Day 31: Meet Mr. Sniff.
That’s what we (you and I) will call my sixth-grade teacher for his habit of sniffing the backs of his hands as he sits at his desk at the front of the room. Staring at us. Or at the windows behind us. Impossible to tell, when the light from the windows covers his glasses like miniature curtains.
We are still new to each other, all of us. The students, the teacher, the school year.
And too noisy for Mr. Sniff. He wants order. Quiet. And to get it, he gives us an assignment. Write something. Something different. Not about your summer vacation. But it must be two pages. A full two pages long. There is groaning. Mr. Sniff threatens to increase the task to three pages. We have thirty minutes.
I pull a few sheets of paper out of my desk. What to write about? All I’ve ever written before was poetry, and only a few times, usually when we had a substitute teacher. I chew on the end of my pen. Find myself staring out, as if across the room. But I’m not seeing the room. I’m enraptured by the idea of Something …
Mr. Sniff passes by, looking for idlers. I lower my head. Stare at the paper. Tap my pen lightly, up and down, a little see-saw motion while I think. And then I sense …something. I lean in, face low to the paper. Lower the pen. And then I vanish. Just like that.
I’m no longer in the classroom. I’m outside and the sun is shining and I’m following two children about my age, a boy and a girl. They are out walking across a strange landscape. We are in a canyon, baked by the sun and shadowed by mountains. One mountain looms ahead. Superstition Mountain.
Why is it called that, asks the girl. The boy says no one knows for sure. There have been rumors. About gold. But also about how people don’t come back from Superstition Mountain.
They shouldn’t go. They cannot resist.
They keep walking, then they’re climbing up Superstition Mountain. They come to a cave. We shouldn’t go in, the girl says, hanging back. What if there’s treasure, the boy says. And so they go into the cave. This enormous, dark cave. That smells funny.
Mr. Sniff announces Five Minutes.
I pull back out of the story to see that I’m half a page short. I feel almost feverish. I’m a little afraid of the cave. What might happen. But the pen pulls me along. The pen and that white, beckoning space… I reach the end of the page before I reach the end of the story.
It takes me several more lines to finish. I have to pull out another sheet of paper, but it doesn’t matter. Only the story matters.
Things don’t turn out well for our explorers, I’m afraid. There is screaming, and then silence, and the only thing ever found in the cave was bones.
Time calls Mr. Sniff. I write The End in a flourish.
Mr. Sniff loves my story. So much so that he wants me to read it out loud to the other students. But I am shy, terribly shy. He thinks I’m being silly. Mr. Sniff won’t take no for an answer.
So I find myself standing in front of a classroom of strangers. All fifth-grade students. The first few rows are full of boys. My lips are numb. My legs tremble. The fifth grade teacher is very nice. She smiles at me. Go on, she says. It’s a good story. Everyone will like it.
I stare down at my story. The words seem far away. I start, falter, stop. Try again. I rush through, quickly, temples throbbing, sweat soaking the paper. I reach the End and stop. A boy in the front row holds his nose. Others snigger. There is polite applause. It is over.
I will write again. But not for Mr. Sniff, who keeps me after school, who calls my mother at work to complain about me, so often that she complains to me but I will not write for Mr. Sniff. I will go on to write for other people. I will go on to make my living with words.
But the girl who vanished into her story that day in the classroom? She hasn’t come back.
But she is stirring. She is wakening a bit, as if from a long sleep, on this final day of the Two Writing Teachers Slice of Life Story Challenge 2016. All of you, together, have proven to be more powerful, richer, stronger, nicer, kinder than Mr. Sniff. For which I thank you.