AN INTRODUCTION BY Halimah Marcus
So many of childhood fantasies are, from the perspective of a worry-prone adult, nightmares: running away, becoming an orphan, living in a boxcar. Yet the realities of such disorder eventually trump our desire for it; any kid who has tried to run away knows the feeling of getting half way down the block with a backpack and thinking, in a word, crap. This is the moment in which we find the narrator of Lincoln Michel’s tale of scholastic anarchy, “Our Education.” He is trapped in a school from which the teachers have all disappeared, but in his case, there is no option to break the fantasy, to go home.
This earnest and cautious young student continues to work on his final assignment in secret, searching for clues of the teachers and their legacy. “I cannot say what the lack of faculty means,” he thinks, in a deliciously ambiguous turn of phrase. Yet even to speculate on such matters is forbidden. “The concept of the teachers is absurd. What kind of teacher would leave their students?” says the tyrant of the group, former football team captain Clint Bulger. “Such a teacher would be no teacher at all.” And here Lincoln reveals an ontological fissure, one of the many things he does so well: the teachers never existed because they failed to meet the definition of teachers.
All the while the teachers’ lounge, authority’s dark spaceship, is a tall, black column that sits at the center of the cafeteria. Some, who can’t believe the teachers have vanished, think they are holed-up inside, watching. Whenever a hero falls — Lance Armstrong dopes, Bill Clinton cheats, Martha Stewart commits insider trading — I can’t help but think of the Simon and Garfunkel lyrics, “Where have you gone Joe DiMaggio? Our nation turns it lonely eyes to you.” Because in the absence of a hero, what once was a pillar, an organizing principle, is now a dark center — the vacuous teachers’ lounge around which the students, whether they like it or not, eat tater tots and run free.
TIME PASSES UNEXPECTEDLY or, perhaps, inexactly at the school. It’s hard to remember what semester we are supposed to be in. Several of the clocks still operate, but they don’t show the same time. The red bells, affixed in every room, erupt several times each day, yet the intervals between the disruptions wax and wane with an unknown algorithm. The windows are obscured by construction paper murals. Consequently, the sun rises and falls in complete ignorance of those of us attending the school. Many of us participated in the decorations in some lost point of childhood. A few of us still have dried glue under our fingernails.
In the room I sit in now, the windows are covered with a glitter and glue reenactment of the colonization of Roanoke by Sir Walter Raleigh. Outside of the window, who knows?
In my spare time, I write notes for an assignment on my education at the school. I’ve always believed that I’m destined for somewhere better. In my hidden heart, I hold hope that my essay will help me get out of the school.
My classmates laugh at me, even my second closest friend.
“You’ll never turn this in,” he says, grabbing at my notebook. “There will never be anyone to accept it!”
“Leave him alone,” Beanpole Paula says.
“Of course you defend him,” he says, winking at her from beneath his self-cropped brown hair.
Beanpole Paula gives my second closest friend a sharp shove. His shirt bears the logo of a rock band I’ve never heard. When he smiles, I see his braces are discolored with vending machine candy. What’s his name? Either Tommy or Timmy.
Obviously we no longer learn anything at the school or, perhaps more accurately, we learn many things, but not the things that we were meant to learn. We learn about love and pain and friendship. A few of us even learn about fornication, most by watching from afar (twice Carmichael, a small and sickly boy, and I have snuck behind the bleachers to watch the more muscular and nimble students tear off each other’s gym uniforms). History, mathematics, and biology are subjects lost to another time. Most of our textbooks have been repurposed for fuel. There is an ongoing fire in the back corner of the cafeteria.
I myself only have two books, novels long past their stamped due dates, which I keep tucked underneath spare clothes in the back of my locker.
Much of our hushed hallway discussion concerns the teachers. Surrounded by the pale orange lockers, nasty words are uttered. The whispering is merely a habit. The teachers are all dead. Or else they are sleeping. Or in hiding. All that is known is that the teachers have disappeared and the teachers’ lounge is barricaded from the inside.
After the lunch bell, I hurry back to the front hallway with Beanpole Paula. We have an armload of chicken sandwiches, no sauce.
“That was close,” she says.
Paula is almost six feet tall and walks with her back hunched over. I find her awkwardness endearing. She is, currently, my closest friend. We know that our arrangement might end as soon as tomorrow, so when we smile at each other there is a conspiracy in the air. We slap hands in celebration.
“We make a good team,” Paula says, pressing a sandwich to her mouth with both hands. “Let’s always stick together.”
Then Timmy interrupts us, rounding the corner with a half-eaten pizza slice.
Randal has staked the position that the disappearance of the teachers is a victory for the students.
