When You’re The High School Biology Teacher
By Candace Hartsuyker
You despise the students who misbehave, the ones who yank the girls’ ponytails and leave crusty test tubes by the sink. You do not like how they fall asleep during your lectures, hand cradling their heads, like they already know more than you, even though they haven’t even graduated from high school yet. During the photosynthesis unit, they always snigger at the video depicting the sex life of plants. None of them ever offer to help you wheel in the heavy TV. Behind cupped hands, they accompany the movie with their own running commentary.
Pistillate, the boys say, nudging each other in the elbow or shoulder.
Staminate, the girls hiss back, smirking when the boys blush.
Some girls always get out of dissecting the frog, complaining that it makes their stomach queasy. They huddle together and label the paper worksheet depicting the anatomy of a frog in neat, block handwriting. No one listens to you when you explain that technically, a toad is a type of frog, but a frog can’t be a toad. You wish the girls’ parents and some of the other teachers would stop making such a big deal out of the science dissections. You remember in college, dissecting both a cat and a fetal pig, squaring your shoulders as you did so, knowing that if you opted out, you’d never be able to get your degree.
During the squid dissection, the boys gross the girls out by pretending to eat the squid, bringing the tray up to their mouths. They flick squid eyeballs at each other from across the room. When they get a pregnant squid, they high five each other like class is one big joke.
The only week you get a reprieve is during the crawdad unit. For the first day, they dissect the dead crawdads. The girls are better at this. The crawdads are more delicate than the frogs or the squids and being able to correctly identify each body part without destroying the specimen requires finesse. The next day, to reward them for their exemplary behavior, you allow them to interact with the live crawdads. The boys joke that they are zombie crawdads that have crawled their way back from the dead, but the girls ignore them. Their motherly instincts take over; they coo at the crawdads like they are newborn babies and admire their shiny, black eyes. They let the crawdads creep up their arms and then return them gently to their bowl of salt water. When one feisty crawdad squirts a droplet of water into one girl’s eye, she only laughs.
In the locked back room of the classroom, far away from the vials and test tubes and pipettes, you house a variety of animals, which are brought to the elementary school for show and tell. You love how the third graders ask such innocent, creative questions such as why the hamster is shaped like a beanbag and what he eats and why he sleeps so much. Over the years you’ve taught, you’ve realized that reprimands do not work to stop your high school students from continuing to exhibit abhorrent behavior. Your high school students are not like the enamored third graders. They are bored and jaded and view you as an obstacle.
You have worked out a system that has solved most of your problems. If a student frustrates you by continuing to not take you seriously, you ask if they can stay after class. You bring them to the back room where the animals are kept, prop open the door with your foot. Sipping what appears to be orange soda from a jade green coffee mug, you ask them what they think they could do better. They usually look at you sheepishly, mumble that they’re sorry they broke the test tube and didn’t clean up or they’re sorry they came late to class without their science textbook.
They don’t realize that your memory is excellent; you watch them every single day and record how they can improve. It’s at this point that you spill your orange soda, making sure that it makes contact with their skin, such as the side of their hand or their elbow. Bending down on the floor, you hastily draw the shape of a specimen with a stick of chalk. Sometimes you draw a hamster, other times a fly, although you have to be careful with the flies since they are delicate and have such short life spans.
The student then transforms, shrinks to what they are best suited for. If they’ve been turned into a fly, you hope they find their new eyesight disorienting. There have been times that you have been bitten or attacked by one of your new specimens, but most of the time they find the potion so disorienting that they sit there stunned. Occasionally, if you really don’t like them, you turn them into a betta fish and let them flail in a baggy of water, prop up a small mirror and let them wear themselves out fighting with their own reflection. It takes a while to decide which specimen each student would be best suited for should the need arise, but by the end of the first month, you can usually take one look at their face and decide yes, a hamster, and his best friend would be a snail and his girlfriend would work well as a rat. These are precautionary measures, of course. Not everyone transforms into an animal. They stay human for the entire year if they are good.
After enough time has passed, you change them back. You always do it soon enough so as not to arouse suspicion. Their parents never guess that they have been missing, only that their son or daughter has stayed for an extra hour after school, cleaning and organizing lab equipment. You watch them carefully for a few days afterward to make sure your student has not suffered any dangerous side effects during their transformation, but so far, there have never been any.
By the end of the year, your students are always well-behaved. They stop manhandling the specimens. They show up to class and do not complain about their midterm grades. Your faculty evaluations come back with glowing reviews. You become known as the biology teacher who is difficult but fair. Sometimes, however, you catch your students looking strangely at you or at each other, like they remember more than they let on, but no one has ever said anything. One long look from you at the fetal pig or cow eye resting in a jar of formaldehyde on your desk, and they go back to taking notes, heads down, hands wrapped around their pens.
Candace Hartsuyker has an M.F.A in Creative Writing from McNeese State University and reads for PANK. She has been published in Heavy Feather Review, Maudlin House and elsewhere.