From the author: Teachers are human and kids aren't abstractions. Academic battles are fought by personalities where things get messy. It's also possible that you have to be careful for what you wish for if all you want is higher test scores.
Mr. Taylor saw Principal Ruhle round the corner toward his room and was afraid.
“The principal is coming,” Taylor hissed to his last class of the day. Norman and Floyd, sitting in the back row, didn’t even look up from their arm-wrestling. The headphone twins, a pair of bleach-blonde socialites who’d been suspended the first week of class after getting caught at the Spring Daisy Girl Ask Guy Dance with whiskey flasks strapped in their garter belts, huddled over their phones, and the rest of the class barely turned a disinterested eye in his direction, their desks clean of notes or textbooks.
“You gonna be in trouble, Mr. T?” said Florence, the only other girl in the room, and his best student by the virtue of a D- on her last test. Dozens of razor slits in her black t-shirt revealed a disturbing amount of skin, and Taylor was pretty sure the message written across the front was obscene, but the letters were so worn, he couldn’t tell. Her ears, nose, eyebrows and lower lip were all pierced. Today she’d gone for her more conservative look: no chains connected the jewelry.
Principal Ruhle passed the last classroom before Taylor’s.
“Yes,” Taylor whispered. What to do? What to do?
Ruhle strode with the confidence of a leader on a mission, an administrator with attitude.
Taylor fell back against his desk; his fingers brushed a magazine. He looked down. It was the Playboy he’d confiscated from Norman at the beginning of the period. In a rush, he grabbed it.
“Class!” he bellowed, holding the magazine so the centerfold neatly accordioned open.
Instantly, the boys straightened, eyes on him. For the first time in the semester, they were all paying attention. He whipped the magazine behind him as Principal Ruhle entered the room.
“That’s an interesting answer,” said Taylor to the now silent class. “Does anyone else have a theory of what Emily Dickinson meant when she said, ‘I heard a fly buzz when I died’?”
Principal Ruhle paused at the doorway in the back of the room. The stunned boys stared at Taylor. The headphone duo didn’t look up, but at least they were facing forward. Florence’s mouth hung open, her eyes wide in disbelief.
A boy in the back said, “Miss October?”
“Exactly! October is the end of summer, a metaphor for death. Thank you for that insight.” Taylor smiled his best welcome to Principal Ruhle. “I see we have a visitor. If you all will write your thoughts about Dickinson’s attitude toward death as it is reflected in this poem, I’ll step out for a word with the principal.”
Shutting the door behind him, Taylor faced Principal Ruhle.
“Impressive, Taylor. But how will their knowledge of Emily Dickinson help us score higher on the state test?” Principal Ruhle patted Taylor on the shoulder. The man’s aftershave was overpowering. “If we don’t improve, they’ll turn us into a charter school. You, me and everyone else will be out of a job, so these kids have to do better.”
Taylor backed up a little. Principal Ruhle moved in close when he talked, and Taylor was afraid he’d start sneezing.
“Of course, sir. I’ll do the best I can.” For every half-step Taylor took, Principal Ruhle followed until he trapped Taylor in a corner of the hall.
“I’m afraid your best won’t do. You need help.”
Taylor relaxed. Help, at last! The class was huge. No one in it had a passing average, and six of them, when asked to write an essay on the most influential person in their lives, had written about their parole officers. Would it be extra tutors in the room? Would Principal Ruhle split the class with another teacher?
The principal continued, “We can make education better at East High.”
“How, sir?” Taylor clutched his lesson plan book to his chest. More money for novels? Longer class periods? Better communication with parents?
Down the hall teachers lectured, basketballs bounced in the gym, a steady drum beat emanated from the band room. Principal Ruhle leaned even closer. “Immigrants, Taylor.”
Taylor blinked. “Excuse me?”
“Immigrants. They study harder. I went recruiting. Talked to the business leaders in town. Got them on board. Brought in new workers from eastern Europe. They’re tops at high tech, you know. Twenty-three families. Fifteen high school kids for us. I want you to meet your new student, Pachalka Iakovlev.”