“This school only ever existed to beat us down and prepare us for a world in which we were powerless and others were powerful. Homework is indoctrination, education a cog in the machine of the ruling class.”
Timmy cheers him on enthusiastically. “What can you learn from teachers and tests?” he hoots. “The whole system is fucked from the start.”
Beanpole Paula and Carmichael, on the other hand, hold a different point of view. They are distraught about our lack of teachers.
“What if the teachers have gone in search of better students?” Paula says. “What if we have been forsaken? Left behind?”
Despite beckoning from both sides, I don’t enter the debates. I cannot say what the lack of faculty means. I am, however, working to preserve my chances if the teachers do return. I want to believe that if they return, I will be chosen to graduate to a better place. This is why I work on the assignment in my spare time.
I keep the paper folded in my back pocket. I don’t remember when I received it, but it’s my strongest proof that our teachers are coming back. The sheet of paper says:
In your own words, a) what is the goal of your education and b) how far are you, in your mind, to achieving this goal?
The top left corner lists the time period, classroom number, and teacher from which the assignment supposedly came. Second period, Room 17, Ms. Hannah. I hold the assignment close to my face and try to remember her. I see an older woman with dyed black hair and a blue ankle-length dress, but the image is as blurry as a bigfoot photo.
“Do you like her?”
Beanpole Paula’s eyes follow mine as they follow the globe-like behind of Lydia Pill.
“I don’t even know her,” I say.
“That wasn’t the question.”
In my memories, Lydia and I sat next to each other in sexual education class. We were paired up for several projects. Now, as I watch her body cross the room, my mind conjures up diagrams, illustrations, and statistics. I try to visualize those impossible organs hiding behind her clothes. I begin to sweat.
Lydia is walking with her hand held by Clint Bulger. Bulger is, or I suppose I should say was, the captain of the football team. We’re all most afraid of Bulger and the other jocks who, having cordoned off the basketball courts and adjacent locker rooms, have access to softball bats, hockey sticks, and other weapons.
“I don’t know,” I say, watching them stroll by without even looking at us. Lydia’s golden hair sways between her shoulder blades in one thick ponytail.
“I knew it,” Paula says loudly. She grabs at her hair. “I know everything. I have terrible powers.”
“What’s wrong?” I say, turning to Paula. She looks very sad. I place a hand on her shoulder to comfort her. Then her face changes and I realize that she isn’t sad, but angry. She twists my arm around my back and pushes me off the radiator. I struggle, but Paula uses the leverage of her long limbs to pin me to the tile floor.
“You think you will be the only one rewarded. I can see into the future and I know exactly what horrible tragedy you are heading toward.” Her voice is very loud now. “While you, you can’t even see things stuck under your nose!”
Through the patchwork of Paula’s brown hair, I watch Lydia and Bulger disappear up the staircase.
One quirk of the school is the teachers’ lounge, which has been built in the center of the massive cafeteria. The school is three stories tall and the lounge is a large cylindrical structure in center of the school. The lounge is constructed from large tinted windows. This dark glass faces the clear windows of the classrooms with a four-foot gap between them.
Most of the students, even those who are convinced the teachers have vanished, find the teachers’ lounge to be an uneasy presence. Consequentially, only the least popular and most powerless of the cliques occupy any of the classrooms. The rest of us only enter the classrooms to scavenge for supplies, and even then we hoist our t-shirts above our noses to mask our identity.
Perhaps it’s not accurate to call this structure the teachers’ lounge. This is merely our assumption. Nothing about it, from the outside, appears particularly lounge-like. Its doors are bolted shut and it’s the only room or structure that is inaccessible to us. Any surviving teachers must be inside if they remain in the school. We have searched all other rooms and found no bodies, living or dead.
While holding a pile of reheated tater tots in the scoop of my t-shirt, I run into Lydia. She is drinking a diet soda right there in the middle of the cafeteria. When we collide, the tater tots scatter across the floor.
“Whoops!” she says. I watch her mouth as she says this. Her lips are plump and appealing. I have never yet kissed a girl’s lips. I’ve only had Beanpole Paula’s touch my cheeks.
“I’m sorry,” I say.
I get on my knees to sweep up the little brown barrels.
“Don’t worry about it,” she says and bends down in front of me, her padded breasts at the exact same level as my eyes.
She is wearing strong deodorant. The smell wraps around me and I begin to feel dizzy.
“Do you remember me? We were in health together, maybe biology too.”
“Oh yeah,” she says. “You used to draw those funny pictures of the teachers on the desks, right?”
She laughs and I laugh with her.
“I’d almost forgotten about that. It was so long ago, it seems like a dream.”
I look into her eyes as her hands place the tots in mine.
“What the fuck are you two doing on the floor?” yells Clint Bulger, emerging from the kitchen with a plate of fries.
