The scents of September: ripe blackberries, garden fires, whiteboard marker pens. The start of the school year used to be thrilling, back when Fiona McNeel was a special girl full of promise sitting up front asking clever questions. Now she’d be the one fielding the clever questions, and looking silly if she couldn’t answer them. But how clever could they be, her new students? No more than fifteen in each section (they boasted about class size in the Barrow School brochures) twelve and thirteen year olds, eager to learn and easy to mold. And the classroom was not a bad place to work, a large, airy room with big windows overlooking maple trees and playing fields.

She stood in front of them and ran her finger up and down the maroon corduroy of her skirt, hoping not to feel that small lump beneath the fabric. But there it was, inescapably. Bigger even. She should call the doctor, but she’d prefer to wait a little longer. She hated medical people with their scales and their stirrups. Perhaps she could find the information she needed on the web.

She asked for the students’ names. Kristen, Kirsten, Christina, Kaitlin (with a K) Christ! How would she ever keep track? She told them to make and decorate name plates for their desks. This would kill two birds—help her keep track of their names and give her half an hour’s peace to visit the WebMd site.

When they started fidgeting, she stood, pretended to admire the ornate lettering decorated with birds, tortoises and superheroes, and told them how the class was going to go.

One of the boys, raised his hand. “Ms. McNeel, wouldn’t it make more sense if we submitted the documents on google docs and then commented there too? That would save time and trees and it would be more fun…” He stopped; he must have seen her face.

“Yeah!” someone said. “That makes sense.”

She was losing any authority she had over them. Determined to take it back, she made herself very still and waited for them to notice and stop what they were doing and hold their breaths. “What’s your name?” she asked the boy.

The boy shrugged a blond lock out of his long-lashed eyes, and met her gaze, confident that she—like half the girls in seventh grade and his own adoring mother—would approve of him. “Simon,” he said, with a glance at his nameplate.

Fiona thought of the decades of men who’d mansplained things to her. Now even a boy young enough (technically) to be her grandson, was doing it. She wanted to yell, but yelling was against the rules. Instead she articulated crisply. “Stand up! Come over here!”

He stood and glanced around with a nervous giggle. He was slim, athletic, and, at about 5’5″, still an inch or two shorter than her.

She led him to her desk and pointed to two picture frames on the wall behind her laptop and the vase of scarlet dahlias. “See those?”


“Do you know what they are?”

He scanned them. “Your degrees from universities?”

“Right. And how many of those do you have?”

He swallowed. “Uh. None. I’m thirteen years old.” He glanced back at the other students, a few of whom giggled – with him or at him – it wasn’t clear.

She leaned into his face. “OK. How about you wait until you have a few of these of your own before you start deciding how to run a class?” She delivered the coup de grace with a flourish.

The other students laughed louder. The boy’s eyes narrowed. His pale cheeks flushed.

“Go and sit down,” she told him.

He didn’t raise his hand again for the rest of the class period. She saw him writing, occasionally glancing up at her. He was thinking about what she’d said, she figured. She’d taught him a lesson, reasserted her authority, shifted some of her own discomfort onto him. She should have felt a sense of accomplishment. Instead she felt like the inside of a used and emptied vacuum bag.


Simon’s spirits didn’t stay down for long. A few classes later he was grinning like a cherub and thrusting his hand into the air to answer every question. When she tried to ignore him, he blurted out the answers. He was undeniably bright but not as bright as he thought himself.

She wasn’t equipped by training or experience to handle disciplinary problems. She had degrees in English and History but no teaching qualifications. The small private school she worked at wasn’t as picky about qualifications as the public schools. And for the last few years she’d been teaching college students. She liked the idea of being a professor, but universities treated adjuncts like dirt: low pay, minimal benefits, no tenure. And no tenure meant they had no trouble letting her go when she posted something on Twitter about assassinating the president. She hadn’t mentioned this in her interview at the Barrow School. Most of the leaders there were Republicans, she’d heard, as were many of the parents.

