Under educational philosophy, Mrs. Wright had written none. There was right; there was wrong; there was no need for discussion. In fact, philosophy held an esteemed position near the top of her lengthy list of most-hated things — just after puns, Methodists, and semi-colons.
In the twenty-three years since she had explained her application answer to Principal Jones (and was hired on the spot), Mrs. Wright had seen dozens of smiley, philosophy-ridden language arts teachers flip whole-word flash cards and perform foolish preposition raps in an effort to prove that “all kids can learn.” Inevitably, their efforts would prove to be in vain, and Mrs. Wright would be forced to clean up their pathetic mess by teaching the few salvageable students to read and write in the only way that made good common sense: she had the kids read and write. Every single day. She knew that any kid who couldn’t learn to read or write that way — bless his heart — would never learn.
And so, in this, her twenty-fourth year of teaching second grade, Mrs. Wright began class the same way she always had:
“Students, get out your journals and write for twenty minutes. Put the date and the time in the top corner,” she said, pointing to her beloved wall clock—the same, reliable clock that had marked time in her classroom for twenty-three years. “Don’t talk. Your writing time is sacred. Every second counts. Don’t move anything but your pencils. Martin Russert, I don’t want any trouble out of you. You know what happened with your brother. You all will be doing this every blessed day, so don’t bother complaining.”
The students, all of whom knew Mrs. Wright’s reputation as the strictest teacher in school, took up their pencils without arguing.
“This morning’s prompt,” Mrs. Wright continued, “is ‘Describe your home life.’”
Pencils started moving.
Jenny Owens had been late to school and had gotten the desk in the front row, closest to the chalkboard. Her entry was the first to be inspected.
My house has a upstairs and three bedrooms. “An!” Mrs. Wright corrected. “Though I’m sure you knew that. Oh, your brothers were such dolls. Why don’t you just re-write it so you can get full credit?”
Jenny wrote: My house has a upstairs an three bedrooms.
But Mrs. Wright had already moved down the line.
“I’m, uh, I’m still thinking,” stammered Benny O’Malley.
“I bet you are,” responded Mrs. Wright. Benny, bless his heart, wasn’t worth much more effort than that, though she did add a scowl for good measure while moving to Andy Jones in the next desk.
We eat dinner together at the big table. My big sister doesn’t like carrots. My little sister does. I like pizza.
“Excellent work, Andy! Keep it up. How do you feel about carrots?”
Mrs. Wright tried her best not to inhale as she approached the next student.
Ain’t got gud food an dady ain’t nice but i don’t need no man
“Not a good start, Martin. Apparently you do not have any need for punctuation, spelling, or basic grammar, either,” Mrs. Wright growled. “Or basic hygiene, for that matter. I’m watching you.”
John Roberts had written: Sometimes my cousins come over and we play tag.
“Who are your cousins, young man?” Mrs. Wright asked.
He looked confused.
“What’s your uncle do, John?” Mrs. Wright leaned in so that her large bosom hovered directly over John’s head.
“Has that big, uh…uh…”
“Yeah, mill. Sometimes we play there, too.”
“Very good. That was a satisfactory first entry.”
On down the rows she went until she got to Will Gipson in the back corner. She approached him, smiling.
I dwell among family, pets, and poltergiests.
After an unusual moment of silence, Mrs. Wright said, “I’d expect more from you. Your sister could write a page in this amount of time.” Mrs. Wright looked at his entry more closely. “Nice use of vocabulary…although you misspelled poltergeists, which I doubt you actually live among. Next time just write a little more than that, okay? And try not to tell fibs. You know where liars go.”
Mrs. Wright paused just a moment longer to catch her breath. Will looked up at her with shining hazel eyes. Mrs. Wright couldn’t help but smile. What an angel. Just as she was starting to move back to the front of the class, she noticed that in the top right-hand corner, Will had neglected to write the date and time. Instead, he had drawn an analog clock that indicated 8:32.
“Oh, I see what the problem is,” she said, bending close to his ear. “Mrs. Bird probably let you draw during journal time last year — with all that ‘multiple intelligences’ mumbo jumbo. Sweetie, you simply won’t learn how to use and control language that way. Next time spend less time drawing clocks and more time writing, okay? Okay.”
Mrs. Wright gave his blond hair a little pat and then used his head to push herself upright. She waddled authoritatively to the front of the room. “Okay. Journal time is over,” she said, panting slightly. “Today is the only day I will go around to each desk and check on you individually while you write. From here on out, you will turn in your journals on Fridays, and I will grade them and return them to you on Monday. Now. Time for math.”