Taylor blinked again. He’d thought Principal Ruhle was alone in the hall, but a slender boy whose dark hair lay flat across his pale forehead, stood behind him.
“I am pleased to meet you, Professor Taylor. I am hungry to learn,” the boy said with a Slavic accent. He put out his hand. His fingernails were long and sharpened to points.
“Umm . . . it’s just Mr. Taylor.” He shook the boy’s hand, who raised his gaze, looking directly at Taylor. His eyes were the lightest gray Taylor had ever seen, an almost transparent pastel circle around black pupils.
“Why don’t you go in, Pachalka,” said the principal. “I need to finish with Mr. Taylor.”
The boy bowed slightly before leaving.
“There,” said Principal Ruhle, Athat’s the kind of attitude that will score high on tests. These kids are disciplined. You watch, Taylor; he’s going to change that class.” He slapped Taylor on the shoulder again. “And for crying out loud, man, lay off Dickinson. The test is in a month. If you’re not teaching multiple choice skills or how to respond to the writing prompts, we’ll be pouring soft drinks at Burger World in a year. Work on their math.”
Principal Ruhle turned and strode away before Taylor said, “But this is American Lit.”
Taylor shook his head and returned to the room. Pachalka had taken the only empty desk, directly in front of Taylor’s podium, next to Florence. The rest of the class looked silently at the new boy.
“I’m eager to read the American authors,” said Pachalka. “I am afraid I have neglected them to this point.”
Taylor put his lesson plan book on his desk and turned to the thin volume of Dickinson on the podium. Beside it a class set of sample multiple choice test questions sat accusingly. Principal Ruhle gave the teachers a new stack each day with an encouraging memo. “High stake testing determines our future,” read today’s note. Dickinson or practice multiple choice tests?
The quiet that decided him. On most days, the volume in this class teetered between a street fight and a heavy metal concert, but not now. Norman and Floyd had given up their arm wrestling contest to stare at the new boy. The headphone twins pulled their headsets down around their necks as they gave Pachalka an evaluative look. Florence checked her black lipstick in a compact that she’d slipped from her backpack.
“I have a new Dickinson poem today,” said Taylor. “It starts like this, ‘Success is counted sweetest, By those who ne’er succeed.’ What do you think she meant by that?”
For a few minutes, all went well until Floyd punched Norman’s beefy bicep.
“Good one,” said Norman. He spit on his knuckles and prepared to slug Floyd back. Taylor leaned forward with a “Please settle down” on his lips, but Pachalka turned in his seat and cleared his throat. Norman and Floyd glanced up. Normally that would be all that they would do before returning to whatever physical pursuit that engaged them, but now they froze, Norman with his fist already raised, Floyd with his arm ready to take the punch.
“Professor Taylor is trying to teach,” said Pachalka.
Norman’s stubble-flecked chin quivered for a moment before he dropped his fist. No one else stirred.
Although the class didn’t really discuss the poem, it was the quietist hour he’d ever spent with them. Pachalka took copious notes in beautifully formed cursive hand.
After the class ended, as Taylor gathered his papers for grading, he thought, maybe Principal Ruhle is right! All this group needs is a serious student in their midst to straighten them out.
The scratching in the ceiling started the following week during his planning period. East High had been built in the 1940s with high ceilings. In the 70s, to combat heating bills, the school district installed drop-down ceiling tiles, which left a four-foot gap between the original construction and the new. Occasionally a pigeon would get trapped, and, for days after, classes could hear a fluttering as the doomed bird flicked from space to space, but this was no bird. Taylor sat at his desk, a stack of ungraded papers under his left arm, his red pen midway through a comment on the paper he was grading when the first distinct rasp across the ceiling tile caught his attention. Other than the water stain in the back left corner, the unbroken white expanse was featureless. Another series of short rasps, quite striking in the quiet room, as if something was scoring the surface with an icepick. Then nothing.
