2024 Stories Out of School
February 5, 2024
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." Karen Russell, this year's judge, selected four finalists, which appear below. The winning story, "Orientation," will also appear in A Public Space No. 32. Congratulations to all.
"Orientation" invites us to view a high-school classroom "as if you are an alien archaeologist of the future." Everything vibrates with wonder, comedy, and horror, from the "long silver tooth" holding the detention slips in place to the "collective art project" of the students' desk graffiti. “Bubbly phalluses” and cartoon ducks appear on desks, furiously erased by the teacher with a sponge and Spitfire, only to reappear the following morning. Picture the suspense of Charlotte’s Web, only instead of a spider spinning “Some Pig,” these teenagers are covering every surface with Sharpie boners and tombstones and flowers. What a funny and moving evocation of the tonal complexity of ninth grade—a story told through these escalating and evolving hieroglyphs, illicit Gen Z art. A block print ASS carved into a desk coexists with a silly duck and a dancing octopus. When a swastika appears, the stakes of this story skyrocket. "Orientation" taught me that a teacher's eraser can transform the atmosphere of a classroom, and that a thumbtack can support more than just a flyer.
Some of the most profound lessons we receive from our teachers are unplanned and wordless—as spontaneous as these Sharpie flowers drawn by secret hands across the desks. They go unrecorded on any test or syllabus. “Orientation" is alternately hilarious, piercing, frightening, enraging, and life-affirming—as rich and varied as any weekday in a high-school classroom. It etched itself inside me, and I hope it leaves its mark on your heart, too.
“Orientation” by Jules Fitz Gerald
Welcome to your classroom! Inside the podium, discover a wadded T-shirt. Before throwing it away, notice the esophagus, liver, gallbladder, pancreas, stomach, and large and small intestines hand-inked and labeled in their proper places on its front. Infer this was somebody’s biology project; you have been hired to teach English. Realize the green, red, and gray smears are dry-erase marker. Keep the shirt to clean the whiteboards, which are actually shower stall panels purchased from the nearest home-improvement store.
Next, puzzle over the wooden block, roughly three inches square, placed with apparent intent on the right side of the podium. Imagine yourself an alien archaeologist from the future, excavating the ruins of this Anthropocene high school: what could this possibly be for?
At a loss, place the wooden block inside your desk. In the top drawer, locate a mini clipboard, its long silver tooth biting down on a stack of triplicate detention slips. The clipboard’s smooth plastic back bears the Sharpied name of the previous occupant. Scribble out his and write yours.
On the first day of class, set down a pen on the podium after taking roll and watch it slide through the gap where the wooden block was. Retrieve the block from your desk. Smile, and tell no one your secret.
As soon as possible, begin displaying exemplars of student work on the two available bulletin boards. Understand: if you put a thumbtack in each corner of the paper when hanging student work, three of the thumbtacks will disappear, and the corners will curl. No one ever steals the last thumbtack. Try to remember this later, when you question what you’re doing here, and why.
When you first spot the desk drawings, encourage them, considering them a kind of collective art project. One student draws “Jhon” the duck. Another adds a tie and dialogue. A few days later, someone erases the dialogue. Then someone erases Jhon. A tombstone is erected: “R.I.P. Jhon.” Someone else incorporates flowers. On the desk behind Jhon’s tombstone, a student etches a swastika in pencil and captions it a dancing octopus. Clean all the desks, except for Jhon’s tombstone.
Know students will find other ways to leave marks on their laminate surfaces. The word “ASS” is carved in a shaky block hand. Another desk sprouts a bubbly phallus, which other students will modify but which will always wipe down to the contours of its original grooves. The coarse sponge and bottle of Spitfire the custodian gives you won’t remove them. Better penises than swastikas.
While you are teaching Night to the freshmen, a junior will point out another one, Sharpied onto the edges of a ninth-grade textbook’s stacked pages, where it cannot be erased. Take a Sharpie and turn the swastika into a black box. Let your students watch you do this. You will never know who drew it—only that one of them did.