Case in point: she’d asked the kids to bring in news articles with stories about state news that they’d summarized and reflected on. One of the girls brought in an article from the print version of Fox News. Fox News! She’d lost her temper. It’s possible she said something injudicious. Afterwards, she forgot exactly what.

One time she pointed out the curious fact about English that two negatives make a positive but two positives never make a negative.

“Yeah, yeah,” Simon said without raising his hand.

“Very funny,” she said, and let it go.

Simon was fond of counterexamples—as fond as Fiona was of sweeping generalizations. If she said, “War never solves anything,” he’d point out that WWII stopped the Nazis. If she said that the Romantics all died young or faded out, he’d mention Blake and Victor Hugo.

The third time he did this, a fire raged in her chest. She thought of dragging him over to examine her certificates again, to remind him who had the authority in this classroom, but she noted several students tapping on their phones. It was hard to bluff on a question of fact in the age of Siri and Google.

A few weeks later, he interrupted her to ask if he could discuss his grades. She looked up and then indicated the girl sitting across from her.

He didn’t take the hint. “I think you made a mistake,” he said.

“Jeez, Simon. What makes you think you’re so special? Can’t you see I’m talking to Kaitlyn? Wait until I’m finished.”

He moved around the classroom, tapping his foot to the music coming through his earbuds, examining her posters of Chief Seattle and Emily Dickinson and Langston Hughes, and timelines of history. She imagined him passing judgment. The posters in his mind would be lame, outdated, old-fashioned, or just plain old.

A stray line from Shakespeare crossed her mind. “Under him my genius is rebuked, as it is said Mark Anthony’s was by Caesar.” She couldn’t recall which character said it, but that was how she felt about this boy. She kept Kaitlyn talking until a bell sounded. Simon removed his earbuds and strolled up to her desk. He held out the papers again for her to examine.

“I don’t have time now. The next class is coming in. Come back at lunch time.” This was true. She did have to teach eighth grade English, but she also knew he liked playing basketball at lunch and that there was a good chance he’d forget.

She ate her sandwich at her desk while playing Scrabble. He didn’t show.

But at the end of the day, he reappeared. “Can we talk about my grade? I think you accidentally entered my scores wrong.” His face was soft as butter. She couldn’t tell whether he believed what he said.

She leaned back. “You missed our lunch appointment.” She stared at him a long time, hoping to impress on him the enormity of this lapse. “It’s too late to do anything about the grade now.”

“But, it’s …”

“Sorry. But you have to learn the consequences of your behavior. And I have an appointment now myself.” This was true. She had an appointment with the doctor, not her regular GP but a male colleague of hers. She’d thought of blowing it off but that lump in her thigh worried her. She wouldn’t want to die because she was squeamish about doctors.

Simon sighed loudly. He’d missed his chance. He walked away with his shoulders down, dragging his feet. He’d given up. That would be the end of it.

The doctor ordered a biopsy. She’d been hoping he would say it was nothing. Now she had to stay awake all night panicking. She arrived at school the next morning sleep-deprived and still worried—to find an email in her school mailbox.


Dear Ms. McNeel,

My son, Simon Flanagan, earned 19, 20, 19, 20, 20, on his five assignments for your News Analysis Project, for a total of 98 out of 100 points. We have the original graded assignments.

You gave him a D. I respectfully request that you adjust his grade accordingly.

Elsa Flanagan, Ph.D.

Professor of History.

… University.


Ph.D! Professor of f-ing history! That woman enjoyed flaunting these baubles in front of Fiona. Like they made her a more worthwhile person. Fiona wouldn’t have dreamed of interfering with her own children’s education. And they wouldn’t have run to her with complaints about their teachers. She’d raised them to have more character than that.

She read the email again. Then clicked delete. God, that was easy.

Fiona had more important things to worry about. She went in for the biopsy—and left with numbness that would devolve into pain, two unsightly stitches and a week of anguish.

A few nights later she went out with a couple of girlfriends and tried to drown her worry in three Thai daiquiris. In the low light and the fumes of the vodka an older gentleman sitting alone in the corner looked like her type, sharp-featured, blue-eyed, grey-haired, a little bit like an older version of Stephen, her first husband, the one she’d taken for granted. She tapped her foot to the low sounds of Bruce Springsteen. She smiled.

