- Billy Howell
We Considered the Lesson Over
By Billy Howell
For the election, we allowed students an extra fifteen minutes in the cafeteria after lunch to cast their votes. They used crayons and markers and #2 pencils to mark the ballots. It was Miss Alonso who printed the ballots. She printed enough for all the fifth-grade classes: hers, mine, Mr. G’s, and Rebecca’s. She printed the ballots on pink A5 paper and, in the usual manner, included tidy square boxes next to each candidate’s name.
The students stood in line to drop their ballots into the cardboard ballot box, which was fine. But then they had to sit and wait for the next student and the next until everyone had voted, which stirred up the boredom stored in the soles of their feet.
Rebecca and I patrolled opposite ends of the cafeteria. We kept our distance so as not to arouse suspicion. By the day of the election, we had met in secret only twice, once in the groundskeeper’s garage and once in the shadowed recesses of the basement storage. Our encounters had left the word “tryst” on the tip of my tongue. Any time I got to talking, I had to watch closely to make sure “tryst” didn’t slip out.
In any case, the voting continued. The younger students, the May and June birthdays, grew more restless. Several complained that the voting was too sloooooooow. You know the kinds of problems boredom can lead to. Jenny Barber pretended to drop her pencil and knotted her neighbors’ shoelaces. The neon pink line of Sultan Alhasani’s Crayola marker drifted away from his notebook and onto Stevie Miller’s white backpack. Scrambled eggs, secreted away since breakfast, reappeared down the back of Terry Cleave’s shirt.
Rebecca marched with intense clacks of heel and toe in heartbeat rhythm: thu-THUM. She refused my eye contact, and I respected her discipline. Still, I worried that she might not be enthusiastic about future basement rendezvous. I had always had trouble reading the barometric pressure of her affection. As she paced the cafeteria linoleum, her military crispness and her short houndstooth jacket and her arms crossed behind her back inspired daydreams. I hummed Vivaldi.
Principal Mathers handled the disruptions. Everyone knew she was the head honcho, the woman to take charge, the one qui aurait pris la direction, and so on. She reprimanded students in the prescribed manner: a frowning eyebrow and a gentle talking-to. In keeping with our school’s philosophy, we reserved stern talking-tos for only the most extreme transgressions.
In retrospect, we probably should have developed policies with real teeth, not so lenient and gentle. Our policies could have been more classically “institutional.” To be fair, in those days all of us were of two minds about what “institutional” meant.
Also to be fair—and I do not meant to absolve myself or my colleagues of guilt for what followed, merely to explain objective fact—we had been holding class elections for five years without incident. During the first week of the fall semester, we would ask students to throw their proverbial hats ringwise, and we would devote our class time, all the way up until Labor Day weekend, to explaining campaign strategies, the democratic process, representational republicanism. You know the drill.
The role of class president, traditionally, had been regarded as ceremonial. The students campaigned before the vote, of course. Candidates had promised all-day recess, free ice cream, endless desserts. We advised them which promises would lead to success, which political tactics had proven track records. Class elections were an instructional tool, after all. We told each candidate which of their lies would earn the most votes. They understood the performance. We thought they understood that their promises were meant to be a sham.
After the vote count, Principal Mathers announced the results by intercom. We arranged no special ceremony. So, even though Bradley Turner would spend the rest of the day in his normal seat in Mr. G’s classroom, students throughout the school were encouraged to congratulate him the next time they crossed his path.
At that point, we considered the lesson over, the matter finished, the ceremony complete.
Bradley had other ideas.
It may have been the “D” on his summer report card that set him off, that made him run for the office in the first place. Who knows with these things? What we do know is that you can’t bend to every request for a grade change. A teacher cannot be known to kowtow to such demands. Give them an inch and so on.
I find myself having to refrain from accusations. We certainly can’t prove who pulled the fire alarm, nor who used the distraction to sneak to the faculty parking lot, break into Mr. G’s car, somehow start the car, and reprogram all Mr. G’s saved radio stations.
The very next day, Bradley announced his candidacy.
