Busy Old Fool, Unruly Sun
by Ken Goldman
I wasted time, and now doth time waste me. — William Shakespeare
The cigarettes helped a little, lung cancer be damned.
Dr. Herbert Sanders always smoked two before facing his fourth-period barbarians. He knew his Advanced Placement senior English students would never have suspected him of such a vice at his age, and that thought made the last few draws from his second cigarette seem especially pleasurable. Then again, perhaps they would find humor in his cigarettes’ being an elitest English brand they had never heard of. After all, hadn’t they found humor in everything else he did?
All right, so he liked to keep the shades pulled down in his classroom. Big whoop, as these kids would say. Wasn’t teaching Hamlet difficult enough without having to deal with the distraction of some ill-mannered student shouting a four-lettered obscenity from the courtyard? A Midsummer Night’s Dream elicited not so much as a smile from his senior class. But when Howie Rothman shouted, “Sanders blows!” from the courtyard, the students howled like jackals for five minutes. So now, even on the sunniest days, his classroom’s windows remained closed, the shades down. Big whoop.
How often had Sanders felt like the butt of some enormous joke whose punch line he never could understand? Several weeks ago, he had heard giggles from the back of the room when he read Othello’s accusation to Desdemona, just before the Moor strangles the befuddled woman.
Jason Rossi mumbled something about wondering if Othello were chubby and bald also. Muffled giggles again last month when several students walked past the snapshot of Emily on his desk. Not one of those Philistines bothered to ask about how his wife’s surgery had gone after her recent hip operation. He had told the A.P.’s he would be absent for a week because of it, and Joel Robbins’ first question concerned whether that meant Friday’s test would be canceled. That remark brought on more inexplicable giggles.
Sanders thought briefly of Emily and her suffering while he was here playing straight man to a classroom full of comedians. What did his fourth period see in him that was so damned funny? His threadbare suit? Maybe his horn-rimmed glasses? Where was there any humor in a man trying to earn a living so that he could relieve some of his wife’s pain?
Maybe Herbert Sanders, like Romeo, was simply fortune’s fool. Maybe his story, like Macbeth’s, was another tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing. At any rate, retiring from teaching never entered the equation, so “to be or not to be” remained a question meant for another day. He dismissed these thoughts as much ado about nothing.
He had scheduled the Julius Caesar test today. That meant he wouldn’t have to force another Shakespeare lesson on his young scholars only to watch that glazed look come over their eyes, that damned “When is this class over?” expression he noticed all too often.
“Eight months with these kids,” Herbert mumbled while straightening his tie. “Eight months in the same classroom, five days a week, forty-five minutes a day. And I feel like a complete stranger to them.” He took one long draw from his cigarette, patting it out just as the bell echoed inside the teachers’ lounge. Fourth period had arrived, and Caesar waited for no man.
Few students were seated when Sanders entered his classroom but, as if on cue, each found his seat within seconds. A thick silence filled the room as soon as he walked into it. Fortunately, no one had tampered with the window shades today, and each had remained down. The windows were down, too, and the room felt a bit musty, a small price to pay for some peace and quiet on a test day.
Test Day. The term had a distinct quality of menace that Sanders liked, a power all its own he allowed himself to savor.
“Clear your desks, please.” He looked at Patty Delancy’s desk. “The cell phone too, Patty.” More than once Sanders had caught friends text-messaging exam answers to each other. These kids might not have been up on their Shakespeare, but they were certainly technologically industrious.
He kept his instructions simple and concise, for Sanders did not believe in wasting words. He passed several neatly stacked piles of examination questions down each row.
“Please do not turn your examination paper over until I instruct you to do so.”
No giggles this time. Good.
The senior class began their test. Sanders had made sure that his first exam question challenged their understanding of Julius Caesar to the limit. “Explain Cassius’ comment to Brutus, and how it relates to Cassius’ character when he says ‘The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars, but in ourselves, that we are underlings’.”
Sanders believed that anyone who mastered an understanding of the Shakespearean quotation had unlocked the secrets of the universe. As testimonial to this belief, posters of the playwright’s works covered the walls of Sanders’ classroom. Below likenesses of the melancholy Hamlet or the overly ambitious Macbeth, each poster contained a quotation from the immortal Bard that disclosed another fundamental secret.
