This is the second of my Halloween-themed stories for October. I've done readings with this story before. The teachers in the room chuckle in places that other audience members don't. I have taught high school English for thirty-seven years. It's inevitable that I would occasionally write about the classroom.
I'm also a bit of an arachnophobe.
Miss Hathaway first noticed the spider on a cool September morning, before the students arrived, as she dusted the chalk trays with her canary yellow feather duster. No other teacher cleaned the chalk trays, but she knew that was a reflection of their lack of professionalism, for no one was as meticulous, as orderly, as conscientious as she. Not that she considered cleaning the chalk trays a part of her job, but the janitor never did them. She had written a memo to him once, folded it neatly into thirds and placed it in his box in the faculty mailroom.
Dear Mr. Clean,
I would like to commend you on the appearance of
my classroom, but would it be possible for you to pay
closer attention to the chalk trays? They do become
awfully dusty. High school students are acutely aware
of an untidy environment, don't you think?
But even after her letter, in the morning the trays were dirty, and, annoyed, she cleaned them out.
She saw the spider clinging to the underside of a web a foot above the carpet in the corner of the room farthest from the door when she bent to drop broken pieces of chalk into the trash can. She jumped back, a tidy little jump, and her hands flew to her face below her wire rim glasses and cupped her cheeks. "Oh," she said.
Miss Hathaway, who at five-foot-one and a hundred-and-two pounds and filled with the authority of her fifteen years of teaching experience, who had broken up fights between football players, who faced lunch room duty with the bravery of any soldier on Iwo Jima, who had at the beginning of this school year moved a cabinet full of books from one side of her room to the other, was afraid of spiders.
She knelt cautiously to observe it and realized that someone coming into her classroom at that moment would see her crouched in a corner at the front of the class and might think she was praying. But the presence of the remarkable spider pushed that thought from her head and she scooted closer. Its size struck her first, at least three inches from toe-tip to toe-tip. And then its color: black and spit-shine shiny. The spider's body and the black, metallic legs reflected the fluorescent light from the ceiling in tiny star bursts.
But even a remarkable spider, she thought, had no place in a classroom. She pushed herself up from the floor, smoothed the front of her skirt, then pressed her intercom switch and asked for the unhelpful Mr. Clean.
When he arrived, she said, "Class begins in one half hour, and I do not believe the spider should be here."
He crouched down next to the web. The spider vanished into a hole in the wall. "It's a big one..." He poked a greasy, chewed pencil into the hole. A crumbling of rotten sheetrock drifted to the carpet. "...and we probably ought to call the exterminators..."
"Well?" Miss Hathaway crossed her arms across her chest, wrapping her fingers around her elbows. She could feel the sharp crease she had ironed into her blouse sleeves.
"...but we're out of funding." He stood up and pushed his pencil into his shirt pocket. "You'll have to kill it yourself."
She squeezed her elbows. "But this is why I called you."
He sniffed. "Our job's floors, boards and desks."
"You can't take care of the spider?"
"The exterminators are union; janitors are union, just like teachers. You wouldn't want me to scab, would you?"
"Of course not. Wouldn't dream of it. I understand our positions exactly." She picked up her feather duster, turned her back to him and began dusting an already clean chalk tray with short, brisk strokes. "Thank you for your attention."
Mr. Clean paused at the door on his way out. "I'll suck her right up, if I catch her on the carpet."
Two weeks later Miss Hathaway sat on the front three inches of a chair before Vice Principal Book's desk. The chair came from the elementary school and forced her to sit with her knees higher than her hips and her eyes level with the top of the desk.
Vice Principal Book, a large man with beefy upper arms that strained the sleeves of his battleship-grey jacket, gazed down on her. Behind him, six certificates, their frames butting up one to the other and lined up so precisely that they looked like one long brass and glass display, hung from the green cinder block wall. "So, let me see if I can put this in a nutshell. You have a spider problem in your room, and therefore you can't teach?"
"I'm sorry to bother you with this, and I wouldn't, but I talked to the janitor and he said it wasn't his job. I don't see how it is properly mine either." She kept her neatly manicured hands still. Vice Principal Book made her nervous, even though he was once only a Driver's Ed instructor.
