She perused her copious textual resources; several esoteric journals published by leading colleges and universities, but these concerned only theory. One article that seemed especially hopeful was titled “Extraordinary Disciplinary Revisionism in the Elementary School Classroom,” but the article concerned itself only with brain chemistry, social hierarchy, and other such symptoms of bad behavior that Ms. Atchison was all too familiar with. “Tell me something I don’t know,” she whispered, chucking the journal to the stack of others equally useless and pedantic.
Fortunately, Ms. Atchison had a second resource—her undergraduate degree in 20th Century History. Thus, Ms. Atchison consulted the strategies of several World War II despots. Specifically, the techniques of maintaining social order conceived by Joseph Stalin. Although history had construed him as a vile, bloodthirsty killer, she figured, without all the massacring and enslavement, his ideas were well founded and considerably successful at obtaining general law and order.
Inspired by Solzhenitsyn’s A Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, she began her new regimen on a bitter-cold January afternoon. The sky was a craven dome of deepest gray, the wind-chill well below freezing. For the children, recess was a matter of endurance. The students stared meekly at the great gothic clock tower across the playground and counted the minutes ticking by. They clustered around the main entrance to the playground and persuaded their chaperone to call it off, but this required the temperature to drop below 15 degrees Fahrenheit. The only thermometer, the stark totem of Sammy the Salamander suckered to the window and mocking them with sunglasses and Hawaiian shirt, registered only 18. Mr. Dobson, the Art Teacher, pointed to Sammy from inside the school’s foyer and pushed his lower lip out.
Across the playground, Ms. Atchison watched the children through the foggy window of her classroom, steam rising from the coffee mug she held in both hands. She thought to herself how obnoxious the little cretins were this morning and found this their just deserts. One student remained, hence the lack of menthol cigarette in her left hand as she sipped. Serving his twelfth consecutive detention since his unpleasant uprising in November, David looked out the window as well, catching glances at his teacher while cleaning the inside of a pencil holder with a brown paper towel. Alone together in the quiet classroom, the boy spotted Ms. Atchison eyes narrowing and paused with a shiver.
“You know, David, I’ve changed my mind.” Ms. Atchison smirked, glancing down at him. “You can go out for recess after all.”
“That’s o.k., Ms. A. I’m fine here anyway.” He said, blowing graphite dust from the pencil holder and increasing his pace. “Good as new.” He handed it to her and began clashing his fists together nervously. Ms. Atchison lifted the pencil holder and inspected it carefully.
“Festina Lente,” she said. “Do you understand Latin, David?” He shook his head. “It means to make haste slowly. You would do well to learn Latin.” David glanced at the chalkboard now realizing his fatal error, having too quickly completed two-hundred repetitions of I will not throw pencils at the ceiling. Ms. Atchison smiled broadly and twirled the pencil holder in her hand.
“Go on now,” she said, condescending. “I insist.” David sulked his way to the cloakroom and retrieved his parka. Without looking at her, he marched his way outside. Yet still, Ms. Atchison observed, lighting a menthol cigarette, his stalwart insolence remained. She lit a menthol cigarette and watched as he pushed his way past the mob and climbed the jungle-gym. Reaching the highest platform, he buried his face into the neck of his parka and jumped off. The typically pliable mulch crunched under his feet. He repeated this obligatory play until at last the clock tower turned the final minute. Mr. Dobson blew the whistle and the children poured back indoors. “Enjoy it,” she whispered, exhaling smoke through her nose, “you’ll learn to respect me yet.”
Upon returning, the students discovered a large box on her desk, covered with a black satin cloth. They returned their cold weather gear to the cloakroom, and no sooner than the replacement of the final mitten, Ms. Atchison began.
“You kids don’t seem to care what happens to you, so we are going to try something to teach you the value of proper conduct.” Her tone was unsettlingly calm. She explained, “Starting this instant, the consequences for carelessness will no longer amount to a shortened recess, time out sessions, or the repetitious copying of behavioral declarations on the chalkboard.” Every student felt they were the victims of another’s bad behavior. They could not recall any deed that could possibly lead to such an ultimatum as this. Though they were too young to understand what Ms. Atchison was now for the first time holding in her right hand, it was in fact a riding crop.