I don’t believe that Bulger suspects anything, but he has begun squinting at me when we pass outside of the boys’ room.
Sneaking out of a mathematics classroom, I run into Beanpole Paula and Timmy (I have decided that this is indeed his name) talking in hushed whispers by the cork notice board. Timmy has one hand stroking Paula’s improbably thin limbs.
“I didn’t see you there,” Paula says, backing away suddenly from Timmy.
Timmy says nothing, only shifts his eyes between Paula and mine.
I’ve decided that I can no longer allow my friends to be aware of my assignment. I have to write in the stall of the boys’ room while moaning and imitating stomach problems if anyone enters. I may have to abandon the assignment altogether. The faction that hates our missing teachers grows stronger every day. I don’t want to arouse any kind of suspicion. It’s best to blend in.
“How is your paper coming along?” the brown-haired Tommy (I was mistaken before) says to me. He is leaning against the lockers and drumming on his knees.
“What paper? I destroyed that a long time ago,” I say loudly. “I used a Bunsen burner from the biology closet.”
Tommy regards me silently with a smirk. I have been downgraded out of his closest circle of friends.
I think that most of us believe that time doesn’t really exist outside of the school. Or at least we act like it does not. This is to say, we know that in theory there was life before the school and that there will be life after the school if we can ever get out. But the time that passes here is the immediate time and the problems of our life in the school are the problems that seem the most real to us. Take, for example, my situation with Lydia. I would likely trade years of my future for her soft lips today.
Beliefs evolve. Many of the students who only yesterday seemingly hated our teachers now deny that they ever existed. Tommy angrily tells us that no teachers ever lived and if they did, they certainly didn’t teach. They only watched us and recorded our actions and doled out punishments or rewards while laughing from inside the dark lounge.
“But I remember the lessons,” Carmichael says meekly. “I can still smell the erasers and hear the squeak of chalk.”
Tommy hooks Carmichael’s neck with one arm and mercilessly digs knuckles into his scalp with the other. The rest of us watch, our convictions hidden inside.
There were teachers once. There was Mrs. Waxwell, Mr. Cupp, Ms. Flex, Mrs. Schlessinger, Mr. and Mrs. Slaughter, Ms. Hannah, Mr. Gunten, Coach Childer, Coach de Flaubert, Mrs. Always, at least two nurses, several guidance counselors, and other assorted faculty members and school staff whose names I have forgotten. This is something I still believe.
Tensions are becoming increasingly apparent in our group. Carmichael and others are rebelling at Tommy’s ascendency. Beanpole Paula is trying to broker peace. I fear for the worst.
I must confess that I can no longer remember the specifics of any teacher. Their faces are gaps in my mind. In the early days, when we were all still close, I scavenged with Paula and Tommy. We found objects that are hard to explain: cold cups of coffee, stacks of gold stickers, a lone woman’s shoe.
Is it possible that these articles are not real? That they were fabricated by some unknown force? (The force inside the dark lounge?) Did we students, in our weakness, fabricate whole memories from these scattered, pointless items?
Even these few remains are disappearing. Roving bands scour the old classrooms and destroy all heretical items on the orders of Bulger.
Did I forget to mention that Bulger has recently, through a series of calculated attacks and negotiations, consolidated power among the school groups? All decisions on the school must now go through him. He holds court in the equipment room, surrounded by balls and sticks.
I’m not sure what is happening with Paula. She does not confide in me anymore. She won’t talk to me alone, only in our group, and even then Tommy will tug at her elbow if it’s for more than a sentence.
“I’ve got to go,” she says, looking at the floor.
Her change in habits has led to odd feelings in my stomach. I used to think of Paula as an old friend, no different than Carmichael, Malcolm, or anyone else. But now that she is no longer near me, I begin to regard her in a new light.
How did I, before, miss the delicate shine of her brown hair or the way her eyes feel so joyful even when they are full of sorrow?
There has been a significant development. Timmy Thomas (here lies the source of my confusion) and Malcolm have discovered camouflaged cables running from the teachers’ lounge. The cables are hidden beneath the carpet and fliers on the wall. When the cables reach the ceiling, they blossom out through the various vents and openings in the ceiling.
This information was turned over to Clint Bulger who praised Timmy and Malcolm for their service. I always knew that Timmy had wanted to be a part of Bulger’s crowd, and had only settled for us when he had been spurned. Now Bulger has promoted them to official members of his clique.
We’re not sure where the cables lead. There are whispers that the teachers are still watching us through hidden cameras. That one day soon they will surface and either reward or punish us for our actions. The old beliefs reemerging.
Bulger is angered by these rumors. He believes they give hope to radical elements.