Perhaps if she smiled long enough the guy in the corner would buy her a drink. He smiled briefly and then looked back at the paper he was reading. Married? Gay? Or just looking for something better? On reflection, she decided he was nothing like Stephen. She surveyed the rest of the candlelit room. Everyone else was paired up or too young or female. The pickings get slimmer the further you get past fifty, as her mother used to say.


A gaggle of giggling seventh graders was too much for her sore head the next morning. “Write an essay on the Pig War, folks. 250-500 words. Leave it on my desk by the end of class.” She turned on the computer, responded to an email from her daughter, scanned Facebook and Amazon.

Ah, those shoes! The color, Bloody Mary Red, would go with her hair and her colorful personality, and the four inch heels would almost make her height-weight proportional. She’d have to starve for a month to afford them, but hey, you have to have a little glamor in your life. Her finger hovered over the ‘buy now with 1 click’ button when her email dinged. Simon’s mother again.

Ms. Flanagan had cut and pasted the same nitpicky little screed as before, with this addition at the top: “I sent this email three days ago. Since I haven’t had a response, I assume that you did not receive it. So, I am resending and I’m cc-ing Mr. Sennett, in case there is some trouble with your email.”

Mr. Sennett was the principal. Cc-ing the principal was the ultimate dick move. Entitled parents did it all the time. Beleaguered teachers hated them for it. This would earn her some sympathy in the staff room—but not from her principal.

She opened the grade book, and changed the D to an A. Why the hell should she care what grade he received in seventh grade history? He and his family were nothing to her. The spoilt brat would learn soon enough that his mommy couldn’t solve all his problems for him. Then she hit reply-all to the email. “Thanks for your note. I have adjusted the grade. Sincerely, Fiona McNeel, MA.”

She hated to think of the woman’s satisfaction, but she couldn’t afford to lose this job.

The doctor’s office called the next day and told her that the tumor was benign, a mere lump of hard fat, a common occurrence. No apology for wrecking her week. She breathed a deep yoga breath. In the pause, she recognized, no cancer! Wow! That was something to celebrate. All the stress and worry of the last week should be draining from her system. Maybe she should buy those shoes. Or take that trip to Boston to see her daughter.

Or finally teach Simon who was boss in this classroom.

Over the next few weeks, she ignored his raised hand and scolded him when he blurted out. After a while, he stopped participating, but often disrupted the class by talking to the students around him, or by dropping books to make loud bangs. Everything he did seemed designed to irritate her. He wanted to break her, she sensed. Not happening, kiddo—she thought—you’re thirteen years old, remember, and I’m… well, I wasn’t born yesterday.

Often when he walked through the room, he’d bump into things, a backpack, a desk, an elbow, raising laughs and sometimes angry squawks from other students jangling her nerves and jabbing her bruised brain. She noticed he’d start to smell—puberty perhaps or maybe he’d just quit showering. His hair was greasy and he had a rash of pimples across his nose. Not as pretty as before.

One time when he was particularly disruptive, she confiscated his phone. At the end of class, she called him up to her desk. “Can you please exercise some self-control? Just for the 50 minutes you’re in my class?”

He rolled his eyes.

“What’s gotten into you?”

Her computer dinged, dragging her attention away from the stupid boy.

“No idea,” he said, leaning across her desk to retrieve his phone, bumping the desk in the process, upending the vase of carmine peonies—all over the keyboard of her laptop.

For long seconds, she stared at the water sinking into the cracks between the keys, the deep red petals floating on the surface, and wished she could strangle the boy. “Oh, why are you so stupid, Simon!” she said as she grabbed the laptop and shook out as much of the water as she could.