The students looked on with the guilty apprehension of bayed beasts recognizing their time may be at an end. In the give-and-take game of rewards and punishments, their camaraderie was impenetrable. Their strategy was to act as though they had no concept of the word ‘misbehavior.’ She looked into seventeen of the most unabashedly sheepish faces she had encountered since her high school prom. They would curb their misbehavior only as long as it took for her indignation to pass.
She stared into the mass of them, transfixed, as a familiar but uncertain silence crept into her declaration. She wondered was this intimidation? She had suffered previous spells as this; herself single and childless, and a creeping thought asked which, if any, of the children before her would be worthwhile as one of her own. Such moments of partiality made her ashamed of herself, having pursued a career in elementary education for her unconditional love of all children. But such noble, if naïve, motivations were quickly lost among the impulsivity that dictated their every action. The simplest instruction of, say, calling them into a line for an excursion to Mr. Dobson’s art classroom, could very well result in shoving, bickering, pasted ears (paste in ears), magic-markered clothing and the all-too commonplace head contusion. And should she arrive at Mr. Dobson’s art classroom, Mr. Dobson himself wearing his white Stetson cowboy hat, meditating on a portrait of water lilies, or perhaps some gummy mass of papier-mâché, nothing was more embarrassing than admitting to a casualty list at Nurse’s Friendly’s office.
That previous summer, the Jasper County school district hired Ms. Atchison from among nearly one-hundred qualified applicants, an impressive designation, herself being the only recent graduate in the applicant pool. She believed their reasoning was based on her pedagological research (at a notable institution no less), but more than this, her sobering consideration for discipline. When the topic of classroom order was broached during her interview, she struck an expression of calculated seriousness and explained that she planned to maintain complete order, repeating complete order for emphasis, even if she had to “call upon unorthodox methodology.” Principal McKinley pulled back in his chair, much to his own surprise, and not so much moved by the content of her answer, did he note her uncanny conviction.
Frozen before the innocent children, she shook herself from this lapse, climbed onto her stool and retrieved a pencil from a Styrofoam ceiling panel. Now peeved about her moment of vulnerability, she readdressed the students; “You all are the most horrible, unruly, incorrigible band of miscreants I have ever had the misfortune of observing in all my years as a doctoral candidate.” The riding crop in one hand, she took the pencil in the other and with a sudden, brisk squeeze, broke it in two. She presented the broken pencil for a moment, a symbolic representation of their mutual spirit. “And this,” she added, “was in California.”
It was at this time she presented the hamsters.
“The school nurtures and cares for its students,” she explained, quickly yanking the black cloth from atop the box, which proved to be an aquarium filled with wood chips and a tiny plastic house. “So shall it be that the children nurture and care for this family of teddy-bear hamsters.” Five young hamster siblings, their fur not yet full length, chased one another gleefully and lifted up on tiny legs to peer out of the aquarium at the children before them. The children poured out of their seats. Ms. Atchison slammed upon her desk the riding crop. The loud slap of leather on oak left ringing the ears of the students in the front-most desks. Though she never conceded to corporal punishment, the sound of the leather striking the desk—perfectly flat—registered, and the children cowered into their seats.
“The students will provide food, water and the regular replacement of wood chips for this young brood of Mesocricetus auratus. As a result, the students will learn the value of responsibility for another’s well-being.”
There had been, technically, one instance last Sepetember that could be construed as corporal punishment. She had found David, the irascible, abrasive David, wrestling the considerably smaller Michelle atop the jungle-gym in what was clearly an effort to force her from the upper-most platform. Ms. Atchison ran to the screams of Michelle, insisting David desist, which only hastened his efforts. Before she reached the jungle-gym, David broke Michelle’s grip upon the bars and down she went into a crumpled pile on the pea gravel below.
Stretcher, Nurse Friendly, splint, Principal McKinley, ambulance, parent conference, unpaid overtime, and the next day Michelle showed up to class in a full leg brace.
Having witnessed David perform this seven-foot drop himself on numerous occasions, Ms. Atchison knew it would be no consequence for him to take the same fall. The following recess she announced that David would apologize to Michelle by jumping from the same height he had forced her from the day before. This delighted David, an exhibitionist by nature, and he began pulling at his collar like an excited simian irritated by the confinements of human clothing. What David did not know was that as he and his fellow classmates blissfully smeared finger paint with Mr. Dobson an hour earlier, she had carried a four-by-four sheet of plywood out to the jungle gym and buried it not more than a quarter inch beneath the pea-gravel. David eagerly climbed to the top platform and mugged to his captive audience. Then he jumped.