Admittedly, Rebecca designed the ballot boxes, so she may have to answer for her role. Maybe I should, too. After all, we had met to discuss the plans for the elections. She considered the fifth-grade class election an important civics lesson. She and I met in the groundskeeper’s garage to discuss her ballot-box design. We poured two fingers of gin into stainless steel tumblers and drank it neat. She played a fantasy by Schubert on her phone. She extolled the value of disillusionment as an educational milestone. I examined a leaf blower and tried to discern its mechanics. From a tote bag, she produced and unfurled her ballot-box schematics. Gin-confident, I leaned over a stack of fertilizer bags to kiss her. Her lips tasted like lip gloss and gin. When her phone ran out of Schubert, the algorithm chose to play Vivaldi next. On our way back to the main building, she admired the well-edged grass alongside the sidewalk.
The day after the election, Rebecca and I met in the janitor’s closet. She suggested I organize the shirts in my closet by color.
“But you’ve never seen my closet,” I protested.
“And after color, by collar style,” she said.
During this time, Bradley held meetings we learned about only months later. He seduced his fellow students. He promised them something better than ice cream or six hours of recess.
We first talked about the problem after Fall Break. More students than usual had failed to submit their weekend homework. The problem might have been the holiday, but last year’s class turned their Fall Break homework in on time. So did the class before them, and before that, and so on. Mr. G suggested we take action, but the rest of us told him not to worry.
Bradley’s followers protested. They protested the painting of new white stripes designating parking spaces in the parking lot. They protested the addition of squash as a physical education option. They protested meals without meat if the exclusion of meat was to accommodate a marginalized population within the school. They protested meals with meat if the inclusion of meat was meant to accommodate some marginalized population. They protested both the use of social media and the banning of social media.
Rebecca began wearing beige culottes. We drank merlot from travel mugs with lids. Our conversations drifted toward international politics. She didn’t like the way Turkey was treating the Tigris and Euphrates. I started taking long walks at night. I petitioned the city to replace the purple LEDs in our neighborhood street lights with blue LEDs. I walked the city streets listening to flattened-affect singers in my earbuds. Rebecca emailed me an Excel sheet detailing her proposed schedule for our secret meetings. Contorting around mop handles in the janitor’s closet, we listened to Chopin on my wireless earbuds. My mouth always tasted like blackberry merlot in those days. Rebecca usually chose the left earbud.
By November 1st, we were all patting each others’ backs about our Halloween parties. Rebecca had spent $40 on Reese’s cups. I had disarmed a medieval knight whose wooden sword posed a danger. But I also let a Robin Hood keep his bow after discovering that all his arrows were Styrofoam. One third-grade teacher told me his students this year seemed to understand for the first time why pirates and ghosts serve basically the same social purpose. And student chatter about Miss Alonso’s lesson on the ghostly properties of static electricity (balloons, carpet) made the rest of us question our instructional design.
The bathroom walkout was the first sign of Bradley’s unexpected power. Two students from every fifth-grade class requested bathroom permits. Before they came back to the classroom, two more requested bathroom breaks, and so on. In total, fifty-three out of eighty-nine fifth graders gained legal passage out of a classroom that day.
Within days, Bradley began signing his homework “Bradley Rex.”
In the teachers’ lounge we debated the merits of monarchism.
Mr. G immediately recommended we partition the recess area to geographically protect grades K-4. Mathers approved, but with the caveat that the partition take the form of a $4 roll of masking tape.
I met Rebecca in the obscure part of the library book stacks having to do with medieval frescoes. She was worried about the price of parsnips. While parsnips are largely considered a tangential, if not negligible, component of most meals, Rebecca had built parsnips into her Excel spreadsheets for the next six months of home-cooked meals. Carrot soups and sweet potato soups would simply not be the same without them. I touched the hem of her skirt and complimented its thread count. She researched agricultural production and distribution. I noticed that the leaves on the fern hanging outside the library window looked like a beige rib cage.
Our students practiced further transgressions. Junie started dotting every vertical surface with her chewed gum. Salvador played ukulele in the stairwells poorly and at incredible volume. Cynthia carried her seven-month old kitten in her backpack, in violation of two school statutes and at least three city codes.
I met Rebecca in the backseat of her Chevy Spark.
“We can’t go on like this,” I said.
“I know,” she said. She was watching a newscast of a weather update on her phone. “I don’t like wheat pastas either.”
“No, I mean the secrecy. These trysts.”
“Our rendezvous do not transgress the policies outlined in our annual training on the subject of harassment and retaliatory actions,” she said. What she really meant was that the power differentials between us had to do with force of personality rather than hierarchical position within the institution. For instance, I preferred her choice of “rendezvous,” so much more elegant than “tryst.”