He smiled. "Miss Hathaway, Miss Hathaway, you are one of our best teachers." He consulted an open manila folder on the desk. "Spotless record. Perfect paperwork. Up to date lesson plans. Never tardy to faculty meetings. And, most important, you don't send students up to me for discipline problems." He chuckled. "How distracting can a spider be?"
It wasn't distracting at all, at first, thought Miss Hathaway; the only reason she didn't kill it was because the janitor should kill it; he didn't clean the trays; at least he could get rid of the spider. Miss Hathaway thought of the web, now a yard wide, that clouded the corner of the room, the eight inches of glistening spider that hung there, and the mysteriously larger hole in the wall. She thought of the three times in the last two days, while lecturing on the funnel paragraph, she had pirouetted in mid-sentence, convinced the black spider was creeping up on her. "Maybe if you came down and looked at it?"
"I don't think we'll need to go that far. There isn't an educational challenge that can't be solved, if we put our heads together, right in this office, Miss Hathaway."
"This does seem to be an extraordinary situation, though." She wanted to squirm forward on the chair because her blouse had come untucked from the back of her skirt, but she was perched on the edge already. The thought of tucking the blouse in with Vice Principal Book watching made her queasy.
He leaned back in his chair, squeaking the springs, and laced his fingers across his stomach. His jacket pulled into a series of wrinkles radiating away from the single button holding it closed. "Remember the Miracle Worker?" He continued without waiting for her to answer. "She taught that little girl who couldn't see, hear or talk. The Miracle Worker didn't have a beautiful classroom, did she?"
He looked at Miss Hathaway expectectantly. "Uh, no, she didn't."
"She didn't have class-sets of brand new expensive Harcourt Brace Jovanovich English texts, did she?"
"No," she answered. He was caught in his rhythm now.
"No, she didn't! She didn't have video tapes or record players or computers to help her. Think of the primitive conditions she worked in, and think of your own situation. Why, if she had the advantages you have, she could have really done something with that little girl. So, I believe that what you need to do is to reconsider your situation. Believe in your own abilities. Do you believe, Miss Hathaway?"
"Yes," Miss Hathaway whispered. He beat the top of the desk with his fist to emphasize his words.
"Believe in the school. Believe that the principal and I are behind you all the way. Believe that the school board knows what it's doing. Believe in the goal of every child in its place. I have that dream." He lunged out of his chair and loomed above her. "Sure, you have a spider, but you have so many positives. You can stand tall in your classroom, like a pillar of fire, like a burning bush, like a tower of Babel. Can you do that?"
"In the teaching profession we can't dwell on the negatives; we have to accentuate the positives. Be a team player. Keep a tight lid on the boat, and your ship will come in."
He slapped her folder closed. "Be a Helen Keller for us Miss Hathaway. You can be a miracle worker like her, if you'll put your mind to it."
Momentarily engulfed in his enthusiasm, she rose. She said, "I think I can," and marched down to her classroom.
Monday, the week after Homecoming. Melba Toast raised her hand, and Miss Hathaway thought, as she often did, of how cruel parents can be.
"There is web on my desk," Melba said. The web stretched from ceiling to floor now, and its intricate structure of thick threads anchored to points as far as ten feet from the corner of the room, including Melba's desk. Its form sprang from the corner without order, random, not a neat lattice work of geometry, but a chaotic mess of lines and darkness.
"Isn't that interesting?" Miss Hathaway said. "But I don't believe we need to consider that now. What we should think about is a topic for our next essay." Miss Hathaway felt distracted, unfocused. She knew what the next essay should be--the lesson plans she had used for the last fifteen years were perfectly clear--a comparison/contrast essay on abortion, but she didn't want to assign it. The whole idea of thirty essays like essays from years past exhausted her. But this attitude put her in a weird position, she realized: for the first time in her teaching career, she didn't know exactly what she was going to do next. It disturbed her. She paced the front of the classroom, her hands behind her back, avoiding the mass of web to the left of her podium. The two foot long spider crawled along the ceiling of the room. Students under it watched warily. "Your essays on gun control were fine. Really, they were. But they lacked something...immediacy perhaps. If we wrote about a topic closer to home your writing might be livelier."
