This story is by Matthew Gaspar and was part of our 2023 Fall Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
Principal Hue Stomper joins his staff in the cafeteria for a day of district-mandated professional development. A man perfectly suited for politics presides over the presentation. After an hour of observing dispirited faces, the presenter removes his suit coat, rolls up his sleeves, and smoothes his platinum hair. “Now, I understand exactly what you all are going through,” he says. “Like I mentioned before, I taught junior high twenty-five years ago.”
* * *
Hue Stomper ascends a staircase gripping his satchel with a sweaty hand. He follows the scent of stale coffee to the top floor and approaches the desk outside of the superintendent’s office. Secretary Kay glances up over her reading glasses. “Hello, Mr. Stomper. Just have a seat, dear, and Dr. Suez will be with you shortly.” Stomper unbuttons his blazer and settles onto a rigid chair. He glances left and catches his elongated reflection in the stainless steel coffee maker. Errant brown hairs stand like stalks of wheat, so he licks his palms and flattens them.
The office door bursts open. Dr. Suez materializes wearing a black suit with lightning-bolt stripes. Cotton-like ringlets drape gracefully from his head and rest on muscular shoulders. His smile beams behind a thick white beard inducing Hue to self-consciously rub his own patchy stubble. “Hue! So great to see you!” he says and extends his arms for a hug. “Sorry to have kept you waiting. Come inside and make yourself at home.”
Stomper enters the oak-paneled office and beholds the photographs, certificates, and artwork adorning the walls. He then fixates on a series of framed quotes behind Suez’s desk. “Hue, would you like a coffee or something?”
“Yes, thank you. I’ll go grab one from the foyer.”
“Hue, my boy, you make me laugh.” Suez strides to the kitchenette and begins grinding espresso beans. Notes of hazelnut and pepper envelop Hue like a warm blanket.
“Thanks for meeting with me, Dr. Suez.”
“Stop that right now. Call me Sam.”
“Ok, Sam,” Stomper says and sits on a leather couch worth more than his monthly salary.
“So, what can I do for you?” Suez asks.
“Well, our scores keep declining, and, forgive me for saying this, but I feel our curriculum is a bit too oppressive.” Suez furrows his brow as the machine hisses and steams the milk. “I mean, Sam, these teachers have no freedom to teach as they see fit.”
Suez hands Hue his cappuccino and sits cross-legged on a cloud-colored chair across from the principal. “Hue, with all due respect, leave the curricular and pedagogical decisions to the people with ‘Dr.’ in front of their names, ok? I wouldn’t trust these overpaid babysitters to make decisions for my dog, let alone the youth of this country. How do you not see this?”
Hue leans forward to plead his case. “I’m telling you; these teachers have untapped potential. They know their students better than anyone and should be able to teach them accordingly.”
Suez holds up a hand to scrutinize his nails. “Trust me on this. If we give the teachers autonomy, we’ll be dealing with tons of parent phone calls…possible lawsuits; it could ugly.”
Stomper stands up. “I mean, why even have teachers, then?” he cries. “Let’s just have the students follow a computer program and pay minimum-wage facilitators to babysit them while they work!”
“Precisely! Have you been reading my manifesto? In all seriousness, calm down.” Stomper slowly returns to the couch. “I think you’re failing to recognize how much teachers appreciate the professional development and standardization we offer them.”
“I’m not so sure. Don’t you think some autonomy and choice might improve things?”
“Who knows, Hue? But please keep in mind that these teachers exist to justify our power and help churn out a work force. Besides, they get summers off, a nice pension; they’ll be fine. You don’t want to disrupt the natural order of things, do you?”
Kay issues a few warning knocks before opening the door. “Dr. Suez, you’re due for your manicure.”
“Thank you, Kay.” Suez rises to his feet and Kay drapes a wool coat over his shoulders. “Enjoy the rest of your beverage and forget about this nonsense, ok?”
Stomper half-nods and sneers. He returns to the wall of quotes. Looking around to confirm no one is watching, Stomper pulls out his phone and snaps a photo of the quote:
To go wrong in one’s way is better than to go right in someone else’s.
