Fall of ’72, my first day at Oak Park and River Forest High School, our English teacher, Mr. McGinty, hands out an article from the school newspaper, the Trapeze. The prose is long-winded, the analysis imprecise. Our teacher has fun letting us take turns tearing it apart. Finally, he holds the execrable article above his head. “Ernest Hemingway wrote this his junior year,” he cackles. “There’s hope for you all!”
Fall of ’94, I am a fifth-year teacher at MS 44 in Manhattan. A theater kid in high school, I’d spent my 20s trying to write the Great American Drama. But I have deserted Ernie’s craft for Mr. McGinty’s noble trade.
It’s my second period prep and, that morning, rumors fly of chocolate donuts in the teachers lounge. Beside that last donut is a mauled, day-old Post. The paper is open to a headline that catches my eye: “Student Injured in Queens Classroom.” A high school teacher –– white, male –– in a largely Haitian school, struggled to control his class. Students had rushed to the door, and, in the crush, a student’s hand was caught in the doorway, severing a finger.
In addition to the horror of this incident, I’m struck by how random it is, how unprovoked. I read the account several times and nothing clarifies in the re-reading. Why had students rushed the door? Was the slamming intentional? Where was the teacher in this incident? It was all so fog-of-war.
And so familiar. How easily that –– or something very like it –– could happen in my classroom, in any teacher’s classroom.
I tear out the article, fold it –– chocolate smudges and all –– and stick it in my wallet. Where it remains for years.
Inspired –– and goaded –– by my students, I return to Ernie’s craft. I write short stories about what I know: teaching, being a husband, a father.
But one day I tell my students, “Write what you know, yes, but take a hint from Stephen King –– write what you fear. Find your discomforts, then make them excruciating. Your protagonist will hate it, but your reader will thank you.”
That night, I take my own advice.
I re-read a short story I’d published, then dig out the draft of it I’d workshopped at Bread Loaf Writing Conference years earlier. It was a tale of student-teacher conflict, wrapped around a romantic relationship going bad. My workshop instructor, Jennifer Egan, had identified the weaknesses that kept this promising draft from being publishable. I’d made those changes and gotten the desired results, but now I noticed her final comment: There’s more here than you think.
This comment jolts me.
I realize then, with terror and exhilaration, that this short story wants to be a novel. I dig out the chocolate-smeared Post article. It is as chilling as ever.
Write your fears.
A new headline comes to me: Student Gives Teacher the Finger. It’s as horrifying as the original, only funnier. And the key to my novel. I give my teacher protagonist, Patrick Lynch, new horrors and absurdities to face. His student conflict –– now including a lost digit –– involves parents, the principal, the teachers union, the board of education. The Post.
I begin to work on something deeper, more troubling than my short story, with all the unpredictable dangers of classrooms. I keep writing and making my well-intentioned protagonist’s life a living –– and funny –– hell.
I write and revise Class Dismissed over the course of a decade. When I read the finished manuscript, I’m pleased that it adds up to a novel. And yes, it’s another teacher novel (Does the world need another teacher novel?), but it’s one I’ve never read before, the one I need to read. And maybe, just maybe, that others need to read too.
And perhaps Mr. McGinty was right: There’s hope for us all.
“Class Dismissed” is available at The Book Table, 1045 Lake St., Oak Park. More on McIntosh, who now resides in Somerville, Massachusetts; the novel, including praise from fellow Oak Park novelist Jane Hamilton; and to register for virtual readings/discussions, go to: kevinmmcintosh.com.