Vera was still half-asleep on the bus when it pulled to her stop and jerked her awake with its high-pitch screech. As she stood up she looked through the foggy bus window and let out a groan; there was a long line of teachers again. Her union representative Ned, a short, stocky asthmatic man had announced at the last meeting that there had been an amendment in the new contract: Thought Checks were now limited to once a month instead of three times, which it had been for over five years. But now this, this long line uncoiling its way around the corner for the second time this week. The Department of Dread must have heard about the new stipulation and must have re-amended the adjustment as the new contract booklets were being printed. Vera had a vague cartoonish image of the booklets being pressed in a dusty factory, the location of which also vague, pages and pages being stamped with fresh ink and discharged into large sturdy boxes that were sent to every school in the city, already antiquated as they were being passed out at the weekly union meetings.
Vera crossed the street, hunching her shoulders as if it would protect her from the sudden gust of wind and the rain that had threateningly rumbled from earlier in the morning. Before reaching the back of the line she heard her name and saw Amelia waving her over.
“Come cut in front of me,” she said. Despite the terrible weather and the circumstances overall, Amelia was surprisingly intact, her grey suit pressed, her black shoes still dry and polished, and the clever French twist in her hair untouched.
“Again?” Vera said, pointing at the line.
Amelia sighed. “Yes. Isn’t it awful? I mean, what’s the use of going to these meetings if it’s all undone by the end of the day? And it’s moving so slow this time,” she added.
It meant more teachers had scanned negative and the guards had to take them away to the Room. That always took time with all the paperwork, and sometimes they needed two or three guards to lift the person to their feet and carry them away.
“I guess some teachers got lax after last week and didn’t bother with the Eraser since they thought they had a few weeks before the next Check,” Amelia speculated, as if reading Vera’s thoughts.
“This probably has to do with the Quality Review,” Vera said. “They’re probably screening to make sure everyone is clean. Maybe this is a warning so we’re prepared.”
“Are you nervous?” Amelia asked.
“No,” Vera replied. She had been teaching long enough (or had figured out early on enough) that if she went home and emptied her head in her notebook she would always scan positive. “Are you?” she asked Amelia.
“No,” said Amelia. “Not after the trick you told me about. Although I must say it doesn’t work for everyone. I told Sandra – you know Sandra? From the math department? I told her about it and she tried it, but nothing. She came back from the Room last Tuesday.”
Vera wondered why emptying your head didn’t work for everyone. Initially, she had come upon it by accident after an especially painstaking day at work.
“I hate those little fuckers. I hate them. They are the emotionally bankrupt…..the morally destitute….. I wish I could blow them up or bash their brainless heads into a wall……”
And the next morning, Vera had to steady herself when she saw the long line of teachers that began from the entrance of the school and filed around the block for a mandatory Thought Check. She was standing on line with Amelia again, who, unaware, was chattering on about where she had gone the previous evening, while Vera felt her nerves singed with panic, an uncontrollable perspiration dripping down to her lower back. Finally, it was the turn of the teacher in front of her. Ben. He stood calmly in front of the detectors. They were the old metal detectors from years ago when students were scanned for weapons and other paraphernalia. They had been converted and rewired into a computer. As Ben walked through the detectors a small bleeping sound emitted from the computer screen. Positive. It was Vera’s turn. She clenched her hands as she walked through, waiting for the current of electricity to zap through her brain, waiting to fall down on the floor and feel a pair of hands grab her and carry her away. Just one step through. Let’s go. Bleep. She let out an inaudible sigh. When she returned home that day she wrote more. Just to feel safe.
The bell had rung and Vera had already written her lesson on the board, but very few students had arrived. The hallways were filled with teenagers, and the bell, it seemed, had only served as an interruption to their conversations. Some were kicking around a soccer ball at the far end of the hallway, others were sitting on the floor playing cards, while a handful were in a corner taking sips (of what, Vera knew) out of a bottle and passing it around. Vera stuck her head out of her classroom and saw one of her students, Al, sharing a cigarette with his girlfriend. The boy was leaning against a wall casually passing the cigarette to his girlfriend, who was tossing his hat up and down in the air.
