Gentle Readers: today’s entry is my annual/semi-annual Fiction entry. This was in response to a Chuck Wendig challenge to write a story about “going against authority…middle finger up…Chaos and Rebellion….” I confess it turned out longer than requested (but it’s me, so who’s surprised?) and also to be gentler in the end than the challenge suggested, although I’m not always as grim as I appear to be, either.]
Miz Berenson was the meanest, strictest, recess monitor that ever carried a steel whistle onto the playground. The asphalt at Robert Taft Elementary School was her territory, and woe betide anyone who broke her rules. No gum chewing. No going up the slide the Wrong Way. No Boys vs. Girls contests. And she was super strict about how we lined up to go back to class.
She would end recess like ten minutes early just to allow enough time for the line to meet her standards. There had to be eighteen inches between students. There had to be No Talking, silence, people. There was to be no what she termed Horseplay. If she didn’t like it, she’d make us line up again even if we were late to class. Or, she would make us spend part of our lunch hour lining up.
It was the day before Christmas break, and something about the impending thought of two weeks and Santa made us sort of snap. Me and Michael A. and Odorous Dave concocted the scheme after school earlier in the week and got the word out to the class. We called it breaking the Cycle of Despair.
As usual, Miz B. blew the whistle, three short blasts meaning time for the Line. She once barked at us that her father was in the Marines, and that this was no way, people, no way to act. Maybe her mom was in the Marines, too, because she seemed extra Marine-y.
Odorous and I had been flicking Pokemon cards at each other because it was a little too cold to touch any of the playground equipment. Everyone knew that if it was cold enough, hands might freeze on the jungle gym, and what was cold enough? No one wanted to find out. At the signal, we looked at each other and did that hand thing we invented. Which meant Go Time.
We sauntered over to the building wall where Lines Must Form and looked meaningfully at the other kids who passed the look on. Message received. I started and everyone followed, picking a spot exactly the right distance from each other, all of our class of 36 along the wall, in perfect order. But facing backwards.
Miz B stomped up. “What do you think you’re doing?” She blew the whistle. “Turn around and face the right way.”
No one budged. I could feel those bushy black eyebrows merge together, and I thought I could hear the hum of radiation as those gray eyes got ready to blast a hole through my skull. The whistle sounded again, almost in my ear. She gestured toward the door. “Are you determined to act like idiots? Follow me.”
This wasn’t part of the plan, but it just made so much sense. As she started to walk towards the door, I went straight up to her and stopped, the regulation eighteen inches. She stopped. I stood at attention, whatever I thought that meant, which in this case was as smart-alecky as I could be. And everyone in line followed right over to stand behind me, the regulation eighteen inches. There were two other classes going in, and even though they weren’t part of the plan, they decided to join in, all 102 of us. In about ten seconds, there was a line snaking from the door along the wall, then a curve bending right over to where she was standing.
“George Martin, you better knock this off behavior off right now, or there will be Severe Consequences!” Those furry eyebrows were waggling up and down under that weird frizz of hair. They seemed to move like their own creatures. I almost lost track of what she was saying, but it was loud.
She turned towards the door, and I vaguely heard the dreaded words “Principal’s Office.” But I was all in now, and I followed. So did the line. She saw it move, turned and stopped, then started again. I swear you could see steam coming off her nostrils.
Through the door we went towards the Principal’s Office, the whole snaky line. Then she did another strange thing, and passed the Office, heading towards and then into the Teacher’s Lounge. We stopped there, of course. Forbidden territory is forbidden territory. Just as the Line was ready to dissolve back to class, she stomped out again, and it was just natural. We followed her down the hall, through the door and to the edge of the school grounds. There we stopped because we knew better than to walk into the street. She turned and snapped, “This is the last straw.” Then, she got in her Prius and drove away.
We didn’t see Miz B the next day, but then it was a half day before the break with no recess. I couldn’t wait to get home and sit around for five more days vibrating until Christmas.
She wasn’t back at school after winter break either, so we kind of thought we must have driven her insane. Truthfully, though we always talked about doing that, I felt a little guilty. I mean, who wants to have that on their conscience?
My dad and I were at the grocery store looking at canned pineapple a few months later when I heard that voice that sounded like cars crunching on gravel. “Hello, George.”
I turned around and she was there, though instead of the track suit and whistle, she was wearing normal person clothes, a jacket and slacks. I stared. I have to admit feeling a little stupid since my first thought was, Miz B buys groceries? I don’t know what I thought – that teachers retire to their lair to feed on the bones of their victims? It had occurred to me.
