“What we’re looking for,” said Moira O’Donnell Royce, “is a natural storyteller.”
She was sitting at a folding table in the basement of Teachers College, and Frank Striggio was sitting across from her, wearing a friend’s dress shoes and holding the seat of his chair. He needed this job like a crab needs a shell.
Moira O’Donnell Royce, Frank thought, was one of those women people describe as “perfectly nice.” Meaning there was something maybe a little excessively perfect about her niceness, something just a wee bit fragile. She must have been about thirty-five, but looked older. Not through being prematurely worn, or wrinkled, or grayed, or plump—actually she was quite pretty, with those marble-pale cheeks, those oceanic eyes, that red little pip of a mouth—but because she had the tightness some older people get. A smallness of movement, a shyness, a cringing set to her shoulders. Like someone who’s been disappointed a few too many times.
You saw a lot of this type in the teaching professions, Frank thought. Moira O’Donnell Royce was a believer.
“I won’t mince words.” Moira tried unsuccessfully to disentangle a lock of hair caught in a hinge of her thick-frame glasses. “Gracey May is a troubled school. One tenth of our students are homeless, one third are ESL. We’ve been designated low performing, and we’re turning over a fifth of our teachers every year. When it comes to testing, I won’t even talk about it. Essentially, our children don’t know how to read. But that’s not the problem, really. The problem is, they don’t want to know.”
Frank let go of his chair long enough to reach down and tuck in the wad of tissue he’d stuffed into his borrowed shoes. His hands weren’t shaking, but he kept thinking they were shaking. They should be shaking, given the way his lungs were puffing and his brain was squirming and his heart was careening around his ribs like a methhead in solitary.
Please God, he thought. Just let me get through this. By some miracle, by whatever divine grace you can muster, let me survive this interview without having to open my mouth.
While Moira O’Donnell Royce glanced over his résumé, Frank took a look around the other tables. Three dozen groomed and gleaming young things, New York’s new crop of elite educators, were chatting up a dozen school principals. They had those fake-leather folder things tucked under their arms, stuffed fit to bust with crisp paperwork. They leaned over the folding tables, smiling. Their hands were steady. Their smiles were bright. These kids were going to leave this job fair with some pretty plum opportunities, Frank could tell. They were going to march into the teaching profession with new button shirts and creative lesson plans.
These young crusaders on behalf of knowledge had not, like a certain person Frank could mention, been lucky just to get certification. They had not been mildly intoxicated for the majority of their grad-school classes. They had not scammed their way out of student teaching assignments. They were real teachers, good teachers. They were going to change the world.
“My thinking,” Moira O’Donnell Royce said, meshing her hands and resting them on Frank’s résumé, “is that at a school like this, we can’t rely on conventional methods. Grammar drills, spelling tests, reading comprehension—those things are fine, but at Gracey May, we’re not at that point. How can you do reading comprehension when the kids don’t read? How can you test spelling when they refuse to write?”
Her fingers came unmeshed. An answer was expected. Frank shook his head sadly. Shaking your head sadly, he’d found, was usually an adequate response to any comment on the New York City schools.
Moira smiled. “What we need to teach, I think, before we teach anything else, is love. Do you know what I mean?”
“I mean love of reading,” Moira said. “Love of the printed word. I’ll tell you what I believe. I believe that language is magic.”
“Magic,” Frank said. He didn’t mean to say it. As people say, the word just popped out. Except that for Frank Striggio, it more like blasted out. Magic. Right. Moira flinched as if he’d zapped her between the eyes.
“Are you… you said your name was…” Moira touched her face. “I’m sorry, I just—wow.”
Frank opened his mouth. For a time, nothing came. At last he managed, “Frank.”
Moira flinched again. Which is to say, she jerked back in her chair, blinking convulsively, as if Frank had pumped a blast from a tuba into her face, or sprayed her with a dose of heavy-duty perfume. She shook her head. “Boy. God. You sure do have a beautiful voice.”
This was true. Frank Striggio had a beautiful voice. No one could offer any argument on that particular point.
“Have you done much reading aloud?” Moira looked up, hope and innate goodness appearing like a network of fine cracks all over her pale face. “You know, to children?”
Frank had not, but he knew how to answer the question. He shook his head. He shook it sadly.
“Well, I don’t mind saying,” Moira smiled, “I think you’d be a big hit. A good story, read out loud? And with a voice like yours? I do think there’s something primal about it, universal. A kind of—”
“Magic,” Frank said.
Zap. Kapow. Moira reeled. “Wow. So, listen. Is this something you’d be interested in? We’re a very unconventional school. I won’t say it’s going to be an easy job. We confiscated two dozen knives at Gracey May, just in the spring. But I think if we can just give these kids a taste of the joy of reading…”
Please, Frank thought, please God, don’t make me have to open my mouth, don’t make me have to speak, don’t make me have to utter one syllable in my marvelous, charming, magical voice….
And just like that, Moira O’Dell Royce was pushing back her chair, staring at a Blackberry, reaching behind her to adjust a wobbly heel.
“Oh, shoot, I’m sorry, I’ve got to run. And here I’ve done all the talking. To be honest, I’m still sort of feeling my way through this whole principal thing. Did I tell you how long I’ve been in this job?”
The heel broke off in Moira’s hand. The shoe fell from her foot. Moira looked down, stooped, patted the floor. She came up with the heel in one hand, the shoe in the other, held like the scales and sword of Justice on either side of her head.
“Two months. I’ve been principal exactly two months.”
Moira stuffed the pieces of her shoe into an embroidered handbag.
“Gosh, I hate to cut this short. I just heard. One of our boys has been stabbed with a broken crack pipe. Middle school. A crack pipe. Can you believe? Anyway, I hope you’ll think of us. What’d you say your name was again?”
Please God, please God, don’t make me have to speak, don’t ask me to say a word…
Frank held the seat of his chair, while his voice, like some magical tangled rainbow, balled and knotted in the center of his chest. His body felt like it was about to jitter off in six different directions. He pushed. He got it out.