After a few minutes, with his pen poised above the unfinished instruction, Taylor rubbed the chills from his arms and resumed grading. To make room for finished papers, he had to push the new stack of state practice exams to the corner of the desk. He didn’t look at them. Each one served as a reminder of a failed obligation. “High stake testing determines our future,” Principal Ruhle had said.
Taylor waited in the hallway for his last class. Uncharacteristically, Floyd and Norman arrived first, parting the crowd of students like twin ice-breakers. “Good afternoon, gentlemen,” said Taylor. Neither acknowledged his presence as they entered the room.
Soon the rest of the students filed by. Pachalka entered last. Taylor followed, reaching his podium just as the bell rang. He opened his attendance folder, readied his pencil, then looked up. Pachalka stood beside his desk. “Someone has besmirched the surface,” he said.
Taylor raised an eyebrow. He couldn’t remember the last time he’d heard someone say “besmirched.” He leaned over the podium. In thick pencil strokes on Pachalka’s desk were the words, “Die gay Nazi,” and a huge swastika. Pachalka smiled, a grim turning up of the corners of his mouth that showed no teeth. “I seem to have made an enemy.” He ran his finger through the letters, smearing them, then brought his finger to his lips and licked it. Taylor could feel his eyes growing wide. Nothing he’d seen in a classroom before had prepared him for this. Norman and Floyd sat quietly in the back, notebooks open, as if waiting for the lesson to begin. The other students watched the tiny drama unfold.
His tone was so restrained, so proper, so unkid-like, that Taylor felt a need to apologize, but before he spoke, Pachalka moved between the rows to Floyd’s desk, facing him from the side. His expression in profile was unperturbed.
“What?” said Floyd as Pachalka plucked a pencil from the huge student’s hand.
Pachalka sniffed the pencil.
“Excuse me,” said Taylor, “we can clean your desk.” He had a vision of Floyd and Norman pounding the slight student into a greasy smear.
Pachalka handed the pencil back to Floyd. “No need, Professor. This peasant will give me his seat.”
Norman’s face turned red, and Floyd half rose from his chair. “Like hell I will . . .”
Pachalka put his hand on Floyd’s chest, bent at the waist and whispered into his ear. Floyd dropped as if all his muscles had been severed.
Within a minute, the desks were switched.
Pachalka sat, opened his book and said, “I believe we were discussing Dickinson’s views on death, weren’t we?”
Which would have been weird enough for the day, but a half hour later, while the class actually listened to Taylor’s explanation of “One Dignity Delays for All,” the noise began in the ceiling again. It started in the back of the room by the door, a loud scratching, a pause, and more scratching. The students immediately under the sound peered nervously at the ceiling. Then, a heavy scittering as whatever it was scurried to the middle of the room. No sound from the class, not even a breath. It moved a few feet toward the front of the room. Moved again. Stopped.
Taylor cleared his throat. “Must be mice.”
Florence said, her voice quivering, “As big as tigers.”
No other sounds disturbed the lesson.
When the bell rang, Principal Ruhle, holding a bundle of papers, waited for Taylor in the hall.
“You’re still not on Dickinson, are you?”
Taylor flinched. They were still on Dickinson. He had no explanation for why they hadn’t gone on. He’d never spent a whole week on one poet before. All he could picture was Pachalka, furiously writing everything he said. Asking good questions. And the rest of the class, too, attentive. Even the headphone twins had put away their CD player. What was going on?
Principal Ruhle continued, “We have three weeks until the tests, and you have a third of the school’s underperforming students in this room. If you can get them to at least partial proficiency we’ll meet our improvement goal for the year.” The principal oozed aftershave. Taylor realized the only way he could smell that heavily of it would be if he reapplied it during the day, maybe between classes.
