Are Teachers Supposed to Torture You?

Chapter 5

This is a Young Adult story tackling issues of self-harm and suicide. It is intended for teen readers or older. If you want to read from the beginning, click over to chapter 1.

Kids zigzagged through Arroyo Grove High School, their shoes squeaking and clacking on the linoleum floor. Kassandra traversed through clouds of gossip like a plane surviving turbulence. Yanking open her purse, she glanced inside. Did the cards drop in there somehow? It might be possible. Yesterday she thought a stranger had morphed into her dad.

Up ahead, a freshman tripped, scattering a rainbow of highlighters and colored erasers everywhere. Kassandra cringed, remembering what it was like to be right out of middle school. 

Slipping into Honors English, she found the room packed except for a ring of empty seats circling a group of popular kids by the side—girls with manicured nails and tops in smack-you-in-face pinks and yellows. A couple of jocks and boys with way too much hair product dangled at the edge. 

Kassandra skipped the superficial police and searched for a seat at the back. Kids whispered as she walked down the aisle, most of it new girl gawking. In a town this dinky, she was the lead story. There was one open seat against the back wall and she snagged it. At least now everyone would have to swivel around to ogle her. Book Girl crouched over the same battered paperback, two seats down. In between sat a boy with his eyebrows shaved completely off. Kassandra mouthed the word, “Wow.”

Inside her purse, the gold patterned backs of the Tarot cards stared up, mocking any scrap of sanity remaining. What had Auntie Jo said at the store? The cards chose Kassandra. She stroked the deck. Don’t people choose the cards?

The teacher strolled into the room and Kassandra snapped the purse shut. No reason to goof off—at least not on the first day. The woman’s hair flew up in some sort of retro beehive. She launched into an unabridged life story complete with the names of pets and favorite vacation venues. The autobiography circled back to the first assignment and, after selecting an eager student in the first row to pass out note cards, Mrs. Beehive wrote on the whiteboard. The marker squeaked out immaculate cursive letters.

What Kind of Reader Are You?

1.   Who is your favorite author?
2.   What is the last book you read?
3.   Why did you like the book?

Favorite author? Kassandra couldn’t think of a single one. Her last book was The Crucible for the third time in English. Teachers loved that book for whatever reason. She scribbled at the top of the card:

John Keats

Ode to a Nightingale

Maybe Mrs. Beehive won’t know he was a poet. It was possible. Only one teacher at her old school even knew who the Romantics were. She set the pen down, but then scanned the board again. Groan. There was a why up there. Teachers always strangled the fun out of literature. Couldn’t she say it was a good read? Kassandra chewed on the end of her pen a moment before writing: 

It rhymes.

No, Keats didn’t write Hallmark greeting cards. He deserved better. She scratched out the rhyming bit and added:

I would like to fade away 

like the speaker in the poem.

There, done.

Kassandra glanced around the room. She’d probably taken the most time with the assignment. One guy texted under his desk, though he was obvious about it. Another pair of girls scribbled pictures on their binders. Mrs. Beehive witnessed nothing, arranging papers while taking sporadic slurps from a Starbucks mug.

A couple of girls from the social bubble in the corner giggled. Kassandra doubted they wrote anything at all on their cards. One in the center, a strawberry-blond, met Kassandra’s gaze. Most kids looked tuned out, but this girl’s stare was predatory. As if she were a big cat on the Savannah with everyone else as juicy gazelles. 

Mrs. Beehive stood. She wanted the students to partner up and share the information on the card. Kassandra glanced at The Browless One, wondering if she could feign sickness. But Mrs. Beehive had a system. She volunteered the same go-getter from the front row to collect the assignment from the left side of the classroom. The redhead and the rest of the clique dropped their cards into a plastic tub. 

Mrs. Beehive then sauntered to the other side of the class and announced, “Select one card to find your partner for today.” Kassandra let her shoulders relax. The Browless One would be some other kid’s problem. When the plastic tub came around, she pulled out a card.

Lindsay Barker
Favorite Author: Arthur Miller (The Crucible)
Last Book I Read: A Midsummer Night’s Dream
Why I liked it: I liked having a play inside a play

Okay, obviously this girl was lying. Of course she’d have The Crucible. Plus Shakespeare? Like she actually read him over summer break. Saw the movie, maybe.

The students stood and bustled about, trying to locate the owner of the card they picked. Kassandra tossed the crocheted bag over one shoulder and zeroed in on Go Getter Girl. The teacher’s pet was probably also the suck up who wrote the card. Go Getter Girl shook her head and pointed to the redhead and the clique of fashionistas. Kassandra felt her gut compress into a tight ball. The goal was to duck under the radar and now she was hooked up with the queen bee of Arroyo Grove High School.

Kassandra shuffled toward Lindsay. The girl ran fingers through her hair, settling the bangs so they grazed the top of her eyes. Then she glanced at Kassandra and a sour look spilled across her face like tasting something repellant. In an instant, a beaming grin flashed up to replace it.

