Halloween with the class from hell. My very first year of third grade, and I had four students show up wearing questionable costumes.
First, and least, was Jacob. He had a black suit (presumably from a recent wedding or funeral), a pair of sunglasses, and disturbingly realistic plastic handgun. He was an assassin. I made him keep the gun in his backpack, which he claimed ruined his costume.
“Too bad,” I said. “Be a ninja assassin or something.” He scoffed at the idea, but by the end of the day he was karate chopping his classmates and doing what he called “the Show-a-lin touch of death.” The only thing little boys like better than fart jokes is pretend murder.
Next was Stephanie. She was Paris Hilton, complete with the ungodly short skirt. I sent her to the principal for a length measurement and her mom was called in to bring a pair of real pants. It was late October, after all.
Next on Mr. Brandt’s sacrificial altar to good taste was Robbie. He came as a mummy that had been incompetently wrapped in cheap toilet paper. By reading time, pieces of him were everywhere and I made him peel it all off. He did, one square at a time, stacking them on his desk and giggling uncontrollably, because Robbie was weird like that.
But the prize went to Justin Neemyer. He strutted into the room late, pulled off his stocking cap, and revealed the swastika markered on his forehead.
“What the hell is that?” I said. Say “hell” to a third grader and they usually take you seriously.
“I’m Charles Manson!” he said, the same way another kid might say “today’s my birthday!”
Lots of things run through your head at this moment, such as, how does this kid born in 1998 know about Charles Manson? Or, dear god I hope this day goes quickly. Or, I am so getting trashed at that party tonight.
What I said was, “Go to the principal,” who was at that moment busy measuring Stephanie’s inseam.
“What for?” he said.
“Because your costume is inappropriate.”
“My brother helped me.” This was offered up as a perfectly reasonable rebuttal to my comment. I’d only been there a couple months, but from what I’d heard of the Neemyer kids, this really was a good explanation. Just not the kind of justification he believed it was.
“I don’t care who helped you,” I said. “You’re going to scrub that thing off your head the best you can and wear your stocking cap the rest of the day.”
I escorted him to the hallway. He started down to the principal’s, then Justin turned back to me.
“This isn’t fair,” he said.
“Yes, actually it is.”
“I’m going to tell my brother. He’s going to be pissed you ruined his costume.”
I was a little slow to respond. I’d never had a student come that close to threatening me. I wasn’t sure how to react.
“Watch your language,” I said, and walked back in to class. I found them all sitting quietly at their desks, watching for my return.
“Who’s Charles Manson?” Jacob said. His face was bright and curious above his murderous black outfit. The entire class, with all their ridiculous costumes and innocent faces, looked exactly the same. The room was silent, waiting for my answer.
And that was how Halloween began.
The rest of the day was, as usual, a struggle. We used candy corn to do some math, until they started flinging the little pieces around like paper footballs. I read a couple ghost stories, which were flatly declared not scary, then turned it up a notch and read the one I was going to avoid about the scarecrow coming to life and skinning some lost hikers. It turns out that was a mistake. Becky became a shrieking, tear-streaked mess, and I had to calm her down while the other kids went out to recess. Later, we played pin-the-arms-on-Frankenstein’s-monster, an invention of mine that had worked well with previous classes I’d TA’d in. Each student made their own monster and the arms to go with, then I blindfolded them one at a time and we all watched the projects get pinned together. It was going fine at first, but once Taylor accidently pinned an arm to the monster’s crotch, suddenly everyone wanted to give their monster a big dangly dong, or two.
The real monsters were my students, and they were ruining my favorite holiday.
After that, I made them watch It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown, because none of them had seen it. Not one. To be honest, I’ve never cared that much for The Peanuts. I’m more of a Looney Tunes kind of guy. But none of them have a classic Halloween special, so the depressing bald boy had to do.
I feared they would despise it for its age, primitive technology, and lack of explosions. Surprisingly, they all enjoyed it, and told me so at the end.
All except for Justin Neemyer. He remained a little shit and fought this one happy moment that had finally found my classroom. He wore his faded red stocking cap low over his brow like I told him to, but it just made him look like more of a hoodlum.
“I thought the movie was stupid,” Justin said, after every other kid had just said they liked it.
I gave him a warning look. “If you don’t have something nice to say, don’t say anything at all.” Sometimes I have to spit out crap like that so that I don’t start cussing at children for their behavior.
“Did you like it?” The way he asked suggested the answer was obviously that I hated it.
