the kids were cruel

My sixth-graders this year act as schoolchildren always have, since the day of the first organized classroom and even before that: They tease and shove and sometimes beat each other up during recess, but until Monday morning a week and a half ago, that was the extent of it. Then Jennifer showed up to class wearing a penis on her forehead.

There were mutants all over town by the start of the school year, and many of us wondered how this self-contained utopia with its flags in the windows and its small library, its single firehouse and police force of two officers could hold itself together. More refugees from Panoland relocated within and along its fragile boundaries every day, seeking cheap labor in the potato fields and the good nutrition of the bounteous crop. They had come so quickly and without warning that everyone--even the limited liberal open-minded set--had expressed at least a small feeling of resentment.

A community is a living organism, and there is only so much it can consume before it evolves into something wholly new--or worse, dies and dries up to become an empty husk surrounded by dead seeds. The sprawling cities of the 21st century have deceased cousins spread far and wide. You've seen them: ghost towns of mining camps that had once accommodated 80,000 people; river metropolises wiped out in a day by wild water that ignored mere manmade levees; Shangri-Las extinguished by the inevitable deaths of their bright-eyed founders and the twin diseases of industrialization and consumerism, not to mention their egregious inbred grandchild--tourism. Such things squash small communities like bugs underfoot a marching band.

But it is rarer in this world of six or seven billion to see a boomtown reduced to a tourist trap--a near-corpse of a city kept alive on respirators known better as souvenir stands. Yes, now it is usually the core of our towns that becomes the blackened eye in the center of an artificial flower of pink rooftops and pastel mini-malls. For those of us who cultivate young minds--as we experienced teachers clearly have learned--it is extremely difficult to explain that this gangrenous growth is killing the world as we know it. It is even more difficult to do this without implicating the new children sitting next to them as an enormous part of the problem.

The forced feeding of the organism known as Crooked Corners has gone on unchecked by the so-called guardians of our liberty, and the townspeople can say nothing that won't be construed as overt racism or, at the very least, hopelessly antiquated nationalistic babble. The Panolandian immigrants, with--let's face it--their unusual appearance and their vastly different culture, threaten not only to displace the quiet good-natured amicability of the natives, but to replace them as well, and because we are an open and moral society, we almost have to let them. Crooked Corners is doomed, like all American towns, by its ignorant attachment to exploitable ideals.

And yet, I feel for the mutant children and make an effort to teach them the same as the other kids. I know their life is hard to begin with--growing up in a third-world, fundamentalist nation with its strict rules and its ridiculous attempts to develop military muscle doesn't even come close to the child throwing a tantrum here because his father won't buy him a video game. To be woken out of sleep one night by horrific explosions a hundred miles away and to be lugged to the other side of the globe, to a place of "freedom and opportunity" (where, of course, such things can only exist in a strict vacuum), is a hell--forgive me--with which I can only sympathize, but never empathize, and so--until last Friday--I decided to ignore it.

Perhaps I should have chosen a different tact from the very beginning. Perhaps I--and all of us--shouldn't have sat the kids from Panoland among their chronological peers without making a point of calling attention to their differences and teaching the other children about them. The medical problems of the mutant children are well documented; I need not point out here the gross examples of their anomalous disfigurements, but third eyes and gills and prehensile tails are not uncommon, as we have all witnessed by now.

I do not know where Jennifer acquired the lifelike artificial erect phallus or how she attached it to her forehead (I learned yesterday that she required medical treatment for the subsequent skin rash). Jennifer was born here, like most of the children of this county, and grew up healthy, having received the normal inoculations available to infants today, and never having been exposed to the horrors of radioactive fallout (also available today, but so far only elsewhere) or--and this is important--the fierce cruelty of people different from her.

No, I don't know where the offending accouterment had come from, and I didn't ask. Tugging on the thing to attempt its quick removal proved entirely useless if not downright obscene, and it compelled the rest of the class to burst out in howls of pre-adolescent laughter. Who could blame them? Jennifer had pulled off, so to speak, a coup-de-grace over all the other practical jokes that the kids had executed that year. As far as I am concerned, her behavior made anything else someone could say or do small potatoes, way down on the scale from her gag, which was worthy of a blue ribbon at the county fair. Of course I sent her to the principal's office immediately, and--as you know--she was suspended. I have not met her parents, though if I am ever given the opportunity, I will talk to them.

I had planned to continue the movie we started the day before (a nature tape demonstrating the socialization and familial integration of animals in Africa), I decided to make the students read aloud instead. Though we always discuss in depth the topics of video programs, I know the children look at days like these as easy. On the other hand, reading aloud from a social studies textbook for three minutes with the next child chosen at random keeps them on edge. It was, I admit, a way of punishing them all for their levity at the expense of the two Panolandians in my homeroom class. I did not mention Jennifer or her polyurethane insult again.

On Tuesday I noticed that one of my mutant students was not in his seat when the bell rang, and I didn't bother to call his name as I marked the roll call sheet. It was not difficult to miss the other child--Morah, the girl with an outer layer of molting velvet skin. She usually has it patched up with bandages and safety pins; the pink skin one occasionally glimpses underneath appears normal and healthy, but it is apparently prone to infection, and her parents (both now suing me) had warned the school that we needed to seat her on the side of the room away from the windows, thus limiting her exposure to sunlight. I had done that, and she responded "present" from her seat that day.

