The boy hates school. He hates the other students, he hates the teacher, and he hates the useless bits of miscellania they make him learn by rote. He wishes the whole place would burn to the ground, and the ashes would be scattered to the ends of the earth.
He sits somewhere near the middle of the classroom, trying very hard not to draw attention to himself. The sun streams in through the windows that cover one whole wall, and motes of dust cling to the beams but continue to drift ever downward, like millions or billions of tiny people slowly sinking in the ocean. He wonders where they come from, these never-ending particles.
The teacher is a short, stout woman with a blaze of red hair. She has a mustache. Some of the kids call her Mrs. Hitler, because of the mustache and because they know the name Hitler means something bad. At the chalkboard, she is drawing lines that look something like words, and her voice is droning on about something, the boy isn’t sure what.
He doodles. Along the margins of his notebook, framing his notes on geological strata and the earth’s crust, he has drawn images of fire-breathing dragons with googly eyes, and near the bottom of the sheet a barbarian with outrageously huge muscles brandishes a sword taller than he is and waits for the dragons at the top of the page to notice him so that he can commence slaying them.
He has just learned how to draw muscle men; he learned from comic books. But the fine art of shading still eludes him, so that his muscle men look more like automatons put together with bundles of tires.
Mrs. Hitler is droning. He draws.
Here’s a spaceship, rockets flaring, coming to help out the barbarian. A little alien with a laser gun pops out of the top of the spaceship. He was going to shoot one of the dragons, but the boy can’t make it work in the confines of the margins, so instead the alien turns traitor and shoots at the barbarian instead.
Mrs. Hitler is still talking, but her voice seems a bit louder.
In an imperfectly formed word balloon, the barbarian shouts, “Ahh! Betrayed!!”
And the boy becomes suddenly aware of the silence all around him. He becomes aware of the attention of other people, focused on him.
He looks up from his art, his face already flushing.
Mrs. Hitler is glaring down at him. He puts his pencil down and looks up at her.
“Perhaps you’d like to tell me, hmm?” she says.
He looks around. The other kids are all looking at him. Some of them are smiling and giggling. Others look scared and nervous. He turns his attention back to Mrs. Hitler and says, in a small voice, “Tell you… tell you what?”
“The answer to the question I just asked the class.”
But of course he didn’t hear the question, and she knows he didn’t. His mouth moves up and down a few times. Finally, the teacher sighs loudly and snatches the sheet of paper from off his desk.
She looks at it disdainfully, her mouth twisted into a sneer, and the little mustache juts out. She studies it for a long moment, and then crumbles it in her fist and throws it angrily across the room.
Her rage shocks him and sends him reeling back in his seat. She screams, “This is not art class! This is not the time to draw your idiotic little robots and aliens and worms, do you understand me?”
He says, “It’s not a robot.”
“What? What did you say?”
“It’s… it’s not a robot. It’s a barbarian hero.”
The class explodes in laughter, and Mrs. Hitler looks as if her head is about to explode. With the same hand that crumbled and tossed his sheet, she slaps him, hard, across his left ear and the noise of it resounds through the classroom, and the motes of dust stir in their death throes, changing course, and the laughter of his fellow students is sucked into a vacuum of stunned silence.
The boy raises a trembling hand to his ear, and tears are forming in his eyes. Do not cry, he tells himself, do not cry in front of the others, no matter what you do, but it’s too late. The tears have started, and nothing can stop them. He sits at his desk and begins sobbing and for a second he thinks he can see remorse in Mrs. Hitler’s face. But only for a second.
She scurries to her desk, yanks open the top drawer, and pulls out the bathroom key, which is attached to a heavy plank of wood.
She returns to his desk and throws the key and plank of wood at him. It hits him in the chin and falls into his lap.
“Go to the bathroom and pull yourself together,” she says. “For Christ’s sake, get out of here before I strangle you.”
It could have been anything, really, that set her off that day. She was a human being, after all, and therefore imperfect. Maybe her husband was mean to her. Maybe she was under a great deal of stress, which was something he’d heard adults talk about before. Or maybe she was having her period, an event that the boy still didn’t fully understand, although he suspected it had something to do with a punishment for using bad grammar.
He would only think of these things later, though. At the moment, shuffling down the hall to the bathroom, he was too overcome with rage and grief to think anything but die, you horrible bitch, I hope you die and I hope you take everyone else with you.