you will get a ‘C.’ That’s not going to look good on your résumé.”
I looked down at her usually tidy desk. The picture knocked a few pens and paperclips to the floor, her papers stained with chamomile tea.
“What if everyone’s good, like they usually are in third-period honors?”
She held her glare.
Was this some sort of initiation rite?
She narrowed her eyes. “You’re going to have to do it sometime. You can’t be their teacher and their friend.”
I picked up a smiling picture of her husband and set it back upright. She reached for her purse with a huff. “You have until the end of the day,” she said.
I headed for the lav, took off my glasses and loosened my tie. It’s not the large things that send a man to the mad house; it’s a continuing series of small things––every unanswered email, errand, or bit of routine maintenance. There was laundry to wash and iron, trash to take out, grass to cut, a dog to walk and bathe for fleas, mindless conversation to endure (too many full of complaints), an overdue oil change, a slow-leaking tire, a bill to pay, a meal to fix, a toilet to clean, a rug to vacuum, mail to sort, a lesson to write, voicemails to return, forwards to delete, spyware to detect, a virus to quarantine, a printer that needs paper replacement, receipts to sort, balances to check, and checks to write. Not to mention going to actual work—it all felt like a swarm of insects burrowing beneath my skin. There were times when I seriously considered ending it all. I tried killing myself slowly with cigarettes, but they gave me headaches. So I began hoarding cans of food for the apocalypse instead.
In my blood, I knew something was going to happen. Premonitions came to me late at night when the day’s complexities had finally lifted. Bees told the story; they were disappearing in droves. The Earth was becoming a more difficult place to survive: food harder to procure, water a new cause for war. Fear of the future kept me up late, trains blowing by in the dead distance. Then I’d remember the breathing exercises taught to me by the girl with the purple hair. We’d had a poetry class together a couple of semesters ago, and I’d always try to walk out at the same time to walk her back to the dorms. I had been in another relationship (with Chloe) then, so I never asked her out. But I did start going to her meditation club meeting based solely on the name she chose: Mystery School. I mostly went out of curiosity at first, but grew to appreciate the quiet mind I felt after practicing. I continued to go sporadically even after she graduated, and we lost touch.
Once I had moved back in with my parents to student teach, I relied on the breathing exercises to relieve stress and chip away at my fears. I admired those who could live fully in the moment, but I equally was bothered by their blindness. Was I the crazy one? All signals pointed to a more desperate future. Unlimited growth was unsustainable. But in that moment of staring at myself in the mirror, I had a more immediate problem with which to contend: Mrs. Warburg’s ultimatum.
“Why couldn’t I be paired with a nice teacher?” I asked my reflection.
I cupped my hands under the faucet, splashed water in my eyes and let it run down my cheeks. I wiped with a paper towel, took a deep breath and polished my lenses.
Making my way back to the classroom, the hall was mostly empty except for Mrs. Wilkins, a secretary, walking my way—her face unusually alive.
“Did you hear about the plane crash?” she asked.
“No,” I said. “What happened?”
“In Manhattan,” she said, slowing her stride only slightly. “It’s all over the news.”
Joel Finsel is the author of “Cocktails and Conversations from the Astral Plane,” and writes creative short stories, essays and musings every other week in encore throughout 2014.