Teachers have the most fascinating, difficult, and important job on the planet, and their work days are filled with stories. Yet teachers seldom appear in fiction. This contest, a joint venture of The Academy for Teachers and Tin House, was created to inspire honest, unsentimental stories about teachers and the rich and complex world of schools. There were two criteria for submissions. The story’s protagonist or its narrator had to be a teacher and the story had to be between 6 and 999 words. This year, Cheryl Strayed volunteered to choose our winner.
—Sam Swope, Founder and President, Academy for Teachers
I loved “A Brief Description of Mister Kuka.” The writing is beautiful and precise, vivid and sure-footed. In very few words the author creates a striking portrait of both a teacher we all long to have—the eponymous Mister Kuka—and also of the curious object he one day brings to class—a real cow heart, which he zealously examines while his students gather around. Perhaps the real genius of this story is the use of the first person plural narrative point of view, which masterfully zigs and zags between the collective consciousness of a class in the thrall of their brilliant teacher and the experience of the individual students themselves as a world—and a heart—is opened up before them. The effect is magic.
A Brief Description of Mister Kuka
by Santian Vataj
The bags under his eyes were slightly puffier than usual. His hair, receding and unkempt, pointed above his head like antennae. He appeared tired but never was.
We stood up as was custom, but Kuka ignored us, and set a large brown bag on the table. Do you want to see a heart? he asked.
A real one?
Yes, he said, only it belongs to a cow.
Someone mumbled cuckoo and twirled an index finger around their temple. Mister Kuka tore the bag open, splaying it flat on the desk, then peeled off a sheet of wax paper until the large, glistening heart of a cow was visible. He’d acquired it very early that morning from the butcher.
With both hands he invited the class to gather around his desk. There we were, all twenty of us, wondering in our own way if the teacher had gone irreversibly deranged. Make a fist, he instructed, and we obeyed. That’s the size of your heart—give or take. Some of us pressed a fist to our chest, while others held it at face level as if seeing it for the first time.
A cow’s heart is much larger, does anyone know why?
Because they’re braver?
Because they need it?
Go on, said Mister Kuka. But no one could go any further. We just stood there on the brink of incomprehension. Mister Kuka didn’t wait for an answer. He dipped a knife into the bovine heart causing it to spurt a little coagulated blood. Split in half, the organ had a perfect symmetry not unlike a tropical fruit.
With the point of his knife he traced the smooth, contractile strains of muscle while speaking to no one in particular. A cow’s heart pumps thousands of gallons of blood a day. All that blood enters here, through this atrium, before rushing past this ventricle where finally it’s pumped to the lungs and the rest of its body. Beautiful, huh?
Some of us nodded.
Mister Kuka handed the heart over, asked that we observe it carefully and pass it around. Holding the magenta lump of flesh felt oddly comforting; it was cool and moist—heavier than expected. We passed it to one another as if it were a collection plate. A girl with poor vision held the heart too close to her face; it touched the tip of her nose, leaving behind a pinkish smudge. Mister Kuka used his bloodied hands to write notes on the chalkboard until the black slate was covered in hastily written medical terms and their definitions, most of which were indecipherable. He was an excellent draftsman though, and in the ten or so minutes we remained transfixed, he managed to draw a simple diagram detailing the main parts and functions of a heart.
We were permitted to ask questions. These questions covered all manner of topics surrounding not only the heart but life itself.
Does everything have a heart? Why? What does it taste like? What keeps it beating? Is there a god? Do Albanian hearts differ in any way from others? Where did the cow come from? Did it suffer? How do you know? What will happen to the heart after class?
He answered every question without hesitation; without a hint of irony or sarcasm. He answered them unlike the math teacher Zhivko who was missing a front tooth, and, on occasion, reeked of alcohol.
What happened to the heart after class? Well, it was given to an old man who cut it into cubes and fried it with some onions.
“The Language of Space” is a moving story about the difference one powerful moment with one attentive teacher can make in the life of a student. With great economy and clear concision, the author moves the narrative from panicky suspense to understated poignancy. From the first paragraph, in which the main character Elena makes the heart-sinking realization that one of the children under her charge on a field trip is missing, to the last, in which she and the child return safely to the group after having an exchange neither of them will forget, I was emotionally engaged and aching—as all good fiction makes you ache—to know what happens next. It’s a beautiful example of the flash fiction form.
