Artwork by Art AI Gallery
I'd just signed on as an extended substitute teacher at Belladonna Public School: ninth grade, self-contained, which basically means the kids can't be trusted to stay in the building if you let them out of the room. Six girls, 31 boys. All the girls could have passed for 18, at least until they opened their mouths. The boys? Some tiny, some huge, but they all looked like they still depended on their mothers for lunch money. "All right," I said on the second day, cha-cha-ing, face forward, from my gunmetal desk to the whiteboard. Never turn your back on a group of ninth graders. "Let's see if I can teach you a thing or two about grammar." In the humanities, you've got to start somewhere. I wrote DANGLING PARTICIPLE on the board, in block letters. When I underlined the phrase, the dry marker squeaked like a small animal in pain. "Can anybody give me an example?"
"Faggot," muttered the biggest boy, front and center, whose face looked like a raw slab of baby back ribs. I wouldn't have heard him from the middle of the room. "Faggot."
The class didn't snicker—a good or a bad sign? What with their YPods and their PlayPowers blasting them through their earbuds, maybe their hearing was even worse than my own.
I checked my seating chart. "Malcolm, I'm afraid you've chosen a noun. A participle is an adjective. It usually ends in –ing or –ed."
"You've got to excuse him, Mr. Dickey," Helen Jane said, from the next seat over. I'd already managed to learn the girls' names, but I knew I'd be working on the boys for at least another couple of days. "He has Too Red Syndrome."
"Tourette's," I said, spelling the world aloud. I was still trying to be helpful.
"Okay, Malcolm," I smiled. "Let's go with your signifier of choice." I wrote the word in the dead center of the board, and now the whole class exploded—except for one pale boy, wearing enough eyeliner to pass for a bipedal raccoon, at the back of the third row. I checked my seating chart again. Andrew.
Now I told the class we needed a little more paraphrasable content. "Language is, after all, from a logocentric viewpoint, insistently referential."
They all looked at me like I'd come from the backside of the moon.
"Just tell me something about Malcolm. The first thing that pops into your head."
I scribbled the results on the board.
LIVES TO PLAY
KICKS ASS 24-7
SHOWS NO MERCY
"Très bon," I said. "Within the metaphysics of presence." Now I assembled my own sentence on the board, in my best cursive:
KICKING ASS WITHOUT MERCY, THE FAGGOT WAS CURSED BY THE LINEBACKER.
"Can anyone tell me what's wrong here?"
"Looks pretty good," Malcolm said. "Faggot."
"Let's try another example." This time, the dry marker sounded like a larger animal in pain.
RUNNING DOWN THE STREET, THE BAG OF GROCERIES FELL FROM MY ARMS.
"Think about that sentence. Surrender to it. Misread it as weakly as you possibly can. Picture it in your mind."
Andrew's eyes flashed like a couple of diamonds in a coal mine. "I see a plastic bag with two legs sticking out of the bottom!"
"Precisely!" I shouted. "The introductory participle always modifies the first noun in the main clause." When I drew a loopy arrow from running to bag, the class giggled.
"I don't get it," Malcolm said. "Faggot."
I decided to speak to him in demotic Nike. "Just do it," I said. "No mercy." I underlined the first sentence on the board, the deep structure of their so-called brainstorming. "Let's act this one out. Malcolm, Andrew—get on up here."
They were both grinning, but not for the same reason. "We'll pretend my briefcase is the curb."
"Is that Armani?" Helen Jane whispered. "OMG!"
I lowered it to the stain-resistant carpet, which was embossed with the Belladonna school district's logo—deep purple flowers between clusters of dark berries. "Use your imagination, people. Remember—there is no outside-the-text." Now I pointed back to the whiteboard. "Who's doing the kicking, class?" I drew another loopy arrow from an adjective to a noun.
"And who's getting kicked?"
"No mercy," I said. "On the curb, Malcolm." When he hesitated, hovering over my leather briefcase, I removed a pad of pink slips from my desk drawer. Belladonna Public School doesn't believe in disciplinary software. "One of these means you can't play on Friday night. Let's not endlessly defer this, okay?"
Malcolm sank to his knees, then placed his red, meaty cheek on Armani Street. I strategically positioned Andrew's buckled shoe next to the backside of his so-called classmate's Under Armour Fleece Performance Pants.
"Go for it, man!"
"Pretend he's Kanye West!"
I stood right behind him, ready to pull him back by his bony shoulders if he got carried away.
"I can't," Andrew finally said. "He's not an avatar."
"Good for you," I said. After they'd both walked back to their combination desk/chair—school furniture always reminded me of fossilized centaurs—I emended my focal sentence. "Try this, Malcolm." I wiggled the pad of pink slips in the air. "One word at a time, please?"