He pulled back. “Sorry. Sorry. I didn’t mean to…”

She heard a skitter of laughter across the room behind him, silenced instantly when she looked up. He’d planned this, she decided, and told his friends to watch for it. Now they were watching and waiting for her to implode. Determined not to give them the satisfaction, she unplugged the computer and wiped the keyboard with her cardigan. “You’re coming with me, young man!” she said through gritted teeth. She grabbed him by the arm, and dragged him down to the principal’s office. The other students could do homework or read or have an orgy, she was damned if she cared.

A large oak desk took up most of Mr. Sennett’s office floor—highly polished and bare except for framed photographs of his wholesome family. The walls were decorated with bookshelves, trophies, university football banners and various whimsical toys and gadgets. Mr. Sennett sat behind the desk, a tall, stout man of about sixty-five, with a ruddy face and shrewd, gray eyes.

She told him what had happened, how Simon had intentionally knocked over a vase to destroy her computer, how this was the final straw in his attempts to undermine her authority.

Mr. Sennett listened and made sympathetic noises. When she finished, he asked Simon whether the incident had been deliberate.

The boy shook his head. “No. Of course not.” His voice cracked. “I’m just clumsy. I’m always bumping into things. Ask my mother. She says it has something to do with my growth spurt.” He looked Mr. Sennett in the eye when he spoke, confident in spite of his breaking voice, very different from the sullen, skulking boy in her classroom, like he’d been the first day she met him.

“He did it on purpose,” she said. “I saw the look in his eyes when he did it.”

“No, you didn’t. You weren’t even looking at me. You were looking at your computer screen.” He added something inaudible that could have been, like always.

Mr. Sennett glanced from one to the other and shook his head. Finally, he suggested that Simon call his mother and go home early. He would reflect on the matter over the weekend and give them his decision on Monday.

When the time came, he said that, since he could not be sure the damage was intentional, Simon wouldn’t be expelled, but he would be suspended for a week, he or his parents would have to pay for any damage to the computer, and he would be required to write a letter of apology to Ms. McNeel.

The letter Simon sent was brief, formal, and adequate. Fiona thought sourly of framing it beside her degree certificates. She was more pleased with the check she could use to replace (and upgrade) her laptop, and with the glorious absence of her nemesis for a whole week.


On Thursday, four days into the week of liberation, Mr. Sennett called her into his office at 3 o’ clock. “I’ve had some complaints about your teaching,” he said with a small grimace.

Fiona swallowed. “From whom?” She had a pretty good idea.

Mr. Sennett sighed heavily and leaned across his desk. “Well, actually four parents came in to meet with me. Parents from four different families. I don’t feel at liberty to divulge their names at this time, but they had a petition signed by…” He paused and looked over the sheet of paper, obviously counting. “Parents of fifteen different students, that is fifteen out of the 28 students in the two seventh grade classes.”

Fiona felt her skin turn the color of her hair, the color of a fox run to ground by a pack of baying hounds. “Fifteen,” she gulped. “What are the charges?”

He put on his reading glasses and peered at the long list. “Some of these are pretty petty, I recognize, and some might be lies or exaggerations, but it’s a long list. I can’t dismiss this as the resentment of one aggrieved parent.” He knew what she’d been thinking. “Apparently, you described Fox News as bullshit.” He looked up.

She blinked and half-laughed. “Yeah, but …”

“Well, you think that and maybe I think that, but we are supposed to be entirely neutral on matters of politics. And you absolutely cannot use profanity in the classroom.”

“Right.” She nodded. “I’ll try to be more discreet.”

“Apparently you spend a lot of time on social media sites during class time.”

Fiona blushed as red as her four inch heels. “Well, only when they’re working independently. My experience teaching college students has encouraged me to see the value of independent research.”

“Fair enough, but that brings me to the third item. Apparently, there are very long delays in returning work, assignments sometimes get lost, and the grading, when you do it, is spotty and inconsistent. You’re frequently unresponsive to requests for help or grade checks.”

Fiona scrambled for a good enough answer. It was like searching for a key in a messy junk drawer. She looked up, allowing her face to express the pain she felt. “I’ve been unwell. I have this tumor in my leg.”