“Hi, I’m Lindsay.”

“Yeah,” Kassandra said, placing the card on the table. “Got that.”

Why was she being so bitchy? This girl might be nice. Plus it’d be great to make one friend this semester. She sat down and dumped her purse on the floor next to a Coach hobo bag.

Lindsay clacked her nails on the desk. It looked like a craft store exploded across them—tiny plastic flowers and specks of glitter adorned every inch.

“So…” Lindsay said. 

Kassandra realized the girl was waiting for her name. “I’m Kassandra.” She passed over the index card. As Lindsay read, Kassandra scanned the class. The clique was scattered across the room. Maybe Mrs. Beehive knew what she was doing.

“You read Keats?” Lindsay asked.

Kassandra turned and couldn’t suppress a smile. A socialite who recognized the Romantics?

“I thought the same thing about the Shakespeare.”

“Don’t tell,” Lindsay smirked, leaning in. “But it was only the movie.”

Bingo. Kassandra gave herself a mental pat on the back.

Lindsay snapped the card on the table. “I read the Nightingale poem. Isn’t it all about dying and feeling sad about yourself?” She arched an eyebrow.

Ouch. Not a fan of Keats then. “I guess that’s one way of looking at it.”

Lindsay took in Kassandra’s ripped jeans. “You know, you shouldn’t wear pants like those. It’ll get you into the wrong crowds.” The smell of hairspray and body wash scented the air with cinnamon and apples. So different from Kassandra’s mom, who laid on perfume like it was bug repellant, always laced with an undercurrent of raw alcohol. 

“Listen. A friend of mine works downtown. He could hook you up with some amazing clothes.” Lindsay grinned, adding, “Cheap.”

Kassandra found herself nodding. A sparkle in the girl’s eye seemed to say, “Listen to me. I know what I’m talking about.” At her old school, Kassandra wouldn’t have given someone like this the slightest glance. But this wasn’t Seattle. The rules of high school were simple: Being alone made you a target.

“This class is a breeze.” Lindsay nodded toward the teacher. “I had her last year. The old bitty is ready to retire and hardly pays any attention to what you do. Just turn in a couple of good essays and you’re golden.” 

“Thanks.”

“So what’s your story? Just move into Arroyo?”

“I’m from Seattle. Arroyo’s where Mom grew up.” Kassandra hooked a blond strand over one ear. “The two of us are staying with a family friend.”

“Divorced huh?”

Kassandra shivered. If only it were so simple. 

Lindsay didn’t even pause. “Join the club. At least it means you can play the two off each other. I swear, the weeks they’re fighting is when I get the best gifts.” She nudged the Coach purse with one foot. The crocheted bag looked like a potato sack next to it.

“Okay class,” Mrs. Beehive announced, setting the coffee mug on the desk. “Please take your original seats.”

“Catch you around.” Lindsay flipped her bangs and smiled. 

“Yeah, thanks.” Kassandra grabbed her purse and hurried back to the corner desk.

Mrs. Beehive switched to the standard “I lecture, you take notes” teaching format. Kassandra spent the rest of period scribbling enough sentence diagrams to put even Merriam Webster in a coma. Some students kept up, but most were narcoleptic. Lindsay and her clique even had trouble pretending to look engaged.

Kassandra worked her purse under the desk and one hand slipped inside to grasp the Tarot deck. She slid out a card and sneaked a peek. It showed the skeleton with a scythe again. He danced over a sea of chopped off hands and arms. Arranged at the bottom were three severed heads. Such a pleasant image. But then the card was called Death. The heads portrayed a woman, a child, and a man. She blinked. It wasn’t just any man’s head. It was Dad’s face. 

It had to be some sort of trick. The way the fluorescents lit the card maybe. Yet the more Kassandra studied the picture, the more it looked like Dad’s cropped salt and pepper hair. The drawing even showed crow’s feet fanning out from his eyes. 

The coppery taste filled her mouth again.

Kassandra.

Who said that? She jerked around, scanning the room. Everyone had a glassy-eyed look as they stared at the board. The Browless One tilted back in his chair, mouth open. Book Girl ignored everything, zeroing in on the paperback. 

Kassandra flicked back to the card. Something looked different. She touched each head in turn: woman, child… Her stomach twisted into a knot. He wasn’t looking down like the other heads. Now Dad stared out of the card. Straight at Kassandra. 

The First Day of School Always Sucks When You’re Crazy

Chapter 4

This is a Young Adult story tackling issues of self-harm and suicide. It is intended for teen readers or older. If you want to read from the beginning, click over to chapter 1.

Outside, the street was abandoned. Mostly retired folks lived in this neighborhood. No kids. Kassandra strolled to the corner where the bus was supposed to pick up. The morning mist rolled in from the ocean, chilling her knees through the holes in the jeans. 

