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. Karen Russell had the impossible task of choosing the winners.
—Sam Swope, Founder and President, Academy for Teachers
This piece delighted me. Its author is an artist of the sentence. The teacher at its center, Mr. Fisher, is a wonderfully idiosyncratic creation. You wish a teacher this brilliant and caring and weird for every student. I loved reading Mr. Fisher’s observational intelligence applied to things like the zen of pencil sharpeners and to the surprising emotional realism of wiggle eyes, “poached in terror.” Routed through Mr. Fisher’s vision, seemingly banal objects begin to shimmer and glow. The story has a patina of wonder that is not totally surprising, I guess, given that his students are covered in glitter.
I suppose you could grouse that nothing really happens in this story, which is why its ending feels so inspired to me–a student directs her teacher to the window. Snow is falling. Time’s cycling is magically visible to us, and to the children. Something real has been happening before our eyes, in the transfer of attention and energy and humor between Mr. Fisher and his young students: an education.
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by Walker Rutter-Bowman
I tell them to glue first. They drag the orange nose of the glue bottle across the paper. I come around with the glitter, see what they’ve done—words, hearts, animals, suns. I sprinkle the glitter on the glue lines.
“But why can’t we do it?” they ask, their little hands reaching for the shaker of glitter.
“I have to be the one do it,” I say. “I know how to sprinkle the glitter. If you did it, the glitter would all flump out in a pile. It would be chaos.”
“It’s when glitter spills everywhere. And then sticks to everything. Sticks to you. To your skin. For weeks, months.”
Their eyes go wide. They touch their cheeks, imagine themselves covered in it. Then they look down at their papers, their arcing ridges of sparkle. Their eyes and thoughts move down and in; they pack themselves into the silvery gleam.
For Thanksgiving we make turkeys out of construction paper. For the feathers, there are orange, red, and yellow pieces of paper cut into teardrops. For the bodies, there are brown oblongs. For the eyes, there are wiggle eyes. The construction paper rasps when handled. While the kids work, I sit behind my desk, rub my knuckles on a grainy sheet of yellow.
At the Thanksgiving assembly, the kids sing songs about wheat and harvest and America’s institutionalization of neighborly love. Sowing in the morning, sowing seeds of kindness, sowing in the noontide and the dewy eve. Their little voices rise. But do they know what a dewy eve even is? Do I? When was the last time I enjoyed a dewy eve? When was the last time, as the dew fell and the night-mist rose, I felt the eve take hold? Their little voices rise again: We shall come rejoicing. I dream of wet grass, of sliding beads of water, of jeweled droplets glowing in the long beam of moonlight.
I could assign the job to one of my students, but I find it so satisfying. I put the pencil in, and the spiral blade tears away at the dull nub. According to the vendor catalog, the sharpener has a “flyaway steel helical cutter system.” It rattles as it churns. I plant the pencil’s flat end in my palm—feel its spin, its canted wobble. I watch the shavings curl and gather in the clear receptacle. The minutes pass. The sharpener grows warm to the touch, produces a cooked wood-chip smell. I don’t notice the students come back from P.E. until Claudia puts a hand on my shoulder. “Mr. Fisher,” she says softly. “I think it’s sharp now.”
I always thought they were called “Googly Eyes,” but when I go to order them, they’re listed in the vendor catalog as “Wiggle Eyes.” And though one would think they’d be the least realistic part of the children’s turkey collages, or their cotton-ball snowmen, or their felt dolls, or their clothespin reindeer, they are, in fact, the most realistic, the truest—wide, lidless, poached in terror, the pupils swiveling in deranged and pointless vigilance.
Every day at snack-time, Jeremy tests the markers. He says, with a workmanlike resolve, “Time to test the markers.” He tests a marker, eats a Cheez-It. To test, he makes a mark on a piece of paper. If it is sufficiently wet and inky, he puts the marker back in the marker basket. If it is dried up, scratching out a faint line, Jeremy says “Nope” and throws the marker in the trash.
Some days I think he really cares about the markers. Other days I think he just enjoys the sound of the marker smacking against the inside of the trashcan, thumping the hard plastic and ruffling the loose liner. I like that sound, too. One would think Jeremy’s parents work as quality control technicians at a factory, but no—his father is an actuary, his mother is a local reporter. And one would think Jeremy uses only markers when he colors, but no—only crayons.
“These are not pom poms,” says Daniel. “These are cotton balls.”
“A pom pom is a type of cotton ball,” I say.
“I know the difference,” says Daniel, squeezing the cotton ball as though testing a melon.