"Kicking. Ass. Without. Mercy. The. Linebacker. Cursed. The. Faggot." He shifted his eyes from the whiteboard and stared straight at me. "Faggot."
"That's better," I said. "If you're going to be un idiot homophobe for the rest of your life, you might as well do it correctly." Then I implored him to pardon my French.
In my Maserati Spyder on my way home, I mulled over my newest writing project: Deconstruction for Mental Defectives. Although I'd subcontracted the last 15 books in my MD series, I'd decided to return to the classroom for some basic research. Within a few weeks, I'd fully segue from grammar to grammatology. Hell, it was only six letters. Dangling participles to Derrida—it's all écriture. I figured if I could make it make sense—make it make nonsense—to a bunch of ninth graders, then freshmen at Ivy League colleges could probably use D for MDs on their own. It'd be a self-teaching guide to the dissolution of their Cartesian ego. Their polymorphous perversities could text message their way out of the standard introductory Interpretive Strategems course, where attendance was entirely optional. Farewell to the academics of presence! CUL8TR FTF @XM.
Back at our McMansion, my wife was watching a TiVo'd episode of Live with Lucrezia and Bonnie in the family room. She was still in her nightgown—not a good sign. I kissed the back of her freckled neck and whispered, "Could you turn down that digital vomit, honey? We need to talk."
She clicked the remote for our HDTV/ Hearth back to Festive Oak Logs, but then she muted the fiery crackle. "I'm sorry, Ted." Leah held up her left wrist, and when the cuff of her robe slipped down, I could see she was wearing her JACKIE bracelet again. Right now she was her dead baby's mom, not my wife. She told me she couldn't help it.
"That's okay, honey." I started massaging her shoulders, kneading my thumbs gently toward her backbone. I tried to change the subject. "What were they talking about? On the TV?"
"Murderers and the Men Who Love Them."
OMG, as my new students would thumb it. OMG.
Tears were spilling over on to her cheeks now, running down to her chin. When Leah cries, she never makes a sound. If she could sob, convulsively, completely, I think she might feel better. And I think I might feel better, too. She'd killed Jackie, her only child, a dozen years ago, before we'd met. Of course, she'd never get over it—hell, I didn't want her to get over it—but I thought she'd gotten past it, or around it, or through it, or inside it—to a place where it was still with her but not a black hole sucking in her entire present and future. But then, I thought she'd gotten past it before. During our two-week honeymoon on Grand Cayman, splashing around in that water so blue it put the sky to shame. After her plastic surgery, which had left her looking like Jennifer Aniston's little sister—a soccer mom who could stunt-double in kiddie porn. After we'd moved from Columbia to Belladonna. After she'd become a Master Gardener. After she'd helped me revise the conclusion of Criminal Justice for Mental Defectives. After we'd established the tax-deductible foundation for families with kids who had terminal illnesses.
But beneath her good looks and her good works, she was still Jackie's Mom—the woman who'd killed her own baby to end her pain, to silence her endless cries. The woman who'd spent half a year in jail, who'd refused to leave her cell, who had to be brought home by sympathetic corrections officers to her husbandless house. The woman I'd met on a lark, speed dating in Charleston, whose grief seemed so much bigger than my own shipwrecked marriage, it had managed to swallow it—like that cartoon of the big fish with its mouth wide open right behind the little one's tail, proclaiming the world is just.
I told her I was starting to have doubts about Deconstruction for Mental Defectives.
"You don't have to do it," she said. "Can't you just hire a professor?"
"They have plenty of mental defectives at Yale," I admitted. "But not the right kind."
"You could find somebody," she said. "And does anyone really need that book?"
Leah was right. Maybe I should get out of the deconstruction project altogether. The world had more pressing concerns. Maybe what America really needed was Queer Theory for Mental Defectives.
The next morning, the principal and the football coach were waiting for me at the door of my classroom. I wondered, aloud, which one was in charge. The guy with the big gut and the big whistle told me he'd be commandeering my students for Enhanced Study Hall, and he'd brought his own teaching materials with him.
I peered into his commandeered shopping cart from the Econoclast. As near as I could tell, Enhanced Study Hall seemed to involve hand-held electronic devices and John Madden.
The principal led me to his inner office, where he asked me to sit down in one of the deep leather chairs usually reserved for parents. Public Education for Mental Defectives stood center stage on his bookcase. I'd written that one under my favorite nom de plume, Peter H. Dees. On either side of my alias, the mood lighting softly glowed—not the fluorescent bars overhead. I recognized the first of my seven recommended administrative strategies for conflict resolution: Relax. Leaning back, I established eye contact to suggest I'd subliminally received his subliminal message, and I folded my hands. "To what do I owe this honor?"
