Angela popped open the trunk and pulled a large cardboard box from it. At the top of the box was a terracotta pot with a curling vine, the sort of vine that grew easily under the cold glare of fluorescent lights in stuffy, airless office cubes everywhere. The carbon-dioxide rich air of P.S. 120, redolent with pheremones and football sweat, would doubtless be the saving of it, if the hourly bell-buzzing and raucous hallway shouting didn’t kill it first. Angela smiled down at it the plant, which she’d named Hugo, nervously. “Are we ready for this?” she asked.
Hugo quivered as Angela hefted the box onto her hip. She wove and dodged her way through a sea of high school stereotypes and found herself making up the most stereotype-busting back stories for each of them. The jock, with his affable smile and beefy tee, was selling term papers to help his little sister adopt a seizure-sensing service dog. The nerdy girl with the Coke-bottle glasses was actually a blonde cheerleader in the witness protection program; her mother had invented a devastating bomb that rendered everyone within a ten-mile radius kind and generous to a fault. Thirteen countries had targeted the family for assassination, knowing that such technology would render war obsolete. Angela chuckled to herself and wished that the stories she invented, sometimes, were real.
After checking in with the administration, Angela was shown to a small classroom at the farthest end of the longest corridor at P.S. 120. “The Gulag,” the other teachers called it. Angela wondered who was meant to be tortured by the exile: the students, or the teacher. Perhaps there was a hungry dragon just beyond the last classroom, and none of them would ever be seen again. The worst complaint anyone really had about The Gulag is that it was the farthest point from the lunch room; clearly, it was the worst place to be exiled at feeding time. Angela was glad that she had packed her lunch, in spite of the lack of imagination she had put into the simple PB&J.
No one seemed overly interested in teaching or learning Language Arts at P.S. 120. Her predecessor, Alex Jenner, had gone AWOL in the middle of the term. But Angela was game. She had a creative lesson plan tucked into that cardboard box, somewhere. She would begin with “literary conflict.” The hook? Angela was a big believer in “show, don’t tell.” She’d keep the kids from nodding off in class. She’d prove Paul Huber wrong when he said it couldn’t be done.
They shuffled in slowly, looking half-drugged. “Good luck with the little zombies,” Huber had sneered. He taught History, and swore not one of his students could remember what they had for lunch the day before, let alone what year Vasco de Gama first found his way to India by sea. This was particularly discouraging, he said; most of them suffered the boredom of a daily pepperoni pizza slice drowned in grease and topped with french fries. They cared even less for de Gama.
“Welcome, everyone,” said Angela, when all the seats were filled. “My name is Angela Baden.” Two girls rolled their eyes at her in reply. One of the boys gave her a long, slow, vertical appraisal.
“And what, exactly, are you bad in?” asked a pock-faced lad who’d clearly been told to aim high in life.
“Very little, Mr.–I’m sorry, what’s your name?” Angela smiled like a cat teasing a bird.
“Jim.” Angela slowly spelled out the name JIM on her seating chart, giving the boy a stare that was both pointed and unflappable. She won the ensuing staredown, and left Jim slumped in defeat.
Another strapping young lad had already arranged his textbooks on the desk in front of him and was using them as a pillow. “Would one of you please wake Mr., um–” Angela waggled her pen in the general direction of the boy she worried had cancerous nasal polyps. She frowned, making a note to speak to his parents, later.
“Clarkson,” offered a smirking boy wearing blue mascara and a blue skunk-streak in his shoe-polish blackened hair.
“Please wake Mr. Clarkson and tell him that if he cannot sleep in class without snoring, he cannot sleep in class.”
Angela allowed herself a small smile at the grudging laughter that ensued. She felt bad, making an example of Clarkson, but if there was anything she disliked in a student, it was one who showed his contempt and boredom by openly sleeping in class. She didn’t feel too bad singling him out, if it helped the others to bond and reminded them of their manners.
“So, Mr. Jenner will not be teaching this class anymore – in fact, I’m told that his last word on P.S. 120 was, ‘not if it was the last school on earth’ – which tells me you weren’t being well served by him, since he obviously does not know the proper use of the subjunctive. Today, we’re going to cover the topic of conflict in literature. Can any of you tell me the four main types of conflict in literature?” Angela would have bet money no one could, but she was always up for a pleasant surprise.
Crickets chirping in the baseboards was not the surprise she had in mind.
“All right, then. The first type of conflict is man versus nature. Anyone want to give me an example of man versus nature?” Angela’s finger glided down the class roster, just in case no tributes volunteered. “Nobody? Alicia Rosencrantz?”