The spider paused above Jim Bag, a mediocre student with a tendency to dangle his modifiers, who turned every writing assignment into an essay on football. He clenched the edges of his desk, and looked ready to bolt if the spider should make a move towards him. "Jesus Christ, that gives me the creeps," he announced.
Miss Hathaway stopped pacing. Here was something she could deal with. No one talked in her room without raising a hand. In fact, she thought, no one should ever talk. After all, this is a writing class. "While I am deciding what our next subject will be, why don't all of you take out a pen and in one paragraph write your feelings about the spider. Make sure you include a distinct thesis sentence. I'll collect them in fifteen minutes." They pulled paper out of notebooks and busied themselves at the assignment. While they were writing she studied the spider, and the distraction, the unfocusing, came back.
She thought about it being black. But it was blacker than black. Midnight black. No, blacker than that. It was black with depth. Cave black. Blind black. Not like a black mirror, but like outer space. Black like a neutron star defying color. Denying color. Fall into the pit black. A black from the back of the dream black.
And the shape, a dark, dismembered hand. Black bone fingers beating gravity. Clinging to the ceiling. Nothing that big should be able to walk above you, she thought. Each joint clearly articulated. Multiple leg knuckles, bent, full of promise. Full of threat.
And the long abdomen, packed, round. The skin taut, pulsing faintly, rising and falling, never still. At this size she could see it always moved. She envisioned her hand reaching out, stroking it.
She jerked her eyes away. Breathing hard, face flushed, she walked up and down the straight aisles between the desks, studied the students' papers and forced herself not to look up as she passed beneath the spider.
Later, at the podium, she read a sampling of the essays to the class.
"'In today's modern society, spiders are seldom thought of.'" She gazed out at them in their orderly rows before her. "Can anyone make a suggestion for improving this lead-in sentence?" No one spoke. "Generally, we don't approve of ending sentences with prepositions." They looked back at her blankly. "This might be a good test question," she said, and many of them wrote down that sentences should not end with prepositions.
She read the next one. "'In the current, modern world of today, spiders are very important.' Can anyone think of a better verb than 'are' for this sentence?" No one spoke; she suggested a different verb.
Before the bell rang, she said to them, "Think about strategies to develop your paragraph on the spider into an essay. Invent ways to turn this negative into a positive." She was pleased with herself for having heeded Vice Principal Book's advice.
At the bell, they hurried to the door. "Jim!" she called. "I need to talk to you about your language."
After he left, she was alone, and the spider was with her. It moved up the wall and onto the ceiling with a cool, slow grace; and its movement made her think of a glacier creeping into an ancient civilization's valley, sliding with weighty patience inch after inch, covering roads, pushing aside viaducts, smoothing away the lines of irrigation ditches. She shook her head and realized minutes had passed. The spider had crossed the room.
Before class, the day after Thanksgiving break, Vice Principal Book slapped a sheet of paper on Miss Hathaway's podium.
"We don't need to involve the principal in this now, do we?" His open jacket and tie that hung to one side exposed his belly pushing through the gaps between the buttons. "A memo like this insults my office."
Miss Hathaway had never seen Vice Principal Book in her room before, and his sudden appearance startled her into dropping her gradebook. She pushed her glasses up from where they had slid to the end of her nose so she could look at him.
"But you can see the problem," she said and waved her hand at the web-choked corner of the class where hundreds of translucent-grey, rope thick strands originated to connect to every solid surface in the room. The ruler straight rows of desks, except for Melba's, and the podium were the only areas relatively free from sticky web. The ceiling lights filtered through and cast abstract, bizarre shadows. On the wall behind Vice Principal Book, the four-foot long spider delicately picked its way from strand to strand; its body covered a poster diagramming a key-hole essay. When she saw the spider, her attention wavered from Vice Principal Book, and it suddenly occurred to her that she hadn't been able to see the hole in the wall behind the web for weeks, and she wondered how large was it now? And where, exactly, did it lead?
"What I see," said Vice Principal Book, "is that you need to distinguish facts from fiction. The facts are that the principal runs this building with a system. The system includes a hierarchy of command. He does not deal with teachers--I deal with teachers. When you subvert the hierarchy, then the system doesn't work."
