A star rose in the East . . . or was it the West? Of course, it didn't really rise anywhere, did it? Ah, geocentrism! Ah, egocentrism! Which is more out of touch with reality?
Mrs. Thomlinson came to work ready to dump. She was the school's dumper queen and her students were resigned. She hadn't been laid for several decades and it showed. Not to the kids, of course, they were 3rd graders and they just knew she was their mad woman teacher. "Johnny, SIT down! How many times do I have to tell you people to come into my room like little soldiers? Now let's see if you've forgotten the Pledge of Allegiance." Johnny was frightened and never understood how his play world of friends and games got snuffed out like a match in Mrs. Thomlinson's classroom. But Mrs. T was no fool. She was politically correct around parents and rarely raised her voice past a certain point in the classroom.
"Mary Ann, I just don't understand why you can't color INSIDE the lines. You're a 3rd grader now, my goodness; you're not in the 1st grade. I wonder if you'll EVER learn how to do this!" Mrs. T ruled with sarcasm. The children's parents never dreamed how relentlessly she hacked at their little darling's self esteem and self confidence. She talked to them like a midget army of enemies. She knew she was outnumbered, but was more than up to the challenge to make them pay for her life disappointments-and yet everything she said had a pedagogical spin to it, so it was nearly impossible for the children to explain to anyone (including themselves) how their little wings were being broken by Mrs. T.
Jenny whispered to Tommy, "Gee, she's in a grouchy mood again today, isn't she?" Tommy raised his 'so what else is new' eyebrows and took a deep breath. As the days and weeks progressed in this Stalag 17 for 3rd graders, the children sensed something was wrong and that it had something to do with Mrs. Thomlinson, but that's as far as they could go with it. Mostly, they just suffered and waited for recess and the end of school.
Mrs. T had long since decided that SOMEONE had to be to blame for her vapid existence and children were at the head of the line of least resistance. She hated their innocence and even more she hated their futures, their uncashed checks of adventure and romance, so she took every opportunity to make sure they wouldn't have any.
She did have three cats at home though and always looked forward to returning to them. They slept with her and she bought them a rug covered playhouse. She liked to watch television in her living room while eating TV dinners on a flimsy fold up TV table. In point of fact, her life companion WAS television and she often talked to newscasters while eating and chatting with her cats about sitcoms. The cats seemed to agree with her (at least they never said otherwise) and that pleased her. "Oh, my babies, you're not like those naughty little boys and girls I have to put up with so we can live here, are you?"
And then one day she was 'saved'. She was ripe for it, of course, needing validation for her lack of intimacy with anyone and now she could see the rest of the world as unbelievers not deserving of her consideration. In fact this became her vocation, gossiping with like minded scolders of the human condition.
Life after this event became more agreeable for Mrs. T, since she now had TWO things to live for, i.e., television and condemning the damned. However her zealotry pushed the righteousness envelope uncomfortably far even for her porky companions (who, like her, were usually overweight), prompting the minister to generously intone, "Even homosexuals and Democrats are God's children too," but Mrs. T was unconvinced.
Finally, she started talking about God in her classroom and how God loves obedient children. She was careful about using the 'hell' word though and managed to find all kinds of ways of suggesting that outside her classroom was an abyss of unimaginable and DESERVED fear and suffering. The children in their innocence gave her the benefit of the doubt about this and had bad dreams accordingly.
In short, Mrs. T was on a roll. She sensed she was getting through to the 3rd graders and her salvation permitted her to demonize the human race. "Many are called, but few are chosen," became her mantra and she shared it with everyone.
But then one day, a new student walked into Mrs. T's world and things got interesting. His name was Billy Brownstone, an amazingly centered little kid who wasn't in the least intimidated by what he immediately sized up as a basket case teacher. All the children's jaws dropped on their desks the moment he piped up he thought Mrs. Thomlinson was nuts after she finished a sermonette about the hell waiting for anyone who didn't subscribe to her designer Ten Commandants.
"You WHAT!" She choked a little as she exclaimed this, causing muffled tittering which she chose to ignore, for the moment, while snapping her face like around it was pulled by a rubber band to glare at Billy.
"No offense," said Billy with composure, "but what you're saying is irrational."
