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2022 Stories Out of School

January 24, 2022

Stories Out of School is an annual flash-fiction contest created by the Academy for Teachers to honor "the most fascinating, difficult, and important job on the planet." Julia Álvarez, this year's judge, selected five finalists, which appear below. The winning story, "Sunshower," will also appear in A Public Space No. 31. Congratulations to all.

“Sunshower.” I love the writer’s obvious passion for language and literature and yet his/her/their courage in addressing the limitations and literary assumptions teachers/literary aficionados bring into classrooms. How do we make these texts meaningful to students, especially those who don’t share our privileges or background? The story unfolds that moment of meaning in real time: we vividly see the narrator’s attempt to introduce students to the alien worlds and words in a text. Oh, how I love this gutsy teacher’s commitment to connect students in a new language with the mystery at the core of all great stories and poems. I admire the story’s international focus—displaced children from different parts of the world. The scenes are conveyed with great economy and compassion and humor. A resilient teacher who just won’t quit. The story delivers to the reader, as well as the students, a breakthrough moment of vibrance and hope, rays of sunshine in the midst of the showers of the present moment. —Julia Álvarez

“Sunshower” by Josephine Sarvaas

It’s the last poem in the unit.

The school year wears thin, an inchoate Christmas smell in the air: salty Australian sunlight and eucalyptus and dry heat. The poem has too many big words. Cumulus, petrified, syncopated, a halting journey over multisyllabic hills.

My old private school students would be whining, giving up. But class 12B pushes on, relentless, through gouts and ped-e-stals and rei...rei...reiterative.

Most transferred from the Intensive English Centre nearby. Until I packed my life up and took the train line out west, I’d never met teenagers so gentle, or with such old eyes, whose faces lit up just from learning a new word.

Rack on rack,” I read, as we inch across each stanza, pages filling with the beautiful, looping script of students used to writing in Arabic and Tamil. “Anish?”


“Yes! And this line, Nazem?”

“Simile, Miss.”

“Fantastic! And bacon redness of bark...?”

Here, things go sideways.

Of every image used in the poet’s description of a bushwalk, I thought this one would be easy to grasp. Maybe it’s the stagnant heat, or the arduous journey through unfamiliar vocabulary. Metaphor, they decide, but what’s it mean? The entire poem collapses—the sandstone puffed like fungi, the broken iceberg cliff, trunks of caterpillar green.

“Why he calls it that?”

“Miss, why he is on the walk?”

Bacon. Redness. Bark. They know the words. But why here, why together?

We Google a Sydney red gum; they don’t agree it resembles bacon, declare it “ugly” and “looking like a sunburn.”

The bell rings. On Monday we pick up where we left off. I’ve brought a strip of curling rind from a paperbark gum, a worksheet on metaphors, even fairy floss to melt on their tongues as a writing prompt.

They still don’t understand.

They get what the metaphor is. They don’t get why. The poet, trudging along, eyes falling upon bacon redness of bark... what does it mean?

“It’s a joyful image,” I explain, “Playful.”

They disagree. Most don’t eat bacon, some don’t eat meat at all.

“It’s grotesque,” Yousef, whose family fled Lebanon, declares. “The tree looks like flesh. Red, peeling flesh.”

“It’s a sad image,” believes Muhammad from Somalia, who once told me the best thing about Australia is that you can walk to school without worrying about getting shot. “The tree reminds him he is hungry.”

We’re stuck on the bacon tree. Can’t get past it. The entire poem’s overstuffed with difficult words, convoluted images.

They understood Robert Gray’s other works. The poem about the train bursting from the tunnel towards the sunlit sea. Last term’s presentations contained endless stories about arriving in Australia. Stepping into blazing summer heat, warbling alien birdsong. The bittersweetness of leaving everything for a new home. And the poem about the burning rubbish dump, read under a sky orange from distant bushfires, amidst headlines about children marching against climate inaction. Our country’s own pathetic, self-wrought war.

But this poem, about a moment of joy so absorbing you forget everything else...

We head outside, hoping it’ll inspire something, and watch ibises pick through playground rubbish. This part of the West, headlines declared last week, will eventually be too hot to live in.

We try our hand at metaphors. Fairy floss clouds. Sun glinting off concrete like buried treasure. The air is wool-thick, restless.

I feel a sudden, impotent shame. What use is this poem to children who’ve faced so much? Just another white poet describing bushland that each day is devoured a little more by highways and factories.

It’s a bad, flat day. The sky glows at the clouds’ fringes, full of headachy, scattered light. I should give up. But it feels like a sticking point; I should be able to give them this. The bacon tree. The transcendent moment.