Moira, hand extended, closed her eyes. “Beautiful,” she said, as the great auditory wave that was Frank’s voice washed over her. “Just beautiful.”
This was what you got, Frank thought, for messing around with magic.
What else would you call it? A curse, maybe. Or a blessing. Really, if you wanted to be accurate, both at once.
It was Lucia’s fault.
Lucia Antonella Legrenzi—Frank’s godmother and one of the legends of Venetian opera, at least until the crowds of tourists drove her away. When Frank was a kid, she’d haunted a tiny apartment on Mott Street, shutting out the chatter of the open-air restaurants by singing all day at the top of her lungs. Lucia wore piles of black tulle, wept on Catholic holidays, and absolutely lived for opera. Not the decadent opera of Mozart and Wagner, those noisy Germans with their thumping allegories, but the true music of Cesti, Cavalli. That was what Lucia sang from her window, all day long, over the heads of uptown diners in search of the perfect gnocchi, and it was what she listened to, all night long, on her ancient Europhon record player.
When Frank was born, Lucia had left her apartment for the first time in five years. A bent, old woman in a black tulle cloud, she’d shuffled up to his crib, clutched her cross, and spoken a prayer to Saint Cecilia, patroness of the musical masses. Or rather, she’d sung that prayer, in a voice too strong for a woman of a hundred-and-two, loud enough that people down the street shut their windows. It was all Italian, but Frank’s mother told him years later what it meant, that it was a traditional blessing from the isles of Laguna Veneta.
Lord, let this babe speak as an angel,
And put into his throat the grace of his inheritance,
Let him utter the glory of God.
And give him a voice, not like a decadent German,
Or like these corrupt Americans with their stone ears,
But like the great opera singers of Venice,
When Monteverdi wrote for the San Cassiano.
Clearly, Lucia had made some revisions. Frank didn’t bother to track down the source. By the time he was old enough to understand the blessing, he was already struggling to live with its effects.
When Frank hit puberty, a tenuous feeling had come into his throat. As if a tiny flame had kindled there, heating his larynx.
By the end of middle school, he was starting to notice changes. Like how people stared when he hummed a tune. How birds and children and even bugs flocked to his voice. How when he answered the questions of old women, they swooned a little, hands to their breasts, as if something had gone wrong with their hearts.
By high school, there was no question. When Frank talked to girls, they wept and collapsed. When he read the morning announcements over the school PA, he heard applause rebounding down the halls. When Frank shouted abuse at bullies, they fell to their knees, lifted their hands, and begged to hear him shout it again.
It was undeniable, indisputable. Frank Striggio had a beautiful, a celestial, a godly voice.
The future was open, it was bright, and it was obvious. Frank considered radio. He considered standup. If nothing else, there would always be business. What was business, after all, but the art of persuasion? And what could possibly be more persuading than the immortal music strummed upon Frank Striggio’s vocal chords?
There was a catch.
Isn’t there always?
Frank Striggio was not a man distinguished, one might say, by mellifluous prolixity. Frank had an awesome, an astounding, voice, but he could never get that voice to work. It was like some lock, some rusty gate, had gotten stuck between his brain and tongue.
By middle school, Frank had a stutter. By high school, he was a babbler. By college, he’d become famous for every slip, blooper, spoonerism, malapropism, and form of jibber-jabber a man could produce. At thirty, Frank Striggio was about as articulate as a baffled clam.
Was it fear? Self-consciousness? Had he been stunned, somehow, blindsided, by the hypnotizing power of his own voice?
The upshot was, the more smoky and silky and resonant Frank’s voice became, the less he was able to use it.
He gave it a shot. Tried open mikes. Cracked every tune. Got a radio slot. Killed an hour of innocent air. Choked on comedy, garbled acting, bombed newscasting, sportscasting, even general casting. As for politics, Frank didn’t bother. He could read and he could drink, and that’s mostly what he did, stuffing himself full of words that would never come out, drowning in three-dollar firewater the voice of the angel trapped inside.
And now here he was, sober as a gnawed bone, standing on the asphalt outside a school where a hundred or so children did nothing all day but listen to their teachers speak.
How the hell had he gotten into this?
The school looked about like Frank expected. Brown brick, dented aluminum, a grim little bunker in a minefield of potholes. Frank’s uncle had worked in a prison out in Minnesota, so Frank knew from ugly buildings. And this place was ugly. There were no used condoms or busted crack vials that Frank could see, but they’d be lurking somewhere around here, he was sure. He pushed open the cracked glass doors. In the dungeon of the lobby, a ten-foot mural showed kids of a dozen colors, spilling like some Biblical exodus out of a painted bus.
Moira was standing in front of the grille.
“Frank! Oh, God.” She rushed forward to grab his arm. “I’m so relieved to see you. Everything’s going nuts.”
Frank was surprised. He was here for an interview, hardly a thrilling event. He’d called Moira two days ago, and he couldn’t imagine she’d been terribly excited by the conversation. Frank had barely said three sentences. And he’d read those off a card.
But Moira grabbed his arm as if he’d come to save her from drowning. A hair clip tumbled in her hair. She had shoes on both feet, today, but the shoes didn’t match. One of them had yellow glitter, one silver.
Frank’s shoes were wingtips. They weren’t borrowed or shabby or too large or too small. They were all his own, bought with the last of his money.
He opened his mouth, preparing for the mighty struggle that was conversation.
“Look,” Moira interrupted, squeezing his arm. “I hate to do this. I really hate to do this. I know you’re only here for an interview. But could you do me one huge giant favor? Could you cover a class?”
Frank showed her the silent inside of his mouth. What was this? A class? A real, live class, with living, tussling, talking students? It had taken all the vocal moxie he could muster just to call Moira and set up this on-site interview. What was this about a class?
Moira looked into Frank’s open mouth, the place where his beautiful voice came from, as if she could read his qualifications and competencies and teacherly enthusiasm printed right there on his tongue. She crushed his arm to her side.
