Monday Aug 19

Fincke Gary Fincke’s latest book is The Darkness Call, a collection of personal essays that won the Robert C. Jones Prize for Short Prose and was published by Pleiades Press in February. His newest collection of poems, The Infinity Room, has just won Michigan State’s Wheelbarrow Press Poetry Prize and will appear late this year. West Virginia University published The Out-of-Sorts: New and Selected Stories in 2017, and Stephen F. Austin published Bringing Back the Bones: New and Selected Poems in 2016. Winner of the Flannery O’Connor Prize for Short Fiction and the Ohio State University/The Journal Poetry Prize for earlier books, he has just retired as the Charles Degenstein Professor of Creative Writing and Director of the Writers Institute at Susquehanna University.
---------

Headlines

Bomb Threat Closes School

      In the spring of 1980, a bomb threat was called in to the high school where I taught English. In less than fifteen minutes, the building was emptied of students, the faculty close behind. The school, located between Buffalo and Rochester, had six built-in snow days in its calendar. In four of the five years I taught there, more were necessary, but that day, at 9:30, the streets were clear, the temperature was mild, and it felt like a holiday. Despite the small chance that the threat might actually end in destruction and even bodily harm, I had to admit it was exhilarating to be walking home mid-morning. Before noon, I was informed by the school that the threat was a hoax.

      First period was my free time slot that year. I used it to read the Rochester Democrat-Chronicle and listen to gossip in the faculty lounge. It was the worst time to have free period, the rest of the day, six classes and one large-group discipline situation, stretching, except for lunch, without a break, but on the day after the bomb threat, the colleague who taught remedial, small group classes in a trailer behind the grade school building, revealed that once roll was called and recorded, the day was legal. “Yesterday was better than an over-the-limit snow day,” the teacher said, “because we’re not making that one up.”

      “If that bomber calls again at nine o’clock, we’re the luckiest teachers in the school,” he went on. “We go home before we have to do anything but celebrate.”

      The other two teachers in the faculty lounge laughed cautiously, as if the principal might have the room bugged. I kept my mouth shut. I hadn’t told anyone that I had been sending out applications to college English Departments since November, ready to put my recent Ph.D. to work it was better suited for. The reading teacher didn’t seem to notice. “He’ll call again,” he said. “He’s a student who knows what’s up. You can count on it.”

      My first class, second period, was for senior Non-Regents students, a designation applied by New York State. The students were unanimously marking time until they could leave school forever. There were two months left, the last marking period of their lives already begun.

      One of my colleagues and I had talked the school into subscribing to the Rochester newspaper twice each week so we could use it to find stories that might encourage the students to take an interest in the world outside of their neighborhood. My section read it first, then folded it neatly and replaced it on a table for his section of senior Non-Regents to use during the following period. Sometimes we used the newspapers for two days straight if multiple stories excited the students. The day after the bomb threat, the headline on the first page of the local section of the paper was about our school.

      The first student comment was “We’re famous.” The second comment was directed at me: “Admit it, teachers like a day off, too.”

      And then we talked about what might motivate someone to threaten the school and what consequences might follow until a minute before the bell rang. The class agreed that whoever it was would soon get caught because people who called in a successful bomb threat hoax would never be able to keep it a secret.

      Students gathered their books and watched the clock. One girl, visibly pregnant, said, “I wish there was a real bomb and my old boyfriend was the one person who didn’t leave when he was told to.”

      “But then he’d be famous,” her friend said as the bell rang, “and that would suck.”

      The principal held a faculty meeting after school. He sputtered his outrage and guaranteed the hoaxer would be caught. He wanted everybody to have “ears on the ground” for “student scuttlebutt.” The next morning, as first period wound down, the reading teacher looked at the clock and said, “Come on, bomber, do your thing.”