As I stood there with my mouth imitating a trout, she was shaking hands with my Dad. “Tonya Berenson,” she said. “Glad to meet you, Mr. Martin.”
“Call me Dave,” said my dad. Dave? Tonya? It’s always weird to think that adults have first names.
“What happened to you?” I blurted. “I mean…. I thought… we haven’t ….”
I had forgotten with Christmas and all. When It happened, I vaguely remember something said about my Permanent Record. But Dad had never said anything, there was never any strange phone call during dinner that caused him to look up at me, stony-eyed, like sometimes happened when the teacher would call home about some of my … Horseplay … in class.
“Well, George,” said Miz Berenson. “After that…incident… there was some discussion with the School Board.”
“Incident?” my dad looked at me.
“We had an issue on the playground back in December. It caused several classes to be late to class. 102 students were involved, including George here.”
Including? My heart was pounding. This was it. I was in for it. No video games for the entire Easter break. Maybe until summer. Maybe until college.
She went on. “The Superintendent was always very strict. If there was an incident on the playground – students pushing each other, gum-chewing, late to class, that sort of thing – you had to file an Incident report.”
“You had to file an Incident report if someone was late to class?”
“Superintendent Johnson-Martinez was a stickler for things. You know the type.”
My eyes widened at that. Yeah, I knew the type.
“I actually had run into a—well, something had happened a couple years ago when I was teaching and subbing for someone else on playground duty. I didn’t file a report when a student had gone to fetch a ball that had gone across the street. Out of school grounds, you know.”
“What happened?” We were moving towards the checkout lines now. I was still looking for an excuse to find the bananas, the ones on the other side of the store.
“I didn’t file the Report and that was a problem. Apparently, there had been a few Incident reports I hadn’t filed, and the record, according to the Superintendent, was clear. I was trying to get tenure at the time and – anyway – long story short, my class was reassigned to another teacher and I was put on Recess Duty. At least until last December.”
“Um…. So what … I mean, did you file a report in December?” I was trying to avoid looking at Dad, though I swear two laser holes were getting burned through my back.
Miz Berenson looked at me. It wasn’t exactly That Look, but kind of halfway. It might have been You Are In So Much Trouble, but instead it was more like I Hold Your Life In My Hands. “Yes, George, I did file an Incident Report. I filed 102 of them.”
My dad’s bark of laughter was so loud that heads turned across all the checkout lines.
“I also filed 102 Grievances with the Union,” she said. “The rules were that each Incident Report required meetings with the Board and Grievances required arbitration, and let’s say the Board wasn’t happy and the Union wasn’t happy, but when they started looking into the Incident processes, the Superintendent’s approach was considered to be – out of bounds … Anyway, I was reinstated to teaching.”
She looked pointedly at me. “But at another school.”
And that was all. She was letting me off. It was an Act of Mercy beyond my wildest imagination. She finished checking out her groceries and headed towards the automatic doors. To this day, I’m not sure what prompted me to do it, relief or insanity. “Miz Berenson.” I called.
She turned. I know it sounds corny, but it was the first thing that came to my mind. I stood at attention and saluted.
The fuzzy black eyebrows jumped. There was almost a smile at the edge of her mouth. She cocked her head, and gently, quietly, saluted back. Then she was gone.
That was the last I saw of Miz Berenson. At least for four whole years, until Odorous and I were shoving each other as middle schoolers, pushing through the door on the first day of math class. I was taking Algebra but it never occurred to me to look at the teacher’s name. There was that voice, “Good morning, George. Good morning, David. Please find your seats quickly as we have a lot to cover today.”
As it turns out, Miz Tonya Berenson, daughter of a Marine or two, had a way of whipping math into shape, of making the equations march up and down like no teacher I had ever had. Quadratics quivered in fear; simultaneous equations had to line up properly. And X? No X could ever run and hide from Miz B.
I got an A in Algebra that year.
[You can find Wendig’s original suggestion here: http://terribleminds.com/ramble/2017/03/24/flash-fiction-challenge-fuck-you-thats-what/ and you have until Friday to post your own entry. When I first read the prompt, I immediately thought of the masterpiece by Bill Harley, “Yes to Running,” so I beg forgiveness for the blatant imitation. Consider it an homage to Harley.
Also inspired by today’s Daily Post word: territory.]