Class Participation

by | Jun 11, 2024 | Fiction, Issue Thirty-Nine

In October, because she wanted to hear all of our voices, Miss Craddock began having us read aloud in American history class. The same words that not enough of us remembered from last night’s homework. The long paragraphs that reached from margin to margin until they discouraged us. The pages, by then, that droned on about the French and Indian War. Chapters that most of us barely scanned. “Now everyone is participating,” she said. “Isn’t that nice?”

By Halloween, the Revolutionary War ended the way we all knew it would, not even the National Honor Society girls carrying that heavy book home. We could all watch horror movie marathons and know we would learn about the War of 1812 by listening to ten of our classmates reading a few paragraphs each.

Miss Craddock seemed to like hearing the worst students struggle.  Listening for which words they didn’t recognize. Smiling at their mispronunciations. She was fascinated by Paul Reilly’s stutter, how he consistently stumbled on certain letters, mostly the p’s and b’s, his lips refusing to open. Reacting, sometimes, like she enjoyed it.

But she didn’t act like any of us when Bill Marcovitz tried to read aloud. His stutter wasn’t anything like the one Reilly and a few other sophomores had. When Miss Craddock called on him, Marcovitz gagged like he needed to clear his throat. After a few seconds, he sounded like he was being strangled. And then he just stared at his open book until Miss Craddock moved on to somebody else.

Marcovitz’s stutter was so bad that nobody made fun of him. Even the cruel kids who snickered at Reilly, stuttering his name when they passed him in the hall, didn’t say a word. They were as much in awe as the rest of us were because they had heard Marcovitz talk in the hall. Ok, a little slow, as if he had to sort things out. As if he’d practiced while he gathered books from his locker. He wasn’t quiet like somebody who was shy. He seemed to keep to himself for safety.

Anyone could hear that he should never have been called on a second time, but Miss Craddock picked him out once or twice a week. After a while, she didn’t change expression when Reilly stuttered, but she looked amused by Markovitz. Like she was excited to have a student who was unique. “Bill?” she would say, her voice extending the l’s. After a few weeks, Markovitz didn’t even gag when she called on him. He just expelled air while all of us sat on edge until she ended his terrible silence with someone else’s name.

Maybe she was trying to draw him out. A kind of therapy. But soon nobody believed that any more than they thought reading aloud helped us learn about the nineteenth century. By the time the Industrial Revolution began, everyone hated Miss Craddock and her stifled titter.

After Thanksgiving, when we went right back to reading aloud about steam engines, cotton gins, railroads, and steel mills, Miss Craddock didn’t call on Markovitz on Monday or Tuesday or Wednesday. By Thursday, half of us thought Miss Craddock had finally decided to never call on Markovitz again, and half of us believed she was torturing him by giving him hope.

On Friday, when Miss Craddock, at last, said, “Bill?” everyone waited for the breathing and the silence, but Marcovitz said, “No,” clear and out loud as if he’d been rehearsing, waiting all week to refuse.

“No, what, Bill?” she said, her half smile tightening as if she had to hold in an outright laugh. Marcovitz closed his book and didn’t look up. “Well, then,” Miss Craddock said, reaching for her grade book, but Markovitz stayed still. “Janelle?” she said, calling on Janelle Mehringer as if she’d switched from random to alphabetical order.

Janelle looked across the room at Marcovitz for maybe ten seconds before she closed her book and stared at her desk. “Christopher Nestle?” Miss Craddock read from the grade book, but by then everyone had closed their book. Miss Craddock started walking up the aisle closest to the windows. “Class participation affects your grade,” she said while we sat as if we all stuttered like Marcovitz, unable to get a word out, not even when she walked past each of us, reciting names and saying, “You fail for today” one by one. By the time she reached the aisle closest to the door, all of us had passed that day’s quiz, including Jim Bittner, who was about to quit school, his 16th birthday less than two weeks away.

Even Bittner knew what we would be reading about by February. Almost all of us had fathers who were union members, some mothers too. AFL–CIO, Teamsters, UAW, Amalgamated Meat Cutters. We knew the names without opening a history book. And now we felt like members, paying our dues to get what all of us wanted.

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