Mrs. Wright didn’t have much use for reflecting. Too much like philosophizing. But she couldn’t help pausing a moment during Saturday morning grading to be proud of this first week in her twenty-fourth year. The right students were excelling; the right students were failing. And Martin Russert had already stopped coming to school. All she had to do today before attending the Baptist Women Afternoon Potluck (BWAP) was to finish grading these journals. And on principle, she’d saved the best for last: Jenny’s, Andy’s, and Will’s.
She skimmed through Jenny’s: Good use of punctuation. 100.
Andy’s: You missed a question mark on Thursday. Otherwise, nicely done. 95.
Mrs. Wright was taken aback. How could this be? The audacity! Why, she wouldn’t expect it from a hell-denying Methodist, much less a good Baptist boy. Clocks in every right-hand corner. 8:32, 8:35, 8:31, 8:31, 8:30. And different styles. A digital clock, two grandfathers, a pocket watch, and a sun dial. Had she not told him to stop drawing them? Maybe there was a misunderstanding. Maybe she hadn’t been completely clear. He had written more, after all, in addition to drawing the clocks. A little more. Not as much as his sister would have. The clocks must be a mistake. She’d let it slide this once. 80. No more clocks, please, Will.
Mrs. Wright had a bad feeling before she even opened Will’s journal the next weekend. She was in a rotten mood, anyway. Jenny had used a semi-colon. She had expected Jenny to be a more decisive person than that.
Will’s journal was the only one left. The others were stacked neatly on the dining room table, between a wooden bowl full of assorted, individually-wrapped Moon Pies and a Mason jar full of red pens. The pies and pens were the only things cluttering any surface in the room —with the exception of a single golden urn and an antique Bulova tabletop clock, both of which rested on the mantel directly across from her.
Mrs. Wright blindly reached for a Moon Pie. Banana, of course. She was hoping for chocolate. She set it aside and licked the tip of her ball point pen. In her considerable gut she knew that when she opened Will’s journal, the clocks would still be there. That didn’t prepare her for the pain of actually seeing them. 8:34, 8:29, 8:30, 8:34, 8:32. This time they were all attempts to draw her own classroom clock, a basic analog with just the 3, 6, 9, and 12. “Please” wasn’t working with Will.
No more clocks! 50. F!
But they were there the next week. 8:30, 8:30, 8:31, 8:30, 8:32. This time, as though to mock her, the only numbers he marked on the clock face were 2, 5, 8, and 11. She had never been tempted to curse before. But she really wanted to. She really wanted to write: No more clocks, damn it! She managed to control herself though. He was just a child. A little demon child — bless his heart. But a child nonetheless. She knew how to deal with children; she’d dealt with worse than Will Gipson. She’d speak to his mother at BWAP.
“Nancy, could I talk to you a minute?” Mrs. Wright said as Nancy Gipson helped herself to a second serving of twice-baked mashed potatoes. “Nancy, I’m having some problems with Will.” She’d started strongly, and when Nancy’s hazel eyes met her own, she gave her best concerned teacher face, angling her head diagonally and pursing her lips.
“Problems with Will?” Nancy asked. “What kind of problems? Is he struggling with math again?”
“Math? No. No, he’s doing well there. Numbers seem to agree with him.”
“Forgetting to turn in his assignments, then? That happened last year.”
“Um. No. That’s fine, too.”
“Talking in class?”
Mrs. Wright wondered if Nancy even knew her own son. “No, he never talks.”
“So what is the problem?”
“It’s a little hard to explain.”
“Could you try? We certainly don’t want him to be a problem for you.”
“He’s drawing,” Mrs. Wright took a breath and collected herself. “Clocks.”
“Drawing cocks?” said Nancy, momentarily horrified.
“CLOCKS!” enunciated Mrs. Wright. “Drawing clocks during free journal time.”
“Clocks!” said Nancy, relieved. “Well, I know Will is very into clocks right now. I think it’s the gears that interest him. Last year it was trains. The year before, tornados. This year, clock gears — and poltergeists, for that matter.”
“That doesn’t make it right,” Mrs. Wright said.
“No? So what exactly is the problem, then?”
Mrs. Wright didn’t like her tone. Who defends a kid who draws clocks against his teacher’s wishes? She tried to remain professional.
“He’s supposed to be writing,” she said in the most controlled manner she could.
“He’s not writing?”
“He writes some, but he also draws clocks.”
“Is he writing less than other students?”
“Not less than others?”
“No. Less than his sister did, though.” There was a pause. “And obviously less than he would if he did not draw clocks,” she burst out.