“Al. Can you please come inside?” Vera asked.
The boy crushed his cigarette on the wall and let it drop to the floor. He turned his back to Vera and kissed his girlfriend long enough to make Vera uncomfortable and walk away.
Within the next fifteen minutes some of Vera’s students sauntered in and took their seats. They sat complacently with their backs to the blackboard, quietly laughing at each other’s jokes, and all the while Vera stood in front of the room waiting. She felt her patience dissolve almost immediately, and oftentimes she wondered if the students’ attitudes had changed from when she had first started teaching. But she knew everything was exactly what it had always been – the rules (or perhaps the lack of), the students, the teachers’ quiet malaise.
“I didn’t realize you needed a personal invitation to take out your notebooks,” she said. “Let’s go guys.”
One girl sucked her teeth. Mayra. “Why we have to do anything? Why can’t we just relax and hang out today?”
“Yeah,” another girl countered. Vera didn’t know her name. “Why don’t you just go back to your seat and mind your business,” she said, making a swatting motion with her hand as if she shooing off a fly.
Vera gripped the back of the edge of her desk to quell her initial reaction. She had a sudden fantasy of grabbing the girl and slamming her against the wall.
“Then why did you come?” Vera asked, full well knowing that students could only receive a passing grade and move on to the next year if their attendance registered at forty percent. They appeared so sporadically, and with fifty students on her roster of six classes it was very difficult for Vera to remember any of their names.
“This is bullshit,” another kid said. If Vera remembered correctly, his name was Wilson. But it was bad to guess and be wrong.
“W-.” She hesitated.
“Wilson,” the kid said loudly, cutting her off. “You don’t remember by name?” he asked with mock disappointment. “But you’re a teacher – you guys are supposed to remember everything.” Some of the students snickered, while others were listening to their music so loudly that one could hear the tinny noise of their headphones from the other end of the room.
It was always the goal of every classroom to crumble the teacher’s will. To paralyze them with insolence and deflate the desire to get through the lesson.
“Wilson,” Vera continued. “Can you please read the aim for the class?”
The boy squinted at the blackboard as if he needed glasses, and read: “How does Tennessee Williams implement i-run-ee?”
“It’s pronounced ‘irony’,” Vera replied.
“Well, whatever!” the boy said, suddenly angered, and swiftly pushed the desk in front of him with his foot. “Damn! Who the fuck cares!” And much to Vera’s relief, he pulled out his cell phone and started fidgeting with it sulkily.
Vera looked at the clock. Only fifteen minutes left. She saw the assistant principal of the English department, Mrs. Hearse, pass by and peer in. “Can I speak to you for a moment, Miss Marcus?” As Vera walked over to the door the students uttered a long, loud “Oooooh,” in unison, as if Vera was a student being called in because she was in trouble.
She stepped into the hallway and closed the door behind her.
“Miss Marcus, these students are not in groups,” began Mrs. Hearse. She was a short woman, near retirement. Some of the teachers had noticed that lately she came to work looking slightly unraveled with her hair disheveled, wearing eyeglasses instead of her contact lenses, not bothering to change her sneakers to the high heels she used to wear daily.
“I know,” replied Vera, already armed with her list of reasons. And before the assistant principal could continue Vera spoke, “I don’t even know half of them. How can I group them if they only come half of the time? They don’t know the material. And it’s already hard enough to get through a lesson when they’re seated in rows. When I put them in groups they start talking to each other and I can barely get their attention.”
After listening patiently Mrs. Hearse began, “I understand what you’re saying, but they want to see that the students are interacting during lessons and discussing the material. And your bulletin board…. it’s non-existent,” she said, and they both glanced into the room at Vera’s bulletin board. There was a small banner that read “Miss Marcus’s 11th Grade Poetry” hanging above a large space covered with bright yellow paper, and beneath it would have been empty save for the stray curses and remarks left by random students. “Go fuck yourself” was still visible from where Vera and Mrs. Hearse were standing.
“They don’t hand in homework,” Vera said. “How can I grade their material and put it up there when they don’t produce any?”
“Have them work in class,” Mrs. Hearse responded.