An experienced jumper, David set his trajectory to allow the pliable pea gravel substrate best break his fall. Needless to say, upon impacting the plywood, David’s legs slid under him, inertia carried his body forward, his arms flailed towards the nearby monkey bars, and his head struck deftly upon its concrete anchor.
Stretcher, Nurse Friendly, smelling salts, Principal McKinley, ambulance, parent-teacher conference, yet more unpaid overtime, and Ms. Atchison decided that, technically, this probably was not corporal punishment because neither David, nor his classmates, attributed the accident to anything but bad luck for a veteran playground jumper. Justice, Ms. Atchison contended, a deep-seated sense of justice, would deter David from such behavior in the future. She hypothesized that David would refrain from such wanton cruelty, when he could at last return to the topmost platform of the jungle gym, once his stitches were removed and should the dizzy spells subside.
And the day came, if only recently, when the dizzy spells did subside, and David had developed an aversion to such base-jumping feats. Any attempt he would make at approaching the jungle-gym resulted in an almost Pavlovian response, David cowering before the structure, opting instead for the more pedestrian playground equipment. That was, until today. Ms. Atchison wondered if David’s behavior this morning was an indication that he knew she had placed the plywood to injure him. If so, then his will was powerful indeed. She decided to make him her subject for the Hamster experiment.
Immediately, David’s fondness for the hamsters was unmatched by the others. This was perfect, Ms. Atchison attested, it was essential that the students form a strong bond with the rodents if her experiment were to be a success. The Super Ego defines the significance of the relationship but the Id cultivates a sense of deep empathy and concern for their well-being. Her hypothesis: An aversion therapy would result from student misbehavior leading to dire consequences for the hamsters they so loved and adored. She introduced this mechanism to the students as they passed the creatures around, individually hugging them to their adolescent faces.
“The penalty for further misbehavior will be realized by these; your hamsters. It is time you kids learn what adult responsibility means.” After all, there were no such regulations regarding corporal punishment handed down to rodents within the school. And technically, she could cite that this was nothing more inappropriate than Bert, the janitor, killing similar rodents in however many steel traps he had behind the cafeteria.
Upon hearing this, the students figured that any misbehavior on their part would amount to the removal of petting privileges, perhaps, in a worst-case scenario, the removal of the habitat entirely. So on this day of their arrival, Ms. Atchison was intent to demonstrate precisely what she meant regarding the severity of consequences for misbehavior. Predictably, her opportunity came soon, just before noon, during a reading of Black Beauty. This was the fifth installment of the Anna Sewell classic and Ms. Atchison could not help but become a bit teary-eyed as she came to deliver the final, momentous lines.
“My ladies,” she read, “have promised that I shall never be sold, and so I have nothing to fear; and here my story ends. My troubles are all over, and I am at home; and often before I am quite awake, I fancy—” As Ms. Atchison paused to draw a breath, David turned his palms inward on his mouth and blew fiercely into his hands, creating excessive and comedic flatulence. There was no denying David’s precise comic timing, and the situation was one that none could resist, save Ms. Atchison, the butt of the joke. Thus the students, each one, burst into a sizable laughter. As they fought to stifle their giggles, and wipe tears from their eyes, Mrs. Atchison softly closed the book and stepped silently to the hamster cage. Across the playground, the clock tower struck noon and began a slow, mournful chime.
Not four hours prior, the students had agreed upon the name “Fluffy” for this, no doubt the cutest of the litter, or at least that with the most hair. Fluffy was the only hamster colored pitch black, which may have accounted for the bad fortune that found him in Ms. Atchison’s hands, though it was unclear whether her selection had been arbitrary or calculated.
“O.k. class, you remember what I said would happen if you misbehaved.” she stated flatly. The students looked on, expecting Fluffy to find a “time out” cage or perhaps spend some time away at Ms. Atchison’s home. But her clenched jaw and the single vein that protruded upon her forehead suggested a more severe outcome. “It is time you kids learned to stop thinking about yourselves. Now you will have to live with knowing that your lack of discipline has caused harm upon another living creature beside yourself. Maybe this will help you reconsider next time you want to act up.”