Looooong silence. "I see," she said, "so that's what you think." She said these words to buy time-she might just as well have been reading the ingredients of one of her TV dinners. Billy made no comment and the room collectively held its breath, but the children sensed an 8 year old Galahad had come into their midst.
She too knew a gauntlet had been thrown down and even though she was blind sided by its source, she immediately flipped into fight or flight mode. Billy wasn't being confrontational; he had simply said his say and waited for her next move. Of course, what she WANTED to do was to reach over and manhandle the brat (he deserved it!), but instead she blurted out, "That's not a very nice thing to say, is it?"
Billy countered with, "Well I'm just a little kid, but my parents taught me it's vulgar (she blinked at that word) to say anyone who isn't exactly like you is going to hell."
Clarence and Tommy gaped at each other with their mouths open. Energies reignited in the classroom which had been dead for months and Jenny began to pick her nose openly. Mrs. T didn't notice any of this, concentrating her attention on what she was beginning to suspect was a spawn of the devil. "I see," she said, still too dumbfounded to counter attack.
The bell rang and the children scattered like pellets from a shotgun, dancing, laughing, and crowding around Billy. "Hey, where'd you COME from?" Alexander asked Billy, amidst the celebration and noise.
"Well my Dad's in the military and we just moved back from Germany," Billy answered, and then asked, "Boy, who's that old lady? She's a MEAN one, isn't she?"
"She's a WITCH, that's what I think!" said Mary Ann, who usually never said anything, concluding with, "She's the meanest person I've known in my LIFE!"
"Yeah, well don't worry about it, she's just a fat, old sourpuss and we should all tell our parents about her." This counsel from Billy was received by the 3rd graders like a brief from the Supreme Court, so that's exactly what they did.
Later that week the principal pondered what to do about this sudden influx of complaints about Mrs. Thomlinson. It was common knowledge among the faculty that Mrs. T. had been steadily unraveling and she certainly made no secret that EVERYTHING she didn't like in her life was some else's fault. She also made it clear in the lunch room that she was 'saved'. Mr. Harris, the coach, muttered to Karl Allen, the math teacher, "Yeah, that's just the problem. She's been saved so long she's got mold on her p*ssy." Mrs. Blackwell overheard this remark and looked on disapprovingly, but then chortled about it while walking to her car with two other teachers. Carlotta Blackwell was neither saved nor celibate and so generally had a smile on her face.
Not much happened in Mrs. T's classroom after Billy's abracadabra appearance, but Mrs. T was busy getting her ducks in a row. The first thing she did was to make a bee line to her 'Shepherd' (he insisted that's how he saw himself-even though not all his parishioners were flattered by the sheep implication). "Now Mrs. Thomlinson, calm yourself, it may be as you say, the child is in league with the evil one, I've heard of such things, but we need to tread carefully here. The Catholics use holy water for such things, he said wistfully, but . . ."
Mrs. T interrupted, "But the brat said my preaching (she corrected herself), I mean my witnessing, was 'nuts'. He said it was NUTS! He said I was being 'irrational'!"
The shepherd pondered this with, "Hmmm, he said that? Yes, an odd thing for a child to say, I must admit." However, nothing further came from this conversation and Mrs. T realized she was on her own with Billy.
During her meeting with the principal she played her cards close to the chest, trying to convince Linda (the principal) that things were under control in her classroom. She said she was genuinely puzzled about the complaints and pointed out that if they had any validity, such things would have been said earlier. Linda tended to agree, but then Mrs. T. blew it by implying Billy Brownstone was evil. Linda snapped to attention at this, so Mrs. T back peddled furiously, explaining she was tired and indulging in hyperbole and knew 3rd grade Billy really wasn't "evil" even though he was looking like a serious discipline problem. This also was received questioningly, however, since Billy's records indicated he was an unusually gifted student and well liked by everyone.
Mrs. T came away from the meeting thinking, "Why am I not surprised? Life is ALWAYS doing this to me. Here I've got this devil brat in my classroom and AS USUAL no one is going to do anything about it!" She held forth at length to her cats that night, between the sitcom commercials (which always lasted longer than the sitcoms) about this new form of victimization. The cats licked their paws empathetically and she went to sleep dreaming of time warping Billy back into the Inquisition.
The next week it happened again. She had a poster of the solar system on the chalk board during the science section and was referring to the Earth as the center of the universe. Billy raised his hand -- he too knew how to be politically correct. "Yes," she snapped.