“But on what, Mrs. Hearse? Look at them in there. They don’t even bring a notebook and a pen,” Vera said.
They looked back into the classroom and saw that most of them were now leaning against the windowsill, while the other students were still listening to their headphones or talking on their phones.
Suddenly Vera could smell the faint aroma of marijuana coming from the stairwell.
“Do you smell that?” Vera asked abruptly. When she first realized that students smoked pot freely in the hallways she jokingly told herself that at least it would keep them docile. She found it odd that she never saw any students smoking pot, but smelled it more frequently than the cigarette smoke that clouded the halls.
“Yes, I smell it,” said Mrs. Hearse, and in the same breath, “Well, you have to do something,” she went on. “Don’t forget there’s a Quality Review coming up in two weeks. We’ve had meetings about this already – what they’re looking for, what they want to see…….. what will happen if they don’t find what they want. They’ll be asking your students ‘How do you know if you’re passing Miss Marcus’s class? How often does she give tests? How often does she put you in groups?’ I’m only telling you this for your own best interest.”
“Well, are they just going to focus on what happens inside the classrooms? What about the hallways and the staircases and what goes on there?” Vera tried to counter, and halfway through her sentence Mrs. Hearse had spotted another teacher and walked away to speak to them.
Vera knew that a list was made after the Review. A list of names that put teachers not in the Room, but somewhere else that no one knew about. In comparison, a negative Thought Check and being put in the Room for a week seemed like a temporary vacation. In a manner of speaking, it was a temporary vacation since you were unconscious most of the time. Scanning negative meant you’d had bad thoughts, thoughts of malice towards the students or the Department that needed erasing. There were some teachers she knew that used the Eraser, or what was more humbly referred to as liquor, alcohol, booze, but enough of it that it blacked out your thoughts. She knew who those teachers were; they shuffled through the hallways like they shuffled through life, out of touch, catatonic and wanting to keep it that way until they had put in their thirty-five years. And even after that – what was left?
It was nine years ago that Vera had decided to become a teacher. She was working as an editorial assistant of a mid-level publishing firm when she realized that she had been there for four years and still hadn’t found her niche in the company. The office work was easy enough, too easy in fact, and one day faxing documents and typing letters became grossly unappealing. Sometimes Vera wished she had started teaching later, because it was after her first two years that the Department of Dread began implementing their changes – Thought Checks, and teaching summer school became mandatory, among other things. Had she never known what it was like to have two months of freedom during the summer months it would have been easier. Had she known that once you enlisted with the Department of Dread you had to see your career through until the end she would have never applied. And nobody told her the change was going to happen. Maybe nobody was allowed.
After her last class Vera walked to the elevator and saw Sandy the math teacher who Amelia had spoken of earlier. She gave Vera a tired look and tried to smile. When the elevator doors opened a team of students were inside, so compactly pressed in that there was barely any room for Vera and Sandy to stand.
“Oh God!” one kid said loudly. “What the fuck? You couldn’t wait for the next elevator?” They all laughed.
Sandy stared at the elevator door as it hummed to the first floor. “You aren’t even supposed to be in here,” she said through her clenched teeth.
A girl raised her arms in the air and gyrated her body, “I can be as bad as I want!” she screamed in an unnatural high-pitched voice. More laughter.
“I don’t understand why any of you are in here,” Vera said to them, trying to turn to look from her cramped position. “You know the elevators are only for teachers.”
“And we don’t understand why your lips are still moving when we don’t give a shit,” she heard loudly from the back of the elevator. Shrieking laughter.
“Why do you bother?” Sandy said as the elevator doors opened. Without waiting for either Vera or Sandy to get out of the elevator, the students pushed through and ran out, almost knocking over the teachers.
“Ten more years of this shit and I’ll finally be done,” Sandy said to Vera. “Good night.”
“Good night,” Vera said, and as she watched Sandy walk out of the building she wondered about emptying your thoughts again. Compared to Vera, Sandy was a veteran, and maybe, just maybe it was possible that Sandy had held in too much for too long, that no amount of emptying her thoughts could drain her completely. Amelia had started only a year after Vera, and she too was new enough to unburden herself as Vera did.