The students say they do not like this project. They say they do it every year around the holidays, and they just don’t like making cotton-ball snowmen. They say they’re sick of it. They say they’re sick of the the way the glue bunches the fibrous tufts of gauze into stiff clumps. They say they’re sick of how easily the balls detach from the paper. They say they’re sick of the way the balls bounce soundlessly on the classroom floor. They’d prefer it if they detonated, like snowglobes, in a hail of bright and gleaming shards.
“Class, I respect your wishes,” I say. “But this year the cotton-ball snowmen fit in perfectly with our Weather unit. For instance, does anyone remember another name for snow?”
“Snowball,” says Michael.
“Close,” I say, “but no.”
“Snowman,” says Grace.
“Precipitation,” says Isabel.
“Yes!” I say, writing it on the board. “Precipitation.”
“I thought precipitation was rain.”
“It is,” I say. “It’s both rain and snow.”
Outside, snow begins to fall—the first snow of the season. The kids rush to the window. I tell them to come back to their desks, finish working on their snowmen.
“But Mr. Fisher,” someone says. “This is the real thing!”
“Mr. Fisher, Mr. Fisher! This is precipitation!”
“Children,” I say. “Come away from the window. The snow’s not going anywhere.”
Claudia tugs on my sleeve. “Oh, yes, it is, Mr. Fisher! It’s falling!”
“I Often Tell People…” made me laugh out loud. The deadpan repetition of the sentence structure reminded me of Joe Brainard’s wonderful accumulative biography, “I remember.” Each iteration is a new surprise, moving the reader through the daily trials of teaching that veer from the deranging to the heartbreaking to the hysterical (“I often tell people that they are using ironic incorrectly. ‘It is not ironic that you got wet on the way to school. It is raining.”).
By some magic trick, this author has managed to distill years of teaching into a few skillful paragraphs. We might wish to separate teachers into two camps, the heroes and the villains, but this narrator reminds us that teachers are fully human (“I often tell people I feel like neither”); the voice here is tonally complex and totally convincing. I loved it.
“I Often Tell People . . .”
by Emily Zdyrko
I often tell people to sit down and shut the hell up.
I often tell people that the more they behave like adults, the more I can treat them like adults.
I often tell people to put away their lip gloss, eyeshadow, lotion, perfume, body spray, gum, chips, candy, bacon-and-egg sandwiches, sunflower seeds, mirrors, homework for the next class, and cell phones.
I often tell people that I am not an idiot, and they can put their cell phones away for real now.
I often tell people to indent their paragraphs.
I often tell people to double space.
I often tell people that for god’s sake, they should get in the habit of using MLA format.
I often tell people to begin their essays with a hook, possibly consisting of an interesting question or idea related to their topic of choice.
“Have you ever wondered what the word ‘society’ means?”
“Have you ever wondered what the similarities and differences are between Huck Finn and Stanley Kowalski?”
“Have you ever wondered how regional geological differences affected the economic conditions that led to the Civil War?”
No, I often tell people. I have never in my life wondered any of those things.
I often tell people that things are ironic.
“It is ironic that Oedipus vows to hunt down the murderer—because he does not know that the murderer is himself.”
“It is ironic that Lady Macbeth asks the spirits to make her like a man, since she would have been played by a man in Elizabethan times.”
“It is ironic that I am the only one in this room who seems concerned about your upcoming test, considering that I am also the only one who does not have to take it.”
I often tell people that they are using the word “ironic” incorrectly.
“It is not ironic that you got wet on your way to school. It is raining.”
I often tell people things that are not, strictly speaking, true.
“You are really going to regret missing out on the lesson about quotation marks.”
“If you don’t learn how to write a good essay, the New York City Department of Education will not let you graduate.”
“No we are not sitting around the teachers room talking about you. We have better things to do than that.”
“Of course I agree with the principal. I always agree with the principal.”
I often tell people the truth, but tactfully.
“Your daughter has a lot of potential, but it’s important for her to work on her social skills.”
“This essay has some good ideas, but you should be careful to spell the title of the book the same way every time you mention it.”
Sometimes I tell people the truth, not tactfully at all.
I often tell people that if they lean back in their chairs far enough and often enough, they will almost certainly fall, and I often tell people that I do not want to have to explain to the dean or to their parents that their daughter cracked her head open in English class because she was leaning back in her chair, because damn, that is stupid.
I often tell people things more than once.
I often tell people things more than once.
I often tell people that I’m pretty sure they have no idea what I just said, even though I know I said it more than once.
Sometimes people tell me that I’m annoying.
