Symphony 59

Neil sent Greg and Rosa to close the drapes and a hush of expectancy came upon the classroom. This was good stuff. They had expected to have to work; at best, they had expected free time. They had never expected this.

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. He had no respect for teachers who used their classes as captive audiences to gratify their own egos.

Once in a while, though! Just once in a while it felt good to cut loose.

# # #

When the children returned, Neil said, “Now it’s your turn. I want each of you to write a Halloween story for me. It can be about ghosts and goblins or it can be about kids like you going out trick-or-treating. It can be realistic, or funny, or scary. I want you to fill at least one page, and when you are finished, you are going to read your stories to the class.”

Bob Thorkelson said, “Do we have to?”

“Yes. This is a real assignment, just like any other day.”

Laura Dias wanted to know, “Do we have to read them in front of the class?”

“Yes. I’ve been telling you for weeks now that sooner or later you had to start reading what you wrote in front of the class. This is the day.”

“Do we have to?” This was a cry of genuine distress from at least three students.

Neil nodded slowly. Tony slammed his desk top down and muttered, “That’s cheap!” Neil ignored him.

By now at least half of the class had taken out paper and begun to write. By reading a scary story to them first, he had given them both a model and an incentive. One by one, the rest of them got out paper and began, but Olivia made one last try at getting out of reading her story aloud by asking, “Mr. McCrae, will you read our stories for us?”

Neil just smiled at her and shook his head. Olivia said, “Rats!” but there was a secret smile on her face that made Neil think she would have been disappointed if he had said yes.

By this time, those who had started at once were getting into their stories. Tanya Michelson said, “Mr. McCrae, can my story take place around here?”

“Of course.”

Rafael asked, “Mr. McCrae, can mine star Freddie Kruger?” more Monday

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