As she walked towards the exit sign Vera heard a sudden thud coming from down the hallway. Resisting the urge to keep walking she headed towards the sound of the noise as it grew louder. There was, perhaps, a scuffle that she should not bother involving herself with. All the classroom doors were open until she reached the one with its door closed.
“You know you can’t do shit, old man, so why bother?” she heard, and looked through the classroom door window. Four boys had surrounded Mr. Montone, one of the science teachers. Vera had heard that he would be retiring in two years. He was standing in the middle of the classroom holding something in his hand that was obscured by the four boys circling him.
“I will do it!” the old man growled. His glasses had slipped to the bridge of his nose, his tie had been loosened, and the crop of hair that he combed back now fell in his face. “You are fucking with the wrong guy!” he shouted, and the boys, amused by the old man cursing chuckled.
Without thinking of anything in particular Vera pushed the door open and walked in. “What is all this?” she said.
Mr. Montone lowered the object in his hand, and the boys’ attention was diverted long enough that they paused to eye her momentarily as if she were on display.
One of the taller ones nudged the others. “Let’s go. This guy’s a fucking freak,” he said.
“Yeah, he’s a real bad-ass,” one of the others said, laughing.
When they left the room Mr. Montone quickly tucked the object in his hand into his leather bag. “Those sons of bitches!” he said, his voice hoarse and broken.
Vera would never ask what he had put away in his bag and she would never find out, but she could only assume. The Department of Dread had started administering Thought Checks shortly after what everyone referred to as that “horrible incident”.
If one were to tell the curtailed version of what happened, it could be said that on the last day of school Ms. Clemens came to class and shot four of her students with a pistol. One could say she was already crazy and had completely lost her mind. But Vera pictured it differently. Maybe it was because she had seen Ms. Clemens in the library during their breaks. They had the same free period, but they never spoke to one another. Instead of planning lessons or grading papers Ms. Clemens read. Sometimes it was only she and Vera in the library and in the beginning Vera fought her natural impulse to be friendly, ask questions even, that would help her navigate through the school year more seamlessly than her first.
The woman couldn’t have been much older than Vera – in her late twenties perhaps, and she overheard speculations about her marital status from other teachers in the lunchroom. She was attractive enough, yes, and had a slender figure that she covered modestly with clothes that were slightly over-sized. There was something, Vera observed, that was rather awkward about her when she sat with her colleagues. She chewed her bottom lip nervously, drew her purse closer to her body, spoke so softly that one had to lean in slightly to avoid asking her to repeat herself.
In Vera’s mind she struggled with the image that everyone had conjured from their feeble imaginations. It could not be that Ms. Clemens simply walked into her senior English class, pulled out a pistol and fired away at four students. Perhaps it was because Vera had walked passed her classroom while she was teaching that interfered with her own capacity to embellish scenarios as others had.
Ms. Clemens had arrived to class with a pistol in her purse, yes. It was the last day of school as well. Seniors who were graduating in two days! Vera pictured two girls leafing through their yearbooks and coming across the faculty page.
“Let’s play ugly-pretty,” one girl said.
“Okay,” said the other, and they looked up their teacher, who, a target of their daily ridicule began biting her lip.
Nervously, she stood up, aware of the two girls and their private appraisal that was underway. “Can I have everyone’s attention please?”
Students ignored her, leaned back in their chairs very much like they did in Vera’s class. She might as well have been trying to sell tofu burgers at a football game.
“Hello everyone!” Ms. Clemens clapped her hands for their attention, and although she tried very hard to concentrate she could overhear the girls.
“How about Ms. Abari?”
“Pretty!” with readiness.
“Pretty!” She knew she was next. Two days ago she had self-consciously leafed through the yearbook to see who would overshadow her. And there she was – fatefully placed next to the two most attractive female teachers in the entire school.
The students were now talking on their phones, or sharing earphones and listening to music.
“Can I have your attention please! Today is the last day of class and I want to say something!”
“How about……?” she sensed the first girl motioning to the middle of the room, pointing to her with her eyes and then looking down at her yearbook picture.
“Ugly!” her friend shrieked.
“Yeah! Totally ugly!” her accomplice said.