Bradley sat silent and smiling in the classroom, a portrait of innocence, but he clearly was coordinating his forces in secret. The fifth graders began speaking of solidarity across classes. They pointed at their phones and laughed at slogans we were too old to understand. Adoring doodles of Bradley were detected in the margins of second- and third-grade boys’ and girls’ homework. Silverware and spices disappeared from the cafeteria. Two fourth-grade girls and a third-grade boy tied themselves to the playground gate with jump ropes. Asked what they were up to, they responded, “We’re doing politics.” A fluff piece on the five-o’clock news called their actions “precocious.”
The students demanded a second Halloween, a Halloween in place of Thanksgiving. Imagine! But when they all showed up in costumes, what could we do? The logistics were what really made their second Halloween odd. Seventy-two of our eighty-nine fifth graders wore the same rubber Frankenstein mask. So did at least half of the third and fourth graders and a good smattering of the younger kids. They carried foam swords throughout the Halloween party and much of the week after. Several students chose detention over disarmament, even after little Elizabeth Cramer destroyed her class’s terrarium.
The final Tuesday lunch before Thanksgiving Break turned out to be the first real offensive. The cafeteria workers arrived to find all the sliced turkey and cornbread stuffing tubs and cylindrical cranberry gel missing, replaced by rubber duckies, bottles of air freshener, tampons, and a smattering of snack-sized Halloween candies. The cafeteria aides, incensed, called for action. Their mouths full of Kit-Kat bars and Reese’s cups and Hubba-Bubba and Ginger Pops, they stomped down the hallway and demanded justice. Principal Mathers agreed to investigate but pontificated on the importance of finding a middle ground in disputes and the rational approach to conflict resolution. The investigation lasted less than twenty-four hours and turned up no suspects.
Thanksgiving Break would be Bradley’s Rubicon. Someone cut slits into the parachute used in gym class. The children usually played a game in which they collaborated to lift the parachute high into the air and ran under it while it fell. But now the parachute wouldn’t parachute. Obvious sabotage.
The students returned from Thanksgiving Break with a ferocious look about their eyes, an aggressive posture. They challenged every statement made by a teacher. They questioned the most established facts. Why must a cow not say something other than “moo?” How can we know for certain that England exists if none of us have ever been there? Why do we need to translate physical objects into numerical representations in order to add or subtract them? Are you sure that every decimal can be written as a fraction?
Their phenomenology ran rampant.
Patterns emerged in their conversations. They began to speak of “intellectual labor” and “gatekeeping.”
“They have a point,” I said to Rebecca. She glanced at me over the Sunday edition of The New York Times. “Hm,” she said. Her cat said, “hrhrhrhr” while rubbing against my leg. Rebecca wore my blazer over her bra. I finished my omelet and set my fork down on Rebecca’s glass dining table, gently to avoid unnecessary noise.
Bradley claimed his place as the voice of his fellow students’ discontent on the last day before Christmas Break by hand-delivering to the principal’s inbox a letter, a manifesto really, demanding a cessation of grading. Grading, the letter argued, was a form of hostility. Any future report cards would be taken as an act of aggression.
An emergency meeting was held. Our teachers, especially Mr. G, feared the school board would become involved. We needed to root out the cause of this unacceptable disruption.
We blamed the civics textbook.
We blamed the ballot boxes.
We blamed the democratic process.
We blamed the underlying framework of Western hegemony whose ideology so idealized democratic representation.
We wanted a scapegoat. Instead, we found the process exhausting and assumed that Christmas Break would give us time to rest and think and strategize more clearly.
Bradley had other plans.
He convinced the whole fifth grade to bivouac at the school over Christmas. They lived on rations they had been secreting into the air ducts and above the ceiling tiles. They locked windows and blockaded doors. They communicated through letters, neatly folded into well-aimed paper airplanes.
The PTA got involved, of course. Some parents suggested that we had corrupted their children with lessons about politics. Who thinks about rights anymore these days? they said. Why does anyone need to know about all that election stuff? they said.
I don’t even want to talk about the media coverage. One journalist from Channel 6 used the word “conflagration.”
We took up positions on the lawn. Miss Alonso and her sister both being avid campers, she was able to provide sufficient tents and sleeping bags for the instructional faculty. The cafeteria aides, half a dozen men and women, formed the Lunch Lady Corps. They cobbled together a mess hall from canvas and football practice dummies. Rebecca and I admired their ingenuity but for different reasons. I alone found the mess hall’s construction comical. She spoke of the discipline required by the cold and the threat of snow. I went on short walks and collected the stalks of wilted dandelions. Rebecca and I camped on the edge of the soccer field, near the treeline. On a walk one day, I saw a rabbit and that night dreamed I was an eighteenth-century fur trapper exploring the area near the Hudson Bay, sleeping on piles of lush brown fur.