The principal locked his fingers at the back of his own head and spread his elbows like malfunctioning wings. "I've heard some reports," he said. "About the way you're teaching grammatology."
I smiled right back at him and said I was still teaching grammar. We hadn't gotten to grammatology yet.
"Nevertheless." The principal unlocked his fingers, so he could wave his hands. I wondered why he didn't just flap his forearms. "Nevertheless."
I reminded him that conjunctive adverbs usually introduced independent clauses.
"At Belladonna Public, Ted, we hold teachers to a higher standard than we do students. Never forget that you're a positive role model. Every day. Every minute of every day. Every second of every minute." Number four: Repeat. This guy had actually read the book. "Just because Malcolm Merrigan says a certain word doesn't mean you have to write it on the board."
I told him it had struck me, grammatically speaking, as a teachable moment.
"We're both educators, Ted." Number five, Relate. "For professionals like you and I, grammar isn't really the issue."
I agreed with him, before I made a few remarks about the tyranny of subjectivity and the loss of the objective position within postmodernist discourse.
Now he stood up and stuck his pasty index finger in front of my face. We were ready to move on to Refute.
"Dickey," he said, "let's get one thing straight. Belladonna Public wants only the best of the best. Lots of fully certified teachers in South Carolina would kill to have your position. Right now I need a team player. Right now I need some assurance of your loyalty."
I told him that for 30 dollars per instructional period—the going rate for extended substitutes in the Belladonna school district—he could rest assured Judas was my middle name.
"We're done here, Dickey. You're terminated. Friday will be your last day."
He'd gotten to number seven, Reject, in record time. It was only Wednesday. I figured he'd already submitted the XPel spreadsheet for the week to the business office, and he was too damn lazy to change it. On my way out, I thought about asking him if he wanted an autograph from Peter H. Dees. But I just said, "Fine." I'd had enough of Mental Defectives.
And I had. When I went home that afternoon, I got my lawyers on the phone. Within six hours, they'd brokered a deal with the dot-com billionaire who'd been coveting the MD series for over a decade. He'd be putting it online and marketing cell phone apps—so kids could use it for virtual cheat sheets and interviews, not just for cramming and term papers.
After I'd signed the contract and faxed it to Palo Alto, I went to bed. While I was slipping between the comforter and the bottom sheet, Leah asked me how I was doing. "You seem depressed," she said.
"We're doing fine," I said. "Now we're worth nine figures instead of eight."
"That's nice." She held my hand in the darkness. Her palm felt moist and warm, vulnerable as a child's. "How's school going?"
"Friday's my last day." I tried to kiss her on the lips, but my vision hadn't adjusted yet, and I got her on the eyelashes instead. At least she wasn't crying. "I got fired from my first teaching job, too. Before I got involved with Mental Defectives."
"You've told me about it."
"Now I'm fired again, and I'm giving up the series. I like the symmetry in that."
"Your students," she said. My lips weren't anywhere close to her eyes now, but I could almost hear the tears squeezing out between her lashes. "Jackie would be just about their age."
For my final class, I'd decided we'd do Show and Tell. After I took the roll—for the first time, I didn't need to look at my seating chart—I introduced them to Jackie's mom.
"For an old lady, she's pretty hot," Malcolm snickered. "Faggot."
I didn't even bother staring him down. The cheerleader in the second row wrinkled her nose and told him to stop acting like a dildo.
"He's not acting," Andrew said.
I couldn't have done it any better myself. I guess I'd taught him something.
"I brought Mrs. Dickey here today for a reason," I said. "She's going to demonstrate the ineluctable power of narrative."
Even Andrew's expression looked like a traffic light during a power outage.
"She's going to tell you a story."
Now I whispered, "Honey, they're all yours."
Leah sat on the edge of the big gray desk, facing the class. She smoothed out her D&G slacks, smiling her trembling smile. She pulled a few strands of her blond-stained, baby-fine hair from the edges of her brimming eyes.
"A long time ago, I did a terrible thing. Something more terrible than any of you can imagine." She fumbled for the three photographs she still keeps in her purse: infant, ICU, six letters carved into polished marble. One by one, she held up those creased, faded rectangles for the class. "A terrible, terrible, terrible thing. Trying to be a good mother. Now let me tell you why."
She spoke. OMG, how she spoke. I'd never seen ninth graders this quiet before. Andrew, Malcolm, Helen Jane, Stanley, Michel, Roland, Harold, Hans-Georg, Ludwig, Jacques—okay, I'm making some of those names up. That's the kind of mental defective I am. But you can believe this: every pair of eyes in that room was wide open, getting more than its 30 dollars' worth. Every pair of ears was waiting for the word that would come next.