2023 Stories Out of School
February 6, 2023
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." Daniel Handler, this year's judge, selected three finalists, which appear below. The winning story, "Tree Club," will also appear in A Public Space No. 31. Congratulations to all.
“Tree Club" captures so many moods at once—awkward camaraderie, everyday melancholy, yearning and
defeat, small triumphs and cutting failures, all happening at once, just as they do in life. A lonely, droll
"Tree Club" by Christopher Chilton
This is their tree. It rises straight from the square pit by the school’s side door along a busy boulevard, then divides into three staves, which divide into branches, lifting reams of toothed leaves. According to the city certificate their tree is something called an American hop hornbeam. It belongs to them: the club’s President, the Vice President, the Secretary, the Social Media Director (already snapping before pictures), a dozen other students, and, in a lesser way, the English Teacher.
They begin by picking cigarette butts and plastic bits out of the pit. They prod the soil with tools like birds’ feet. (Like this, someone asks? The Teacher, knowing nothing about trees, says: Looks good to me.) They pour water from the can into the pit and spread a layer of mulch, red like clay.
The President reveals a sign, made that day in Art, a watercolor painting of a fluffy green tree urinating on a frowning brown smudge. It says: “Our tree wouldn’t pee on your dog.”
They water their tree every Tuesday, but there’s not much else to do. Tree Club is bored. The President has an idea. Next week, everyone will bring a rock to line the tree pit. That way, she says, everyone will know it’s ours.
Most bring rocks from parks and playgrounds, grayish and whitish rocks, anonymous rocks. The Secretary has brought a smooth cream-colored rock, like a lump of ice cream, engraved with a Chinese character, but she doesn’t know what it means. A sophomore has brought a dark round stone, like an olive, from a beach in Trinidad, near where her grandfather lived.
Are you sure? The English teacher asks her. It might get lost.
But she bends down and places it carefully with the others.
By October, Tree Club has lost half its members. The President is bitter. They made a commitment, she says. The English Teacher wants to say: But that’s the way it always is. Work piles up, new friends emerge, new crushes. The newspaper, the play. Some always drift away.
The leaves of their tree have turned a rich red gold, like honey in a jar. Across the street, another tree is Post-it yellow. I thought they were the same kind of tree, the Secretary says. I didn’t realize they were different trees until just now.
That’s the way it always is, the English Teacher wants to say. In the fall, that’s when you learn who everyone really is. All those colors and shades they were hiding—brassy, mellow, pale, outrageous—are suddenly, at once, revealed.
In January the Vice President plays with the cords of his hooded sweatshirt while the English Teacher reads his college essay. It’s dry and dreadful. A list of awards and achievements, as lively as a press release. I think, the Teacher says, you should write about the tree.
What he means is this: I have seen you in the cold, picking trash from the tree pit with gloveless hands. Replacing the mulch. I have seen you, when snow is coming, pick grains of rock salt, one by one, from the pit. Everyone else has forgotten the tree, even the club’s President, but you remembered, and I saw.
The tree, Mister? the Vice President says. It’s nothing important, though. Just a tree.
After Spring Break, their tree flowers, and Tree Club is reborn. They apologize to the tree for neglecting it. They genuflect and hug it; they make gestures of penitence and reconciliation. They flush the pit with propitiatory water.
The flowers are white petals stacked into drooping tassels. They look like fish, someone says. They look like pine cones. They look like the ash on a cigarette. (The Teacher pretends not to hear this.) They look like socks. They look like cat’s tails.
Those graduating make the others take an oath: I shall remain a keeper of the tree. Each puts one hand on their heart and one on the tree. The oath-takers are laughing, but in the seniors the English Teacher senses a familiar current, the future’s wind, that makes them somber when they expected to be light.
And then it’s done, it’s summer. Tree Club adjourned.
Do I need to come back over break, the Teacher thinks, and water this thing?
Don’t be stupid. The tree will be fine, will live. Watered or thirsty, mulched or unmulched, the tree will remain. The cars on the street will keep on speeding past it, desperate to get wherever they are going.
Christopher Chilton teaches English and Creative Writing at the Beacon School in Hell's Kitchen.
"The Seating Charts" by Paul Macomber
are imperfect squares in different formations on white computer paper. Each box holds a name that was scrawled hurriedly between passing periods or before school. At the conclusion of the school year they are placed in plastic sheets. Then in binders of different colors, stored on a forgotten bookshelf in my classroom that is caked with dust. Twenty binders for twenty years. There is space for ten more. I only have two more binders in me. Maybe one.
I have done the math. 3,589 names total.
There are thousands of settlements around the world with populations smaller than that. In one of the first volumes, David Foss sat next to Wilma Sanchez. Ricky Mendez next to Devin Harris. Tanner Hall next to Ebony Jackson. Then, full of dreams.
I want to be a lawyer .
I’m going to get an Academy Award.
Mister Everson, you’ll see me in the NBA. Don’t worry! When I make it, I got you!
Now they’re old enough to have the doors of their dreams close. They are old enough for some of them to earnestly wish for a do-over. For some to wonder if this is their one shot at living. They are old enough to either encourage or live through their children. Unfortunately, I forget most of them. The faces fade like cold breath and all that remains is an entry on paper. Sometimes, I’ll see a few of them years later at the grocery store.
Hey, it’s Devin! Wait, you forgot about me?
