Jane Dickins rubbed her opal ring nervously as she sat on the edge of the black leather chair in the principal's office. Outside the window maple trees dropped colorful leaves on the sidewalk, and children scuffed through them, shouting.
"This," said Terence Beacham, leaning across his large wooden desk so his black Kennedy-styled bangs draped over his forehead, "is your stungun." He handed her a slim grey metal box that looked like something off the set of Star Trek. "I know you'll use it carefully, but don't worry if you hit the wrong kid now and then -- the kids all know they've done something to deserve it." He sat back in his emerald green executive chair and smiled. "Welcome to Tampa Sixth Grade Center."
Jane turned the device over gingerly, being careful not to chip her fingernail polish. Two penny-sized red buttons on one side glared at her like beady eyes. "I'd heard the National Education Association was concerned about discipline in the classroom, but I didn't know teachers had to carry guns." Then a wave of indignation engulfed her. They shoot children, do they?! "I won't be needing it!" She held the gun by its snout, offering its butt to Mr. Beacham.
Terence shook his head. His styled hair tossed wholesomely, and he smiled. "Your fingerprints have been programmed into the trigger, so the students can't use it on you if they get it away from you."
He was so different from gray-haired Mrs. Talley, who had been principal when Jane attended this school. Jane tried to imitate Mrs. Talley's cool stare on Mr. Beacham, but he continued unabashed.
"Press both buttons simultaneously to fire the stun beam. The two buttons are far apart so you can't accidentally fire the gun when you pick it up. I charged the gun last night -- it holds enough charge for 100 shots. Each shot will put a child out for two hours. They'll learn not to disobey you." Terence clasped his hands behind his neck, exposing his sweat-free armpits. "If that's not enough for one day, you can recharge it during your lunch break."
Jane tried again for that imperious Mrs. Talley look. "I don't expect I'll be using it." She stood more quickly than she intended and her stockings squeaked against the black leather chair. Trying to look as if she put guns into her purse every day, Jane tucked the stungun into her purse, clicked the purse flap shut, and turned to leave the office.
"Just be sure to file a list with the nurse of all the students you shoot each day," Terence said as she stepped through the doorway of his office. "The Florida Medical Association requires us to keep records."
Jane glanced back at Terence Beacham and saw him as an imposter principal who didn't belong in Mrs. Talley's chair. He turned his face to the computer screen on his desk. Jane knew he hadn't heard a thing she'd said.
"Thank you for your concern. I don't expect I'll be using it," she said to the halls as she left the principal's office. Her whole time in school, the only time Jane had ever been called to the principal's office was to receive awards. This gun was the first thing she had received there that she didn't want to run home and show her parents.
As she walked down salmon-pink halls to her classroom, her footsteps echoed like a chant, "Be good! Be good!" She felt happy that the old sickly green walls had been repainted in cheerful colors. This principal might be have some good in him after all.
Other teachers wandering through the halls or leaning out their doors greeted her. "Don't smile until Thanksgiving," called one. "Shoot when you see the whites of their eyes," said another. "Don't expect them to remember anything from last year," laughed a third. Jane glanced into each teacher's classroom as she passed. On each desk she saw saw a stungun poised next to a blue plastic roll book.
Jane entered her own classroom just as the bell rang. She stashed her purse under her desk and stood by the heavy wooden hallway door eager to greet the children.
She planned to shake each of their hands -- give them the personal touch.
Jane recognized her first student. Alicea Favero had been in first grade when Jane was in third grade. She was still in first grade two years later when Jane skipped fifth grade and went on to the sixth grade center. "Hi, Alicea. All ready for sixth grade?" She smiled, and wondered if this was Alicea's first time in the sixth grade.
"Yes ma'am." Alicea Favero bowed her head. "I know eighteen's kind of old for sixth grade, but better late than never."
"You used to beat me at jump rope and jacks when you were in first grade and I was in third. Jane smiled hoping she wouldn't have to be the one to flunk Alicea again.