The sky swells, warps. Rain starts—slow, then fast, hissing against the hot concrete. At my old school the kids would’ve run, screaming, for cover. Here, they regard me quizzically.

“Inside, Miss?”

“Wait,” I say, “This is a sunshower.”

Sunshower, a few repeat. Playing with the word, enjoying it. And the rain, the sharp relief of humidity breaking.

“Remember the poem?” I say. “A quiver of rain. The wet light. And he walked, on and on, in such vibrance.”

“What’s vibrance, Miss?” someone calls.

“Energy. Something striking. Something bright.”

With any other class there’d be rolled eyes. But I watch hands stretch to catch scattered drops, and their mouths, working, sunshower, vibrance, tasting the newness of language.

“Pond School.” Again, a resilient teacher at the core who is driven to give students what they need vs. following THE mandates. Set in this challenging moment of pandemic-learning (an oxymoron?) the story engages with the mysterious ways students can learn when all tried-and-true and trusted frameworks have fallen away. A heron teaches a young student how to read—or, is it the other way around? A young student teaches a heron how to fish? A teacher learns that “miracles” are possible: Given enough space and time and patience and faith students can and do flourish. “Pond School” is a magical realist fable about pedagogy in our time. I love the intriguing and mysterious ways in which the story moves and navigates its landscape. An artful storyteller who is willing to go places a lot of more traditional, safe stories wouldn’t dare to go. —Julia Álvarez

"Pond School" by JoAnne Burger

Walking towards the pond, Maria tried to plan her class’s opening activity, discouraged by her realization that “contactless first grade” is an oxymoron. By the principal’s decree, no one could share pencils let alone do projects that encouraged working together. Preoccupied, Maria almost bumped into the great blue heron on reed-like legs awaiting surfacing trout. Heading back home, she couldn’t recall witnessing a successful catch and, considering his slimness, wondered if he was starving to death. Out of her sight, the heron speared a fish and devoured it headfirst. There was visible thrashing all the way down that long white neck, like a snake eating a mouse. Distracted, Maria missed it.

For decades, Maria attended meetings, agreeing to the board’s ridiculous mandates. Then she closed her classroom’s door and did whatever the children needed. If they were hungry, she fed them; if restless, extra recess; when interested in beehives, her classroom buzzed.

But closing doors was wrong if she wanted to follow the science. “School will be outdoors this year. We will work in the garden, care for the chickens and read by the pond” she asserted, shocked when the principal and twenty-two families agreed.

So, she elbow-bumped hellos, leading each child to her outdoor classroom where patio tables, and book-stuffed shelves beckoned. Warm September was a honeymoon. The children cared for chickens, delighting in their antics and eggs. They collected worms and wrote simple stories. They grew milkweed plants, watched monarchs lay eggs, and awaited caterpillars and butterflies. During chores, Maria worked with each budding reader. With enough patience, reading seemed inevitable, emerging from its chrysalis when ready.

One student lagged. Jacob told wonderful stories, did math sums in his head but couldn’t sound out the easiest words. They struggled for weeks; Dyslexia textbooks failed her. Despairing, she motioned Jacob to an old fishing rod near the pond. They dug for worms, baited the hook and after, casting the line, she left him alone.

The next morning, Jacob glanced towards the rod; As Maria nodded, he walked off, resuming his meditative task. For weeks, he cast his line in silence. If he caught any fish, no one saw but his fishing spot migrated closer to Maria’s private reading spot where he lingered wordlessly.

The pandemic surged; temperatures fell. Three families quit after their kids complained of chattering teeth. Warmer clothing, tarps and blankets were procured. Maria made them run more.

Suddenly, Maria noted Jacob staring at a still blue heron: her forgotten unsuccessful fisher bird. For days on end, heron and boy stood in deep silent conversation. Jacob paused by Maria’s reading chair. Now thinner, his skin was warm but disconcertingly gray. When the pond crusted, Maria cut the ice and they peered at a single silvery trout swimming laps in the watery stillness.

The air moistened with nascent snow. Under the tarp, Maria led the children in warming jumping jacks. Her resolve wavered. Why wasn’t she inside comfortably zooming like everyone else? Snow fell. The children chased dancing flakes and examined the crystalline world under an old microscope. Snowfall intensified; two more families withdrew; others arrived bearing armloads of wood. They fashioned a crude shelter and huge fire pit. Parents took turns stacking wood, feeding the fire, and warming soup.