Arroyo Grove High School was the only show in town, which meant a couple hundred kids who’d all known each other since kindergarten. Yeah, this was going to be a killer junior year. She might as well be a freshman again.

Kassandra checked the watch clipped to the purse: 7:22. The bus was supposed to pick up at 7:20. Had it already come? Walking was out of the question. She didn’t even know which direction to go. A breeze picked up and Kassandra hugged herself to keep warm. 

An engine gunned in the distance as a yellow bus chugged down the road. At least it wasn’t a short bus. Now, her mission was simple—avoid awkwardness at all costs. No tripping and don’t getting trapped in the back. 

The bus hissed to a stop and the doors cranked open. A heavyset woman with a short haircut sat behind the wheel. The bus was about three-quarters full—mostly single kids taking up a whole seat. The only open spots were near the back. 

Kassandra trudged down the aisle. A few riders flicked gazes up, though most seemed to be in an early morning daze.

The bus lurched forward as Driver Lady stepped on the gas. Kassandra’s arms flew out to grab the seats, but too late. She stumbled to the floor, purse sailing down the aisle. A slew of giggles erupted. One boy shouted out, “Nice one.”

As Kassandra stood, her jeans pulled away from a sticky goop splattered across the floor. This morning was going so well.

Someone slapped her arm. It was a brunette girl with square rimmed glasses. “The driver always does that. You have to pick a spot in a hurry.”

“Thanks.” Kassandra clenched the seat tops as the bus swung around a turn. The girl looked harmless. Kassandra could probably scoot into the same seat. But the escaped purse was still sliding along the floor in the back.

“I need to grab my purse.”

The girl shrugged, propped a knee against the seat and dove into a paperback book, folded nearly in half.

Kassandra teetered along the aisle and located the crocheted bag under the last seat. She debated trekking back to Book Girl, but that risked another fall and giggles from the bus riders. Maybe the girl was just being polite. She was busy reading and probably didn’t want some stranger butting in.

Driver Lady’s gaze flashed in the rear view mirror. “Sit down back there,” she barked.

Kassandra plopped onto the nearest seat. A giant rip covered most of the vinyl. Someone had gouged out chunks of yellow foam, leaving a deep crevice. A hint of silver metal peeked through.

Kassandra reviewed the scorecard so far—tripped and stuck in the back. At least she was consistently lame. Yanking the spiral out of her purse, she pressed it flat. White creases from the constant folding and unfolding spread like roots along the red cover.

The spiral stored all the snippets of poetry she loved, mostly lines from Romantics like Keats, Byron or Wordsworth. Scribbled notes and mind dumps inhabited the margins. On one page, she discovered part of Keats’ Ode to a Nightingale

Fade far away, dissolve, and quite forget

What thou among the leaves hast never known

What a joy it’d be to fade away. Just toss the past and move on. Mom took the idea to extremes. If something reminded her of Dad, she sold it, gave it away, or trashed it. Kassandra chuckled. The only thing Mom couldn’t toss out was her. At least not legally.

The bus swerved into the school parking lot. Kassandra placed a hand on the window to keep from sliding into the foam pit. Everyone grabbed their backpacks and jackets. She jammed the notebook into the purse, but spotted a flash of gold peeking from behind some wadded up tissues. She reached for the mystery object.The Tarot cards from the psychic shop. Except they were on the table in the kitchen. Kassandra had seen them. Something unraveled in her brain and one thought floated to the surface—I must be going crazy

Teacher Sterotypes in Writing

As a teacher myself, I get pissed off by the repetitive sterile behaviors writers give teachers in books and films. It seems that almost every educator is a “nice guy” out to help the students. Trust me, this is certainly not the case.

A good example came from a book Wonder where the teacher said, and I quote, “Settle down class.” I’m sure you’ve heard this hundreds of time as I have from other films and books. I’ve never uttered that phrase in class. Ever. Mostly because it’s completely ineffective. It’s what new, right out of university, teachers say because they want to be the students’ friends. Hell with that. I’m not twelve. The kids have enough friends. But only one teacher. I say, “Sit down and give me your attention.” This usually works. I don’t mean to be a hard ass, but every time I ease off on the kids, they go bananas and cause trouble.

Another thing I see in far too many films and novels: the teacher half sitting on the edge of his desk. This is a casual folksy style of teaching that says, “Hey, listen to me. I have some great stuff to teach you.” Nuh uh. This doesn’t work. The kids ignore you and keep doing anything but pay attention. Besides, I’ve tried it and it’s damn uncomfortable.

I’m guessing, and this is long shot, that most people that write about teaching have never taught. Not really. A seminar to adults does not compare to little kids or amped up teens.

Uber teacher Amy Squirrel

Uber teacher Amy Squirrel

The best film that depicted teachers was Bad Teacher. There are plenty that could care less about the students. Others that go overboard in zealous one-up-manships. School is a dramafest, for the students and the teachers. If only writers could capture this.

Tim Kane