Try not to feel unnerved when a student writes their theory of your political views in pencil in three different corners of one desk—the same one that had the “dancing octopus.” All you did was attempt a conversation with your classes about why a swastika is likely to be read as a hate symbol even if it’s designated otherwise. Spray the three sentences with Spitfire, along with Jhon’s tombstone. As you scrub the latter away with the digestive tract shirt, find yourself whispering: “Rest in peace, Jhon.”
The next day, someone draws “Nugget”—an onion-shaped creature with cartoon eyes and legs—where Jhon’s tombstone used to be. They use a bright pink marker that will not scrub away, even with the Spitfire. Privately, admire their resilience.
The following week, post a flyer for the new LGBTQ+ student group on your door window because the student trying to start the group asked you to after the flyers they posted in the hallways were torn down. When the flyer is torn down during fifth period, leaving four Scotch-taped corners on the window, check the recycling bin, where it will be lying, slightly crumpled, on top. Tape it back up while your students are watching. Use the corner remnants as a guide. It will not be torn down again.
Before you leave for the last time, two students write you notes thanking you for helping them decide to keep living. Pack these cards carefully in a box to take with you, though you’ll never forget them. No longer think of this as your classroom, but theirs.
Jules Fitz Gerald (she/her) grew up on North Carolina’s Outer Banks and now makes her home in southern Oregon. She earned an MFA from the University of Pittsburgh and attended the 2023 Tin House Summer Workshop and 2023 Kenyon Review Writers Workshop. Her honors include being selected for a Fulbright U.S. Student Grant in Creative Writing and a Lighthouse Works fellowship. Her prose has recently appeared or is forthcoming in Witness, Okay Donkey, Southern Humanities Review, Raleigh Review, Fourth Genre, Tampa Review, and North Dakota Quarterly. She taught high school English for six years.
"Feral" by Esther Mathieu. I loved the animal energy of it (and truly when I move through all the pheromones of the middle school hall at my son's K-8 school I feel on the quivering edge of exactly this sort of mass metamorphosis, the bell rings and it's UNDERWAY!).
"Cutting the Path" by Matt McGee. "You have to question your life choices when you have a master's degree and you're up before the plow drivers" made me LOL, and I love the central image inside this story, that beautiful overlay of the literal and the figurative as this teacher cuts a path through the ice and the snow so that his students can reach the doors of the school.
"What Frightens You?" by Eduardo Vaca. I love this very short story (200 words!). which feels almost like a poem, with its list of silly and supernatural and all-too-real dangers.
“Feral” by Esther Mathieu
The students had been sitting uneasy for weeks, the restlessness growing in their bodies like the pressure they’d shake into soda bottles in the back of the classroom. During lunch hours in the yard, they’d crack the seal and spray each other with sticky corn syrup—that is, in the yard if you were lucky. If you were lucky, they would wait until they had exited the back rows, instead of coating the linoleum in a fine, permanent film, which held tight to grime and didn’t come out, just scuffed to unstickiness. I could see them getting tight in their skins like the still-sealed bottles, energy pushing against the surface. It made me nervous, less because of the outcome than because of the uncertainty of the hour. By the third week of April, I was watching the clock just as closely as the students, the sweep of the smooth red second hand, waiting on the slow drawl towards 3:20.
Seventh grade was like this: it was Sisyphus but the rock was everything you didn’t know, which could be used against you. It was Atlas crushed beneath the weight of the mall, Tantalus excluded from the lunch table. I couldn’t tell them, of course, that these things would end, because they wouldn’t believe it, and of course it wouldn’t be true, really, only they would wear better masks, gather their close company of trusted players and exclude all others from the chosen stage. Seventh grade was a constant alertness as of prey for a predator that cannot be named. And for my students, as it had not been before, there was an alertness of the slow departure of ecosystem, the world as we had expected it burning away. There was so much unknown that must be integrated at such speed, and little time, therefore, for geometry or language arts, staid fixtures one could navigate but never attend to. I had been teaching seventh grade for seven years, an auspicious alignment, and for all the predictable uprisings it had never felt this way. Never had I seen the coming tremor stretch the students’ faces from inside, rubber, into something hungry and vulpine. In the dry heat, growing denser with each passing class, in the shapes of fewer birds, scarcer sightings of the creatures who had once made temperate homes here, the animal inhabited their bodies instead. Dwindling, it found new hosts. In the last period of the day, the transformation felt entire. I was aware of myself as a soft and human supposition among the ranks of them, slipped through from another world: old, forested, faerie.