Jacob stopped fishing near Maria and her fledgling readers. Clothed in silver leggings, a blue-gray jacket, and boots, he stood one-legged in the water. Inching closer to the resident heron, they appeared to be touching.

Winter progressed; virus deaths soared; Maria’s worries overwhelmed her. She herded the children together, commandeered Jacob from his heron mingling and, in a wavering voice, told the children how she hated the virus and wanted it to go away. Sensing her sadness, one girl stood, saying she wanted to see her grandparents again. Others pleaded to sing loudly again, to spit and slobber, to roughhouse. They became a circle of hugs, ignoring all social distancing rules.

Grabbing a newspaper, Jacob read them a scientific article detailing declining virus case rates suggestive of a possible inflection point. Everyone stared at the boy who could not read. He left the circle to join the heron and they resumed their silent vigil. Suddenly, tremendous splashing. Air filled with pirouetting fish. The heron slowly turned to stare straight at Jacob before taking off, fish flapping and hanging from his beak. Jacob watched as the great bird flew, pterodactyl-like. Then he turned to face us, eyes shining, an enormous, sparkling silver trout in his arms.

“Class Starts at 8. It’s 8:39.” An unflinching litany of reasons teachers hear from students who can’t show up on time or be fully present in our classrooms. A pandemic/twenty-first-century version of “the dog ate my homework.” But these are in fact the realities so many of our students (and teachers as well) are facing in “real time.” These “excuses” paint a world of many challenges—indeed after reading the story, I realized that it is a small miracle that our students show up at all. Compelling, compulsive, fragment piled on fragment, the style reflects the fragmented world young people (and us, not so young) are experiencing. Because, because, because—the pileup is almost unbearable, but embedded in the story is the talisman cry: Can you hear me? Obviously, this writer does hear her students and the story reflects that. —Julia Álvarez

"Class starts at 8. It’s 8:39." by Jonathan Hull

I was late because you wouldn’t understand. Because my phone, the alarm didn’t go off. Because I forgot my password. Because the internet. Because Zoom. Because Google Meets. Because Google Classroom. Because the link you sent us didn’t work. Because it wouldn’t let me download the app. Because I was making deliveries. Because they changed the locks and we had to move again. Because I had to drop my little sister to my aunt’s house and she moves mad slow. Because my phone, Youtube and Tiktok and next thing I knew it was four a.m., so if you think about it I did pretty good getting here now. Because my cousin just flew in from D.R. Because my dad just flew to Yemen. Because last night this guy kept texting me to send these pictures of myself so I had to think up like four hundred different ways to say no but still keep him interested. Because everything in my house is crazy right now. Because my little brother spilled juice on the computer. Because we just started fasting and the first days you don’t have energy. Because we just got the internet and my brother was on all night and he used it up so now it’s so slow. Because my aunt is afraid something will happen to me. Because all the ambulances and all the sirens all the time because we live near the hospital. Because my uncle died he got COVID and now my stepmom doesn’t want me going anywhere except to work. Because school is just not my thing. Because my dad died and now we have to buy tickets to Ecuador. Because I had to go to the store. Because I’m seventeen. Because I’m at the hospital with my grandmother and she doesn’t speak English can you hear me? Because we just ran out of rice. Because someone stole my delivery e-bike and now I owe my boss’s friend two thousand dollars. Because they keep changing my shift. Because we think my mom was arrested and she doesn’t have papers. Because they changed the clocks to daylight saving and nobody told us. Because the protests. Because I don’t know. Because I’m at my mother’s house in Bamako and sometimes there's no internet. Because I wasn’t going to tell you but I’m pregnant. Because it’s already late here in Dhaka and so everyone else in the house is going asleep. Because the firecrackers all night and these guys on the four-wheel motorbikes and the cops don’t do anything. Because the military coup. Because this girl told me she was pregnant. Because whatever. Because I forgot. Because I didn’t do the homework. Because I don’t really get what we’re doing. Because I don’t even know who you are. Because I never even met you for real. Because this isn’t even real school. Because you wouldn’t understand. Just because.