Iran Gives OK to Family Visit

      My English colleague and I approached the class in the same way. We called it Life Skills. The class read stories and took quizzes so the principal couldn’t say we weren’t teaching “English.” But mostly, the class was given over to writing short essays on newspaper stories and role-playing life experiences that showed them they needed to read, write, and speak well enough not to be taken advantage of. We both knew that the students faced a state-mandated test in mid-June that they had to score 65% on in order to graduate. Their scores were our test, too, because we were judged on how many passed. The principal used our numbers for PR. He released them to the local paper like football scores. A “losing season” was unacceptable.

      But it was still April, and that section I taught was concerned about other things—saving up for a car, working part-time, and above all, since two-thirds of the class of twenty-seven were girls, getting pregnant, being pregnant, or, in three cases, taking care of the babies they already had.

      After five years of teaching at that school, I’d learned that late winter/early spring was pregnancy season for seniors. Aside from rare exceptions, those girls wouldn’t deliver until late summer or early fall. It seemed as if they had spent Christmas break in bed with boys who pledged their love daily for two weeks in between looking at brochures for whichever branch of the Armed Forces they most wanted to join.

      Currently, eight of those eighteen girls were pregnant. Two of the three who were already mothers had given birth the summer before; the other had only told me she had “a son.” Since early March, every one of the current pregnancies had been signaled in class by a girl crying “for no reason.” The other girls would alternate between consolation and congratulations. Half of the pregnant girls expected their boyfriends to stick by them.

     By now the Iran hostage story bored them. When the discussion stalled, one boy closed it by saying, “Carter’s a pussy. My Dad hates him.”

      What they always wanted to talk about was Terry Fox, who had lost one leg to cancer, running across Canada. On April 12th, Fox had dipped his artificial leg into the Atlantic Ocean in St. John's, Newfoundland, and his Marathon of Hope had begun.

      The class had read that story eagerly, how a police escort and a small crowd had witnessed the departure of Terry and his van. The students were fascinated by his equipment--eight pairs of running shoes, three extra legs, and various spare parts.

      Though English classes met in that room throughout the day, there was a map of North America that scrolled down across the front blackboard. A week earlier, somebody had stuck a small gold star on the edge of Newfoundland. We were going to follow Fox across Canada, adding a star every week until the end of the school year. “Next fall he’ll be close,” the girl who stuck on the star declared. “I have a sister who will be in this class. She can finish the stars.” The second star, though, touched the first.

      I didn’t blame them for falling in love with the Terry Fox story. It was way more hopeful than talking about the hostages in Iran, inflation, or Jimmy Carter’s threat to boycott the summer Olympics. Rumor had it that one hostage was already dead, critically ill at the least, but the fanatics were keeping that secret. Near the end of the period, when we returned to the Iran situation, we discussed what might be done to successfully free the hostages, the students unanimously voted for a full-scale invasion.


Hostage Rescue Mission Fails—8 Killed

      “Come on, bomber,“ the reading teacher said as the clock lurched toward the end of first period. Years before he rooted for another penalty-free day off from school, he had been the guy who had advised me never to use a sick day for being sick. “What’s the point of a day off if you’re sick and can’t do anything?” he’d said. “Tough it out when you’re feeling like shit. The day’s wasted anyway. Use sick days for doing something you like.”

      Second period began without a bomb threat. Every student already knew what would be the headline. Everyone read past the front page without being asked, absorbing the details of how an attempt to rescue the American hostages from the occupied United States Embassy in Tehran was canceled by President Carter after two American aircraft collided on the ground. Eight crew members had been killed in the crash, several others injured. The military personnel had been airlifted out of Iran. They were all still reading when a boy slapped his newspaper down and said, “We left the bodies there. My father says that’s never supposed to happen, not ever. He says it’s Carter’s fault because he’s such a coward it rubs off on everybody.”                            The girl sitting beside him closed her newspaper. “My father yells at Carter when he’s on the news,” she said. “It’s like Carter is my older brother the way he curses him.”

     One of the young mothers said, “My Mom says yelling is a good thing. It means you still care, right?”

      “She just wants you to do better,” the first girl said.

