Mr. Halfstrung’s oceanography

The bell rang, but none of the students wanted to be the first to get up and leave. Mr. Halfstrung had this ridiculous rule where the first person to leave class would automatically be given detention. Six years ago, when Mr. Halfstrung was still just Barry Halfstrung, his junior year trigonometry teacher Mr. Crenshaw had a similar rule, only his applied to the beginning, not the end of the class. Crenshaw called it the “touchdown rule,” where, in an effort to cut down on tardiness, the last student seated would have to come back for detention.


“Touchdooooown” he would hold his hands up in the air just like a football referee as everyone pushed and shoved their way through the classroom door. “It’s not fair! I had to go to the bathroom!” students would always protest with some sort of an excuse. And yeah, it really wasn’t fair, especially to the students who had to sit at the front of the room, because in the event of a tie, two students racing through the door at the exact same time, the advantage would always fall to whoever happened to have their assigned seat closest to the door.

There were often fights, one time it was either Billy or Pete, Halfstrung couldn’t remember exactly, but they were both barreling down the hallway and, right after whichever one of them it was who entered first crossed the doorway, he knocked down the trashcan standing right next the doorframe. And it worked, the other student was effectively blocked. But he either couldn’t see the obstacle or didn’t have enough time to slow down, because he tripped and chipped his tooth, and there was a lot of blood.

Surprisingly enough, even though the whole class saw how everything went down, Mr. Crenshaw never got in any trouble. As far as anybody could tell, nobody in any sort of position of administrative authority ever told him he might want to show a little leniency in his daily detentions. You would have thought that Billy or Pete would have gotten a pass after the accident. But nope, there was the crash, the blood, a visit to the nurse’s office, a trip to the dentist, and when he came back the next day, unable to speak through his gums stuffed with gauze, Mr. Crenshaw was standing there with a detention slip from yesterday. “You know the rules,” he said.

However draconian his methods, the man got results. And now that he was a teacher, Mr. Halfstrung wanted results too. Of course it would have been easy to just copy the touchdown rule, but Mr. Halfstrung ended up teaching at the same high school where he was once a student. In Halfstrung’s head, it wouldn’t have come off as flattering, no, it would have been a blatant rip-off. None of the other teachers had touchdown rules. It’s because that was Crenshaw’s thing. Hence the “first person who leaves after class gets a detention rule.” (He wasn’t married to the name. It was only ever meant to be a placeholder, until he could come up with something a little catchier.)

More than anything, Halfstrung craved Crenshaw’s respect, as an educator, as an adult. But it wasn’t happening like he’d envision. For example, did he really have to still call him Mr. Crenshaw? When could he start addressing him by his first name? There weren’t any rules, really, but on his first day as a teacher, they bumped into each other by the faculty lounge, he said, “Hello Mr. Crenshaw,” expecting something in return, something like, “Please, Barry, we’re colleagues now, equals, call me Dennis.” But all that he got back was a, “Halfstrung.”

His last-one-to-leave rule didn’t really take care of the punctuality problem, but it did ensure that students weren’t packing up too early, which is always a little distracting. Instead of prematurely eyeing the clock, everyone had to sit there and wait it out, sometimes well after the bell rang, which made everyone really tense. Like if nobody was willing to make a move, which was a possibility, then the next class would be waiting outside, peeking their heads in, kind of unsure of how long they’d have to stand there in the hallway.

This left the students in an increasingly weird end-of-class routine. The obvious choice would have been for Phil to get up first, seeing as how everyone knew he came from an almost comically broken home. “Come on Phil,” Doug would whisper in his ear from behind. “Why would you want to go home? We all know you’re just going to hang out outside Seven-Eleven for the rest of the day.” And sometimes Phil would do it, because yeah, there wasn’t really anything else going on.

The first time Phil agreed to stand up first, he thought he’d get maybe a thank you though, some recognition for having done something nice for the benefit of everyone else. But nobody said a thing. And then the next day when the bell rang, everyone was just staring at him, like come on man, let’s go. And now when he didn’t get up, people were giving him these overtly hostile looks, shoving him into the lockers in between classes.