“You’re a lifesaver.”
Teaching: standing in front of thirty or forty kids, opening your mouth, and explaining to them in measured tones and well-composed sentences, with nary a stutter, seldom a pause, the symbolism of Langston Hughes, the grammar of Frederick Douglass, the complexities of the Civil War.
This would not seem to be the ideal job for Frank Striggio.
Frank had gotten into teaching through an accident. That accident took the form of a friend named Leo. Leo was the guy from whom Frank had borrowed his dress shoes. Leo was also a font of advice. Some of Leo’s advice was helpful. Not much, but some.
And Leo was a comedian. As with many comedians, Leo’s career to date had been rampagingly unsuccessful. That was why he hung around with Frank. It was a source of relief, not to say amusement to Leo, Frank figured, to hang around with someone so much more rampagingly unsuccessful than himself.
“Look at this,” Leo had said, one night, reaching into his messenger bag as he entered the bar on 9th where he and Frank sipped away the happy hours of their lives. “Brought you a little something.”
The something was a glossy flier, printed with the name Arco University and a picture of a beaming young woman. Leo slapped it into the condensation puddle around Frank’s IPA.
“It’s the opportunity of a lifetime, buddy. It’s who you’re meant to be.”
Frank picked up the paper.
“Teaching, man.” Leo tapped the flier with one index finger, signaled to the bartender with the other. “Picked that up in the old unemployment office. They must be hurting for teachers, boy. Says on there you could do the whole thing online. Spend a year bullshitting on some message board, you’re qualified to corrupt today’s youth.”
Frank opened his mouth, filled it with beer. He swallowed. Only then did he manage to say, “Online.”
“That’s right.” Leo pressed the flier to Frank’s shirtfront. “An opportunity like this? For a mutey like you? I mean, really, how could you say no?” He winked. “Kertwang! Get it? How could you say no?”
“I … get it.”
“Course,” Leo mused, “once you get in the classroom, you’ll have to unstopper those pipes. But how hard could that be? Take out the teacher manual, show ’em some slides. Worse comes to worse, you let ’em watch a movie. That’s what my teachers mostly did.”
Leo withdrew his hand. The flier sailed to the floor. Frank groped for it. Leo chuckled.
“Snake-charming, man. That’s all teaching is. Show up and keep the vermin quiet. Even you could handle that.”
Frank saved the flier from blowing into the street. When he turned, he found Leo saluting him with a shot glass.
“Here’s to saving the world, my friend. One impressionable young mind at a time.”
The whole thing was obviously one of Leo’s gags. Saving the world. Frank Striggio. Right. A man who couldn’t ask a cashier for change without stammering like a scratched DVD.
So when Frank signed up for the teaching program, it was mostly a matter of curiosity. Was this possible? Frank Striggio, the man who couldn’t shape a round vowel, qualified to mold young minds? But all the classes were online, and most of the paperwork, too. Frank might have had trouble reciting the alphabet past the letter D, but he had no qualms about typing nonsense into a keyboard.
He aced his first semester.
And as he went on, grinding through the requirements, it was with a mounting criminal thrill. Could he really get away with this? Earn himself a Master’s degree? Communication, in the modern world, seemed to mean something very different than it had when Frank was a kid. At times, it meant nothing more than clicking a button.
Finally, as he typed his way through class after class, Frank began to feel something like hope. A steady job, decent money—on the other side of this gig, he could be looking at 50K a year. Not bad, for a guy who’d failed at store greeting.
Of course, there was one tricky, nitpicky detail: a tiny problem called the student teaching requirement. Frank couldn’t do all his coursework online. To get to be a teacher, Frank would have to actually teach. Forty hours of live classroom experience. This looked to be a sticking point. Maybe an insurmountable hurdle.
But Frank Striggio had a secret weapon. Frank had his ethereal, his transdimensional, his unused and unusual voice.
Frank’s mentoring teacher, he discovered, had a knee-weakening fascination with romantic Italian poetry. There were whispers in the staff room. There were secret agreements. It soon came about that Frank and the fetishist of il linguaggio dell’amore developed a backdoor understanding. At times, the understanding involved Pinot Noir and rainy taxicabs and other appurtenances of a workplace conflict of interest. Mostly, it involved Frank, seated on the toilet in his mentoring teacher’s bathroom, elbows on his knees, a paperback in his hands, the pages open to some passage of Petrarch, Latinate sounds rolling in his sonorous voice over the glittered drifts of a bubble bath in which his mentoring teacher reposed in a state of extreme felicita, her lips, moving in pianissimo accompaniment, puffing flecks of foam into the air.
During these sessions in the mentoring teacher’s bathroom, Frank had no idea what he was reading. He knew not a tittle of Renaissance Italian. But he knew how to make the sounds. And he did that, and did it well, moving his eyes across the page, letting his voice, as if by its own will, transmit and give form to the words.
If Frank actually thought about what he was saying: snap. His voice broke. The mentoring teacher sat upright in the bath, bubbles lifting in weightless clots, and leaned over to touch him, dampening his knee.
“Why’d you stop?”
So Frank didn’t stop. He never interrupted that strange, trancelike state in which his voice seemed to work independently of his mind, like a ghost called into being by the words on the page. He kept on reading, and reading and reading, until six months later, when the mentoring teacher, with a last sigh of “Bellissimo,” signed off on his paperwork.
Frank had his student teaching credit. He had his certification. And he’d never spent so much as ten minutes in front of a class.
“I promise this won’t be a hassle.” Moira hurried Frank down the third-floor hall. “It’s just one period. And it’s your specialty, right? You did say reading was your specialty?”
Her eyes were brown, large, and gracious: the eyes of a woman accustomed to seeing the best in people.
“Reading,” Frank said.
“Wonderful.” Moira trailed a hand along the grimy lockers. “I’m so sorry to do this. It’s absolutely nuts. We had our second teacher quit this year. Well, actually I fired him. Bringing a stun gun to school, that’s just not right.”
