HauteLit from HotLanta: “No Time”
In 2013, OriginalTitle will be presenting her interpretations of contemporary short stories in whatever way such interpretations happen to emerge as a result of the inspiration.
This week’s featured short story is “Our Education by Lincoln Michel and can be read here at Electric Literature.
We don’t talk to our teachers in school. We suffer through numbing one-sided lectures in which we are face-to-face with an ancient dragon breathing coffee-breath out of lips dripping in Revlon’s fire-engine red. The creature’s wiry grey-blue curls don’t even wobble, having been hair sprayed into submission, as she talks too fast for us to comprehend, twittering in a desperate attempt to squeeze vast quantities of knowledge into a concise thirty minutes. We know not to raise our hand anymore. A few of us lost one and Billy lost both to her pearly whites when she chewed us out for interrupting. Our questions are too abrupt and too time-consuming to answer. When the exhausted beast finishes the regurgitation of knowledge she relearned the night before, she slumps down behind the fortress of her desk, face lit by the blue screen of the online attendance system.
We study the dragon-creature in front of us. It seems impossible that she once endured a similar torture behind a desk as a student and yet still manages to proselytize algebraic scrawls in chalk as if she isn’t just as bored as we are. At the same time, we create brilliant abstract line drawings on our notebook paper in multicolored glitter gel pens where numeric pencil marks should be precisely lined up. We write page-long plays in which we’ve fallen in love and beheaded the entire faculty who had turned into zombies the night before, in one fell swoop.
The class watches as a note sails over two desks, passes through Mike’s afro and finally elicits a muffled scream from Chelsea when it brushes against the hem of her skirt as it is passed through her legs to you from Christopher, shortened to “Toph” between the 5th and 6th grade. The diversion yields just enough time for you to read the hastily scrawled proposal, “Yes or No?” in large letters at the bottom. Yet, the creature does not wake from her open-eyed 5th period post-lunch nap to see young love flourish as a result of the conspiratorial note-passing assistance of the class.
Some of us actually do the assignment we were supposed to do even though the instructions were unclear, mostly out of fear. Many threats, followed-through inconsistently, come our way from the dragon’s red lips. We learn, though, that most of the assignments end up in No Man’s Land never to return to us bearing the glittering red letter signifying her receipt of our efforts. There have been rumors of teachers who do take questions and sometimes even write comments but they are blotted out by the administration before we can get to them.
In “Our Education,” by Lincoln Michel, such memories from a not-so-distant schoolhood are brought forth from the reader’s mind through the perspective of a teacherless student. With his classmates, he’s trapped inside construction-paper covered windows and cellblock concrete where bells no longer signal recognizable blocks of time. The students are left to fend for themselves with no means of escape. In reading the story, one is thrown back behind the desk, into the cafeteria and amidst piles of gym mats. In a spiral, the familiar adolescent tension of unsteady alliances and cut-throat social survival are uncomfortably remembered.
A blackened glass tube, rumored as the teacher’s lounge, stands isolated in the center of the school where teachers dead or alive may or may not be holed-up. It’s unclear whether or not the teachers see their students’ struggles. Outside the lounge, a conscientious student tries to hide his attempt to complete an assignment holding no guarantee of freedom upon completion. Later he is tortured by classmates who have banned each other from worshipping false teachers, abandoning the idea they’ve ever existed at all. Friendships crackle, strategic alliances form, teens fall in love and hearts are broken. All the while, the tube stands tall and silent, watching? Perhaps, but never intervening, never aiding or preventing the guerilla warfare happening at its feet.
The story goes further than simply questioning the educational system because it instead presents the system it in the cold light of abstracted truth. In this story we see that school is teacherless because these statuesque lecturers fail to notice the daily strife of its participants having nothing at all to do with numbers and letters. In daily lessons students lose track of time because they can only faintly reminisce the time before and they are uncertain about what will come after. Who can they turn to with their fears? Who will direct them to their futures? The story brings to mind the incomprehensible loudspeaker in Charlie Brown.
Many of us, adolescent or adult can relate to the timeless, teacherless school Lincoln Michel presents in “Our Education.” Through well-crafted sentences and concrete details like the “brown barrels” of tater tots scattered on the floor, the reader is sent back to the chalk-filled classroom where best friends become second-best friends and finally enemies in minutes? Days? And a lusty crush is abandoned as a lost friendship is reevaluated.
“Our Education,” is a reminder of how important short stories are to the literary world. In a bite of just a few pages, Lincoln Michel is able to deliver a story that pulls at the heartstrings and illuminates a truth to which so many can relate. Such a tale, if drawn across hundreds of pages, may not have had the ability to startle and awe us as this condensed, nostalgic punch to the face was able to.
I highly recommend, as Electric Literature did, “Our Education,” by Lincoln Michel and I look forward to reading his other works as I hope you will too. Let’s start a dialogue about the story and what it brings to mind for you. Comment below with any thoughts you have.
About OriginalTitle: In addition writing her blog and contributing to Writer’s Club, OriginalTitle is also writing a novel and her work has been featured in Fanzine and most recently in Comb Magazine.
A soundtrack to supplement your reading:
“Echoes of Mine” M83