by Kim Suhr
Miss Caroline Brill always knew it would be one of her students who would cause her demise. She just never knew which one it would be or how it would play out. Ever since she’d begun her career in 1963, she had found herself in many situations, the outcome of which could, undoubtedly, incur the wrath of an impulsive adolescent with access to firearms or a motor vehicle. She had given Fs on final exams, preventing seniors from graduating with their class. She prided herself on being one of the few teachers left who refused to look the other way when her students turned in blatantly plagiarized essays. And, lest one of them doubt the sanctity of her deadlines, she docked late assignments a full letter grade for each day late, and would not accept them if they came in a week past the due date. No exceptions.
If she had had to surmise which student would do her in, she would have presumed it to be the young Jason Rinka. When Officer Phelps of the Tichigan Police Department had visited the English office asking for a sample of Mr. Rinka’s handwriting, she had provided it willingly, happily, in fact. The request confirmed what she had known from the first day of school: Mr. Rinka was a bad seed. What she couldn’t have imagined was that instead of inserting money or a check into a parking ticket envelope, he had written the police threatening notes and signed them with his own excrement. She found this out only after she had handed his expository essay to the policeman.
When Miss Brill later learned that it had been the writing sample she had provided that clinched the case against Mr. Rinka and which sent him to juvenile hall for six months, she felt a momentary pang in her chest, but then quietly congratulated herself on her contribution to justice and enjoyed her fourth hour class in the absence of Mr. Rinka.
Six months later, however, she held her breath on his first day back in her classroom. She tried to focus on her lecture about the Puritans but kept glancing toward his side of the room looking for some sign of animosity, some sign that he blamed her for his incarceration. He slouched in his chair, with neither a notebook nor a textbook nor a writing implement on his desktop. He bit his nails and stared at the floor.
That afternoon, Miss Brill made a thorough check of the exterior of her Oldsmobile Eighty Eight before carefully inserting her key into the lock. As she slid safely behind the wheel and turned the key in its ignition, she felt justified in having spent the extra money on a security system.
After a vigilant two weeks without any grief from Mr. Rinka, she decided that he probably wasn’t intelligent enough to deduce from whence a sample of his handwriting had come and she no longer need bother herself about him. Indeed, five years passed, and she neither saw nor heard from him again.
So it was that Miss Brill had relaxed her guard in the fall of 1998, her last school year before retirement. She had accepted the position of yearbook advisor and was supervising the taking of group pictures of the extracurricular clubs. Young Edward Enders had had the audacity to wear a t-shirt depicting a marijuana leaf. Following a lengthy discussion of freedom of speech, and even of the press—he was on the school newspaper staff—unexpectedly, Mr. Enders agreed to turn the shirt inside-out for the photo. Miss Brill congratulated herself on her ability to bend the will of an arrogant adolescent.
When the proofs came back, however, Miss Brill realized why Mr. Enders had succumbed to her authority so easily: he had found another way to express himself. At the exact moment the shutter had opened, he had lifted his middle finger to the camera. The obscene gesture appeared in every proof the photographer had provided. Miss Brill silently chided herself for allowing her attention to be drawn away long enough for Mr. Enders’ insubordination and began mentally composing her letter of complaint to the photographer who should have noticed the finger and taken another shot.
Faced with a deadline and her own dented credibility, Miss Brill encountered a dilemma. She would not put the photograph in the yearbook, and she would not be drawn into another power struggle with Mr. Enders at a retake. No, she would take care of this her own way. She took the proof back to the photographer and demanded he airbrush out Mr. Enders and his obscene gesture, at no charge. Later, when she laid out the page, she added Ed Enders to the list of those ‘not pictured’ below the photograph.
She had done this with satisfaction, nay arrogance, at the time, yet she deeply regretted it when she distributed yearbooks in homeroom that afternoon in late May.
‘Hey, where the hell am I?’ The anger in his voice was quite something. ‘I should be right there in the corner flipping off the camera!’ Mr. Enders said it loudly enough for her to hear but not so loudly she couldn’t pretend not to. She looked at her attendance list without seeing it.
