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Stories Tragedy

Featherless Biped

The morning traffic jam at the high school peaked at 7:47 a.m., short tempered fathers slowing down to jettison their surly sons, mothers asking their daughters if they wanted to take an umbrella just in case, seniors cutting off all other cars to drive diagonally through the parking lot.

Mister Carlton angrily tapped the steering wheel of his 2000 Toyota Tercel. It had been his mother’s, a car he inherited when he graduated from college with a teaching degree in social studies and more student loan debt than his entire first year salary. He hadn’t made much more since.

His father had asked him a question at dinner the previous evening: What kind of man wants to teach high school?

It was a loaded question. What his father was really asking was: How much longer are you planning to live at home? Shouldn’t a man your age be able to provide for himself? Couldn’t you have selected a better major in college?

At 7:49 a.m., the traffic had not budged. Unusual. Even the bloated busses sat, impotent, lolling like orange elephants at the congested entrance to the school.

Mister Carlton texted a colleague: [WTF]

His colleague texted back: [IDK]

If Mister Carlton had arrived at 7:43 a.m., he would have made it to his first period class on time. But customer service at the Dunkin’ Donut drive thru ranged from the sublime to the ridiculous.

A car horn blared.

Several others beeped and tooted, responding by being longer and louder.

Assholes.

Late again, Mister Carlton knew he would have to park in the visitor lot. He would have to skulk by the principal, who, in truth, was simply glad another teacher had shown up for the day. There were no substitute teachers to call this year. Students were just warehoused in the Media Center or Cafeteria.

If the principal had said anything, Mister Carlton would respond by saying, “30,000 public school teachers quit in September!” But he would never do that. He would smile sheepishly and give a jaunty salute.

At 7:52 a.m., his coffee was still too hot to drink. He checked his email on his phone.

||OMG MISTER C I NEED A LETTER OF REC FOR MY COLLEGE BY 8:00 A.M. IMMA DIE IF YOU CANT||

Shit.

It wasn’t like his seniors didn’t have all summer to fill out college applications.

Mister Carlton pulled out his laptop, placing it on the dashboard, keying in credentials. He quickly pulled up his Microsoft Word files and selected “College Rec Template for NonAssholes.” When it opened, he made a copy, search-and-replaced the student’s name, downloaded the document to a .pdf, and submitted it to the high school’s Common App interface by 7:57 a.m. Voila!

Traffic was still not moving.

Mister Carlton texted a colleague: [Traffic 🤬]

His colleague texted back: [5 0 called.]

The police?

Dads-in-ties got out of the Lexuses, hands on hips, looking for someone with an ID badge to complain to. Moms blankly stared ahead while their children dozed in the back, happy for a reprieve from sitting in cold metal desks all day. Occasionally there were shouts from the seniors’ cars, as teenagers crawled in and out of each other’s vehicles—screaming with laughter for no reason. Music blared when their doors opened up, trash rolled out, smoke billowed.

Mister Carlton checked his email again.

||Mster Carltoon, I really this Form attached with my Scholarship APP||

||OOP MY BAD. It’s attached now Thx for telling them about my POTENTIAL FOR GROWHT.||

Mister Carlton clicked on a link, secretly thrilled the TEACHER INPUT response was just a ranking and not a written one. Creative thought? 10. Motivation? 10. Perseverance? 10. Why not? What did that even mean? Why not just ask: Is this kid a generally decent human being?

Mister Carlton remembered his Western Civ class. Apparently, Plato told Socrates that man was “a featherless biped,” whereupon Diogenes brought a plucked chicken to Plato’s Academy, calling out, “Behold! A Man!”

Why not just ask: Is this kid a generally decent featherless biped?

8:02 a.m. He checked his email again.

||Attention faculty and staff, an incident has been reported . . .||

Mister Carlton tried to decipher between the jargon and the euphemisms in the principal’s email, trying to discern what was really happening.

Sirens sounded from behind. Previously jammed cars turned nervously from the congested entrance onto the road’s shoulder, some cars taking the opportunity to U-turn and retreat entirely, knocking over cones and digging grooves into the Garden Club’s plantings at the entrance to the school.

More horns sounded, melding with the approaching sirens.

Mister Carlton texted a colleague: [Shooter??]

His colleague texted back: [OMG]

8:06 a.m.

The first responders arrived en masse, both drivers and passengers silent now, doing their best to move out of the way. Mister Carlton saw eyes widen, mouths open, faces blanch. His own throat constricted, his stomach queasy, his legs weak.

My students are on campus.

He briefly remembered his Western Civ professor telling the story of Alexander the Great finding Diogenes looking attentively at a pile of human bones. Diogenes explained, “I am searching for the bones of your father, but I cannot distinguish them from those of a slave.”

More cars followed behind the police cars, the ambulances, the EMTs, the fire trucks, the SWAT team. These cars were full of parents, the ones who didn’t do morning drop off, the ones who had heard there was a shooter at the school—their children’s school.

Mister Carlton got out of his 2000 Toyota Tercel. Immediately, several of his seniors gathered around him, hugging him, waiting for him to tell them something comforting, anything to make sense of a senseless situation. He had always done so with the horrors of history, certainly Mister Carlton could do so now?

What kind of man wants to teach high school?

Alexander the Great was walking and saw Diogenes lying under a tree. Alexander walked up and said, “Were I not Alexander, I would wish to be Diogenes.”

Diogenes responded, “Were I not Diogenes, I too would wish to be Diogenes.”

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