“I think I’m getting somewhere with them. Pachalka is . . . extraordinary.” Taylor searched for words. How could he express his nervousness about the boy? Not just the way he’d handled Floyd and Norman, but the intense way he watched Taylor as he moved from point to point, the uneasy feeling Taylor had that Pachalka wasn’t happy with worksheets or journal writing or anything other than raw knowledge.
Principal Ruhle’s scowl flipped into a smile. “Yes, Pachalka. They’re all doing that well. I’ve been checking. Best thing I’ve ever done for this school. I don’t know if there’s a connection, but I haven’t had a single student sent to my office since those kids arrived.” Pal laughed and clapped Taylor on the shoulder. “I’ll have to write a paper on this.” His tone grew serious again. “Still, we have tests to worry about. Important tests. If we’re not teaching to the test, we won’t be teaching at all, so ditch the books and use more of those exercises I’ve given you.”
“But what will their diplomas mean if I abandon the curriculum and just teach to the test?”
Principal Ruhle looked blankly at him for a moment. “They won’t earn diplomas without passing the test.” He narrowed his eyes. “You’re going to be a team player on this, aren’t you, Taylor?”
Taylor felt the blood rushing from his face. “Of course, sir! It’s just that the test doesn’t have anything to do with American literature. I’m supposed to start Mark Twain this week.”
“Twain doesn’t call the shots, here, Taylor. The state does, and the state says our kids have to pass these exams, so dump Dickinson and Twain and the rest until our scores go up. Here, I brought you some more practice tests.” Principal Ruhle handed the papers over, then squinted at his watch. “Has this hallway gotten darker? The janitors have to do more about replacing lights, the surly lot, ignoring my memos. I’ve got to run. I know you’ll do a good job with those kids.”
After he left, Taylor realized the hallway was darker. Half the lights were out, and student senate posters covered the windows at the end of the hall.
A week later, Taylor walked toward the school’s front doors, his head down, thinking about what to do. On one hand, he loved teaching literature: the names, the personalities, the history. He loved reading out loud that part of Huckleberry Finn where Huck and Jim watched a thunderstorm on the Mississippi at night. He loved it when students said something insightful about Henry David Thoreau or discussed “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God.” But at the same time, Taylor wanted to please the principal, who, frankly, scared him. It was all about fear. Fear of the principal. Fear of the students (Norman and Floyd with the strength of young arms and love of violence, Florence with her black lipstick and skin piercings; even the headphone twins and their indifference). Fear of failing the system. He feared teaching what he wanted, and he feared teaching what the state told him to teach.
What to do?
He shuffled closer to the school, barely moving now. Students passed him on either side. The warning bell rang. He had five minutes. Lost in thought, he found himself stopped on the edge of the sidewalk, staring at the two-foot wide flower bed that stretched from the parking lot to the doors. All the spring flowers were dead, their petals black-rimmed and limp on the ground. Must have been a freeze last night, he thought.
Principal Ruhle was right. Taylor’s classes were better, and not just his last period. Students who had sat in the back row moved into the empty seats closer to the front. Homework assignments came in on time, all of them. The hallways were quieter. Fewer kids running. No shouting. Taylor watched students streaming toward the entrance, and for the first time since Pachalka joined his class, he really looked at the kids. The weather report said the temperature would top seventy degrees today (which meant there was no freeze last night!), but the girls weren’t wearing halter tops and tube tops or shorts that reached way too high on their thighs. Nor were the boys sporting tee-shirts or muscles shirts or wild beachwear. No, they dressed warmly. Many wore turtlenecks, and floppy hats that shadowed their faces seemed to have made a comeback. The ones not dressed that way looked haunted and quiet, their books clasped to their chests like shields.
It was as if the dead flowers had awakened him from a long nap. He looked at the walls on the way to his class. Where were the election posters for next year’s student officers? Shouldn’t they be campaigning by now? And the windows at the end of his hallway weren’t the only ones covered; they all were. The last bell rang in the empty hall. He thought, what’s happened to the school? Had the building had been stolen, piece by piece, and replaced with a clever but not quite right duplicate. It smelled different, like cold and moldy dirt, like wet animals living under rotted porches.