      “At anything, right? Taking care of my baby. Yelling when I have to.”

      “Yelling doesn’t scare me,” the first girl said. “It’s when you sometimes just stare at us the way my Dad looks before he says I’m worthless. Like you’re out of caring.”


Is Economic Embargo Enough?

     The following week there was another phoned-in bomb threat. Like before, just after nine o’clock. The next morning’s newspaper used two paragraphs in a sidebar summary of “Regional News” to summarize.

      “it’s not news when it happens again, is it?” a boy said. “It’s just a small crime where they think nothing important happens because it’s thirty miles from the city.”

      I’d expected disappointment, but before anyone else spoke, there was a fresh set of tears, this time from the girl who was new to the school, a near-stranger who had moved to town just after Thanksgiving. The girls showed the same empathy. Even the boys waited for a few minutes, none of them taking advantage to start a separate conversation while the girls who were consoled in late-winter provided comfort in mid-spring, hugs and tears and, nearly without exception, an invitation to the community of disappointment in fathers.

      Before class ended, the crying girl raised her hand and asked me how old I was before I got married. When I said twenty-three, she said, “That sounds so old. I thought I could finish high school before I had a baby, but I’d never make it all the way to twenty-three. I’d be like forty when she was in high school. My mother’s thirty-three right now. Like Jesus when he went back to heaven she says sometimes. Isn’t that spooky?”

      “Not when you’re thirty-four,” I said, but whatever cleverness that line had disappeared without a reaction when another girl broke in. “I bet you got married and she wasn’t pregnant. Am I right?

      “That’s right.”

      “Wow,” the crying girl said. “You two must have been really lucky.”

      “There’s pills. And other choices, too, but they’re the easiest.”

      I thought she was going to say she was ashamed to ask or her mother wouldn’t permit it, but instead she said, “Aren’t you afraid of hell?” as if bringing up birth control had never crossed her mind.

      The period was nearly over, and there was nowhere to go except into controversy. When a girl who wasn’t pregnant waved her hand, looking excited, I was happy to call on her. “I heard there’s a McDonald’s coming to town,” she said. “It would be fun working there. I love how McDonald’s smells, don’t you?”

      No one, the entire period, had commented on the embargo that was supposed to force Iran to capitulate to Carter’s demands.

      After school, at a faculty meeting, the principal announced, “The authorities believe they have a way to catch whoever it is. If there is another bomb threat call, we’ll put an end to his fun. And there will be no mitigating circumstances that will affect appropriate punishment,”

      On the way out of the meeting, the reading teacher poked me and repeated, “You know what mitigating circumstances are? They’re what puts people in front of me in the trailer.”

       I nodded, but kept walking.

       “You know what I’m talking about,” he said. “You have seniors. They never learn to read because they’re too busy fucking.”


Tito Dies

     “Who’s that?” was how the class began, followed by “Who cares about Yugoslavia?”

      I scrolled the map down and someone added a new star. Everybody clapped, but the stars were forming a solid line that already was farther across Canada than Terry Fox. The girl who loved McDonald’s said, “Wow, Canada is so big. This will take him forever.”

      Ten minutes late, the girl with “the son” walked in holding his hand. “Sorry,” she said. “Issues. You know.”

      The other girls were unanimous in delight. “He’s three,” she said, anticipating the question.

      “So’s my youngest,” I said, giving in to the moment. “He turned three last week.”

      “This guy will be four,” she said, and because she was no older than any of them, I knew everyone in the class, even the boys, was doing the math.

      A hand went up, and the conversation switched back to news. A girl asked everybody to look at a short obituary because its header said the dead woman had lived in our town and she’d worked at the Jello factory until it had closed. “They made Jello here,” the student said, looking at the new girl. “We used to be famous. My grandmother worked at the Jello her whole life. My mother told me she grew up believing that’s what she would do, too.” The girl became animated, the class quiet. “Imagine that,” she said, “being a little girl and already knowing what you wanted to do. It was like living in a town where Willy Wonka had his candy factory, and then it wasn’t. She had to quit school when she got pregnant. They wouldn’t let you go to class once you started showing back then, so I’ll be the first girl in my family to finish high school.”