Worst of all, this year almost a dozen students had Mr. Crenshaw’s trigonometry immediately after Mr. Halfstrung’s oceanography. And so every day it was this race, a pack of wild teenagers running down the hall, sometimes as late as fifteen minutes after the start of trig, which left some of the more unathletic students at a distinct disadvantage. Bobby and Stacy, respective captains of the boys’ and girls’ track team, almost never had to worry about a touchdown detention, regardless of how badly Phil wanted to sit there and tell himself that he wouldn’t be the one to ultimately stand up first after oceanography.

It was actually getting more than a little mean, bordering on vicious. Like this one time Phil refused, and Sally, the girl with the orthopedic shoe, eventually got up because she had to leave school early for some specialist foot doctor her parents had finally managed to get an appointment with in the city. Phil thought he was off the hook, but the next morning when he got to school, his locker was dented in several spots, a brick with a note wrapped around it placed at the bottom by one of his classmates who had probably been watching a little too much TV. “Don’t fucking do that again,” the note read, with a tiny little drawing of a girl with an oversized shoe giving the finger.

And Phil wasn’t especially frightened. If all he had to worry about at home were the occasionally threatening brick, he’d be a lot better off. But he had to go to the principal’s office, and Principal Hyde had to call the maintenance guy to help get Phil’s locker open. Phil kept saying how he was sorry, “I’m really, really sorry, man,” even though he knew he didn’t have anything to be sorry about. It was like he was conditioned to say sorry, and maybe he was sorry, just a little, that this was an issue, that he stood up after class that first time, that now he was a target, that the maintenance guy had to deal with this broker locker. Even though he never really fixed it. He opened it, sure, but it never quite closed right the same way again, like he couldn’t get the lock to stay shut. And when he went back to Hyde’s office, to see if maybe he could just switch lockers or something, Hyde looked up from his desk and just kind of sighed, a really dramatic exhausted sigh, like what is it this time Phil? And so Phil understood, he didn’t want to bother anybody anymore, not Hyde, not the maintenance guy again, and so, in an effort to say something, to say anything that wouldn’t involve lockers, he made up something on the spot about recently finding out that he had a mild allergy to sunflower oil, and he wanted to know if there was any way that they could check and see if they used sunflower oil in the school cafeteria.

Phil didn’t know why he said that, where it came from, or why he thought that this might be an easier problem to deal with than a broken locker. He certainly wasn’t allergic to sunflower oil, because back home there was all these empty containers of aceite de girasol that had been sitting on the kitchen counter for what had to have been four or five years now. Phil’s dad would make a move to throw them out every once in a while, but Phil’s mom would start screaming, “Don’t you fucking touch my fucking sunflower oil!” which isn’t really important other than to point out the fact that, one, Phil’s home is even more broken than a few empty sunflower oil container anecdotes can illustrate, and two, Phil couldn’t have been allergic to sunflower oil, unless his mother had never actually cooked with that oil, which would have been unlikely, seeing as how they were always lined up in the kitchen.

Principal Hyde sighed even heavier this time, he dropped the pen out of his fingers and let his head fall into his hands that were being supported by his elbows resting on the warped wood of his Soviet era public school principal’s desk. “It’s not a big deal, never mind,” Phil tried to weasel his way out, but Principal Hyde looked up. “No. No, no sit down, we have to take this stuff seriously. You remember last year, right? The Sanchez girl with that anaphylactic honey reaction? Something to do with bees? Yeah, well, we can’t have anything like that happening again, the district has all of these food allergy awareness measures we have to follow up on,” and he was already shuffling through a big stack of forms he had in one of his desk drawers. “Now, what did you say this was? Sunflowers?”