Though most of the students to this day have a hard time remembering what happened next, this is exactly how it went: Ms. Atchison passed one hand beneath the desk and it reappeared in a heavy black rubber glove that reached all the way to her elbow. She focused on the students as she took Fluffy by his stubby tail, between thumb and forefinger of this rubber glove. Then, with her right hand, she produced from her top desk drawer a small black box, about the size of a camera. A loud ticking sound emerged from this box, and a faint blue streak of electricity danced between two metal posts. Mostly confused, the students watched with gaping mouths as Ms. Atchison reached this blue streak towards Fluffy. The box had scarcely touched the hamster when it made a single popping sound and Fluffy immediately stopped pedaling his tiny paws in the air and fell limp. A faint smell of smoldering hair wafted toward the cringing students. Ms. Atchison quietly placed the black box back into her desk. Without taking her eyes off the children she extended Fluffy outwards and dropped him into her metal waste can, where he struck the bottom with a solid thud. She then removed the rubber glove, reopened her copy of Black Beauty, and continued where she had left off before the interruption. Black Beauty, it turned out, had a happy ending. Fluffy, not so much.
The next day, most of the students had buried the experience in their minds where the most disturbing of childhood trauma lies, and there was no discussion regarding the incident with Fluffy. Both broken pencil and hamster corpse were removed from the waste can without a trace. The students’ affection for the remaining siblings magnified. During petting time, Ms. Atchison noted more than a few of them whispering soft promises to the remaining hamsters as they choked back tears. This was how the day started: an extended petting time for the students and Ms. Atchison watching their emotions fall like tumblers into a lock that would forever secure the discipline of her third grade class.
In order to collect viable data for her experiment, Ms. Atchison doubled their mathematics assignment for the first half of the day. The students turned in their worksheets—200 addition and subtraction problems—twenty minutes earlier than their previous best record for half that amount. Michelle (who earned a 93%) scribbled a hasty epitaph at the end of the worksheet: For Fluffy. I Love You Fluffy The Hamster.
This brief dedication on a math assignment inspired Ms. Atchison to create an expository exercise that would teach the students language skills, reinforce their sense of responsibility, and offer therapy for students like Michelle, who harbored a deep-seated affection for all things small and cuddly. The students were invited to reflect on their brief relationship with Fluffy. A sharp sense of guilt and remorse was paramount to each essay, but none was so stirring as David’s, who stepped before the class when Ms. Atchison asked for a volunteer to read.
“Fluffy,” he eulogized while pulling at his shirt, already stretched at the collar. “If I knew you’d be gone…” his voice captured a pensiveness appropriate for a war hero’s wake, the cadence of which can be captured via ellipses:
“If I knew you’d be gone… I would have never… made that fart.” Some of the students bowed their heads, but none giggled. “You came to our class… and I was happy… Then you died… I will never make fart sounds with my mouth never again… When I ever hear somebody fart for real… because they can’t help it… I will hear the name… Fluffy.”
Fluffy’s death contributed to a precipitous social change that made the October Revolt look like Woodstock. Other instructors begged for insight on her technique, but Ms. Atchison said nothing. Teacher of the Year? Her first year? Unprecedented, but she was already drafting her acceptance speech. One afternoon, Mr. Dobson met her outside when the students were with Ms. Wong, the music teacher. The two often smoked cigarettes together on the roof.
“How did you do it?” he asked her. “I mean, they weren’t exactly the worst batch I’ve dealt with in my fifteen years here, but they sure have turned things around.” Still unwilling to divulge her secret, Ms. Atchison paused and remembered when she had sent the kids off to art class the day after Fluffy’s untimely demise. She told them to be on their best behavior for Mr. Dobson, suggesting an alternative by glancing over at the hamster cage and drawing an index finger slowly across her throat. Now, only a month since that fateful afternoon, the students had obedience enough to march into Berlin, should she command it.
“Unconventional means, Mr. Dobson,” She finally answered. “We’ll see what happens when they announce the teacher of the year awards. I will be publishing a paper on my techniques at that time.” She considered whether her left or right profile would be most photogenic. Mr. Dobson frowned as she stared whimsically at the playground, rotating her head from side to side.
