Posts Tagged ‘short story’
Short Story: On Mercy Killing in the First Grade (or, how I stopped worrying and learned to appreciate punch lines)
Short story: On Mercy Killing in the First Grade (or, how I stopped worrying and learned to appreciate punch lines)
I’ve known the meaning of the term “mercy killing” since I was 7 years old. First grade aged me considerably. You’re probably trying to picture me at 7 years old. I remember bits and pieces. My hair had a part down the middle and a plait on each side that my mom braided while we watched the Today Show. I was into neon stirrup pants – with matching hair ties, shoe laces, and mom-painted shirts. I had red framed glasses “ABCs” on them. I might not have needed glasses then but I knew I’d look good and smart in them. I wish I could go back in time for my sneaker collection: LA Gears with lights flashing in the back, black British Knights with gold details, and high tops with the (useless) basketball-shaped squeeze pump on each tongue.
“Hurry up!” I yelled at TJ as we ran from the school bus to our classroom. For him being on the baseball team, and me being a girl, I thought it was ridiculous that he lagged so far behind. Everyday after school I would run from the bus, down the street, and up two flights of stairs with my best friend TJ. We were into Mighty Morphin’ Power Rangers, Super Nintendo, and riding our 10-gear bikes (they were the envy of our apartment complex). TJ and I were juice-box pals in toddler care but now my ambition often left him behind. “Ugh – I’ll save you a spot there!” I screamed back at him and picked up my pace. I wanted something badly – badly enough to make my best friend to fend for himself on the morning filled bully playground. I slowed down as I got to the door, threw my backpack in my cubby, and speed-walked to the corner of the classroom. “DAN! SIMON! QUIT IT!” I yelled. Dan and Simon tried to shoulder check me out of line. All of my best friends were also my competitors – whether it was beating their saved games on Super Mario Brothers, finding the best hiding spot during our Super Soaker revenge matches, or getting what I wanted in school. We were competing for a glimpse of our newly hatched baby chickens. I wanted to give one water with a dropper, pet it, and sing to it. Although I had only known them for a day, these chickens were my life. I was the youngest – both my older brother and sister were out of the house most of the time. I never had a pet you could touch – except when you were giving it a toilet flush funeral.
The chickens were Mr. Clement’s idea. He was my first grade teacher and taught by puppet and song. Mr. Clement was not overly nice, like my Kindergarten teacher, who made me doubt her authority. Mr. Clement had shaggy hair, blue jeans, white tennis shoes, and a guitar that seemed glued to his hands. He was my first encounter with a Seattle hippie. Mr. Clement wrote a song for every lesson. He taught me about commas – how they slowed the words that often fell out of my big mouth. He also taught me about subtraction. Taking things away. I doubt he thought our classroom pet project would turn into a subtraction lesson.
My first grade class hatched the chicks for a project. We kept the eggs warm in an incubator, did research about where we’d send the chicks to live a happy life (and not end up in a sandwich or on the playground), and learned about the life cycles about animals that hatched from eggs. We picked out chick names, had chores (I liked incubator watch-duty), and directed our read-alouds to the eggs. Finally, the eggs hatched and four chicks came into the world. We watched them sip water and rest. We were proud parents. All I could talk about was the chicks – I’m sure my mom was tired of hearing about them.
“Ahh!” someone gasped. There were three chicks in the “coop” instead of four. I kept my calm – first graders always hope for the best. “Maybe he’s at the doctor or visiting another class!” I said. Mr. Clement frowned. His eyes were red and guitar-ready fingers were shaking.
We sat down on the carpet. “When I came into the classroom this morning, I noticed one of the chickens was in pain,” Mr. Clement started. The classroom fell silent and students’ eyes were already welling up with tears. “His organs were outside of his body when he was born – he was in a lot of pain”. I felt everyone hold their breath for what was coming next.
“I decided to stop his pain by holding his beak shut and putting his head in a cup of water…..he needed to die so he wouldn’t feel pain anymore. It was a mercy killing”. Usually first graders know how to comfort each other when there is bad news, but this was too much for us to handle. Welling tears turned into soul wracking sobs. I didn’t cry. I patted TJ on the back. “Don’t worry” I said.
Parents expect to outlive their children. I expected to keep the chicks company for a few days and then ship them off to a beautiful farm and receive postcards from time to time (kind of like when my mom told my brother to go to college). My hopes were dashed. The rest of the day is a blur. When we got off of the bus, I didn’t race TJ to my house. Although I was wearing neon colors and light up shoes, I felt dim.
