It’s a sunny Saturday morning in June. The high is only going to be about 80 degrees, there’s a slight breeze, and Harold thinks it is perfect in the shade of his girlfriend’s pop up awning at the Farmer’s Market. Leaning back in a camp chair, feet propped up on the empty seat of Willow’s chair, he breathes deep while she sells her wares. Resting, but not physically tired, Harold is just at peace.
It occurs to him that he can’t remember the last time he felt this way. Spring Break? No. Perhaps at Christmas Break. Yes. He and Willow had gone to his parents for the holidays and life was looking good after his mom made him breakfast, eggs running over crisp hash browns. Of course, it didn’t last long, his brother Gordon began questioning Willow about her Essential Oils business. If you read a transcript of the conversation it’d just seem inquisitive. In person it was rude and Gordon was just trying to piss Harold off. Sure, Harold thought Essential Oils were next to useless, but they didn’t harm anyone and Willow was amazing in every other way. Gordon was just jealous of Harold’s good fortune.
“Well, enough of that,” he thought. This June day is amazing and I shall remain at peace. Why had it been so long since he felt at peace? He knew. He didn’t want to say it. He didn’t want to reflect on it, but it was well into June and school had ended before Memorial Day. This past school year was miserable. His middle school texts didn’t drop below a 5th grade reading level but 80% of his kids were reading at or below 2nd grade. That was only the problem if he got far enough into a lesson for reading to be required. The students were the antithesis of the school motto of ‘Ready, Respectful, and Responsible’. He’d thought about quitting, but felt A) that’d just make him another teacher burnout statistic, and B) even though it was miserable, it didn’t feel as soulless as the Summer in college he worked in an office cubicle prison.
He needed a plan. By the time Harold started packing up for the day, there’d been many thoughts, but no revelation. Physical work made the world around slowly fade back into focus and he realized Willow was explaining his serious, thoughtful expression to Demi; your best local supplier of herbal remedies.
“What would make next school year go better for you?” inquired Demi. Afterward it was always difficult to remember a full conversation with Demi. Harold discovered that he spent a third of the time trying not to stare at her beauty, a third wondering why she was gifting any of her time to him, and a third trying to uphold his half of the dialogue. It was both pleasant and infuriating.
“I think I’d just like kids to listen long enough to realize that learning could be fun. If I could just have five actual minutes of authority at the beginning of class…” blurted out Harold. In true midwestern upbringing, he immediately felt guilty throwing his burdens and baggage on someone else, and tried to add a little humor with, “I don’t suppose you have an herbal supplement that’d give me a ‘Voice of Authority’?” At the last moment, Harold had enough self-respect to refrain from using air quotes.
“Do you dare doubt my remedies? I have something for all ailments and needs.” Demi’s tone of voice seemed normal, but Harold had a feeling in his gut that doubting her was a mistake only made once. “Now, it will require some rare herbs, but I promise to have it ready for you before the start of the school year.”
“You will actually try whatever she makes for you, won’t you?” probed Willow when Demi had walked back to pack up her stall. “I know you don’t really believe in natural medicines and remedies.”
“Of course, I’ll try it.” Harold said in his best jovial voice. “I’m not sure I really have a choice,” he whispered to himself.
It was now early August and Harold was realizing one of the flaws in his relationship was that Willow seemed to come alive the more hot and humid the Summer got, while he was as miserable as Frosty the Snowman in a greenhouse.
Demi plied her trade at several farmer’s markets in the region. Whenever she was back in town, she kept telling Harold she was still working on his ‘Voice of Authority’. At the end of this Saturday’s market she strode up, mason jar in hand.
“Coffee or tea.”
“Huh?” replied Harold, dumbfounded as usual and near speechless at the all consuming sight of Demi’s long black curly hair and forest green eyes.
“All teachers are caffeine addicts. Do you prefer coffee or tea?”
“That will work, but it’d taste much better in a nice cup of Irish Breakfast Tea.” smiled Demi.
One third of Harold’s mind was telling him that he probably should switch to being a tea drinker. If only to please Demi.
“At the start of each class period, stir in an eighth teaspoon of this into your mug of coffee, and you’ll have your ‘Voice of Authority’ to get class started.”