Ms. Clemens was in mid-sentence when she let her chalk fall out of her hand. It hit the floor with a light clinking sound. It wasn’t until she had pulled the pistol out of her purse and shot one of the girls that the students stopped.
“Excuse me!” she said loudly, almost shouting. “Can I have your attention please! Today is the last day of class and I had wanted to say something!”
Several teachers had already arrived to her classroom, which was locked. All teachers locked their doors now. If not, then one was welcoming the random student to run in and throw something at you or simply walk in and walk around the classroom while you were in the middle of attempting a lesson. Just for fun.
“Victoria! Please open the door!” she heard someone from the other side of the door. There was frantic knocking, the violent tugging of the doorknob, and their voices seemed so removed from where she was now. But why, Vera would wonder to herself, why didn’t any of the teachers simply reach for their own keys and unlock the door? There was one key for all the classrooms, unless it was a lab room or the gymnasium. Had they all privately wanted Victoria to continue her rampage, simply trying to create a semblance of intervention?
Three more shots. The students sat still in their seats, the other four slumped over their desks, blood leaking like spilt paint in crimson pools. And then the teachers heard the footsteps of Mrs. Hearse, plodding as quickly as she could from around the corner. Suddenly one of them produced a key and unlocked the door.
“Here’s to the Quality Review!”
“May we all be dragged away and never seen again!”
“It was good knowing you!”
Vera uncrossed her legs and felt the dull weight of too many drinks hinder her movement. She and Amelia had met the rest of the teachers at a bar to commiserate, not really to drink. It was the evening before the Quality Review, the threat of which had been looming over them for months now. It didn’t help matters that it had been rescheduled three times already, and just as the date approached the teachers would arrive to school only to be told the Reviewers from the Department of Dread would be coming at a later date. More meetings, more preparation, more bulletin boards that needed updating in classrooms where students’ work was to be displayed with the dates clearly posted. “They want to see fresh work. They want to see that you are encouraging your students to write.”
Amelia, the less drunker of the two, quickly reached for Vera’s wrist when another shot had been poured for her. “You’re good,” she said. “Let’s walk now. The fresh air will do us some good.”
They walked arm in arm all the way across town to Vera’s apartment. After helping her up the stairs and settling her on the couch, Amelia started to head out the door and then she heard, “We’re all fucked – you know that, right?”
She turned to Vera, who lay prostrate on the couch with her eyes closed.
“We are not. Maybe some others are, but not us,” said Amelia.
“Even if it goes well for both of us tomorrow, we’re still fucked in the long run,” Vera said. “I come home, I empty my thoughts, but I’m walking on a very delicate edge, my friend. Very delicate…..”
The next morning there was no line in front of the school building. Not one teacher had scanned negative. It was no wonder, Vera marveled, since almost every teacher she knew had been at the bar last night. As she walked to her classroom she noticed a tall bearded man wearing a gray suit and a striking navy blue tie standing in the middle of the hallway with four other persons dressed similarly.
“Who is that?” Vera asked to a random teacher standing next to her.
“The guy in the suit? That’s the principal. And the other four are the Quality Reviewers.”
None of the teachers or the assistant principals had ever seen the principal. Throughout the years she and many of her colleagues joked that the janitor was probably secretly the principal, quietly eavesdropping on conversations and going through teachers’ desks for corroborative evidence.
“He looks fantastic!” Vera noted.
“I guess he does,” said the other teacher. “Kind of upscale, huh?”
The entire building looked fantastic, actually. Vera saw the beautiful display of students’ work on the bulletin boards and wondered if the teachers hadn’t gone home and produced the work themselves and passed it off as their students’. Yet still after the bell there were students in the hallways, like they had been when she was new, and probably more of them now. She stood outside of her door like she did every morning, doing her best to somehow cajole them into her classroom. In the midst of the cigarette smoke, the soccer ball being kicked around, the students sitting Indian-style on the floor playing cards, Vera saw the Reviewers standing in the hallway with the principal, and they looked absurd.
The bell had rung and Vera stood in front of the room. “Everyone please take out your notebooks!” she began.