Sometimes people tell me that I’m boring.
Sometimes people tell me that I’m mean.
Sometimes people tell me that I’m too nice.
Sometimes people tell me that they definitely did turn in their assignment, it’s just that my email must not be working very well, but maybe if I give it a few days the email will magically show up.
Sometimes people tell me that I’m a saint
But that I get too much vacation.
Sometimes people tell me that they could never, ever do my job, let alone do it
But people who do it badly should be punished.
Sometimes people tell me about their own teachers
Who are usually heroes or villains in their stories.
I often tell people I feel like neither.
I often tell people to conclude their essays by restating the main idea, and giving it a new spin, maybe by making a critical statement or a new connection.
“In the end, Huck Finn and Stanley are both characters in American Literature.”
“Ultimately, everyone is a tragic hero in his or her own way.”
“Society is still important today.”
I often tell people that a conclusion is the hardest part of the essay to write.
by Santian Vataj
The silvery fish, a Diamond Tetra, was a gift from his student Vlora, who last year presented it to him in a fishbowl the size of a small melon.
“A gift from my family,” she said.
Daren Shaw tapped the bowl. “Well, I think the class will really love this.”
He blushed a little. “What? Should I take it home?”
“Yes, and refer to it as Ora, if you don’t mind. You see, in Albania, that’s what we call the spirits who protect humans. If you don’t have an Ora, you’re finished.”
“Ah,” he said, feigning interest. “See, the truth is, I’m not even supposed to accept gifts from students.”
“Mister Shaw, don’t be ridiculous. If anyone gives you trouble, any trouble at all, my father will take care of it.” She left the small aquarium on his desk.
He had little choice then, but to walk the ten blocks to his apartment, careful not to drop the sloshing bowl carrying his precious Ora.
Now, nearly a year later, the thing was dead. He found it one morning, suspended in turbid water. Already late for work, Daren poured the entire contents of the bowl into the toilet. With one flush, the filthy water with its plastic coral, sand, and lifeless fish disappeared in one all-consuming vortex.
Still in his underwear, Daren found yesterday’s pants on the ground and shuddered as his legs passed through the cold fabric. He collected his things and left the apartment bathed in late morning light.
It was his third lateness in as many weeks and he was sure to hear it from the payroll secretary, a woman with a Nazi-like disposition for policing even the smallest infractions. His thoughts drifted from Vlora and the dead fish to the payroll secretary as he walked the ten blocks to work, past rows of coffee-colored buildings that dominated this corner of the Bronx.
In the office, payroll was nowhere to be seen but there was a note in his mailbox:
“Please see Principal at your convenience. (Payroll)”
In the teacher’s lounge he finds Massey and Shapiro, the math teachers. The room is utterly square, and its linoleum tiles suffer beneath the weight of copy machines, bookshelves, and the perfectly round tables whose faux-wood surfaces are littered with piles of paper. A large wooden crate sits in the center of the room like an occupying spaceship. The math teachers use a crowbar to pry it open. After a little struggle, the last plank of wood falls to the ground with a thwacking sound. They examined the strange object.
Four feet tall, slouched, it had arms and legs, an oval head that kind of resembled an egg, and a black plane of glass for eyes. In its current state it seemed almost cute, like a rather large toy for children.
“What’s it for?” asked Daren.
“You didn’t get the memo? It’s supposed to teach a class.” Massey said.
“It’s true. This thing is top of the line, from Germany. Heard the boss say so.”
Daren waved his hand dismissively and said to Massey, “What you don’t understand is that poetry comes from right here.” And he touched the left side of his chest. “Teach kids? Give me a break,” he said, as the robot just stood there, stupidly frozen in place, its head tilted downward.
By lunchtime he rediscovered the crumpled note in his pocket, reminding him to see the principal. The two hadn’t spoken since the holiday party, and when Daren entered his office, the principal pulled up a mahogany chair and asked him to sit.
“What’s up?” asked Daren, still standing.
“You’ve heard about Neo?”
“That thing in the teacher’s lounge?”
“That thing cost a small fortune and the superintendent is keen on seeing that it works.”
“Starting Monday, it will teach your English elective and you will facilitate, which means passing out materials and grading papers. You are to treat Neo as you would a colleague.” The principal shuffled some papers, searching for his words. “Look, I don’t want to make this hard on you: let’s just move forward.”
Daren bristled as he placed a hand on the left side of his chest and prepared to tell the principal that poetry came from the heart, but the man wasn’t interested and waved him off just as a phone rang.
Monday arrived, and Daren watched as a technician prepared Neo all morning long.