      She looked at me for a moment. “Another month, right?” she said. “Hardly any time at all.”


Tito Buried

      Half way down the front page was another headline that interested everybody way more than more news about Tito. The class was eager to talk about Mt. St. Helens, the volcano that was threatening to erupt, and especially about Harry Truman, the old man who refused to evacuate and always had something fascinating to say.

      "I don't have any idea whether it will blow,” he had told reporters. “But I don't believe it to the point that I'm going to pack up. If the mountain goes, I'm going with it. This area is heavily timbered,Spirit Lake is in between me and the mountain, and the mountain is a mile away, the mountain ain't gonna hurt me."

      The students wanted to talk about that last part. They thought his contradictions were funny, but they loved his bravado. By now, he overshadowed Terry Fox.

      “Why doesn’t that guy leave?” was how discussion started.

     Guesses came rapidly:

      “He thinks he knows more than anybody else.”

      “He’s an idiot.”
      
      “He wants to die.”

      “He doesn’t want to move and be like a hostage stuck in some place where nobody thinks like he does.”


Slasher Films Concern Experts


      A few days later, the class searched for a quote from Harry Truman to write on the side blackboard that nobody ever seemed to use. "You couldn't pull me out with a mule team. That mountain's part of Truman and Truman's part of that mountain."

      “Current events are interesting now,” the girl doing the writing said. “It’s not just old men trying to be President. People like feelings way more than science.”

      When the class read that Truman received hundreds of letters, they decided to compose one and send it to him. “It will be practice for the stupid test we have to take in June,” a good excuse, but then somebody found a review of a movie that had just arrived at a neighboring town’s theater to talk about.

       “Friday, the 13th is low budget in the worst sense, with no apparent talent or intelligence to offset its technical inadequacies,” she read out loud. “It has nothing to exploit but its title.” Everybody started to turn pages to find what she was reading from. “Another teenager-in-jeopardy entry with six would-be counselors arriving to get the place ready and being progressively dispatched by knife, hatchet, spear and arrow, the murders telegraphed too far ahead to keep anyone in even vague suspense, and without building a modicum of tension in between.”

      “Modicum,” a boy said. “What kind of jerk uses a word like that?”

      “That guy’s wrong,” another boy said. “You’ll see. It will be famous.”

      “My Dad says movies like this have it right,” the McDonald’s girl said. “It’s a metaphor. You have sex, you get pregnant, your life is over.”


Miss South Carolina Crowned Miss USA

      The authorities were right. The third bomb threat exposed the callers, two boys who, incredibly, were calling from the pay phone in the school lobby. “How dumb is that?” the reading teacher said. “We need smarter bombers. Different pay phones for each call, and we’d be back home again.”

      Only one girl wanted to talk about Miss USA instead of the bomb threat story, which was in the local section again and just two paragraphs long. No names were mentioned there, but everyone already knew the callers’ identities. I’d had both students the year before. One had been in a Regents class, an excellent student until after the Christmas holiday. He began to be frequently absent. He failed every test. Drugs, classmates said in a way that revealed that it wasn’t beer or marijuana, things they found amusing and exciting.

      The other I’d had in a Non-Regents class, a boy who’d moved in during the year, skinny and unkempt and unable to do even the most basic work. He lived in a trailer, students said, something unusual in that school district. Everyone agreed they were an unlikely pair.

       “What’s going to happen to them?” somebody asked right before the class ended.


Muskie Blast Soviets

      Nobody opened their newspaper. Everyone knew that the trailer-boy had been expelled and the drug-addled boy was going to receive home schooling once his ten-day suspension had expired. “How does that work?” somebody asked. “He gets a prize for making those calls? Ten days of no school and then private lessons?”

      “Because he’s fifteen until school ends, they have to teach him.”