Years ago Sanders would have taken this time to scan the classroom like a walking radar system that never failed to detect eyes wandering where they did not belong. But after thirty years of teaching, he had developed a distinct early warning system just as infallible in spotting student cheaters. Without fully looking up from his paperwork as he sat behind his desk, he knew by the practically invisible-to-the-naked-eye movement of Joseph Robbins’ head that he had caught another one.
“Robbins! Joseph Robbins!”
The boy had the look of a deer caught in the headlights of an oncoming car. Sanders said nothing more, curling his index finger at him in a motion indicating the time had come to accept his punishment. There was no need to fess up. The deed was done, and as Lord Macbeth might have told the misguided student, it could not be undone. His head down, Joseph Robbins approached the teacher’s desk.
Best to do it quickly, Sanders thought, rolling the boy’s paper into a neat wad and dropping it into the wastepaper basket alongside his desk. He clicked on his red ball-point recording a zero in his grade book, an authoritative and bloodless ritual both quick and effective. He told Joseph to take his seat without once looking him in the eye.
Nor had Sanders looked at any of his students today, and that thought suddenly made him uncomfortable. He didn’t dislike these kids, not really, despite their less than sensitive treatment of him. They seemed so much to resist learning anything, yet so often they did in spite of themselves. Now he felt the sudden need to observe the faces belonging to the names listed alphabetically in his records book. He stared at his class, studied their expressions as they struggled to comprehend whether Brutus was, indeed, such an honorable man.
Herbert’s radar system detected something different, although he had been dimly aware of it for some time. He had chosen not to notice it in the darkness of a classroom where the sun never shone. Something lurked in the eyes of his students behind the politeness of their responses to him in class. It hid in the corners of mouths that seemed always on the verge of breaking out into uproarious laughter. Its presence seemed most palpable on report card days when silence fell heavily in his classroom and lingered like a bad odor. And on test days, like today.
Sanders considered the punch line to the mysterious joke shared by three decades of students who sat inside his classroom. He had seen their opinions of him scrawled on their desks, had heard them whispered under their breaths and shouted through the window from the courtyard outside. The realization took a moment to register as it spelled itself out on the chalkboard of his mind.
In a flashfire of absolute certainty, Dr. Herbert Sanders knew that his students hated him.
Great Birnam Wood had finally come to Dunsinane Hill, time for Macbeth to draw his sword on Macduff. Sanders rose from behind his desk, stepped in front of it. Lay on, Macduff...
“Put down your pens... Stop writing...”
The words spilled out almost against his will. Although he looked directly at his class, Sanders seemed as if he were looking past it.
“Stop writing... please.”
He struggled with his next words. They appeared directed more to himself than toward the class, and he mumbled as if he had been unaware that he had been speaking at all. The forced smile he attempted became a sneer.
“How you must hate me. God, how you must really despise me. You do, don’t you?”
From the back of the classroom someone giggled as if one of the students believed his teacher were making a lame attempt at humor, but the muffled laughter abruptly stopped when Dr. Sanders stepped forward to Charlene Dampling’s seat. He looked down at her with an expression more smirk than smile. Although speaking only to her, he spoke loudly enough for even those in the back row to hear.
“You, Charlene. You hate me for the call I made to your parents last week. The one they told me would keep you grounded this entire month. Isn’t that correct, Charlene?”
Charlene stared vacantly back at him. Perhaps she was being diplomatic. Or perhaps she had remembered her borderline average in Dr. Sanders’ class.
He turned toward Harry Guthrie.
“And you, Harry. I’m sure you haven’t forgotten the three football games you didn’t play because of that talk I had with Coach Adams?”
Harry smiled dimly back at Dr. Sanders as if he had spent his prep period undergoing a lobotomy. But then Harry always had that same idiot grin on his face.
“And the rest of you. For detentions spent copying something as meaningless as Hamlet’s soliloquy on the folly of his existence. For the humiliations you endured in my futile attempts to awaken your sleeping minds in the presence of your colleagues. For the moments of supreme torture I inflicted upon you in my erroneous belief that this course might mean enough that it could stir that gray matter which passes for your brains.”