“I told them they could do anything they wanted for their ceramics project, but now I’m looking at twenty-seven tiny hamsters made of clay. The kiln room looks like the mausoleum of Emperor Qin. I had them doing the fur with toothpicks; you should see how engrossed they are. They really miss that Fluffy.”
“They didn’t tell you what happened to him, did they?” Ms. Atchison replied.
“Yeah—they said he died.”
“But how, they didn’t tell you how?”
“No. I guess I didn’t ask. Why? Did he get stepped on or something?”
“No.” Ms. Atchison said, drawing deeply on her cigarette and releasing a cloud of smoke in an enormous sigh.
“That’s got to be hard on kids, losing a pet. If you ever want to talk about it, you’ll find me in my office. You know the hours.”
“Mick, I’ve got to be hard on these kids. And if you are suggesting I’d come to the basement art teacher for pedagological advice, keep dreaming.”
“Jeez, Amanda, I was just offering to talk. Who said anything about Pedagogy?” He threw his cigarette over the rail. “You know, I was just like you when I first came here; out to prove to the world that I wasn’t just another deadbeat elementary art teacher. I really hope you win that award, maybe then you can see what there is to live up to beyond it.”
Though language skills inevitably take a great deal of time to develop and are determined by more intrinsic factors than the fear for a hamster’s life, mathematics is determined strictly by raw discipline. Consequently, the students flourished in the subject. Ms. Atchison further emboldened their efforts with musical accompaniment. During quizzes, the school’s ancient turntable phonograph inspired them with Marsch of the Preobrazhensky Regiment, the Petersburg Marsch, and others. Still, Ms. Atchison’s efforts to impress Principal McKinley with these scores were met by his stubborn pessimism. After enough visits to his office with impressive test results, Principal McKinley began to suspect that she was bending the rules. After all, he had seen this before from first-time teachers, a little fudging of the clock here and there to bolster the student scores. He tried assuring her that there was no pressure on her to push these students beyond a basic level of competency.
“Understand now, Amanda, this is not Berkley, we just want these kids to feel self-confident and prepared for middle school,” he said. Although he wished to take such pressures off of her mind, he was facing a budget crisis and the state determined district funding strictly on standardized test scores. “Amanda,” he said as she sulked out of his office, “If you want to show off their abilities,” he was ashamed for pursuing this, “then do so on the Elementary Academic Standards Examination on Tuesday. Ok?”
She planned on doing just that.
She decided to begin with a preliminary drill—Scantron bubble-filling practice. The following morning, when Ms. Atchison approached the hamster cage once again, the students cautioned their favorite hamster to hide in the little plastic house. But this was futile. Obliviously content with chasing one another around the small aquarium, the young hamsters were unaware of Ms. Atchison’s designs. Hence, Bunny found his way into her grip. Cupping Bunny in her hands, she addressed the students.
“You have before you your first of many Scantron test forms to come in your future academic careers. The form consists of hundred of tiny bubbles, all of which you will fill in completely and perfectly with a number two pencil. As you can see from the example at the top of the form, you must fill in these bubbles precisely. X’s and checkmarks will not be tolerated. Each question has a possible response, letters A through E. That’s five possible answers. This sheet contains one hundred questions. Does anybody know how many bubbles that is?”
Michelle looked at the hamster cage as she cautiously raised her arm. “Fi-fi-five hundred?” she squeaked.
“That’s right. You have one hour to fill in all five hundred of these. If I find any are imperfect, the hamsters suffer. If I find any left undone, the hamsters suffer. But above all else, if I hear any talking or mischief, the hamsters suffer. I will not tolerate missed answers on this Tuesday’s exam because of carelessness.”
Ms. Atchison then stepped to the rear of the room where she presented the diabolical apparatus, or, as Alistair Crowley might have defined it, the diabolus supellectilis. She had modified a laboratory beaker stand with a mechanical kitchen timer. As the timer counted down, it lowered a length of string into the mouth of an open food processor. Ms. Atchison tied Bunny’s stubby tail to this string and allowed him to dangle, his tiny paws pinwheeling above the open food processor. She set the timer for twenty minutes, plugged in the food processor, and turned the dial to “puree.” A sobering hum filled the classroom but was soon replaced by an orchestra introducing the seventeenth of Alexander Borodin’s Polovtsian Dances. Inspired by the tempo, the students frantically set to work.