Miss Hathaway faced him. "I have to deal with this spider every day!"
Vehemently he said, "You have to deal with me every day. Spiders come and spiders go, but I'm here forever. You have a bad history of this kind of memo writing." Confused, Miss Hathaway looked at him. "Oh yes. I know about your memo to the janitor. Nothing is too small for me to notice, Miss Hathaway."
Early students walked into the class and put their books under their desks. The Vice Principal lowered his voice, but his tone stayed angry. "A parent complained about your essay assignment on the spider. Parents don't want their children to think--and you know this as well as I do--about things that make them uncomfortable. I don't want you drawing attention to it. As far as you and your students are concerned, it doesn't exist. No more essays. No discussions. There is no spider!" He marched out of the class, stiffly ducking his head under low strings of web that crossed from wall to wall.
Miss Hathaway grabbed a stack of essays from a shelf in the podium, crunching the first page of the top paper. They were the spider essays, each with neatly red-penned comments in the margins and a grade written in the upper right hand corner (a "happy face" drawn next to the pleasingly many "A's" and a "sad face" next to the surprisingly few "F's"). She wanted to return them today. That was what her lesson plan said: "Hand back graded essays and discuss."
She stood rigid at the podium, thinking an unthinkable thought: I will hand them back anyway. And she waited for the tardy bell to ring, but as she waited she grew less sure. He is the vice principal, after all, she thought, and the more she considered this, the sadder she became. He had never yelled at her before; hadn't he said she was "one of the best teachers"? Who would want to lose that?
She sighed, smoothed the wrinkle she had made in the top essay, placed the stack deep in the podium and opened her Warriner's English Grammar and Composition text to find an exercise as an alternative lesson plan.
The last few students entered the room and made their way to their desks.
And that might have been the end of it, except that when Melba Toast took her seat she did what no student, what no janitor, what Miss Hathaway herself, had not done--she brushed against a piece of the web.
"Uh oh," said Melba, and all eyes turned to her; in the spotlight of attention, she was alone. No one moved. Then the spider swarmed down from the ceiling, an avalanche of legs and dreamy black motion.
During the brief struggle, while Miss Hathaway did nothing, she suddenly realized she knew the facts, she always had. The problem was the fiction, and how was she to separate them?
The next day, Miss Hathaway marked her roll sheet mechanically, making tidy black checks in the exact middle of each square until she came to Melba Toast's space. Her desk was empty, but Melba herself, wrapped in a long white cocoon, hung from a net of threads coming out of the confusion of web above the class. Only her eyes peeked out, open, awake, but unfocused, as if she were seeing things beyond the walls.
After a long moment Miss Hathaway marked Melba tardy, reasoning that although she was not in her seat when the bell rang, she was in the room.
The class labored over a four page worksheet on subject/verb and pronoun/antecedent agreement as Miss Hathaway finished her paperwork and began to stroll up and down the aisles; but wherever she walked, and no matter how hard she tried not to look, her eyes kept finding their way to Melba.
Someone knocked on the door, startling Miss Hathaway. It was Guidance Counselor Mitty. They talked in the hall.
"You sent for me," he said as if he had somewhere else to be that was much more important. A slight man, barely as tall as Miss Hathaway herself, he struggled to keep straight an armful of manila envelopes
"I've lost a student."
"I heard. I heard. Terrible thing. But what can we do?"
"I don't know. I thought you people had special training. It's time we did something though." Miss Hathaway looked back into her classroom where the students were working quietly.
"These are awful times Miss Hathaway. They always are. But we have a saying up in counseling, 'Don't lose the school, saving a whale.' Sometimes one of them slips away from us, but we can't knock ourselves out. Buck up. We win more than we lose."
"You're saying to not worry about her?"
He shrugged. "I'm doing a study. If you'll write a report on her case, I'll pull her files, and maybe we can work up a profile of what to look for next time. Keep the rest of your ducks in a row, and the sharks won't get them. But if this episode starts to bother you, come on up." He looked fatherly. "The district sponsors a support group for teachers. It's wonderful, really. I go twice a week myself, not that I need it, but I always feel refreshed after others speak about their problems."