She was leading Frank toward a door with a frosted pane. Through that door came screams and howls. Frank heard a child’s voice saying, “I swear, Roger, I will kill you.”
“Anyway, it won’t be for long.” Moira paused with her hand on the knob. “I just need to send out some calls. You’re in luck. They’re doing Mockingbird. Cake, right?”
She pushed a gun into Frank’s stomach. No, it was a book. A paperback, with a crumbly purple cover, a picture of a bird and a tree. To Kill A Mockingbird. The same edition he’d read as a kid.
Frank’s hands fastened around it. “Cake.”
“Careful, there.” Moira patted the book. “That’s one of our last copies. Ready?”
Frank could see forms moving behind the glass. Leaping. Brawling. A whole jive and tango of bounding, impish bodies.
He opened his mouth. He struggled with capillary-bursting ardor. No speech would come.
“No worries.” Moira touched his arm. “If things get hairy, just read them a chapter. Put that beautiful voice of yours to work.” She pointed into Frank’s open mouth. “Never underestimate the power of a good story.”
Moira opened the door.
“Good luck, soldier.” And he saw her mouthing through the frosted glass: Thanks.
Like a lot of people who take a shot at the performing arts, Frank didn’t like thinking back on his youth. All those years when he’d been living small and dreaming big—how could the memory bring anything but pain? As a result, he didn’t remember much about grade school. Only endless hours of idle fatigue. Doodling with Bic pens on the covers of Mead notebooks. Years and years of buzzing boredom.
He sure didn’t remember anything like this.
The kids in this class weren’t just out of control. These kids were in an all-out war with the very concept of control.
A girl lay belly down on the floor, a group of boys bouncing a kickball off her head. A coven of girls were using lighters to cook something in a checkered jam lid. Kids froggered on the desks, wrote with marker on the walls. And talk about screaming.
Frank held To Kill a Mockingbird in front of his heart. He found himself thinking that if one of these kids took a dislike to him, the book might, if nothing else, serve to stop a bullet.
Frank had choked in front of late-night crowds in west-side comedy clubs. He’d flubbed on-air banter with B-list celebrities. He’d blurted hideously garbled pickup lines to dozens of horrified women. But he’d never felt so close to bending over, clutching his belly and spewing a pile of gut-stew onto his shoes.
“Hi… uh… guys?”
The screaming, the smoking, the cooking continued. A boy, for no reason that Frank could see, opened the dictionary, tore out a page, balled it, and stuffed it in his mouth.
There was no chalkboard in this room, but there was a whiteboard. Frank fought the shaking of his hands. He fumbled a marker out of the tray and wrote squeakingly, Mr. Striggio.
“My… name… is… Master… I mean, Mister…”
A cool wind seemed to be blowing on Frank’s neck. A cool wind was blowing on his neck. Frank turned. The window was open. Wide open. This was a third-floor classroom. Below, spread the pebbly roof of the cafeteria.
They couldn’t possibly…
No, they were.
They really were.
They were on the roof.
These goddamn kids were on the goddamn roof.
Frank’s marvelous voice, his godly instrument, the honeyed tone of his sonorous throat music—it had totally failed. It had become nothing more than a cough. A yap. God help him, it had become a hork. He pointed at the open window, throat inflated with stalled speech. “You… can’t!”
Frank could read the writing on the wall. He could literally read it. It was there under the open window, written in red crayon. It read: KILL ALL THE TEECHERS.
Frank was about to run out and find Moira, tell her he couldn’t do this, there was no way he could do this—tell her, that is, if he could manage to speak—when he felt a tug on his sleeve.
Like a man in a comedy routine, Frank looked in three directions before looking down. And then he saw the little girl, hair tied in two explosively frizzy pigtails, leaning over her desk, stretching out to pluck his cuff.
“Mr. Striggio,” she said and pointed at Frank’s heart.
No, not at his heart. At the book he was holding. Like some helpful munchkin out of Doctor Seuss, this girl was aiming her dear little index finger at the cover of To Kill a Mockingbird and saying in her reedy voice, “Mr. Striggio, read the story.”
The story. What had Moira said? Never underestimate the power of a good story. Frank wanted to laugh. He wanted to discharge his pent-up superhuman voice in Thor-like thunderclaps of mirth. Read the story. Sure, kid. That’ll do the trick.
Not knowing what else to do, Frank cracked the book. He remembered this story. He remembered liking it. His thumb fanned the pages. Atticus, Scout, Jem, Boo Radley.
The tug on his sleeve came again. “No, Mr. Striggio.” The frizzy-haired girl expressed her exasperation by flinging her fingers out from her forehead. “Read the story out loud.”
The noise in the room had gotten zoo-like, barbaric. Frank stared down. The book seemed to expand in his hands, huge and white, like a screen that would protect him from this awful scene. It was comforting, solid. Those broad, flat pages. The orderly rows of words. His eye moved automatically through the first sentence.
“When he was nearly thirteen, my brother Jem got his arm badly broken at the elbow.”
Frank didn’t understand, at first, what exactly had happened. Once, when he’d been partying with Leo in a Hell’s Kitchen dive, he’d jumped up on the bar, planning to do a little dance. It had been a raucous night, the music cranked high, the voices of a thousand inebriates straining to compete with pumping Lynyrd Skynyrd: a bedlam of shouts and laughter and guitar. But as Frank leapt to the bar—he was drunker than he’d thought—the blood rushed out of his head, leaving him tottering with dizziness. And suddenly, for one dreaming unreal moment, the whole scene had gone absolutely quiet. Not a normal quiet. A spooky quiet. As if all those rowdy voices, those loud people, had been sucked into another world.
That was what the classroom sounded like now.
Frank lifted his eyes. He scanned the desks.
No freaking way.
The kids were quiet. More than quiet.
They were entranced.
The kids on the roof had come back in. The coven of girls had abandoned their cooking. The kids had left their desks, their markers, their games, their graffiti. They were sitting at Frank’s feet, benign as toadstools, and their eyes were wide and utterly blank.