“Man versus what?”
“Like…outside?” Alicia chewed gum and nervously looked outside the window.
“Can you think of an example that might occur inside?” asked Angela, thinking this might lead to more interesting examples than hunters and bears, or people going over Niagara Falls in a pickle barrel.
Kerry Dale raised a hand.
“Okay. Kerry, right? Kerry, do you have an example of ‘man versus nature’?”
“Yeah, how about bacteria? Or viruses, like that zombie virus that ended the world in Zombification of the World?”
Alicia rolled her eyes at Kerry. “That wasn’t real, Dork.”
“It doesn’t have to be,” explained Angela, feigning patience and half wishing for a zombie horde to invade the classroom right about now. “In fact…would you say that Zombification was about man versus nature, or man versus man?”
“I wouldn’t know,” said Alicia.
Kerry piped up with, “Both? I mean, something turned people into zombies, right? But then, weren’t they still people, sort of?” Kerry shut his mouth and tried to puzzle it out.
Angela nodded. “Sort of. That’s a tough one, isn’t it? You could argue that – at least when the food supply ran low – it was an example of ‘man versus society.’ You know, when that little band of refugees refused to submit to the townsfolk of Dunham, rather than be eaten – for the greater good.” She walked over to the box and pulled Hugo from it, whispering, “Sorry about this, Hugo,” as she set the plant on the desk. “Let’s make up our own story, shall we? I need a volunteer…”
Clarkson, who was still struggling to stay conscious but not who was not eager to flunk Language Arts for the second time, tentatively raised a hand.
“All right, come to the front of the room, Mr. Clarkson. You will be our protagonist.”
“Your what?” Clarkson scratched his hip.
“The character we’re all rooting for to survive,” said Angela. “This plant, here, will be the antagonist. That’s the one who’s rooting for himself.” Two of her students chuckled. Angela was glad that hadn’t gone whooshing right over all their heads. “Now, to move our story forward, we need to create some dramatic conflict between you, Mr. Clarkson, and the plant.” Hugo’s leaves trembled almost imperceptibly.
“It’s just a plant, Mrs. Baden.”
“Maybe it’s an alien plant.”
“So? Even if it is, it’s just sitting there, doing nothing. This isn’t much of a story.”
“Maybe you could start us off, Mr. Clarkson, by plucking a leaf.”
“Ohhhhkay.” Clarkson delicately pinched off a leaf.
“All right, but that was a little dull. Why don’t you give it a good rip?”
Skunk-streak spoke up. “Wouldn’t that make Clarkson the antagonist?”
“Would it?” asked Angela, thinking for the first time today that these students might not be a total loss.
Clarkson ripped off a whole vine. Angela startled at his sudden savagery, even if she’d encouraged it. “There we go!” And another vine whipped out, before Clarkson had a chance to toss the vine to the floor, and wrapped itself around his wrist.
“Ouch!” he cried, terror contorting and draining the blood from his face.
“Now we have a good example of man versus nature.” Hugo had begun slithering up Clarkson’s arm, tightening its grip like a boa constrictor, sinking tiny, sharp aerial roots into the skin as it crawled toward his neck. “You just going to stand there and take it, Mr. Clarkson?”
Clarkson began to fight back in earnest. “Help–” he cried, before the vine stuffed itself into his mouth and cut off his air supply.
“Are none of you going to help Mr. Clarkson?” Angela was disgusted with the slack-jawed lot of them, metal creaking on linoleum as they shoved their chairs backwards and looked around the room, wild-eyed, for the nearest escape route. Those in the front row had shrunk noticeably smaller as they tried to make themselves invisible to the killer vine. Angela reached out to touch the vine and murmured, “Enough, Hugo.” It released the hapless lad, who now lay motionless on the floor, his open eyes dull and his face looking like Carrara marble.
“You’re insane!” cried Alicia.
“At least I’m not stupid,” muttered Angela as the bell began to ring and the students scrambled over one another in a blind panic to hit the door. “See you Wednesday. Read up on man versus self,” she said, without looking up from her grade book as Hugo wrapped itself around Clarkson to avoid the foreshadowing that might give the next batch of students an unfair academic advantage over the last.
This is #4 for StoryADay May. I got off to a late start, but I think I can keep up (not sure I’ll try to make up lost time, though)! Thanks to Marian Allen for inspiring me to give it a try, and for giving me a starring role in her Sunday stories during May! Today’s story was inspired by Audrey I and the ubiquitous, nearly impossible-to-kill corporate philodendron. And it is dedicated to teachers everywhere.