"But what of her parents? Won't her parents want to know what happened to her?"
"Oh, we're right on top of that. Any time a student is in danger of not graduating we send a letter to the home, and, of course, failure notices come out next week, so they'll know. We are committed to communicating with parents."
Miss Hathaway opened her mouth and shut it, opened it and shut it. She raised her hands and dropped them. Guidance Counselor Mitty backed away from her. "Have you tried talking to the vice principal?" he said.
Miss Hathaway closed her eyes and thought about violent acts, of slapping his papers out of his hands, of kicking his manila folders down the hall, of tearing his reports into hundreds of pieces. She opened her eyes; he was gone.
Later, the bell rang, dismissing class. Trembling, she studied the spider high in its corner.
Each leg rested on a firm line of web, balancing the spider perfectly, leaving it poised to go in any direction, the center of stillness. She stepped towards it, and the spider elevated its two front legs as if to embrace her. She stepped back, and the legs dropped down.
She sat on the stool behind her podium and thought about Guidance Counselor Mitty, Vice Principal Book, and Mr. Clean, and she couldn't make any sense of them. And the more she thought, the angrier she became. She wrote their names on a sheet of paper and tried to sort them out. What did they want? Then she crumpled the sheet, wrote the names again, added her own name and drew lines from name to name, and then from letter to letter until the sheet was a maze of lines. Finally she stood, and then stalked around the perimeter of the room, muttering. Web touched or covered the posters, the intercom, the bulletin board, the book shelves and the blackboards.
She stopped in front of the spider and stared at it again, and she realized she was sweating. Her forehead was wet with it; hair stuck to the side of her face; she felt sweat on her back and belly. She untucked her blouse. She wanted to take it off, to throw it on the floor, to kick her shoes away from her, to unbutton the skirt and drop it, to peel off everything. Then the spider moved towards her, not quickly: slowly, barely seeming to lift its legs, placing each exactly on the next strand. Like a vision of a black tidal wave rolling up in slow motion across a grey beach, she saw it. Larger and darker, blotting out the sky, covering the sun, sweeping up the sand. Like a hand sliding under the covers, reaching closer and closer. To what? she thought. To what? And she realized a funny thing: at this size the spider didn't scare her. It was rather...rather...lovely. She stepped forward, reached out with both hands; she stroked the spider's sides between pairs of legs, drew it towards her, and the spider wrapped gently around her.
She was so warm.
Miss Hathaway felt as if she were a blind eye opening for the first time, like she had never been in the world before.
She floated in the spider dream, down each line of web, from wall to wall, from ceiling to floor. She connected everywhere, could move everywhere, felt air drifting, individual molecules bouncing, sounds vibrating. On the outskirts of her perception she heard Melba Toast singing a tune Miss Hathaway didn't recognize, a happy song.
Through the hole in the wall, a hole that she now knew opened beyond her classroom, a hole that was more a door than any she had ever gone through, she saw light. And beyond the door she believed waited a world she had never considered, and she could feel in herself the power to go there. Who knew how far she could go in the spider dream? But for now the spider itself delighted her. She felt its presence as a huge pillow of soft sounds, and its blackness transformed into gauzy yellow, green and blue lights with no center. No one point more interesting than any other. None of it bad or good. None of it comparable to any other thing. No degrees of complication. No head. No base. The spider was an entirety. Words were too weak. Words themselves, as soon as she thought of them, limited whatever it was. Whatever it is. She laughed. There was so much
she wanted to understand, but there was no rush. She had time, she knew, she had time. A spider is nothing if it is not patient.
Then a shape moved below her and Miss Hathaway focused her eyes and realized that her body dangled from the ceiling of her own classroom. A person she had never seen before, a small angry woman in a neatly pressed blouse, hair tied tightly back in a bun, was digging into the podium, examining each piece of paper closely, then piling it on the floor in increasing exasperation. Finally, she glared up at Miss Hathaway. "Lesson plans?" she shouted. She searched through the last stack of papers. The first students came in and sat in their desks. "Where are your lesson plans?"
She was the substitute.
This story originally appeared in Talebones.