It broke on a Thursday, second period, while I chalked a parallelogram onto the board. It broke not in my classroom, but in a rush of voices in the hallway like wind, and then the word was passed to my students, and as a unit they split open. In the time it took to draw the four neat sides, the carbonation built to rupture, and they were up, roiling, rioting, caught in a bottleneck press as they pushed to the classroom door, the small and prepubescent almost crushed by their adult-sized peers. It was my first thought, how small and fragile the littlest of my students looked, but the fox-like sharpness was clearest on their faces—their teeth seemed canine, their eyes preternaturally bright.
Later I would hear of strange things, lycanthropy, animal inhabitation, hypnotism and projection, and all manner of slippages, in and out of minds of many kinds. The thing that happened was obscure and brutal, this sudden surge from someplace we could not access, teachers, administrators, representatives of the absolute to the ache and stretch of the middle school mind, the closing in of unfamiliar borders, the seasons, hotter and drier and more barren each year—these things could no longer be metabolized. Whatever wildness they still contained, that more-than-human closeness of childhood which had always allowed a meeting with a place of myth that did not exist past an age at which the Real becomes all-consuming—that wildness, as it was pressurized by time, made the school into a site of revolution. Triggered by heatwave, by hormones, by a last-straw afternoon of Earth Science and despair, they shifted. Three hundred seventh graders gone fox-eyed, slipped in riot into the verge around the highway, into tree and bramble, disappeared.
Esther Mathieu is a writer and artist from Queens, New York, currently based in Salt Lake City, where they are pursuing a Masters in Environmental Humanities. Esther graduated in 2017 from Colby College with honors in an Independent Major in Environmental Planning, Media, and Design. Esther's first collection of poetry, Constellations, was published by Hunt and Light in 2015. Their photographic series Hallowed Ground, a series of cyanotype self-portraits exploring mental health and illness, was exhibited as a part of the Senior Exhibition at the Colby Museum of Art in 2017, and their series Archive was featured in the Save Our Great Salt Lake Show at 2006! A Space Oddity in February 2023. Esther served as Artist in Residence at the Taft Nicholson Center in July 2023.
“Cutting the Path” by Matt McGee
The damn car wouldn’t start. Auggie didn’t expect much for $400, and almost any car would’ve had trouble in the blizzard of ’77, but starting consistently seemed a bare minimum for his investment. The wind-driven snow punished anyone foolish enough to live in the Upstate country, especially a proven masochist who’d agreed to get up this time of day to teach junior high students.
Auggie knew from experience that if he tapped the ignition switch just so while saying the right prayer, the car would kick to life. Its interior smelled of crosshatched German leather and the ever-present, lingering air of burnt oil. He breathed it in, but his olfactory sensors were temporarily frozen.
The guy across town he’d bought the car from, Shamus, had given Auggie a deal when he heard Auggie was a teacher. More so, Shamus seemed to like the concept of owning a Volkswagen. Shamus had been in the war and the idea of the Germans working hard to regain his approval had appealed to him. And since Shamus had bought the car used, hell, the Germans still weren’t seeing any of
his money in the transaction. No sir. Those bastards had frozen their asses off too on the Russian front in ’44. Serves ‘em right he might’ve said.
Auggie twisted the steel key with its carved VW insignia. Click. Nothing. Inside the house, his new wife Jill would still be in bed. Warm, warm bed, he thought. He twisted the key once more, this time at a gently downward angle.
He gave the masterpiece of German engineering a few minutes warm-up. He then shifted into gear and backed into the street. The plows hadn’t come yet. You have to question your decisions when you’ve got a master’s degree and you’re up before the plow drivers.
Driving a freshly blanketed Upstate highway, Auggie thought, it should be a required course. Lesson One: imagine driving on four flat tires. You know the roads well enough to know where the drainage isn’t so good. This is where black ice is most likely to form.