His eyes grew wide. “I’m so sorry. I had no idea. Of course, with that on your mind, of course it’s not surprising…”

“Thank you,” she murmured. “I’m recovering. I’ll be able to do better next semester. Perhaps if you would agree to mentor me.”

“Of course,” he said. Then glanced at the sheet again. “Did you really say, ‘Why are you so stupid, Simon?'”

“No,” she said quickly. “Well, if I did it was because I was so provoked.”

He looked at her over his reading glasses with half a smile. “Ah, Fiona. You’ve really gotten yourself into a pickle, haven’t you?”

In some men, this would have sounded patronizing, but there was such warmth in his grey eyes and such kindness in his tone that Fiona didn’t mind.

“I really need this job, Jeff. Can you please give me another chance? Give me some advice?” Men, she knew, even lovely men, liked to be asked for advice and complimented on their skills. “How do you manage to be such a successful teacher?”

Mr. Sennett glanced across at the photos on his desk while he considered her question. “The trick—and I know it sounds a bit sappy, but it really works—is to love them. Take this boy, Simon. He’s not such a bad kid. I’ve observed him on several occasions. He’s intelligent and eager to learn, although he can be a little thoughtless. You have to find ways to remind him to think about other kids’ learning needs. Maybe give him some leadership role or have him tutor students who are struggling.”

Jeff Sennett was like one of those lovable characters in literature, like Elizabeth Bennett or Mr. Knightley, who you either wanted to emulate or to marry. He was already equipped with a slender, elegant, and adoring wife. Could Fiona emulate him instead? She wondered. Love Simon?

“Do you have children of your own?” he asked.

“Yes. Two.”

“Imagine them in your classes. Teach as if you’re teaching your own flesh and blood.”

Fiona thought about Mary and Bruce—both far away, both excessively loyal to their respective fathers, both imperfect in so many different ways—whom she loved more than she loved herself. She’d give one of her kidneys to either of them.

Love Simon like that? Probably if you examined the matter from a ruthlessly objective point of view, you’d see that his defects were no worse than theirs, his strengths no less than theirs. Recognizing that in the abstract was one thing—but letting it settle into your entrails was another thing entirely.

“I don’t know,” she said, shaking her head.

He reached across the desk and took her hand.

She gasped.

“Would you like me to pray with you?”

She flinched. She would have preferred him to grab her breast. “Uh no. I’m not the praying type.”

“Well, I’ll pray for you then—that is, if you don’t mind. Prayer is a powerful thing.”

“OK sure. Thank you.” She didn’t want to be rude, and it couldn’t hurt.

He bent his head for a few moments. She wondered whether she would be expected to feel some brightening of her soul as the love poured in. She hoped at least that the exercise would soften his attitude towards her.

He opened his eyes. She smiled with all the warmth she could muster.

“All right, Fiona. Here’s what I’m going to do. I’m going to give you another chance. Then I’m going to drop in on your classes every now and then next semester, unannounced, to keep an eye on how you’re progressing. If I can honestly report that there has been significant improvement I think I’ll be able to convince the board not to give in to all this pressure to … let you go.”

She gasped. She hadn’t fully realized how close she’d come.

He drew up a list of three areas of progress that he’d be looking for, and she agreed to work on them. The Christmas break would give them all a chance to regroup, Mr. Sennett said, a chance for tempers to cool and for everyone to realize that it was in their best interests to work together without conflict.

Fiona’s plans to see Mary in Boston fell through—as they often did. Staying in town was simpler and less expensive anyway. She raced through her grading and spent the remaining vacation days reading new books from Tina Fey, Roxanne Gay, and Hillary Mantel, watching Netflix, walking, and browsing the Internet. Mr. Sennett’s words came back to her every now and again. “Love them. That’s all it takes. Let me pray with you.” She tried to imagine loving the boy who’d made her first semester a misery, who’d destroyed her second most valuable possession, and who’d tried to have her fired. She stared deep into her little fragrant Christmas tree and tried to imagine. No, she finally decided. Jeff Sennett might as well have told her to fix her life by writing as well as Stephen King. Nice but not possible. She could perhaps fake love but she sure as Hell could not feel it.