It was just like those Italian poems, the mentoring teacher lying enraptured in her tub. Frank’s eye had read the words on the page, his brain and his tongue had done their work. And like that, without thinking, he’d read the sentence aloud.
And it had worked.
It had worked, quite literally, like a charm.
Frank licked his lips. He looked down at the rows of stupefied faces.
“When it healed, and Jem’s fears of never being able to play football were assuaged, he was seldom self-conscious about his injury.”
Fifteen minutes and ten pages later, Frank lowered the book and checked on the class. Weird, how they sat there. Those nerveless faces. Almost scary. Like a spell had sucked their souls from their bodies. Like a dark magic had been worked on the kids, stealing their wills, their minds, reducing them to inert little zombies helpless to do anything but sit and listen.
But then, Frank realized, magic had been worked on them. Just like Moira had said.
He closed the book, marking his place with his finger. Maybe he should ask them questions. Start a discussion. Assess their comprehension. Do teacherly things.
“So… guys…” Frank wrestled with his reluctant voice. “Any… questions?”
The assembly was already breaking up. A girl threw a punch. A fight broke out. Someone’s hair had been pulled. Something was burning. Three desks fell over with an industrial-scale crash.
Frank lifted the book. Hell with this. Forget about teaching. He had to find his place… find it now….
“Mrs. Radley,” he read, almost in a panic, “ran screaming into the street….”
And like some old shaman speaking in tongues, Frank’s body gave voice to the story, transmuting the shadow-world of ink on paper into an incantation that droned over the class, striking the children dumb, until Frank hardly knew what he was reading, could hardly believe the children knew what they were hearing, until there seemed to be only one living presence in the room, the voice of Harper Lee herself, speaking to the universe.
It was with the vaguely sick feeling of a person waking from sleep that, half an hour later, Frank looked up to see Moira in the open door, her tiny body quivering with approval.
“Wonderful,” she said, applauding softly. Her gaze passed over the rows of rapt and orderly children. “Absolutely wonderful.”
And as Frank stood there, dazed, the book still open in his hands, Moira clapped her hands and, like the piper of Hamelin, led two lines of bespelled children out the door.
Frank had always had something of an ambivalent relationship with books.
He had a big collection in his apartment, along with a pile of old DVDs, a bunch of video games, an ungodly trove of porn. A voiceless man is a lonely man. Even booze and the Internet could only pass so many solitary hours.
Sometimes, Frank browsed his loaded shelves, late at night when the whiskey had stopped perking him up and started putting him down. He had a lot of Penguin titles, some Signet, those cheap B&N hardbacks of the classics. He read only the spines, tilting his head, murmuring the authors’ names. Haggard, Stevenson, Wells, Fitzgerald, Faulkner, Hemingway, Brontë. Ghosts, Frank would think. That’s what you are. Ghosts are real, and they’re sitting right here, waiting for the séance to start.
Waiting, one might say, to be given voice.
When Frank was a kid, he’d had a lot of teachers like Moira, teachers who talked about the magic of books. It had always sounded a little desperate, like telling kids that fruit was a treat or math was cool.
But maybe Moira had a point. Maybe the magic of books was real, only incomplete. Maybe they were like runes on parchment, blood inscriptions on an ancient stone. Maybe you only needed the right kind of wizard to open his lips and cast the spell.
Frank took the job. How could he refuse?
And every day he opened the door on that roiling, storming chaos of a class, and did the same thing. He read.
They got through Mockingbird in three weeks. After that came The Red Pony, The Giver, Rolling Thunder Hear My Cry. They did Jack, by A. M. Holmes, and a book called Deliver Us From Evie, and the complete works of Robert Cormier. They did the illustrated stories of Edgar Allan Poe, and the Greek myths, and Alice in Wonderland, and most of Louis Sachar, and Harry Potter, and Judy Blume. They did C.S. Lewis—first the Narnia books, then the rest.
Frank worked his way through the classroom shelves. They did Sharon Creech, Chris Crutcher, Orson Scott Card. They fought the Chocolate War, won Ender’s Game, took a trip out to Mango Street. They toured Terebithia, swung through Xanth, dallied in Earthsea, arrived in Middle Earth.
When he exhausted the classroom’s books, Frank raided his own collection. He read Flannery O’Connor, Hemingway, Potok. The kids took it down, so Frank moved on. He read Lovecraft and Dickens, Faulkner and James. He read Henry Miller, and Nabokov, and Nin. He read Clive Barker, and American Psycho, and Nicholson Baker’s Vox, and a play by Wallace Shawn. He read indiscriminately, desperately, imprudently, with no other motive than a panicked and self-preserving wish to be reading, to release on these poor captive children the hypnotizing power of his speech.
As for the kids—well, to be honest—Frank barely noticed the kids. They sat there, dull, inert, like some static embossment of the floor. They drooled. Snot trickled from their noses. If they’d been snacking when Frank started reading, the food fell, half-chewed, from their open mouths. Sometimes they wet their pants. A moist cloud, a miasma of sweat and urine, collected around their slumped and passive bodies as they lounged like opium-addled potentates in some Victorian orientalist fantasy, narcotized by the magic of the spoken word.
What are they thinking? Frank often wondered. Were they enjoying the stories? Were they even paying attention? Could you really call this teaching, by any stretch of the word?
And if not, what could you call it?
Sometimes Frank tried to get them to work. He lowered his book. He asked for feedback. Did anyone know what ungainly meant? Did this story remind them of something from their own lives? Could they spell belligerent?
Frank passed out paper. He told them to write. Just freewrite, guys, anything you want. Frank himself wrote on the whiteboard, assigning homework.
The papers he passed out turned into spitballs. The questions he asked were drowned in shouts. If anyone did the assignments, Frank didn’t hear about it. The instant he broke the spell of the story—riot.
So Frank opened his book and resumed.