Other children crowded past them from the halls. They smirked at Alicea already having picked her for class dummy. Jane felt protective instincts toward her older student, but she remembered the scorn she too had felt for Alicea when she was in sixth grade. Alicea was only two years younger than herself.
"I know you'll learn lots of things in sixth grade," she said. Then she turned her attention to the red-headed boy whose fingers aimed a rubber band at Alicea's back.
Jane grabbed his hand and shook it. "I'm Ms. Dickins. Welcome to my sixth grade class." The boy pouted and pulled away from her.
Newly arriving students swarmed past her and milled around the classroom. They climbed on chairs, tugged down posters she had carefully pinned to the bulletin boards, and threw erasers at the ceiling lights.
Jane glanced across the room and saw Alicea seated quietly in the front row.
"I've planned a seating chart," she said to her. "But you can take any seat you want." There couldn't be any harm in treating an eighteen-year-old a little differently from the younger students. Especially since this eighteen-year-old seemed to be the only student in the room who knew how to behave in a classroom.
Seeing Alicea seated reminded her the bell had rung. She was the teacher now, and she had a curriculum to attend to.
"Class," said Jane, in her most commanding voice. "Line up against the wall, with your hands at your sides. I'll call your names alphabetically, and tell you where to sit."
The students continued jumping from chair to scuff-proof chair, shouting "Nyah, nyah, can't catch me!"
She flicked off the classroom lights, and waited for silence. Students screamed. One imitated a banshee. Another sounded like a murder victim in a B-grade horror movie. One of the quieter children shouted, "I'm afraid of the dark!" Still another said, "Turn the lights back on. She's afraid." "I'm afraid, too," said a boy. Students laughed.
Jane cleared her throat. "I'll turn the lights on when you are all seated and quiet." At the edge of her mind, a thought about the stungun tickled. But she reassured herself -- her teachers hadn't needed guns, and she wouldn't either.
"How are we supposed to find seats in the dark?" asked a girl's voice.
Jane did not reply.
Eventually, all was quiet. Jane took a deep breath and said, "When I turn on the lights, line up against the wall with your hands at your sides, and I'll call your names alphabetically to tell you where to sit." She kept the lights off a few seconds longer, enjoying the peace, and then flipped the switch.
A teacher from down the hall leaned into her classroom, his neatly trimmed beard scratching against the glossy-painted orange door jamb. "Keep it down in here. Your students are distracting my class."
"I'm assigning seats," said Jane.
"Still," asked the other teacher in disbelief. "You should have accomplished that ten minutes ago."
"I had to get control."
"That's what the gun is for."
"I'd prefer not to use the gun," said Jane firmly.
"You'll learn," said the other teacher, spinning on his heel. His footsteps echoed in the polished hall, "Be quiet. Be quiet."
Jane turned to her class again, expecting to see sixty students all eyes upon her, seated at curved plastiform study modules. Instead, she noticed half a dozen empty seats and the remaining children had turned toward the back of the classroom. In front of the yellow bulletin board, several girls were sitting on boys' shoulders' their skirts hiked up to expose their frilly underwear. The girls were gleefully unfastening light-tubes from the ceiling, and stuffing the ends into the boys' pants pockets. Jane knew she mustn't give them a chance to argue with her or even talk at all. She pulled the gun from her purse.
"You said you weren't going to use that thing,' said one of the boys, defensively.
Before she could think of a response, Jane felt her fingers squeeze the cold red buttons. A thin white beam shot from the gun, skimmed the shoulders of two whispering boys, passed under the upraised arm of a girl hurling a spitball, and struck the offender in the chest. The boy thudded to the floor. Jane reached for her roll book to write down his name, but realized she didn't know it yet.
Ignoring their fallen classmate, the other students lined up sullenly against the wall. Jane's hands sweated and her heart sped, but she forced herself not to glance at the fallen child. Any show of sympathy would cost her control of the class again. She marvelled that using the gun had brought results where respect had failed -- it felt unfair, and too easy.
