Cult Illustration #46, ball point pen on paper, 11" x 8.5"

          This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, businesses, places, events and incidents are either the products of the author’s imagination or used in a fictitious manner. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, or actual events is purely coincidental.  

High school Science for Mrs. Smith. Biology. The Substitute Teacher did not know it, but she was in a foul mood. As she placed worksheets on their tables, students trickled in. The bell would corral them in a moment or two. She turned to see one short, muscled young man in an obviously devious act, his body moving from the fish aquarium, in a swift motion, to the nearby sink. He replaced the bottle of green dish soap next to the spigot. He hung his head and turned to spy Ms. X in that bad dog way.

During her planning period Ms. X spent a good half hour just gazing at the two friendly fish. She didn’t know what kind they were. Not Goldfish. They had big eyes, soft gray bodies and their fins were tipped with yellow. At any rate, they were healthy, alert, and seemed to want a conversation, or some food, or something. Ms. X was cheered on by their acceptance of her.

Stupid kid, thought Ms. X. as she planned her counter move. She was feeling victorious having actually caught him. Wielding the power to get him in trouble, she walked over and stood next to him. Using the technique outlined in her Substitute Teacher’s Manual, she quietly let him know that she knew. He seemed surprised but did not deny it. She asked him to sit down and get ready for class and she followed him and watched as he opened a folder. This was strategic. Most students would hide their name tags and the guilty ones gave aliases, but Ms. X had developed several techniques to surreptitiously gather names. At the top of a paper was his tiny scrawled name, and she committed it to memory, again triumphant. Now in her own dark way, she even hoped that the fish would die so that this kid would get into trouble. She did not entirely believe that they would die, she only hoped that they would.

As more students entered and the raucous began, she was distracted. Two, maybe three more times the little pupil, as she had started to think of him, dashed to the aquarium and shook more soap in. While she struggled to contain the classroom full of giant, fat, spoiled, ignorant babies (the anorexic students melted into the laminated surfaces and so were never apparent) who were old enough for getting drunk and fornicating, but not old enough for anything else, she was vaguely aware that the fish were in trouble. This satisfied her even more because, there would be some sort of retribution for the little pupil.

The sub, who looked frail and wane next to these walrus sized bullies and blubbery young girls squeezed into negligee tops, did her circus thing with her invisible whip and got the wild animals into their slots, snarling and roaring even so. But one of the fish turned upside down now, swooning in the middle of the tank. The little pupil jumped up and with a net tried to skim the bubbles from the surface of the water. A net!

Word spread fast that he had put soap in the tank. The second fish turned on its side, fainting, losing control, and half the class was up at the aquarium shouting for emergency measures. Water was splashing everywhere. One grabbed a beaker and filled it with tap water, another netted the fish with shaky hands, fumbled, then plunged them into the beaker. The others called out objections, “The water is too warm!” “No it’s too cold!” Ms. X stood amid the lurching students repeating in a monotonous tone, "it's no use, it's too late, nothing can turn this event around". A boy shouted to get bottled water from the cafeteria. Kids were pushing  and grabbing at each other, incredulous and shaken. And then the fish were dead.

Ms. X was secretly satisfied. She told the little pupil that he would have to confess and then he would have to pay for new fish. She hoped, in her dark way, that they would be very expensive fish.  His class mates tried to defend him. The para professional, as she was called (the sub saw nothing professional about her), was a 20 something year old woman cast as a teacher’s assistant. She stood in the back watching and trembling. Ms. X considered her for a moment. She looked like one of the students in dress and manner, even facial expression, yet she alone understood what to do next. She approached the teacher's desk, opened a drawer, and picked up a referral form and then she and the little pupil sat down together to fill in the blanks. He would be sent to the dean’s office once it was completed. The sub watched, chagrined, as the young woman helped him to craft his excuse which implied that he had only wanted to create a sort of bubble machine, no thoughts of murder. Ms. X glanced at the benignly worded referral feeling anger at her loss of control over the little pupil’s downfall. Meanwhile, a group of boys took the fish to the men’s room, without permission, to flush them down the toilet in a sort of ritual peculiar to their upbringing. The environment continued to deteriorate as the students mourned the sacrifice. The para pro proceeded to banter with the students even as their lament turned to perverted sex, insulting one another with all sorts of new and nasty scenarios. All of which Ms. X could not avoid overhearing and imagining, as she slumped into a chair, feeling ill.

“What have I wrought?” murmured Ms. X, as she emoted her complicity in the fiasco. She had let slide her undeniable knowledge that thoughts do have the ability to create reality. She felt hollow and dumb now, staring at the tank that lay empty of life. She was growing more and more like her charges, like ghost people, wandering around disconnected. The only difference between her and them was that she lacked the burning need to be famous. She purged that need when she tore herself from the succor of the Foundation.

Her thoughts turned to the happy fish that greeted her, just a short while ago. Death was like that, quick, the ultimate change, where there is no going back, no correcting things. Death is always unexpected, even when we prepare ourselves for it. Everything dies in an individual way, and each witness reacts differently in the presence of death. The energy changes, it leaves the body, and what was just a moment ago there, travels. The body lays like an empty husk, yet still fresh, evidence that something vibrant and beautiful had been sustained there. Where had that beauty gone? Contemplating change like that could change you, make you understand something important about life. She wondered if any of the kids felt it, as they watched the fish die. She wondered what the little pupil thought about his hand in executing them, in precipitating such an immense change.

News of the suspension spread like a hot wind through the school and allowed Ms. X a bit more control over subsequent periods. The kids were a little afraid of her now. She was known as the sub that presided over the student who had been expelled for three days on account of destroying school property. What they did not know about her collusion in the incident was better left unknown, but some of them felt it.

Post Script: Had Ms. X been in a good mood, would she have had the good sense to stop the little pupil immediately, and enlist the class to clean and restore the tank? In essence, save the fish, making this a real assignment about real Biology and not another hour of boring worksheets.



  Cult Illustration #4, ball point pen on paper, 11" x 8.5"


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