We did our best to surround and surveil the building, but as the weeks wore on, it became clear that the students must have supply lines to keep their enterprise running, that our perimeter must have a blind spot. Principle Mathers paced from encampment to encampment looking for points of weakness. She had taken to wearing gray coveralls and smoking cigars. She sometimes passed within feet of my tent’s opening with the forward gaze and mechanical gait of a Patton.
Through the windows of the school lobby, we saw the children practicing military drills. They marched to the rhythms of “Kookaburra” and “Oh, Susanna!” The preschooler battalion marched to “Farmer in the Dell.” Sometimes at night a small cadre of students would crack a window and sing a slow, somber version of “Oh, Susanna!” that sent a chill along our spines and, I argued, constituted a form of psychological warfare.
I pictured Bradley as a magnet, magnetizing others through an invisible field. The students had come to match each other’s polarity. There are reasons for our political terminology: magnetism, polarizing, field of influence. Spooky action at a distance. In the meantime, Rebecca and I stole into each other’s tents and engaged in acts of congress.
Each morning I would pour myself a mug of coffee from my canteen, about half sediment and grounds.
All of us would wake in our tents and wonder how things got so far.
I sometimes wondered if Rebecca had a deep and individualized understanding of me and my inner consciousness. I wondered if an outsider might describe our relationship as transactional or founded on habit.
And why did I stick around on these frontlines? What did I get out of it? Nothing more than a paycheck, I suppose. And why did I want said paycheck? Oh, for the usual. Instant Folgers and pumpkin-flavored beer and chicken-and-apple sausages and mink oil for my beard. There really is no beating mink oil. The smell reminds me of old men in board meetings I observed as a child.
I had a sick uncle in another town. When the cold weather cleared, I visited him in the hospital. He was the one who had helped me with my homework when I was in elementary school. “You remind me of my nephew,” he said. That’s the kind of shape he was in. I stuck around a few days even knowing that he wouldn’t be able to tell.
Back in my tent, I fell asleep looking at the school building, its red brick and multi-paned windows. What does a school represent beyond the intergenerational transfer of knowledge?
By late spring, some of us theorized that the students could be responsible for actions all over the world. Mighta that bridge collapse in Florida involve Stevie Miller or his twin brother? Would Virginia Olafsson participate in the devaluation of the yen? When we read the news of Godard’s death, we all had the same thought: Janet Liscomb.
We hoped the summer vacation would bring relief. But I worried. Think of the difficulty of putting sunscreen on a child. Think of the politics of sunscreen application as a struggle for autonomous power.
Then without expectation, we noticed a change in the paper airplane letters. The paper airplanes flew out of the school’s windows almost hourly, from all sides. New styles of airplane arrived, some folded in the basic manner, some folded into a sharpened dart, some in the flat V of a stealth bomber, some with wingtips folded up and paperclip weights on the nose. Only one airplane used complex origami to make the difficult and dreaded sea-glider. Still other paper letters arrived crushed in tight little balls.
In the letters, the students offered various compromises. It seems they had grown bored and restless. The routines of military and political power were not all they were cracked up to be. The students blamed their leadership. In numerous letters, students still referred to Bradley as Bradley Rex, but now they meant the phrase ironically.
They wanted to resume classes so that they could hold a new election. They wanted someone new to promise them freedom from grading and monthly Halloweens. Someone who would promise free ice cream and all-day recess. Someone who could guarantee they would be successful and loved and strong and never again judged or questioned or weak or lonely.
At five o’clock in the morning on April 1st, our representatives and theirs met at the swing set to formally call an end to hostilities. Rebecca and I watched the conference from a distance, her arm looped through mine.
By sunrise, we had ended our siege, feeling the students had learned a lesson.
Billy Howell's work has appeared in The Florida Review, Lumina, Blue Mesa Review, and elsewhere. In spare moments, he indulges in surrealism and beatnikery. His stories draw on fragments of whatever is at hand: vampire cinema, German grammar, regional histories, rabbit biology. An enrolled citizen of the Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma, he teaches writing in Northern Virginia.