First, he heard a snicker. Mr. Arnold stopped working. He felt compelled to look up from his desk, where he was grading essays on his laptop. He spotted the usual gaggle of teenage boys in the far corner of the classroom, a triumvirate of idiots who always seemed to find something to laugh at.
Mr. Arnold turned back at his laptop and began scanning anotherlousy essay, while the rest of his students filled out a worksheet he had provided at the start of his English class. The essay he was grading was written by Amanda Howard and it was on The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. Amanda’s essay had started out promising enough, but by the second paragraph it dropped, in Mr. Arnold’s mind, from a solid B-plus grade to a disappointing C-.
He glanced at Amanda, who was one of the head cheerleaders at the high school. She was curling a strand of her blonde hair and looking into her own laptop computer, searching for the answers to the worksheet in her e-book copy of the novel.
Mr. Arnold stopped grading once again.
He decided to just monitor the kids for a bit. He needed a break from the countless essays, nearly all of them poorly written, and what’s worse, all poorly written in the same exact ways.
A batch of essays for one class seemed to take days, thoughfor an experienced English teacher like Mr. Arnold, thirty essays could be digitally graded in less than half an hour.
“But it didn’t feel like half an hour,” thought Arnold, when he suddenly heard an electronic swoosh sound coming from his computer.
Arnold had never heard this emanate from his laptop before. Though he’d heard a similar swooshing plenty of times on his cell phone. It was the sound that signaled an instant message had arrived, but Mr. Arnold had never used the messaging program on his official school computer.
“Steve?” the instant message read, the bold type set against a bright yellow text box.
Mr. Arnold was puzzled. Steven was his first name, but he’d never communicated with anyone at his school in this manner. Not one person. He placed his hands on his keyboard, tentatively, and typed, “Yes, this is Steve. Who is this?”
As he typed, Mr. Arnold grew concerned that the message might be coming from a student in his class. IMing, or instant messaging, with a student could be interpreted by the school administration as inappropriate behavior, even though emailing between teachers and students was completely acceptable. For some reason, it was universally understood that IMing was a student-only activity.
“Hi Steve. How’s class going today?”
“Very good,” Arnold typed. Still tentative, still worried that he was being made a fool of.
But he was also curious, and he needed to try and figure out who was sending the messages so he could put a stop to it in the future.
“You’re not happy Steve,” the message said.
Arnold quickly glanced up to see if any of his students showed signs of being the culprit. But there was just silence. The students were diligently filling out the worksheet on Huck Finn. Even the group of boys he despised in the corner of the classroom were engrossed in the short assignment.
Not one student looked up when Arnold scanned the class. If fact, at that moment, all of the students had their laptops shut on their desks. Nobody in the room could’ve sent the messages.
“Why do you ignore me Steven?”
“This is not appropriate, whoever you are,” said Mr. Arnold.
“You’re not happy with your job. You need to get out. You need to get out now.”
Arnold read the message and looked up at the ceiling. He nervously rubbed his throat, as he frequently did. He looked at his reflection in the computer screen, his bald head and scruffy week-old beard. Arnold thought about what he’d recently been told by his doctor: to drop at least ten pounds, an act that might improve his low moods.
“I cannot answer you,” said Arnold.
Mr. Arnold then realized that someone could be IMing remotely. A student who had it in for him, someone he had written a detention for, perhaps for playing video games during his English class. Arnold began riffling in his mind for any possible student suspects.
“You need to quit…today, Steve.”
“I am going to take a screenshot and you’ll be in big trouble.”
“Go ahead,” the message said.
Arnold snapped the screenshot. He had just learned the trick of taking a screenshot, which was handy when he’d been monitoring a student’s computer screen and caught them IMing the answers to a quiz or flirting with a boyfriend or girlfriend who was also supposed to be paying attention in a class across the quad. By pressing control, shift, and the number key he could take a picture of whatever was shown on his computer screen. It made a life-like sound of an old camera shutter: shoowoop.
“Good. Feel better?” the message said.
“I’m going to shut down now. Don’t do this again. I don’t like it. It’s not a joke.”
Arnold knew he had made a mistake with that last comment. You never tell a teenager you don’t like something, because they’re just going to keep doing it.
“You’ve been thinking of leaving this place for three years now, Steve. It’s time. I’m not your enemy. I am you. The real you. Not this teacher imposter.”