– Fyodor Dostoevsky
* * *
The final bell rings on Friday. Teens summon phones to faces as they file out of the building. Teachers march like zombies into the school library for a weekly staff meeting. The projector warms up and displays an image of the Dostoevsky quote in place of the usual agenda.
“What is that?” a bearded science teacher asks.
Stomper responds, “This is a quote about self-determination, autonomy.” Murmurs swell and teachers exchange looks of incredulity. “What if, instead of reading the scripts that were provided by the district, what if you choose what to teach and how to teach it?”
A Reading teacher raises her chubby hand and says, “You mean, we get to choose what standardized tests they take?”
Stomper shakes his head. “No, you get to decide whether they take standardized tests at all!”
A math teacher adjusts his dark-rimmed glasses and stands up. “Could I teach them chess?” he asks.
The young art teacher inquires, “Mr. Stomper, should the students also have auto… automo…”
“Thank you. Yes, should the students have autonomy, too?”
“I believe they should. What do you all think?”
The murmurs turn to chatter and their collective pallor improves. Stomper interjects, “Look, guys. I know this is a lot to consider, but I think it could be a real game-changer.”
* * *
On an institute day months later, Dr. Suez drives to Olympia Junior High to verify teacher attendance for the presentation in the gymnasium titled, “Delivering a Canned Curriculum with Gusto!” He turns on Kavala Street and notices the campus populated with pupils. Several students sow soybeans in the field next to newly-constructed solar panels. He removes his sunglasses and narrows his eyes on burgeoning beekeepers collecting honeycomb from rainbow-painted brood boxes.
Suez peels away and races recklessly to his reserved parking spot in the lot. He slams his door and storms through the entrance of the school.
A young bespectacled boy greets him immediately, “Hola, bonjour, how are you, good sir?” Suez stiff-arms the boy and knocks him to the ground.
“Why aren’t you all in classrooms right now?” he yells. Suez stomps down the hall between the formerly gray walls now covered with original student artwork. He passes a science room where students in lab coats look through microscopes. He continues past the band room where students arrange original compositions.
Suez then reaches the gymnasium and freezes, mouth agape. He accosts a petite ponytailed girl passing by. “Little girl, what the hell is going on in there?”
“Oh, we turned the gymnasium into an aquaponic farm.” She reads his quizzical face and continues explaining, “We raise salmon in those tanks over there, and the water from the tanks recirculates into the plant beds over there. The plants absorb nutrients from the fish waste, so we don’t need fertilizers, and then the clean water is returned to tanks.” Her smile and dimples punctuate the sentence. “Any other questions, old man?”
Suez stares at the farm for a moment and then asks, “Yes, dear. Where can I find Mr. Stomper?”
“He’s probably in Lab 5. He and the other scientists have been crafting the perfect cup of coffee.”
Suez finds Stomper in the lab analyzing a conical flask of coffee. He approaches and whacks the flask against the wall where it smashes like a supernova. He grabs Stomper by the lab coat. “What the hell did you do?”
“Look around. This is what I was talking about. Everyone is flourishing. Can’t you see?”
Suez releases his grip. He gazes out the window where students construct windmills reaching the sky. He suddenly realizes that this freedom will eventually prove too much for them, and nature will take its course.
“What do you think, Dr. Suez?”
Suez glares at the principal. He smoothes Stomper’s lab coat and mutters, “I think you deserve a promotion.”
* * *
Stomper finds a seat among random teachers in a typical cafeteria in an indiscriminate town. The muted applause alerts him to a middle-aged woman in a power suit holding a microphone. “Good morning! I’m Dr. Blodmann,” she says, “and today I’m going to talk at you for seven hours about something called, ‘Raising Hands!’ I’ll explain how it works and how you can use this tool in the classroom.”
Every day, he sits through a professional development presentation that devours his soul. By the time sleep restores his spirit, he’s forced to wake up and do it again, indefinitely.