His footsteps slapped noisily, a hollow, sepulchral echoing, and behind that whispered other sounds. The same kind of scratching he’d first noticed in his room emanated from the tiles overhead. A locker creaked to his right. He stepped away from it as the door seemed, just for a second, to bulge outward. Ahead of him in the dark stretch of hallway, something large and rodent-like skittered away.
This seemed way beyond a simple note to the janitors.
When last hour started, Taylor opened the American literature text to Mark Twain. His lesson plans said that he should have already covered Walt Whitman and Bret Harte, but he was going to have to skip them. How did he spend so much time on Dickinson? He looked at his collection, all the death poems: from “Because I could not stop for death,” to “I felt a funeral in my brain” were marked. He’d covered the obscure ones no one talked about, even “So proud she was to die” and “A train went through a burial gate.”
On his desk, a new pile of practice exams seemed to have sprouted. When did those show up? Have I been sleepwalking through the last few days?
The class waited, pens ready. Taylor’s hand rested on Twain’s picture. The students faced him, eyes locked on his. Floyd and Norman wore turtlenecks. Did they look a little pale? No CD player graced the headphone twins’ desk. And when did Florence give up her punk-band concert shirts for a pastel blouse with a fastened top button?
Taylor cleared his throat. “Reluctantly, we must leave Emily Dickinson behind and move on to another author.”
Pachalka nodded. “Might I suggest a name, Professor?”
Taylor swallowed hard. Pachalka’s eyes nearly glowed beneath his black eyebrows. “We will be doing Mark Twain next. He has been called the Lincoln of our literature, but I’m sure you must have heard of him, even in eastern Europe?”
“Yes, sir. Of course. But I joined the class late. I so longed to study another, an earlier author. I am sure my classmates won’t mind.”
Most of the students nodded in unison, like marionettes. Taylor nearly fell over, and the skin on his arms erupted into a million goose bumps. Only by hanging onto the podium did he keep himself upright.
“We must do Twain,” croaked Taylor. “The state testing is coming, and we’ll lose a week of instruction. If we don’t do him now, then we’ll miss him altogether.”
Pachalka frowned. “Class time is too valuable to sacrifice a week to testing, wouldn’t you agree, Professor? If we must be here, we should be learning every minute.”
“The state wants to know how well we’re doing. We can’t disappoint Principal Ruhle,” Taylor could get no volume behind the sentences. He barely heard his own statement.
“Even now, we’re wasting time. If you will just teach, we will listen. We are empty vessels. Fill us.” Pachalka’s eyes mesmerized him. They seemed to grow larger, and they pulsed, like an ember tossed from a fire.
Taylor’s muscles went slack. Numbly he pushed the pages in the literature text book back a few chapters. Then he lectured, his voice distant in his own ears, as if he were facing a classroom a dozen rooms away, while the little bit of him that stayed rational huddled in the dark, hiding from Pachalka’s tombstone-gray eyes.
When Taylor went home, he tried not to think about the state exams. He sat at his kitchen table, a pile of books about Edgar Allen Poe on his left, and a slice of warmed pizza on the plate in front of him. He fell into a daydream about “The Cask of Amontillado,” Montressor lining up the next row of bricks, except in his envisioning Taylor was Fortunato, looking from the inside, his hands chained to the walls and the room growing darker, brick by brick. Montressor became Pachalka, building the wall. The boy’s eyes were as bright as the lamp they’d carried with them into the catacombs.
Taylor took a bite from his pizza. It had grown cold.
Late that night, long after traffic on the busy street in front of his building had slowed to an occasional car, long after televisions had flicked off in the other apartments, Taylor woke, or thought he woke, for he wasn’t really sure, to a steady knock at his window. With no surprise, he let Pachalka in, and only in the vaguest of terms did he wonder how the boy made it to the fourth story.
After school the next day, Principal Ruhle entered Taylor’s classroom. Taylor pried his grip off the podium. His knuckles popped when he straightened his fingers. Where were the students? How long had he been standing in front of the empty desks?