Quoth Billy, "But the Earth isn't the center of the universe. Even the SUN'S not the center of the universe. I learned that in Germany -- the universe doesn't HAVE a center."
"Oh, your learned that in GERMANY, did you?" Mrs. T was digging in, "well, maybe we American's are laughed at by those godless Europeans, but at least we know where the EARTH is!" She said these things with a sarcasm which had formerly carried the day, but this time the children looked unconvinced. "Now what's YOUR problem, missy?" she said to Mary Ann, a little too loudly.
"But Mrs. Thomlinson, if the Earth's the center of everything, then why isn't everything moving around us? Yesterday you said the stars are just moving every which way?"
And indeed she had said that and was starting to feel fuddled, so she retreated with, "Well, I probably shouldn't be trying to explain such big person things to little kids. I mean, you really don't know ANYTHING, do you, so of course you're going to be confused."
Billy's hand went up again. "Yes," she said levelly.
"But that's your JOB, isn't it, aren't you SUPPOSED to explain things to us?" Mrs. T decided not to complement that question with an answer.
When Billy recounted this conversation to his parents, they looked at each other with Oh sh*t looks, thinking Billy's got another loony. In point of fact, he had been down that road before while befriending a neighbor who was being home schooled. This contradiction in terms was engineered by a mother whose mind was a stew of religious pamphlets and Reader's Digests (with a vocabulary to match). After Billy's mother visited her a couple of times, she reported, "You've got to check you brain at the door when you go into that place, it's like walking into the Dark Ages!" Billy's father, who trusted his wife, pulled all the strings he could to get them transferred to Germany.
"Goddamn, not AGAIN!" exclaimed Billy's father. "Where do these potato heads come from?"
"Don't worry about it, Dad, I can handle it, she doesn't scare me. In fact, I feel kind of sorry for her." This was Billy's generous summation, so the parents decided to let him deal with it.
"Well, you TALK to us if she gets TOO weird," insisted his mother.
"OK Mom, deal," and they all high fived the matter.
But Mrs. T had her second wind and sensed she and this eight year old goblin were on a collision course. So she tried one last time to get a little religious backup from her shepherd, hoping for a voodoo doll or something equivalent, but all that came of it was being 'prayed over' by her newly acquired brothers and sisters (which always made her flesh crawl), so she knew, AS ALWAYS, she would have to go it alone. This, indeed, was simply the latest variation of the dominant theme of her life, which was being a decent, fair minded person who other people were ALWAYS TAKING ADVANTAGE OF.
If someone had suggested to Mrs. T that she had psychopathic tendencies, she would have taken it as proof of (her projected) hostility and walked away wondering where all these insensitive people are coming from. In short, she was invulnerable and saw herself as the Blessed Virgin of religious fundamentalism.
Thus, the game was afoot. The 3rd graders rallied to Sir Galahad, and Mrs. T was reduced to her cats. She also sensed she'd been raising her voice too much of late, so she placed a poster on the wall across from her desk, with the words "Silence is Golden" floating above a cemetery (it's all she could find).
Billy was the first to notice it, saying, "That's a cemetery, isn't it?"
She really hadn't noticed it before, and said, "No, it's just a pretty view with benches."
Johnny laughingly corrected, "But, Mrs. Thomlinson, those aren't benches, they're TOMBSTONES. I know because I go out and visit my mommy's mommy in a place like that and grandma died before I was born.
Blind sided again! Mrs. T NEVER talked about death since it filled her with horror and she always tried to change the subject when the shepherd had them sing hymns about "The borne from which no man returns", or "the great bye and bye" (or, "the great bye bye"-she was never quite sure which), associating these limericks with busses filled with people falling into open eye sockets of the grim reaper. She removed the poster the next day, and replaced it with a picture of George Bush Sr., prompting Billy to observe, "I liked the other poster better." Denise laughed out loud at that one, and Denise never laughed at ANYTHING.
Linda, the principal, was always ruffling Billy's hair. "He's so BRIGHT, and sweet too, isn't he?" she commented to Mrs. T, who gritted her teeth and nodded. That's when she knew she was going to have to kill Billy. She didn't see any other solution. She had long conversations about it with the Channel 7 anchor man (her favorite electric confidant) and, of course, the cats, and the general consensus was that this victimizing little atheist had to go.