Which, there’s a good and a bad to everything, right? So in this case, Phil wound up spending the majority of the school day in Hyde’s office, mostly making stuff up about his non-existent minor allergy – “I’m sure it’s not serious, Mr. Hyde, I just wanted to let you know,” – which meant that he never wound up making it to oceanography, and so he wouldn’t have to worry about Halfstrung’s detention. But when he went to lunch that day, it was like the cafeteria workers already knew. They were all giving him a look, it was just like the maintenance guy from the day before, but this was worse, there were a bunch of them standing behind the counter, snarling at him, like thanks a lot kid, as if we don’t have enough to deal with trying to feed four hundred snot-nosed ungrateful jerkoffs, now we’ve got to worry about … what is this anyway, sunflower oil?

And how much food would you think that the school actually cooks with sunflower oil? It turned out to be quite a lot, actually. “Better safe than sorry,” the head cafeteria lady said as she handed Phil his special lunch, one prepared apart from the other students’ meals. Everyone else had bad chicken parm, and he wanted bad chicken parm too, even though he could never understand why everyone called it bad chicken parm, it was better than the bad chicken parm his mom made one time after watching an Italian themed episode of some daytime morning talk show.

But again, that’s another almost unnecessary detail regarding Phil’s broken-home situation. He’s definitely not the kind of guy that talks about it to anyone else, and so there really shouldn’t be too much more of it mentioned here. No, even though he totally has a right to, Phil doesn’t let the nuts and bolts of all of that hard-knocked-life stuff define who he is. He likes to think he’s an optimist, like this whole horrible adolescent experience is just the dramatic precursor to something big and great that’s going to happen to him years down the road. And so if he has to stay for an extra detention every day – it’s not like he didn’t try to get out of it, and trying is something, right? – that’s not so bad. He’s looking ahead, looking at himself years from now, looking back to this very day, and in his future, he can’t even remember anything about high school or detention or sunflower oil. And yeah, whatever, detention sucks, but it’s probably better than just hanging outside of Seven-Eleven. Maybe not now, not today, while the early fall weather still had a lot of that summer feeling floating around. But a couple of months from now? Yeah, detention will at least be warmer.

And so detention it was, almost daily, unless he found himself in a weird sort of funk. Even then, he’d only stay in his seat, make the rest of the class sweat it out for maybe thirty seconds to a minute after Halfstrung’s class officially ended. It’s not like he had Crenshaw’s trigonometry next. That would have been a little much, two detentions. Even though Phil’s a pretty decent athlete. If he had to race everyone else to trig, there’s no way he’d come in last, not on a consistent basis anyway. He’d without a doubt beat Sally with her orthopedic issues. Maybe he’d even make it there first, which would only add to his perpetual state of guilt. And the other kids, they’d exploit it the same way they did in Halfstrung’s class, the same way the maintenance guy made him feel guilty for having to come and fix his locker. They’d eye him down, everyone bringing up the whole Seven-Eleven broken home thing.

Crenshaw, meanwhile, thought the whole situation was absurd. In his mind, the touchdown rule made sense. It was a little harsh, yes, but it produced results. Years ago, administration had gotten all bent out of shape about tardiness, not just at South, but across the whole district. Teachers at various schools tried every way to incentivize coming to class on time. But it was Crenshaw who first came up with the idea of guaranteed punishment.

When he first announced his new idea, people assumed it was a big joke. But to show his students how serious he was, he retroactively applied the touchdown rule for the previous two weeks. There were protests, a big block of students attempted a boycott. But eventually faced with the very real possibility of failing geometry (Crenshaw didn’t start out teaching trig right away,) even the most stubborn resistors relented.

And even though most of the faculty hated the idea of being such a hard ass, Crenshaw’s strict approach to timeliness had an effect on the entire student body. Afraid that every teacher would start copying Crenshaw’s approach, students school-wide started showing up on time. Over the course of two or three weeks, lateness simply wasn’t a problem at South anymore.

Not once had Crenshaw ever seriously considered backing off, not until last year anyway, when Halfstrung started teaching. When Barry Halfstrung was a student at South, while he never really got along with any of the other students, he took quite a liking to the faculty. Yeah, even during his first few weeks as a freshman, Halfstrung knew that he wanted to be a teacher one day. He especially admired Mr. Crenshaw, for his no-nonsense approach both to mathematics and starting class on time.