It is a Wednesday in late August and students are flooding into the school. 8th graders are making sure their parents don’t leave the car and make them look uncool. 6th graders, some willingly, some begrudgingly, are having their picture taken in front of the school marquee.
Harold wasn’t planning on using the Voice of Authority mix on the first day. Teachers always keep their 6th graders in homerooms for a few days to acclimate them to their new school and there’s always a honeymoon period in which you’re given a false sense that this year will be better than last year.
However, as parents are bringing in 6th graders to the gym and they’re finding their teacher’s posted name to sit under, Harold sees that his group is bustling with energy. “Oh yay,” he muses. “Looks like I’m getting the ADHD power hour all day.”
Quickly, Harold sneaks back to his room, puts the small prescribed amount of Voice of Authority into his mug and fills it with coffee from his thermos. The taste is vaguely herbal. As he drinks and walks back to the gym he realizes that he should’ve spent the last few weeks switching from coffee to tea as Demi suggested, commanded? No. Strongly suggested.
“Mr. Peterson’s class, line up on the blue line.” the principal says over the microphone. The students cascade haphazardly down from the stands to the line. Jovially pushing and goofing around. “Let’s form a nice, straight, quiet, line everyone.” Harold says, starting the beginning of the teaching year like a kid jumping back on his bike after the snow finally melts in Spring.
And they do. The students all line up. Single file. On the blue line. And they’re quiet. The principal looks impressed. Harold is equally surprised and notices the short kid at the back of the line is standing still, but it sure does look like it’s taking all of his effort to do so.
The day goes like a dream for Harold. During Team Meeting with the other 6th grade teachers he discovers that he has the only homeroom that completed all of their tasks for the day.
Binders setup? Check.
Peaceful tour of the school? Check.
Rules and Responsibilities reviewed? Check.
Lockers opened successfully and combinations memorized? Check.
All questions and concerns answered? Check.
“Wait. I don’t think I got any questions from students today.” Harold realizes. “That’s odd. Maybe I’m just so experienced that I explained everything perfectly.”
1st quarter goes quickly for Harold. After all, time flies when you’re having fun. And teaching this year is fun. “Start your warm up activity as soon as you’re in class.” And they do. “I need everyone to show up with a charged Chromebook for tomorrow’s activity.” And they do. “Everyone, get your permission slip signed tonight.” And they do. Not a bad result for the simple cost of switching from coffee to tea. There’s a reason that herbal coffee isn’t a flavor at the stores.
Harold purchased an electric kettle for his classroom. The kind the Brits all seem to have in their houses; at least in the TV shows he likes to watch. He mixes the Voice of Authority from Demi with Irish Breakfast tea because, after all, he’s from a former colony and everything tastes better with a hint of rebellion. Harold sips his tea at the beginning of his last class on a Wednesday in October. The quarter ends today. Parent-Teacher conferences tomorrow and Friday, and a week of Fall Break afterwards. He hasn’t sent a single student out of his room for poor behavior, there’s no missing assignments in his grade book, and his evaluations proclaim him to be ‘Excellent’ not just merely ‘Proficient’. He feels confident. He feels at peace, for the last time this school year.
Fall break is wrapping up. It has been a beautiful week. The local foliage shows all of the colors from still green leaves, to harvest gold, orange, and deep crimson red. Willow joins Harold on their deck as he enjoys the last of his coveted Oktoberfest beers.
“How are you feeling about starting school again tomorrow?” inquires Willow.
“No worries. Got a lesson I’ve used for years to get them back into the swing of things. I think it’ll go well. It’s been a really easy year.”
“You’ve said that a lot. You do look less stressed than last year. But, are you having fun?”
“Well, yeah. I mean… what makes you think I’m not having fun?”
“Normally, by this point in the year, I know a lot about your students. Not just the few whose behaviors drive you nuts. But, you know. That Susie is the last of the entire Smith family that you’ve taught. Jerome blurts out all the time but he also has great comedic timing and makes you laugh in front of class. Or that you lied to tech that you were missing a Chromebook charger so you could give it to absent minded Billy so he has one at each parent’s house.”
“Huh. I guess this group of kids just isn’t that interesting.” replied Harold before turning the conversation to planning out the upcoming holidays and this year’s futile attempts at making both families happy.