Ms. Atchison counted on Bunny’s weight to keep the knot tout, but this hamster was capable of something his brothers and sisters were too fat to accomplish—he managed to pull himself up the string and ran down the metal beaker ring. The string, having gone slack, let slip his tiny protuberance of tail and like that, Bunny was off across the desk. The children, franticly filling in circles, made no effort to draw attention to this. They watched as he nosed his way around the perimeter of the desk. Looking out the window, her hands clasped behind her back and holding the riding crop, Ms. Atchison was considering an outdoor building project before winter was up, masonry perhaps, when she sensed the children’s tiny gasps. She spun around to find the empty string dangling above whirling blades. Unwilling to step from their seats, the children cried out to Bunny, imploring him to run, to jump, to scurry whichever way his hamster heart led him. Ms. Atchison scowled at this unruliness and hissed “Silence you curs!” Even Michelle, the class sycophant, was instructing Bunny to jump. Ms. Atchison swung her riding crop and struck Bunny, who sailed from the corner of the desk into the mass of children. His impact was cushioned by Stephen Gillespie’s backpack, and Bunny scurried between the desks.
Ms. Atchison slashed at the hamster with her riding crop as if she herself were conducting the Polovtsian Dance, but failed to hit her mark. Bunny called upon his survival instincts and headed for the far wall where slats in the heating duct were just large enough for a juvenile rodent to slip through. Ms. Atchison pushed her way between the desks and continued slashing at Bunny until he disappeared into the duct. She knelt down, attempted to fish him out with her riding crop, but Bunny was gone forever. To this day, his whereabouts are unknown. Perhaps he joined the coven of wild mice living beneath the cafeteria, or perhaps he followed the duct to the boiler room and tumbled awkwardly to a sudden and incendiary death. Regardless of Bunny’s eventual fate, Ms. Atchison returned to her feet, adjusted her dress and looked to the frightened children. Once more she was beset by an overwhelming sympathetic trance, but she managed to shake it quickly, before it consumed her with feelings of compassion. She powered-down the food processor. She knew the students would count on this next time, the escape of another hamster. They would forgo their good behavior. The students returned to filling in their circles.
The hamsters now numbered three.
During the following recess, David took aside a few of the more tenacious children and organized a hasty student cabal. His experience with Fluffy’s death and Bunny’s near liquidation awoke within him preternatural and adroit leadership. “It is now up to us,” he spoke to a tight group of four other children clustered beneath the monkey bars. “For Fluffy, for Bunny.” Agitated and tugging at the collar of his red Lacoste crocodile polo, David spoke with a radical certitude. “We begin with the media….” The details of David’s plot were highly clandestine and complex. His fingers flashed and his eyes darted about like a tetherball in play. His rhetoric invoked solemn nods from the four other children. They placed their hands together and swore allegiance to his cause.
On Tuesday, the day of the test, Ms. Atchison arrived at the school to find several people milling about the perimeter of the parking lot with signs indicating they were with the organization PETA—People For the Ethical Treatment of Animals. One of the protesters was carrying a sign that read “How Many Fluffys Are Too Much?” A police officer stood in front of the clock tower with Principal McKinley who was desperate to find out what had brought these protestors to his humble elementary school. The officer was interested only in keeping the protestors on the other side of the school boundary. Although this was a nominal task, he was adamant Principal McKinley not pester him.
“What are they here for?” Principal McKinley asked. “Can’t you go out there and mace them or something? My students don’t need to see that poster of the dismembered calf. There has to be some kind of a law against that, right?”
“Sir,” the officer shouted from behind mirrored sunglasses, “I’m going to have to ask that you remain behind me,” he pointed with his baton, “or I will be forced to detain you.” Ms. Atchison spotted a white Stetson hat on the roof.
As Ms. Atchison parked her Lincoln Continental, Principal McKinley reminded her of an agitated Mr. McGoo, squinty-eyed and discombobulated by this disturbance. “Hey! Amanda!” Mr. Dobson waved when he spotted her. “What’s the hurry? Smoke ‘em if you got ‘em!” Anxious for a perspective on the developing protest, she joined him on the roof. He offered her a cigarette. “Big test day, huh?”