By the middle of spring, Frank didn’t know his students’ names. He didn’t know if they were at all literate. He could hardly remember what stories he’d read. Somewhere back there, in the droning purgatory of the school year, they’d fought criminals in this classroom, explored strange castles, found true love and lost it, murdered dozens of people. But it had all become one vague, dreamy muddle, like the static of a drive-by radio.
There were times when Frank felt guilty. He was getting paid, he was keeping sober. For once, he was doing OK. But what had he done for these kids in his charge—except soothe them, lull them, knock them out by reading heaps of superannuated stories in his supernatural voice?
The walk to the principal’s office, for Frank, was a long march: down two floors and across the length of the school. On a hot June day, it was a wearying trip. The school halls smelled of sweat and anxiety. Teachers slumped by with rolled-up sleeves and unbuttoned shirts. The end of the school year had come, and the air hung heavy.
It was testing season.
Frank stood in his classroom door, watching the hall traffic slouching by. It was his free period, and that meant, paradoxically, that his classroom was unusually noisy. While Frank was teaching, there was no sound here, nothing except the lullaby music of his voice. But now the kids were having recess, and the shouts of bullies, the screams of their victims, the bawling of desperate teachers came in through the open windows.
Poor kids, Frank thought. In their rowdy, lawless, borderline murderous way, they sounded happy.
He turned, unstuck the Post-It note from his desk, folded it twice, and stuck it in his shirt pocket.
The note was from Moira. It read: See Me.
Frank stopped at two water fountains on his way to Moira’s office, dragging out his walk like a man bound for the scaffold. In his belly, he knew that Moira had screwed up. But Frank’s screw-up was pretty epic, too. As he approached Moira’s door, he remembered that she’d once taped all sorts of bright sayings to the fake, wood-patterned laminate. “Learning is a quest. Teaching is an adventure.” “Pick up a book, but look out—you’ll never be the same.” Now there were only shreds of paper, stuck here and there with grungy tape.
Frank went in to find Moira standing by the window, looking like something that had been swept from under a bed. Her dark hair stuck up. Her eyes flicked to Frank. He’d never seen her sit behind her desk. Come to think of it, no teacher in Gracey May ever sat behind a desk. They were always on their feet, pacing and fretting.
“Frank.” Moira sounded as if she were talking to a terminally ill cancer patient. “Hello.”
Frank sucked in air. He made an effort. The air didn’t want to come back out. A big lump of something the consistency of raw meat seemed to have gotten lodged in his windpipe. He pushed harder and managed: “Lo.”
Moira flinched. Frank still had the magic. He was going to need it to get through this.
“Here we are.” Moira held up her hands. “I called you down here because you’re one of my best teachers. The kids love you, and you always keep them calm, and Frank, I… I want your honest opinion.” She twisted a ring around her finger. “Your kids. Are they… would you say they’re…?” Moira forced it out in one sustained squeak. “Frank, are your kids learning anything?”
Frank worked hard, fighting his lungs, but he already knew it was no good. His voice was a ten-pound hairball in a two-inch pipe.
Moira nodded, went to her desk. For the first time, Frank noticed the big stack of papers, booklets actually, stapled down the seams, like the programs they hand out at corporate events. Moira picked one up, rolling it into a tube.
“I listen, sometimes, you know.”
Her eyes jumped to Frank’s, but he couldn’t read them. Accusative? Angry? Hard to imagine Moira laying down a hard line.
Moira nodded. “Outside your class. I hear you reading, sometimes, and… it’s just so beautiful. I mean, what you’re doing? For those kids? I can’t believe that’s a bad thing.”
“Moira.” Frank was surprised, the way her name slipped out. Easy, natural, like a reflex. He held out a hand.
Moira slapped the rolled booklet to his palm. Frank unrolled it. The cover was printed in friendly colors, orange and blue.
New York State Testing Program
Grade 8 Common Core
English Language Arts Test
Moira made a hurry-along-now gesture. Frank opened to a random page.
“What is the significance of the word trivial in line 27?”
“Based on the entire passage, which statement best describes the narrator’s feelings toward his brother Doodle?”
“Explain the strategies tigers use to hunt their prey. Be sure to use three supporting details from the article.”
So here it was, or something like it: the test his kids would have to pass. His kids, who, so far as Frank knew, still couldn’t tell a parade from a parody, a bugle from a beagle, a half-mast flag from a half-assed fart. His kids, who made up spelling rules as they went along, had no idea what a verb was and had probably written, among them, all year, a grand total of twenty-five words.
Frank looked up.
“That’s just the sample,” Moira said. “But all those things are the same. ‘Summarize the thesis. Name the main idea. What kind of shoes was George wearing on a page two?’ I mean, it’s inane. What does this even have to do with—” Her fingers moved near her ear, sketching ideas. “The pictures,” Moira said. “The people. The stories.”
Frank knew what he was supposed to say. He didn’t want to say it, but his voice did anyway. “The magic.”
“Exactly.” Moira pointed at Frank’s mouth: the place where all the magic came from. “I mean, these questions, multiple choice, fill in the blank, it’s ridiculous. I couldn’t pass this test. Well, OK, sure, I could pass it easily. But that’s not the point. The point is—”
“The kids.” Frank’s voice was working wonders, today. Frank’s voice had taken on a life of its own.
“Yes.” Moira’s finger jabbed twice, three times. “Yes. And the kids, I mean, here we are, trying to do everything we can to make reading seem like this fun, wonderful thing, to get rid of this whole notion that books are scary tools of oppression. And then you give them a test like this—”
“They’ll pass.” There it went again. You never could tell what a voice might decide to do, when its owner was fighting to keep his job. “I… I promise, Moira. My kids? They’ll pass.”
“No, Frank.” Moira cocked her head, looking at him past a ragged sweep of hair, and for an instant, Frank got the sense that she actually might have something less than total faith in him. “That’s the thing. They’ve already failed.”
Frank looked down at the cover of the test. For the first time in years, he felt it might be acceptable to remain entirely speechless.