The principal and the Quality Reviewers were two doors away. They were walking into every classroom, and within moments they would be walking into hers.
There were less students than usual – fifteen, to be exact. Vera took a stack of loose leaf paper, a handful of pens and a pile of books and started distributing them.
“Please copy what’s on the board. Today’s ‘aim’ is: ‘What do the characters in The Glass Menagerie symbolize?’ And the ‘do now’ is: ‘What external conflicts are Williams’ characters experiencing?’”
She felt the chalk in her hand moisten in the grip of her palm. None of them were paying attention.
“Please put away your cell phones and headphones,” she said.
Like every other day, there was an impenetrable glass wall between herself and the class. She felt as if she were standing on a stage and speaking to an empty auditorium. Suddenly the door opened. Wordlessly, the principal and the Reviewers walked to the back of the classroom quietly observing her. Vera stood in front of the blackboard helplessly.
“Please open to page twenty-three,” she said.
Not a stir. She dared not look at the back of the room where the five of them stood watching her. Then they looked at one another, and as if reading each other’s thoughts they filed off to the side of the room and left. Vera turned her back to the classroom and muttered to herself, “Fucking hell,” and for the remainder of the period sat behind her desk, the feeling of defeat rising in her throat.
After the bell rang Vera sat, watching her students leave, paying her no attention. Again, this was no different than any other day, but it felt different. She heard a knock on the door and seeing that it was Amelia, waved her in.
“How did it go?” Amelia asked her.
“Terrible,” Vera said. “I didn’t imagine it wouldn’t, but I feel horrible.”
“Same here,” said Amelia. “You think the kids would get it together for this one day, but no.” For the first time since Vera met her, Amelia looked grim. “What the hell do they care anyway?” she added. “I mean, I wonder if they know that our asses are on the line, and if they do – maybe they don’t care that because of them we are going to be in big trouble.” Just as she finished her sentence she looked out of the window in wonderment.
“What is it?” Vera asked, turning to look.
“Is that smoke coming out of one of the rooms?” Amelia said.
Across the other side of the building there was thick black smoke drifting out of an open window. The two stood watching and then saw a dark figure in the room moving so frantically that they could not identify the person.
“It’s probably one of the kids trying to concoct another explosion. Remember last year when that kid hid in one of the labs – ”
“That is one of the labs!” Vera said. “What the hell is going on?”
And it was then that the person spotted them and stopped for a moment. The person opened the window and stuck his head out.
“You ladies should probably leave!” he said, trying to keep his voice low, and when she saw that his eyeglasses had slipped to the bridge of his nose Vera realized that it was Mr. Montone.
Amelia ran to the window. “What happened?” she called out.
“Don’t worry about it, my dear. Just grab your friend there and get the hell out of the building. Don’t bother telling anyone else unless you care to see them again. And if you’re going to do it, do it now and do it quietly!” He firmly pushed down the window, and from what Vera and Amelia saw it seemed he had left the room.
The two women slowly walked out of the room and passed the teacher’s lounge where their colleagues were sitting.
“Would anyone like to come out for a quick coffee break?” Vera asked, trying to sound casual.
“We have about fifteen minutes left,” one of them said.
“That’s enough time,” Amelia told them, and immediately the two walked out of the back exit of the building towards the football field. They didn’t look to see if anyone had followed them.
At first the sound was like firecrackers. It made Vera remember when she was a child, how her parents had forbidden her to light firecrackers for Fourth of July. She remembered relishing the sound of the distant patter from a neighbor’s yard. And now the sound deepened, the loud booms vibrating the turf as they ran off as far as they could. For a moment Vera stopped and turned around, watching the scene as if she were in some outlandish movie. The thick smoke had magically erupted into a fire, and almost every window of the school building was raging in flames. They could hear some screaming, and the high-pitched wail of the emergency alarms.
“Do you think if we went home and gathered our things and left they would find us?” Amelia asked as they were half-running.
“Who cares?” she said, her words coming out in gasps. “Who cares how we disappeared – to them, anyway?”
As far as Vera was concerned, they would go home and disappear in their own way, glad to not have to the smell of soot and smoke lingering on their bodies.
Theurgy Magazine – January 2013