Principal Ruhle stepped tentatively forward. “Are they gone?” His voice trembled.
Taylor looked around, his head still buzzing and distant, full of Pachalka’s words from the night before: “We must learn as if we will live forever.”
Taylor said, “I suppose.” He rubbed his eyes, then shook his head to clear it.
Principal Ruhle’s cheeks were haggard, his hair tousled, and his tie undone.
“Are you all right, sir?”
The principal twirled as if he’d heard a sound, but nothing was behind him. His voice cracked when he said, “They’re too damn good.”
“Excuse me?” Taylor looked down. His text was open to “The Pit and the Pendulum.” He flicked through the pages. Fresh writing marked the margins beside “Annabel Lee” and “The Raven.” Insightful comments, the kinds he’d thought about making while teaching these stories before, but he would have never dared utter. The deep psychology. The repressed sexuality. He couldn’t remember talking about the stories, but there, in his tiny script was a new notation, “Bring the complete tales for tomorrow.”
“I haven’t been out of my office in four days.” Principal Ruhle shot a glance over his shoulder. “It’s worse after hours, you know, and don’t even ask me about the night shift janitors.”
“Why are you telling me?” Taylor closed his book. The snap of pages startled a twitch out of Principal Ruhle.
“You’re one of the few that haven’t . . . you know . . . gone over.” He sat in one of the student’s tiny desks, and for a second, Taylor thought the man was going to cry. “I want my school back. I want a line of students waiting outside my office with made up excuses for why they were tardy. I want a fight in the hallway or beer bottles in the girls’ restroom, or graffiti.”
“Why would you want those, sir?” Taylor looked at his reminder for tomorrow and thought about teaching Poe. He blinked, and in the blink he saw Pachalka’s eyes and the others, staring, eager, even a bit ravenous. If they really wanted to know about Poe, he could bring in all kinds of material, the lectures he never hoped to give to high school students before.
Principal Ruhle lowered his voice. “No one is preparing the kids for the test. They’re not even picking up the practice ones I’ve left in their boxes. You know what else? I saw the play list for the spring concert. They’re opening with ‘Ride of the Valkyries’ and then ‘A Night on Bald Mountain.’ What kind of spring concert is that? No ‘Easter Parade’? No Aaron Copland? And I won’t even tell you what the art classes are doing.” He shuddered.
“How can I help?” For the first time in twenty years at East High, Taylor wanted to hug a principal. He really looked like he could use one. He needed to be visited, just as Pachalka had visited him last night. Maybe Taylor would do it himself, after he’d grown more used to the power, after he tapped into the fire-edged focus that shaped his thoughts rushing along just out of reach now, but tomorrow, or the day after, he would be hooked in.
Principal Ruhle glanced toward the stack of practice exams on Taylor’s desk, and then he said, as if it were a mantra, an incantation against the dark, “Teach to the test, Taylor. Just teach to the test.”
Taylor looked at the ceiling. He sensed the creatures skulking above his head, the rats in the walls, the spiders weaving webs in the corners of the room. They were children too, just as surely as the ones coming to his class the next day. For the first time in years, Taylor started to think of next year’s classes. All those freshmen, ready to learn, to be given a bit of focus, and they wouldn’t need a state test to motivate them. Not after a few days with him. No, not by a long shot.
“I don’t think so,” said Taylor.
Pale faced, the principal rose, the fear of recognition evident in his eyes. “What are you?” he said, backing against a desk.
“I’m not afraid.” Taylor opened his text.
Principal Ruhle ran from the room. Lockers banged open. The night janitors had him before he reached the end of the hall. Principal Ruhle screeched once before the sounds became liquid and slippery. Taylor sighed and pushed the practice exams off his desk into the trash can.
No need to pound these high stakes tests into the hearts of his little charges. Tomorrow would be a good teaching day.
This story originally appeared in Switch.blade.