“You basically have to be in the room for legal reasons and to ensure that it doesn’t go haywire, in which case you should call this number,” said the technician, handing him a business card.
Daren took his place at the front of the class beside a projector that was synced to Neo’s internal system. The black plane of glass on Neo’s face turned fluorescent blue, an indicator that it was on. The word “WELCOME” appeared across the board as the first students trickled in. The robot moved up and down the aisles quietly, like a confident little man. Its modulated voice was unlike a robot’s. In a high British accent, it recited from the Aeneid first in English, then in Latin. Meanwhile, everything the students said was recorded and entered into a database for future analysis—all courtesy of invisible algorithms Daren didn’t even know existed. Towards the end of the lesson, Neo even performed a little dance, sending the children into wild fits of laughter.
Daren sat hunched over a desk pretending to examine some papers as a trail of excited faces streamed out of the room. Only Vlora remained. With her large black eyes, she looked at him disquietingly as Neo stood nearby like a sentinel. In a whisper, she said, “You have to do something about this.”
But Daren could only smile ambivalently, like a man who’d lost his Ora. He watched as the teen sauntered out of the room before spitting at Neo’s feet.
The Fourth Sink
by Devan Aptekar
In the mornings, the room smells dusty. It’s strongest near the fourth sink. I try to avoid opening the cabinet beneath but sometimes I have no choice—all the donated paper towel rolls are down there, stacked like logs in a crinkly wedge. Really it’s more musty than dusty. Word choice. I want the kids to be specific when they’re making their field observations, so let me hold myself accountable too. Sunlight drenches the room in the mornings, east-facing classroom, the series of tall windows like tipped pitchers. The black lab tables shining. It’s mostly quiet here this early.
There’s a hole in the floor under Table 8 that you’d think would be the likely culprit. The sea jelly–green tiles cross some kind of seam there, a ridge transecting the room. Our school building is settling awkwardly after sixty-five years. Where the ridge passes under Table 8, ten inches of it have crumbled inwards, revealing the worn edges of weight-bearing two-by-fours and a rind of shadow between. I can’t stop predicting that the hole’s the source of the smell but that hypothesis needs to be dismissed. I’ve crawled under the table to check too many times.
It’s coming from that fourth sink, from the gap behind the wall. I just know it. That’s not evidence, of course. I would never allow a student to cite “just knowing it” as support for one of their claims. Gotta dig deeper: Why do you think that, how do you know? I need to pry out the paper towel rolls after school one day, after the kids have gone home. Someone needs to look inside and I guess it’s me. At times there are noises coming from back there too, bristling. Four sinks, sure, it’s excessive for a middle school science lab but it is nice to have them. We use them. Though I’ve stopped letting the class use the fourth this year, just in case.
When they come in each morning, one or two kids will mention the smell. And lately, occasionally, the sounds. But they usually only mention it right as they walk in and then we all forget again until the next day, There’s so much else to keep track of. Nadia is having a seriously tough time at home and feels comforted if I let her hold the rock hammer during class. Victor and Kayla need me to find them a mic for the plate tectonics song they’re working on. And it’s the sugar cube lab today, where they use tealights to send sugar through a simulation of the rock cycle, bash the cubes down to sediments, melt them into magma. I need to find extra hairbands before class starts and print the procedures. And cut some aluminum foil. Get out the tongs, the goggles. Figure out when to have a conversation with Jenny because I promised her a seat change and that class has a bunch of tender personalities to keep track of. Flip through yesterday’s mini-quizzes and figure out who needs a check-in. The faint noises, the snarling, the scratching, and that persistent smell get drowned out by 124 eighth graders moving through all day so of course we forget. But it’s there. Every morning it’s there. I’ve been quantifying the smell on a 1–5 scale and the data suggest it’s getting stronger.
Walker Rutter-Bowman lives in Ithaca, New York. He is at work on his first collection of stories.
Emily Zdyrko is an English teacher at Fiorello H. LaGuardia High School of Music, Art, and the Performing Arts. In her spare time she acquires shoes and degrees in English. A New York City native, she lives on the Upper West Side with Calypso, her semi-feral immigrant cat.
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. He has published one short story which appeared in The Writers Studio at 30 anthology and a poem on Prelude Magazine‘s website.
Devan Aptekar teaches 8th Grade Science at Tompkins Square Middle School on the lower east side of Manhattan after many years there as dean. A native New Yorker, he grew up by the beach in Brooklyn. While he has published over twenty children’s books and loves teaching science, he is devoted to writing strange bittersweet novels.