Short Story: Marked Off

This is a product of my creative writing class in college. It was met with much acclaim by teacher and classmates alike.

Mark’s mornings all start the same. The alarm rings. He hits the snooze button. Five minutes later, the alarm rings. He hits the snooze button. Ten minutes later, the alarm rings, and instead of hitting the snooze button, he rolls from his bed, unplugs the alarm and drags himself to the shower. He uses the wall for support as the warmness washes away his sleepiness. After his shower, he trims his beard, brushes his teeth and combs his hair. He puts on his pants, one leg at a time, and retrieves his laminated name tag from the same spot on his dresser. The alarm rings, for the first time, at 5 a.m., and he’s at work by 6 a.m.

The drive to work is Mark’s thinking time. He is thinking about the shelves in his room boasting his substitute teaching awards. He is thinking about buying starch on his way home for the crisp lines he enjoys in his short-sleeve dress shirts. He is thinking about where he stored his cardigan since he will need it for the cooler weather. He is thinking about where his next turn is approaching and checks his directions

When you’re a substitute teacher, everyday is your first day of school. Mark arrived to the
principal’s office that morning wearing the same smile he did 32 years ago. He introduced himself, as he always does, and asked for his assignment. The principal handed it to him asking about his chemistry credentials. Mark stopped for a second to study the assignment. None of the tasks listed seemed to have more than high school level difficulty, which is a good thing because Mark barely survived high school chemistry.

Mark smiled and winked behind his thick glasses. “I’m a passionate enthusiast of chemistry, Mr. Hudson. In fact, in my spare time, I often practice such experiments in preparation for days like this,” Mark said.

“Good. Because the way I understand it, this experiment is rather challenging to perform and hard to explain. But you come highly recommend and well decorated with achievements,” Mr. Hudson said. “Maybe it’s the tie, but for some reason, I just trust you.”

Mark adjusted his tie and tried to hide both his uneasiness and his lie.

“Looking forward to another great day,” Mark said. He quickly turned and walked towards his new classroom.

Mark sat at his new desk and carefully reviewed his assignment for the day. The experiment called for a cocktail of chemicals Mark didn’t remember from high school, but the experiment did come with detailed instructions of the experiment process. Mark wasn’t confident in his knowledge of chemistry, but he was confident in his ability to follow directions. He quickly gathered the necessary equipment and chemicals and prepared a display in the front of the classroom.

At 7:55 a.m., the bell summoned the first class of the day. The students flooded into the room and filed into their appropriate seats. Mark stood behind the display and quietly studied the students. He noticed the furrowed brows on the student’s faces and heard murmurs of concern, but Mark was not concerned.

“Good morning class,” Mark said. He went through his introduction, as he always does, and explained the agenda for the day.

Mark lowered his protective googles over his eyes and waved the retort like a magic wand.

“Ladies and Gentleman, today we will create chromyl chloride,” said Mark as if he was declaring the final magic trick of his show.

A redhead in the front row caught Mark’s attention. She was waving her hand urgently while making a face like she was about to witness her parents making love.

“Mister! You understand the properties of chromyl chloride, right?” the Redhead said. “It’s very toxic to your lungs, eyes and throat!”

Mark’s jaw fell ajar. His mind raced. A quick Google check had confirmed the chemicals aren’t combustible, but he never considered harm to his lungs, eyes and throat

“Don’t be concerned class,” Mark said. “I’ve done this a thousand times.”

The students leaned over their desks and watched closely as Mark began to follow the directions. He tried to explain each step as he performed it, but without any knowledge of chemistry, he failed to convey what was happening. He was lost in the experiment, and he wore his bewilderment on his face. The students, on the other hand, knew exactly what he was doing, and they knew exactly what was going to happen. Once the potassium dichromate was mixed with sodium chloride and cooled, the lumps would be pulverized and sulfuric acid would be added. At that point, the flames would form and the fumes would float into Mark’s face. When the fumes would hit his face, Mark would hit the floor. And that is exactly what happened.

Mark hit the floor.