“Of course I like it,” I said. “Isn’t it funny how Charlie Brown keeps getting rocks instead of candy?”
Schonne raised his hand. “I like the part where Snoopy is in a plane fight.”
Kylie raised her hand. “I liked the part where…”
“You’re too old to like cartoons,” Justin said, glaring at me from under the edge of his stocking cap.
Everyone went silent. A student was challenging the teacher. This was a much-loved viewing experience in my class, even more so than watching cartoons.
“Anybody can like cartoons,” I said. “There’s no age limit.”
“I would never watch cartoons if I was as old as you.”
“Well, I guess you’ll find out when you finally get to my age.”
Kylie raised her hand. I called on her because I knew she would say something in my defense. “My mom says she likes cartoons,” Kylie said. “She really likes Mickey Mouse and Disney movies.”
“There you go,” I said. “Even Kylie’s parents like cartoons.”
“So?” Justin said. “It’s still not okay.”
I’d be lying if I said I never heard this before. I really do love comic books and animated movies, and have had to feel ashamed of it because so many people have this attitude. But this was the first time I heard it from a kid. Usually my love of cartoons was one of the best ways to relate to kids.
“Don’t talk without raising your hand,” I said. He started to open his mouth and I pointed at him and gave him The Look. I’d been told, while in grad school, that when I was frustrated I gave kids a certain look that scared them half to death. It was a silly thing, cartoonish in and of itself. All I did was squint one eye, like a super villain squinting through a monocle, and stare at the kid until they not only shut up, but stopped moving or thinking entirely. Before I graduated, I caged The Look and never gave it to students. Until I started here, with these little devils. In the last couple weeks, The Look returned and I used it liberally.
Justin clamped his mouth shut but kept up with the glare, his little blue eyes on fire with indignation.
At the end of the day, the principal stopped by while I was cleaning up.
“That was quite the day,” she said. “I don’t think I’ve ever had three kids from one class in one morning. Not even these kids.”
“Sorry about that,” I said.
“You should consider not letting them wear their costumes to school. Most teachers don’t allow it.”
“You’re probably right,” I said, though I didn’t mean it. It was just this class that made Halloween so miserable. I could manage kids in the future, even ones in costumes.
“Any plans for the weekend?” she said.
I wondered if this was a not so innocent question, to see if I was still partying out of town. No one had made any comments, but they had to know. I suppose it’s possible they knew to give a young man his freedom, especially in the first year. I decided to answer honestly.
“I’m going to Lincoln tonight for a Halloween party. Probably won’t even stay the whole night. We’ll see.”
“After the day you had, you deserve it,” she said. I sort of sighed and nodded, which must have looked more defeated than I realized, because she said, “Hang in there. You got started with an unusual class. It’s not always like this.”
“You’re doing a great job. Mrs. Morris almost had a nervous breakdown by this time last year. They’re always a surprise, and not in a good way.”
“You’re not kidding,” I said, and told her about my various problems with Justin Neemyer throughout the day. “I almost laughed at him before he went to your office. Been a long time since I was threatened with the whole my-brother-is-going-to-beat-you-up thing.”
She didn’t find it funny.
“The Neemyers are unpleasant kids,” she said. “The oldest one, Brandon, is the only boy I know of, since I’ve been here, that threw a punch at a teacher. He tried to hit Julia.” A fifth grade teacher. “He was just suspended from high school for trying to sell ditchweed at school. It wasn’t even real pot.”
“Are you saying I should watch my back?” I said.
“No, nothing like that. Just don’t be surprised if you house gets TP’d tonight.”
“Don’t worry about it.” She patted my upper arm in a motherly show of affection. “Just have fun at your party tonight.”
What a wonderful note to end the day on. Look out for the rampaging children the community didn’t know how to control. It did settle my mind about one thing: I was getting hammered at the party that night.
The Halloween party was a Halloween party. There were drinking games and spooky old jazz music and girls dressed in some variation of slutty nurse or slutty witch or slutty whatever.
I put on a t-shirt with the Spider-Man costume design on it. It fit me better when I bought it than at that moment, after three months of stress eating in the teacher’s lounge. I said hi to my friends, got a beer, and stumbled on the final ruination of my formerly favorite holiday: A game of pin-the-dick-on-Frankenstein’s-monster.
A cosmic Halloween joke, at my expense. If my demon students had been there, they would have laughed at me.