Everyone—except Miss Monica Fitzgerald, who never ordered the yearbook and skipped school on the day individual pictures were taken—opened to page one hundred and one to look for the missing obscene gesture.
‘Hey, man, I was right next to you. I saw you do it.’ The sports editor of the Walt Whitman High Gazette shook his head. ‘That’s like tampering with the truth or something.’
Any other day of the week, Miss Brill would have cast a knowing glance at the other students and asked innocently, Why, Mr. Enders, what seems to be the trouble?
But at that exact moment, she remembered that he had missed a week of school to go deer hunting the previous fall. She remembered he drove a black Ford F150 with detailing. She remembered those trench-coated boys just last month in Colorado.
‘That sucks, man.’
The ring of the school bell released some of the tension that had crept into her jaw, but not completely.
Her end-of-day rituals would set things to right, she decided. She removed everything from her desktop and reached for her spray bottle of ammonia water.
‘Man, I could kill that bitch!’ Mr. Enders’ voice cut through the sounds of the books being shoved onto shelves and slamming lockers.
She had sprayed a puddle onto the middle of her desk before she realized what she was doing and reached into her bottom drawer for extra paper towel to sop up the cleaner. There was a time she would have marched right into the hall and challenged Mr. Enders’ use of language and threatening manner, but today, she just aligned and realigned the contents of her desktop. She couldn’t find a comfortable arrangement for any of it.
Miss Brill debated whether it would be safer to leave school while teachers and students were still milling about in the halls or to wait until things had cleared. Deciding on the latter, she reorganized her brief case twice before a voice interrupted her.
A tiny gasp escaped her throat. How had Miss Fitzgerald managed to get so close to her desk without her noticing?
‘Yes, Miss Fitzgerald, what is it?’
‘I know this is way overdue and all, but I did finish my paper on The Metamorphosis.’ She pronounced the end of the word, ‘more-FOE-sis.’ ‘I just found it under a binder in my car.’
Miss Brill recalled Miss Fitzgerald’s tearful insistence that she had written the paper the night before it was due, weeks earlier. She claimed she had written it by hand because her family didn’t have a computer and offered to tell Miss Brill what it said to show she wasn’t lying.
‘I am not accusing you of lying, Miss Fitzgerald. I simply cannot evaluate a paper that I cannot read.’
Miss Fitzgerald had left her classroom with an empty expression and slumped shoulders. Now she stood before her with a look of triumph on her face.
Any other day, Miss Brill would have refused to accept it citing her policy about late work and sent Miss Fitzgerald on her way. She would have supported her position by pointing out that allowing work to come in after deadlines rendered those deadlines meaningless and rewarded student laziness. She knew Miss Fitzgerald well enough to know that an argument wouldn’t follow this refusal. Miss Fitzgerald would quietly accept the zero and move on.
Instead, Miss Brill reached for the paper. ‘I’d like to have a look at what you think about Gregor Samsa.’
Miss Fitzgerald hesitated before relinquishing the essay, which was written on notebook paper with the fringe still attached. Miss Brill extracted a large scissors from her top drawer and sliced the frayed edge into the trashcan. She noted that Miss Fitzgerald had framed the title of the paper in quotation marks—as Miss Brill had admonished her students numerous times not to do—and had neglected to underline the title of the literary work—as she had numerous times reminded them to do.
She motioned her student to take a seat at a desk in the front row while she took up her red pen and sat behind her own desk. Out of the corner of her eye, Miss Brill noted the girl checking the clock and jiggling her knee. She probably thought she could just drop off her paper and run. Well, it would be good for her to sit there and see what careful consideration she gave each of her students’ papers. Perhaps that would give Miss Fitzgerald respect for deadlines in the future.
The introduction rambled a bit, Miss Brill noted, in its discussion of alienation particularly in the American high school culture. Miss Brill made a note in the margin: I’m not sure it is ‘culture’ you are talking about here. Do you mean, perhaps, social norms? However, Miss Fitzgerald must have been paying close attention to the lessons about thesis development for hers was precise and focused.