“What would you know about it?” She said.
“Hey, don’t get me wrong, I just think that if the buses show up to this, the kids are going to panic.”
“Exactly what do you mean by that?” She asked suspiciously.
“It’s bad timing, is all. Why, what do you think they’re here for?”
“Maybe the absence of a vegetarian lunch menu…” she offered, dismissively.
“Give me a break,” Mr. Dobson scoffed. “Since when are seven-year-olds supposed to eat anything but pepper-bellies and fish-sticks?”
“They are lunatics. They probably want an all-vegan alternative. You know. Soy.”
The protesters, who grew to almost twenty by 9:00 a.m., were obstinate. They refused a quorum with Principal McKinley and demanded the hamsters be turned over and released into the wild. The students were shuffled off the school buses without incident. When the morning bell rang, she passed out Scantron forms and test booklets to the class. She set the needle on the phonograph, this time J.S. Strauss’s Kaiser-Walzer. She then removed from her desk a small bottle of bleach and a smaller bottle of ammonia.
“You kids are never too young to learn a thing or two about chemistry,” she said, noticeably rattled by the protest outside. “We are going to waive the introduction to the periodic table and move right on to balancing equations.” David caught the attention of a few students surrounding him. He nodded emphatically, tapped two fingers to his wrist, then his temple, signaling them to await his cue.
Ms. Atchison drew the following equation on the chalkboard:
(2x) NaOCl + 2NH3 --> 2NaONH3 + Cl2
She then plucked from the hamster’s aquarium the brown-and-white mottled hamster named Tubby. She then produced a smaller aquarium of a half-gallon volume and set Tubby within. Then she donned the black rubber glove. A knock came on the door and Principal McKinley stepped into her classroom. He had in his hand the morning copy of the Jasper County Gazette.
“Amanda?” He whispered gently. She put her gloved hand behind her back. “Can I have a word with you in the hallway?”
“I’m afraid my students are amid an exam right now and I must monitor them for the duration.” She turned up the music.
He stepped to her desk.
“Now, I’m not one to criticize….” He looked to the children and lowered his voice further, “…anybody’s teaching technique, and what goes on in your classroom is your business, but whenever it interferes with—” He was then interrupted by a series of clicks. “What’s that popping sound?” But before he could identify the source of the sound, Ms. Atchison touched the stun gun to Principal McKinley’s throat. He fell backwards, flat on the floor. His eyes spun around and his body convulsed. He made a sputtering sound, and Michelle began whimpering. Ms. Atchison touched the stun gun to his neck a second time. She then dragged him, unconscious, to the cloakroom. She pushed aside diminutive jackets, folded in half, and managed to stuff Principal McKinley within and shut the door. Stephen and a few other students rose from their seats, but David motioned for them to remain still.
“You kids get back to your test.” Ms. Atchison sputtered. “Now you see what happens when you tell your parents what goes on in this classroom.”
She returned to her desk and prepared a small dish of ammonia, which she placed in the aquarium beside Tubby. The children knew she meant business when she produced a large World War II era gas mask and snapped it around her face. She unscrewed the cap to the bleach and looked at them expectantly. Tubby pawed the cup of ammonia curiously. The students returned to their exam.
Six of the students failed to finish their grammar section before the allotted time expired. Ms. Atchison frowned. Breathing heavily through the gas mask, she motioned for the children to proceed to the reasoning section. When ten of the students failed to finish in time, she called a ten minute break. At this time David stepped slowly to the front of the room.
“Ms. A,” he said. “Can I go to the bathroom?” He asked, feigning necessity by crossing his legs slightly. She looked at him and for a moment her determination faltered. She recognized a genuine fear in his eyes and had to resist the urge to hug him and call off the whole hamster-gassing. But remembering David’s mocking jumps from the jungle-gym and the pencils impaling the ceiling tiles, pencils which she herself had to recover, she quickly regained her composure.