At 5 a.m., Mark’s alarm rang. He hit the snooze button. At 5:05 a.m., Mark’s alarm rang. He hit the snooze button. At 5:10 a.m., Mark’s alarm rang, and he rolled out of bed to wash his sleepiness away. Mark started his day, as he always does. Even though today, he wasn’t headed to work. On this day, Mark was headed to a meeting with the school board. It’s was two weeks since his chemistry demonstration sent him to the emergency room. Mark’s face was still hidden behind bandages. His throat and his face were still healing from chemical burns. Mark put on his cardigan and covered his face with a scarf.

Mark left his house, and as he left, he collected the local paper from his door step. The local media had been calling for the school board to go easy on him. An editorial in the paper suggested Mark needed to keep his job since Mark’s devotion to high school substituting is unparalleled — very few kids dream of substitute teaching. The evening news agreed. Although the evening news felt he was an under-qualified teacher, they thought his skills offered more than the interactive-monitoring devices the school board had recently purchased. The devices were implemented as the decline in substitute teachers created a void in high school classrooms. Mark found these stories encouraging. His confidence grew.

When Mark arrived for his meeting, he was immediately greeted by his media friends all of whom were cramming cameras in his face. He heard the questions they were tossing at him, but he paid them no regard. Mark was too focused to pay them regard. He raised his chin and walked with quiet confidence to the entrance.

During the meeting, members of the media waited outside. A few were resting against the walls, a few were pacing near the entrance and all them were acting like hungry wolves waiting for wounded pray. When the door opened, they all pounced. They were eager to feast. They could taste Mark’s failure and wanted to share it with the world. But when they saw Mark, they changed. They noticed the defeat in his eyes and their predator instincts faded to empathy. They lowered their heads to match Mark’s posture. A few scribbled on their note pads. A few whispered into their microphones.

Mark walked out in silence. A silence similar to when he arrived but different. This silence wasn’t defiant determination. This silence was a conformation of Mark and the media’s worst fear. Mark had been demoted. Until further notice, Mark was an elementary school substitute.

For three months, Mark perpetually pressed the snooze button. He got out of bed only to take care of life threatening situations. Since the school board’s verdict, Mark had been too discouraged to fulfill his substituting obligations. The announcement of Marks demotion to elementary schools status created a whirled-wind of excitement. Elementary schools near and far called for Mark. His substituting resume caught the eyes of hundreds principals. Within an hour of getting home from the school board, his calendar was booked for the school year. Mark’s future was destined for little paste-eating humans. And it was too much for Mark to handle.

At 11:30p.m., Mark rolled from his bed and dragged himself to the bathroom. He had made the 12-step journey from his bed to the bathroom numerous times in the last three months, and for weeks at a time, it was the furtherest he traveled. Mark stood over the toilet. He could see his into his neighbor’s house. He could hear the commotion and thought their decorations were better last New Year’s Eve.

Mark put on his coat and sat on his back porch. He lit a cigarette. For most of his life, Mark avoided smoking. He didn’t want to set a bad example for the kids and thought the smell would distract women from the stories of his high school career. But with no more students to teach and the scars on his face being such a distraction, Mark coughed down the last cigarette in the pack. He stared through the swirls of smoke and studied his neighbor’s party. The sliding-glass doors offered a window into their world. The doors framed a picture of guests as they mingled and laughed at such a perfect party. Mark so desperately wanted to be in such a perfect party, but he wasn’t. He was sitting in the cold.

He took all the smoke left in the cigarette and held it in his lungs. He forced it out with a sigh, coughed and flicked the butte into the snow. The nicotine buzzed through his head and mingled with his desires. Mark was tired of sitting on the sidelines. He had never played a sport, but he felt the pain of watching the game go on without him. Mark stood and returned to the bathroom. He stood over the sink. He leaned toward the mirror and planted his hands on either side. He examined his face. The cold-induced redness of his nose reminded him of the ink he never used to grade papers. He stared into his eyes. He studied they way his dark-blue eyes had fallen into his skull. He studied his faded skin. He examined his cheek bones with his index finger. The bandages had been removed, but the scars were still present. His thick beard now only existed in sporadic patches. The only consistent strip of facial hair remained across his upper lip. Mark found his razor and shaving cream. He ran the warm water.