Halfstrung was even lucky enough to have Mr. Crenshaw as a teacher two years in row, first for geometry, and then the next year when he was promoted to trigonometry. Unfortunately for Halfstrung, the admiration and respect wasn’t mutual. Sure, Crenshaw wanted students who were interested in math, who understood the importance of getting to class early, but there was something about Halfstrung, the way he didn’t even try to suppress that crooked smile every time Crenshaw announced, “Touchdooooown!” To Crenshaw, the whole idea was to maintain order, with a daily punishment the unfortunate means of enforcing student compliance. He didn’t necessarily like giving out detention. It always gave him pause to watch one of his students delight in the daily suffering of someone else.

After Halfstrung graduated, he got through college as quickly as he could, taking as many summer classes as possible, racking up student teaching hours in record time. It was only like three years later that he showed up back at South as an oceanography teacher. (He really wanted the geometry position, but Crenshaw lobbied hard against the idea of having to share the math department office.) Crenshaw saw Halfstrung’s last-person-to-leave rule for what it was, an opportunity to dole out punishment for punishment’s sake, all in the guise of copying an effective strategy aimed at curtailing tardiness. Maybe Crenshaw would let go of the touchdown rule after all. He’d been thinking about it since the start of the school year, but how would he just undo almost two decades of policy? And would lateness become a thing again? Would the faculty start getting all of those inter-district memos, the tardiness weekend workshops? Maybe this was a sign, that he’d had a pretty good run, that maybe now would be a welcome time to retire.


While everyone waited for Phil to make a move, across the hall, Suzanne should have been settling in for Ms. Heaferschafer’s third period World History. But Suzanne wasn’t having a great day. She wasn’t having a great week, really, but today was especially hard. She could feel it coming last night, the anxiety, worrying if she’d taken too much focus medicine too late in the day. It’s not like she had a choice though, not really, not if she wanted to get all of her homework done. Really it wasn’t that much focus medicine, and by the time she should have been getting ready for bed, all of the most active ingredients had mostly made their way out of her system. But just the idea that she might not be able to get to sleep caused her heart to beat a little faster, her anxiety swelled and eventually gave birth to a litter of lesser anxieties, all of them pulling her racing mind this way and that, eventually she saw the sun start to rise out of her bedroom window. Upon seeing that light of the new day, Suzanne went into a total freak out followed by a chemically induced catatonia.

This was because her Suzanne’s mother was up all night watching over her, worried that her daughter might be too worried about the focus medicine to get a good night’s rest. “Honey?” she’d ask every couple of hours or so, not too loud, not loud enough to wake her up, but if she were awake, which, last night, she was up the whole night, she’d answer back, “Yes, mom?” and Suzanne’s mother would say something like, “Just try to get some sleep baby.”

This went on until sunrise, when Suzanne’s mother saw Suzanne start to breathe a little heavier. “Mom,” she said, “I don’t know how I’m going to do it today mom. I’m not going to be able to stay awake in class. I have a huge history test third period. Or, I will be able to stay awake, but I’ll be too tired to do well on my test, too tired when I come home from school to do all of my homework, and I’ve got so many assignments …” she started talking really fast, her sentences blurring together in the lead-up to what Suzanne’s parents have already come to accept as just another bump in the road of their adolescent daughter’s development, a full scale freak out.

“There, there, honey,” Suzanne’s mom broke half a tablet of a mild antipsychotic, along with some sort of a generic label tranquilizer, and yeah, it wasn’t an immediate effect, but twenty minutes later, Suzanne uncurled somewhat from the fetal position that her body had instinctively clenched into while she ranted less and less hysterically about unfinished outlines and after-school activities.

“Suzanne?” Suzanne’s name was called out during roll call. “Present,” Suzanne’s mom tried her best to fit in as she sank a little lower into daughter’s seat.

“Are you for real? Where’s Suzanne?” whispered Craig, one of the boys sitting across from Suzanne’s desk.

“Why don’t you be quiet and mind your own business?” Suzanne’s mom whispered back, although you could tell she was angry, or worried, because whereas Craig’s whispering went unnoticed, Suzanne’s mom’s reply caught the teacher’s attention.

