The Day My Students Grew Wings
The following story was selected by National Book Award winner Susan Choi as the winner of The Academy for Teachers “Stories Out of School” 2020 flash fiction contest. Choi calls the work “a cut-gem marvel of a story, every facet glittering with beauty and sly humor.”
It had just started snowing when Hiba first noticed the small white feathers growing out of Stella’s shoulders. We weren’t sure what to do so we agreed to table it and revisit the situation in the next class. I considered assigning a response journal on the topic, but decided they had enough to do.
Strange things had been happening since Mia had found the one-eyed grey kitten on her way to school one day. She had smuggled it into the building in her backpack and we fed it bits of beef empanada from the cafeteria and poured cafeteria milk into a bowl I’d bought in Chinatown with a picture of a carp at the bottom. By the end of the day we had named it Dervish and agreed that no matter who took him home, they would bring him back each Friday and we would have Dervish parties. We had been throwing these parties now for three months and he was becoming quite used to being the center of attention. The feathers on Stella’s shoulders seemed to augur a new era, however. Between that and the snow it really was a festive day.
Before Dervish’s arrival we had been reading Marx. What would it take to convince a whole population to live cooperatively? Was this whole school system we were trapped in a consequence of the commodification of education and a demand for constantly higher forms of production, monetized as future college credits and career points to satisfy clamoring parents and superintendents? We all certainly felt exhausted and alienated, we agreed. But maybe it was just midterms that were bringing us down.
Then we were reading Nietzsche and that really brought out the debates. What’s wrong with this so-called slave mentality? Michael asked. Lying and manipulating are legitimate forms of resistance when faced with illegitimate authority based on brute force. But it’s better to retain a noble mindset and look at one’s enemies with pity and mercy, rather than hatred and fear, countered Lucy. Is it better to be lion or lamb? Predator or prey? Does it matter as long as you love that life, no matter the form that it takes? The students tussled for days. In the end, however, we decided that one thing we could agree on was that we all preferred to be yes-sayers. And so when Mia arrived with the kitten, we all said Yes immediately.
Since then, Julia’s teeth seemed to have grown a little sharper. Erica’s hair had taken on a wooly feel, and Michael had these new gray tufts behind his ears and a strange glint in his eyes. I could have sworn Nicola’s skin was taking on a golden, scaly quality. But then again, my eyes were always bleary now from grading ninth grade essays.
Finally it was June and we were reading Virginia Woolf. I had given the students an assignment to try to capture in art or writing the truth about someone or something’s beauty. Then we decided that to honor Mrs. Ramsay, we would throw a party. A friend of mine offered his house upstate; so many of these students never got out of the city. Neither had I since I started this job seven years ago. The towers of new glassy condo buildings that had grown up around the school like silver birches under a witch’s curse were hemming us in, mind and body. The students loved the idea. We’d leave early, take the train up the Hudson, and be back by 5 pm, all within the parameters of the official school trip plan. And since the trip would fall on a Friday, of course we would bring Dervish as well.
When we arrived at the house, the students were thrilled. A meadow stretched out back, ringed by fir trees on three sides and a river on the fourth. All they wanted to do was play. Can we stay here forever? they pleaded. Do we really have to go back and face final exams, another round of dreary reports? Well, how could I say no? At three o’clock, as we were supposed to head back to the train, Dervish licked his right paw and ran straight into the forest. And yelping and singing with delight, the students unfurled their wings and preened their fur and bolted after him. What could I do but shake out my tail and follow?
Teachers have one of the most fascinating, difficult, and important jobs on the planet, and their work days are filled with stories. Yet teachers seldom appear in fiction. This annual contest was created by The Academy for Teachers, which seeks to raise respect for the teaching profession. There were two criteria for submissions: that the story’s protagonist or its narrator be a teacher, and that the story be between 6 and 749 words long.