He made a mental note: propose Driver’s Ed course. Not the kind where you get to drive an actual car. Kids’re still too young for that. Just a primer course. Helpful tips. Mailboxes held their heads above the snow banks; Auggie used them as markers to guess his way along at where the road was. Others would follow his tracks and he didn’t want to lead anyone astray.
A quarter mile later he and the old Squareback arrived at Hooper’s Corner, named after the family whose navy blue house marked the bend in the road. The Hoopers had established the town’s first market; it was still there, along with the blue house. Auggie traced the Hooper’s ten-foot cement retaining wall to feel his way along. Forget curb-feelers; history was his guide.
It’s why he came back after NYU. That deep familiarity, its people, its history. Auggie loved history. It was his passion, his mistress, his major. Sometimes on a drive home from school when he was stuck in some rare bout of traffic, or the occasional night when he couldn’t fall asleep, Auggie would replay the events of the Battle of Saratoga, whose battlefield was only 11 miles away.
The parking lot of Arnold Middle School was denoted by two trees on either side of the entrance, each ten feet from the curb. Knowing this, Auggie steered the VW between them, imagining he and the VW like a football through a set of goalposts. No sooner had he rolled to a curbstone than a dinged and dented Dodge Craftsman van entered in his wake, tires popping snow clods as it rolled. The driver stepped out.
“Thanks for the guiding path buddy!” Ted Kozlowski, Arnold’s woodshop teacher, gave Auggie a pat on the shoulder. Auggie nodded and strode toward the building, in time to hold the door for Kozlowski.
Auggie stomped snow from his boots then moved to the tall pane windows beside the school’s entrance. The sheet tile under his feet was an attempt at recreating granite, its silver flecks bordered by a ribbon of silver. Auggie squinted into the rising sun, letting the building slowly warm him, watching the cars of faculty and students file into the lot, widening the path he’d cut, ready for another day of learning.
Matt McGee, the son of a lifelong English teacher, writes in the Los Angeles area. In 2023, his work received an Editor's Choice selection at Raven's Quoth Press and has appeared in Spectrum, Gnashing Teeth, and The NonBinary Review. His story 'The Chalupa Gangsta' was adapted to podcast in July. When not typing, he drives around in rented cars and plays goalie in local hockey leagues.
“What Frightens You?” by Eduardo Vaca
Sofia thinks before answering. “I don’t think I’m afraid of anything.”
Jared scoffs. “That’s not true, don’t lie.”
Alejandro yells from across the carpet, with his usual authority. “Of course she’s not scared, she’s Mexican!”
Half the class giggles while the rest connect the dots. “Alright class,” I say. “I can’t pick a stick until we’re ready to listen.”
Alejandro whines, “Guys quiet down!” and they do.
“Thank you everyone.” I pull another name from the cup. “Monique? What’s something that frightens you?”
I call on Alejandro. “What frightens you?”
“I’m scared of losing my whole family and being alone.”
Everyone knows his story, and why the fear is justified. A few students pat his back like a grown-up would.
“Thank you for sharing Alejandro.”
I draw the next name. “Aliyah, what are you afraid of?”
The class concurs. Monique’s eyes look at me then dart away. I stir the names in my cup as she whispers to Aliyah.
“Aliyah! Don’t you know if you’re scared all you have to do is this?” Her fist sprints from head to heart and across her shoulders: the sign of the Cross in one breath.
There are more “nothings” than I anticipated. They don’t know how to be scared yet. Our last answer is from Fausto, who doesn’t like possums.
I’m about to dismiss them but Liliana raises her hand.
“But Mr. Lizaola, what are you afraid of?”
Time. Debt. Traffic. “I used to be afraid of growing up, but then it happened. It’s not so bad.”
Their collective “mm-hmm true” turns to chatter as I break the circle, sending them back to the anthill of desks and cubbies.
Eduardo Vaca is a writer, filmmaker, and substitute teacher in Norwalk, California.
"Once I thought that one could only write about things one adequately understood. But I do not wish to submit myself entirely to this assumption, as it becomes a definite way to silence myself. Why not give myself permission, instead?"
December 22, 2023 by Ruby Wang