As Harold lay in bed that night, Willow’s observation had him reflecting. His curriculum coverage was going great, his grade book was impressive, but he really knew next to nothing about his students. They just never seemed to share anything. He told himself that he just had a boring batch of kids and went to sleep.
The next day as he strolled into his classroom to set up for the day, he noticed a big blank, open area on the bulletin board by his desk. He started to feel foolish wondering what he’d forgotten to hang up there at the beginning of the year. Then he remembered. He always left a spot to hang up pictures and notes that kids would give him as the year progressed. Had no student really given him anything this year?
After a break, it’s all hands on deck in the morning as students arrive to make sure things get off to a smooth start. Harold is in the cafeteria pacing up and down the aisles as students are hanging out and most are eating the provided breakfast. He sees kids call out to the other teachers, big grins on their faces. 6th graders are still kids, and several give a big hug to the Science teacher as they come in from outside. It slowly dawns on him that while he’s been walking between all of the tables, greeting the children, none of them have personally responded. None of them have looked him in the eye. None have smiled at him. Do they not care that he’s there? Or are they trying to avoid his presence? Why wouldn’t they want to be with him? No one ever gets in trouble in his class. Things always run smoothly. Everyone does just as they’re directed. Isn’t that what students want? A consistent, quiet environment to learn in?
As 2nd quarter rushes on, Harold notices the kids are more and more in need of his direct instruction. The other day, he was a bit annoyed when he asked a question and no one answered or raised their hands.
“When I ask a question I should see several hands. At least half of you should have an answer to share.” Immediately half of the kids raised their hands. Well, 51% of them to be exact.
It dawned on Harold that if he put an answer or note on the board, no one would copy it down until he told them to do so. After a while, they would seem a bit confused, until he told them exactly where on their note sheet to put it.
And then there was December 1st, 3rd Hour, 10:30am. Cory started sweating and shaking. It seemed like a nervous sweat, but he hadn’t been called on or put on the spot in any way. Harold walked to his group and crouched down next to Cory.
“Are you okay, Cory?”
“Is there something you need?”
But Cory was still shaking. Harold knew when a student wasn’t saying everything that they were thinking. He looked at Cory more closely to inquire with a slightly differently worded question. As he did so, it occurred to him that Cory’s eyes looked not only frightened but wore his face like a mask that he could not control.
“Is there something you need to do, Cory?”
“Tell me, what do you need to do?”
“I really need to go pee.”
“Take the pass by the door, and go relieve yourself in the bathroom.”
Cory did as he was directed.
As Harold stood up and looked at his class, realization of a few facts came to him. None of the other students reacted in any way to his conversation with Cory. No silly comments. No talking to their neighbors while the teacher was occupied. Nothing. When was the last time he sent a student to the bathroom during class? He couldn’t remember. When was the last time a student asked to sharpen a pencil? No idea. He seemed to have to tell Olivia the other day to go sharpen hers after he noticed her going through the motions of writing with a broken tipped pencil. “Well, maybe 3rd hour is just a special class after all.” he justified to himself.
“No. Something isn’t right.”
“Okay class. Put your pencils down.” They put them down in unison.
“Stand up.” Everyone stood up like everyone thinks they do in a Japanese classroom when a teacher walks in.
“Put your left hand on top of your head.” No questions, just compliance. Deonte seems to be shaking a bit. “Isn’t he the one all of the other teachers complain about as being strong willed and defiant?” Harold thinks.
“Put your right hand on your stomach.”
“Now. Pat your head and rub your tummy.” They do. None of them look happy about it, but none of them dare not to do it. Harold just stares at them. A minute passes. Two minutes. Five minutes.
“Stop. You may be seated.” A simple whole class direction with unintended consequences. Some students sit most of the way, but not quite. Some stay standing but shaking, seemingly unable to decide. Some keep one hand on their head and one on their stomach and just sway awkwardly. Harold is horrified.
“Uh… I want everyone to sit back down and relax.” They all sit down, but no one seems to be really relaxed.
This isn’t normal. No where in the realities of all the possible multiverses that could ever exist would a room of 6th graders all explicitly follow stupid directions and not take advantage of the ambiguity of ‘you may’. For the remaining few minutes of class the students sit in awkward silence and Harold stands in the back of the room where no one is looking directly at him. He is shaken, but doesn’t know what to do. The bell rings.
