The School: Homage to Barthelme by Paul Blaney

Posted by Justine Solomons on 29 January 2021, in News, Showcase

Once a year, the last week of classes, the kids get to try out a special power for the day. We all look forward to it, us teachers too. It's the highlight of the semester. The kids can't choose just anything of course. The teachers' handbook offers suggestions: elastic arms; x-ray vision; super-sensitive hearing; the ability to hold your breath for up to an hour; or make yourself invisible; or turn different colors like a chameleon (good for discussing diversity). But I've always challenged my students to come up with their own ideas. I schedule a 'brainstorming' session the day before.

That Abby Schneider is a real bright spark. She wanted teeth like a shark's. I was naturally cautious—you have to consider liability—but since we'd just completed a unit on sharks I was pleased too. Mikey M had brought his Corgi to class after winter break. I taught a lesson on canine olfaction and now he wanted to try that: to have a dog's power of smell. I said it was a great idea. The next kid I called on was the new girl, Grace, that moved here after what happened in Florida. A shy kid, biggest set of braces you ever saw. She has such a quiet little voice that I misheard her at first. I thought she'd said bully proof.

Her actual suggestion caught me off balance, I must say. But it was practically the first time Grace had raised her hand. You don't like to discourage them. What an interesting idea, is what I think I told her, but she should keep on thinking too. They should all keep thinking; sleep on it. And I dismissed the class.

Friday was the day. It turned out the whole class, with the exception of Mikey and his friend Jamal, wanted to be bullet-proof, like Superman. I tried reasoning with them. A power like that wouldn't be much fun. How could we even test it? (We keep a couple of firearms in the office but I couldn't imagine myself . . . I haven't had my training). They were adamant though, that little Grace kid most of all. So I tried another tack: did they not feel safe at the school? Solemn, even accusatory gazes. A regular conspiracy of silence! In the end, I let them have their way. I guess I could have switched to another lesson but I'd nothing prepared. And they'd been looking forward to this.

It all went smoothly to begin with. Mike and Jamal had fun sniffing the radiators, the waste paper basket, even my socks, but the rest of them seemed contented enough. They did some math equations and then I read them a story. I did ask, a couple of times, if it wasn't a bit boring. Didn't they want to try something different, like Mike and Jamal? But they shook their little heads.

It wasn't until the last hour that they grew anxious. Grace was first to speak up—she seemed to have developed overnight into the class leader. Couldn't they stay that way? she asked. Stay bullet-proof forever? Before long they were all crowding round me, even the two sniffer boys, pleading. Gently at first, I explained that it didn't work that way. Well, said Abby, it ought to. I tried explaining some more—not easy with a dozen youngsters besieging you—and then I put on my stern voice. That was enough now, I told them, and not to be silly.

When I went to take back their powers: Pandemonium. Before I knew it, they'd scattered to all corners of the classroom. A couple—one, I think, was Jamal—ducked into the closet and closed the door on me. It sounds like high spirits, perhaps, but none of them was smiling. Grace, with those braces of hers, looked especially grim. Others were just plain terrified. More than one puddled the floor. In vain, I tried to calm them. I was afraid we'd have an asthma attack or epileptic fit.

I don't know how it might all have ended if I hadn't had one of my brainwaves. "Who wants a go at flying?" I asked. They weren't sure at first, but then a couple of the boys got excited and before long they began to come around. "Okay," I told them, "but we have to use the gym, it's got a higher ceiling, and we have to go super quietly." I didn't want any of the other teachers to see what I was doing—granting the kids the power of flight is frowned on.

My first move when we got to the gym was to lock all the doors. The kids had followed me quietly enough, but they were still on edge. One or two were sniveling as I shepherded them into line. "Right, who's first?" I asked in my cheeriest voice. "Who wants to fly?" After a pause, Mikey stepped forward. With one hand I took back his extraordinary sense of smell while the other gave him the power of flight. He took off at once. And when the others saw how he got the hang of it, climbing to the ceiling, banking and swooping, they all wanted to try. Soon enough the entire class was aloft, skimming and hovering. Even Grace was laughing as she flew past me, chased by Ned Buchinski.

That's the great thing about kids that age: their innocence. It's not that they don't get anxious, but it doesn't last. You invent some distraction and, five minutes later, they have no recollection of whatever was troubling them. By the time I got out the basketballs, they were having a whale of a time. I wish I could have recorded the slam-dunk contest. A day that had threatened to grow unpleasant and awkward, ended—in the words of the old song—with everyone 'Safe and Sound, and Smiles All Around.'

This story first appeared in http://cafeirreal.alicewhittenburg.com/blaney8.htm

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Paul Blaney wears a variety of hats. His main vocation is as a fiction writer but he also works as a freelance journalist, a teacher, editor, and publisher.  Born and raised in London, he has lived and worked in Lisbon, Hong Kong, and Eugene, Oregon, and now lives in Easton, PA. Recent publications include Handover, a novella set in Hong Kong, and The Anchoress, another novella whose main protagonist locks herself in her walk-in closet and won't come out. In 2015 Paul's first novel, Mister Spoonface, was published. The book explores what it means to be a father in an era of artificial reproduction. His two most recent novels are Crown of Thorns, the story of a 21st-century messiah, and Jardin des Animaux, which features wild animals, tunnels and love in a time of civil war

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