If there had been more of the school year left, she would have used Miss Fitzgerald’s thesis as a model for the other students. Perhaps next year. Miss Brill’s pen stopped on its way to the paper. There would be no next year. This would be her last class of seniors. Her eyes found the number on her desk calendar. Seventeen school days until retirement. She cleared her throat and wrote, Excellent thesis, congratulations.
She looked up to identify the source of the annoying scraping sound that interrupted her thoughts. Miss Fitzgerald was sliding her car key back and forth in the pencil tray, her eyes fixed on the movement. Miss Brill raised her eyebrows and stared at her until their eyes met and the sound stopped. Miss Fitzgerald’s expression vacillated between defiance and fear.
Miss Brill managed a small smile. ‘Nice thesis.’ She turned her eyes back to the paper. ‘You must have been listening when we talked about thesis statements.’
Miss Fitzgerald let out a small sound, unidentifiable as a syllable.
What followed in the essay was wholly off the mark for academic writing. It was self-referential—how many times had she reminded them not to use the first person when writing academic essays?—and even slipped into second person. At those points, her red pen asked, Whom are you addressing here?
One sentence was hopeless: I mean, when the world is so random that you can turn into a bug without explanation and people don’t even question it, and then start treating you like crap because of it, what are you supposed to do? Miss Brill stopped making proofreader’s marks halfway through the sentence and simply wrote in the margin. ‘This seems to be what Kafka is asking the reader, doesn’t it?’
Miss Fitzgerald’s tumbling sentences revealed that she was circling ever closer to a deep understanding of the text, perhaps an even deeper understanding than Miss Brill had been able to manage in her thirty-five years of teaching the story.
Recalling the last time she had averaged grades at progress report time, Miss Brill was quite certain that Miss Fitzgerald needed this English credit in order to graduate and without a passing grade on this essay, even an A+ on her final exam couldn’t save her grade.
‘I have a proposition for you, Miss Fitzgerald.’ She closed the paper and centered it on her desktop. ‘In your final exam, show me that you have learned how to write without using the first- and second-person points of view, and I will give you full credit on this essay.’
Miss Fitzgerald’s eyes widened, and she tilted her head as if she feared Miss Brill was teasing her.
‘This is not an offer that will be made again.’ She stood up and pushed in her chair.
‘Oh, my gosh.’ The girl hefted her backpack onto her shoulder. ‘I can’t believe it. Seriously?’
Miss Brill nodded and picked up her briefcase. They walked together toward the door.
‘Thanks, Miss Brill. Really. Thanks a lot.’
‘Yes, I’ll see you tomorrow, Miss Fitzgerald.’
Miss Brill could never know that these would be her last words and that the student who would render them untrue would be none other than the young Miss Monica Fitzgerald herself. As the teacher locked her classroom door, Miss Fitzgerald was jumping into the old red Maverick she had parked in the fire lane of the teachers’ parking lot so she wouldn’t be late for her orthodontist appointment after turning in her paper. No one could anticipate that her diet Coke can would spill on the floor, and, as she leaned over to rescue it, that her foot would hit the accelerator instead of the brake at the exact moment Miss Brill stepped off the curb. But Miss Brill did know, as she caught sight of Miss Fitzgerald’s horrified face watching her English teacher fly over the hood of her car, that at least she wasn’t going down at the hands of a photo-flipper-offer or a feces-writing delinquent. Miss Brill would be finished off by a girl who knew her Kafka.
Kim Suhr’s fiction has appeared most recently in the anthology, Family Stories from the Attic (Hidden Timber Books), and in literary journals such as The Stonecoast Review and Solstice Lit. In addition, she read her short story, “How to Play with Fire” at The Other Stories Podcast. She is a Director of Red Oak Writing, where she helps other writers through facilitating critique groups, teaching craft and publishing workshops, and hosting author events. Kim holds an MFA from the Solstice program at Pine Manor College in Boston.