“I am not an imposter. I’m a good teacher. I do my best.”
“What proof do you have that you’re me?”
“I don’t need to prove anything to you. But, all the proof I need is what you’re doing right now. Why aren’t you teaching?”
“The kids are busy doing their worksheet.”
“A worksheet, Steve? Come on, you’re better than that. You could be doing something really inspiring with them. Something that would be exciting for you, too.”
“You can’t be Mr. Exciting all the time, you know.”
“You can do better. You want better. You need better.”
Mr. Arnold snapped his laptop shut andstood up in front of the class. He rubbed his throat again, looked up at the ceiling, and said, “Class. May I have your attention? Everyone, please, look up from your worksheet.”
The students looked up. Amanda brushed back her blonde hair and smiled seductively at her boyfriend across the room. The gaggle of boys in the far corner were flinging paper bits at each other.
“Let’s go over the worksheet,” Arnold said.
“But we’re not done,” said Byron, the studious, African-American boy who always impressed Arnold with his insightful comments during class discussions.
“I know you’re not,” said Arnold, suddenly feeling dizzy and disoriented.
His legs felt as if they were going to give way. He was going to faint. Arnold grabbed a hold of a corner of his desk and worked his way back to the chair.
The students began mumbling. Amanda looked displeased, as if Mr. Arnold had personally done something offensive to her by appearing weak and disoriented.
“Keep working,” Arnold said. “Keep working.”
“If I quit today. What will I do?” Mr. Arnold typed.
“Nothing. You will be nothing,” Message said.
“I can’t be nothing.”
“Yes. You can.”
As he typed, Mr. Arnold felt as if he was disappearing. His hands were dissolving above the keyboard.
“I am some…thing.”
“What are you?” Message said. “Look at them. They can hardly stand the sight of you. Their parents use you as a tool to get them what they want for their children, admittance into a good college. The administrators treat you as nothing more than a glorified babysitter. They couldn’t care less if you teach your students to write and read. Your co-workers might as well be ghosts. They walk past your classroom, never stopping to say hello or to talk about the job.”
Arnold’s hands were now just two specters of hands. He looked up at his students and they were talking to each other. The interruption had completely ruined their concentration. That’s all it took these days to utterly derail a student’s attention span. One minor disruption, one odd statement from the teacher, one word in the wrong place or one error and they’d instantly stop working on anything that was assigned.
Mr. Arnold could see his students but could no longer hear them. He reached up for his ear but there was no ear. He tried to feel his legs but there were no legs. He looked into the computer screen and his eyes were no longer his eyes. Arnold’s face had thinned out, become feminine. His hair was long. Long and black. He reached for his water bottle and noticed that his hands were smooth and thin. His fingernails were lacquered in a pink shade. He stood up and he could feel the clacking of high heels.
Amanda Howard raised her hand.
“Yes Amanda?” a voice said, a woman’s voice that had come out of his mouth.
Mr. Arnold felt a sudden, all-consuming peace. He felt a warmth fill his breast that he’d never felt before, teaching in front of his students.
He noticed that the gaggle of boys were looking at him as he spoke. Staring. And they appeared to be much better behaved. One of them took an obvious glance up and down his figure.
“Is everyone finished with their worksheet?” Mr. Arnold said.
“Yes,” the class responded in unison.
The classroom was brighter, Arnold thought, as when the sun suddenly breaks through rain clouds. He glanced down at his computer screen and the last message he had last responded to was not there. Arnold’s laptop had been replaced by another technological device he did not recognize.
The keyboard on this new device was a neon blue reflection on a desk made entirely of Plexiglas. And the impossibly thin computer screen looked as if it were made of some sort of wavering black liquid.
Mr. Arnold took a few steps deeper into the classroom, as if he were walking into a brightly lit tunnel. He liked the sound of his high heels, he noticed. He rubbed his throat and continued to walk deeper and deeper into the classroom, feeling more and more peaceful as he stepped forward. He made a final little leap beyond the classroom wall, which was tacked with the few examples of essays that had received a perfect score.
Alejandro Escudé is the winner of the 2013 Sacramento Poetry Center Award. His first collection, "My Earthbound Eye," is now available on Amazon and at www.sacramentopoetrycenter.com. Alejandro is originally from Argentina. He is a high school English teacher and lives in Los Angeles with his wife and two kids.