“Better Tomorrow.” I loved this seemingly humble story, imbued with compassion and tenderness and also a sense of fun and self-deprecation. With a few deft strokes the writer depicts the ironically named Better Tomorrow School with a punitive detention hall at its core. The young teacher/narrator, obviously a novice, gets that the real task of pedagogy is to be our students’ guide to joy. Brief and accurate glimpses of characters, conveyed with a single vivid detail, an engaging forward movement—not easy to carry off in such a short short story—“Better Tomorrow” is a little gem.A small and quiet story with a large heart. Every young/novice teacher should read this one and take heart. They can and will transform education. I read this story and believe it! —Julia Álvarez

"Better Tomorrow" by Michele Finn Johnson

By my third year of teaching at Better Tomorrow Elementary, I understand there’s a pattern—children are pack animals, and going crazy is just something animals do. Not their fault. Wednesday detention is packed, and I've snuck in some old magazines, Elmer’s glue, and glitter. Let them sparkle for the next interminable hour. Look at Owen go—Cindy Edwards has a rainbow mustache! I should've bought acetone at the Dollar Store. My mom doesn't approve of what she calls my “out-of-pocket frivolities.” All that stuff, for the pennies they pay you? She just doesn't get that I'm these kids' guide to joy.

Every week, six-year-old Emily asks me if we can go somewhere today—the gymnasium, a secret tunnel, a chapel—but there's nowhere to go once you're in the detention room, that's the whole point. Maybe, if you behave next week, I promise her, and Emily looks at me as if she's a feral eighth grader who knows her destiny is to work the counter at Del Taco. Nothing wrong with Del Taco—in fact, after school every Wednesday I hit the drive-through and poof—I'm in the basement on my parents’ couch cursing through gas pains and wondering why I’m the only teacher assigned to detention. True, Principal Ferguson could be mistaken for a Pennsylvania militiaman—her brass-buttoned colonial wardrobe is surely meant to inspire fortitude—but I have to question her judgment. One look at my perpetually ponytailed hair and mismatched socks and Ferguson should have known I'm more suited to teaching the lost arts. We should teach these kids to sing poetry—let's call it Barding 101! Much more useful than detention. Cooped up children—miniature windmills of potential energy. Curled on my parent’s couch I ask, what would Shakespeare do? So am I as the rich, whose blessed key, / Can bring him to his sweet up-locked treasure. I pass a huge wave of Del Taco gas and sigh in relief.

Today Principal Ferguson sat in the back row for most of detention hour. Cindy Edwards's mother apparently freaked out about the glitter mustache, and now I'm on probation. Ferguson watched me as if I were a war criminal, some kind of torturer. I understand her suspicions; I have them myself. When she left the detention room, it was as if a vacuum released and all of the air came rushing back inside. Owen was the first to giggle. Blame it on me, he said. Then we all giggled and the kids slapped around in puffy winter garb until the parents came to take their urchins home.

Emily just wet herself; pee rings around her tiny Timberland boots. She raises her little hand and something inside of me breaks at the timbre of her miniature escape requests—Barbie house? Apple tree? Bathroom? Her mother is late for pickup, but I stopped asking Emily about her mother's tardiness after the first three weeks. I reach into my purse, feel around for any paper product I can find. I didn't mean to, Emily starts, but I can't let her finish. Just blow, I say, holding her soft, wet nose in a crumpled napkin. I want nothing more than for Emily to avoid detention forever—to walk out of Better Tomorrow Elementary without looking back at her peeprints on the linoleum floor. To have her own apartment, ride a streetcar in San Francisco, experience a nontragic version of Shakespearian love.

I lead Emily to the bathroom. We peel off her socks and snow pants; I rinse them in the sink, stretch them over the hand dryer and hit the big, aluminum button. Once her clothes are reasonably dry, I aim her bum into the warm airflow; Emily laughs so hard she leaks snot into her mouth.

It's Wednesday at 5:21 p.m. My stomach growls at the thought of an avocado Crunchtada. I sit with Emily in the vestibule, waiting for her mother. Large flakes of snow hover in the overhead lights. Just when I start to wonder what life I’ve signed myself up for, Emily curls into my side; she’s a puppy of a girl, really. The snow falls heavier, piles up on the sidewalk. Snowman? Igloo? Emily asks, but there’s her mother pulling up to the curb. Tonight I’ll eat Del Taco on the couch, watch snow fill up the basement window well. Tomorrow we’ll make snowflakes out of coffee filters; we’ll coat them in silver glitter, hot glue them to the detention room walls. Watch them glow.

“The Worm at the Core.” Elegant and beautifully written, this writer is a seasoned and skilled storyteller. So much is packed into this short story—a teacher shut down by loss and life-weariness, a mysterious student who embodies what the teacher has lost sight of: the power of the imagination to see what isn’t there, recreate reality, and connect with others . And none of this done “by abstraction” but by details and moments that build to a wonderful and earned resolution. This is very much a story for teachers who are overwhelmed by their own personal losses and crises and near “burnout.” Death, too, can be a teacher in the guise of a young student with a skill for creating what isn’t there, so that it is as real as what is, becomes a door to what is missing. I found this an impressive story. Here is a storyteller with mastery of technique and tempo and tone… Bring on the novel.