“We’re in a crisis,” Moira said. “We’ve been labeled persistently low achieving. You know what that means? That’s an official designation. If we can’t bring up these scores—” She pulled off her ring and shook it in a fist. “But that’s just it. We can’t bring up the scores. It’s way too late. We’re already screwed.”
Frank didn’t want to echo her, but he knew his voice was going to. “Screwed.”
Moira made an abortive gesture, not quite a wave of disgust. “They’re shutting us down. Doors closed at the start of the summer. Total purge. This is what they do. They take all the kids, send them to other schools. Flunk too many times, and they swing the wrecking ball.”
She grabbed the test packet and went to the window, throttling the paper tube. “I knew this was coming. The last guy in this job, he was younger than me, only thirty-four. And he was practically running for the door. I knew I was going to be their fall-girl, presiding over the final collapse. But I just thought if we could do some good before that happened, share something beautiful with these kids…”
“Moira,” Frank said, shuffling forward, “I …” He had to do this, had to make the words come. “It was… me. I… I’m no… I didn’t…”
Christ on a greasy stick. Here Frank had spent the last year standing in front of a roomful of kids, reading them stories about stuff that never happened, piling fiction on fantasy on outright BS. Why was it so hard to face this woman, eye-to-eye, and tell the truth?
“I… am… a… bad… teacher.”
Moira shook her head. “No, Frank. Not you. Listen, my PPRs were through the floor. I’ve had eight meetings with the superintendent. And the parents? I mean, I’ve been getting death threats, here. Can you believe that? But I should have known. I mean, nobody cares what goes on in this place; they all just wait to see the scores. And now…”
She’d dropped her ring. It sat on her desk atop the pile of sample tests. Frank picked it up without thinking. Ticker Hill High School, 1995. Engraved initials: MDO. A class ring. It occurred to him that Moira might be a lousy principal, but she’d probably been a pretty amazing student. The kind of kid who didn’t need a teacher with a magical voice. The kind of kid who had that voice in her own head, speaking with wisdom and grace and kindness, all the time.
“Moira, the… test. If we…”
Moira shook her head, rummaged in the junk on her desk, pulled out a printout. “Read ‘em and weep.”
The paper was crumpled, soft around the edges, like someone had gripped it too tightly in her fists. Down one side, in the printed grid of an Excel spreadsheet, ran a list. No student names, just numbers and scores. Multiple-choice. Fill-in-the-blank.
“These are from the after-school sessions.” Moira curled a finger over the top. “Voluntary prep. You know what that means? These are our motivated learners, the ones who put in extra time. Frank, you hear what I’m saying? These are our best students.”
Frank read the scores a second time. He read them a third time. Speechlessness, once again, seemed appropriate.
“It’s impressive, really.” Taking back the paper, Moira did what Frank had done, read the scores twice and then again, though she must have read them at least a dozen times. “I mean, I’m curious more than anything else. Don’t they read comic books? Cereal boxes? Menus? Don’t they have to read, you know, signs?”
Her eyes moved over Frank’s face. Frank was curious too. But maybe it all made sense, in a way. Maybe the kids hadn’t paid attention, after all, to a single word he’d been reading them. Maybe they’d only experienced, by some soulful osmosis, exactly what Moira wanted them to: the ideas, the people, the pictures. The stories.
Moira dropped the printout. “If they’re this far behind? I mean, what can we possibly do? You’d think we spent the whole year tranquilizing them instead of educating them.”
Frank looked down at the printout on her desk. But that was the thing about zeroes, he thought. They look exactly the same upside down as right side up.
Moira’s chair squeaked as she dropped into it, skidding on its screechy wheels. For all Frank knew, this was the first time since becoming principal of Gracey May that she’d ever had a chance to sit down.
“They want me to have a meeting. With the parents. To… well, to explain, I guess.” She looked down suddenly, touching her face with her fingers, and when her face lifted, it was frail, destroyed. “And… I can’t, Frank. I just can’t do it. I don’t think I can possibly face them.”
Moira flung her head back, trying to keep the tears in her eyes. Hell with this, Frank thought. Hell with it all. Why not admit it? The test was a shit test, Moira was a shit principal, and Frank was the epitome and effigy of the USA’s most decidedly shit teacher. And the school was a shit school, and the district was a shit district, and—let’s be candid now, let’s cover all bases—the kids themselves, bless their underperforming hearts, the kids themselves, you had to say it, were shit students. It was all shit, from top to bottom, left to right, and Frank’s contribution stank as bad as the rest.
But this woman had given him a chance when no one else would, and in her sparkling, twinkling, desperately optimistic way, she had tried to give the kids a chance too.
Frank reached over Moira’s desk, handing back her class ring.
“Leave it,” he puffed, “to me.”
The Gracey May auditorium was of a piece with the rest of the school, which went to say, it was going to pieces. The chairs were relics of the sixties, molded plywood, bent metal, each a nest of splinters and loose springs. The floor was sticky. The stage bristled with nails. It was a good bet, Frank thought, that if you touched anything in this room, you were going to leave a scrap of clothing behind.
From his chair onstage, he looked out at the audience.
Rage. That was what Frank saw out there. That was all he saw out there. The people in the creaky folding chairs—the big, heavy women, the shattered men—they’d ceased to be parents, or members of a community. They’d become rage itself, an incarnation, with a hundred open mouths and one loud voice.
Moira sat straight-backed in her stacking chair beside Frank, crushing her hands between her knees. Her face reminded him of a rag that had been used to mop a pool of spilled milk.
At the lectern, the district superintendent, a powerhouse of a woman in a politician’s pantsuit, was doing her best to control the crowd.
“If you’ll all just… if you’ll all let me… if you’ll all just let me finish, people, we have some important information to share.”
The auditorium roared. Frank saw nothing out there—nothing human—nothing but a mass of tongues and teeth. These people, these parents, they hadn’t come here to listen to some woman in a two-button blazer make announcements. They’d already heard the announcement that mattered. The only announcement anyone cared about, if they cared at all about America’s schools. The kind of announcement that would make any parent jerk awake at night, remembering with a strange and disturbing clarity the latest news story about a mother of three shot to death for fifty bucks while working the register at KFC.