“What happened today at school? Where’s TJ?” asked my dad while he made me a snack in the kitchen. “Nothing….I’m just tired, that’s all”. Without a peep from the television or finishing my after school snack (my favorite meal of the day), I slinked into bed and took a nap. A long, long nap. That day changed me forever. Long naps are my primary mode of escape. Now, I’m a pleasant cynic. I know things I love can be taken from me at any moment and often we have to be the ones who pull the plug. I know to taunt the world for its uncertainty and absurdity. I’m not a first grader who hopes for the best. Instead, I’m a 23 year old looking for punch lines.
I’ve managed to fit 17 years of school memories into a blue tub in the back of my closet. As I placed my recent acquisitions into the tub (my (sweaty) graduation gown, tassel, cum laude ropes, and cap), I found a short story that I wrote for my pre-calculus class in the 11th grade.
Ah, 11th grade pre-calc… I had an adversarial relationship with my teacher. So adversarial, that we had to have a mediated meeting with the head of the upper school and the dean of students. Our relationship has a few redeeming qualities: on high school graduation day, my old math teacher gave each student a bound book containing each of the stories she had us write about mathematical concepts. I wouldn’t have remembered the class or what I was like in the 11th grade without this book. I chose to write a short piece about existentialism – I discovered satire and existentialism in the 11th grade (I liked the fact that I could rebrand my ‘smartass’ comments as ‘satirical’ and my intellectual highmindedness as ‘existential’).
The Kindergarten Existentialist
A short story
Life, society, and math held no mystery for me until that fateful day in Kindergarten when my teacher thought it was time for her students to understand nothingness as an existential truth. Zero.
She drew a circle before the numbers 1, 2, and 3. She asked us if we knew what the circle was. Being the “smart kid” in the class, I raised my hand and confidently answered “it’s a circle!!!” The class nodded in agreement. The teacher said that I was “almost” correct. Me? “Almost correct”? – that in itself was a new concept for me. She said that this “circle” had a special meaning behind it. I was right and my mind. Clearly, she was wrong. I was never “almost correct” until I met her. She was the problem. I stared out of the window and let my classmates deal with this mystery “circle”.
She gave us a simple math problem: 1+1. The answer was not new news to me: 2. I doodled anti-teacher cartoons on my paper. She put a new problem on the board: circle + 1. Silence from the peanut gallery. She told us that the circle was called “zero”. Good hint. Without raising my hand I boldly answered: “zero 1!!!!”. She ignored my outburst and told us that this was an easier problem than “1 + 1” because zero means nothing – so, whenever we see “0+number”, the answer would be the number next to the zero. The rest of the class nodded in understanding and relief. This was much easier than the algebra homework they saw their siblings doing at home. The math lesson was over for the day. My blissfully ignorant peers rushed out of the classroom and onto the playground. I stayed behind.
I always had many questions and my teacher prided herself on her ability to answer any questions asked by kindergartners. We had a good relationship. I asked her to explain zero again. She did it the same was as before. Zero is nothing. I asked “if zero is nothing, then how come it is something we have to learn during math time?” I continued: “Why does zero need a symbol if it represents nothing?”. I violated the terms of our relationship. I asked questions that she could not answer. She could no longer pride herself on being able to answer the questions of kindergartners. She told me to go outside. I went outside and started playing because there was no point in wasting a break.
I think all of my problems with math, life, and society stem from this moment. I drew the shapes on the playground with chalk. My classmates had no answers for me. They lived for shadows on the wall. I had seen the sun. I was Plato’s enlightened prisoner. I’ve realized that the questions I have about life stem from zero: As human beings, how can we rationalize nothing as something? What is nothing? Do we just call it ‘nothing’ so that we can dismiss it? Does empiricism make us prone to naivety? Does existence come before essence? How can something have no value if it exists? Are my feelings of nausea indicators of the existential anguish I feel about my place in society?
The existentialist does not lead an easy life. Existentialists violate the terms of healthy relationships. Have you ever met an existentialist who did not believe that they were a cut above the rest? Have you met an existentialist who didn’t use the word “existentialist” at least 20 times per day to convey their superior position in the cave of shadows?
All of my social inadequacies and math issues could be easily cured if I understood one thing: the essence of nothing (which is obviously something).
This math assignment is interesting – I wonder if I can adapt it for future lessons.