Things Fall Apart & The School: Homage to Barthelme
Things Fall Apart
Things began to fall apart: sudden, unforeseen disintegrations that were frankly alarming. It began on the top, that's to say the third floor, which is where I have my office.
The first thing that went was my desk. I'd got up moments earlier to go to the water cooler—I dread to think what might have happened otherwise. I turned around, plastic cup of water in hand, and as I did so the desk simply fell to pieces. My desktop computer came crashing down, too, of course. It came to rest, lopsided but intact, on the piled-up bits of desk.
Next to go, not a minute later, was the second-floor bathroom. Drawn by a fearful Ker-rash, we found it all asunder: jumbled fragments of glass, tile, chrome and porcelain. And before long it was the stairs, one flight after another folding up like a señorita's fan. Mercifully, we were all down in the parlor by then, wondering whom to call and could this be some type of earthquake.
It was Dean Nazario who got us out of the building. He's always had good instincts. Maybe he'd seen something like this in Vietnam? No sooner were we outside than, with a rumble like bowling balls, the whole building collapsed. Three stories levelled quick as you could sneeze.
We spent the rest of the day in group counseling: all 11 of us crowded into a conference room. There, Kate Cahill, a colleague I've always admired without really knowing—her office was, that's to say had been, in the basement—articulated a fear that, I think, several of us shared. If things could fall apart like that, why not people? Wasn't a person more fragile than a sink or staircase? The stresses and strains that hourly assail us, stretching us, mind and body, this way and that! What was to stop any one of us falling to pieces at any moment? 'Or relationships,' chipped in Jackie, our administrative assistant, who's been going through a divorce, but the counselor cut her short. Wasn't it a blessing that we'd all got out unscathed?
The sun was going down as I headed for the parking lot. It had occurred to me to take a roundabout route, the risk of further trauma, but there again I was curious. And, well, what do you know? An entire new building had risen from the rubble! That's to say it was very like our old building and yet subtly altered. More windows for one thing. The paint a somewhat bluer shade of grey. And that bench on the front porch had acquired a nice set of cushions.
Of course I was taken aback, but once more curiosity got the better. It occurred to me that I might venture inside; the place seemed perfectly solid. Having cast hasty glances to ensure I was unobserved, I eased open the front door. By the light of evening, the parlor was somehow cozier. The stairs seemed to have grown a little steeper, the ceilings a few inches higher. The bathroom felt more spacious, too, with a different, more elegant style of faucet. I took the opportunity to wash my hands, which is never a bad idea.
The dimensions of my top-floor office had likewise been altered, and the furniture re-arranged. My desk now stood against the far window. It seemed much the same desk but, on sitting down, I found that my knees slid more snugly beneath. Not uncomfortably so: a pleasing snugness. And, looking about myself, at the filing cabinets and the poster board, it struck me that I actually preferred the new layout.
The desktop computer sat squarely back in place. On a whim, I fired it up. That computer had been working more slowly by the day, but now—Bingo!—it started like it had just been installed. Everything flows, I thought to myself, and then I tried it aloud. "Everything flows. Things fall apart—sometimes it's gradual, other times sudden—but only to reconfigure themselves. They shift, yes, but then they pull themselves back together, taking a new shape, perhaps, in the process. Change doesn't need to be a bad thing. Why, there's nothing to fear but..."
Greatly reassured by these and other simple truths, I fell to catching up on the day's emails.
The School: Homage to Barthelme
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.'
Paul Blaney teaches writing at Rutgers University. This is the eighth time his work has appeared in The Cafe Irreal, most recently in Issue 66. His work also appeared in our print anthology, The Irreal Reader: Fiction & Essays from The Cafe Irreal (Guide Dog Books 2013).