“I’m sorry, Suzanne? Is there a problem?” the teacher asked.

“No, no problem. I’m sorry,” she picked her head up just barely enough to make fleeting eye contact with the teacher.

Honestly, nobody really expected her to pull it off.

“You’re crazy!” Suzanne’s dad tried to protest as his wife struggled to fit into her daughter’s clothes. “This is never going to work.”

“Well we owe it to Suzanne to at least try. She’s been working so hard this year. We can’t afford to have her start accumulating absences so early in the semester. I’ll just sit in for Ms. Heaferschafer’s history test, and then I’ll leave.”

They both looked at their girl, completely zonked out from the meds. She had been working really, really hard. But her mom had been working a lot harder. It’s just that, things were so much more difficult for Suzanne than they ever had been for her mom. And back when she was in high school, there just wasn’t as much pressure to succeed. Even though Suzanne had never let her down, Suzanne’s mom couldn’t shake the feeling that it was only because she was shouldering a lot of her daughter’s responsibilities. Yes, it was the science projects and the handouts. What parent didn’t correct their teenager’s homework before it was due the next day? But it was the study sessions, researching and writing every book report. Suzanne really tried, she did. It’s not her fault that, despite the hours of joint-study after school, she still couldn’t manage to stay on top of everything.

And so what was Suzanne’s dad making a big deal out of? It’s OK to hire an expensive after-school math tutor, but it’s wrong to dress up as your teenaged daughter?

As the history tests were passed out, as Suzanne’s mother wrote expert essays detailing communism’s spread across Southeast Asia in the twentieth century, she thought about what she’d say to her husband after she got home. “Ha! I told you it would work!” Suzanne’s mom imagined herself bragging.

Which was true, so far it had worked, but not in the sense that she thought. See, nobody was really fooled by the appearance of a forty-something year old mother sitting in a high school history class. Obviously that one boy had called her out, and it’s not like an adult teacher is any less oblivious to the students sitting in a classroom. It’s just that, in an uncanny stroke of coincidence, Ms. Heaferschafer’s mother was pulling off pretty much the exact same stunt that Suzanne’s mother was.

Yes, Karen Hearferschafer had been similarly coached by her own mother throughout high school. When it came time to go away to college, she couldn’t imagine the idea of living apart from her mom, and so she stayed home, continuing to receive the same intense help and supervision that allowed her to excel as a teenager. This pattern of support continued through college and graduate school, and now through her first year as a teacher.

“You don’t understand mom,” Ms. Heaferschafer would sob to her mother, having collapsed right after walking in the door. “It’s so hard. There are so many students. I’m supposed to be teaching all day. You have no idea.”

Heaferschafer’s mom had some idea, she had been a career high school teacher herself. “But things were so much easier back then,” she told herself.

And so what could Ms. Heaferschafer’s mom do? There was a test to be given out that day, and if Heaferschafer wasn’t there, how long would the school put up with an absentee teacher? She’d just go in and proctor the tests and nobody would ever have to know. Well, the students would know, but they wouldn’t say anything, because she’d threaten them with detention. And yeah, they didn’t say anything. Similarly, Ms. Heaferschafer’s mom didn’t say anything when she saw a much older woman sitting amongst the students. She’d been there, she knows how hard parenting a high school student can be, so much more difficult than it was twenty years ago.

Back across the hall, Phil still hadn’t made a move yet, and Mr. Halfstrung kept on teaching oceanography, not blind to the fact that Mr. MacCoughley had to teach Spanish II in that same room. All of the students crowded around the doorway, and finally MacCoughley got his way to the doorway, to grab Halfstrung’s attention, to give him a face, point to his watch, saying without saying, come on Halfstrung, let’s speed this up, all right? I’ve got a class to teach too. But Halfstrung just kind of shrugged, like what am I going to do? You know about my first to leave rule, right? Nobody’s left yet.

And even Halfstrung looked toward Phil, like come on Phil, somebody’s got to make a move. But Phil was in hurry a today. He was supposed to be over across the hall, taking a world history test that he hadn’t prepared for at all.