But then, the power of all these stories is that like the genie in the bottle they pack so much magic and charm in such a contained and challenging form

These writers are MY teachers.

—Julia Álvarez

“The Worm at the Core” by Bo Lewis

I was gnawing on a decommissioned paintbrush, gazing into the soothing abyss of a heavy-handed charcoal rendering, when the new kid appeared.

“This art, ma’am?” She held out her yellow registration card like a passport. “Seventh grade?”

I’d had no heads up from the main office, but I let it slide.

“We’re on day two of still life.” I indicated the bowl of fruit. “Pull up a chair, draw what you see.”

She got right to work, moving with a quiet gravity. I resumed my routine: Thelonious in the CD player, slideshow on the projector. For still life you can’t beat the Dutch, and I’d packed the carousel with Steen’s cold cuts, Peeters’s gutted fishes, Claesz’s skulls. I lost myself awhile, clicking through slides, yearning for oblivion, silencing my phone whenever it trembled.

I looked up to find the students already packed and jostling at the exit. Only the new girl remained, eyes fixed on the tablet as her fingertips dabbed her tongue, smudged the page, dabbed again.

“How’s it coming?” I circled around, getting my first look. “Oh! That isn’t...”

“You don’t like?”

“It’s terrific! Only...” Only the fruit on the table was a bunch of grapes, and she’d drawn an apple. It really was good, though. A dull sheen on its crown, a hint of wrinkles around its stem. “You drew this from memory?”

She nodded.

“Signed...” In the corner of the page she’d written “—Death.” “Pretty sure your registration card says ‘Magdalena.’”

She shrugged. “I have many names.”

Magdalena slid her tablet into a vacant cubby. I offered to write her a late pass, but she assured me she was never late.

Next came the taxidermied pheasant. Not still life so much as life, stilled. The pheasant never fails; every year he’s a hit. A symphony in those feathers!

The children’s giddy curiosity was a buoy I clung to. In their shrieks and flirting and pratfalls—even in their vendettas and heartaches—they brimmed with life. I played them Satchmo, Dizzy, the Duke.

But when, I wondered, does the milk first curdle? We don’t all burst with zeal forever. Some draw the circle smaller every year, leaving cities and siblings in the wasteland.

Again the frenzied exodus, again Magdalena remained.

I asked to see her drawing, and she revealed not a pheasant but a humanoid primate, two spots back from Phil-the-Actuary in that “ascent of man” lineup. Exquisite detail. Nostrils like twin caverns, brow arched in raw wonder.

“Also from memory?”

Homo habilis. ‘Handy’ man. Now there’s a good name. You people call yourselves sapiens, but the jury’s out.”

“‘You people’?” I said. “Oh right, you’re Death. I forgot.” My phone vibrated.

“You gonna get that?”

“Nah, it’s just my mother. She’s forever calling.”

“And you never pick up?”

A pause.

“So” I said, “if not sapiens, what are we?” She looked around the room.

“How about... Homo aestheticus.”

As she left, my phone erupted again.

“Drawing faces,” I announced, “isn’t for the faint of art.”

Some brought in a photo, some a magazine cutout of one heartthrob or other. Some used a mirror. Magdalena, as usual, drew from memory.

The carousel was filled with the sketches of Dürer and da Vinci. To ease their struggle, I played Debussy, Satie, Patsy Cline.

Week’s end arrived like a collective exhalation. The children’s valiant failures were interred in their cubbies. Magdalena lingered.

When she showed me her work, my breath caught. There, in 6B pencil, was a perfect likeness of my brother, Sam, dead now fourteen months.

“How—?” I sank onto a stool. Heartbeats broke like waves against my eardrums. “But that’s impossible,” I protested.

“Another human obsession: telling yourself the story of the way things must be.Homo narrans.

“But why? And how? And... why?”

Homo interrog—

“Please! Please, what do you want from me?”

“I from you? No, ma’am, it’s you who beckoned me, sent a thousand silent petitions my way.”

“Then... you’ll take me with you?” I thought of my last words to Sam, of my cruel impatience. I thought of his final purchase: rope, stepladder. “Please?”

“A strange thing,” she mused, “this human belief that in death, one might finally live.”

“But where else...?”

My voice trailed as she rose, moved toward the exit. In the pocket of my frock, my phone began to buzz. In the doorway she turned, gave an encouraging nod.

I took the phone from my pocket.

“Hi, Mom,” I said. “Yes, Mom, I’m here.” At the threshold, Death smiled.

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