How was she supposed to keep a hawk-eye on the children while reading their names from the roll book? How had stern but loveable Ms. Talley done it? Jane balanced the floppy blue rollbook in one hand and peeked furtively at it, like looking into a rearview mirror on a mad freeway. After each glimpse at the book, she swept her gaze over the children, trying to spy the causes for assorted squeaks and gasps. The pinches and pulled pigtails were as invisible to her now as they had been when she was in sixth grade. How had Ms. Talley spotted the evil-doers?
Jane tried out a Katherine Hepburn imperious glare and called out the children's names assigning them to their seats. She gave Alicea the seat she had chosen at the front of the class, even though it was not what she had planned on her carefully drawn seating chart. One of the children protested, "She should go..." but Jane tapped her gun, and the child quieted.
At lunch, Jane sat at a long blue formica-topped table with the other teachers in a room just off the main cafeteria. Over the clatter and yelling from the other room, Jane heard a voice asking her "How far did you get in the history lesson?" She turned and saw that the speaker was the bearded teacher who had interrupted her class.
"Page seven," she responded proudly, as she cut into her lasagne with her bent cafeteria fork. "We're on the first set of questions now."
"Don't hesitate to use that gun," the bearded teacher told her. "My kids have turned in @u(all) the history answers already, and ar on their math. That's a pretty slow start for me. I should be done with the math by now, too. The state says we've got to do every assignment in all our books this year. You don't have time for disruptions and dawdling."
A woman in a yellow blouse with matching flowered earrings leaned across the table. "I thought the way you do during my first year here, and I almost quit teaching. I went home every day frustrated that the kids weren't working. They didn't respect me for trying to treat them like people. They thought I was a softie and worked every day to see what they could get away with instead of doing their assignments."
"She's not exaggerating," volunteered the woman in a red suit who sat to Jane's left. "One day at the end of last year, I had to go in and rescue her. The kids had stolen her gun and some of them were throwing chalk and books at her while others held her against the blackboard. One of them was about to stab her in the eye with a pencil when I walked in."
"And her kids scored the lowest in the whole school," added a man sitting across the table, whose hair sprouted in a 2-inch afro cut up on the left to reveal a gold hoop earring dangling from his ear. "Shoot first and teach later. That's what I say."
"But I thought making the students pass competency tests before letting them go on to the next grade level was supposed to make them appreciate learning," Jane said, using the tone of voice that had won her honors in debate. "Don't they learn more in a trusting environment?"
"Theory is one thing. Real life is another," interrupted the bearded teacher. "Now go back in there and shoot the works! You can do it" First you get quiet. And then you get learning." The bearded man patted her shoulder.
"But I liked school. When I went to this school, nobody used guns. I want my students to like it here, too." Jane felt tears rise to her eyes.
"We all cry the first week. You'll get over it," comforted the teacher in the yellow blouse.
Jane looked at the lasagne-laden fork halfway to her mouth, and put it down. She was too upset to eat.
The school bell buzzed, shaking the floor, the chairs, the table, even the food on her plate. Like automatons, the teachers pushed back their chairs and began to march to their classrooms. Their steps echoed, "Shoot them. Shoot them." Jane held back her tears as she followed. The floor of each classroom she passed was littered with the limp bodies of stunned children.
"How many of you used cash registers on your jobs last year?" asked Jane, holding chalk up to the board.
Only Alicea raised her hand.
"Nick Moores, I saw you at the Handy Carry shop. You rang up my bill there," She said cheerily. She was trying to make the lesson relevant.
"Yeah," said Nick, putting his pencil to his desktop and drawing a swastika.
"Then, why didn't you raise your hand?" asked Jane.
"I don't know. I wasn't paying attention." Nick drew a stick figure with curly hair under the swastika and labeled it "Kill Jane."