“Certainly. But, before you ask to go,” she said, “I’d like for you to watch as our reaction takes place.” She pulled the gas mask over her face, breathed deeply and poured the bleach into the cage where it splashed into the cup of ammonia beside Tubby. She could tell at once that something had gone wrong—no fumes. Tubby was not the least bothered by caustic vapor. She tore the mask from her face and smelled the container of bleach. She dipped her finger into the neck of the bottle, tasted it. It had been replaced with regular tap water.
“O.k.” She insisted, then looked at David, “you… it was you, wasn’t it?” At that moment, David pulled his sweater over his head and revealed his red Lacoste shirt. Then he climbed onto her desk, pumped his arms in the air. Ms. Atchison looked at him blankly. David thrust his hands in the air and shouted “Crudelius est quam mori semper timere mortem!” Then he signaled his audience of compatriots. Something he had expected to happen, apparently, did not.
Before the others could muster the courage to rise up with him, a knock came to the door and Ms. Wong stepped into the room.
“Psst!” she said. “Psst! Ms. Atch-ee-soon. Time for singing.” The examination had not taken pause for the student’s weekly music lesson.
“Shoo! Shoo out of here!” Ms. Atchison said. But contrary to her petite stature, Ms. Wong was steadfast. She picked up the bleach and ammonia containers on the desk. “You canna mix.” She said, holding the containers up and shaking her head vigorously.
“I didn’t!” Ms. Atchison said, snatching the bleach container from her hands. Ms. Wong continued surveying the scene. She pointed at the still upbeat Tubby.
“You poison rat?”
“It’s a hamster, you’ll know.”
“That not nice. Not nice to hamstah.”
“It’s fine.” Ms. Atchison removed Tubby and flicked her into the cage with the others. “See? She’s fine.” Ms. Wong began to suspect that something was amiss.
“You seen Prince-pull?” She asked.
“He’s in the cloakroom.” Ms. Atchison said as she led Ms. Wong out the door.
“What is cloakroom?” She asked as the door shut behind her.
“O.K., class, back to work. You too, David. I’ll deal with you later. No break this time around.” David hung his head and climbed back into his sweater.
No sooner than the students could begin the math portion of the exam, Mr. Dobson came knocking on the door. At this point, Ms. Atchison was considerably perturbed by the interruptions. Examinus Interruptus, she thought.
“Ms. Wong said that you told her the Principal was in the cloakroom?”
She had not wished to lie before the students.
Mr. Dobson moved cautiously towards the cloakroom. He peeked inside and quickly closed the door. With his back against the wall, he slid to the hamster cage.
“You’re meddling with my entire project.” Ms. Atchison whispered. Mr. Dobson scooped up Tubby, and the two Ms. Atchison cunningly named herself, Rosencrantz, and Guildenstern. Mr. Dobson took off his cowboy hat and placed the hamsters inside. Ms. Atchison stood poised to respond, but relented as he walked out of the room, facing her all the way. Looking out the window, Ms. Atchison watched as Mr. Dobson dashed into the school parking lot and met thirty PETA protesters at the far end.
“Everything’s going to be O.K!” He shouted, holding the hamsters up in either hand, like Richard Nixon with hamster fingers. The protestors dropped their signs and raised their arms in celebration. Hearing their rousing applause through the glass window, Ms. Atchison fell into her chair, defeated. David pulled off his sweater and scrambled outside, where the protesters, art teacher, and hamsters lifted him on their mutual shoulders.
The three remaining hamsters were released into the steppes of Northern Syria, their only natural habitat. Principal McKinley experienced a full recovery and, rather inexplicably, his chronically spastic lumbar region convalesced entirely. The students of Ms. Atchison’s 3rd grade class set Elementary Academic Standards Examination composite records for the Greater Plains Region that to this day remain unmatched. Despite Principal McKinley’s efforts to maintain Ms. Atchison’s standing within the district, she left for a promising opportunity as a foreign language instructor in Sevastopol, Ukraine, where her unorthodox disciplinary methods flourished under the post-communist government. Mr. Dobson went on to paint his Magnus Opus; a twelve-foot mural depicting execution, escape and revolution. He titled the piece Hamsternica, which stands today as one of the foremost depictions of rodent art in the modern era. Michelle enjoys a happy relationship with her twenty-seven Persian cats and continues to make progress with her therapist. David went on to become the youngest recognized PETA member until he was tragically mauled while trying to rescue a Burmese Tiger from a Florida roadside petting zoo.