The Language of Space
by Danielle Stonehirsch
There were eleven where there should be twelve. Elena was sure. She counted three more times anyway because she was the math teacher and if she counted wrong the English teacher was going to be all in her face at the debrief Friday. But no, six boys and five girls, which meant one was missing, and for the life of her she couldn’t remember who it was. When she had volunteered to take the first and second graders on their field trip she hadn’t realized how much she would miss her familiar sixth-grade faces. Those Madisons and Jacobs she could tell apart. These Madisons all seemed to be wearing the same Princess Elsa shirt and all three Jacobs had the same haircut. She was pretty sure one of the not-Jacobs was named Aristotle, but that one was here and accounted for and pretending to pee on one of the Jacobs from another group. What was not accounted for was why he was named Aristotle and why he was pretending to pee on other children, but determining that was not going to help with the problem at hand which was that of the eight Harris Academy teachers standing in front of the Air and Space Museum, Elena appeared to be the only one missing a student. Other teachers were beginning to herd the mass of wriggling backpacks and light-up shoes into the buses, and the sick, leaky-stomach feeling of pure panic started to press against the inside of her skin. She had way too much undergrad debt to lose this job in the first eight months.
The eleven kids were already turning their pale faces toward the nearest bus under the watchful eyes of teachers with years of herding experience. These teachers were used to keeping track of four-foot-tall rogue agents but were not as attuned to the movements of other adults, so she was able to dart unnoticed up the wide white stairs and into the museum, turning her head back and forth, scanning for the name tags with school colors all students were required to wear around their necks while off school property.
The chaos in her head was mirrored in the entryway as other schools shepherded their own students through the doors, each group wearing a different distinctive brand. Just as she realized there was about as much chance of finding her missing kid in this museum as there was in actual outer space, her eyes landed on a shorter-than-average boy with the Harris name tag looped over his neck. Relief flooded over the panic, covering it like a cooling balm, and she finally remembered his name.
He didn’t turn, and she walked toward him with purpose. His curly black hair was badly in need of a cut, and the curls sprung out in all directions as though whatever was on his mind was too much, as though they needed to escape. What had caught his attention appeared to be a rocket reaching up to the ceiling.
She squatted down so he had to see and hear her. “Mario, all the other kids are on the bus. We have to go.”
The boy nodded, but didn’t turn. “This goes into space?”
She looked at the plaque in front of them, but didn’t read it. “Yup, it goes into space. That’s so cool. Bet you want to tell all your friends about it on the bus.”
“No,” he said. “Not really.” He turned to look at her. “What language do they speak in space?”
“All the languages, I guess. English, Russian, Chinese—”
“Like you and me.”
She nodded, and he turned away from the rocket to look at her. “Does that mean aliens speak Spanish?”
She wasn’t sure what the right answer was. The true answer was no. Aliens were probably more like algae than anything with a language. But she had learned in eight months as a teacher that the true answer wasn’t always the same as the right answer.
“It’s always possible,” she said.
He smiled. It was the genuine smile of a first grader who didn’t know the other smiles like her sixth graders, like the other teachers: sarcastic, sardonic, secretive, false, manipulative, disingenuous. She returned it, and for a moment they were a matching pair.
She stood up, and together they crossed the crowded space of the museum to the buses waiting to take them home.
Santian Vataj was born in the former Yugoslavia to Albanian parents and raised in the Bronx, New York. He currently works as a full-time history teacher in New York City. His work has appeared in The Writers Studio at 30 anthology, Prelude Magazine‘s website, 100 Word Story and Silver Needle Press.
Danielle Stonehirsch’s work has recently appeared in the Washington City Paper, Montgomery Magazine, and Roar: True Tales of Women Warriors. She has taught English and French in France and the U.S. Now, at First Book, she helps deliver diverse books to kids in need around the country. She is grateful for the support of her family and writing group.
Cheryl Strayed is the author of the #1 New York Times best seller Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail, which was the first selection for Oprah’s Book Club 2.0 and became an Oscar-nominated film starring Reese Witherspoon; Tiny Beautiful Things: Advice on Love and Life from Dear Sugar, a national best seller now the basis of the WBUR podcast Dear Sugar Radio, co-hosted with Steve Almond; and Torch, her debut novel. Her books have been translated into forty languages, and her essays and other writings have appeared in numerous publications.