      “So if any of us called in a threat, they’d kick us out for good?”

      “Yes. And maybe prosecute.”

      “What if you hurt somebody? You know. And you were fifteen. What then?”

      “That’s different,” I said, though I didn’t know for sure.

      One of the visibly pregnant girls waved her hand. “I was really scared that first time. What if I lost my baby because I was so scared? Would he still get tutored and even get to come back to school?”

      “That’s complicated.”

      “Exactly. Right? Complicated.”

      I looked from face to face as if I was waiting for somebody to raise his hand. “Yes,” I said at last.

      “Another Brick in the Wall,” a boy said, and three students said “Exactly” in near unison.  
  
      “We should role play a trial,” the girl said. “You have to be the judge who asks all the questions. Half of us could be the jury because anybody can be on a jury. The other half could be witnesses and defendants because anybody can have things happen to them.”


Eruption Blots Out Sun, 7 Killed

      “Harry Truman will be a fossil,” a boy said as soon as he picked up his newspaper. “Ten thousand years from now somebody will dig him up and put him on display because he’ll be so well-preserved.”

      And then everybody talked nearly at once for a few minutes before I quieted them down long enough for that boy to break back in. “Wouldn’t that be the best way to die? All at once? He was already old, so why not die like that and be preserved instead of rotting away?”

      “Like those people who die on Mount Everest,” the boy beside him said. “They freeze and stay themselves forever.”

      “Not exactly,” I said.

      “But almost, right? Enough to stay looking like somebody instead of a box of bones in a hole.”


Carter Tours Volcano

     We were spending less time with the newspapers now, the state exam less than a month away. Though the class was considered Non-Regents, the test was labeled Regents Competency Exam, a suggestive name I was happy not to mention. If they failed, there was an opportunity to take it again in August, a motivation-killer I kept to myself.

      The new girl kept her newspaper closed, but she raised her hand when I referenced the front-page headline. “ My father said he was sorry Carter didn’t fall in.”

      Play Ball!   

      “What a dumb headline,” a boy said. “They never stopped, did they? They just pretended they were going to strike and then everything got fixed.”

      “There’s so many things to care about and the front page picks baseball?” the new girl said, and nobody argued.

      For the next three weeks, I would be showing them how their short essays would be evaluated and how points were assessed for their speeches. I would be explaining how, if they did well on essay and speech, they needed barely more than fifty per cent on the multiple-choice questions that covered reading comprehension, vocabulary, and grammar. No one would question my optimistic math. One more girl cried “for no reason.”

      We did trial runs on thesis statements, support, transitions, and conclusions. They wrote a five-paragraph essay three times a week and learned where points would be subtracted according to state-mandated rules. “Have an attitude,” I said, “and then back it up.”

      “Show me,” I repeated when trial-speeches began. “Make me understand using details about something you know best.” Most of the class was terrified. There was a week of mumbling and shaking hands, but everyone gave three practice speeches, each a bit better than the one before, mastering the point-system for success. Everybody clapped for each practice speech.

     The newspapers, some days, were not even opened. The Terry Fox map was given three more crowded stars. “Maybe you can come in this summer and add a few more to get ready for September,” somebody said, but by then Terry Fox would stop running because the cancer that would soon kill him had returned, and I would be working at a college hundreds of miles away.


New Fossils Age Life a Billion Years

     Immediately, two students pointed out that the headline couldn’t be correct because the earth was only 6,000 years old, but no one else in the room even opened the newspaper on the last day of class. There were yearbooks to sign, something all of them agreed was more important than “Bible talk.”

      Three days later, everyone showed up to complete their Non-Regents English exam. All twenty-seven passed, most with scores between 65 and 75, but there weren’t any additional rewards for a higher score.

      Their results were published in the local weekly paper a few days after graduation—my name, including my title of Dr., then the name of the class followed by 100%, the public version of a perfect score. Nothing was said about the makeup of the class, what the principal would call “their mitigating circumstances.”