“You may… You must collect all of your things and go to your next class.”
As the students leave, Harold walks up to his electric kettle. Puts a new tea bag in his mug. Pours in the water. Adds a heaping tablespoon from a mason jar and begins to stir. As the spoon lazily circles the mug and everything begins to dissolve Harold questions what he is doing. After all, he doesn’t like tea. Why does he need it between every single class? What in the world is he putting in his tea from the full mason jar next to the kettle?
Awareness dawns on Harold. “Demi’s herbal Voice of Authority. An eighth of a teaspoon… Have I really been putting in a tablespoon every class period? Can’t be. The jar is still nearly full. What in the world is going…”
“Um, Mr. Peterson, are you ready for your class? They’ve been waiting out here quietly since the bell rang,” the principal looks at his watch, “two minutes ago.”
“Uh, thanks. Come on in class and find your seats.”
4th hour walks in silently, stands near their assigned areas and simultaneously points at their chairs.
As Harold internally panics that he told them to ‘find’ their seats, not to ‘sit’ in their chairs, the principal remarks; “What a funny group of kids. I bet you love teaching this class.” And with a smile he leaves and closes the door.
25 pairs of eyes are staring at Harold while their outstretched arms are pointing to their seats. “This is going to be a long day” sighs Harold as he vows to never use Demi’s herbal remedy again.
Harold was gaining a newfound sympathy for his father. A mid-level manager always stressed out, in his own words, from his daily workload of having to “explicitly tell seemingly intelligent people how to complete simple tasks. I’d push to replace them all with robots, but I don’t want to lose my job this close to retirement.” Harold’s students looked and acted like robots, but ones that constantly needed program uploads. Harold had stopped using Demi’s herbal remedy, but nothing had improved. He was starting to panic.
“What in the world are you looking for?” asked Willow, annoyance rising in her voice as she took in the scene before her. “I think there’s one drawer you haven’t opened and spilled everywhere.”
“Oh good. You’re home. Do you have a phone number for Demi?”
“Demi? No. Of course not.”
“Someone has to! We’ve got to call everyone we know from the farmer’s market! Someone has to have a way to contact her!” As he finished his sentence, Harold saw concern in Willow’s eyes, probably because he’d taken both of her arms in his hands and shook her. Had he said that all emphatically, or had he been shouting? He let go. “I’m, I’m sorry. I don’t know what to do.” and he told her everything.
“I am sorry Harold, but there’s no way to contact Demi. Lots of people claim to be off grid, but she really is. I asked one Fall what she did over the winter and she said she returned to her husband and she’d be back when Spring was in the air. I didn’t think much of it then, but it was a strange answer.”
“Well, at least I have a timeline for when this might end.” Harold resigned himself to his fate and told himself that he was up to the challenge, but that confidence was only the confidence of a mediocre white man after all.
Spring was in the air. It was a Saturday. Harold was going to help Willow sell her wares at the indoor market in the old mall. He was a wreck. He was pretty sure the developing bald spot on his head was from the recent stresses. His eyes looked slightly less sleep deprived than he actually was. The school day was a living nightmare, but the dreams about his school days at night were worse. His mind used his dreams to test out work-arounds and cheats for this curse he was under. Each one became a worst case scenario in the vivid landscape of his imagination. He’d woken in a cold sweat just this morning from a classroom where he’d realized too late that he hadn’t told the students to keep breathing.
And there she was. Sitting behind her table lined with jars full of herbs, drinking tea from an oversize mug like some crunchy, granola, hippie, vegan goddess. Harold bee lined straight up to her, put his hands on the table, leaned over, and before her beauty clouded his courage, blurted out “Why?! No, I don’t care! Just tell me how to stop this curse!”
Demi, unflustered, took another sip of tea and calmly replied; “I think the why will explain the how.”
“The months I spend with my husband are long, cold, dark, and boring. I like to be entertained. Congratulations. You’re the most interesting show I’ve watched in years. I’ll remove the Voice of Authority until next Autumn because my greed for entertainment has killed off too many mortals over the years. I sure am looking forward to Season 2 next year.”