Year after year, the kids come to me just as dense as the ones before. They shuffle into their seats, avoiding the desk obscured by a branch that reaches in through the window. I try seating the good kids like a chess board, with the troublemakers squashed in between. When autumn hushes off rain, the kids make puddles of stunts. Ayla only drinks water she collects in cicada shells from the branch. Marvin staples his fingers together. He screams and I tell him, I understand the extremes you’d go to just to feel something. He smiles as he limps to the school nurse, though it’s his finger that’s bleeding. I guess the kids like jokes. I tell them, There once was a student who snorted lines of sour skittle dust and got the whole class hooked. Now she’s an adult with chronic nose bleeds, and when her girlfriend kisses her the blood tastes like sour green apples. The kids laugh so hard they squelch, and for those few minutes they stop giving each other wet willies.
Then it’s test week, and the kids are drooling because the class next door has a pizza party. I tell them to be glad they’re not taking their exam in silence. Five years ago, I say, the whole school took tests at the same time and it got so quiet they began to hear their organs gurgling, blood pumping, and the scratch of their thigh skin on their chairs. It was so quiet that when the teacher dropped her pencil, the kids’ eyeballs started vibrating. To this day, they have never stopped hallucinating. The kids gulp in unison, and it sounds like a jawbreaker shattering. For the rest of the year, the kids startle if they can hear themselves breathing. They focus best when the real world keeps churning, and on school-wide test days, we have the custodian play his ukelele while the kids bubble in Scantron sheets. In June, for the first time, no one is held back. Only Marvin has to go to summer school, but that’s because his hand can no longer hold a pencil.
The next year I get a new set of tottling bodies, just sprouting breasts and acne. The other teachers peek in, only to see kids passing flirty notes and sticking their desks with gum. How embarrassing. Get me mad about something original, I beg them. Whoever does the most creative bad thing will get extra credit and a double lunch pass. Jelica throws a pencil like a spear. Reuben turns his homework into origami. I raise an eyebrow, unprovoked. Matilda locks me out of my classroom. Surat, from another class, is outside and he zip ties me to the door. Love a good conspiracy, I praise. The next day, Sheila crawls into my lap and pees. I almost award her on the spot. At the end of the week, I announce the winner. Nayha, for making me a tomato sandwich that I almost bit into until I realized she had stuffed it with a used pad. Enjoy your two lunches, I tell her. To the rest of the class, I say, Nayha is in charge of punishing anyone who turns in their homework late this year. Week after week, homework comes in on time. At the end of the year, the entire class graduates.
The next year, another set. The teachers peek in, only to see my kids daydreaming, gazing out the window with droopy eyes. There is some drama when Francine accuses Louise of stealing her candy. I start some of my own. Class, this week we are welcoming a new student, I tell them and point to an empty seat in the front row. Here she is. Charlotte. Stuart raises his hand. Teacher, I don’t see her. I send him to detention, and tell the rest of the class if they have an issue, they can join him. I start the lesson. We are learning about the emotional range of How questions. I ask for an example. The class looks solemnly out the window. What’s that Charlotte? How are you? A fine example. People love to answer it with lies. Who can give me another one? I wait up front, tap my foot. Hesitantly, little Rani raises her hand. How does the ocean say hi? The class turns from the window to Rani. After a pause, Yo-yo answers, It waves. The class laughs. Shy Esmerelda raises her hand. She asks, How does a bee brush its hair? Roberto answers, With a honeycomb. Even bratty Millicent chimes in, How does a cucumber become a pickle? Joia answers, It goes through a jarring experience. I point to Charlotte. What’s that? How do you get through a jarring experience? Bravo Charlotte, for raising the stakes! The entire class looks at me like a headlight, all round, bright eyes.
At the end of the year, Principal Higgins pulls me out. My knees feel loose. She says, In five years I have never seen a pass rate like yours. Tell me, Vedha, what did you do? I open my mouth, but it just moves up and down. Which theory is your curriculum? Is it behaviorism? Constructivism? She places words in me. My teeth are dinner plates. Was it something new to the field? Was it Suzuki? Her eyes yellow. You’re winning the teacher of the year award, and we need to know how you did it. Her teeth saw off, and her voice breaks with screeches. I start to pump my legs, first in place, then forwards. A line of saliva drops from her mouth. Come back! I have never seen a pass rate like yours. She sticks her arms out towards me, reaching, reaching. As I run, her nose starts bleeding, and I swear, it smells like sour green apples.
Swati Sudarsan was the runner-up of the 2022 So to Speak Contest Issue and is a Pushcart Prize nominee, and she has received support from Tin House, the Kenyon Review, Kweli Journal, and more. Her work can be found in or is forthcoming in McSweeney’s, Denver Quarterly, Catapult, among others. She lives in Oakland, CA and works as a public health scientist.