And even if she could feel it, her wretched salary did not compensate her for such a radical soul transformation.

She returned to the classroom with the intention of pretending to love Simon and his peers, or at least being a little nicer to them, especially when Mr. Sennett came calling.

Simon was quiet in class, mostly sitting in the back and getting on with his written work. She’d brought him to heel. That was one small triumph.

Mr. Sennett visited her classroom when she was teaching about the Great Depression. The students perked up in his presence, keeping their disruptions to a minimum, and their class participation up. She asked questions, praised right answers, and carefully corrected incorrect ones. Mr. Sennett gave her a thumb’s up as he slipped out just before the bell.

He returned on February 11th, when the students were writing a short paragraph and Fiona was on her computer. She quickly switched from Facebook to her notes for the following day. Halfway through the class she asked two of the students to read aloud. Not very exciting, but not her fault.

Around Easter it became evident that Mr. Sennett and the board were not going to fire her. She wasn’t obviously awful enough to merit the trouble a firing would cause. Renewing her contract for the next year was another question. That wasn’t automatic, she realized; the choice to do so was supposed to depend on exemplary performance (and, implicitly, on whether they could find someone else as good or better.) After another couple of months, it became less and less likely that she’d be teaching seventh graders in the fall. In the end, her career at the Barrow School ended, not with a bang, but with a slow hiss of escaping air.

On the last day, she stuffed her possessions into four boxes, and headed for the door, using her butt to push it open.

“Let me help you with those,” a deep voice said behind the boxes in front of her face. He lifted the top two off her pile. Simon. She hadn’t heard his voice in a while.

“Put them back. I don’t need your help.”

“You’re leaving?” he asked, still holding the boxes and walking towards the stairs.

She followed. “I’m cleaning out for the summer. All of us are.”

“But you are leaving.” Someone must have told him.


“I hope you like your new job better.”

“Oh, yes. I’m sure I will,” she agreed, inwardly noting that she could hardly like it— whatever it would be—any less.

“Where are you going?” he asked when they reached the second-floor landing

Fiona wished she could tell him to mind his own fucking beeswax. The rule about not cursing in front of students no longer gagged her, but it would sound defensive. Telling him that she was still looking, that she was toying with the idea of teaching driving for ten hours a week, or applying for a realtor’s license or perhaps working in an office—would be to admit that he’d defeated her. “Oh, I’m heading back overseas,” she said instead, “I’m going to teach history at a small college on Santorini. That’s in Greece.”

He grinned. “Wow! That sounds great. Greece! My mom always talks about how she’d like to go there. It’s a great place for a historian.”

Other teachers and students jostled past them calling out good wishes for the summer. Fiona pushed through the glass door and out into the sunlit parking lot. When they reached her burgundy Honda, she hefted her boxes onto her hip and scrabbled for the keys in her purse. “You’re coming back here next year?” she asked because she felt stupid searching for her keys and wanted to fill up the air between them.

He didn’t answer immediately. “Yes. I thought I wasn’t but…”

“Why not?”

“I was unhappy here for most of this year.” He looked her straight in the eye and she received the unsubtle message. “I used to love school, but this year not so much. I think next year will be better.”

Fiona found the keys, unlocked the car, settled her boxes into the messy trunk and gestured to him to do the same. For a moment they stood, regarding each other. Finally she leaned in. “I’m no longer your teacher, but I’ll give you one last lesson—for free.” She paused to make sure she had his attention. “Most people are unhappy. Don’t expect you’ll be any different. You’re not as special as you imagine you are.”

He cocked his head, and then laughed—a deep, happy, jangling sound, and turned and ran towards a group of boys and girls kicking a ball on the emerald grass.



[Photography credit: Jason Rice]


[author] [author_image timthumb=’on’][/author_image] [author_info]Frances Howard-Snyder teaches philosophy at Western Washington University, but she prefers to explore ideas through fiction. She has published short stories at Magnolia Review, Silver Pen, Oxford Magazine, and numerous other places.[/author_info] [/author]