"I suggest you pay attention in the future," she said. "And I expect you to stay after school to clean your desk."
Nick glared at her. "I don't have to stay after school. I have a job, and I can't miss the schoolbus."
"Then you can clean it up during recess this afternoon."
"Coach says I have to go to recess. I'm on the softball team, and the principal told coach we can't miss practice."
"Then clean it up right now."
This child was wasting precious teaching time. Jane swept her gaze over the entire class. "Did any of the rest of you use cash registers last year?"
Nick spat on his desk and then stood up, pointed his pencil at her, and stepped over the fallen boy.
Remembering the story about the pencil stabbing at lunch, Jane grabbed her gun, squeezed the red buttons and shot Nick only two feet from her desk. His body clattered to the floor, mysterious objects flying from his pockets. The other boy on the floor moved his arm and groaned. Jane realized her first casualty been out so long that he hadn't been assigned a seat.
"Nick was only going to sharpen his pencil," shouted a girl from across the room. Angry that her judgment had been questioned, Jane shot her, too. The girl collapsed over her desk but stayed in her seat.
"You students know the rules," said Jane sternly, wanting to justify the shootings to herself. "You must raise your hand if you want to talk, and then you must wait until I call on you."
"You didn't tell us that before you shot them," said a boy.
Jane decided to ignore him. "Now, how many of you used cash registers at your jobs last year?"
Still, only Alicea raised her hand.
"Okay, Alicea," said Jane. "Please explain problem eight, where you are asked to add up the prices of food at a grocery store."
Alicea copied the numbers from the text book onto the board, lining up the decimal points. Her fingernails grated against the board as she moved the chalk. Children raised their hands to their ears and snickered.
"So far, so good," said Jane, forcing a smile. "Now add them up."
"Give me a cash register," said Alicea.
The class laughed.
The boy on the floor sat up. "Give me a seat!" he demanded.
"Take the empty one at the back," said Jane. "And get out your math book. We're doing the problems at the end of Chapter One."
"I don't want to sit beside Margaret," said the boy.
Jane glared at him and pushed the stun gun's buttons. The other teachers were right; she didn't have time to argue. The boy slumped to the floor again.
"He's not going to learn anything if you keep shooting him," said a boy in the front row.
Jane shot him, too. He went limp neatly in his seat. "Can someone tell me the rule about raising your hand to talk?" she asked the class. No one raised a hand.
She turned back to Alicea.
Suddenly a paper airplane hit her ear. She saw a child in the back of the room grin broadly. Her fingers squeezed the now warm red buttons and she watched him drop. Even if he hadn't thrown it, he shouldn't be happy about her discomfort, she told herself.
"Please Alicea, add the numbers using carrying and borrowing, like you do at the Burger Peon when the cash register is broken." Jane did her best to sound patient. The clock showed she was half an hour behind for her lessons, and this was only the first day of class. She had to get the children to hurry up. Only Alicea seemed to be trying. Did students have to be eighteen to handle sixth grade?
"She can't do it without a cash register," said a girl in the front. "She's dumb."
Jane squeezed the trigger again, and didn't even watch the child fold into her chair. "Please continue," she said to Alicea. They had to finish this problem and get on to the next or they'd be hopelessly behind for the entire school year.
Alicea drew a line under the numbers. The squeak of the chalk made Jane curl her fingers tensely against the gun.
"I never have to add without a machine," said Alicea, somewhat loudly.
Without thinking, Jane's sweaty fingers squeezed the slippery buttons again.
Alicea's nearly six-foot frame crumpled to the floor in front of her.
Discipline, Jane told herself, patting her stun gun. This was no time to cry or back down. She'd shot the only student in the whole room who was there to learn. The room was silent, reflecting her gloom.
The bearded teacher leaned into her classroom and smiled. "Good going. I knew you'd make a good teacher. "You've got everything under control."
As he walked down the hall, the walls echoed his footsteps, "Under control. Under control."