Yes, but how? Easier said than done, since this Godless world she had been condemned to in live (why?) would hold HER responsible for executing (she always liked that word), the Will of the Lord. "Yea, she 'smote' (she REALLY liked that word) the unrighteous!" She seemed to be receiving these words from a celestial newscaster reporting on the doings of Mrs. Thomlinson (e.g., the snuffing of Billy) to legions of the saved milling about in white bathrobes on golf courses. "Oh, how sweet it is," she confided to her cats, borrowing this turn of phrase (unconsciously) from Jackie Gleason.
"What's the story about Wacko Woman?" Billy's father asked Billy while they were doing a run.
Billy: "I don't know. I think she's up to something. I just mind my own business and she doesn't say much, but she sure gives me weird looks."
Dad: "Be careful, Billy. You know your mother and I trust you to take care of yourself, but if she's as bananas as she sounds, you let us know the MOMENT she tries to pull anything!"
Billy: "I love you Dad."
Dad: "Hey, Pal, you're the BEST, haven't we always told you that. Just be careful."
So Billy sent out a probe, "Mrs. T, what ever happened to that poster of the cemetery you had up there. It sure looked peaceful!" Mrs. T blanched a little and started talking about arithmetic.
Mary Ann sensed Billy had jiggled something and so chimed in, "Yeah, I sure liked all those little benches." The children close to Mrs. T noticed she was holding the arithmetic book upside down, and looked at each other excitedly.
"What are you LOOKING AT?" Mrs. T almost shouted.
The coach was walking by and stuck his head in the room, saying, "Everything OK in here?"
"Yes, yes, yes, just a little naughtiness," Mrs. T answered, lowering her voice. All the children looked pleased with themselves ("for a change!" he thought), so he smiled at them and went about his business.
"I think that little brat asked that terrible question today on purpose," Mrs. T muttered to herself on the way to her American car. "Well, TWO can play that game," she reminded her cats while digging into her half cooked TV dinner.
"What game?" something asked her.
"Why" (and then she caught herself, wondering where that question had come from). "Who said that, who said that?" she asked nervously, not swallowing her green beans. "Sister, Sister, be not afraid, do you not know that you have been chosen?" was the answer, seeming to come from her 17 inch Motorola television set. "Chosen," she mused," I've been chosen-but chosen to do WHAT?" "Sister, sister, surely you know you're the Lord's avenger," was the answer.
Then she thought, "So FINALLY it's happened. FINALLY I'm hearing that I'VE BEEN RIGHT ALL ALONG!" And then she began to cry, but it was a happy cry, a crying of relief and vindication. She went to sleep that night dreaming she was being gang banged by angels.
Billy's innocence was less a weakness than a protection. He was too young to emphasize with Mrs. T's delusions, so he treated her as one of those peculiar adults kids have to (and usually can) make the best of. For Mrs. T, however, this was PERSONAL. Billy was merely the latest in a sequence of symbols in her life. Her divorced husband (who had long since fled to the other side of the planet) was a dumper object who got away, but she still blamed him for cavities and too much (or little) rain. Her righteousness was invincible and without husbands, Billy's, unbelievers, or neighbors she would have had no identity. Her eyes were daggers of accusation, and yea, yea, she was a chosen one. Her promised land was a planet of apologizers.
She was accepted by her fellow teachers, albeit subliminally mistrusted. People learned not to talk to her about issues, since by the end of the conversation they always felt more part of the problem than the solution. Plus, now that she was saved (certainly not from herself), the word 'godless' had become her denunciation of choice. Even football players were godless, or Catholics, or people who mowed their lawns too infrequently. Once in a conference with parents, she let it drop that people who didn't have cats were probably Satanists, but received looks which warned her not to be so honest in the future. "Folks just don't want to hear it," she told her felines that night, and discussed the matter with the electric confidant.
In due course, things came to a head. Christmas was approaching and the children were beside themselves. The music teacher was rehearsing a program in which the 3rd graders were winged and haloed. Mrs. T listened from her desk in the classroom, while doodling the word Antichrist on her lesson plans (she heard Billy was going to play the role of baby Jesus in the 3rd grade offering). He was asked to do this because the scene required someone to sing several solo Christmas carols from inside the crib and he had a sweet singing voice (and a reliable memory), so he was the logical choice. When his parents were asked for their permission, they seemed startled, but then said, "Well, he's still OUR angel, so why not?"