John Maersely sits behind Amy Ruiz. I remember John, dead two months later after sitting in that broken seat near the back of the classroom. The seat that RJ would sit in. That Ashley would sit in. Max.
Mary would sit in that same chair in 2019. She first learned English at the small cement school in Tel Afar. When we write about a life-changing event, she writes about the suicide bomber whose shrapnel punched through her friend's body and then spliced her right tricep, leaving a corrugated scar that rises from the flesh. When the story is shared by her well-meaning friend, the students rise from their seats and ask to see. She rolls up her sleeve for the class before I can protect her. Then the far away war becomes close.
I remember the tragic stories. The ones who have lived something I never have. It’s easy as a teacher to float in the tragedies because its ocean is so vast. Then there are moments that stand you upright.
“Mister Everson. My name is Matthew Casas.”
He is grown now. Black-rimmed glasses, black shirt and khakis. He stands before me in my classroom. Wasn't he class of 2011? Friends with Julian Villa? He nods awkwardly, sniffs. “Just wanted you to know I’ve been teaching for five years. It’s because of you.”
I remember him but he barely spoke to me. I do not remember his story. My voice cracks. “What do you teach?”
“French,” he says with a smile.
We talk more. He has a family. Loves his career. I do the math for him. Five years. 170-180 students a year. A shade under a thousand. Dozens of settlements smaller than that. I wonder about the names he's encountered and if they’re recorded. I wonder what stories his seating charts would tell.
Paul Macomber teaches at a public high school in Redlands, California. He holds a BA from California State University, San Bernardino; and a MAM from the University of Redlands.
"Snow Day Alphabet" by Jonathan Hull
Teacher writes the number four on the whiteboard like this:
It’s the game they play when no one comes to school. And why would anyone come to school today? Omicron. State tests canceled. Random subway violence. A good four to five inches of snow and more still falling.
4? means four students out of twenty-six are here at the start of class. The game is to guess how many will show before the end.
At least seven students won’t make it in for sure. Call them A, B, C, D, E, F and G: Three tested positive and are isolating. One was exposed and unvaccinated. One disappeared to New Jersey, one to Mali, one just disappeared.
H and I are here. From Tegucigalpa, never seen snow. I comes to school for the breakfast, but would never admit it. Today, tiny bagels and as many strawberry yogurts as you want. H only showed up to see I.
Two more: J and K came last year from Jilin, far north China where the trees freeze to ice sculptures.
They call out their guesses:
Teacher puts up a diagram of a lake.
food web something algae something something dragonfly
L, M, and N come next, from Port-au-Prince, Gonaïves and Cap-Haïtien. Today they all ride the Q train from the same part of Brooklyn. None have hats or gloves, but they all have yogurt. N and M hunch over, faces hidden, hands moving behind their bookbags. Teacher reminds everyone to keep their masks on.
mayfly lives just twenty-four hours and something something
L says they feel sorry for the mayfly.
O and P, from Conakry, walk in. They come to school because they like to borrow a phone charger from H.
Something fish something lake.
Q and R arrive, cousins from Cartagena, who paint nails and play volleyball, followed by T and U, brothers from Ambato, who live with their mother after not having seen her for twelve years. Burns on U’s forearms from searing shishitos at a restaurant in Tribeca.
V from Ouagadougou walks in, and a cheer erupts. V has that kind of presence. Someone passes him a yogurt.
Now everyone wants to change their guesses.
Teacher folds arms. Remember, we’re here to learn about life spans and food webs, not to eat yogurt or spend all our time guessing.
A picture of a lake, a brown trout on the SMART Board. Did anybody really come here today to learn about brown fish?
Teacher looks out the window, sees the snow falling in soft, heavy flakes, no swirls, no gusts, just floating down, feels the feeling of catching a flake on your tongue.
Okay, Teacher says. Change of plans. I have a better game to play.
Because Omicron. Canceled tests. Subway chaos. A good five-to-six inches of still-perfect snow on the ground and a small park just down the block. Almost nobody has gloves, but there is a stash of donated ones in the office to grab on the way out. Teacher hands out paper and everyone practices crumpling it up, shaping and patting it with their hands.
This is how you make a snowball.
W, from Samarkand, walks in. Applause.
Only two rules: (1) Don’t hit anyone in the face. (2) Don’t eat yellow snow.
Outside the joy is crisp and contagious. Smiles emerge from pulled-down masks. Happy screams and fast chases. The trees and park benches are soft and white. X and Y, from Lomé, turn up to loud cheers. Faces are hit, hats and scarves frosted and damp. Phones get wet, get panicked over, are fine. Glasses breath-fogged and droplety. Hoodies covered in a white fuzz of snow. Cheap acrylic gloves soaked and icy. No sign of Z, but the guessing game is forgotten. Almost the alphabet is enough.
Back minutes before the bell. P and Q brought snowballs with them in their pockets. Teacher gets them to toss them out the window. Some start watching their seconds-ago selves on their screens. Laughing interrupts videos of laughter. It wouldn’t be so bad to be a mayfly with only one day to live, as long as today was the day. Still laughing, eyes still bright. Wringing out their wet gloves. Forget Omicron, forget the subway, state tests. Only the snow, already on its way to a dirty, slushy hassle. Then the bell rings and class is over and everyone is still alive.
Jonathan Hull teaches English at a public school in New York City.