Nancy didn’t respond. Mrs. Wright didn’t like the way Nancy’s lip twitched—as though she were trying not to smile.
“Let me show you,” Mrs. Wright said. She handed Nancy his journal. While she perused it, Mrs. Wright continued to watch her face. Nancy’s mouth kept twitching. Especially when she got to the teacher’s grades and comments.
“If he keeps this up, he will get a zero — and an F.”
“I didn’t think they gave grades anymore at John Locke.”
It was the sad truth. Along with “differentiation,” the school was piloting a new grading system — a “progressive” system of x’s, check marks, and minus signs.
“Well, he’ll get a minus then.”
“A minus on his permanent record!”
“Jenny had a minus in ‘hopscotch’ in Kindergarten. It hasn’t hurt her.”
“Obviously hopscotch doesn’t matter!” yelled Mrs. Wright.
“Of course.” Nancy replied, but without the proper gravity. Then, almost as an afterthought, Nancy asked, “Uh, Mrs. Wright, could I have that journal — to uh, show his father? I’m sure his father would like to see it…”
Mrs. Wright could tell by the way Nancy looked at the ground that she was up to no good. They’d probably hang it on the refrigerator. No way they’d get it. They’d have to pry that journal from her cold dead hands. “I’m sure he would. Unfortunately, I cannot allow him to take it home. It would probably never make its way back. And he must write in it next week.”
“Okay, Mrs. Wright. We’ll take care of it. Potatoes?” she said, holding up a loaded ladle.
Mrs. Wright huffed away. “No thanks,” she said, frowning at her half-empty plate.
Was she losing her touch? Was she no longer the force for order that she used to be? Was she unable to reach her students? Mrs. Wright began to berate herself when she saw that the right hand corner of Will’s journal continued to display clocks. 8:31, 8:31, 8:30, 8:35, 8:31. But, no, she shouldn’t be criticizing herself. She, after all, had every reason to expect a Baptist parent to get control over a wayward son. But, since they clearly demonstrated that they weren’t capable, she would have to take charge. She would make him conform. She’d give him his due. This week’s grade: 0. In fact, 0-. In large, block letters she wrote, NO MORE CLOCKS! IT ISN’T RIGHT!
The next week, she opened his journal, certain that her previous comments would have the desired effect. But no. He had turned the O’s in her previous comments into analog clocks. And he added a “W” to “RIGHT.” She threw his journal across her room, nearly upsetting the urn. Clearly, Will was completely out of control. She had to take it to the principal. It was her first discipline issue in twenty-four years.
Principal Jones laughed. “That’s sort of clever, Mrs. Wright. Right. Wright. It’s a pun. Get it? Right and Wright.”
“You know how I feel about puns, sir.”
He looked at her carefully, noting the redness in her eyes, the paleness in her cheeks. Clearly, there was a problem. It required his best administrative skills. He cleared his voice. “Well, take care of it, then, Mrs. Wright.”
“Take care of it; take care of it; take care of it…” The words repeated in her head that night, running together until it sounded like “tic, tic, tic, tic…”
Mrs. Wright didn’t have much use for dreams. Too much like philosophy. But that night, she dreamed for the first time in fifteen years. Poltergeists were chasing her, throwing pointed clock-hands at her. She awoke in a sweat. “Tic, tic, tic, tic…” She hurled her bedside Bible at her alarm clock, which smashed into two pieces. But the ticking continued.
“Students!” Mrs. Wright addressed the class, shaking with anger and fatigue. “Students, you are no longer to write the date or time at the top right-hand corner of your journals.”
The students just stared at her. Will acted as though nothing were out of the ordinary. He gazed at her and absent-mindedly picked a cliffhanger off the end of his right nostril. She tried to scowl, but it came off as more of a grimace. She plopped down in her chair.
“Tic, tic, tic…”
She didn’t wait until Saturday. She tore through the pile of journals right there in her classroom on Friday afternoon, searching for his. There it was. 8:31, 8:32, 8:33, 8:34, 8:35. In her head, she kept going, rhythmically, uncontrollably. 8:36, 8:37, 8:38, 8:39, 8:40, 8:41…. She tried to block it out by scribbling in a grade. 8:42, 8:43, 8:44, 8:45, 8:46….Mrs. Wright put one hand to her heart and felt it pounding, in time — 8:47, 8:48, 8:49…
This ticking had to stop. 8:50. 8:51. She lunged for her classroom clock, Will’s journal raised over her head in preparation for the assault. 8:52, 8:53. It was time for her ticker to stop.
And then, just before she reached the classroom clock — bless her heart — it did.