The evening of the performance, the gymnasium/auditorium was festooned for Christmas and the children buzzed around like hysterical, sweaty mice, waiting for the magic event-an event, of course, almost immediately followed by CHRISTMAS VACATION, bejeweled with the night of nights and day of days of childhood.
Mrs. T had positioned herself close to the front and sensed she was running out of time. Who knows what might happen during Christmas vacation? She always dreaded being locked up TOO long with her television set and cats, since it's hard to blame tornadoes in Kansas on TV dinners. Linda was giving one of her interminable pre performance speeches, "Welcome, welcome to you all-and Merry Christmas! Fifteen minutes later she was still making announcements and acknowledging school board members (who were never there) and FINALLY concluded with, "And thank you so much for lending us your treasures. I can assure you, Mrs. James (the music teacher) has been diligently working with them and the title for tonight's program is, 'On Our Way', from Porgy & Bess." And sure enough when the curtain went up (or at least moved out of the way), the full school chorus launched into song.
Mrs. T was thunderstruck! She knew this was a BLACK PERSON'S song from a BLACK PERSON'S musical. She had mistakenly seen the movie version a few years ago on the advice of a friend (a vegetarian) and the best she could come up with was, "Well, they've certainly got rhythm." But tonight, it was UNTHINKABLE the program would start in this manner. She even thought, "My God, what if Billy's in black face!"
Then things went from bad to worse when one of the older students began reading a passage from Lazarus. This odd dramatic ploy was introduced by Mrs. James to set the stage for the 'good news' birth of Jesus, but it was lost on Mrs. T, who glommed onto the 'tomb' word and at once found herself back in busses disappearing into grim reaper eye sockets. The thing about Mrs. T is that she feared death considerably more than she loved Jesus, so her raison d'être was dump or die.
Things were starting to unravel. This was DEFINITELY the time to be watching television, but she was trapped by her righteousness into some vague plan to expose Billy by saying things like, "Look, look, this isn't baby Jesus. This is really some little gnome who lived in Germany and laughs at President Bush. He's not REALLY Jesus, he's just BAD little boy and if you want to hear about what it's like to be saved, I can tell you all about that!"
However, she was exceedingly nervous about witnessing at school under the best of circumstances, even though the shepherd kept reminding them, "Being saved isn't a free ride. If necessary, you've got to JAM IT DOWN THE WORLD'S THROAT. These people are damned; they're DAMNED without your help!" But talking missionary talk in church basements was one thing, whereas tonight, here in this auditorium, inundated with death talk, Negro songs, and people wearing ties and carrying purses, she felt like St. Peter after Jesus' crucifixion. "Lord, Lord, why hast Thou (she always mentally capitalized Thou) forsaken me?" she whispered to herself, a little too audibly, since the man sitting next to her asked her if anything was wrong. She perfunctorily said no, pursed her lips, and pretended to be carried away by the performance.
Then suddenly, Mrs. T felt like she was on Mars. Her life, her psyche, her body, and the auditorium JUMPED elsewhere and everything was different! "My child, my child, at last you've come home," she heard a voice singing.
"Why, where am I? My goodness, what's happening?" she asked like a child. "Surely you know, you've fallen through the eye socket into the Great Bye Bye," the voice continued to sing to her. "Through the eye socket," she thought, "I knew it would happen, I KNEW it would happen . . ." More singing.
"Be not afraid Tammie (this was her childhood name-nobody knew it), everything is fine, everything is fine, and everything is fine." Then she heard someone crying. It was Billy who had dashed off the stage when he saw her crumble to the floor. "But she's my TEACHER," she heard him trying to tell some hovering beings, and little angels too, with wings (she could see the glow of their pretty wings and haloes). Then his voice got dimmer, and she heard the singing again, "It's time to stop hating, Tammie. You don't need that anymore."
The staR became everything. Voices drifted through it like echoes from the abandoned, sometimes making sense, sometimes not, but the voice with the rainbow ring to it was Billy's crying. It was the last sound the body heard.
more political Op-Eds, fiction, poetry, and essays from Bill at . . .
The Liberation of Realism