He stopped addressing his class, staring blankly at nothing, them mumbled to himself. “Herbert Sanders, you’re an old fool tossing pearls to swine, King Lear trying to out-shout the storm. And ‘How ill white hairs become a fool and a jester’.”
Thirty students gawked back at him in complete confusion.
Feeling faint, opening the windows had suddenly become the most important thing in the world. Sanders needed air and he needed to see the sun. Snapping each window shade so loudly several students flinched in their seats, he opened each windows as high as it would go. Sunshine washed over the classroom, and Sanders closed his eyes to feel its warmth. A breeze blew several papers from his desk, but he made no attempt to pick them up.
Below in the courtyard, a group of students on their lunch break were enjoying their moment in the sunshine. Sanders listened to their laughter, and he envied them. They would have laughed at Lear’s storm, not tried to shout it out of existence.
“Busy old fool, unruly sun...” he whispered.
And what would the fiery orb have answered if it could? Likely, “Don’t bother me, old man. Can’t you see I’ve work to do?”
Sanders turned and walked ghost-like past his students’ desks to the back of the room. He reached for the poster that showed a smitten Romeo extending an outstretched arm to his Juliet as he stood below her balcony. Turning toward his class, he managed a weak smile.
“Beauty too rich for use, for earth too dear!”
For a moment he had the strange impulse to rip the poster from the wall, to tear it to shreds. Instead, Sanders carefully removed the staples with his fingernail, neatly rolling the poster into a long tube. He walked over to Melissa Duncan, a pretty bespectacled girl who had consistently received A’s in every one of her tests, and who had sat in her seat mouse-like for eight months without once raising her hand.
“For you, Miss Duncan,” Herbert said in a voice barely above a whisper. “Fair and wise is she; the heavens such grace did lend her.” He placed the rolled poster on her desk.
Melissa Duncan looked at Sanders, looked down at the poster, looked up at Sanders again. For the first time in eight months, although lasting for only a moment, Herbert saw Melissa Duncan smile.
Joel Robbins made a sudden move as if his seat had been lined with hot coals, but instead he limited his movement to an uncomfortable squirm.
Sanders walked over to the poster showing the agonized faces of Lord and Lady Macbeth, whose souls had waged war upon themselves. “If it were done when ’tis done, then ’twere well it were done quickly,” he said. He carefully removed the poster from the wall. But this time it was not a clean tear, and a piece of Macbeth’s torn crown still clung to the plaster. Sanders stood for a moment looking at it as if it held some secret meaning for him. Approaching Joel Robbins’ desk he placed the poster before him. The boy looked at it as if Sanders had given him a snake.
“‘Thy head is as full of quarrels as an egg is full of meat.’ Don’t bother writing it down, Mr. Robbins. Just think about it. For once in your life, think.”
He walked to the other posters pulling each one down, leaving them in multi-colored heaps upon the floor in the back of the room.
“A little gift from me to each of you. You may want to choose among these carefully. For myself, class, ‘I will instruct my sorrows to be proud’.”
The entire class seemed frozen in their seats, but he paid them little notice. The thought of them seated there with their mouths open afraid to look at him gave him a strange sense of satisfaction. All that remained was for him to exit this stage.
Sanders kept that image in his mind as he left his students sitting behind their Julius Caesar tests and, without taking his briefcase, walked out the door. He took only a few steps before he stopped and turned to listen for the roar of laughter he felt sure was coming.
He waited for an entire minute outside the door but the laughter never came. Sanders closed his eyes. He heard the faint sound of heavy paper being unraveled, his students retrieving the posters he had left for them. He felt the corners of his mouth curl into an involuntary smile.
“Is there any cause in nature that makes these hard hearts?” he whispered in the empty corridor. If Bill Shakespeare had no answer, then Herbert Sanders was not foolish enough to search for one. “Class dismissed,” he muttered to no one present, staring at the open portal to his classroom. He shut the door, removed his tie.
Taking a deep breath, Dr. Herbert Sanders turned and disappeared down the hallway.
Copyright © 2017 by Ken Goldman