I wrote full time from 1975 to 1983, starved out, and took a day job that continued for the next twenty-seven years. I became a teacher in a small middle school in central California. In 1988 and 1989 I began writing again, using that experience in the novel Symphony in a Minor Key (see yesterday’s post). This is Neil McCrae’s Halloween from that book.
“What is Frankenstein’s favorite food?” Lisa Cobb asked.
Neil looked up from his desk to see that she was in tutu, tights, and dancing shoes. She was taller than the average sixth grader with more maturity in her face but still flat chested, so she looked the part of a ballerina. For the last several weeks she had been coming in to spend the time before school in Neil’s room, but she rarely approached him. She just hung around with her friends Sabrina and Elanor.
Neil said, “I don’t know, what is Frankenstein’s favorite food?”
Neil grinned and she ran off, pleased with herself.
Not since May, when Neil had first come onto the campus, had it seemed so different from a high school.
Neil found that he did not miss the feigned world-weariness of his high school students at all. He missed their conversations, and he missed the sense of camaraderie that came of teaching near-adults, but they were too staid. In their own way, following their own values, high school kids were as puritanical as any Pilgrim that ever rode on the Mayflower. Peer pressure was like the rule of the church patriarchs, looking over every shoulder, examining every action by the yardstick of current fashion. Everything not required was prohibited.
These children were in a different kind of transition. Their teachers encouraged them toward maturity, and most of the time they conformed. But on Halloween, they were all seven years old.
When the bell rang, the students came in reluctantly, and Neil chose to overlook their tardiness. He also raised his voice and spoke over their conversations while taking roll, rather than try to quiet them. Then Neil sent Greg and Rosa to close the drapes and a hush of expectancy came upon the classroom.
The drapes let in only a little light, certainly not enough to read by. Neil opened his desk drawer and took out a pair of candles on matching brass candlesticks that he had borrowed from Pearl. He lit them. He moved them so that they threw his face into harsh relief and projected his shadow, huge and menacing, on the wall behind him. He opened another book and read:
True! — nervous — very, very dreadfully nervous I had been and am; but why will you say that I am mad? The disease had sharpened my senses — not destroyed — not dulled them. Above all was the sense of hearing acute. I heard all things in the heaven and in the earth. I heard many things in hell. How, then, am I mad? Hearken! and observe how healthily — how calmly I can tell you the whole story.
He read The Tell-Tale Heart through to its grisly conclusion, timing himself by the clock on the back wall so that he reached the denouncement when the narrator cried, “. . . tear up the planks! here, here — it is the beating of his hideous heart!”, just half a minute before the period ended. For those long seconds after he had finished, the classroom was tomb silent.
Then the bell rang.
Half the students leaped to their feet screaming, then broke into laughter, and went out for their break repeating juicy bits of the story to one another. Neil sat back with a feeling of satisfaction, mixed with amusement at his own self-indulgence. There was a lot of theater in Neil McCrae, but he kept it on a tight leash. Once in a while, though! Just once in a while it felt good to cut loose.