“Cut them,” he orders. “Cut them all.”
“Oh, I didn’t see you there.”
“I was waiting for you. I feel that I have things I have to tell you. Things about you and about me. Weird things, wobbly feelings in my chest, that I’ve started to discover.”
“Oh no, not now! It’s too late now!”
Two tears beginning to form in the corners of her lovely eyes.
Disaster! The draft of my assignment on the state of our education has been found. I’m dragged through the coldly lit hallways by two ex-linebackers. Although I stopped working on the essay a long time ago, I couldn’t destroy it. There was some small hope glimmering in the back of my mind.
The ex-linebackers toss me on the equipment room floor. Clint Bulger sits on the coach’s chair. To the right, Timmy Thomas whispers into his ear. To the left, Lydia flips the pages of a magazine with her delicate fingers. She doesn’t even look down at me. Why had I even imagined the possibility of a connection between us?
In front of me lay the crumpled pages of my assignment and an old teacher’s tie that I had saved from destruction.
“What do you have to say about all this?” Bulger bellows.
“How did you get my locker combination?” I say.
Timmy chuckles. “Did you think I’d forget your precious essay?”
“You know that worship of the false teachers is forbidden,” Bulger says. He stands up, holding an aluminum baseball bat as his staff. He picks up one page of my essay and smoothes it out.
“‘The goal of our education is to afford us the skills needed to graduate and pursue further education at greater institutions.’” He snorts. “What does that even mean? That our education never ends? That we are trapped in a hell of infinite schools?”
He crumples the page back up and tosses it on the floor.
“The concept of the teachers is absurd. What kind of teacher would leave their students? Such a teacher would be no teacher at all. So, we must conclude that the teachers are a false tale that students tell themselves to avoid facing the real struggles in their lives. They are a myth, but a harmful one.”
“If that is true,” I say, getting to my knees, “then who do you think is in the black lounge?”
“Silence!” Timmy yells.
Clint merely laughs.
I’m being held in the equipment cage. My guard passes me Gatorade and granola bars through the gaps. Clint Bulger comes to see me, to ask if I repent. I say nothing.
“You know,” he says, sitting on a kickball, “you look very familiar to me.”
“Yes!” I say, hoping to appeal to his sense of fraternity. I crawl closer to the mesh.
“We used to ride the bus together. We both sat in the back row. We were almost friends.”
“No,” Bulger says. He sighs and rises. “You still don’t understand. There never was any bus.”
I’m napping on a pile of gym mats when I hear a voice softly say my name.
“They let me see you,” Beanpole Paula says. “I said I’d reason with you.”
She slips me a chocolate chip cookie through the gap. Her hand brushes mine as she does.
“Thanks,” I say.
“Do you really want to leave the school so badly?”
“I could stay,” I say, leaning against the cage. “I could stay with you.”
She looks at me with a look that feels like it is traveling to me from some vast, cold distance. Then she turns her head away.
“I’m with Timmy now. You know that.”
“I don’t know what’s true and what’s false. I only believe that there must be a better, more important place than this.”
“Then I hope you find it,” Paula says. She starts to say something else, but instead turns away with her mouth ajar.
Past crushes, friends, rivals, and strangers alike jeer and shout as I’m dragged through the hallway.
My head pulses as it hits the tile floor. A little stream of blood trickles out of my nose. When I raise my head, I see the dark teachers’ lounge towering over me.
“This heretic has turned his back on all of us,” Bulger shouts. The student body has assembled on the different floors overlooking the cafeteria. They are silent and watching. “But we aren’t unreasonable people. In fact, we want to give him a choice. He may repent and return to his clique, or he may live for the rest of his days inside his sacred lounge.”
The shouts of the students fall around me. I look up at the different faces looking down at me. Some are sympathetic, some seem angry, and many others are merely bored. The most venomous face belongs to Timmy. He sneers at me, then spits on the floor.
Paula is next to him and her eyes are red. I look into them, hoping, perhaps, for some sign. I think that maybe she will leap forward and block the entrance, telling the whole school of our love. But she doesn’t move. She looks back at me with resignation, as if she was reminiscing about those lost, carefree recesses spent swinging from monkey bars.
I turn back to the looming dark walls of the lounge.
“If he has nothing to say, so be it,” Bulger says. “Boys, open.”
The ex-linebackers jam crowbars into the door of the black lounge. It takes four of them to finally swing it open with a loud crack. The inside is the blackest black I have ever seen. As the doors are pulled open, everything seems to be silent. I can no longer hear the heckles or shouts of my fellow students. My friends and enemies fade away behind me. The only thing before me is the darkness of the lounge.
I’m on my knees in front of the doorway, holding my assignment out in my hand.