After his shave, Mark started looking through his closet. He dug to the back of his wardrobe and found two suits. He put on the gray suit and stood in the mirror. The suite hugged his body. Mark’s sabbatical had reduced his waistline, and the shape of the suit gave his body squarely defined shoulders. His neck appeared long and defined. For the first time in three months, Mark was proud. As he inspected himself, Mark smiled. As Mark smiled, his mustache curled.

The next morning the alarm rang. Mark hit the off button. Five minutes later, he was in the shower. Ten minutes later, he was standing in front of the mirror admiring his mustache and fixing his hair. When he was proud of what he saw, he put on his suit and carefully pinned on his name tag. Today Mark would return to school. It had been three months since he walked the halls of any school, and Mark was excited. Even if it was an elementary school, Mark was eager to get back in the game.

When you’re a substitute teacher, everyday is a fresh start. Mark arrived at Pine Wood Elementary that morning and walked in wearing a new smile. The receptionist in the principal’s office took down his name, complimented his fine gray suit and asked him to take a seat while he waited. Mark thanked her with a smile but decided to stand while he waited. He checked his reflection in the window. His new glasses were nearly invisible on his face, and his hair was slicked back, tight against his scalp.

“The principal will see you now,” the Receptionist said. Mark thanked her and followed her directions to the office.

“Good morning Mr. Marcus,” the Principal said.

“Oh, I go by Mark,” Mark said.

“Very well, excuse me, Mr. Mark,” the Principal said.

“Well, you don’t have to call me mister,” said Mark, “I’m just Mark.”

Mark sat down with a subtle shrug and a bashful grin. The Principal tilted his head, leaned across his desk and squinted into Mark’s eyes.

“Mark?” the Principal asked. Mark confirmed with a bow of his head.

“Very well,” said the Principal as he reclined back into his chair with his head still titled and his eyes still skeptical.

“We’ve brought you here because we need your help,” the Principal said. He continued to
explain the school’s recent crisis. The school’s drama teacher had recently been arrested on drug charges, and the schools annual play was quickly approaching. In the past decade, Pine Wood Elementary had become recognized for their incredible theater department. Critics acclaimed the department’s work as mature and sophisticated. There was especial praise to the school’s former director for his ability to provoke compelling performances and encourage his students to defy the limitation of being a fifth grader. After the teacher’s arrest, there had been speculation about the status of the play.

The Principal leaned across his desk. “We need you to resume the director’s responsibilities. We need you to do this play,” the Principal said.

Mark stood. He put his hands on his hips. “I will not stand for this. I will not. I will not be mocked. I’ve been publicly lynched for excepting responsibilities I had no business obliging,” Mark said. “I have no business pursuing your proposition

“Sure you do,” the Principal said to himself, as he stood to meet Mark eye to eye. “Why look at that mustache. Manicured and maintained with such perfection. The imagination and discipline necessary to carry such a statement on your face must surely reflect your direction and drive,” the Principal said.

“You have,” whispered the Principal, “what it takes.”

Mark felt exposed. He crossed his arms over his chest, hugged his body and studied the glossy-white crown molding in the Principal’s office. Mark knew this was an opportunity of a life time. He knew if this slipped threw his fingers he would never live it down. Mark directed his attention away from the molding and stared into the Principal’s eyes.

“You’re right,” Mark said. “I have what it takes, and I’m going to make you proud.”

On February 14th, Pine Wood Elementary presented The Fall and Rise of Cupid. Mark wrote, directed and co-stared in the production. The play followed Cupid’s rise after a disastrous attempt to fill in for the Easter Bunny left him demoted to Valentine’s Day. The critics found the plot dull, the portrayal of the characters over-the-top and, in general, were disappointed, but they did find Mark’s mustache unusual. And Mark found that encouraging. His confidence grew.

Today, Mark takes great pride in writing and directing in a world he has no business obliging.

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