by William Michaelian
The fourth grade teacher that year was a madman with a beret and a name no one could pronounce. On the first day of school, he instructed the children to call him Mr. Burr. Then he picked up a piece of chalk and wrote a very long and very strange word on the blackboard. This is why I want you to call me Mr. Burr, he said. This is my real name.
The children looked at the teacher�s name. It started with a B, and every so often it had an R, but it also had most of the other letters of the alphabet.
When Mr. Burr was finished writing, he put the piece of chalk back in the tray next to his eraser. The end of it was already gone. He rubbed his hands together, releasing a cloud of white dust. This is the way it�s going to be, he said with a hostile glare. Understand it, and you will understand me. I will tolerate no interruptions, and no nonsense. You�re here to learn. Any of you who aren�t interested in learning, you may leave now. He slowly looked around the room, as if memorizing each frightened face. No one moved. Good, he said. And one other thing. I believe in discipline. He paused long enough to take something out from under his desk. It was a large paddle with holes in it. The wood was about an inch thick. This, he said, holding the paddle up so everyone could see it, is what I call the Board of Education. In matters of discipline, the Board�s decisions will be considered final. Anyone who disrupts class or carries on in a childish manner will have a meeting with the Board in the next room.
Mr. Burr laid the paddle on top of his desk. The children were silent. Each knew the next room was where the school kept its meager supply of athletic equipment. It was a stale-smelling place with a concrete floor, and hollow enough to make one�s voice echo.
And so the school year began. At his command, the thirteen boys and sixteen girls being held prisoner by Mr. Burr stood and saluted the flag. After that, they sang America and took their seats for roll call. But instead of reading first and last names, Mr. Burr read only the last, as if first names and the young personalities attached were inconsequential.
The first day passed, then the second. A week went by. Little by little, the students began to relax. As they did, the bravest boys among them looked for a chance to test Mr. Burr, and to see if he would follow through with his threats. During the third week, the teacher himself appeared to relax. He even smiled occasionally. But his smiles were reserved for the girls in his class, because the girls had, quite predictably, proven themselves to be his best pupils. The boys, meanwhile, began what they thought was an invisible campaign to get the best of the monster in charge. Finally, one of them, a daring but good-natured boy named Mark, crossed the line by laughing out loud while Mr. Burr�s back was turned.
Everything stopped. Mr. Burr put down his chalk and faced the class. Who laughed? he said. Which one of you thinks what we�re doing is funny?
The room was silent. No one said a word. You? the teacher said, pointing at one of the boys. No, sir, the boy answered. You? Mr. Burr said, pointing at another. No, sir, the second boy answered. One by one, each of the other boys was questioned. When Mr. Burr pointed at Mark, he received the same reply. Then the teacher told Mark to stand up. I know it was you, he said. I can tell by your voice. He took out his paddle. The rest of you, he said, sit here in silence. He walked to where Mark was standing and took him by the hand. We�re going to the next room, he said.
As Mr. Burr led Mark to the door, everyone waited and watched. The two left the room. The door eased itself shut. Soon, the door to the equipment room creaked. A few seconds later, the sound of its closing could be heard in the classroom. This was followed by three loud smacks of wood against denim, and three distinct cries of pain. A few moments later, the door to the classroom was opened again. First Mark came in. His face was red and angry, wet with tears. He was followed by Mr. Burr. In contrast, the teacher�s expression was calm, even satisfied. To avoid further pain, Mark sat on the edge of his seat. After putting away his paddle, Mr. Burr picked up his chalk and began writing on the board once again.
The year went on. Halloween came, then Thanksgiving. Fall gave way to winter. About once a week, one of the boys fell out of line and was taken to the next room for a beating. Each time, Mr. Burr�s victim returned in tears, while the teacher himself wore the same calm, satisfied expression.
At long last, Christmas vacation arrived. The joy of being free shined on everyone�s face. Then, all too soon, January reared its cold, foggy head and school resumed. Two new students joined the class, a boy and a girl who were twins. The boy�s name was Miguel. His sister�s was Maria. Mr. Burr moved two more desks into the room, added them to the end of one of the rows, and told the siblings to take their seat.
In case any of you have forgotten, he said once he had resumed his place at the head of the class, I will tolerate no nonsense. Now. We have two new students. For their benefit, I expect you to be on your very best behavior. He reached under his desk. Alvarez, he said to the boy named Miguel, I am quite sure you know what this is. Please, don�t tempt me to use it. Mr. Burr studied the boy�s puzzled face. Understand? he said. Miguel nodded.
Class got under way. Along with the other boys and girls, Miguel and Maria recited the Pledge of Allegiance. But they didn�t know the words to America. At the end of the song, Mr. Burr addressed them, saying, Why didn�t you sing? Miguel shrugged. His sister smiled. We don�t know the song, she said simply. The teacher frowned. Very well, he said. I�ll teach you. Then he told them to come to the blackboard and gave them each a piece of chalk. Write the words as I say them, he said. My country �tis of thee, sweet land of liberty, of thee I sing. Maria started to write. When she was almost through with the sentence, Miguel had yet to begin. Why aren�t you writing? Mr. Burr said. And then, in a much louder voice, he added, My country �tis of thee, sweet land of liberty � go ahead. Write. Frightened, the boy put his chalk to the blackboard. But he didn�t write. Very well, Mr. Burr said. If you don�t want to write, you don�t have to. Instead we�ll go to the next room.
Mr. Burr told Maria to sit down. Then he took out his paddle and he and Miguel left the class. The door closed behind them. Then the door to the equipment room opened. As soon as it had closed, there were three deafening crashes, each punctuated by the sound of a boy�s voice crying out in agony. Everyone waited. For a moment Mr. Burr�s voice could be heard, then Miguel�s. Then there were two more crashes, and what sounded like pieces of wood hitting the floor.
When Miguel returned to the classroom he was in tears. But his eyes burned with rage. I�ll kill him, he said. I�ll kill him. Mr. Burr was sweating. In his hands were the remnants of his Board of Education, now in three pieces. After momentarily collecting his thoughts, he gave the class some reading to do and sat down at his desk. A few minutes later, he turned the class�s attention to arithmetic.
The following morning, when school began, the students in the fourth grade class had a different teacher. Miguel and Maria Alvarez were gone. The twins returned the next day. But no one saw Mr. Burr or his broken paddle again.
William Michaelian�s newest releases are two poetry collections, Winter Poems and Another Song I Know, published in paperback by Cosmopsis Books in San Francisco. His short stories, poems, and drawings have appeared in many literary magazines and newspapers. His novel,
A Listening Thing, is published here in its first complete online edition. For information on Michaelian�s other books and links to this site�s other sections, please go to the Main Page or visit Flippantly Answered Questions.