That effectively ended my night before it even started. I sat on a couch and nursed my beer. I was offered an eyeball Jell-O shot but declined. I should have been loving it, but my shitty kids ruined it. What was I teaching them, what was I preparing them for? At best, they would end up at a party like this, filled with young professionals and grad students. More likely, the boys would get hammered in a basement level Nebraska City apartment every weekend after getting off work from the cement plant. The girls wouldn’t wait for a holiday to dress slutty. I couldn’t help them, no matter how much I wanted to. We were all part of the towns that spawned us, and the schools that fattened us. From then on, we just floated in the murky water until a hawk swooped in for a meal.
At parties, you’re supposed to forget your responsibilities and let yourself go. No worrying about the future, or even about tomorrow. I couldn’t do that. All I was thinking about were my responsibilities to the school and the town, that either I was letting them down or they were letting me down. And just like that, I was too old for the party, too melancholy.
I think Sara saw that. I think that’s why she sat down by me.
“Why so glum, Parker?” she said, after dropping on to the couch beside me. She was dressed as a provocative Raggedy Ann, with the flannel shirt tied above her midriff and her frizzy red hair pulled back to show off her long neck. I say provocative and not slutty because that’s what she was; forward, energetic, and confident, but not advertising cheap sex. Also, her shorts were relatively long, so there you go. To be honest, her cheeriness would have still pissed me off if she hadn’t called me Parker, as in Peter Parker, Spider-Man’s alter ego.
“Who said I was glum?” I said.
“Your pouty lip and bent posture. You’re the picture of glum.”
“I’m just in character. It’s hard being Spider-Man.”
“Huh, well I’m Raggedy Ann…”
“But you can also call me Sara.”
She got my name, and she got me to do what I absolutely did not want to do that night: talk about myself. It didn’t happen right away, of course. She worked me around to it, without me even knowing. Introductions turned into who do you know here turned into talk about horror movies, which quickly, and I suppose ironically, led to my sad, pathetic career worries. She managed this possibly because, as I found out, she was a psychology grad student working on year two of her PhD. She wanted me to complain about my life.
“Do you like teaching?” she said. By this point she’d gotten me another drink and was sitting with her back to the couch’s armrest, her legs swung over my lap. Not the most professional technique for getting someone to open up, I’m sure, but I didn’t mind.
“I do like teaching,” I said. “I think. I just can’t stand these kids. They’re insane.”
“What’s wrong with them?” she said.
“What’s wrong with them. Jesus, where to start? They’re impolite, they’re hyperactive, I’m pretty sure they hate each other but have no other option for who to be around. They’ve run roughshod over every teacher they’ve had. And the town. It’s like a fucking southern river town. Only instead of the kids being all ‘yes sir’ and ‘no sir’ and polite, they’re ‘no way’ and ‘I don’t want to’ and ‘what if I don’t’ and just completely impossible!”
“Is that all?” she said with a wicked little smile.
“The boys also piss on the toilet seat,” I said. “I know, all boys have that trouble when they’re little, but I swear they’re doing it on purpose.”
“How about instead you give me an example. One kid who did one thing wrong.”
“Easy. Today, a kid threatened to have his big brother come beat me up.”
“Yes. This kid, by the way, came to school dressed as Charles Manson, complete with the forehead swastika.” Her jaw dropped. “Exactly. Actually, several of the kids had questionable costumes. There was one – ”
“You let them wear costumes to school?”
“That’s not the point … here, I’ve got another good example from today. I had them watch the Charlie Brown Halloween special. Normal holiday activity, right? Except that it ended with one of the kids, swastika boy, making fun of me for liking cartoons. That’s what kind of class I have.”
“Do you like cartoons?”
“Maybe I do. Is that a problem?”
She smiled again. “Not at all. Comic books too?”
I pulled at my shirt. “I’m not dressed as Toby Maguire.”
“Disney or Warner Brothers?”
“Bugs Bunny 4 life.” Yeah, I said “4.” You’d know it if you heard it. “What about you?”
“I liked the Animaniacs, and… what was the one with the little ship? Rescue Rangers.”
“Chip and Dale. They’re my second favorite pair of rodents.”
“But I like comic books more.”
“I think you just made my night.”
She punched me on the shoulder. “Face it tiger,” she said. “You just hit the jackpot.”
Mary Jane’s line for Peter Parker. The hard, nasty me I’d brought that night melted. The me underneath had little cartoon hearts blinking above his head.
“You’re not exactly the redhead I pictured,” I said.
“I’m better,” she said. And she was.
Chris Schacht has an MFA from New Mexico State University. His work has appeared in The Bellevue Literary Review and Newfound.