“To repeat,” the superintendent was saying, “those students who scored under the tenth percentile—only those students will be left back. Everyone, I repeat, everyone else will be permitted to advance a grade in their new schools, provided their other scores support that decision. Even children who have failed will move ahead, so long as they’re above the bottom tenth percentile. Now if we’re done with the administrative matters, I think we can start to take your questions.”
A man was already on his feet, raincoat flapping around his legs.
“How about you answer this question. How about my daughter, she been going to your city schools eight years, now, taking English classes with your English teachers… I mean, there’s kids in this city reading Shakespeare, Pulitzer winners, all kinds of things—kids her age. You tell me why my daughter, she goes to your school, and she can’t even read a damn letter.”
Rage, in all its openmouthed physicality, roiled over the moldy carpet.
A woman jumped up. “My son, I asked him to show me his English homework? He say they ain’t even gettin’ homework.”
Cries of sympathy, acclamation.
“How you gonna get a kid to learn, you ain’t assignin’ any work?”
“My kid, she can’t even write a sentence!”
“My son, I saw his scores? I ast him, what’re they teaching you in that school? He says y’all teaching him ‘to love to read.’ I said, the hell kinda class is that? Teaching him to love to read? You gotta teach him to use the fuckin alphabet, that’s what you gotta teach him.”
“But does he love to read?”
Moira’s voice, in all the commotion, sounded as squeaky as a broken chair.
The woman who’d spoken last seemed baffled. Her jaw chewed at some mass of emotions: indignation, uncertainty, stupefaction. “No,” she said at last, “no, he don’t love to read. You think he’d be scoring in the bottom percentile if he loved to read? But that’s your job, miss. You gotta teach him to read. Now, I don’t care if he loves to dance the fucking Charleston with a folded umbrella, he’s gotta get an education, and that’s why he’s going to your school.”
A rumble of assent. As it faded, a bearded man stood in the back row, suit jacket folded over his arm. “Miss.” He spoke chin-down, looking at Moira from under gray brows. “You’re the principal of this school. Now, you don’t seem to be educating our children, but I hope I’m not educating you when I tell you the facts. And the facts are these: that as a parent of three bright, beautiful young girls, I have done my homework, and I know what’s been going on in this school. Loving to read, I agree, that’s a wonderful thing. But I can tell you for a certainty that only twelve children in your school—twelve children, out of three hundred and ninety-seven—only a dozen of your students, this year, have passed Mr. Obama’s Eighth Grade English Language Assessment Test.”
No shouts, this time, no claps. Only a kind of quiet whoosh: the cool wind of truth, rushing into the room.
She shook as she did so, knees pressed so tightly together that she could scarcely manage to shuffle to the lectern. Her face, paper-pale, slid into the spotlight. She grabbed the stalk of the adjustable microphone, making scratching sounds go skittering around the walls.
“Everyone.” The superintendent backed away, holding out a hand. “Your principal.”
Moira’s lips opened and shut. Frank looked down the stage’s row of stacking chairs. He was surprised at how few teachers had turned out for this event. Most had bailed early, jumping into new jobs, charter schools, even fleeing to other cities.
“I…” Moira’s breath whiffled in the mike. “I’ve only been your principal a year. But in that time, as I’ve gotten to know your kids…” As she grabbed the microphone again, they heard the stuttering of her nervous fingers. “The test scores weren’t great, I know. It’s been a hard year. But test scores aren’t everything, and I do think—I think we’ve given your kids something really—”
“What?” The bearded man lowered his glasses. “What did you give them, Miss Royce? I’ll remind you, these children cannot read.”
“Well, maybe not, but they—they have read. I mean, they’ve heard reading. All sorts of wonderful books. Our English teacher—one of our English teachers—he’s right here, Mr. Striggio—”
“They’ve ‘heard’ reading. Can you explain to me what that means?”
Frank would have said there was desperation in Moira’s face, but that wasn’t quite right. All he saw in her pale lips and cheeks as she turned from the lectern and held out her hand, all he’d ever seen in her face, was the trusting, timeless expression of a girl who believes in magic.
Frank bent down and picked up the tote bag he’d kept, throughout the meeting, under his chair and walked to the lectern.
“I’ll… take it, Moira.”
Frank set the bag at his feet and reached in blindly, taking out the first book he touched. A paperback, slim, with a chipped and creased cover. He opened it without checking the title. Whatever it was, it would do.
“Hell…” Frank took a breath, closed his eyes, pulled the microphone toward him. “Hello, everyone.”
Already, the shouts were starting. Shouts of wrath, of bafflement. Frank pressed the open book flat to the lectern, still keeping his eyes closed.
“My name is Frank… Striggio. And I am… your kids’… English teacher.”
“And what,” said the bearded man, “if you don’t mind my asking, Mister Striggio, what in the hell have you been teaching them?”
Coats rustled. Folding chairs creaked. The parents, Frank realized, were getting to their feet. They were coming for him, and even with eyes closed, Frank could see them: all those raincoats and angry mouths, all those voices advancing on the stage.
Let him speak as an angel, Lucia’s prayer had asked, and put into his throat the grace of his inheritance.
And on a schoolroom wall, Frank had perceived a second prayer, scrawled in thick, red crayon, offering its own blessing, its own curse.
KILL ALL THE TEECHERS.
He began to read.
Nick Wolven’s fiction has appeared in The New England Review, Panhandler, and Asimov’s Science Fiction, and is forthcoming in The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction.
WHY WE CHOSE TO PUBLISH “THE READING TEACHER”:
At 9500 words, this quirky piece is the longest we’ve published to date. Nick Wolven’s superbly composed story had us hooked by the end of the second paragraph. The well-drawn characters, interesting voice, and humorous lines pull the reader along at a good pace and immerse him in a story that comes perhaps a little too close to reality.