The boy child from Panoland had less obvious revelatory traits--his new face and cultured accent (with a slight lisp) drew its own attention. He could have been an American expatriate returned from Europe, except for the extended forked tongue which he spit out into the air on occasion to frighten anyone who threatened him. I never learned whether the activity was instinctive or planned, and I never spoke to either of the poor children about their problems because, as I said, I felt they had a right to be treated normally.

Thus I did not know about the other mutation that killed the boy with the forked-tongue, and three days passed of his absence before I learned that he had died--his two hearts having competed for the same space for two long. I also did not know that Morah may die because the outfit that comes with her body is simply wearing out and coming apart at the seams.

I tried to do the right thing. In class that Friday, I decided to address the issue directly, beginning with a moment of silence for the deceased child. He had been soft-spoken, but his homework had always been excellent, and though when he did answer questions his extended tongue could trip him up on the longer words, I found him bright and rather funny. A few months ago, he gave a book report about caterpillars and brought in a live butterfly he let loose from his pocket. The children didn't get it, but I knew that that fluttering variegated fritillary represented what the child believed a mutant could become, if only radiation poisoning were a cocoon.

There were scattered giggles at first (during the moment of silence last Friday), but I cleared my throat and demanded complete quiet for sixty entire seconds, and I pointed at the clock. I would say it took about five minutes before the class maintained that silence, but they finally managed, and at least one girl was crying when I said, "Okay."

I asked them then to tell me why they thought it was funny that a fellow student had passed away. Most of them kept quiet, but Mark, the freckled and red-headed boy who always sits in the back, raised his hand. He had been one of the children I had observed stifling his laughter, and he had laughed the most boisterously during the incident with Jennifer on Monday, so at first I ignored him. Since he remained the only volunteer, however, I decided to take him up on the challenge. "Yes, Mark," I said. "Why do you think it's funny?"

"I don't, Mr. Z.," he said. "Not funny exactly. It just makes me uncomfortable."

"What does?" I asked him.

His response came quickly. "Dealing with it."

"Dealing with what?"

He shrugged and plainly said, "The mutants."

There were giggles, but I ignored them. "Could you be more specific?" I asked. I have to say I was happy with his answers, so far--they hadn't been rude as I'd expected, but rather frank and open. I waited for him to say something else, but he became glassy-eyed and had run out of ideas he could express.

So I welcomed the rest of the class. "Can anyone else tell me why the mutant--" I caught myself and glanced in the direction of Morah; she seemed not to notice my slip. In any case, I felt rather guilty before I started over. "Can anyone else tell me why the children from Panoland make you uncomfortable?"

"Because they're different," a girl named Larisa said. She sits in the front row, though mostly because I forced her to move after I caught her cheating on a quiz a few weeks ago.

Again the Panolandian girl seemed fine; I didn't want to push it, but I wanted to get the subject out in the open. Maybe I couldn't see her well enough in the dark corner to get a true sense of the expression on her face; it was difficult enough as it was, with the sutures and bandages covering much of her jaw and left ear. But her eyes remained calm, as far as I could tell, and I suppose I assumed she would object if she wanted to. That shows, perhaps, naivete on my part, but nothing criminal or really all that insensitive. These are issues none of us--none of us--has had to deal with in the past.

"Every living thing is different," I explained. "And every human. You have blonde hair, Larisa. Mark has red hair. I have hair on my knuckles, see?" I was not trying to make light of the mutations the Panolandians had suffered. I asked the students if any of them had ever seen a litter of newborn kittens, and after a few raised their hands, I pointed out that cats come out of their mommy all different colors.

"But mutants are so different, in a different way," said Larisa. "It's not just color." The other kids agreed, but Morah sat still, her hands folded together on her desk.

It was then that I said what I think is eminently more controversial than the conversation my students and I were having, and I'm surprised no one has challenged me on the opinion I expressed. I said that it occurred to me that anyone who denied the theory of evolution--that we have all come from single cells splitting and adapting and changing randomly over an enormous span of time--has only to look at the mutants for a scientific refutation of the nonsense called "creationism."

That seems to me a reasonable argument, and I would like the time to think about it more and develop a thesis cohesively, but I have to deal with this problem now, and of course, blurting out such a thing to a group of 11 and 12 year olds made no headway in what I was trying to get across. After a few moments of blank stares, I pressed further. "Look at Morah," I said, and I still don't regret it. "She has obvious differences from the rest of us. We can see that, but we can't see inside her mind, and that's what's important."

Yes, every head in the class turned and looked at her, but the students didn't look mean--they looked serious and interested in her. I admit I allowed them to observe her for perhaps a bit too long, but I thought it was important. To regain their attention, I said, "Thank you, Morah." I moved, I think at that point, to the desk and sat down. In a soft voice, so they would listen closely, I said a few words about the boy who had died and explained in spare details how it had happened (for I didn't really have a clear idea myself). I challenged the class to try harder to accept our new friends--I called them our new friends--as simply other growing sixth-graders, trying to get through life without a fight.

At that point the bell rang. Like all of the kids, Morah busied herself collecting her books, and she left without a word. Two days ago in the middle of second period, the superintendent appeared in my doorway. I learned that apparently I went too far in making my point the previous week. I learned that I had offended some people, including a child, and I am sorry. I offer a formal apology to the board, and I would like to make a similar apology to Morah and her parents in person after this meeting. Even though she may not have much time left, I would like to have her back in my class. I would like to return to class myself.

Thank you for your time.